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Implications of Variation in Presidential Performance for the Debate Over Executive Power in Times of Crisis:

An important aspect of executive power in times of crisis is the large variation in presidential performance between different administrations. As I explained in my last post on this subject, the top echelon of the executive branch is usually controlled by just a small group of people - the president himself and a few trusted advisers. In addition to the points I made in that post, this reality has one more crucial implication: we can expect much greater variation in the quality of presidential performance than in that of other branches of government, especially Congress.

Basic statistical theory shows that, holding other variables constant, small samples are likely to vary more than large ones drawn from the same underlying distribution (group of people or things). Just by random chance, the former are likely to deviate far more from the mean and the median. For a technical explanation, see this discussion of the law of large numbers. In this case, the underlying distribution is, roughly speaking, prominent American politicians, and presidents are the small sample group, while members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court are relatively larger samples (in the case of Congress, with its 535 members, much larger).

The downside of this is that it makes it far more likely that a given administration will display extremely poor performance than a given Congress. In the last 40 years alone, I would suggest that we have had at least three administrations with extremely poor performance due to incompetence at the top (Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush) or venality (Richard Nixon). Those who differ from me on the ideological spectrum will probably disagree with me on some of these cases. But few are likely to have a list of extremely poor presidents that is much shorter than mine.

The unusually high variation of presidential performance suggests that even if Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule are right (as I believe they are) to argue that the executive is on average more competent to manage crises than Congress and the Supreme Court, it does not necessarily follow that the other branches of government should give broad deference to executive decisions. We also have to take into account the damage caused by those cases where executive decisionmaking is far worse than that of the other branches due to the fact that the administration in power is unusually incompetent, unusually venal, or both.

To be sure, the high variation in presidential performance suggests that we are also more likely to have an extraordinarily good president than an equally wonderful Congress or Supreme Court. As against Carter and George W. Bush, we can set George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and a few others who managed crises extremely well. Ultimately, this aspect of the executive power debate comes down to a question of whether we have more to fear from extremely bad executives than hope from extremely good ones. As a libertarian, I definitely come down on the side of fear rather than hope when it comes to government power. In my judgment, a very bad president can do far more harm in a crisis than a very good president can do on the other side of the scale.

Moreover, even in a nondeferential system, an unusually competent executive will generally be able to build up sufficient political capital that Congress and the Supreme Court will be reluctant to challenge him too much in a crisis even if they retain the authority to do so. Thus, an unusually competent executive should be able to manage crises relatively well even if the other two branches retain considerable power to constrain him. On the other hand, such countervailing power can play a valuable role in limiting the damage done by an unusually bad president.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Implications of Variation in Presidential Performance for the Debate Over Executive Power in Times of Crisis:
  2. Systematic Shortcomings of Broad Executive Power in Times of Crisis:
  3. How Much Deference Should the President Get in Times of Crisis?
David Hecht (mail):
The quality of a response in a time of crisis is not the only consideration. Timeliness--ex hypothesi--must also be considered. A perfect decision reached too late is much, MUCH worse than an imperfect decision reached in a timely manner. Peter Drucker notes in The Effective Executive that an effective executive will make a decision based on about 70 percent of the "necessary" information. Numerous generals have also made this point, perhaps best synopsized by Heinz Guderian's famous dictum "Kloetzen, nicht kleckern", which has been variously translated but which means, in essence, "Don't dither, make a decision and then move out."
8.24.2007 1:04pm
John (mail):
Your house is being ovrrun with termites, which, when they finish, will threaten your neighborhood. You can begin an action in court for permission to spray, you can seek appropriate legislation to allow you to spray, or you can go to a guy who'll make a decision on what to do tomorrow.

If I had to set up a response structure I sure as hell wouldn't pick the first two.
8.24.2007 1:15pm
Bob Montgomery:
Your theory talks a good game, but then you misuse statistics in the very next paragraph!

It doesn't prove anything, and doesn't even show much more, to only list poor administrations without also listing poor Congresses, or at least making the (implausible?) claim that there have been none.

