The Plausibility Plague

What seems implausible in prospect often seems inevitable in retrospect.


One of the things that's wrong with America these days is what might be called the Plausibility Plague.

That's the problem of pundits assuring readers that some outcome is impossible.

Sunday's New York Times contained two classic examples. One was in The New York Times magazine article about Glenn Hubbard, the dean of Columbia Business School, whose ideas on restraining the growth of entitlement spending the Times reporter characterized as "politically outlandish."

The Times reporter wrote, "I suggested to Hubbard, in one of our last conversations, that aggressive entitlement reform seems rather unlikely to be enacted. I asked if shrinking the wildly popular Social Security and Medicare programs, if ever seriously put forward, wasn't quite likely to meet the same fate as George W. Bush's failed Social Security privatization plan, one of the most hastily rejected presidential initiatives in recent memory."

The second example was an article in the Times Book Review, a review of a new book by David Rohde that calls for improving America's non-military foreign policy institutions. The Times review says, "While Rohde's call for dramatically empowering the civilian instruments of American foreign policy represents an understandable reaction to the failures he's chronicled, it's not remotely plausible. Even the politically powerful Pentagon is set to see its funding slashed. In this budgetary environment, more U.S.A.I.D. spending would probably come at the expense of money for teachers and police officers in the United States."

Anyone who has ever suggested a bold policy adjustment, whether it is a change in monetary policy or the elimination of a cabinet department, is familiar with this phenomenon. Instead of addressing the actual merits of an idea, people prefer to just dismiss it as implausible, as if that ends the discussion. The result is an artificially constrained public policy debate biased toward the status quo.

But if there's anything that history teaches, it is that what seems implausible in prospect often seems inevitable in retrospect.

Who would have thought a ragtag band of American revolutionaries could overthrow the mighty British army and win independence?

Who would have thought the Jewish people could return to the land of Israel and establish a state there after nearly two thousand years in exile?

Who would have thought that America would elect a black president whose middle name is Hussein and whose father was a Kenyan polygamist?

Who would have thought that Islamist terrorists could succeed in knocking down the World Trade Center by flying two hijacked airplanes into the twin towers?

Who would have thought that something called Facebook would have a market capitalization 25 times that of U.S. Steel, or that General Motors and Kodak would be bankrupt, while a company called Google would be worth more than Boeing, McDonald's, and American Express combined?

Who would have thought that the president of the United States would be joking at the White House Correspondents Association dinner about a news organization called BuzzFeed?

By these standards of plausibility or outlandishness, the chances of entitlement reform, or of some modest adjustment in the national security budget away from military spending and toward "soft power," seem not as inconceivable as The New York Times would have its readers believe.

The Times take on entitlement reform is almost entirely wrong. For one thing, while Social Security and Medicare benefits are popular, the taxes that fund them are not. For another thing, President Obama has fiddled with both programs, raiding planned Medicare spending to fund Obamacare and proposing to use "chained CPI" for Social Security, without suffering much political fallout. And for a third thing, though reform seems "rather unlikely" to the Times, the alternative — continuation of the current benefits indefinitely without dramatic tax increases, growth in the working population, or decreases in medical costs — is unpalatable.

The Times take on the foreign policy budget is also probably wrong. Just because there is an overall budget constraint doesn't mean that some programs can't grow — Pell Grants have doubled recently. The additional USAID spending needn't come out of funding for teachers and police officers, as the Times says it would; those salaries are largely funded by state and local taxes, not the federal tax dollars that fund American diplomats and aid workers.

So maybe we can all hope for a day when the Plausibility Plague will end, and pundits stop telling us ideas or events are implausible. Don't worry, though — that will never happen.