Trigger Warning: If any of you, my readers, or your senior management, who might actually read this, are card carrying members of the global elite, please be assured that I am only talking about other people here.
This season of election insanity, where only big ideas packaged in often eye rolling tropes have their day (you don’t get elected by saying, “Vote for me and I will make a couple of small annoying things just a little bit better”) got me thinking about where all these big ideas came from. They come from think tanks, academics, opinion makers and talking heads of all sorts, of course, or, as they would say, the global opinion elite.
Yes, there is something called the global elite, even if we are uncomfortable with what that connotes. It’s the leadership cadres of government, NGOs, the heights of our education system, industry leaders and much of the media and chattering class and other policy wonks and policy wonk wannabes (apparently including many Hollywood A-listers, and I really want to know what they think about geopolitical issues). What these folks think matters, filling the head of the electorate, politicians, elected officials and the attendant apparatchiki. It drives public discourse and I am worried that consensus amongst our elites is being achieved inside isolated, segmented opinion silos in which specific and distinct cohorts of such elite reside. Some on the left, and some on the right. Increasingly, opinion is being formed, narratives giving life, conclusions being ossified into fact in environments where nary a dissenting voice is heard, or would indeed be tolerated, if heard.
Talk is cheap. The problem is when the denizens of such intellectually closed environments get hold of the steering wheel.
Across the political spectrum, in these intellectual redoubts, each populated with a different self-sorted band of opinion leading, folks who inhabit the snobisphere, enjoy self-referential validation of tribe and confirmation bias. They talk politics, they talk economics (and faux economics), they get exercised and excited and well, talk trash, about everyone else. The fact that there are many of these chattering communities representing a wide divergent of opinion and perspective that exist in parallel doesn’t really matter. Ever see two year olds playing in the sandbox? They call it parallel play, they don’t interact. The fact we’ve got divergent opinions in these opinion silos is simply not helpful. No synthesis is possible. Opinion and conversation rarely cross the meniscus. They don’t talk to each other.
And let’s face it, if the folks in each of these ecosystems see the others as stupid, venal or both, why bother talking?
Pontificating with confreres with nary a dissenting voice about how the world works or how it should work, could be dismissed as a little harmless self-indulgent fun, but these silos develop and export unchallenged opinion on which action is taken in the real world. When the natives of any such intellectually closed environment get hold of the levers of power and, good gracious, start to do things informed by their certitudes, bad things often follow. It would be comedic if it wasn’t serious, as the devotee of one world view supplants another, tearing the wheel from the cold dead hands of those they supplant, and jerking the ship onto a new course. (I think I’ve seen this in the movies…it rarely works out; there’s always ice.)
And if these folks expect to get invited back and keep their global elite merit badges, they had better get with the program back home and do stuff! (Also, let’s take note of the fact that these folks are often either insulated from bad outcomes because they’ve already earned tons of money, or get their paychecks from sundry world-girding enterprises where actual outcomes may matter little to continued employment.)
Unfortunately, all of our opinion silos today share one distressing commonality. That’s that they see an invisible and complex structure underpinning world affairs and the global economy that should, nay, must be tinkered with by this intellectual upper class for the benefit of all of us. The conceit, of course, is that they alone see the hidden substructures of economies, of world affairs, of political systems and that, when understood, that knowledge can allow one to operate the global economy like a steampunk machine. So the great and mighty gather to share the source codes, turn the dials, pull the levers and drive the global economy asymptotically towards a perfect outcome (previously, a notion, in large measure, the purview of religion). As Warren Buffet famously said, “Beware of geeks bearing graphs.” A corollary to that is beware of elites imbued with collective certainty. (Stable geniuses all?)
The notion that there is a mechanistic quality to the world, an enormous preternatural machine that can, through clear thinking by those imbued with virtue be dialed in to produce good outcomes is a bad idea. An automata version of reality is alluring, but fraught. It suppresses heterodoxy, it suppresses debate, it can make it difficult to be truly data-driven and to be contrarian. It’s fundamentally anti-market. And so, as many of the consequential sip the same Kool-Aid, mistakes are magnified by collective parallelism of action.