You didn't make an logical argument, you presented a theory and a few anecdotes.

It's as if I make the claim that Derek Jeter was a good hitter for average and then, as support, tell you only his career hits total. Where's the denominator?
8.24.2007 1:18pm
DeezRightWingNutz:
Also, I think viewing Congress as a body of several hundred competing viewpoints all coming to a consensus doesn't reflect reality. There are two parties, each with a whip, and congressmen of varying independence on various issues.

Also, I believe your first post had an error and an omission. A president can serve more than eight years, if he ascends to the presidency after the death/incapacitation/resignation of the previous president. Also, you failed to mention the internment of the Germans and Italians during WWII. I don't know if it was as widespread, so maybe your omission was justified.
8.24.2007 1:46pm
abb3w:
I'll also point out as an aside one major distinction between the Carter and Bush incompetencies: the Carter team learned from their mistakes, and improved over time. (If you want to argue as a counterexample how the economy didn't "improve" until the Reagan years, track down my email address.)
8.24.2007 2:25pm
Extraneus (mail):
When thinking about the Law of Large Numbers, shouldn't we also consider the size of the electorate? I mean, it's not as if we just get any old random person as president when the last guy's term expires. Millions of people have to vote first.
8.24.2007 3:35pm
Ilya Somin:
The quality of a response in a time of crisis is not the only consideration. Timeliness--ex hypothesi--must also be considered. A perfect decision reached too late is much, MUCH worse than an imperfect decision reached in a timely manner.

That depends on the situation. Sometimes, a "timely" but bad decision is much worse than a delayed good one. Consider the internment of the Japanese Americans. FDR's quick decision to intern them was far worse than a delayed decision not to do so would have been.
8.24.2007 4:26pm
Ilya Somin:
Also, I think viewing Congress as a body of several hundred competing viewpoints all coming to a consensus doesn't reflect reality. There are two parties, each with a whip, and congressmen of varying independence on various issues.

My argument doesn't require any such view of Congress. It just requires that Congress' decision represents the views of the median voters in the House and Senate (who are determined by the average of a large, fairly diverse body).
8.24.2007 4:28pm
Ilya Somin:
When thinking about the Law of Large Numbers, shouldn't we also consider the size of the electorate? I mean, it's not as if we just get any old random person as president when the last guy's term expires. Millions of people have to vote first.

Millions of people vote for Congress too.
8.24.2007 4:29pm
Ilya Somin:
It doesn't prove anything, and doesn't even show much more, to only list poor administrations without also listing poor Congresses, or at least making the (implausible?) claim that there have been none.

The listing of administrations is not an independent point, but simply an illustration of my underlying statistical argument. Moreover, it would be hard to find ANY congresses over the last 40 years whose performance was, on average, as bad as Carter's, Nixon's or George W. Bush's.
8.24.2007 4:31pm
ras (mail):
It seems to me that Ilya's argument also implies that presidents should initiate legislation and congress have the veto, reversing the current situation.

The good legislation proposed by the (high-variability, by definition) presidents would still likely be approved by the constant-mediocrity of congress, with the bad legislation vetoed.

I disagree w/this conclusion because I disagree with the premise from which it flows, but if one truly accepts the premise, then a call for a constitutional amendment is in order, is it not? Or am I carrying it too far? Ilya?
8.24.2007 4:45pm
ras (mail):
BTW, now that I think of it ... the reversal I allude to above is not unlike corporate governance, with the CEO/president in this case having to gain approval of the board on important changes.

Which further puts us into a parliamentary model, since the board can at any time fire the CEO.

Is that it, then? Are we really just debating (albeit in fresh new terms!) the pros and cons of the parliamentary model?
8.24.2007 4:53pm
Ilya Somin:
you failed to mention the internment of the Germans and Italians during WWII. I don't know if it was as widespread, so maybe your omission was justified.

There was no detention of American citizens of German and Italian descent (at least not solely on the grounds of their ethnic origin). Indeed, German-Americans continued to appointed to high positions in the government and military (think of General Eisenhower and Admiral Nimitz, among others).

