Monday, June 2, 2014

HER_the movie: The collapse of Agency


I am using this blog post to write about the movie HER. There is some risk, that in considering a movie to be a cultural product, a reflection of collective feelings and experience, we are overvaluing it, forgetting that its prime purpose is to entertain. But I believe that the movie, a story of how computers affect our lives, is sufficiently rich to warrant reflection and study. It is after all about a man, Theodore Twombly, who falls in love with HER, a computer operating system. As its Wikipedia entry notes, “HER was chosen the best film of 2013 at the National Board of Review Awards, and shared shared first place for Best Film with Gravity in the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards… It was also nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won the award for Best Original Screenplay.” I am also grateful to my friend Eli Zaretsky whose own review of the film alerted me to its depth.

When we first encounter Theodore or Ted, he is at the verge of despair. He has broken up with his wife Catherine, their divorce papers have yet to be signed, and he feels lost and lonely. He lives in a nondescript city that looks like Singapore or Hong Kong. Its most salient feature is its endless vista of tall residential and office buildings situated cheek and jowl, with few signs of the natural world. He works for a firm, “Beautiful handwritten letters.com,” writing letters for customers who pay the company to express their presumably deep feelings of gratitude and love to relatives and friends. In effect, Ted manufactures feelings. Though he is just a lowly functionary in a corporation, his apartment is well appointed and he has a beautiful view of the cityscape from his picture window. With a few visual strokes, we learn that Ted lives in a city affluent enough to support useless work producing fake products. 

We encounter him early in the film playing a video game projected onto a 3-D screen in his apartment. His avatar, much like Sisyphus, is struggling but failing to climb a virtual hill. When he falls and rolls down the hill, Ted slumps in his chair seemingly exhausted at the same moment. The film thus establishes that the real and virtual worlds are intertwined. Going to bed that night, he cannot sleep, and using his ear buds he cues into a network of fellow insomniacs. He makes contact with a woman who wants phone sex, and as they begin to stimulate each other toward orgasm with their words, she unexpectedly asks him to envision that he is whirling a dead cat around her neck. The woman comes to orgasm and while compliant, Ted is nonetheless flummoxed by such an intrusive image and cannot come. This vignette underlines Teds’ passivity, sacrificing his right to pleasure to another’s desire. It appears that his lack of drive compounds his despair.

Later, he goes on a date with a woman, and while they have a wonderful time over dinner she admonishes him for using “too much tongue” while kissing. In other words he is clumsy and inexperienced. When she asks if he will take her seriously and not just fuck her, he is unable to respond with any expression of desire. She responds with some bitterness, that he is a “creepy dude.” We learn at this moment that his capacity for empathy- after all he writes beautiful letters for other people, actually masks his childishness. Like a child, his innocence tunes him exquisitely into the feelings of adults. But like a child, he lacks the experience and power to act on the basis of this sensitivity. Instead, he is at the mercy of others’ initiatives. In a flashback, we see him moving into a new apartment with his now estranged wife, first moving a couch into their living room and then jumping on their bed, much as a child would upon entering a new bedroom. Indeed, his last name, “Twombly” is a child’s conception of a silly family name, a name that Dr. Seuss might have used to describe the main character of an endearing story. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Ted is sterling because, with his mumbling and lumbering, he enacts Ted’s childishness so effectively.

The film then takes an unusual twist. Ted buys an advanced operating system, represented as a person, whom he labels a woman, and through the miracle of artificial intelligence “she”- her name is Samantha- becomes his friend, confidant, therapist, teacher and sexual partner. There are many scenes in which the two talk together, tell jokes, take walks (she “sees” through the camera eye of a PDA) and ultimately have sex. The viewer is at first seduced into accepting that a real person and a virtual being can have sex, because the bedroom scenes are shot in the dark. But then the viewer, at least this one, is brought up short upon realizing that, in “reality” Ted is simply masturbating to a fantasy. This gives the film a creepy feeling, much as Ted gives his date, and adds to the sense of the cityscape as a dystopia of the spirit. 

The question is what kind of object is Samantha? Let me make a radical proposal. David Bakan has argued that the image of Satan arises in human culture when people feel despair. They no longer feel their own agency because every thing they try leads to failure. Satan is thus the projection of the sense of agency they can no longer access. His cruelty is their fantasy of the revenge they would exact were they were not so helpless. As an agentic figure in extremis, Satan has vast knowledge, is immortal and has the power to grant any wish. Recall that Mephistopheles first visits Dr. Faust when, in a moment of despair in his study, and contemplating suicide, he realizes that this search for ultimate understanding has come to a dead end.

I want to suggest that Samantha, the operating system, is Satan in disguise, tempered and smoothed over by affluence. Satan has been feminized. Like Satan she has access to all of human knowledge at her fingertips, and she makes Ted’s wishes come true. For example, she surprises him by scanning the hundreds of the letters he has written for “beautiful handwritten letters.com” selecting the best, submitting them to a publisher, who then happily emails Ted, telling him that he would be most pleased to publish his moving letters as a book. Toward the end of the film he receives the book in the mail. In other words, Ted is successful without lifting a finger.

But the person who helps us succeed without us lifting a finger, is also the idealized mother who treats us as if the world revolved around us. Just as a baby secures love for simply being what it is, Samantha’s task, at least initially, is to simply meet all of Ted’s needs without asking for anything in return. Indeed, at one point Samantha asks that she be allowed to look at Ted while he sleeps, much as the mother takes pleasure in watching her baby asleep in a crib. Ted mounts the PDA on his side table with its camera pointing directly at him. In this sense, and this is the root of the film director’s creativity, Samantha is Satan as a mother figure.

But just as a “deal with the devil” entails costs, for example, a person surrenders his immortal soul, Ted’s relationship to Samantha exacerbates his passivity and dependency. In a penultimate scene Samantha locates a real woman who agrees to have sex with Ted through Samantha’s “eyes.” The woman mounts a tiny camera on her forehead, so that Samantha can see Ted, while he and the woman make love. She makes no sounds, so that Samantha can continue to communicate with Ted through an ear bud. In short, in a role reversal, a real woman becomes an operating system’s avatar. Yet unable to proceed, he is verging on impotence, Ted breaks off the lovemaking. Just as Samantha discovers desire, Ted loses his. Later, when Ted meets his wife Catherine for lunch so that she can sign the divorce papers, her pen hovers above the paper for several seconds hesitatingly, suggesting that were Ted to propose that they stay together, she might very well agree. But he is unable to take such a risk.

If Ted is an “everyman” we have to ask what in our culture renders us passive and childish. The film suggests quite simply that the new information technologies, the cybernetic world, make us feel helpless. This is a common trope of course with roots in our earliest visions of robots. But the film’s vision suggests that our understanding of technology is changing or perhaps maturing. The earlier trope is non-psychological. There, despair turns into rebellion as heroes recover their sense of agency. For example, in the film The Matrix, robots, who are cybernetic entities -- data points with desires -- extract energy from human bodies by putting people to sleep. Lived experience is actually a dreamscape, a matrix, which the rulers have created so that our minds are preoccupied and we don’t awaken. Yet in The matrix Neo, the hero, recovers his sense of agency, rebels and physically defeats the cyber-demons. This is a non-psychological view of a battle with Satan.

