Why Are Politicians So Stupid?

How much subject matter expertise does a leader or a politician really need? I wrote a post criticizing Pelosi’s proposed intelligence committee head for not knowing much about Islam. People wrote back telling me that Republican politicians were just as dumb as Democrats and they were probably right. How much do you really need to know to make decisions?

I have no real idea how my car works, yet I drive successfully every day. I do not understand the stock market, but I do well with my investments. I manage dozens of people who do things I do not even know about. Big deal. Making decisions about what to do can be more important than why.

People who study decisions usually agree that TOO MUCH information can be worse that too little. After about five separate pieces of information, decision makers' confidence goes way up, but the correctness of the decision does not improve and may actually decline.

In our excessively litigious & bureaucratic society, many decisions are made defensively. Decision makers seek CYA information and avoid anything that may be risky. We also need to consider the options not taken. Imagine the doctor who never operates because he does not want to kill a patient on the table. He has a perfect record, but how many die because they did not have the operation? Or what about the cautious investor, who never loses money, but doesn't make much either?

Risk is a part of life. More things CAN happen than WILL happen and no matter what decision you make, other options will prove to have been better (or look better) in retrospect.

Nerdy smart people (like most of us) take great pleasure in playing GOTCHA with politician, executives and generally with people who accomplish more than we do. It our revenge against those guys who we think are dumber than we are, but who make more money, have more things and even are better looking & have better behaved dogs.

I would appreciate comments. I am actually trying to explore the question about how much “substantive knowledge” does a decision maker need? Please do not just tell me how stupid Democrats/Republicans are except to illustrate the point. Thanks.

Posted by Jack at December 16, 2006 1:52 PM
Comments
Comment #199510

Jack,

I couldn’t help but notice they back and forth “Nya-Nya-Nya” that was going on in your last post.

All the “Pilosi’s stupid? Well Bush…” crap just made me want to puke.

What does a president have to know to be president?

One thing and one thing only.

He (or she) absolutely HAS to know how to get the smartest people on the planet to work for and with the him (or her).

If the president is smarter than any one of his (or her) advisors, that advisor needs to be fired.

Look…the last I heard, all knowledge on this planet is DOUBLING every ten years. What one person can keep up with that? No one? Good answer.

So, what knowledge does someone need to be president? They absolutely need to know that they are NOT the smartest person on the planet and that they do NOT have all the answers to all the questions. But they need to hire the people who do.

Posted by: Jim T at December 16, 2006 2:21 PM
Comment #199511

Here is a non-polemical reply. We need to know enough to make intelligent decisions. I don’t need to understand how my car works to know that I should keep it regularly maintained. If a congressional committee is in charge of overseeing intelligence, then members should have some knowledge of intelligence procedures and practices, though I wouldn’t expect them to be experts in every country in the world. If, though, we are at war with one country, or if one country or region is of great importance to us, then I would expect members to educate themselves on that country or region.

If our leaders wage war on a country and then occupy it, I expect them to have a reasonable knowledge of the population and the historical or otherwise issues that may come up. Further, I expect them to consult with true experts.

It is easy to play “gotcha” games, such as naming world leaders (how many hundreds of them are there, anyway). That’s silly. However, someone running for office should as least know the names of the leaders of the countries that are of vital importance to us.

When it comes down to it, intelligence trumps specfic knowledge, in many instances. If I suddenly found myself on a college curriculum committee and know little about the necessary processes, I can if I take my job seriously learn what I need to know.

The more important the issue and your role involving that issue, the more important it is to become expert.

Posted by: Trent at December 16, 2006 2:24 PM
Comment #199512

Yes, Jim, I largely agree with your comments. A good leader should also realize that expertise is quite different from party affiliation. I think it is very dangerous for a leader to surround himself with “yes men.” I’ve found in the political situations I’ve been in that a good leader who shows he will listen to both sides before making a decision can be respected even by those who disagree with most of his decisions.

Posted by: Trent at December 16, 2006 2:30 PM
Comment #199514

Jack,

I think all in leadership should have some knowledge about those things which affect the persons whom they lead. Though you oversee some at work, I’m sure you have proven you are capable by earning your position no doubt, and could probably carry out their assignments should they not show up for a day or two.
I believe politicians, let’s say legislators, should know some basics about legislating. Creating laws and understanding complex issues including their consequences should be a priority when selecting candidates. Since they are creating laws that we will be required to follow, personal integrity, and some hint of morality should also be logically included in their resumes, though I’m sure some will argue this point. Those selected to represent their states at the National level should certainly have a great track record within their own states, and should also have some experience working with members at the National level so that they understand how things work in Washington, D.C., and are not so green and intimidated by the elites already there. There should also be mandated term limits on all legislators so that the Congress is essentially a training ground for further candidates rather than a place to get in, build a huge nest, and stagnate in corruption and complacency.
As far as the President goes, certainly some experience with foreign policy, or foreign economics is going to be helpful. Also, experience in U.S. economics, creating budgets, and superb executive skills such as prior corporate business leadership experience would be incredibly helpful.
As for the Judicial Branch, expertise in law is a must. No one should be nominated for high office that has not moved through the ranks of lesser courts, and who does not have a proven history of logical and lawfully correct prior judgments. Also, no one should be selected who continually legislates from the bench.

JD

Posted by: JD at December 16, 2006 2:36 PM
Comment #199517

Trent,

Exactly. The president needs to be, above all, a decision maker.

The president needs to be surrounded by people who are not only experts in their fields, but people who are going to give the president both sides of the picture, pro and con, and let the president do what he (or she) does best. Make a decision.

Posted by: Jim T at December 16, 2006 2:40 PM
Comment #199518

If one is in a position of decision making on behalf of others, one has an obligation to insure one has the necessary information to insure a positive outcome on behalf of those people for whom they have a responsibility toward.

It just isn’t anymore complicated than that, Jack.

Responsibility is the ability to respond appropriately in such circumstances.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 16, 2006 2:44 PM
Comment #199522

David Remer, JimT, and Trent,

I came to the conclusion that Jack was talking about what the President and members of Congress should know to do their jobs. Your stating that he should be surrounded by intelligent people is not the issue. What do these individuals have to have in order to be elected? Most of the time the President does not even pick those around him. They are selected from lists created for the most part from political Party groups. Of course these advisors are going to be from the President’s Party in most cases. The President like every one else follows the Party line. That’s just the way it is. The only exception is when the President knows someone personally whom he thinks is fit for a particular role.
But, what is it that makes a good President or Congressman?

JD

Posted by: JD at December 16, 2006 2:57 PM
Comment #199524

I pretty much second what JimT said.


If I was President I’d sit down with the smartest advisors in the world. Ideally I’d have all sides of an issue represented and I’d hold my meeting and discussion in front of the nation on CSPAN whenever possible.

This secretive behind closed doors crap has to end…they work for us and sunlight is a great disinfectant.


Posted by: muirgeo at December 16, 2006 3:03 PM
Comment #199525

JD,

I think my first post addressed what you are talking about.

—-

Jack, I actually don’t think most politicians are dumb. I think on the whole they are smarter than average. But because we live in a democracy, they have to be politicians, which means they must turn their intelligence toward getting elected and remaining in office. All kidding aside, that requires intelligence. We don’t have a system were the most capable expert on any issue is likely to get elected (fantasies like West Wing aside). If we assume that most politicians are capable of educating themselves on what they need to know, then the issue becomes one of duty and responsibility. Oh sure, there are exceptions like Carter and Clinton who, in their hearts, are policy wonks, but, especially in the case of Clinton, we just loved that stuff. Ever watch him on CNN talking impromptu on some obscure issue? The guy truly loved the stuff. In most cases, though, we should expect our leaders to educate themselves on the priority issues. We shouldn’t expect that they become experts, because, good grief, that takes time, and politicians don’t have much of that. But they should learn more than the basics. And, as Jim and others have pointed out, they should consider it their responsibility to consult with true experts, no matter their party affiliation.

Posted by: Trent at December 16, 2006 3:06 PM
Comment #199526

JD asked: “But, what is it that makes a good President or Congressman?”

An intelligent and informed electorate on election day, JD. Best insurance there is that our politicians will be the best we can elect.

And of course, the reverse is also true. An ill-informed and ignorant electorate will often elect according to the Peter Principle, advancing persons to office higher than their qualifications merit.

Of course, our political election system is now finely tuned to insure that the real person running for office is not revealed to the public making the ballot choice thanks to political parties.

That is why elections cost 100’s of billions of dollars. PR and Marketing firms who are paid to sell candidates using exactly the same techniques as selling a dish soap or automobile, are very, very expensive.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 16, 2006 3:07 PM
Comment #199527

Opps, I meant C-Span, of course.