There was some detention of resident aliens in those 2 groups. But nowhere near the scale of the detention of Japanese-Americans.
8.24.2007 5:07pm
Dan Hamilton:

That depends on the situation. Sometimes, a "timely" but bad decision is much worse than a delayed good one. Consider the internment of the Japanese Americans. FDR's quick decision to intern them was far worse than a delayed decision not to do so would have been.


Just because the Japanese Americans weren't the danger that people thought they were does not make the decision wrong. You have to go with the information you have.

Bush was wrong about the WMD. But at the time NO ONE believed that Saddam had gotten rid of his WMD. Bush made a decision based on what was then known. To wait until we were attacked was just wrong.

You can see the results today. Iran is developing Nucs. There is no doubt about it. They should be stopped before they have them but will they be? Bush was burned by there not being any WMD and it has made him skittish about Iran. Will he wait until it is to late. Until Iran has Nucs. Or will he again make the right decision.

Do you wait until one goes off then try a PROVE it came from Iran. For Democrats would there ever be enough proof. Even if there was proof what do you do? Nuc them back. Invade, what? And what is the cost of other Nucs going off while we decide?

Yes, like the Jews in Germany in the 30's deciding if the German people WOULD really do anything to them. Then the Polish Jews in the Warsaw Getto deciding were the Germans really going to send them east and what did that mean. They waited so long that it didn't matter. By the time they decided to fight everything and everyone went up in smoke.

You wait and ask do they really mean what they say? How long do you want our leaders to take to decide what to do? How many dead should they wait for? How many cities? will it take a Bresillan (sp) school take over and killing or what?
8.24.2007 5:35pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Bush was wrong about the WMD. But at the time NO ONE believed that Saddam had gotten rid of his WMD.

Of course this is simply not true. The inspectors were finding nothing, and it was becoming more and more apparent that maybe Saddam had indeed destroyed his WMDs as he had claimed. Yet the administration continued to claim that the weapons were there and we knew "exactly" where they were. But when the inspectors showed up, no weapons.

Iran is developing Nucs. There is no doubt about it.

Of course there is some doubt about it.
8.24.2007 5:55pm
MarkW (mail):
Ilya, one additional factor you might consider on this issue is that, historically, some of the worst violations of liberty in the name of "security" have been perpetrated by presidents--Lincoln, Wilson, FDR--who would, I think, be almost universally acknowledged as "good performers" in office, whatever might be thought of their policies.

The big problem I have with this Posner/Vermeule call for almost total deference to the executive in times of "crisis," is that history shows us that there is a strong tendency for actions to be taken which are later seen, correctly, as wildly excessive.
8.24.2007 5:57pm
Bob Montgomery:
The listing of administrations is not an independent point, but simply an illustration of my underlying statistical argument. Moreover, it would be hard to find ANY congresses over the last 40 years whose performance was, on average, as bad as Carter's, Nixon's or George W. Bush's.

But! It isn't an illustration of anything. Except that you don't understand statistics.

Here's a statistical claim:
Rey Ordonez was a fantastic hitter.
Here's my "illustration": He had three 4-hit games in 1996.

Do you see the problem here? The most important question to answer when using statistics is "Compared to what?" Rey Ordonez had three 4-hit games. Ok, what's the relevant comparison? Who else had three 4-hit games in 1996? Who had more? How many games did Rey Ordonez play in 1996 in which he didn't have 4 hits?

I'm willing to believe your theory if there is any evidence that supports it, just as I am willing to believe that Rey Ordonez was a good hitter if there is any evidence to support that.

(Incidentally, Rey Ordonez was a terrible, terrible hitter.)
8.24.2007 6:36pm
Elliot123 (mail):
The law of large numbers would apply if these folks were indeed drawn by random chance. They are not.
8.24.2007 6:50pm
Extraneus (mail):
I think Ilya's point is that, even though they're elected by large numbers of people, which serves to reduce the allowabe range of each candidate's competency (or evil) metric, the fact that the congress is a larger-number sample than the executive results in the inherent variability of the overall mean of congress being lower than that of the single-point executive.

