What would I ask the president in an interview?

My favorite podcast really hit the Big Time this week. Marc Maron interviewed President Obama last week and released the episode today. Marc Maron does a great job interviewing his guests but this episode is (naturally) pretty different. Obama mostly gives a lot of fluff, but he did make some interesting points on the role of political institutions in polarizing politics, as well as the role of [implicit] property rights in shaping political outcomes.

While I was waiting for this episode to be released I wondered what I would have done in Maron’s position. It’s tempting to say “just scream non-stop for an hour until the president agrees to be better.” But of course, that wouldn’t do anyone any good (although I think it would sell advertising on cable news). The question is then “how do I avoid throwing softballs, maintain a good conversation, and still nudge in the direction of change I’d like to see?”

One thing I think would be important were I in that position is to restrict the number of issues I bring up. The limits of human attention mean that we simply can’t handle more than a handful of things at once. Piling on all the issues and complexities of the world would only serve to reduce anyone’s ability to do anything positive. Another thing I think would be important is focusing on areas where we already mostly agree. Nobody over the age of 25 is likely to change their opinion on just about anything, so why waste your energy. That’s sunk ideology. And besides, even if you’re talking to a real piece of work, you have some obligation to do a good job of being a conversationalist, and focusing on differences is less likely to lead to a good conversation.

So what would I ask Obama in an interview?

  • What do you see as the path forward to immigration liberalization?
  • Will you please push for a bill that allows any law-abiding person to work in the United States without giving them access to the Welfare state? (I would word that differently if I were actually interviewing the president, but you get my drift…)
  • Would you please let Nassim Taleb explain his risk-management argument for climate change interventions? And can he please also be required to comment on his argument’s relationship to the Law of Unintended Consequences?
  • What is your favorite episode of South Park?

That third point should be at least a little bit controversial. I’m agnostic on whether there’s anything to be done about climate change (although I’m all for using it as an excuse to liberalize immigration for the world’s poor). I’m seriously skeptical of governments’ ability to do any good in that arena. I’d really rather not add fuel to the fire, but I think it’s important to raise the standards of debate, and I think Taleb’s argument* is the most sensible one. Not only that, it has wide applications that should push (benevolent/benign) politicians to support simpler rules and fewer interventions.

Oh yeah, and I’d ask him if he’s a secret gay muslim. (“Does your mom know you’re a secret gay muslim?” Anyone else remember playing that game?)


* Taleb’s argument goes roughly as follows: We face uncertainty, but there is a non-zero probability of a catastrophically bad outcome. Maximizing expected utility is not the appropriate risk-management strategy in this case. Our most urgent need (our highest marginal benefit course of action) is to eliminate the possibility of the catastrophic outcomes–and perhaps after that start thinking about maximizing expected utility. Essentially the argument is “don’t play Russian Roulette!” But an essential underpinning is that a probability distribution describing outcomes in complex systems often exhibits “wild randomness”. In contrast to the “mild randomness” of the normal distribution, in wildly random situations it’s difficult or impossible to even have an expected utility. The conclusion I would hope they would draw is that intervening in complex systems (and particularly creating new complexity through increased regulation and more tax loopholes) is best avoided, and particularly at the national level.

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