Posted by: Trent at December 16, 2006 3:09 PM
Comment #199528

In most cases, I would have real trouble with a President who only acted on the advice of so-called experts around him. If he does not have an intestinal fortitude to do what he thinks is right, based upon his own beliefs coupled with expert advice, and stick with it, I say he is not worth his salt!

JD

Posted by: JD at December 16, 2006 3:09 PM
Comment #199530

What do they need to know?

1) Fewer laws are better than more.

2) Simplicity usually works better than complicated.

3) Truth is always the best response.

4) Have and follow your conscience.

5) Admit your mistakes loudly and quickly.

6) Listen to trustworthy and wise advisors.

7) Remember that you are a servant of the people.

Posted by: Don at December 16, 2006 3:32 PM
Comment #199531

I’m thinking I might be more comfortable with #7 this way: “Remember that you are a representative of the people.”

Posted by: Don at December 16, 2006 3:37 PM
Comment #199534

Too much of today’s political leadership is about how things seem, and acting to take care of that first. Such an emphasis is put on being impervious to criticism that the politicians choose not to do the things that might open them up to criticism, like make solid decisions, clear policies, and submitting to measures requiring accountability.

The key is not to reduce or eliminate criticism. In a Democracy, that’s tantamount to destroying democracy.

No, the key is to know enough about what you’re doing, and how to do it that you can face the criticism on solid ground, and not bring more of it on yourself by screwing up doing things that compromise your real world actions.

As mass media has enable corporations and governments to flood their environment with messages, many have evolved a defensive shield of rhetorical armor, and have in fact devoted much of their time and effort learning how to fend off the press and the voters and/or stockholders.

What gets neglected is what these people are actually paid to do, and what they could better spend their time attending to.

A certain lie has been spread: the business of business is business. The reality, which has been obscured by layer upon layer of defensiveness and reactionalism, is that business is one set of people with a financial self-interest doing something for somebody else with a certain self interest (some business, some otherwise.) and getting paid for that.

To the extent that leaders can steer their business or government towards the purposes they have been called to, they can create an image of success without having to create a work of fiction to deceive people with.

The degree to which risks, rewards, competence, and result are all perceived correctly, our economy and government work well. Everything that complicates or detracts from the proper running of the organization needs to be cast aside.

Let’s be serious about what we’re doing, and doing it right. Our leaders need to leave as much of the PR and flackery and other B.S. to their staff, and specialize themselves, taking the time to become educated and conversant in the subjects.

The key, really, is for people to be able to make reliable gut instinct decisions based on intuitions that have been properly educated on the subjects. You will rarely be offered exactly the right amount of information. You need to have the instinct to seek out information when you have too little, and know what information is important filter out from the rest when you have too much.

Bush’s problem is that he’s a guy who likes to decide from the gut, but who fails to educate himself clearly on the subjects so that his gut impression is more right than wrong. Furthermore, he fails to truly ride the issues by the seat of his pants, instead lapsing into a kind of orthodoxy after he’s made his gut decisions, which essentially robs him of the flexibility required to make the approach work.

You’ve got to be open to the world, because there is too much of it you can’t ignore or disregard, and too much of it to understand it with just one point of view or one short attempt at familiarizing yourself with the problem.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at December 16, 2006 4:53 PM
Comment #199536

At the last supper Jesus said that whoever wanted to become the leader of the Church must first become a servant. This is highly applicable to government.

Let us remember that our representatives’ job is to serve and protect this country, its people and the Constitution. How exactly to go about doing this is subject to much debate and partisanship. Saying that legislators need to be honest and do the right thing sounds nice, but lets be honest. If someone who disagrees with us does the right thing we probably won’t recognize it and we’ll go right on criticizing them. The facts they say might be true, but if we believe something different we’ll still call them dishonest. They might be honest and doing the right thing, but if we disagree with them we probably won’t recognize it.

The point is that what legislators need to know is how to compromise, not just stick to the party line. They need to know how to express what they feel is right and ask the people to give it a chance before automatically condemning them. This is a talent rare in politicians, especially when one side holds a commanding majority.

Posted by: Silima at December 16, 2006 5:29 PM
Comment #199538

Thanks for all the notes.

I was not thinking only of politicians, but also of others.

So many things are the result of what you might call bounded randomness. Sometimes the best thing to do is keep options open as long as possible and be nimble enough to jump when the course seems clear. The leadership problem is that people demand answers BEFORE you can reasonably give them.

I recently made what I consider a good series of decisions by completely doing things “wrong.” I was trying to change a system that many people had a stake in. I purposely broke the system and waited for the reactions. Then I was able to choose from among the best ideas. I guess you can call it a wisdom of crowds thing. I had a good idea of my goal, but I had absolutely no idea how to get there until I saw the evolving consensus. My meta decision was to break the current system. It would have seemed very irresponsible to many people, so I wrote up a detailed, fictional plan. Interestingly, ex-post-facto, I can find points of success in the plan, which just goes to show the strength of Monday morning quarterbacking.

Anyway, my long winded point is that sometimes you have to essentially shoot into the dark. You can assess risk, but there is no way to deal with actual uncertainty. You have to have confidence that you will deal with the problem when it comes. The analogy I use is white water. You are going down the river. You cannot say in advance where the rocks will be or exactly what you will do, but you have reasonable confidence you will do the right thing when you see the situation.

Posted by: Jack at December 16, 2006 5:46 PM
Comment #199540

Jack

I think one very important aspect of decision making has not been mentioned here. The ability to make a common sense decision. I have known people who were very knowledgable in many fields but had no idea how to apply that knowledge to real world issues. They would often make the wrong decision where an everyday common problem might occur. And at the same time I have known people with much less education who could make the proper decision under the same circumstances. I guess my point would be that all the knowledge in the world will do a decider no good if he or she can not make the proper decision in applying that knowledge.

Probably the biggest factor in decision making is the amount of working experience a person has in thier respective field of expertise.

The next would be the ability to clearly, calmly and open mindedly approach an issue and make a decision without becoming too emotionally distracted or confused in the process.

Another important factor would be surrounding one self with a competent and knowledgeable support staff which can be trusted to be truthful and upfront regardless of the issues.

And of course a good supervisor would have to know his people well. He or she will need to know their individual nuances, strengths and weakness, and be able to blend all of those in order to decipher the validity and importance of information that person is supplying.

I can not imagine that all CEO’s, executive directors, store managers, deptartment heads etc know every little detail about their respective businesses. My guess is that they need to have a respectable knowledge and understanding of the workings of their business. But most importantly they need to have knowledgeable trustworthy and educated job specific staff below them. The ability to read that staff and when the time comes, put all the staff info together and make a good common sense decision which best serves the situation at hand.

Posted by: Ildem at December 16, 2006 6:10 PM
Comment #199543

It seems to be a priority to run and hold office. From time to time they do surgery to look for brain matter.

They seem to find less in dims than repubs.

next question!

Posted by: im at December 16, 2006 6:25 PM
Comment #199547

Jack, some problems have a point of no return built into them. Fail to act soon enough results in complete failure many years down the road. Such is the complexity of managing nations as big as ours. Soc. Sec. and Medicare are just such problems. Choices are available now, though unpopular with differing crowds, which would insure the perpetuation of a national safety net for citizens.

Waiting for a silver bullet, only guarantees their inevitable insolvency over time. Modest adjustments today can insure the viability of Soc. Sec. through and beyond the boomer retirement hump. Failure to enact them presently, guarantees such solutions will be useless in just a few years, creating a point of no return where breach of contract between workers and employers paying into the system and government is inevitable.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 16, 2006 7:19 PM
Comment #199549

Ildem

Experts are notoriously bad decision makers probably because they can see too many variables.

I am confused about this and excuse me if some the of ideas are disjointed.

When I think of the good decisions I made as a young man, I sometimes wonder if I would be able to make those same decisions today. Many times if I knew then the trouble it would be, I might not have done it. Experience makes a person more cautious, but it also makes them more certain when the course seems like something done in the past.

I wonder if anybody knows of a good comparison between decisions made by young people and older ones.

I also remember a saying that doesn’t quite fit, but makes sense here. The saying is that all ideas come in a quick revelation, but great ideas require the tedious work of refining. I think that applies to decisions and their consequences. A decision about direction might be made quickly, but the consequences and correcting decisions should be made over time.

There is also the difference in orientation. I favor making a series of decisions. I do not know the exact destination and rely on new information to correct. This is sort of an evolutionary system. Some people favor weighing all the factors and then sticking to the decision. They both have their places.

Posted by: Jack at December 16, 2006 7:29 PM
Comment #199551

David

I do not want to get off track on SS. I am in favor of starting today. I was in favor of starting last year. I do believe, however, that the more free market plan is the one that would need to be done now (to give it time to grow). If you want to keep the system more or less as it is, there is no reason to act now. In fact, it would be better to wait. We are going to get smashed anyway. Starting earlier will not avoid it.

