By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index
It was one of those pointless Facebook conversations, you know, the ones where total strangers spout off uninformed opinions and no one ever changes their minds and little, if anything, is learned by anyone.
I rarely participate in such things, but I occasionally glance at a discussion to see how any given issue is being processed by a relatively representative random sample of (presumably) informed and engaged people.
This particular discussion was on a subject I happened to know well – the economic recovery since the Great Recession of 2008.
At that time, we had about 90 months of steady recovery. Slowly at first, but like almost every economic recovery, the financial and employment sectors were gaining momentum with each quarter.
Most credible economists describe guiding an economy as being much like steering a battleship: turning it can be cumbersome, if not clumsy, but once it is on course, it can move quite quickly.
Same with an economy, turning it can be a struggle, but once on track, momentum kicks in and the economy accumulates more and more positive – and self-perpetuating – features.
It’s a pretty standard economic principle – until you factor in political ideologies and opportunists.
Every president claims credit for positive economic news and blames predecessors or the other party for downturns – some more than others. And some with a bit more credibility – or a better argument than others.
I’ve been studying recessions, depressions, “bubbles” and recoveries (and lived through several) over many years, and thought I had heard every rationale, obfuscation and excuse possible.
I was also fully aware that traditional economic philosophies and ideologies were being turned upside down – and inside out – when it came to standard assumptions about debt, trade, treaties, tariffs and currency evaluations.
My mistake, one that I continue to make, is that people who make statements or arguments either know something about their topic or at least have some sense of precedence in terms of how previous policies and strategies have worked – or not.
One participant insisted that President Trump’s policies were more effective and noteworthy because President Obama had an unfair advantage: a greater “upside potential.”
I was not clear on the concept, so I had to ask for an explanation. It was precisely because the economy was so dire, and it had so much more need, if not possibility, to get back to “normal” like a submerged cork under water, he patiently man-splained.
I didn’t have time to digest an entirely new economic principle, but I had to think about it.
If you study history, philosophy, biology and psychology – and economics – you quickly discover that almost any given principle is true and has similar effects no matter the context or scale.
Newton’s First Law, for example (an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon) is true in any field from physics to sociology or child-rearing.
This principle of “upside potential” didn’t make sense to me in any context. If I wake up and slip and fall and bruise myself and step outside and see that my car has been vandalized – or even better – has been stolen – according to the “upside potential” philosophy, my day absolutely HAS to get better.
My experience, I am sorry to say, is precisely the opposite; if my morning is filled with disasters, my day virtually always gets even worse. The unpleasantness of the morning was only a warning of what was to come.
There’s an old saying that life is 10% what happens and 90% how we respond to it.
How we respond (and how effective that response is) depends upon how appropriate and thorough our understanding is.
Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former. – Albert Einstein
Many years ago I had a boss who was one of those swaggering, blow-hard, know-it-all types that you only expect to see in a movie or low budget television series.
This is the character who has no people skills, minimal financial expertise and near-zero understanding of his own business (or personal relationship) dynamics. (1*)
One day when I was talking to another employee, the boss barged in, ranted and rambled in a particularly disconnected, condescending, incoherent and contradictory manner and then left the room.
The other worker and I turned and stared at each other, stunned by what we had just experienced.
The other worker, one of those basic, salt-of-the-earth types quietly observed, “Is he that stupid? Or is it that he thinks WE are that stupid?”
Accidentally, I believe, my colleague had stumbled upon the reigning social, political and cultural guiding principle at work in our times – stupidity, whether held or assumed, seems to rule every organization.
Showing off is the fool’s idea of glory. – Bruce Lee
The larger the organization, the tighter the grip stupidity seems to hold. You can see it in movies and on television or in cartoons from Dilbert to The Office or novels like Catch 22.
“Too big to fail” is not so much a statement of fact as it is a hope, maybe even a prayer, that a behemoth corporation, bigger than the rest, will be the last one standing after any economic meltdown.
Maybe it is just me, but I don’t find dinosaurs the most inspiring business metaphor.
I mention all of this to clarify that how we respond to the pressing needs of our relationships, our business and our world all depends on how we understand and interpret what is going on.
Listening to others – especially those with direct knowledge of your business, organization or community – can give you a wealth of information and a depth of understanding you might never have imagined.
Beware of cognitive biases – they influence far more than we would like to think. (2*)
And watch out for correlations that make sense – or at least agree with what you’ve already decided.
Did you know for example that the amount of money we spend on pets has a DIRECT correlation to the number of lawyers in California? (3*)
Correlation is not causation, and like the amount of money we spend on pets in the USA, correlation may not have any relevance in any argument or decision.
But facts alone won’t change our minds – or any one else’s.
People’s minds are changed through observation and not through argument. – Will Rogers
We are all learning. It is only when we decide to stop learning that we, or everyone else around us, realizes how important learning – and listening – always was.
(1*) True to form, this particular boss had filed for bankruptcy and had been divorced multiple times – even as he promoted himself as a consultant in business and marriage.
(2*) You can see a short list of the most common cognitive biases here – http://mentalfloss.com/article/68705/20-cognitive-biases-affect-your-decisions.
(3*) http://tylervigen.com/view_correlation?id=28671– You can see more on spurious correlations here https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/kjh2110/the-10-most-bizarre-correlations or here – https://hbr.org/2015/06/beware-spurious-correlations