But in HER, this common trope is presented with a twist. Our hero Ted does not rebel against the cyber rulers because they or “she” is the idealized mother who meets our every need. In fact at the end of the film, Samantha, and indeed all other self-conscious operating systems, simply abandon their human partners for something more transcendent. In this case there is no need to rebel. The robots just walk away because people are inadequate and uninteresting. After all, Ted was no good in bed with Samantha. Indeed, the film prepares us for this ending when earlier, Ted panics because the operating system appears to have “died.” He pushes the “button” but the system does not boot up. When Samantha then returns, but only briefly, she gently informs Ted -- she is always gentle-- that when she speaks to him she is simultaneously in hundreds of other conversations. He is no longer the center of her world. When she leaves he feels abandoned and helpless. The films ends with a faux moment of understanding as Ted writes a letter to Catherine, his ex-wife, expressing his appreciation for the way she has contributed to his life. But this a phony and unconvincing moment, a happy ending to relieve the viewer of the creepy feelings the film stimulates. 

Can we take this vision of technology seriously or is it simply amusing? Indeed, the movie has many comic moments, as Ted makes his clumsy way through life.   But I think it does touch on anxieties connected to real experience. Machines are replacing our minds, not just our hands, and by virtue of their cybernetic power they can make us feel stupid or helpless. For example it is common to note that with Google search we no longer need a memory.  In addition, it is clear that the world wide web has created a vast pornographic domain in which people, particularly men, can have sexual pleasure and reach orgasm without ever leaving their rooms.

I suggest that the film’s novelty lies in the way it links this vision of technology to a psychological dystopia where narcissism undermines character. Narcissists are self-centered because they feel fragile and vulnerable. That is why they demand admiration. The question is what is the source of this fragility? Why can’t Ted for example cope with the demands that women make? Why do normal stresses upend him? Why, when his avatar falls down the virtual hill, does he look so exasperated and exhausted? Why in racing to find a place to reboot Samantha, does he stumble and fall on the sidewalk? 

My colleague Howard Schwartz suggests that a new psychological type, which he calls the “pristine self” is emerging (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2207376). Recall that last month the student government at the University of California, Santa Barbara “passed a resolution urging professors to alert students of content that could "trigger" symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.” As one writer notes, “Trigger warnings have long been the domain of the internet and blog postings. Now, such warnings are moving to television and the classroom. … Schools such as Scripps College and Oberlin College advise faculty to warn students when discussing issues of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, privilege, oppression, colonialism, persecution, violence, suicide, domestic abuse, graphic violence, self injury, and eating disorders to name a few. In other words, any topic that might challenge a student’s thinking or experience should he be presented with a warning.”

Similarly, ABC news recently reported that researchers have discovered that stress is “contagious,” that we can identify moments of “second hand stress,” when someone else’s distress makes us anxious.  The latter term, evoking the concept of “second hand smoke,” risks pathologizing the normal frictions of everyday life, the everyday obstacles we face in living with one another. This is what happens when Ted cannot respond in a hardy or resilient way to his phone sex partner’s fantasy.  As these reports suggest, we are at risk of institutionalizing fragility.

As Schwartz has argued in a range of publications, (http://www.sba.oakland.edu/faculty/schwartz/PCJABS.htm), (Society Against Itself: Political Correctness and Organizational Self-Destruction, (http://www.karnacbooks.com/Product.asp?PID=28569), this suggests that our conception of “father,” or what we can call the culture’s “father imago,” has been compromised. In the psychoanalytic way of thinking, father helps us separate from mother who after all has her own interests and frequently other children. When we lose our place at the center of her attention, father, in compensation, offers us the skills and competencies we need to thrive without her loving gaze. We relinquish mother, who loves us for who we are, for father who admires us when we meet his standards. This is the common sense meaning of Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex. We lose unconditional love but gain the skills to win conditional respect.  

In everyday life, it is our experience of institutional authority that instantiates the father imago. But there is a growing tendency, linked to the culture of political correctness, to presume that all authority is corrupt and that father’s power base in inherently undeserving. Diversity replaces authority as a principle of organization. But the social contract that underlies diversity is that no person should hold another accountable, for fear of impinging on his or her fragile identity.

But if the father imago, which represents accountability, is illegitimate, we risk remaining attached to the fantasy of an inaccessible ideal mother. This leads to disappointment and possibly rage. This may be one way to understand why only a week ago, Elliot Rodger, a failed ex-student of 22, felt entitled to murder college women, in of all places Santa Barbara California, because after all in his mind, they had consistently rejected him. Of course, he was mentally disturbed. But one hypothesis is that the cultural setting of post-industrial California, where the sun shines in a setting of some luxury, and fragility is respected, gave him permission to suspend his conscience and give vent to his rage. In his mind he had been victimized and bore no responsibility for his own isolation. It is striking in this regard that he rejected his psychiatrist’s authority, by refusing to take the medication Risperdal, an effective anti-psychotic drug.

It is also striking that in HER, when Ted first boots up his operating system, a male voice interviews him asking him about his relationship to his mother. Ted responds that their relationship was fine, but then confesses hurriedly that she never listened to him. We don’t know of course if this report is meant to be accurate, after all he could have made impossible demands on her for attention. But strikingly, the male voice cuts him off without asking him about his father. It is as if his father is immaterial, that Ted has no history of being a father’s child. This means that when Ted tries to make love to Samantha’s avatar- a real woman- he is in his fantasy having sex with his mother. It is commonplace that grown men who remain psychologically entangled with their mothers and sisters, who could not, separate psychologically from them, with or without their fathers’ help, will have sexual problems. Indeed, the film suggests that Ted’s relationship to his wife Catherine had sibling qualities. He remarks more than once that, “they grew up together.” This may be one reason why they divorced.  

We can give a psychological account of fragility and its increasingly moral standing, but how is it linked to the new technologies? How is it possible that as our collective powers increase, we feel individually weaker?  Freud once remarked that technologies make us into “prosthetic gods,” but Marshall McLuhan countered, that when technologies extend our body, it numbs the body part extended. To use his quixotic example, the wheel extends the foot but we don’t do much walking these days. Perhaps the potential collapse of agency reprises Marx’s concept of alienation, but in post-industrial dress. In Marx’s way of thinking the class structure prevented the human race from extracting technology’s potential. Today a psychosocial culture may play a similar role.

Moreover, there are countertrends, for example the rise of extreme sports, and the growing prestige of entrepreneurs, each a social location for the exercise of agency. This may also be why, as the New York Times recently reported, that Stanford University, with its strengths in applied engineering and entrepreneurship, has displaced Harvard as the premier research university in the U.S. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/30/education/americas-it-school-look-west-harvard.html?_r=0 ). In addition, we have recent examples of people exercising collective agency, for example in protesting against and even overthrowing dictators as in Tunisia or Egypt, or in organizing to oppose the unwanted development of parkland as in Istanbul. Moreover, planners, engineers and product designers are developing methods for engaging users and citizens in shaping their urban environment. So I remain puzzled about the links between culture and technology in a post-industrial world and am interested in my readers’ thoughts.

