Will belief trump economic facts for Obama?

YOU might call it the cognitive divide — the split between an evidence-based worldview and one that is rooted in faith or ideology — and it is one of the most important fault lines in the United States today.

President Barack Obama called attention to the cognitive divide, and reminded us which side he comes down on, when he chose the Princeton University economist Alan Krueger to lead his Council of Economic Advisers.

Krueger is a labour economist, and at first blush, that focus may seem the important part of his resume. Unemployment, after all, is still above 9%, and the president has said job creation is his priority. But when you talk to the insiders about Krueger, they note his mastery of data and commitment to the truths it can be coaxed to tell.

Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury secretary and a Harvard economist, described Krueger, his former student, as a “total empiricist” and a “great data monger following the data where it went.”

Krueger’s passion for data runs so deep that one of his major professional projects has been, as Katz put it, “to actually improve the data.” Krueger was the founding director of Princeton’s Survey Research Centre. When he can’t find the data to answer a question, he goes out and gets it.

Krueger’s devotion to data is a key to understanding a question that has been puzzling a lot of Americans: What does Obama really stand for?

To his critics on the right, the president is a socialist with dangerous foreign antecedents. To his critics on the left, he is a waffler with no real point of view and a craven desire to be liked.

Krueger’s nomination points to an entirely different explanation: The president is an empiricist. He wants to do what works, not what conforms to a particular ideology or what pleases a particular constituency. His core belief is a belief in facts.

Obama the empiricist is not the man who surged from behind to win the 2008 presidential election. That candidate was the Obama of soaring rhetoric, who promised hope and change.

But the pragmatist has always been there. In September 2008, weeks before the presidential election, Cass Sunstein, who has gone on to serve in the White House, had this to say: “Above all, Obama’s form of pragmatism is heavily empirical; he wants to know what works.” Word crunchers found that the president’s 2009 inaugural address was the first to use the term “data” and only the second to mention “statistics.”

That approach is one reason Obama attracted support, especially among younger people, on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley.

But as the presidential campaign heats up, starting with the Republican primary race, the empirical worldview that Obama embodies is taking a beating. Those with a proudly faith-based approach have made the strongest start. According to a poll released this week, Governor Rick Perry of Texas is the Republican front-runner. He spoke at a Christian religious rally on the eve of entering the primary contest last month, questioned the science of evolution and climate change.

The divide between the empiricists and the believers is also the fault line between the technologically adept super-elite and the squeezed middle class. Those hoi polloi voters, those drawn to politicians with big ideas and strong beliefs, may be responding to something bigger than this cognitive divide.

Western world economies are in poor health and the international balance of power is shifting. To be driven by data is admirable. But when you find yourself in uncharted waters, there is no data to guide you.

- Chrystia Freeland is a Reuters columnist.

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