Friday, July 9, 2010

Who's qualified to talk about business?

Here's a typical right wing comment on liberal economist Paul Krugman's latest New York Times column:

Jeff k
July 9th, 2010
10:48 am
Mr. Krugman - Since you know so much about how business leaders think why don't you tell us in your next column all about your own experience running a business?


I see. So only successful businessmen are qualified to critique businesses.

And by that logic, only successful big business executives are qualified to critique big businesses.

And only successful big business telcom executives are qualified to critique big telcoms.

Isn't this the logic doctrinaire leftists use to claim only women can criticize women, blacks blacks, yada yada?

I can't critique a movie unless I'm a movie director myself? I can't criticize the guy who robs me unless I'm a successful robber myself?

Beyond the ridiculousness of this line of thinking, there's an underlying anti-intellectualism you can find in many such comments. They as much as say that some double-dome book-taught egghead don't know 'bout the reel wurld. Nossir.

I guess that's a comfort for people who are uneducated themselves and not over-endowed between the ears.

But don't be too smug in thinking it's only Tea Party types who are guilty of logic lapses and anti-intellectualism. Left wingnuts are just as guilty when their doctrinaire thinking is challenged. Visit any Women's Studies class at any university and you'll see what I mean. Or how about the assertion that only whites are racists--blacks are categorically excluded from this sin?

Of course there's nothing wrong with personal experience. One of my favorite novelists, Joseph Conrad writes brilliantly about life at sea, in Oriental waters, in the merchant marine. Well no wonder. He was a merchant marine officer plying those waters for many years, and only quit and started writing because some tropical disease invalided him and he had to make a living.

On the other hand, another of my favorite writers is Patrick O'Brien (that was his nom de plume actually), whose Aubrey-Maturin marine novels reveal a profound knowledge of the sea and sailing---that he lacked completely. It was all meticulous research coupled with a brilliant mind.

Personal experience of something doesn't guarantee wisdom, and lack of personal experience of something doesn't guarantee ignorance. Experience helps when combined with a good mind, but it isn't mandatory.

And in general, when you're debating with someone and they raise points like this, it usually isn't a cynical ploy (as I think it is when a Karl Rove does it). Rather, it's usually a sign of tunnel logic--not considering the broader implications of the principle someone has implicitly invoked.

So instead of pouncing, you might consider helping them see why they can't say such things--especially if they're someone you're going to have to deal with in future, such as a workmate or your sister's Tea Party husband.

Remember, the goal isn't to win the debate--it's to win the mind.

So you might start by agreeing that is can certainly help to have successful personal experience in some field of endeavor before you start criticizing people in that field.

But a doctor doesn't have to have contracted HIV in order to diagnose it in someone else, does he?
A director doesn't have to be an Oscar-winning actor before he can direct actors, does he?

The fact is that human nature is human nature. That's why Epictetus said "being human, nothing human is alien to me." Someone with clarity of mind can perceive others.

For example, I'm not an engineer, but I certainly can understand why Japanese motorcycle manufacturers went from vertically split engine crankcases to horizontally split ones, even though that complicated manufacturing, because it eliminated gasket leaks. And I can criticize British motorcycle manufacturers for failing to follow the Japanese makers' lead, thus preserving their rep for making beautiful, high-performance, unreliable, hard-to-repair motorcycles. And as Toyota proved, vehicles that are average in every respect but reliability will sell very well indeed.

Because in many cases you just need common sense, an understanding of common human motivations, training in understanding logic and verifying facts, and a measure of humility that leads you to seeking corroboration for your ideas--and then you can certainly critique some area other than your primary area of expertise.

Economists like Paul Krugman often know more about the forest than a successful businessman does, who's necessarily focused on his particular tree. Moreover, successful businessmen almost invariably ascribe their success to their own business genius--never to dumb luck, rarely to their subordinates' efforts, rarely to a corporate culture they may have inherited rather than created, rarely to macroeconomic circumstances that pushed them forward--and never to innovations by subordinates against their express orders, but for which they took credit after they succeeded.

And the human mind is a sucker for a good narrative. Successful businessmen construct a narrative of their success, with themselves as the sole hero, after which they could pass a lie detector test, because inside their mind that self-serving narrative overwrote the parts of the brain where the truth had been stored.

Possessing the truth can be Cassandra's curse unless you can convince others of that truth. And political opinions are really, really hard to change. You'll win a debate with some relative, then listen to them talking the next day and find that their opinions not haven't changed, they've congealed even more.

The hardest thing is to get them to discover the truth themselves. If they do--then they'll remember it. Hence the superiority of Socratic instruction, even though it can try your patience to try it.

1 comment:

One Salient Oversight said...

There is also the problem of understanding here. The study of economics is not the same as the experience of running a business. One can perfectly and reasonably exist apart from the other.

Of course there are advantages of economists who have business experience and businessmen with economics experience. But it is quite possible for an expert in one to be incompetent in another.

My own experience is that I have taught myself economics for about 13 years now and am at the point where I can have reasonable discourses with economics PhDs. What it hasn't brought me is the ability to make money, though it has helped me to save money because I knew what things to avoid investing in (eg property).

Nevertheless I will predict the following: European GDP will be surprisingly good for Q2 2010 and Greek 10Yr Bonds (which are very distressed) should shore up in response. This is not to say that Greece's problems are over, but it will move the market to a less distressed position.