I read with interest the comments of the IMF Chief Economist, Gita Gopinath, who, with considerable (religious?) certainty, announced that “The world needs stronger multi-lateral cooperation to support a sustained recovery.” The suggestion is, of course, that world elites, pursuing collective action and informed by a commitment to public virtue can get big things done right. (For the cohort on the left, public virtue is defined as a commitment to progressiveness and the embrace of Capitalism 2.01, climate change, multilateralism, social justice, etc., and on the right, well, defined as none of those things, both unwavering in their certitudes).
Such earnest arrogance. Frankly, the conviction of the global elites that they stand between the great unwashed and the deluge is rather unattractive when viewed from the cheap seats.
It’s a happy thing to be a part of the solution and there’s considerable validation if everyone around you agrees that you’re part of the solutions. I get it. Hugs all around.
However, the overwhelming weight of evidence is that over the years, virtually all global consensus has been flawed, if not downright wrong. Efforts to get it right are usually well-intended and three cheers for that, but informed by a natural urge to simplify the world into something Newtonian, predictable, understandable and manageable we will, as often as not, get it wrong and then marinate in unmanageable, unintended consequences. Regrettably, the real world is messy, unpredictable and confounding and cannot be reified into a neat and straightforward intellectual construct.
I fret opinion makers are not being cautious enough about getting it wrong. As we all know, numbers lie and liars use numbers and even the well-intended can be confused by datasets. It’s easy to confuse assumptions for facts, to confuse what is cause and what is effect. It’s easy to get the direction of causality wrong or indeed see causation where there is nothing but a concatenations of events.
We’ve got a pretty impressive track record of getting things horribly wrong: Shall we begin? Smoot-Hawley, the gold standard, four humors of health, the world is flat, the Maginot Line, Marxism, l’offensive a outrance (everyone should see 1917, a great movie), arsenic as a wonder drug, the Ford Pinto, the Divine Right of Kings, the Versailles Treaty, the EU is a real thing, printing gobs of money to stave off hard economic times, stop printing gobs of money to stave off hard economic times, good heavens – ethanol, negative interest rates (jury’s out), Brexit (same). We could go on. How about the new fascination with modern monetary theory? Anyone getting behind that? (But it would be fun to spend all that money and not worry about it, wouldn’t it?) Sure, we’ve gotten to some consensus over the centuries that have produced good outcomes, think the Marshall Plan for instance. Geopolitically, even the blind cat periodically finds the dead mouse, but as we flail around assuming that we actually understand how all this works, the risk of getting it wrong seems asymmetrically higher than getting it all right. The joke might be that either there’s no underlying deeper reality that, if understood, could hand us the keys to the castle, or it’s so deep that we would never be able to perceive or understand it, no matter how hard we try.
We know, in our more reflective moments, that the world is complicated and often evidence some humbleness about it. However, we generally get over that quickly, don’t we? Always be careful before pushing the button! (Think of that EPA functionary turning off the power to the containment field in Ghostbusters. I always think about him when someone suggests that our government should run more stuff.)
Seems to me there’re lessons in here.
Certainty should engender critical engagement. Where there is no disputation tolerated, probably a bad idea is on its way to being born. Assumptions need continuous testing. Incrementalism is not a bad thing. Everyone needs an escape hatch; a go bag nearby. We should continue to have the courage to embrace big ideas, but with more than a soupcon of humility that we may have it wrong.
Generally, we’d really be better off sticking to small ball.
However, as I am essentially of a sunny disposition, let’s end up on the bright side of all of this. In the real world, these people don’t always get listened to. Those who make decisions and have to live with the consequence of these decisions are so often thankfully resistant to theory and geeks bearing easy – big solutions. In the real world the US economy is performing quite nicely. If we look in a clear-eyed way at the data, the road we can see in front of the US economy is pretty damn good right now. Sure it can change, and sure we’ll be confounded by future events, but Dear Lord, protect us from theory-driven decisions made at the urging of the global elite.
There you go.