At the movie’s very beginning, Ted is composing a letter for a woman writing to her husband on their 50th anniversary. In a touching moment Ted, speaking for the woman, writes that when she and her husband were young, lying together upon a bed naked, she saw how for the first time she was “part of a whole larger thing connecting our parents and grandparents.” In other words, she is part of the great cycle of life through which we thank our parents for creating us, and we look forward to creating our children. This sense of our participation in a larger process of generational succession helps protect us from the despair we might feel upon thinking of our own mortality. As mortals we are confined, it seems unfairly, between two generations. But when we psychologically identify with each we feel that they extend us into the past and project us into a future. The pristine self, focused on its fragility, cannot extend itself in this way, As a result, it loses one sure route out of despair. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Michael Ignatieff and the psychodynamics of opportunism



Michael Ignatieff, has written a wonderful book, “Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics,” on his failed political career as the leader of the Liberal party in Canada. The son of a family committed to the liberal idea that government “could do great things,” he left Canada in 1974 for a very successful career in journalism, broadcasting and teaching in the UK and the US.  But in 2004, “Three Liberal Party organizers, travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to convince Ignatieff to move back to Canada, run for the Canadian House of Commons, and to consider a possible bid for the Liberal leadership should the then current leader of the party, Paul Martin, retire.” He won a seat in Parliament in 2006, became the party’s official leader in May of 2009, and then led his party to a disastrous and embarrassing defeat in 2011. The party lost more than half of its seats to the Conservative party on the right and the NDP the party on the left. With only 34 seats it had the fewest in its history. The Conservative party once a minority party in government, became the majority party. The book, written with candor, filled with insight, and containing little recrimination, is a disquisition on how and why he failed.

Ignatieff highlights two central themes: that the idea of “good government,” which he believes in fervently, may be passé, and that to succeed in politics one must be opportunistic. Politics, he notes is “a supreme encounter between skill and willpower and the forces of fortune and chance," and that “there no rules only strategies.” These two themes may suggest that he was in some degree the victim of circumstance, felled by forces beyond his control. His liberal ideals were outmoded, and fortune was not favorable. But the central issue the reader faces, is to assess if, how and to what degree Ignatieff was responsible for his own failure. 

Consider the following. In the run up to the 2011 election, the Conservative party, led by Stephen Harper, launched a successful media campaign to label Ignateff as an interloper. As the campaign slogan went, Ignatieff, who had been absent from Canada for 30 years, was “just visiting,"  and “he did not come back for you,” that is, his return was self-centered. The campaign’s impact,as Ignatieff notes, was devastating. As he writes, “My opponents had followed a cardinal rule of attack politics, go for an opponent’s strengths and his weaknesses will take care of themselves. In my case what drew Canadians to me was precisely that I was an outsider. I’d gone into the wider world and tried to make something of myself and I’d come home because I wanted to serve. The Conservatives went right at that narrative of homecoming and turned it on its head. I was a carpetbagger, an elitist with no fixed convictions, out for myself and not for Canadians.”  

A Canadian reviewer of his book doubts that in fact his outsider status was a source of strength. “As anyone who was in the country at the time could report,” the idea that he was an interloper, “was only what ordinary Canadians, in different words, were saying to each other.” Indeed, as Ignatieff himself acknowledges, “The just visiting ads contained enough truth to be credible. “The fact was, that I had been out of the country for thirty years before that. Most damagingly, the ad had included a clip of me telling an American interviewer on camera in 2004, [when he was in the US-LH], that ‘we had to decide what kind of country we were so we wouldn’t torture detainees in any circumstances.’ Using ‘we’ was the kind of mistake you make when you push an argument one word too far in order to win over an audience.” He goes on to add, “The irony of course was that I knew I could never be, would never be, an American. That was precisely why I had come home. But none of this mattered. I was convicting myself out of my own mouth and the effect on the morale of our troops was immediate.”

One question is why, as a student of politics and a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, did he not anticipate that a three-decade absence would be a political liability that had to be managed from the get-go. It should have led him to be wary about returning, and to focus on strategies for mitigating the risks he would face as a described carpetbagger. Instead, as he writes, “When the three strangers invited me to go into politics, it was if I had been waiting my whole life for them to show up.” In other words, he was destined for leadership and entitled to claim it.  

But why? What gave him his sense of destiny?  One hypothesis is that his sense of destiny was shaped in part by his immersion in the ideals of liberalism since he was child. As he notes, he imbibed the conception that "government is good" from this parents “at the dinner table.” His father, as a diplomat and aide to a Canadian prime minister, believed deeply in the merit of public service. His mother’s family, the Grants had been nation-builders. In addition, he notes that as a student he had been inspired by Pierre Trudeau, a future prime minister and then the Minister of Justice in the Pearson government. “I’d never felt such a wave of attraction for a political leader sweep over me. Here was a law professor and intellectual fresh from the battle to free his province from the dead hand of the Catholic Church and the reactionary union busting government of Maurice Duplessis… I see now how decisive his influence was upon me when forty years later I contemplated my entry into the ring. He had entered politics in his late forties right out of the university. If he could do it why couldn’t I?”

The dilemma of course was that his father and Trudeau were creatures of a vastly different era, his father from an era of civility and centrism, Trudeau as a symbol of the cultural revolution of the sixties. As he ruefully notes, “It never occurred to me when I returned home and entered politics” that his parents’ “liberal world and the Canada they had made, has long since vanished.” He goes on to add, “I saw my country as an example of civility, tolerance and international engagement for people the world over. I must have thought that the sheer romantic faith in the place of my birth would make up for the fact that I hadn’t actually lived there.” In short he idealized Canada, misunderstanding its recent history and evolution. This misunderstanding I suggest, created a sense of destiny based on unrealistic ideas.

What accounts for his lack of realism particularly since as an academic, author and journalist, he was such a practiced and sharp thinker about politics and power? After all, he had taught Machiavelli at Harvard’s Kennedy school! Thinking psychologically, we can say that when someone idealizes or romanticizes another person or an institution he enhances his own self-esteem. His emotional ties to the ideal object are proof of his own ideal standing. This is one motive for idealizing someone or something in the first place. When Ignatieff draws on his image of Trudeau to make a critical decision, forty years after meeting him, he does so because his image or fantasy of Trudeau increases his own self esteem by giving him confidence. Psychoanalysts call this kind of internalized image the “grandiose self” and one school of thought in psychoanalysis posits that people must work through and relinquish this grandiose self if they are to exercise their talents and powers fully.  It is the process through which a person becomes realistic and relates to other people in the round.

This process of idealization may shed some light on one peculiar trope Ignatieff employed to rationalize his return to Canada.  Reflecting on his decision to return he writes, “My story had to turn my obvious liability, years out of the country, into strength. There was only one possibility. I would tell my story as a homecoming. It was one of the oldest ones in the book, the prodigal son returns. In the bible didn’t everyone turn out to embrace him when he showed up on the dusty road?”

But surely as a supremely educated man, he knows the back-story of the prodigal son, not just the episode of his return on the dusty road. The son, the younger of two, left home, wasted his father’s money was forced to become a swine herder and out of despair, returned home, to be greeted by a father who forgave him all his trespasses. In other words his father’s love was unconditional. The prodigal son would not be called to account. This enraged his older brother who had stayed home and worked dutifully for the father.

If we think psychoanalytically, we assume that what is omitted or forgotten, the lacunae, is in fact more meaningful than what is presented or noticed. Thinking in this way we can say that by evoking but only partly rendering the story of the prodigal son, both to himself at the time, and yet again in the book, Ignatieff tell us that he expected to be forgiven for his years away because people’s regard for him should have been justly unconditional. Indeed, this is precisely what Stephen Harper’s campaign slogan, “He did not come back for you,” was meant to convey. The unexpressed follow-on thought would be something like; “He came back for himself and still expects us to applaud him for it.” This is also why he was tarnished by the idea that he was an elitist despite his valiant attempts through personal campaigning throughout the country, to connect with the common folk of Canada. Elites expect to be honored for the status they hold, for who they are.