Curious I am, however. If you do not favor private accounts or means testing, what steps would you take today that would have any effect? Let me clarify, what realistic steps.

We agree that it would be useful to get the budget under control. That is a good thing with or w/o SS problems but hard to accomplish. I am not sure what spending everyone will consent to cutting.

Posted by: Jack at December 16, 2006 7:35 PM
Comment #199558

Jack,

Curious I am, however. If you do not favor private accounts or means testing, what steps would you take today that would have any effect? Let me clarify, what realistic steps.

1) Raise the salary cap.

2) Then, if necessary, increase the retirement age.

For the record, I’m in favor of private accounts. In fact, I already have one — it’s called a 401k. But I’m not in favor of adding private accounts to Social Security. If you’re going to promote private accounts, make them truly private.

Posted by: Rob Cottrell at December 16, 2006 10:33 PM
Comment #199563

Jack
Congratulations. You are approaching the epitamy of Bush apoligies. The conclusion that that actual knowlege could even hinder dicision makeing is pricless.I know you have been working at it for a long time but you have outdone yourself. You are clearly too smart for a cabinet post,maybe even the Senate.
Another thing that always struck me as ironic about the presidency in particular is pretty much anyone that actually wants the job with the required passion to get it is obviously too unbalanced to be allowed any where near it.

Posted by: BillS at December 16, 2006 11:49 PM
Comment #199570


Bills: Actually, Jack is right in what he said as it pertains to the Bush Administration. The only knowledge they are interested in is what supports what they want to do. Any contrary knowledge would just befuddle their decision making. Wasting time listening to doubters just slows them down.

Posted by: jlw at December 17, 2006 1:04 AM
Comment #199571

ROb

I am sure those two things will be done. Raising taxes and the retirment age are the only things we can do to keep in the current system. But those things can wait, as I wrote. The government cannot save money the way we can. You may as well just wait until the crisis comes. In fact, raising the taxes now would just temp the government to spend more and is probably counterproductive. Raising the retirement age would be a good thing.

jlw & Bill

Of course decision makers should use the knowledge of those around them. My point is that it is possible to have too many pieces of data when making decisions. It is not true that having more knowledge necessarily improves decisions. That seems counter intuitive, but you may wish to look into it. Much has been written on the subject recently.

Posted by: Jack at December 17, 2006 1:15 AM
Comment #199572


Jack: Congradulations on being named Time magazine’s person of the year.

Posted by: jlw at December 17, 2006 1:18 AM
Comment #199574

Jack said: “I am not sure what spending everyone will consent to cutting.”

Let’s begin with Congressional and Presidential salaries and perks. Let us the voters, not vote for any incumbent or candidate who does not endorse and swear to cut those salaries and perks.

That is how you get a concensus, Jack. Through the voters at the ballot box in sufficient numbers such that politicians dare not refuse the mandate.

Everyone who believes we should reduce spending and voted for a politician who did not swear to cut their own salary, is part of the problem, not the solution.

Nice, neat, simple, and highly effective, if only the American people would stop voting for candidates who won’t do what the voters want them to do.

“But, you all just a bunch of cow and sheep boys.” to paraphrase the Russian in Armageddon.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 17, 2006 2:54 AM
Comment #199580

Jack

“I wonder if anybody knows of a good comparison between decisions made by young people and older ones.”

I look at my youngest son who finished college a few years ago and now teaches and am able to see the evolution of his decision making. This process has indeed made me reflect on past decisions as I grew in age and attained life experience.

My first observation is that young people make more rash desicions simply because they do not have the years of experience and knowledge to muddle up the thought process. That and they are simply in much more of a hurry than we are at a later age. Plus being younger they justify such rash decisions thru the belief that there is still plenty of time to correct thier mistakes in the future. My son stepped into his first teaching job at the middle school level. His first semester of teaching was riddled with horror stories of all these hormone infested preteens trying to take advantage of him because he was young and the new guy in town. He quickly learned with a little help from his peers to be fair and generous when warranted and to be demanding and hard when necesary. As a result he developed a reputation right away and each subsequent year has been a breeze where respect and disipline are concerned. He still confides in me when haveing unusual problems with a parent or student. I find that often all I can offer is a bit of advice as to the direction he should take. I feel it would somehow be wrong of me to give him an ultimatum because it would most likely hinder his learning process and affect future decision making principles.

I guess that in reflection of the above I feel that many desicions in life have to be directly experienced on ones own in order to firmly take root and be understood within the realm of evolutionary learning.

Posted by: Ildem at December 17, 2006 10:12 AM
Comment #199581

Jack,

If what you say is true, presumably there is a mathematical model that shows the range between too much and too little information for decision making. At any rate, I wonder if we are even using the right terms. I can see how having too much information could be paralyzing in that the fields I have the most knowledge (which doesn’t include politics, by the way — politics perhaps cracks the top five of my interests, but just barely) I find it more difficult to make definite statements because, of course, I know to what extent definite statements are incorrect. However, when I apply myself, I can in fact make general statements with the necessary caveats that are far superior to the general statements made by those with less experience in the fields.

So again, I wonder if we are using the right terms. I think what good decision making requires is the ability to abstract from particulars, and good abstraction requires good knowledge of the field.

Take Einstein’s theory of relativity. In order for Einstein to make an impressive case for his theory, he had to account for all the known information. He had to be expert in how to accomodate what appears to be counter evidence. We can say, perhaps, that others had a more intimate knowledge of all this counter evidence, but that doesn’t mean that Einstein didn’t have a strong knowledge of them as well. Einstein’s insight had to accomodate everything.

Now, it is reasonable to say that developing a theory in physics is not the same as making, say, good foreign policy decisions. But I think my example does illustrate that it is dangerous to push your claims too far. At any rate, we rarely believe our leaders have too much knowledge. When we see so many bad decisions from our leaders, I think it is reasonable to say they are not informed enough rather than to say they know too much.

So, theoretically, I can buy your point, but as a practical matter, I don’t think we suffer from our leaders being too expert.

Your example about reorganizing staff. What I see is you being flexible. Your plan was essentially designed to gather information, and from that information, you apparently made good decisions. You recognized that you did not have enough information and so came up with a creative way to gather more information. For organizing a staff, that seems fine to me. But I don’t think we should start wars as an information-gathering exercise. Please don’t misread. I’m not saying that we have to have perfect knowledge before declaring war or that we should be inflexible in engaging in war. I’m merely saying that because the consequences of life and death are so much more important than temporary staff inconvience or confusion that a president must understand the issues very clearly before making the monumental decision to engage in war. The evidence shows that ideology trumped realistic assessments, and we know that there were realistic assessments before the war. I think dismissing them as hindsight does not give us good guidance for future foreign policy.

Posted by: Trent at December 17, 2006 10:18 AM
Comment #199582

I also wonder if when looking at the decisions made by inexperienced or young people, we are using selective evidence. Many young people (hell, many people period, make rash decisions), but if we focus exclusively on those young people who managed to prevail and ignore all the young people who became dropouts, criminals, or drug addicts, then we are skewing the data.

Posted by: Trent at December 17, 2006 10:21 AM
Comment #199585
I have no real idea how my car works, yet I drive successfully every day. I do not understand the stock market, but I do well with my investments. I manage dozens of people who do things I do not even know about. Big deal. Making decisions about what to do can be more important than why.

What we’re talking about here is a problem of interface, and it works as long as things are going well. But when things start changing from the form that the interface was mean to deal with, your ignorance can cost you. It’s useful to know more than is necessary for day to day operation, so that you have fewer catastrophic failures.

People who study decisions usually agree that TOO MUCH information can be worse that too little. After about five separate pieces of information, decision makers’ confidence goes way up, but the correctness of the decision does not improve and may actually decline.

There’s a rule in cognitive sciences: The human mind can only hold 7 separate pieces of information, give or take two, before it becomes overwhelmed. However, this rule does not prevent people from taking on complex, novel situations.

The key is how one processes information. If one can reduce a collection of information to fewer points, or have somebody else reduce it, then decision making becomes easier. Here is where micromanagement can become a problem. This is also where a lack of knowledge and attention can be a problem.

In our excessively litigious & bureaucratic society, many decisions are made defensively. Decision makers seek CYA information and avoid anything that may be risky. We also need to consider the options not taken. Imagine the doctor who never operates because he does not want to kill a patient on the table. He has a perfect record, but how many die because they did not have the operation? Or what about the cautious investor, who never loses money, but doesn’t make much either?

