Wednesday Briefs – 14 April 2021

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THIS WEEK: Most People are Very Smart; Back to the Border; Podcast: Lebanon in Crisis.

Most People are Very Smart

A sociologist whose name we cannot recall once wrote that “most people are very good drivers”. This seemed like an unusual and provocative statement since the opposite view is widely held. To be sure, most Americans see themselves as very good drivers but they also see others as bad drivers. In a survey by Allstate Insurance, 64% of Americans rated themselves as “excellent” or “very good” drivers, and rated only 22% of other drivers as excellent or very good.

Commentators of the survey have dwelled on the notion that the survey respondents are overconfident and essentially mistaken about their own driving ability. To deflate this self-confidence, it was pointed out that 89% have driven over the speed limit; 45% have driven while excessively tired and 15% while intoxicated; 34% have texted while driving. While these are bad and potentially dangerous habits, they do not on their own prove that the miscreants are bad drivers. In fact, if we define bad driving as “being in an accident or causing an accident”, the low incidence of accidents relative to these percentages would bolster the notion that most people are in fact very good drivers. Their superior driving skills got them safely to their destinations in spite of their bad habits.

In the same vein, most people rate themselves as intelligent or very intelligent and rate others less favorably. And here again, it is possible that they are right about themselves and wrong about others, instead of the opposite. The view that people are in general stupid is very widespread; so widespread in fact that numerous books have been written about human stupidity. This harsh judgment is probably wrong however. It is more likely that humans are in general very smart but not in the same way.

This is not the same as saying that everyone should get an A in math. It continues to be true that only some people (say 10 to 15%) are very good at math and an even smaller percentage (less than 1%) are truly excellent. But other people are smart at other things that may not be as prized by society at the moment. Only very few are smart in the way of say Albert Einstein or Bill Gates. But opportunities in every avenue will appear limitless if we consider that most people are very smart, and that most are smart in ways that we do not immediately understand.

There is comfort in believing that other people are stupid. See for example how people reflexively call each other stupid over the most minor political disagreement. Sinclair Lewis wrote in It Can’t Happen Here “every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on”. But every man is not a king and this comfort is delusional, naive and counter-productive.

Back to the Border

In the Wednesday Briefs – 20 January 2021, we suggested that a more complex foreign policy would return with the new administration. President Trump’s foreign policy had been unconventional but straightforward in its broad lines regarding China, North Korea, Russia, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, ISIS and others. The last three months confirm a change of tack and a return of complexity.

Parenthetically, a more complex or more nuanced approach is often desirable in other endeavors, but not necessarily in foreign policy. A straight and simple message is sometimes preferable when international relations are fraught with misunderstandings across language and cultural barriers. A sensationalist media can also exacerbate these misunderstandings. Whatever the case, we seem to be back to the future, or at least to the pre-Trump approach.

Russia is a renewed concern due to the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and his deteriorating health, and due to the massing of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border. North Korea is launching missiles again. Iran and the US are resuming talks about Iran’s nuclear program but Iran is enriching uranium again. China is raising its voice on Taiwan and other issues. Myanmar had a miltary coup. Europe is generally pleased with the departure of Donald Trump and America’s renewed involvement in climate talks. Central America is again sending its children to the US border. Africa is getting insufficient attention as always, despite its rapidly growing population.

When the pandemic lifts, we are likely to see this renewed complexity morph into one or two challenges overseas. It is possible that the worldwide lockdown contained potential crises and that this pent-up energy will be released when the virus subsides.

Lebanon in Crisis

Last Sunday, we published a podcast with the Beirut-based financier Joe Issa El Khoury. Lebanon’s most recent troubles started in 2019 with a perfect storm, part economic, part financial, part political. But this storm was then compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the explosion in the port of Beirut in 2020.

Issa El Khoury explains the sequence of events that led to the present, and offers a possible way forward.