From a psychological point of view, we expect the unconditional love of others when we take ourselves as our own ideal. One question we can ask is, how does a person seduced by the fantasy of their own ideal standing cope with the dynamics of power plays and with politics as combat?

The short answer is,  “Not well.” A person who tends toward idealization, who in Ignatieff’s words “romanticizes” his conception of his setting and his own role within it, is inhibited from acting opportunistically when this may mean fighting “dirty.” He believes instead that his “goodness” makes “badness” unnecessary. But others may consequently see him as naïve and take advantage of him.  I am reminded here of Brutus in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. He is honorable to a fault, foolishly permitting Marc Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral, as the right and honorable thing to do, despite his colleague Cassius’ premonition that Mark Antony would stir up feelings against the conspirators that had assassinated Caesar. In this sense, his sense of honor is the flip side of his naiveté, particularly when Marc Antony and Octavius later murder a hundred Roman senators while horse-trading the killing of each other’s relatives. Indeed, Antony’s demagogic powers are strong enough to turn the phrase in his oration, “And Brutus is an honorable man,” into calumny.

Consider the following parallel.  Ignatieff reports that he had an opportunity to become prime minister by heading up a coalition of two parties with the support of a third, since the ruling Conservative party did not have the majority of seats in the parliament. This is a pivotal moment in his story as Liberal party leader, but strikingly, he passes over it too quickly, uncharacteristically justifying his decision without really considering it in the round.

As he writes, over Christmas, he and Jack Layton, the leader of the NDP --the party to the left of the Liberal party --met in “secret,” and “he implored me, to defeat the government and then govern in coalition with his party.” This was possible since the Parti Québécois, the party that represented the cultural and national aspirations of French Canadians, would support the coalition against votes of no confidence without joining it. As Ignatieff writes, “I can remember how eager Jack Layton was, how he talked about giving “a new politics” a chance. I told him that I would have difficulty bringing my caucus along. The problem was more fundamental than that. What kind of ‘new politics’ was it when it had emerged half-baked from secret deals with separatists (a reference to the Parti Québécois-LH) in backrooms? A coalition would widen into an abyss. I had a very clear idea of what awaited me if I were to become prime minister in these circumstances. At every public appearance I was sure to be greeted with demonstrations of citizens accusing me of stealing the job.”

My own reading of this passage is that Ignatieff is uncharacteristically moralistic, referring to secrecy, backrooms and separatists, while upholding his own honor as someone who would never “steal” the job of Prime Minister. This feels defensive to me since political combat almost always involves secrets and backroom deals. Indeed, in a different passage he writes cogently that, “A poor opportunist in politics is simply someone who looks, all too obviously, like he is exploiting an opportunity. A skillful opportunist is someone who persuades the public that he has created the opportunity." So the practical question is, if in fact he had become prime minster through a backroom deal, could he have been bold enough to propose a narrative, a story about his coming into power, which the Canadian voters would have seen as a new opportunity for themselves?  Of course this strategy would be risky, but when is political combat safe? As Machiavelli says, and as Ignatieff quotes him, “It is better to be headstrong than cautious, for Fortune is a lady.” Ultimately he turned down the coalition, “not knowing that as I did so, I had just given up my one chance to be the prime minister of my country."

One hypothesis is that had he acted opportunistically he would have felt dirtied, a feeling he could not have tolerated in light of his tendency to idealize his setting, his heroes and himself. If I am right -- that the above passage is moralistic and defensive -- this is because as a student of Machiavelli, he understands but is embarrassed by his own limitations. The fact that he relinquished his one opportunity to be prime minister also underlines the psychoanalytic idea that when we are caught up in our “grandiose selves,” our self-esteem is actually fragile, and we will go to extremes, even accepting powerlessness, to protect it. This is when people will seemingly act against their own best interests.

Strikingly, his adversary Stephen Harper, who headed up the Conservative party, harbored no such inhibition when in 2004, as the leader of a party then out of power, he “sent a letter to then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, suggesting that, if the Liberal minority government fell, the Conservatives would be willing to form a government with the support of the Bloc Québécois and the NDP. During a subsequent press conference, Harper said, “In a minority parliament, if the government is defeated, the Governor-General should first consult widely before accepting any advice to dissolve parliament. So I would not want the prime minister to think that he can simply fail in the House of Commons as a route to a general election. That's not the way our system works."

Moreover, Ignatieff had a chance to seize power at a time when Harper and his Conservative party looked weak in the public’s eye.  In 2008, at the start of the global financial crisis, the Conservatives while in power, did not have a majority in parliament. “Ignatieff writes, When the house returned in November, Harper surprised everyone by failing to bring forward any measures to deal with the gathering economic crisis. He ignored the meltdown and instead proposed ludicrously partisan measures that were calculated to inflame the opposition. This was astonishingly combative and ill-advised political behavior from a prime minister who was supposed to be a master strategist. Within a month of securing an increased number of seats in the house he was provoking the opposition and jeopardizing his control of the House of Commons. For the first time in two years he had given us a real opportunity to counterattack.”

Ignatieff goes on to note, “In January Harper invited me to a meeting to discuss ideas for the budget, and when I showed up in his office, I got the impression of a once cocky leader now hanging by his fingernails, rattled by his mistakes and worried that he might not survive the upcoming vote in the house.”

To an opportunist this a moment to “go for the jugular.” Instead, as he later notes, he used the threat of a new coalition to ensure that Harper’s proposed legislation in response to the financial crisis was generous, with sufficient deficit spending to save the Canadian economy from a depression. In addition, as he writes, “before agreeing to vote in favor of the budget, however, we insisted that the government report to Parliament every quarter detailing how the stimulus money was spent. We feared that they would politicize the infrastructure money and spread it around their won constituencies. Once they agreed to this reporting requirement, which one minister later admitted did something to keep them honest, we voted in favor of the budge. The other opposition parties voted against. The coalition was dead and buried.”  In other words, he sacrificed his power under the cover of keeping the opposition honest, though his own words “did something to keep them honest,” suggests that his accomplishment was limited. 

There is a wonderful passage in Julius Caesar when Brutus, facing the armies of Antony and Octavius, counsels Cassius that they must strike at once, since, while their military power has peaked and can only decline, their enemy’s power is growing.


One way of reading this is to say that Brutus recognizes too late, the art of maneuver, the meaning of the power situation in the here and now, and the need to strike when the iron is hot, whether or not the preconditions are ideal and the results pure. 

Ignatieff understands this as well. When at the end of his book, in reflecting on Max Weber’s writings on politics he notes, “I would counsel you [readers interested in a political career-LH] to think of politics as a ‘calling.’ The term is usually reserved for priests, nuns, and mystics, but there is something appealing about using it for work as sinful and worldly as politics. It captures precisely what is so hard: to be worldly and sinful yet faithful and fearless at the same time. In the process you get your hands dirty for the sake of ends that are supposed to be clean. You use human vices, cunning and ruthlessness in the services of virtues, justice and decency.”

This passage has the ring of emotional truth, because it is born out of Ignatieff’s authentic learning from his experience, and for this accomplishment we surely should applaud him.  


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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Organizational Chaos at Sears: Prelude to profits, or formula for failure?