The problem is not that people are taking risks, it’s that they don’t know what risks to take. I don’t think our society is nearly as bureaucratic or litigious as we think it is, but the degree one thinks a society is litigious and bureaucratic can do a lot to shape one’s strategies, even make things more litigious and bureaucratic! You hire a bunch of lawyers to fight lawsuits… well, If your attitude is one of legal defense, you might even start litigating even more! And of course, as companies are allowed to grow bigger and bigger, the sheer logistics of dealing with so many customers and so many decisions requires bureaucracy.

Risk is a part of life. More things CAN happen than WILL happen and no matter what decision you make, other options will prove to have been better (or look better) in retrospect.

It all depends on whether you were listening to other people when they were telling you about a situation. There will be situations where fortune simply deprives you of the important information. The thing to avoid, though, is where you actively prevent yourself from getting information about what your company or your government is doing.

Nerdy smart people (like most of us) take great pleasure in playing GOTCHA with politician, executives and generally with people who accomplish more than we do. It our revenge against those guys who we think are dumber than we are, but who make more money, have more things and even are better looking & have better behaved dogs.

The whole envy meme is overused by the Republicans. It’s elitist, and it neglects the problem of accountability. I guess the way I’d put it, the more you try to avoid criticism, the more you guarantee and aggravate it. There needs to be a relationship in place, where Americans are made aware in good faith of what their government is doing, and how well its doing, and in return an open, attended to channel of critique and commentary coming back the other way. This feedback loop is key towards the stability of a party’s hold on power, and the people’s business getting done. A jealous, unaccountable hold on power is the quickest way to lose it in a Democracy.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at December 17, 2006 11:15 AM
Comment #199594

David

They do not make that much. Even if you cut their salaries in half or got them to work for nothing, you would not save much money.

2/3 of the Federal budget is now entitlements and that is growing rapidly. That is what we have to address. Everything else is just window dressing.

Ildem

I agree. My point is that maybe the rashness of youth makes good decisions at time. I would not have started my current career if I knew how hard it would be to get started.

I have another theory, sort of related, on the importance of alcohol. I know it is not PC, but I think of the American conquest of the west as a good thing. I do not believe it would have happened w/o strong drink. Whiskey was an important trade good, but that is not what I mean. I just picture those frontiersmen hanging around drinking and bragging. Somebody says, “why don’t we cross that desert/forest swamp full of hostile Indians/Mexicans/British and just tell the people there that we are moving in?” Given the challenges involved, it doesn’t make much sense except when you are under the influence. A sober, sane man would have stayed in Philadelphia.

Trent

There is a mathematical model based on regression. Unfortunately, my wife regularly throws out some of my books, so I cannot find the exact citations. You find it in books related to prospect theory developed by a guy named Tversky. We do not make decisions rationally.

I am not saying that experts should not be available. My specific question was how much does the DECISION MAKER need to know? When we quiz them on trivial points (or even not so trivial points) the answers may not matter.

Decision making is a separate skill set from knowledge.

Re foreign policy/war

Not talking about the current policy, my study of decisions made in war and diplomacy indicate that some of the best ones are made in exactly that way. The most rational war decisions ever made were done the McNamara re Vietnam. It does not work.

In a war, people are going to die. The question is how many and who. It is an emotional and in many ways irrational process. There is a limit to the rationality that can be applied. The fact that we still analyze decisions made by ancient generals indicates that we cannot come up with system that works for everybody.

Re young people who prevail. I think they call that survivor bias. They fail a lot, but some succeed and maybe it is worth it to them (and others).

Stephen

See above. I do not think we can make decisions that will make everyone happy. There are always consequences. We do not know the consequences of the road not taken.

I do not want to get too much into Iraq, but I am not sure the situation we have today (bad as it is) is worse than some situations we could have faced.

Re envy

I think envy is one of the most important motivations in human interaction and has been since we emerged from caves. It is very destructive. That is why it is called one of the seven deadly sins.

Ask yourself this question. If we suddenly discovered a new way to fuel our cars cheaply and w/o making pollution, but 1% of the population would reap 50% of the profit, do you think most people would be happier? If not, why not? They have solved their energy problem and pollution is less. Everybody is better off. It is just that some people are more better off. Who cares? Yes, most people care. That is envy, no matter if they want to call it justice.

Posted by: Jack at December 17, 2006 1:33 PM
Comment #199596

Jack, you are missing the forest for the trees. Cutting their salaries is the first major step of the slippery slope to get the public behind cutting spending. You need a rallying point and momentum builder, cutting their salaries is how it is achieved. Majority concensus is needed: this asks the politicians to make the first sacrifice before they ask the people to make the second.

The Forest, Jack, the Forest.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 17, 2006 3:31 PM
Comment #199598


Jack: It is not envy. Those who control the system have set a value on the worth of a human being. Those who produce more wealth in the form of profit for those who are controlling the market have a greater value than those who produce less. Humans resist this philosophy and as a result, the greater portion of our budget goes to so called entitlements.

The longer that the distributation of wealth continues to move in favor of the few who are in control, combined with a continuing erosion of liberty and justice in the name of maintaining that control, the greater the chance is that the system will be destroyed and replaced. Ods are that whatever system may replace this one will not be liked by anyone except those who are in control of it and able to manipulate it to their advantage.

If we accept the notion that capitalism is the be all to do all and accept the idea of freedom that is expressed by those that believe it is, then capitalism will hasten it own destruction.

If we accept the notion that capitalism is a great foundation on which to build an economic system that promotes the ideas of liberty and justice rather than the idea that the rights of property exceed all others. If that economy is based on renewable resources rather than the wholesale use of natural resources solely for the purpose of mass consumption in the pursuit of wealth, then capitalism will have a great future and those who have or are trying to procure the ultimate future for themselves and theirs will still have a very good future.

Posted by: jlw at December 17, 2006 3:49 PM
Comment #199601

Jack,

You say that experts are notoriously bad decision makers. What is the support for this view? I’m certain we could find some examples that seem to support the claim, but that’s not enough to draw that conclusion. Are you aware of any studies that actually find that experts make poorer decisions than non-experts?

Posted by: Trent at December 17, 2006 4:09 PM
Comment #199605

Jack,

To give an example of the benefits of experience:

I work in retail management. Through this Christmas season we are having trouble getting and retaining employees. Much of it is due to management. For the last two Christmases we had a store manager who was without a doubt, a stubborn, egotistical, and at times, steadfast son of gun in his ways. You did what he told you to do, end of discussion. He also had numerous years of experience in retail.
This year he was sent to another store, and our store was given a much more lax manager. Our middle management support has also changed dramatically, because the company has promoted the hiring of fairly green college kids. Only one of the middle managers in our store has Christmas season experience, which has made this Christmas season an absolute nightmare in planning and workload stress. This is the worst Christmas season the store has ever gone through in my opinion, and every night we are working up to an hour to an hour and a half longer than we did in previous seasons, not because of higher sales, but because of lack of staff. The new management team seems to have no clue what the store actually needs to operate through Christmas.
I never thought I would say it, but I sure do miss that stubborn, egotistical, steadfast son of a gun we had before.
Nothing beats experience!!!

JD

Posted by: JD at December 17, 2006 5:40 PM
Comment #199612

David

If politicians work for nothing, they will have the moral high ground, but those whose benefits are cut will still complain.

jlw

Envy and economic justice are closely related.

Most societies up to around 1750 were very close to zero sum. If somebody gained something it usually came at the expense of somebody else. With the industrial revolution, this changed and it became even less true recently.

All the wealth in human hands in 1750, if distributed evenly would have made everyone in the world very poor. We now have wealth creators. What happens when someone creates wealth? How much should he share with others?

The poor of today have access to more wealth than the middle class of 1955, but they have received less of the increase. Most of the new wealth was created by new technologies and new methods and the poor have contributed less to the creation of the new wealth. Let’s face it. The hard work of an unskilled manual laborer is just not worth very much in today’s economy.

I think it is a major policy problem, but we have to recognize a new paradigm. It is not longer the case that the rich are living off the labor of the poor. More often , the poor are working less and producing less. Technology empowers people with skills and devalues those w/o them. This is not capitalism per se.

Trent

I was thinking about how poorly managed most university departments are.

Posted by: Jack at December 17, 2006 8:28 PM
Comment #199616

David Remer,

I have to agree with Jack. Regardless of how much you cut a politicians salary, you are not going to convince anyone else that we need to cut the fat of the programs from which they receive benefits. The poor have developed an “I deserve this, it is my right” mentality to those funds they receive from the government. In fact, a certain political Party has thrived by creating this mentality. I don’t think this would change even if the country was on the verge of collapse. It is too deeply imbedded.

