A few years back, The Guardian‘s ran a feature, A book that changed me: we want your choices, which got me thinking about which book most influenced my political views.
Mine, I think, is fairly obscure – David A. Stockman’s The Triumph of Politics. First published in 1986 by Ronald Reagan’s former Director of the Office of Management and Budget (1981–5), it had a flurry of attention at the time, selling well and still not completely forgotten.
It’s a good, interesting book. But what made its impact on me was the timing, making it the first political book I can remember reading which showed how practical politics can undermine theoretically good ideas. Stockman’s prose brought this to live in a way that my teaching about British politics at school never really did, decent though the teachers were.
Central to the book is Stockman’s account of how President Ronald Reagan and many other Republicans wished to cut both taxes and spending in the early 1980s. With cutting taxes being the politically easier choice, they first cut taxes, convinced that this would then force spending cuts as otherwise the deficit would soar and debt would mount up and up and up. All a little bit too clever for their own good, because the political system banked the tax cuts and then let the deficit soar away.
The book’s a lively, fun read about an important time in US politics (and in the world’s economy, given the knock-on impact of huge US deficits). But two things really stuck in my mind.
First, how being in a senior role doesn’t necessarily mean understanding the details. As Stockman famously said in a press interview about his first year in charge at the OMB: “none of us really understands what’s going on with all these numbers”. Never assume the importance of a decision means everyone has taken the time to understand the details.
Second, politics is about what politicians decide to do in meetings. Politics is like a jury trial. Evidence and the law matters in jury trials, but so do the human dynamics of a jury. The more complicated the case or difficult the issues, the more those human dynamics matter. Likewise in politics, if you want to change the world, you need to find a way to do so that includes a plausible route towards getting the right people to make the right decisions at the right time. Being right and feeling superior to others as a result is easy. Getting people to agree with you is far tougher.
Which book would you pick?