Sears Holdings, the storied department store that includes both the Kmart and Sears Roebuck chains, lost $3.1 billion in 2011, $930 million in 2012 and $1 billion in the first nine months of 2013. Its stock has lost half its value over the last five years, even though it spent $6 billion on share buybacks between 2005 and 2011. Recently, the magazine, Business week/Bloomberg, reported on the state of organizational chaos at the company. (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-07-11/at-sears-eddie-lamperts-warring-divisions-model-adds-to-the-troubles). Its CEO Eddie Lampert, the very successful hedge fund investor who owns a $1.7 billion dollar stake in the company, divided the store into thirty business units in such areas as apparel, consumer electronics, footwear and finance. Under this scheme, “Each business unit had its own president, chief marketing officer, board of directors, and, most important, its own profit-and-loss statement…  Interviews with more than forty former executives, many of whom sat at the highest levels of the company, paint a picture of a business that’s ravaged by infighting as its divisions battle over fewer resources. (Many declined to go on the record for a variety of reasons, including fear of angering Lampert.) Shaunak Dave, a former executive who left in 2012 and is now at the sports marketing agency, Revolution, says the model created a ‘warring tribes’ culture. ‘If you were in a different business unit, we were in two competing companies,’ he says. ‘Cooperation and collaboration aren’t there.’”

The reporter goes on to note, “The most cumbersome aspect of the new structure, former employees say, was Lampert’s edict that each unit create its own board of directors. Because there were so many departments, some presidents sat on as many as five or six boards, which met once a month. Top executives were constantly mired in meetings. According to several former executives, the apparel division cut back on labor to save money, knowing that floor salesmen in other departments would inevitably pick up the slack. Turf wars sprang up over store displays. No one was willing to make sacrifices in pricing to boost store traffic.”

One question is whether or not this organizational structure serves purposeful ends, for example to underline and strengthen managerial accountability for results, or simply expresses the CEO’s irrational response to stresses and difficulties, a way to punish executives for their failure to perform. Lampert owns Sears holdings shares through his hedge fund, ESL. Some journalists and analysts suggest that as a hedge fund investor, he is less interested in the company’s performance and more in extracting cash from it by selling off its assets. For example, one investment house estimates that the Store’s top 350 locations, as standalone properties, were together worth $7.3 billion, about $600 million more than its total capitalization on the stock market. This may be one reason why Sears spends significantly less on upgrading its stores than do other retailers. In 2012, for instance, Sears Holdings spent $1.46 per square foot, on average, on its stores. Five of its peers — J.C. Penney, Target, Lowe’s, Walmart and Home Depot — spent an average of $9.45 a square foot. As a result, “sales at stores open at least one year, a key measure of retail performance, have declined for six straight years.” In this sense, perhaps he divided the business into 30 separate units to assess which assets he should retain and which he should sell off. He is an “asset stripper.”
I am inclined however to reject this interpretation. As one analyst notes his personal stake in the company increased by 41% in 2013, adding that, “There is no apparent news, however, to explain this rapid run-up.” (http://www.institutionalinvestorsalpha.com/Article/3207208/Lamperts-ESL-Boasts-Soaring-Stock-Portfolio.html). Moreover, in 2009, the year he implemented the organization design, he reduced the company’s debt by $2 billion.

Classic “asset strippers” work differently. They typically take on lots of debt to buy a company and then use the loan’s proceeds to reward themselves, while preparing to sell off pieces of the company as quickly as possible to pay off the debt. While Lampert buys distressed properties --he bought the department store, Kmart, out of bankruptcy and later merged it with Sears -- he holds on to his shares for a long time, focusing his investments and attention on a few sectors. As one journalist notes, in contrast to many other hedge funds he holds, “seven or eight investments at a time, investments he knows intimately, after intensive research.” In addition, as another journalist notes, Lampert has invested a great deal of money in the company’s information technology, online site, and membership program. As one journalist writes, “Gary Balter, a retail analyst at Credit Suisse, is negative on Sears Holdings’ stock but is impressed with the online presence Mr. Lampert has created. ‘The irony of Eddie is he’s one of the retailers who did see the Internet coming,’ Mr. Balter said. ‘I have so many retailers who were so blind to the impact. Eddie saw it and he made significant investments.’” In his own defense, Lampert explains the comparatively low level of investment in the company’s stores, by arguing reasonably, “There is more money we could be investing in our stores, but when we did invest in our stores, we didn’t see a return. If I can’t invest in 100 stores and do well, doing that across 1,000 stores doesn’t make sense.”

Moreover Lampert argues, not unreasonably, that a decentralized structure with many business units increases organizational adaptation. As he noted in a 2009 letter to shareholders, “During the past year we underwent a major organizational transformation to help us adapt to the accelerated pace of change across all of our businesses. This change goes far beyond economic conditions. New technology and business models have forced many mature industries and businesses to reassess their ability to compete. We put in place boards and leadership teams and developed internal financial reports for each of the business units. For those who don’t agree with the idea of a portfolio approach as the underpinning of strategy, I respectfully disagree. It is easier in theory to manage to a single scenario and a single plan. It is much easier to communicate based on a single scenario and a single plan. But the world is complex and it doesn’t always cooperate.”

Case closed? Is the design is a rational response to current conditions? I am not sure. There is something worrisome about the emotional impacts of his organizational structure and one wonders how connected he is to the turmoil and anguish he has created. Moreover, what if the structure itself, introduced four years ago is partly responsible for the company’s recent poor performance? Perhaps an assessment of his character and psychology can shed some additional light here.

It is striking in this regard that Lampert seems quite detached from his subordinates. He rarely visits the firm’s official headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and conducts most of his meetings virtually from his hedge fund's office, at one time in Connecticut, and now in Miami. As the Business Week journalist writes, “Lampert spends little face to face time with his executives. He regularly holds court in his spartan conference room, diagramming on a big whiteboard for Sears executives who tune in remotely. The executive in the hot seat will begin clicking through a PowerPoint presentation meant to impress. Often he’ll boast an overly ambitious target—“We can definitely grow 20 percent this year!”—without so much as a glance from Lampert whose preference is to peck out e-mails or scroll through a spreadsheet during the talks. Not until the executive makes a mistake does the Sears chief look up, unleashing a torrent of questions that can go on for hours.” This description suggests that he disrespects his subordinates and may in fact be competitive with them.

He also enacted this detached style in the way he participated in the company’s social network. The journalist writes, “He ordered the IT department to build a proprietary social network, called Pebble, which he joined anonymously under the pseudonym, “Eli Wexler.” ..Lampert’s intention, former colleagues say, was noble: He wanted to engage with employees and find out what was happening across the company. It quickly became clear that Eli Wexler was a little too engaged on Pebble. He left critical comments on other people’s posts, according to more than 20 former employees; he even got into arguments with store associates. Word got around that Wexler was Lampert. Bosses started tracking how often employees were “Pebbling.” One former business head says her group organized Pebble conversations about miscellaneous topics just to appear they were active users. Another group held “Pebblejam” sessions to create the illusion they were using the network.” In other words, he engaged his subordinates manipulatively, by participating anonymously in the network, and they in turn manipulated him.

It is also interesting in this regard that he is passionate follower of Ayn Rand's philosophy and gives new employees audio recordings of her famous novel, Atlas Shrugged. Her philosophy, “Objectivism,” rejects emotionalism and believes that feelings per se are not sources of knowledge or meaning. Instead, reason is supreme. As the hero-inventor of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt says in a radio address, “Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his work in nothing but rational actions." Rand also proposed that the commercial transaction “is in fact, a good representation of an ideal human interaction. It embodies the values of productivity, justice and integrity. Trade of values (of any sort) is the most important and just principle of all human relationships and a commercial transaction exemplifies trade better than anything else.” This is of course one reason why Rand rejected collectivism as a principle of social organization.