Stephen Daugherty,

I am sorry, but the envy thing is not used by the Republicans at all. They are the ones that try to point out when envy is being used against them. The entire Democratic message is based upon envy; racism, class warfare, social security and medicare, etc.! The premise to most of the Democratic arguments in each of these issues is the fallacy that all Republicans are rich, controlling the “system”, therefore, the little person, “Democrat”, is left with scraps from the Republican table. When you look at the areas in which most of the Republican support lives, nothing could be further from the truth. The Republicans rule the Bible belt Midwest and the South, predominantly poor and middle class rural areas. The Dems rule the East and West coasts, predominantly the wealthy areas with the extremely large city structures or urban environments. This is mainly because these areas are the most heavily populated and Washington’s wealth is directed there to obtain large quantities of votes. Just ask the rural folks in their states who gets all the money, and they’ll tell you it all goes to the big city controlled primarily by the Dems due to their social handout programs.

JD

Posted by: JD at December 17, 2006 9:24 PM
Comment #199622

JD and Jack, so you really don’t advocate cutting spending. For surely, cutting the spending on politicians would meet with the greatest public assent. If you are not for that, then, you are not for even beginning to realistically cut spending.

You must rally the public around the concept. OR, and I read this implicitly in your comments, we need a sterner authoritarian government that will dictate to the people what is in their best interest.

Well, November’s election was ample evidence for me that the public won’t buy that option either.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 17, 2006 10:17 PM
Comment #199624

David

You have to cut spending where the money is. MOST of the budget is entitlements and they are the fastest growing part.

The public might like to cut spending on politicians salaries, that produces no important result. Maybe it would be good to educate the public about where their money is going.

Besides, envy is a powerful emotion, but it is nto a valid way to make policy.

I have no expectation that we will address the SS entitlement until it becomes a crisis. The public has rejected attempts to set up private accounts and that opportunity is closed off. Nothing else we can do now will make much difference. Let all the poisons in the mud hatch out.

Posted by: Jack at December 17, 2006 10:33 PM
Comment #199625

Jack,

I’m serious. If there is no real evidence that expertise is a handicap in making decisions, then this thread is based on a bogus premise. Re-reading your article, I see you qualifed your claim.

Anedotes are useful for illustration, but they are not proof.

Posted by: Trent at December 17, 2006 10:39 PM
Comment #199627

I’m really sick of the envy trope. Reducing policy concerns to envy is a way to smugly dismiss them. I might as well say Republicans are heartless bastards.

Let’s raise the level of discourse. As David R. rightly points out, we get the politicians and the political discourse we deserve.

Posted by: Trent at December 17, 2006 10:44 PM
Comment #199636

So, Jack, if the public won’t accept your particular answer, your conclusion is there are no answers.

Love your logic there, Jack. As if there is only one way, Bush’s or Jack’s way.

There are a number of ways to rally the public behind cutting spending, same as there are a number of ways to save Soc. Sec. If the people don’t buy into one answer, then the leadership must offer alternatives. But, therein lies the rub, with a President who says it is his way or no way, which is precisely how he handled Soc. Sec. reform.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 18, 2006 1:32 AM
Comment #199638

JD-
So much of the former Republican majority was built on the notion of the culture war, which is itself based on an envy of the stronger presence that liberalism gained in the 20th century.

If we wanted a system truly based on envy, we would have adopted out and out communism. Instead, we chose hope and charity. That didn’t always work out in practice, admittedly, but Democrats of that time were not the first or the last group to have to come to grips with good intentions gone awry.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at December 18, 2006 2:01 AM
Comment #199646

Jack:
Concerning “Ask yourself this question. If we suddenly discovered a new way to fuel our cars cheaply and w/o making pollution, but 1% of the population would reap 50% of the profit, do you think most people would be happier? If not, why not? They have solved their energy problem and pollution is less. Everybody is better off. It is just that some people are more better off. Who cares? Yes, most people care. That is envy, no matter if they want to call it justice.”

This brings to mind a subject that is off-topic for this thread, but which would be an interesting subject for another. Since your previous writings have shown you have interest in this subject, perhaps you would consider taking it up in a separate piece.

I have seen the suggestion on the Red, Blue and Independent sides that one of the key concerns for our country is the fact that we are dependent on cheap energy (oil), and that the U.S. should become energy independent though use of alternative fuels. It also seems that there is at least a sentiment in some corners that energy independence is a way to stick it to the (evil) oil companies. I think it unrealistic to expect the oil industry to commit economic suicide, which is perhaps why alternative energy source development has not progressed more rapidly. Back to the point on envy - what do you think of the proposition that the U.S. government guarantee our current energy companies a significant “piece of the action” of alternative energy source development and facilitate moving from gas and oil to alternative energy through underwriting (perhaps 100 year bonds or outright grants) the new infrastructure needed to replace the current gas and oil infrastucture? This would certainly be an inducement for the gas and oil industry to get behind alternative sources, and would likely be the best long-term course for the country. It is perhaps the only way to make this happen rapidly. In my opinion though, there would be significant opposition because it would reward the current energy suppliers. Not a free-market soultion, but perhaps one where govenment interference is warranted. I’d be interested in what you and other contributors have to say on this subject.


Posted by: Mike in Tampa at December 18, 2006 8:52 AM
Comment #199651

Jack asked if there was some way to analyze the difference in decision making between the young and the old. I’m currently reading a biography of Einstein and one of the current refrains is how physicists do their best work before age 35.

The main thrust seems to be that they are more intuitive and less bounded by current knowledge than when they are older. The major advances in theoretical physics seem to be the “Eureka” moments when a point breaks through the haze of information that contradicts the current way of thinking. This happens more often in younger people evidentally.

To the main premise of the article, I think that there is no one right response. Excellent point have been made by many; however, I think the reality is that they reflect how each person approaches their current responsibilities: Be an wonk, surround yourself with experts, be intuitive, be logical, be flexible, be inflexible all have pro’s and con’s.

So how much does the person need to know? Enough to be able to work within their framework. I think the best decisions come when the person charged with the decision trusts their ability to make the decisions and makes them within the cognitive framework that works for them. If you are a logical, wonk, then you better know a lot. If you are an intuitive generalist, then you can get away with knowing less and relying on experts for more.

Posted by: Rob at December 18, 2006 10:45 AM
Comment #199655

Cognitive sciences basically say that part of intelligence is inherited genetically, part develops in response to the environment, and the rest is learned.

One of the major flaws in NCLB and its underlying philosophy is the notion that learning can be standardized. Fact is, cognition is not standardized, so standardizing education past a certain point is actually counterproductive.

So is standardizing any other field where non-determinant issues ruled the day. That includes government.

However, while thinking cannot be standardized, we can look at the offices in question and figure out whether people are appropriate for them. I think the parties need to pre-screen and groom people accordingly, so we’re not stuck with lousy choices. Find a range of people with different mindsets who can each bring a unique and important angle to the problem.

One of the major problems that plagued the last congress and the Bush adminstration was the tendency towards like-mindedness and groupthink, often encouraged in the name of loyalty and right-thinking. The price of that approach was having less people who could take a different cross-section on the issue, and therefore fewer people who could confront the predictable surprises, or accept the advice of those who saw them coming.

No government functions well by being close-minded. Since nobody can be perfect on any issue, there should always be somebody around who can play devil’s advocate, and both sides should have the skepticism and self analytic abilities necessary to recognize, admit, and rethink their errors.

This, in fact, is the raison d’etre of Democracy, the reason why it works so much better than more tyrannical forms of government. It’s also the reason that our composite market economy works well: redundant backup on lines of thinking. Our economy and our national interests suffer worst when people think least for themselves, and leaders become closed to other lines of inquiry into the problems of the country and of the private concerns.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at December 18, 2006 11:36 AM
Comment #199658

Trent

I am not saying that experience is a handicap to decision making per se. I trade on my experience, as do most people over a certain age. It substitutes for raw intelligence. What I am saying is that a decision maker may not need too much specific information.

I think decision making itself is a particular skill. It can be developed, but some people have more talent in it than others. Sort of like, everyone can learn to play piano, but some will be really good, others less so. I am getting way off subject, but I think that people who go into to knowledge professions often are less comfortable making decisions. They hope to get enough information so the facts can speak for themselves. Unfortunately, they rarely do when dealing with human systems, where values make a big difference. The fact that we can all easily marshal facts to back our own assertions is an indication of this.

We will never be able to prove very much about decision making. Random chance plays a much bigger role than successful people like to admit and a much smaller role than losers lament, but it is important to outcomes. We just do not know how much. It is also very difficult to agree whether or not a decision is good. The topic of Ronald Reagan’s dealing with the Soviet Union is still hotly debated, for example. So we will always be relegated to anecdotes on the big ones.

There are empirical studies of decision making in easier to define situations and they are not very encouraging. Stock pickers as a rule make decisions about as well as a monkey with darts. I saw a study of doctors’ diagnosis of survival rates of cancer patients and they were actually worse than random chance would suggest. We also have the now famous case of credit scores. I think all these types of things suffer from a bias in that they measure one decision. Good decisions are often a series. For example, a good financial planner learns to allocate assets and does better than the monkey in a total portfolio.

