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Miers and Availability Heuristics

October 12th, 2005 · 3 Comments

I initially was puzzled by the cries of “elitism” being flung at critics of the Miers evaluation. She’s got a respectable resumé for being the president’s lawyer, but could anyone really find it “elitist” to require some more relevant experience in a Supreme Court justice? Then I got to thinking about availability heuristics—the way we decide (for instance) how common a certain phenomenon is by referring to memorable examples, not a full data set. In this context, it’s really just a sort of sample bias.

Now, assume even people who follow politics don’t make a huge habit of familiarizing themselves with the resumés of government officials in any detail—at least beyond the moment of confirmation hearings. People are going to decide how impressive Miers is by reference to some comparison pool. The vast majority of conservatives out there are probably going to look around at their extended circle of acquaintances, and notice that Miers has at least as good a background as any of the smarter, more successful people they know. Inside the Beltway, or at good law schools, though, you can’t swing a dead muskrat without hitting someone who was on Yale Law Review. The bar of what’s minimally outstanding, so to speak, is higher.

Conservative populism has always had a hint of “what, you think yer better‘n me?” anxiety about it, and so especially among the grassroots of a movement where it’s generally held that any Joe with common sense can see how wrong various Supreme Court decisions are (which might well be true in some cases without making it a bad idea to demand the highest qualifications of prospective justices), it’s easy to imagine much of the base taking a certain amount of umbrage at the way Miers is all but being painted as an idiot child. Relative to the pool of plausible candidates for the Court, that may not be all that unfair. But if you’re not tightly focused on that pool—if you’re not thinking in terms of other people whose names were bandied about for the post, but how she stacks up next to Me, Garden Variety Conservative and My Friends—well, you can see how they might take umbrage. That doesn’t make them right, of course, but it makes the charge intelligible to some extent.

Tags: Horse Race Politics



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Gil // Oct 13, 2005 at 12:52 am

    I don’t know about the rest of it, but I think swinging dead muskrats would make the confirmation process much more interesting.

  • 2 J. Goard // Oct 13, 2005 at 3:48 am

    Remember, in “Good Will Hunting”, how Skarsgaard’s professor says something like, “there are only a handful of people in the world that can appreciate how much better you are than me, and I’m one of them.” ? Well, what pisses me off isn’t so much how I’d evaluate Miers, as my belief that Bush hasn’t the slightest ability to distinguish between a pretty clever, pretty logical, pretty original thinker — and an astonishingly clever, rigorously logical, historically original thinker. Put him in a room for an hour with either Posner or Miers, and he’ll come away with mostly the same kinds of thoughts.

  • 3 Your mom // Oct 17, 2005 at 10:19 pm

    If you look at the MO of the attack puppies in the WH, you might sense a pattern over time. They take the weakness of their side and accuse the other side of it. Thus, John Kerry is attacked by the “Swift Boat” people on his heroism, because GWB is weak on that. Same thing here, Miers is weak on the credentials bit? Attack the other side on just that point.

    Call it the dampen signal tactic. That is if one person emits a wave, counter it exactly and the wave dampens out. Whereas if you say the same thing at the same time, the signal feeds on itself and is stronger.

    If the left were to take the tactic of anticipating which parts the attack puppies would try to exploit and then say “Given our opponents record we wouldn’t be surprised if there some people showed up out of the blue called Young Xies for Apple Pie, but they really just want you to ignore their record on the subject by examining mine in detail…. it might work