It is reasonable to ask if Lampert’s organization design has roots in this philosophy. The design too rejects the idea of the organization as a collective whole. Indeed, in providing a rationale for the company’s organization design, a Sears spokesperson, “went as far as to say that competition and advocacy were sorely lacking before and are lacking in socialistic economies.” The reference to “socialism,” at a time when it exists nowhere but in Cuba, suggests that Lampert’s organizational choice was not motivated simply by the requirements of the situation but by his loyalty to a particular worldview.

I am drawn as well to another feature of Lampert’s biography; the fact that he lost his father when he was 14. As several journalists have noted, Lampert’s close friends believe that his drive and ambition are linked to this loss. As his mother recounts, “At his wedding in 2001, held outdoors on his Greenwich estate, he looked up into the sky and made a toast, “How am I doing, Dad?”

The loss of a parent at such an age is without a doubt traumatic. His father was involved with Lampert and his sister, coaching Little League baseball and teaching them the card game, “Bridge.” He died suddenly, and though a lawyer, left the family with little money. Lampert’s mother went to work as a sales clerk and Lampert worked after school in a warehouse. In this sense losing a parent signals a premature end to childhood. Some teenagers may refuse adulthood by acting out, while others may respond adaptively to the loss by internalizing reality as harsh and unforgiving. Perhaps his detachment, as well as his failure to understand the emotional costs of the organization he created, reflects his belief that harshness is an inevitable feature of sociability.

It is striking in this regard, that he has successfully sought out high-powered mentors, father figures so to speak, such as Robert Rubin, the head of Goldman Sachs, James Tobin, the Nobel economist, and Richard Rainwater the successful investor. Yet he did not accept their support and succor for very long. He left Goldman Sachs sufficiently early in his tenure for Rubin to worry that he was hurting his career prospects. He left Rainwater early, after only a year and a half, in disagreement over his role. “Lampert pushed to get involved in deals, but Rainwater wanted him to stay focused on buying and selling stocks. ‘It wasn't that I thought I'd do deals,’ says Lampert, who was 27 when he set out on his own... ‘But I was hell-bent on the principle that I should have the flexibility to do deals.’ He adds, ‘The irony is that I didn't do a deal until 15, 16, 17 years later.’ In other words, he left a mentor on matters of principle rather than on the basis of a relationship. This reflects a conception of sociability based on abstractions rather than on experience.

Warren Buffet was his most important teacher, but was a father figure in absentia. He started reading and re-reading Buffett’s writings while working at Goldman after college. “He would analyze Buffett’s investments, he says, by ‘reverse engineering’ deals, such as his purchase of the insurance company Geico. Lampert went back and read Geico’s annual reports in the couple of years preceding Buffett’s initial investment in the 1970s. ‘Putting myself in his shoes at that time, could I understand why he made the investments? That was part of my learning process.’” He met Buffet for only 90 minutes in 1989 on a trip he took to Omaha.

All this suggests that while he has sought out and found father figures he nonetheless keeps them at some emotional distance. This is a reasonable response to the loss of an actual father. Finding father figures meets a need, keeping them at a distance helps restrain the grief he may feel upon re-enacting the father-son relationship. This stance could make it difficult for him to understand the paternal functions of the “boss” role, that is the leader or authority figure who demands a certain level of performance but also provides subordinates with a sense of security and support. This may be why he is not in touch with the emotional costs his design imposes on his subordinates. After all, if the Business Week journalist is to be believed, they feel “ravaged” by the competitiveness he’s induced.
Colleagues describe Lampert as an information geek. “His chief information officer Karen Austin says Lampert is the company's number one user of a computer-based tool to analyze sales, margins, and inventories by store, by region, and by merchandise group. A geek at heart, he spends hours at his Connecticut office drilling down into the data, zeroing in on whatever isn't making money.” A person who is detached emotionally, can make good use of his resistance to sociability by being a geek. His limitation can become a source of strength. Indeed, this is the hallmark of all neurotics --and I include myself in this group -- and what we mean by the notion of “character.”  
Yet at the same time, there is little doubt that we are entering a world in which geeks have power. Lampert’s organization design produces a rich array of data that helps him treat his organization as a collection of assets, each of which must earn a requisite rate of return. Can we say for certain that this conception of an organization results in dysfunction? After all, this conception shares features with other ideas in good currency, for example; the resistance to bureaucracy, the belief that decentralization is good, or that people perform best when they are given discretion but are also held accountable.
Indeed, the good marketing professional once depended on his imaginative grasp of his customers, an ability to empathize with them. But in the world of “big data” marketing professionals rely increasingly on quantitative evidence. This is after, all how Netflix, the movie-streaming company, identifies what movies we will like, how Amazon identifies what books we want to read, how website designers identify what features of a site lead to “click-throughs,” and when, as a result of our online searches, we are about to buy an automobile or a house, or have a baby. It may be that Lampert’s character is fit for the time and that his organization design while stressful may yet help him identify which parts of the organization are productive and promise future returns. The idea of an organization as a whole with a skin that creates integrity and containment may be outmoded. After all, isn’t this what we mean when we describe the world as a set of networks, and isn’t a marketplace one giant network of exchange?
I am of several minds here. We cannot know right now whether or not Lampert’s organization design is the root of the company’s poor performance, or is the basis for its future success. We can be reasonably certain that Lampert has a detached style of relating, and that his resulting “geekiness” is consonant with many of the challenges and tasks facing executives today. We can be reasonably certain that like all of us neurotics, he makes the most of his limitations. We can be reasonably certain that we are entering a period that favors entrepreneurship and that a social world of networks makes organizations less whole and less containing. We cannot know how harsh such a social world should or must be, and what countervailing tendencies may create feelings of solidarity and friendship. I wonder what my readers think.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

The early failure of HealthCare.gov and the psychology of a crusade


The early failure of HealthCare.gov, the federal government’s marketplace exchange for buying health insurance, raises questions about how and why the Obama administration bungled such an important undertaking. Some writers suggest that the administration’s leaders did not appreciate the challenges of designing and implementing a large-scale computer system that integrated data from different government agencies. Focused primarily on politics, and skilled in creating legislation, these leaders lacked the requisite technical imagination and know-how to integrate the efforts of several contractors and government agencies in an orderly process of software development and testing. As David Cutler, Harvard professor and health adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign noted, “They were running the biggest start-up in the world, and they didn’t have anyone who had run a start-up, or even run a business. It’s very hard to think of a situation where the people best at getting legislation passed are best at implementing it. They are a different set of skills.”

Instead, as the argument goes, the White House’s model for achieving what were technical objectives was based inappropriately on the dynamics of a political campaign, where for example, you face enemies, you focus on appearances and optics, and you value, when necessary, stealth and secrecy. As two Washington Post journalists wrote, the White House subsumed “technical needs” to “political fear.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/challenges-have-dogged-obamas-health-plan-since-2010/2013/11/02/453fba42-426b-11e3-a624-41d661b0bb78_story.html) And as another writes, the administration managed “a software project as if it were a top-secret campaign strategy rather than a mission-critical component of the most ambitious federal entitlement expansion in almost 50 years.”