Re Envy

It is one of the most prevalent and pernicious human emotions. I catch myself many times acting partially out of envy. Most people are not even conscious of it. If you have enough, why should it matter to you if others have more?

David

There is no answer at this time. If you reject private accounts, your options are to raise taxes at a later date, cut benefits and/or raise the retirement age. Besides raising the retirement age now so that people can anticipate it, none of the other things will help if we do them now. SS is and always has been a transfer program. Today’s benefits are paid from today’s taxes and today’s recipients receive their money today. If we raise taxes today, it will perhaps have good fiscal effects, but will do nothing directly to help in 2020. We could cut benefits today, but that would have the same lack of effectiveness.

So this is not “my way”. I am just pointing out the fact, and everybody really knows this, that you had four broad options if you include private accounts. Now you have three. Do them if you think it will work, but there is no urgency except for the private accounts, which require time to grow.

Mike in Tampa

Interesting subject. Some energy companies are investing heavily in alternatives, others not.

I do not know if you studied business in school, but business/marketing 101 usually starts with asking what business you are in. When students answer with the obvious, the professor points out that it is too narrow a point of view. An oil firm, for example, is not in the oil business. It is in the energy business or maybe even in the environmental business. Some firms see it that way.

Rob

I heard a lecture once where the person talked about knowledge. He said that accomplishment depends on raw brain power and experience. That is why great discoveries come at different ages. The brains of the young work better (physically) and they are less bound by convention. So in places where experience is less important than raw brain power (math and physics) the young produce the best insights. As you get older, experience and pattern recognition become more important. The best lawyers are in the their 40s and people often write their great works of history when they are in the 50s or older and the best diplomats are even older.

Of course much depends on how much change there is in the system. Rapid change devalues experience. All those experts on E. Germany did not do so well after the wall came tumbling down.

Posted by: Jack at December 18, 2006 11:58 AM
Comment #199663

Jack: I recognize that oil companies are likely pursuing alternative sources. My thought is to somehow pay them for the stranded investment they would have if alternative sources were implemented, so as to accelerate the conversion away from oil for energy. Petroleum, coal etc. will always be valuable for things like plastics, but at much lower demands than their use for fuel.

Mike in Tampa

Posted by: Mike in Tampa at December 18, 2006 12:32 PM
Comment #199667

Mike,

I think that before we talk about paying off oil companies for their stranded investment, we need to cut them off from subsidizes/incentives we give them for oil exploration and recovery. We also need to stop thinking in terms that led the Republican Congress and the President to recently authorize the exploitation of oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. In terms of raw numbers, these reserves are not enough to make a significant difference in imports but they could help keep the price of oil down a few bucks, thus making it, ironically, it more difficult to move toward energy independence. The oil companies naturally favor this authorization because of the huge profit potential and our government gave them what they wanted (and some in government will get what they want; that’s how it works). Pardon the pun, but this is fossilized thinking.

I think that in terms of subsidies/incentives for renewables and energy efficiency we should focus on consumers more than producers. Incentives for consumers help accelerate the creation of market conditions in which producers can profit.

This appears to be off topic, but perhaps it’s an example of decision making rooted more in experience than in intelligence.

Posted by: Trent at December 18, 2006 1:01 PM
Comment #199673

Trent: I see that you have pegged me as an (older) fart whose thinking has degraded into the experience camp - from loss of brain cells probably, :-)

I agree with you that the profits being made in the oil industry don’t warrant incentives for exploration at this time. I also agree that the oil reserves that may be developed in the Gulf of Mexico will not do much but alleviate shorter term price pressures. Although I think there is merit in offering consumer-based incentives to create demand, I don’t think we should ignore the producer incentives. I certainly haven’t thought the details thorough, which is why I’d be interested in a more detailed discussion on this topic in another thread. My point is basically this - The real cost of oil is not reflected in the pump price or price per barrel, when you consider the cost of maintaining access to the oil in the world. The real cost is partially reflected in the cost you and I pay, and partially in the taxes we pay, as in most things. As such, “free market” only partially applies, making it a legitimate item for a political solution. IMO there should be a reasoned, national dialog as to whether being dependent on fossil fuel in a major way is in our national best interest. (My opinion is that it will be less and less in our best interest as time goes on.) One possibility is to continue the status quo. Eventually, high cost of fossil fuel (and possible technological innovations in alternative energy sources) will cause the status quo to change. This may take a while, because the current energy companies won’t be in a big hurry until they figure out how to transform their business into an alternative fuel model, leaving the citizens subject to unforseen disruptions associated with maintaining access to the world’s oil. Another possibility is to force a more rapid change by recoginizing that oil companies may be more willing to back and accelarate change to alternative technologies if they “see something in it for them”, whatever compromise that may be.

Posted by: Mike in Tampa at December 18, 2006 1:57 PM
Comment #199674

Jack,

Interesting insight, it makes sense on the surface to me.

Stephen,

I think you have confused a scientific problem with a social one. What cognitive science has to say about decision making within an individual is interesting, but tangetial to the main goals of the science as I (albeit very superficially) understand them to be. Rather cognitive science seems to be more involved with intelligence, how it is aquired and how it can be modeled.

What it has to say about “groupthink” is less so. Cognition does not equal decision making. Any analysis of “groupthink” needs to be based on a social science paradigm (either sociology or anthapology in my opinion).

While it can be interesting to extend scientific theories into social sciences as metaphors, it can lead to some very faulty logic and interpretation. Social darwinism is a great example of how this can lead to misguided analysis.

I’m also confused by what role you think that the parties can have in combating “groupthink.” You seem to have elevated their role now above the political process to the governing process. That seems dangerous to me.

Posted by: Rob at December 18, 2006 2:04 PM
Comment #199676

Mike, I really didn’t intend to slam you; the slam was against Cheney and gang and was based not only on the recent action to open some Gulf of Mexico reserves but also by the Chency energy plan produced early in the administration.

I agree with most of what you say. Indirect costs for oil certainly are huge. To some degree, oil of course drives our foreign policy.

I really have nothing against the idea of incentives on the renwables production end. To the extent that we maintain and create more of these incentives, I have no problem with oil companies taking advantage of them, but I guess it sticks in the craw to create incentives specifically for oil companies. Some oil companies already are getting into renewables.

Anyway, so much depends on how it all shakes out. It may turn out that we don’t so much replace gasoline with biofuels as that we start producing much more electricity to power vehicles, etc. That scenario implies that production of electricity displaces much oil. We could see wide scale local production of electricity, even on the level of homes, which is pumped back into the power grid. In some places this occurs already. A lot of people think big breakthroughs in solar technology are imminent. I don’t know; impossible to tell. I disagree with some liberals on this issue — I don’t want the government to start investing in massive infrastructure for, say, a hydrogen economy, because I don’t think it’s yet clear exactly what we’ll need. I really think employ a suite of different techologies. I’m a believer in R&D, including in getting commercialization costs down.

Anyway, this is a pet concern of mine, and I apologize if I came off condescending.

Posted by: Mike at December 18, 2006 2:20 PM
Comment #199677

Oh crap, that last post was mine. I was thinking of Mike when I started to write and used his name as the author. Sorry. …

Posted by: Trent at December 18, 2006 2:22 PM
Comment #199678

What we have these days is massive incompetence in a severely, bloated, selfish, corrupt, and monstrous government of nightmare proportions.
The voters made it that way.
The voters don’t merely tolerate it, but empower it, by actively rewarding irresponsible incumbent politicians

Why?
Primarily, the problem is simply one of laziness, which fuels selfishness, corruption, and irresponsibility.

These days, voters are bribed with their own tax dollars.
Some voters are easily swayed by their one little pet project (e.g. stem cell, NASA, Social Security, etc.).

Hence, government strives to control all of it; everything; growing and growing ever larger and intrusive, taking more and more, resulting in the people growing more and more dependent, demanding even more and more from government; all striving to live at the expense of everyone else.

Jack wrote: Why Are Politicians So Stupid?

Yes, you could call it stupidity, since it is sort of like shooting yourself in the foot.

However, the real problem is rooted in a more fundamental problem that is often over-looked.

Stupidity is actually a symptom of a more fundamental problem.

The problem with our politicians (BOTH Dems and Repubs alike) is not merely stupidity, or an inability to make good decisions, but the lack of desire (due to laziness) to make good decisions. Politicians are merely a reflection of those that put them in power. They do no more than expected. They are incompetent and corrupt, because we (voters) are too, and we tolerate it, empower it, and reward it. We actually program politicians to be that way, by rewarding them repeatedly by re-electing for bad behavior.