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The Boom in Certainty

Sinclair Lewis called it “the sedate pomposity of the commercialist”. Now it has spread to many parts of society, not always in its sedate form.

Back in our final days as architecture students in Austin, our class had a farewell gathering with a professor who had been a valued mentor to several of us. As was habitual on such occasions, the professor was discussing with us the work of various architects when the subject of a newly-constructed building came up.

“I hate that building”, one classmate said flatly.

After an awkward silence, the professor mocked: “you mean, strongly dislike?” Off guard, the offending party protested that his use of the word was innocuous then and there. The professor conceded as much but explained that it was a visceral word, the kind of word that forestalls further discussion and that hardens the speaker’s and listener’s opinions. It is difficult to walk back or to change your mind from “hate”, and easier to do so from “dislike” or even from “strongly dislike”, he argued. His advice was to leave in one’s words an open path for retreat, in essence to never burn one’s rhetorical bridges.

This led to another discussion about certainty and about people who speak with certainty. The professor said that he had a reflexive dislike for certainty and that he felt a profound distrust towards people who speak with certainty. There is very little that is certain in life, he said, even among things of which we are convinced at a given point in time. Opinions change, science changes, research advances. New discoveries change our beliefs. Knowledge doesn’t just flow or evolve gradually like a river; it shifts laterally and sometimes suddenly like an earthquake.

Read more

De-Politicizing Climate Activism

Or how Greta Thunberg can create more converts.

“Nature is not a temple. It is a workshop, and a human being is the worker in it.”                               _                                                                                                         Ivan Turgenev

Item 1: The outbreak of coronavirus that threatens to create a global pandemic and the tragic sudden death of basketball star Kobe Bryant both remind us that the unexpected can happen quickly and that we humans live in an environment that can at times be ruthlessly hostile.

Nature, fate, providence, or whatever one chooses to call it, works in inscrutable ways. The virus will spread and endanger millions, if humans do not stop it. It has no will or conscience and would inexorably destroy those who are dearest to us, in a matter of days. And, before downing Bryant’s helicopter and killing him, his young daughter and seven others, fate or gravity did not pause for a millisecond to ponder the sadness that it would inflict on hundreds of millions all over the world through such a senseless death.

Modern society is generally free of deadly viruses and helicopters are generally safe to fly. But it took centuries of human progress to get there in both instances. And it will take more human progress and ingenuity to seal the cracks in our vigilance that allowed the coronavirus to emerge and spread, and the helicopter to crash .

Screen Shot 2020-01-27 at 2.29.15 PM
CDC photo by Dr. Fred Murphy.

Item 2: Last week in Davos, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin volunteered that climate activist Greta Thunberg ought to get an economics degree before preaching her message to grown-up policy makers. That is more confidence in university economics departments than most of Miss Thunberg’s critics would be willing to concede. It is true that Miss Thunberg’s message is incomplete, but that is not for lack of economic pedigree. The building blocks that are glaringly missing from her campaign are 1) a better understanding of Turgenev’s aphorism on nature and man, and 2) a trip or two to China, India or other fast developing countries.

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Cronyism and its Scapegoats

Cronyism destroys trust and assigns the blame to scapegoats of its own creation.

Only a fiercely committed left or right-winger would fail to recognize that there is today a social and political divide that does not easily fit within the traditional mold of left vs. right. If, loosely speaking, the left leans socialist and the right leans capitalist, there is a third branch, cronyism, that is characterized by the rising power and wealth of rent-seeking industries and individuals. In the past, this branch was dominant mainly in poorer countries with weaker institutions. But today it has also gained significant strength in a number of developed countries, including the United States.

In fact, if the Republican Party has been hijacked by Trumpism, as some allege, then we could say that capitalism has been similarly hijacked by cronyism. In our view, this parallel is nearly seamless, given that the GOP is traditionally pro-capitalism – in words if not always in deeds – and that the incumbent administration is largely populated with captains of rent-seeking industries. Read more