Thursday, January 08, 2009

When Wisdom Isn't Conventional

I have a great friend who is an excellent high net-worth financial adviser and who sends an occasional newsletter related to investment markets and macro economic issues. In the most recent email, which contained a narrative overview of the events of 2008 (and what an extraordinary timeline of events that was), the newsletter posited the following paragraph, which I think reflects a certain conventional wisdom about what happened September through November that I want to challenge:
Financial disasters that once would have sounded like alarmist fantasies occurred on a weekly basis. Banks failed, oil and gasoline prices smashed old records, and the federal government agreed to pump trillions of dollars into the financial system just to keep it afloat. The upheaval helped elect Barack Obama president and may have ushered in a new era of tighter government regulation, ending more than two decades in which free-market philosophies reigned.
The real kicker here is the connection between market "upheaval" and the election of Barack Obama, almost as if, as many cable commenters would say, that if economic matters are dominant, then Democrats get elected, and if national security or foreign affairs are dominant, then Republicans get elected.

Certainly we can look to limited historical patterns where this supposition holds true, but I do not think that's what happened at all this year. And so we shouldn't afford ourselves the false luxury of this conventional wisdom, lest we lose a deeper appreciation of what actually transpired.

The insidious nature about incorrect conventional wisdom ("CW") is that the reasons it may be incorrect correlates strongly to the complexity of the issue involved, thereby missing the deeper insight required to have a full and accurate grasp on that issue.

This year wasn't an election about "general climate" factors related to economics vs national security, for example. No, far from it. The nation was obviously reeling from years of bad news and a diminishing sense of the meaning of "America" in these modern and complex times.

As I watched it, I thought the primary thrust of the election was about an intense public reflection about the future meaning of the word "American" with which we all identify.

From the bitter election battle in December 2000, to 9/11, to the threat of lethal homeland terror, to natural catastrophes including fires and especially hurricanes like Katrina, Rita, Ivan, and Ike, to the Abu Ghraib revelations, to extraordinary renditions and warrantless wiretapping debates, to critical and multiple intelligence failures, and of course most recently since 2007 to a crumbling economy in the midst of an official recession since 2007... it's just been a breath-taking period for America and Americans that has shaken us to our core deep down, I think.

In that light, it appears to me that the election season since 2007 was infused with competing visions of how to define America in the future. Broadly speaking, Democrats and progressives pushed for an idea of a "new" America based on values of inclusiveness, diplomacy, the collective well-being, and of course "hope" for better days and newer more successful ways ahead.

Broadly speaking again, Republicans seemed to offer a future America based on the proven successes of America's past, an American "restoration" of its strong traditions, international strength, the triumph of rugged individualism that helped build the nation to greatness, and American exceptionalism globally - the "shining city on a hill."

While each of the two major parties had strong and imperfect standard-bearers, these contrasting visions were on display since the early campaigns of 2007.

In normal times, perhaps these contrasting visions may have still been in play, however the extraordinary circumstances of the past several years and the current climate of both international and domestic complex challenges led to a greater urgency behind the choice of vision for the next Executive administration. And Americans had the historic opportunity to witness both parties campaign against that urgent backdrop.

It is false to presume the conventional wisdom that the competition between Republicans and Democrats is simply about where to focus the nation: domestically or internationally, where Democrats supposedly win on domestic and economic issues and Republicans on international and security issues. The visions advanced by each party encompassed a broader notion of the meaning of America and how the country should face the myriad challenges now at our collective feet. This was especially true in the most recent election cycle.

Business types often fall into the CW that in 2008 when the economy fell into an emergency in September, the election outcome was fated in the favor of Democrats. But one particular episode in September at the time the crisis exploded weighed far heavier on the election results, I think, than the emergence of the severe economic threat alone and traditionally held "advantages" of either party. Namely, we saw how each presidential candidate responded to the proposed immediate measures to shore up the financial sector.

In that episode, I believe John McCain acted in a way that clarified Americans' perspective about which candidate had the stronger ability to achieve their vision for America in the future. McCain now infamously "suspended" his campaign (while continuing campaign operations and advertising), flew to Washington D.C., and pledged to cancel the first presidential debate in order to "focus" on the crisis and produce results. But he didn't produce results, or at least not in a way that was apparent to most Americans. And without the legislation he promised as a prerequisite for the debate, he did in fact show up for the debate anyway.

In contrast, Barack Obama pushed the idea that the president must be able to do multiple things at once (the "walk and chew gum" argument). I don't think that idea won as much as McCain's actions failed.

I think that episode, at the exact time most Americans started really to tune into the presidential race, and during the exact time the economic crisis came into the full public spotlight -- in that moment McCain lost the confidence of the electorate. And therefore I think the election was less about which set of ideas about America prevailed, and was more about which candidate was better equipped to succeed in his vision.

Conventional Wisdom has a strong allure. It is common, well-established, accessible, and in the Stephen Colbert sense, "truthy." But CW can often be flat wrong and therefore dangerous in its complacency about issues that require deeper insight. And that's why anyone seeking accuracy in an ever-increasingly complex world should regard CW with a high degree of skepticism.

Perhaps I'm wrong about my view in this particular instance of CW. But it goes without doubt that CW is a threat to our individual judgment about important matters in our own individual lives if left unexamined.

The unexamined life may in fact be worth living, but perhaps it cannot be lived as well.