The shortsightedness to see that we are shooting ourselves in the foot is a result of laziness.
Looking for better answers and solutions is work.
Work is painful (sort of).
Hence, the popular myth that we can all live at the expense of everyone else.

We were not always that way.
It is part of a cycle.

Many nations have risen and fallen over the millennia.
The U.S. is not invincible.

So, when does it change for the better?
Only when the pain of the growing fiscal and moral bankruptcy becomes too painful.

Eventually, when government has grown to the point that it is no longer of any net benefit to society (too corrupt, oppressive; i.e. painful), then the people will change it.

However, the resulting pain is often a consequence far after the fact (after the damage is already done).
Progress is slow (2.000 steps forward and 1.999 steps backward).
We’ve been going backwards in many ways for decades.

Now we know why history is so important. Psychology too.
Those that ignore it are doomed to repeat the painful lessons of the past.

What is most needed for better decision is conscience and desire to simply do it.
Giving that, making better decisions can be, as many things are, broken down into an equation.
Acquire all criteria (i.e. terms, operands, factors, rules, laws, etc.).
Missing criteria increases uncertainty and error margins.
Then weight the factors (NOTE: there is software to help do this).
IMPORTANT: Don’t ever forget the human factor.
The health of any organization, society, or government requires understanding of the most fundamental facts of human nature.

Sounds simple, but is still often overlooked or taken for granted:

  • Responsibility = Power + Conscience + Education + Transparency + Accountability

  • Corruption = Power - Conscience - Education - Transparency - Accountability

Based on all the many things Congress ignores, year after year, some pain is going to be unavoidable.
We will get our education and motivation one way or another, sooner or later; sooner would be better. The later it is, the more painful it will be.

Posted by: d.a.n at December 18, 2006 2:25 PM
Comment #199679

Politicians aren’t stupid. After all, they are the people in power who are constantly re-elected to that power. Who is stupid? My “vote” goes to the people who blindly support failed policies and agendas that only serve the money that keeps those politicans in power. I, for one, discount nearly everything a politician says (except to observe who they are pandering to at the moment) and look at what they do.
Did they sign a law that helps the majority of people or just another special interest group?
Do they sign a law that restricts a persons right to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness or do not?

Posted by: Dave1-20-2009 at December 18, 2006 2:34 PM
Comment #199680

Trent: I didn’t think your comment was directed at me particularly, and took no offense. It is true (at least for me) that I rely more on experience now than before. Probably a combination of things: lack of experience before; knowing better now; and likely a little laziness.

I have no love (or hate) of the oil companies either. They are doing their perceived jobs in today’s world (maximizing shareholder profit). The function of government is to make them take into account a bigger picture. “Buying them off” is a tough pill to take, but might be better in the long run, if it gets us away from our current situation. I agree with you that multiple solutions are better, of which producer incentives should be a part. I think there is a sentiment out there to use alternatives to screw the oil comapanies. Although this might make folks feel good, I think it will delay changes.

Posted by: Mike in Tampa at December 18, 2006 2:41 PM
Comment #199687

Trent et al

Think of the examples of Cheney and Rumsfeld. You probably could not find two men with more experience and subject expertise in their fields.

Some people accuse Bush of being cognitively challenged, but Rumsfeld is by all indications a genius, so was McNamara, BTW. Their decisions were certainly not the result of stupidity (as we generally define it) or ignorance.

Re smarts

There is an interesting book called “Intellectuals” by Paul Johnson. He talks about all these smart guys from Rousseau to Satre who probably could not manage a to pour water out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel.

Posted by: Jack at December 18, 2006 4:03 PM
Comment #199689

Jack,

“When you have enough, why should it matter to you if others have more?”

It shouldn’t. However, when you are bombarded by what you could have if you would just let “us” take it away from those who have more, it matters quite a lot.

Most people are not even allowed to disclose what they make in salary at work. Therefore, there is not all the internal fighting and envy going on. It is only when an outside source begins questioning what you make in comparison to what someone else makes that it starts eating away at you. Certain political parties are very, very good at this! After all, what is your “rightful and entitled enough”? Hmm?

JD

Posted by: JD at December 18, 2006 4:46 PM
Comment #199692

Jack,

It’s interesting that you use those two examples. There are good examples by my lights, but not good by yours? At any rate, geniuses are not any more immune to wishful thinking than the rest of us. I guess it’s the analytical bent of my mind that resists general statements on this topic. How do you overcome selective evidence, sampling error? Any test we devise will simply be testing decision making in one (or a few) carefully constructed circumstances, but life is often very messy, and people have many biases and motivations, whether they are aware of them or not.

I don’t think anyone has yet mentioned that there are many types of intelligence. Common parlance recognizes the distinction between intelligence and wisdom, but what is wisdom but a kind of practical intelligence? Some folks are gifted at fostering relationships, some have emotional insight — the verbal/mathematical view of intelligence is severely limited. We shouldn’t expect that a literary genius, for example, be particularly adept at social relationships, let alone math.


Jack, I’ve read the “genius” stuff about Rumsfeld for years. I just don’t see it. Do you have any specific information beyond the testimonials of his fans?

Posted by: Trent at December 18, 2006 5:01 PM
Comment #199694

I really don’t get this envy stuff. When I talk of income disparity, I truly am not motivated by wanting more than I have, because I wouldn’t benefit from a more equitable distribution of wealth (I’m firmly in the middle class — not rich except in what matters to me, and not poor by any measure.) I think of people with less than I do, not with more.

Could it be that envy is more of a motivator for conservatives? They see their neighbor with a Lexus and therefore want one too? Are you guys projecting onto your opponents? I’m being glib, but the envy talk just loses me.

Posted by: Trent at December 18, 2006 5:06 PM
Comment #199700

Trent

I actually met him. He is one of the smartest people I have ever encountered. Most people have a similar impression. His resume is certainly great.

Most people are motivated by envy and covetousness. Conservatives are no better, but they do not make it a political platform.

Re being rich and poor - I have always thought of it as a moving target. My entire career I have more or less assumed that anybody who made half as much as I do is poor and anybody who makes twice as much is rich. I make more than twice as much as I did when I started (in adjusted dollars), but I still do not feel rich and my ratio still makes sense to me.

I think that most people have some kind of rule of thumb like that. If we were to ask people where “rich” and “poor” start, I bet it would often corelate with their incomes.

Posted by: Jack at December 18, 2006 6:12 PM
Comment #199711

Jack, perhaps you’re right. God knows I’ve been guilty of other deadly sins. I assume most have. Envy, though — I guess my brain structure’s a little different or something.

Posted by: Trent at December 18, 2006 7:00 PM
Comment #199746

Rob-
If you want to consider how brain structure can change a society, find out why so many of the characteristics of being a nerd coincide so neatly with having high-functioning autism.

Then consider what nerds have done for society lately.

There are othere personality types and neurological principle that go into behavior, and why it tends to break the way it does. They are not unimportant to understanding how people think and react.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at December 18, 2006 10:35 PM
Comment #199750

jack, glad to hear that you can tell from a single meeting that someone is the “smartest person” you’ve ever met. As for being a genius, I have no clue what “indicaitons” you refer to. You mean like how well we’re doing in Iraq right now?

Anyway, I’m not all about bashing Rummy. I’m begining to see another angle. It’s obvious that like all neocons Rummy grotesquely underestimated the need for planning and the resource requirements of post occupation, but is it possible that Rummy is getting as screwed as Brownie? Is it possible that he proposed a change in strategy, was rebuffed for political reasons, offered his resignation, then rebuffed again, for three cycles until Turd Blossum felt another sacrifical lamb was required to save Bushes ass? Is it possible that even I, an avowed hater of all things BushCo, have underestimated the depth of evil of DickBushRove and that they knowingly, not just fanatically and foolishly, continued a bloody and unwinnable approach simply to be re-elected?

re: rich.
In general terms, you’re rich when you no longer work for your money, but your money works for you. I.e. your wealth makes you more money than the work that you get paid for does.

Posted by: Dave1-20-2009 at December 18, 2006 11:45 PM
Comment #199769

Why are politicians so stupid? Abraham Lincoln said of one, which applies to most today: “He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know.”

The smallest idea being personal power or political gain, when the great ideas of leading humanity toward peace, prosperity, and liberty are left wisping in the ether above politician’s heads like the exhale of their cigars.

Barack Obama is sucking in those ethereal great ideas and framing them back to the people in a way that is almost hypnotic. Haven’t a clue yet what kind of politician he would make, but, the man is bringing the great ideas back into the dialogue, and that is a most refreshing and exhilarating turn of events for American politics.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 19, 2006 4:43 AM
Comment #199775

Jack, This is a very interesting question.

As you know I work in civil engineering. I was a physics major in college. I like facts and questions with right and wrong answers.

