Ironic Processing


When I give a speech about the big-picture political and cultural ideas in my book The Future and Its Enemies, the question and answer period almost always starts with a down-to-earth query: "What do you think of George W. Bush and Al Gore?"

"Well," I say, "Bush is a mixed bag. But I think Al Gore is the devil."

This line always gets a laugh, but it's not really a joke. Don't get me wrong: Unlike some Clinton haters, who have the same opinion of his boss, I don't mean Gore is literally the Prince of Darkness. I simply mean that he operates according to core principles that work to erode the freedoms of individuals and the progress of the open society.

This is true whether you examine the "real Gore"–the intellectual wannabe who seems like he'd rather have my job than Bill Clinton's–or the political Gore, who speaks in poll-tested phrases. Both versions share the patronizing world view perfectly expressed in the vice president's tendency to address his audiences as though they were dim second-graders. Both want to tell everyone else how to live, to subordinate our diverse, individualized purposes to their own goals.

Back before his populist peroration at the Democratic National Convention, the intellectual Gore gave a remarkable interview to Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker. Lemann was smart enough not to ask routine, soundbite-inducing questions. Instead, he asked Gore about his favorite ideas, and he ran long quotations from their conversations.

Gore's responses elicited scorn, derision, and dismay in Washington's political-intellectual circles. He was way, way, way too interested in obscure notions about complexity and fractals. He drew strange diagrams. He talked a lot about metaphor. He dropped names of philosophers and physicists. Gore sounded like a New Age version of Newt Gingrich.

The pundits were so flabbergasted by his strangeness that they paid little attention to the content of what he said. But Lemann's article revealed more than Gore's interest in odd ideas; it gave readers a peek at his political philosophy. And the substance of Gore's world view is troubling.

Gore believes society needs to take ideas from science and apply them to politics and economics, and he's frustrated that scientific ideas are too unfamiliar to the general public–and his political colleagues–to be used that way. He wants to replace the old metaphors of a clockwork universe and machine-age government with something more up-to-date. His favorite metaphor is "distributed intelligence."

That sounds promising. The insight that knowledge is scattered through society, and that it's impossible to collect all relevant information (including the knowledge of individuals' purposes and preferences) in a single place, is fundamental to understanding why central planning does not work, and why it is incompatible with individual freedom. But Gore's idea of distributed intelligence does not in any way endorse the significance of dispersed, local knowledge.

To the contrary, Gore imagines society as a giant computer system, using massively parallel processing to attack a single problem. In such a system, he explained in a 1996 speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "When a problem was presented, all the processors would begin working simultaneously, each performing its small part of the task, and sending its portion of the answer to be collated with the rest of the work that was going on. It turns out that for most problems, this approach is more effective." (Actually, massively parallel processing isn't good for most problems, but that's a messy real-world detail.)

As a metaphor for society, this analogy suggests that someone in charge decides what the problem is and parcels out tasks to individuals. Individuals do not choose their own problems and purposes or respond to the needs and desires of other dispersed individuals. Asked by Lemann to apply this idea to government, Gore imagined members of Congress bringing information from their districts to "assemble it at the center, in the Capitol building."

So "distributed intelligence," a phrase that appears to honor decentralized knowledge, turns out to enshrine centralized decision making. This vision is in keeping with Gore's desire, in Earth in the Balance, for a "central organizing principle for civilization," a goal to which all other goals are subordinated.

Gore also rebels against the dispersed knowledge that makes an advanced civilization possible–the specialization that lets people do what they're good at and enables us to benefit from the knowledge of others, the specialization that acknowledges that each of us is inevitably ignorant about most things. To the AAAS, he bemoaned "the increasing segmentation of society," blaming it for the failure of his favorite metaphor to capture the public imagination.

The problem of specialization, he told Lemann, was what Earth in the Balance was all about. The book was an attempt, he said, "to understand the origins of our modern world view, and its curious reliance on specialization and ever-narrower slices of the world around us into categories that are then themselves dissected, in an ongoing process of separation, into parts and subparts–a process that sometimes obliterates the connection to the whole and the appreciation for context and the deeper meanings that can't really be found in the atomized parts of the whole."

No wonder the pundits scoffed. That Gore doesn't sound like much of a politician.

His views can nonetheless be translated into a campaign document. You just have to push the metaphor: The "atomized parts" are citizens, or voters, or taxpayers, or just plain individuals. They're the little pieces that don't count for much until they're brought into the grand scheme, connected to the whole. You connect them to those deeper meanings by deciding what goals they should pursue–programming them to solve the right problems.

Follow this analogy, and you wind up with a platform that reads something like Gore's campaign document, Prosperity for America's Families. Filled with grandiose promises and constant repetition, this 191-page "plan" consists largely of prescriptions to add more headache-inducing complexity to the tax code, all in the name of rewarding good behavior.

Take retirement savings. Gore wants people to save, but he wants the savings to cost people the same regardless of how much money they make. Today's IRAs don't do that. A family making $25,000 pays no income taxes, so putting away $2,000 in retirement savings costs the full two grand. A family that makes $75,000 is in the 28 percent bracket, so sticking $2,000 in a tax-deductible IRA costs just $1,440. That's not fair, suggests the Gore document.

You could, of course, solve the unfairness problem by flattening tax rates, so that everyone faced the same tax hit. You could even eliminate special treatment of retirement savings and let taxpayers decide, in an unbiased way, how to spend their money. But that even-handed approach would let the atomized parts decide on their own purposes. It would offer no deeper meanings.

Instead, the current progressivity of the tax code becomes an argument for even greater progressivity. Gore proposes a new Retirement Savings Plus program in which people who save but don't pay taxes will receive matching funds and people who save and do pay taxes will get credits that go down as their tax rate goes up. Having centrally decided that the nation's little processors should all attack the problem of retirement savings, he has to rig the pieces of the problem assigned to each household.

Saving for retirement is important to Gore, but the true central organizing principle of his plan is that everyone should be raising children and sending them to college. His plan thus offers a tax deduction for college tuition, establishes tax-sheltered accounts to save for educational expenses, and gives a tax credit for after-school programs. It hikes the child-care tax credit (including a credit for parents who stay home with very young kids) and promises full-time moms who haven't paid Social Security taxes the same benefits as employed women who have. Parents whose kids aren't either in college or young enough for day care are pretty much out of luck when it comes to tax cuts as, of course, are people who make too much money.

Prosperity for America's Families goes on and on in this vein. To keep the nation's "atomized parts" from pursuing their own, unapproved goals, Gore creates so many new specialized categories that he winds up contradicting his own goals. His plan "corrects" the marriage penalty by doubling the standard deduction, for instance, but that penalizes any couple who itemizes to take advantage of any of its other credits–or of the old mortgage deduction.

The overall effect is an irony worthy of any machine-age, old-paradigm manager: In pursuit of deeper meanings and centralized purposes, Gore winds up slicing Americans into ever-narrower interest groups, favoring some and punishing others.