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Former City of Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz

Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's Blog

The Big Shaggy

June 10, 2010 7:43 AM

I like New York Times columnist David Brooks. Sure he's a Republican, but he's the kind of Republican they don't make much anymore. The GOP used to be the home of people like Everett Dirksen, Warren Knowles, Bill Kraus, Brian Rude and Jonathan Barry. They were principled conservatives who believed in the free market, lower taxes and small government. But they also didn't hate government. They understood that we needed some of it now and then to do things the market couldn't.

Anyway, Brooks is that kind of conservative, so I always enjoy reading his columns. I even got him here once to speak at a conference I helped organize before I was mayor. He gave a good speech and he was a pleasant and unassuming guy. His latest Times column is one of the best I've read. He writes about the limits of rationality and the value of a liberal education.

I've been thinking a lot about that lately as I try to find someone to replace Joel Plant of my staff, who has been highly regarded by everyone who has worked with him. What I look for in a new staff member is someone who can read and write well and who can get along with people. In short, I look for someone who has benefited from a broad education. I figure that with some study any bright person can pick up the policy expertise in any given area in pretty short order. But by the time you're out of school, if you can't think about what you've read critically, then I can't figure that out for you. If you can't write, I can't teach you. And if you can't deal well with people, you're not going to just pick that up on the fly. But if you can write well it indicates a clarity of thought and if you can get along with people, well, relationships are the currency of politics. You're hired.

In myself I recognize what is maybe an over emphasis on the rational. I like facts and numbers and shy away from emotional arguments. I don't like drama. That's good as far as it goes but I know it doesn't go all the way. Nobody can be successful at public policy unless they can operate on both the logical and the emotional levels. Here's the way Brooks explains it:

"Over the past century or so, people have built various systems to help them understand human behavior: economics, political science, game theory and evolutionary psychology. These systems are useful in many circumstances. But none completely explain behavior because deep down people have passions and drives that don't lend themselves to systemic modeling. They have yearnings and fears that reside in an inner beast you could call The Big Shaggy."

The take home point for me is that figuring out what moves people and understanding what motivates yourself is central to any successful policy maker. You can read the whole column at


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