POSTED ON DECEMBER 30, 2009:
Obama's "Good Enough" Revolution
Why the imperfect is the enemy of the good
MP3s exemplify "disruptive technology," a new product initially ignored by major investors due to its low quality yet catches fire due to its convenience. The history of recorded sound has been at the vanguard of the Good Enough Revolution throughout the 20th century: 78 rpm records sounded better than 33s, analog 33s delivered higher fidelity sound than brittle, cold, digital CDs, which make compressed MP3 files sound like dog poop.
People like poop. Wired magazine reported: "Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford University, recently completed a six-year study of his students. Every year he asked new arrivals in his class to listen to the same musical excerpts played in a variety of digital formats--from standard MP3s to high-fidelity uncompressed files--and rate their preferences. Every year, he reports, more and more students preferred the sound of MP3s, particularly for rock music. They've grown accustomed to what Berger calls the percussive sizzle--a.k.a. distortion--found in compressed music. To them, that's what music is supposed to sound like." MP3 poop sounds like angels singing. And MP3s don't scratch, take up room, or get stolen by your roommate.
From the ridiculously portable Flip video camera to streaming video through a laptop to the low-tech Predator drone plane that screws up the best-laid plans of Afghan wedding planners, Good Enough dominates the technology world. Cheap and easy, that's how we like it.
At least at first glance. Convenience isn't always, well, convenient. The Flip records videos in a file format that's hard to manipulate. I have 25 feet of shelf space dedicated to compact discs but I won't suffer like my friend Mary, whose computer decided to melt down at the same time as her back-up hard drive, taking $15,000 worth of iTunes downloads with them. Print newspapers are hurting, but they can't be turned off with the flip of a switch as the governments do in China and Iran whenever the Internet masses get rambunctious. And dispensing death from the Predator's ticky-tacky lawnmower-engine buzz is a surefire prescription for blowback by inspiring the Pakistani jihadis of the future.
In the world of ideas, President Obama has come to symbolize the triumph of Good Enough. (Candidate Obama, he of "hope" and "change," has been discontinued.) Obama, along with his PR flacks and Congressional allies, loves to paraphrase Voltaire: "Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good." Better to move forward incrementally than not at all.
Repeatedly ceding ground from the wimpy compromises he made by negotiating against himself, Obama deploys this mantra against anyone who pushes for significant change. "We can't afford to make perfect the enemy of the absolutely necessary," said the president after bailing out bankers but not Americans who had lost their jobs and/or homes. Now he's using the same mantra to tout the toothless, inconsequential mess that came out of the global warming summit in Copenhagen, and a healthcare bill that manages to make the current disaster even worse.
"The general consensus [on healthcare] was that we shouldn't make the perfect the enemy of the good," said Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana and a key Obama ally.
Unfortunately for us, Obama's argument relies on a historical example that doesn't apply today.
Obamaite pundit Jonathan Alter summarizes liberal thinking: "You don't always get everything you want the first time up at bat," he argues. "Roosevelt was constantly going back to Congress to strengthen...Social Security, which was not until he had been in office for more than two years. A lot of New Deal types really hated Roosevelt's Social Security plan because they thought it was so weak. And then later they changed it, and they changed it again, and they changed it again."
Other Obamaites point to the civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s, which started out weak but wound up strong and meaningful under LBJ. Perfect isn't achievable now, they argue. But Good Enough is. Get half-assed reforms through on long-standing problems like the economy, climate change and healthcare, they say, and we'll improve upon them later. But this approach relies on two logical fallacies.
First, Good Enough often turns out to be Even Worse Than Before. Prices of insurance company stocks rose sharply on news that Obamacare was close to passage--an ominous sign for patients. "All in all, relative to the last version of health reform issued by the Senate, things have turned out pretty well for the health insurance industry," said Carl McDonald, an analyst at Oppenheimer. "In particular, all versions of a government-run health plan have largely been eliminated." Companies like Sigma and Aetna will be allowed to pass new federal taxes on to their patients, which will include tens of millions of new "customers" forced by the government to sign up--at their own expense. Obamacare will be like a smash to the face for the 20 percent-plus of workers already reeling from many months of unemployment.
Second, looking to the middle of the 20th century doesn't make sense. Back then historical progress was assumed to be a continuous process. Organized labor, civil rights groups and New Left activists fought hard for movement forward for higher wages and equal rights. They never settled, and they didn't let Congress settle either.
Our times are different. Although we are clearly entering a period where breakdown, collapse and even revolution could occur, we're currently stuck with late-period American capitalism and its political leadership. They are stagnant, devoid of dynamism, and alienated from the people. Obama's half-assed compromises on issues like gays in the military, torture, Guantánamo, healthcare and global warming will be touted as triumphs in the next few elections. Neither Obama nor Congress will view them as building blocks, part of a continuous movement toward historical progress. We will not revisit these debates. They will be over.
Good Enough will always be good enough for Obama. But not for us. Like the kids who've been made to believe that MP3s sound OK, we would be better off with nothing at all.
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