While I think that non-engineers can be good managers, I think in most cases, the manager has to have a good grasp of the engineering concepts, if not the details to avoid going down obvious (to engineers) blind alleys.

Consensus, openess to dissent, and sound, moral principals make for good decisions. Knowledge and experience guides the path of decision.

Richard Feynman when exploring the reasons for the shuttle disaster followed the path that was layed out for him by those that knew what the problem was. The poor decision making process of NASA that led to the shuttle disaster, chose the wrong goals and criteria. The knowledge was of impending disaster was present, but ignored.

Bush ignored his own miliary and state department advisors that dissented, and thousands died. I think the moral foundings of his decisions were idealogical and self aggrandizing rather than hard nosed, pragmatic and truly in America’s interest. I think it was obvious when he was elected in 2000 that would be his decision making focus. He was a selfish, self promoting, risk taker that sought personal shelter when things got rough. He was not exposed to risk himself. He still isn’t. I had watched him operate as governor. He will be reviled as a president, but he will live in denial for a long time. Alcoholism is form of denial and retreat from reality. Is he worse or better than Clinton? I’m not sure.

Grant was a great general because he was a risk taker. He was a poor president because he denied reality. Was he really great? His presidency was filled with corruption. I guess your view depends on how much you suffered in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Was Lincoln or Washington really great? Or did history simply take fate and cast it as great vision?

In the mysticism of politics, religion, and written histories, much is interpretation, a rosy color of the lense, or a lyric romanticism that has little to do with real value.

Greatness, to me, has to do with expanding our knowledge. Empires come and go, scientific knowledge is what has advanced us, both in sociological and technological fields. The mythology of great leaders seems to me often draped in the hormonal and herd mentality of sexual and pecking order heirachy.

No one has written a algorithm for great decisions, articial intelligence at best can acheive a three old’s capabilities.

We at last, are intellect and animal. What is best isn’t always what we want or even need.

By the way, Jack, I’m wondering if your writing a book. You’ve become one of the most prolific writers here.

Posted by: gergle at December 19, 2006 7:02 AM
Comment #199843

Trent,

When you think of people with less than you have, why do you assume that it is because of people with more than you have? What message are you sending to those with less than you have in terms of reasoning, when you wish to take away the wealth of those with more than you have for the purpose of rewarding the previous with something that perhaps they have not earned?
You claim your motivation is not envy toward the rich, but pity or charity for the poor.
However, what right does the middle class have to demand pity or charity from the rich toward the poor without giving the same percentage of their incomes to the poor, and where does rich and poor start and end? Income distributionists may have different motivations, however, none are justified, unless all give the same.

JD

Posted by: JD at December 19, 2006 7:25 PM
Comment #199853


Dave

My money works for me, but it is kinda lazy. The proceeds allow me to buy some spaghetti now and then.

Gergle

As I probably said before, I have to write because nobody I know will listen to me anymore about the eclectic topics I like to talk about. I also like to try out ideas and sometimes make jokes that only I get. I do appreciate the cooperation and continued support from both friend and foe, but I do not have the persistence to write a book.

Re engineers and managers - it depends on what sort of task. There is the classic business case of a non-engineer trying to manage an engineering firm. It doesn’t work. On the other hand, when engineers are in a firm w/o clear answers, they do less well.

You are an exception among engineers (and you must know it) because you evidently like to write and write reasonably well.

Posted by: Jack at December 19, 2006 8:59 PM
Comment #199878

Jack,

My money isnt lazy, but I’m not rich. I still have to work but plan to retire early.

Engineers, I am one, are usually musically and creatively inclined. Some are like Gates, some are like Kamen, and some are like Dilbert. People are weird that way.

Posted by: Dave1-20-2009 at December 19, 2006 11:46 PM
Comment #199904

JD,

Actually, I was merely criticizing the envy trope used so often in political discussions. I said nothing at all about my particular views. (A topic is not a view.) Once again you are putting words into my mouth and thoughts into my head. Regardless, I think there are more appropriate threads for the kind of debate you are inviting.

Posted by: Trent at December 20, 2006 7:57 AM
Comment #199974

Jack,
I am not half as educated as all the people that articulate their positions here. As to why are politicians so stupid (republican and democrat}how can they manage to get people as smart as the people represented in these forums to vote them into office to represent them? Is it because more stupid people vote stupid people to repesent them? Or are there less smart people to vote smart people to represent them?

Posted by: dolan at December 20, 2006 5:18 PM
Comment #200006

dolan,

For an ignorant luddite that was a really good question :-) …

Posted by: Dave1-20-2009 at December 20, 2006 9:43 PM
Comment #200024

same joke differant job detail
why did the brain surgen get divorced he changed his mind
why did the king get divorced he changed his mind
why did the primeminister get divorced he changed his mind
why did the pressident get divorced he changed his mind
joke everyone changes their minds in there life

Posted by: andrew boyle at December 21, 2006 12:30 AM
Comment #200046

dolan

My title was just to tempt. I do not think most politicans are stupid. They are tasked with a nearly impossible job and judged by changing criteria.

Our system, unfortunately, second guesses too much and does not allow for easily correcting mistakes (i.e. they get too much ridicule and lose their jobs)

Also remember that sometimes we do not have problems in SPITE of our best efforts but BECAUSE of them. This is especially true among the cognitively gifted.

Posted by: Jack at December 21, 2006 11:54 AM
Comment #200645

Sir I don’t belive you have to be an expert i think you must have strong princples and know how to get good, honest , intelligent people around you too bad 95% of our leaders don’t fall into that catagorie.

Posted by: steve at December 28, 2006 12:44 PM
Comment #280142

The problem with politicians is that they work to please a their side whether leftist or rightist. They can’t make rational decisions based on the situation. If their Republican for example they prefer to make war, claim resources, reduce spending and taxes and will usually make decisions in favor of the right in that regard. As for Democrats they prefer to make peace and diplomacy that leaves the country vulnerable, Raise taxes and government spending on programs, like health care and education.

Some for example have a stupid policy of spending more to fix the economy. Everybody knows fixing a budget is about reduce your expenses to point where you generate a surplus which you use to eventually pay off loans. I think it’s ridiculous how some politicians believe taking out loans and spending more can reduce dept.

Anyhow, when it comes to politics it’s all about popularity, when the elections come around, it’s all about the ads, media bias, and whether your a Republican or Democrat. The issues never contradict their party’s political position and when it comes down we usually have only two overly popular and very busy people who never have the time to clearly make educated decisions. It’s all about pleasing the party that put you in the position.

A leader who actually thinks, has the time to think and make educated decisions based on the facts, experience and the outcome of such a decision short and long term makes a huge difference from what we see from the leaders we have today who make most decisions based on the party’s collective opinion which is based on popularity for the political side.

You know, going to war Iraq was a good decision, because the possibility of a Saddam - Al’Qaeda alliance was too dangerous and very real. It wasn’t about the WMDs that bush was saying they had. The WMDs was an excuse because they original idea that a Saddam and Al’Qaeda alliance was rejected by the public. T

hey tell you truth first-hand and when the policy they absolutely want to implement fails to draw support they find lies to get it done. After getting rid of Saddam they should’ve withdrawn a long time ago such as 2005. Stabilizing Iraq and bringing Democracy wasn’t a very well thought out plan. They simply were looking for more support for the war.

It’s really the polls that screw up their judgement. Especially when an election is around the corner, they want to stay in power so they risk deceiving the public in order to achieve their ambitions. That’s the problem with democracy.

In my opinion a better system of government is needed. A new system of government. I can think of many ways can’t you? Internet, Polls, decisions, why not let the public vote on decisions through the internet? Following through based on the results would help. That would be a start. We don’t need elected officials anymore. All we need is a really secure polling site, one leader, the media, and someone to bring forth the issues and discussion forums for people to really debate the issue so we can all make an educated guess and be all part of the government collective. Have something in the constitution that makes the Leader execute the decisions of the public without question.

It would be so much simpler. A true democracy is based on all the people’s opinion not just a few wealthy elected officials.


Posted by: Eric at April 14, 2009 7:39 AM
Comment #282867

You have all made some very good points, but i think that JD came the closest to saying it short and sweet. It is a leaders job to lead. Yes he or she should avail themselves with the best information which can be obtained, this of course includes all sides of any given story, and then they must make a decision, that is their role. It must be an honest decision, made in the best possible conscience, and hopefully it will be the right decision. Being human of course this will not always be so, but if it is an informed decision, made in good conscience, then it is the best that they can do. That is the best any of us can hope to do. Keep in mind that the complainers will always be out there, complainers complain, that’s what they do, and they will most likely indulge themselves no matter what the situation. Seldom however will you see them come up with any rational or viable solutions of their own, none at least which they would be prepare to take responsability for should their roles be reversed. The leader must lead as best and as honestly as they can, what more could we ask for.

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