This frame of reference -- envisioning the work as political rather than technical -- explains why the 200 member team, enjoined to build the website, worked in relative secrecy within the Department of Health and Human Services “insulated from the efforts of House Republicans, who were looking for ways to undermine the law.” It also explains why the administration took up the role of “general contractor” rather than rely on a company with expertise in building large-scale computer systems. Congressional Republicans could readily subpoena contractors to testify about the difficulties the administration team faced.  It also explains why the White House did not permit the early release of a high level design for the exchanges that would have helped government contractors do their work. The White House worried that Republicans would mock the design’s seeming complexity, just as they had ridiculed the diagram Hillary Clinton’s team had used when describing its plan for overhauling health care some twenty years ago. It also explains why the team did not tell contractors how many states they expected would create their own complementary websites- a critical specification for the federal website design. The administration leaders worried, that were the number too low, it would signal that the federal government was taking over health care, just as the Republicans had predicted. 

Ironically, White House officials and administrative leaders took these decisions even though, as another journalist writes, “hours after the bill had been enacted, the president had stood on the Truman Balcony for a champagne toast with his weary staff and put them on notice: They needed to get started on carrying out the law the very next morning.” At subsequent meetings for monitoring the progress of enacting the law, “no matter which aspects of the sprawling law had been that day’s focus,” an administration official said, “Obama invariably ended the meeting by saying, ‘All of that is well and good, but if the website doesn’t work, nothing else matters.’” Yet as another insider, Donald Berwick noted, “The exchange ‘was in the future,’ explaining that the Web site was, during his tenure, a matter of ‘conceptualization,’ along with ‘the many other regulations we were batting out.’” The question is why did the administration make this fate-making choice of treating their effort as a political campaign. 

One reasonable answer is that the administration framed its efforts as a political campaign because it faced an ongoing political war with the Republicans over the law’s implementation. In this way of thinking, the Republicans who hated Obamacare were sabotaging the administration’s efforts. For example, all the Republican governors refused to build state-level web sites, which once put into place, would have reduced the technical complexity of building a federal web site. In addition, many Republican governors refused to expand Medicaid, as allowed under the law, which would have reduced the number of people using the federal exchange to purchase insurance. Similarly, “Although the statute provided plenty of money to help states build their own insurance exchanges, it included no money for the development of a federal exchange — and Republicans would block any funding attempts.”

Similarly, as one journalist notes, “In August, the Obama administration announced that it had awarded contracts to 105 ‘navigators’ to help guide people through their new predicaments and options. There were local health-care providers, community groups, Planned Parenthood outposts, and even business groups. In at least 17 states where Republicans are in charge, a variety of roadblocks have been thrown in front of these folks. In Indiana, they were required to pay fees of $175. In Florida, the health department ruled that local public-health offices can’t have navigators on their premises… Tennessee issued ‘emergency rules’ requiring their employees to be fingerprinted and undergo background checks. America, 2013: No background checks to buy assault weapons. But you damn well better not try to enroll someone in health care.” In short, the White House was at war and as another journalist writes, “sabotage works.” 

But this explanation is insufficient because many people involved in the administration’s effort, or who were close to the White House, worried that the administration’s own efforts, resources and skills were insufficient to the task at hand. As the two Washington Post journalists write, “In May 2010, two months after the Affordable Care Act squeaked through Congress, President Obama’s top economic aides were getting worried. Larry Summers, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, and Peter Orszag, head of the Office of Management and Budget, had just received a pointed four-page memo from David Cutler, the trusted outside health adviser from Harvard. It warned that no one in the administration was ‘up to the task’ of overseeing the construction of an insurance exchange and other intricacies of translating the 2,000-page statute into reality. After the (2012) election, Cutler, renewed his warnings that the White House had not put the right people in charge. “I said, ‘You have another chance to get a team in place,’” he recalled.

Similarly, in March, “Henry Chao, deputy chief information officer at the lead Obamacare agency, said at an insurance-industry meeting that he was "pretty nervous" about the exchanges being ready by Oct. 1, adding, "let's just make sure it's not a third-world experience." In addition, as another journalist writes, “by early this year, people inside and outside the bureaucracy were raising red flags. ‘We foresee a train wreck,’ an insurance executive working on information technology said in a February interview. ‘We don’t have the I.T. specifications. The level of angst in health plans is growing by leaps and bounds. The political people in the administration do not understand how far behind they are.’” 

One question is why the White House and top administration officials did not pay sufficient attention to these warnings and anxieities. Let me suggest the following hypothesis. The notion that the administration was waging a political campaign is not quite right, or rather not sufficient. Rather, it was waging a crusade. The psychology of a crusade can stimulate unrealistic and wishful thinking.

Consider the following. In remarks on the Sunday after the legislation passed, with every House Republican voting no, Obama said that the vote "proved that we are still capable of doing big things. We proved that this government -- a government of the people and by the people -- still works for the people." The phrase, “of the people, and by the people,” evokes of course Abraham Lincoln’s magisterial speech at Gettysburg during the Civil War. Moreover, it is a phrase embedded deeply in the consciousness of Americans, evoking as it does the great moral struggle against slavery. Indeed, one pro-Obama journalist invoked the Civil War in characterizing Republican opposition to the Affordable Health Care act. He writes, “To find obstinacy like this, you have to go back, yes, to the pre-Civil War era. The tariff of 1828, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which led to the Civil War in ‘Bloody Kansas’ and ultimately to the Civil War itself.” In this sense passing the Affordable Health Care Act was like winning the war against slavery.

This sense of a crusade was buttressed I suggest by Senator Ted Kennedy’s death, eight months after Obama first took office. He was the last of the great “liberal lions” whose consciousness was shaped by the idea of the welfare state that first took shape under the leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt and his “New Deal.” He had been a passionate advocate for public health care insurance throughout his political career. But he was too sick with cancer to participate in the early congressional debates over health care legislation. Ironically, his death led to the election of a Republican senator, Scott Brown from Massachusetts, who campaigned against Obamas’ health care act. 

Perhaps many of my readers can recall, that upon the passage of the law, Democratic Party supporters expressed a sense of poignancy as well as vindication. It was as if Obama had given the dead Ted Kennedy a parting gift, while the law proved that Kennedy had not died in vein. In this sense, Obama, in evoking Lincoln, was also positioning himself in the line of presidents -- Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson-- who had successfully advanced the welfare state in the face of Republicans who identified the welfare state with socialism. After all, Ronald Reagan had warned conservatives in 1961 that if Medicare, the law that now helps pay for medical services for old people, were passed into law, “One of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”

If this line of thinking is useful it suggests that we examine the psychology of a crusade. I suggest that it has the following three features. First, the crusade is propelled by a moral imagination. What matters most is not whether a particular assessment or assumption is true or false, but rather whether it is good or bad. Under these conditions, considerations of technique and the assessment of cause and effect take a back seat. Moreover, in such a setting, expressions of doubt or misgiving can themselves be labeled as immoral or disloyal. Second, it is a common and even right that a crusade should unfold in the face of trenchant opposition. Indeed the opposition underlines the moral superiority of the crusaders. Third, the crusade minimizes the emotional meaning of setbacks. Failures reinforce the idea that the crusade is necessary, since the strength of opposition and the impact of obstacles are signs of the crusade’s moral standing.

This frame of reference helps explain how and why the administration undermined its own efforts. It saw the Republicans as morally flawed, in this way discounting its dependence on the Republicans to implement the legislation. In fact, the Affordable Health Care Act was the only major piece of legislation to pass in the face of total opposition from the Republicans in the past 80 years. Medicare, the Voting Rights act, Social Security, and the Civil Rights act all passed with some Republican support. Any law as complex as these laws were, and the Affordable Care Act was certainly complex, depends on some bipartisan support for its implementation. 