Surely true, all other things being equal, so there's a higher probability of having a single incompetent (or evil) president than there is of having an equally incompetent (or evil) congress.

Like others noted, if this were the only factor to consider, then we probably shouldn't have a president at all.
8.24.2007 7:48pm
Extraneus (mail):
Very interesting topic.
8.24.2007 7:58pm
John McCall (mail):
Kings moderated by Courts are much more powerful than Kings directed by Courts. Kings have a great deal of inherent power, even when they're merely executing the policies of others. A King with the sole power to establish new policies, subject only to the veto of a Court, is nearly unstoppable. How many people will flock to the King's Party merely because he is the King? How many follies cannot be trussed up as wisdoms enough to fool an inattentive Court? How much attention will the People give their Courts when they wield so little power?

Congress wasn't even unanimous about impeaching Nixon.
8.24.2007 8:21pm
Robert Lutton:
To me the issue about "deference" is that whatever system you set up the President/military leadership is going to ignore it in times of emergency and correctly assume that no one is going to (effectively) second guess them. The executive (whether democrat or republican) has violated the law time and again when the case for doing so was pretty weak.

You would think that the laws against torturing an American citizen arrested on American soil were pretty firm...but not so!

Imagine what this or any other president would do if there was really a good reason to take unilateral illegal action. They wouldn't hesitate. The public record proves it. Thus I see only reasons to put MORE stringent controls on behavior and to painstakingly investigate what actions are actually carried out.
8.24.2007 8:29pm
Gaius Marius:
ABBW3, I am old enough to remember living through the Carter fiasco. Carter was on a downward trajectory throughout his entire term in office so your attempt at revisionist history is quite laughable.
8.24.2007 9:19pm
Don Pettengill:
This has to be the stupidest statistical argument I have ever seen from a presumptively intelligent source. It may be that presidential performance is much more variable than congressional performance, but given the quite different institutional constraints, the relative performance of the executive versus the legislature is completely unknown. I propose for example that the average congressional performance is (on some undefined scale) far below the average executive performance. No statistical analysis can gainsay this. Somin's bias against the current administration is evident. Others have pointed out the very different nature of executive versus legislative functions. Even if GW Bush is appalling compared to other executives, and current Congress is wonderful compared to past congresses, nothing is thereby implied as to correctness of either side on policy differences, or to their comparative "performance". As it happens, current opinion polls show the public's present judgement: Bush is in the toilet, but Congress is in the sewer. Somin's last shred of credibility is gone as far as I am concerned. His argument is transparently partisan, and the appeal to statistics is uninformed. I suggest he stick to law.
8.25.2007 5:00am
ben geber:
The wartime internment of Japanese emigrants living in the Western U.S., Canada and South America was undoubtedly intended by FDR and his coterie as a cynical political stratagem. But was it wrong in SUBSTANCE?

It is possible that - unbeknownst to FDR - internment did prevent significant sabotage and espionage, and was thus beneficial to the nation's overall war effort, albeit at an unfair cost to an unfairly selected minority.

U.S. intelligence about Japanese subversion efforts was far inferior to intelligence about corresponding European efforts, for the simple reason that the U.S. government lacked a staff of SENIOR intelligence officers and policy-makers thoroughly versed in the language, politics and intelligence practices of Japan.

Similar intelligence shortcomings remain a glaring problem today. It is clear that our intelligence agencies lack SENIOR officers with in-depth understanding of the languages and inner circles of political decision-making in Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia etc.

Instead, we get white-bread ignoramuses from Ivy League colleges sitting around waiting (e.g. pre 9/11) for crucial intelligence to be translated (!!!) by far more knowledgeable translators at the bottom of the intelligence hierarchy.

In other words, we still have senior "intelligence" officers who are ILLITERATE in the languages of the countries we pay them to monitor.

The obvious but politically sensitive solution is an accelerated senior hiring program for long-term immigrants from those countries whose RELIGIOUS affiliations render them relatively safe, e.g. Assyrian Christians from Iraq, Baha'i from Iran, etc.
8.25.2007 9:09am