Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obama's Best and Brightest Law Professors

David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest chronicled how a Kennedy Administration filled with great intellects could nonetheless blunder its way into the quagmire of Vietnam. With various pundits now reviving the term "best and brightest" for the Obama Administration (some without realizing this is no compliment), here I want to reflect on a potentially important difference between JFK's stable of intellectuals and BHO's, and to think through what exactly is wrong with selecting the best and the brightest. One point I would highlight is the prevalence of lawyers and law professors in today's Administration.

To begin, JFK's national security team--Halberstam's focus--were not lawyers: Walt Rostow was an economist; McGeorge Bundy was a government professor; and Robert McNamara was a business school professor (and Ford executive). It's true, of course, that some of Obama's "brightest" are not lawyers: Geithner, Summers, and Chu, for example. Others are lawyers but not law professors: most prominently Hillary Clinton. But the number of law professors is arresting, beginning with Obama himself, who, though not a legal scholar, is more steeped in legal academia than any prior President. Likewise, VP Biden has taught as an adjunct at the University of Delaware for many years and in his role on the Senate Judiciary Committee dealt with the sorts of issues that excite legal academics.

Then there's Elana Kagan as Solicitor General, assisted by Neal Katyal; there's Dawn Johnsen heading OLC, assisted by Marty Lederman and David Barron (either of whom would also have been plausible in the top spot); there's Cass Sunstein heading OIRA; and while Greg Craig as White House Counsel is a Washington insider, he is assisted by law professors Dan Meltzer, Trevor Morrison, and Alison Nathan (along with other merely elite lawyers). No doubt I'm overlooking additional law profs.

For the most part, these folks will not have national security portfolios, at least as conventionally defined. (Note that Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security is a serious lawyer, though.) Thus, direct comparisons to JFK's best and brightest are inapt. However, seeing Halberstam's book in broader perspective, one could draw the lesson that people with "book smarts" are not necessarily going to make wise policy choices. This idea dovetails nicely with a point Malcolm Gladwell makes in Outliers: People who are extraordinarily successful typically have high-level smarts, but above a certain threshold of smarts, additional intelligence per se is not a very good predictor of success. Generalizing from Halberstam and Gladwell, we might think that instead of seeking the best and the brightest, a President should look for "good enough and bright enough" people who have been proven to have excellent judgment. If so, then hiring people simply because they were stars in law school and became top law professors is a mistake.

But even if we credit the Halberstam-as-interpreted-via-Gladwell hypothesis, there are nonetheless two reasons to think that Obama's picks actually have the right qualities. First, I would argue that law professors are typically a little different from other academics in that they tend to be lawyers--that is, people with real-world experience. This point only goes so far, however: JFK's best and brightest had real-world experience too. Nonetheless, if we abstract a bit, the point I would make is that law professors are, on average, less head-in-the-clouds than university faculty in other disciplines.

Still, I acknowledge that, judged by the standards of ordinary humanity or even by the standards of practicing lawyers, law professors tend to be theoretically rather than practically oriented. But this brings me to my second point: The particular law professors Obama has chosen for his Administration are generally practical people with good people skills and judgment. They are, nearly to a one, "principled pragmatists" like Obama himself. That hardly guarantees success, but it does suggest that we need not worry too much about a repetition of the first "best and brightest" disaster.

Posted by Mike Dorf

10 comments:

C.E. Petit said...

I beg to differ on one aspect of your analysis of law professors: They tend to have very limited real-world experience, and in only a subset of the law.

Most law professors these days enter the academy with five years or less of practice... except those who specialize in tax and/or criminal law. Further, very few law professors have much (if any) litigation experience on the left side of the v., except perhaps those who worked for DoJ or did criminal law. Instead, the litigation experience that law professors do have tends to come from big-city, big-firm, defense-side practice. And this is a huge hole in the academy's experience... sadly, highly congruent with the hole that Obama's stated aspirations look to fill.

All of that said, experience does not correlate all that well to making good policy choices. If there is a correlation for experience, it is with implementing previously made policy choices inside an established system (call it a "bureaucracy" if you must, but it also works for nonbureaucratic systems). Exhibit A is Vice President Cheney. Exhibit B is President Nixon. Exhibit C is President Lyndon Johnson. Need I go on?

Jamison Colburn said...

What do you make of the distinction between law professors and others of the academy along the following lines (which I think track your post on pragmatism a while back): unlike, say, economists or biologists, law professors are ultimately and thoroughly concerned with action, purely defined. That law is about action and action-guiding norms means that even someone of elite-level smarts (and those of us in the racket who've merely put on airs, like myself) shouldn't be feared because their preoccupation with practical reason puts them in a much less threatening category than, for example, R. McNamara. If Dallek and other respectable historians who followed up on Halberstam's book are to be believed, I can't find a single person BHO's elevated to a cabinet or sub-cabinet level position yet that makes me think about the worst of the worst from the Vietnam era. Those were people who lacked connection to humanity as it actually works. Besides, finding cabinet secretaries with superior "judgment" is virtually impossible until after the fact given that the future never looks just like the past.

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狗熊克星 said...

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當中岳庭是非常成功的一個例子,天生有點雞胸,為了挽救大小奶的窘況,以及順便解決雞胸的困擾,所以才會決定進行隆乳,在和醫師充份的討論之後決定了隆乳手術的流程,這是一個十分成功的手術,若您也想要有美美的胸型歡迎來電洽詢。