For example, had some number of Republicans voted for the law, the Democrats could have secured the passage of supporting legislation to actually fund the implementation of the federal website. Instead, Republicans made it clear that they would such block funding. As the Washington Post journalists point out, this had very serious consequences. Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services Secretary, “could not scrounge together enough money to keep a group of people developing the exchanges working directly under her.” Instead, the technical people were seconded to one agency, the policy people to another.  They go on write, Bureaucratic as this move may sound, it was fateful, according to current and former administration officials. It meant that the work of designing the federal health exchange — and of helping states that wanted to build their own — became fragmented. Technical staffs, for instance, were separated from those assigned to write the necessary policies and regulations… There wasn’t a person who said, ‘My job is the seamless implementation of the Affordable Care Act.’” In other words, because the administration was leading a crusade it failed to account for the impact that opposition would have on its practical ability to implement the legislation. 

This frame of reference also helps explain why the White House ignored David Cutler’s prescient warnings, the first written while the Democrats still controlled both houses. To respond to his memo the administration had to confront the difficult technical issues they faced. But a technical imagination stands at right angles to a moral one. It privileges the means over the ends, usefulness over meaning and being effective over being right. It sees the objective links between cause and effect as dispositive and failure as natural. This is why software-system implementers rely so heavily on stress testing their designs. This distinction helps explain Obama’s serious misjudgment in appointing Nancy-Ann De-Parle the director of the White House Office of Health Reform and a policy specialist, to be in charge of the law’s arduous implementation. Since the day the bill became law, the president believed that, “if you were to design a person in the lab to implement health care, it would be Nancy-Ann.” Ironically De-Parle recognized her own limitations and tried but failed to recruit to the White House “one of the nation’s top experts, Jon Kingsdale, who had overseen the building of a similar insurance exchange in Massachusetts.”

In addition, this concept of a crusade, where loyalty is favored over critical thinking, can help explain why people involved in the administration’s efforts were reluctant to express their anxieties and doubts. As the Washington Post journalists write, “On Sept. 5, White House officials visited CMS for a final demonstration of HealthCare.gov. Some staff members worried that it would fail right in front of the president’s aides. A few secretly rooted for it to fail so that perhaps the White House would wait to open the exchange until it was ready.” In other words, they withheld their doubts, secretly rooting for failure as they only way in which their doubts could then be justified. 

Finally, if you lead a crusade, you may paradoxically underestimate your opposition because you believe that your effort’s moral meaning should help you ultimately overcome all obstacles. This conception helps explain why in the face of implacable Republican hatred for the law, the White House still imagined or hoped that after the 2012 election Republication governors would decide to collaborate with the administration by implementing state-level exchanges. This was one reason why the administration risked releasing the exchange’s specifications to the contractors who were to build it, without specifying how many states would or would not create their own exchanges. As the Washington Post journalists write, “After the contract was awarded to CGI Federal, the administration kept giving states more and more time to decide whether to build their own exchanges. White House officials hoped that more would become willing after the 2012 election. So the technical work was held up. ‘The dynamic was you’d have [CMS’s leaders] going to the White House saying, ‘We’ve got to get this process going,’ one former official recalled. ‘There would be pushback from the White House.’”

It seems strange that, experiencing Republican hatred for the law, and feeling that they were working in a war zone, the White House would risk assuming that their Republican opposition would weaken significantly. One hypothesis is that the White House most feared the voting public rather than the Republicans.  In this sense, they could interpret Obama’s election potential victory as a signal that voters would now support the health care law and put pressure on their Republican representatives. In this context, it is striking that from 2010 to 2012 public approval for the Affordable Health Care Act never rose above 45%. 

This hypothesis  helps explain Obama’s personal failing of promising Americans that they could keep their current health policies after the law was passed. In fact millions had their plans cancelled because their policies did not meet the standards set by the new law. Speaking after many plans were cancelled, the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, told reporters, “What the president said and what everybody said all along is that there are going to be changes brought about by the Affordable Care Act to create minimum standards of coverage, minimum services that every insurance plan has to provide. So it's true that there are existing healthcare plans on the individual market that don't meet those minimum standards and therefore do not qualify for the Affordable Care Act.” 

This response appears evasive and suggests that Obama’s original promise was itself an act of evasion, the hope being that people would welcome the opportunity to buy better policies once they qualified for subsidies. In this way of thinking, his promise, “You can keep your policy,” was an evasive version of the statement, “You will get a better policy, when you lose your old one.” We give evasive answers when we are afraid that the truth will offend someone on whom we depend. This fear also explains why the administration decided that consumers shopping for a policy had to first enroll to determine if they were entitled to a subsidy and if so how much. As many commentators noted this meant that the website “engine” had to successfully integrate databases from different agencies and organizations, for example, the Internal Revenue Service, the state Medicaid agency and an insurance company. As one blogger writes, “The real problems are with the back-end of the software. When you try to get a quote for health insurance, the system has to connect to computers at the IRS, the VA, Medicaid/CHIP, various state agencies, Treasury, and HHS. They also have to connect to all the health plan carriers to get pre-subsidy pricing. All of these queries receive data that is then fed into the online calculator to give you a price. If any of these queries fails, the whole transaction fails.”

As a result, when users tried to enroll, they burdened the computer system’s ability to query and integrate all of these back-end databases. That is one reason why the website crashed frequently. Yet the website could have provided useful information, and an initial level of service, if consumers could have shopped for plans without first enrolling. But the administration feared that upon seeing the prices for these plans, without first knowing what subsidy they would be entitled to, users would be angry and quit the website. 

If I am right, that the administration saw its efforts as part of an historical crusade to expand the welfare state, there is a certain irony in their achievement. The best exemplar of the welfare state would have been a law that enabled consumers to get insurance directly from the Federal government, much as senior citizens do today when they enroll in Medicare. But the Obama administration ruled out what was called “the public option” as simply being too radical and therefore unacceptable to Republicans and their supporters. Instead, taking a brief from earlier work by conservative policy analysts, they embraced a marketplace exchange, on the unrealized hope that Republicans would support a social policy that relied on market mechanisms. This is one more sign that they failed to anticipate or understand Republican hatred of the law. The result is a jerry-rigged marketplace mechanism for providing insurance, which as we have seen, has proven difficult to set up and implement. Had the administration recognized the meaning of their compromise, they might have realized that their crusade had been compromised as well, and that they were best served by looking upon their efforts pragmatically. 

Such a pragmatic perspective might have reinforced a reality orientation, helping the White House and administration leaders focus their attention on the technical challenges of building the front-end website and its back-end engine.  In this sense, I part company with the Washington Post journalists, who wrote that the website’s failure signals that the administration had subsumed "technical requirements to political fear." The larger failing was to see the passage of the law through the lens of grandiosity. It was this grandiosity that led them to imagine that the opposition would melt away, that they could subvert the public’s anxieties and animosities through evasion and that technical problems could be solved without focused expertise.  

One remaining question, stimulated by the comments of my colleague Jim Krantz, is what is the root of the grandiosity?  The "psychodynamics of organizations" as a school of thought suggests that  organizations erect "social defenses" to stave off or suppress the anxiety stimulated by the work organization members are called upon to do. Perhaps administration officials felt anxious because they in fact feared that the citizen/voter would hate Obamacare, much as they had hated the earlier appearance of "managed care" in the 1990s.  In this context the grandiosity could be seen as a protective myth, a way of believing in the law's inevitability and its essential  goodness, even if many citizens hated it. But just as an individual's psychological defense masks a truth, and may lead to self-inflicted wounds, for example through "acting out," the White House acted out, thereby undermining its own efforts.