The world needs honest experts

I recent got around to reading Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia during a recent vacation. My sister is a huge Matt Taibbi fan and implored me to read it, so I gave it a shot. Truth be told, I find his writing for Rolling Stone pretty entertaining and to the point most of the time, despite the fact that he’s often just profane and mean. A guilty pleasure if there ever was one in journalism.

But you can usually find some very good points in Taibbi’s writing, and this book is no exception. One of the highlights of the book is how Taibbi explains the Tea Party movement. We’ve heard various commentators’ opinions over the past several months as to what the Tea Party actually is: disguised racism and xenophobia, concern for rising national debt levels, a purist interpretation of the constitution, etc. To Taibbi, however, the Tea Party is mostly a legitimate reaction to a world that is quickly becoming more and more complicated and difficult to understand. Rather than take on the very difficult (and in some cases impossible) task of trying to understand these increasingly complicated aspects of life, we human beings prefer instead to cling to simpler, old-fashioned explanations and solutions that are much more palatable. One of his best passages is this one:

Our world isn’t about ideology anymore. It’s about complexity. We live in a complex bureaucratic state with complex laws and complex business practices, and the few organizations with the corporate willpower to master these complexities will inevitably own the political power. On the other hand, movements like the Tea Party more than anything else reflect a widspread longing for simpler times and simpler solutions — just throw the U.S. Constitution at the whole mess and everything will be jake. For immigration, build a big fence. Abolish the Federal Reserve, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education. At times the overt longing for simple answers you get from the Tea Party leaders is so earnest and touching, it almost makes you forget how insane most of them are.

Now, I am not bold enough to say most of these people are “insane” as Taibbi does, but that’s not really the point. The point is that I have not encountered anyone else who describes how hopeless it is for anyone to understand all the complexities of everything at once in this day and age, such that he/she can understand fully whenever anything in the world goes wrong, and know the best way to fix it. You can work your whole life and become an expert in climate patterns, or complex financial markets, or geopolitics, or whatever. Each of these takes a lifetime to properly understand, and even still there’s no guarantee that you’ll really understand what’s going on. The reality of today’s world, which some of us are ready to admit and others aren’t, is that it’s so darn complicated and in need of complex solutions that you have to put your trust in experts who really understand each individual topic.

Griftopia is about a lot of these complicated things: the environment, the US healthcare system, the 2008 financial crisis, the use of financial derivatives, etc.  Admittedly, I don’t know enough about any of these topics, so in a sense I am really putting my trust in Taibbi when he describes, for instance, the various causes of the financial crisis (one of his favorite topics).

But there is one subject that Taibbi covers in this book that I actually do understand, and that’s monetary policy. And the unfortunate reality is that the second chapter of Griftopia is so way off on Alan Greenspan and the Fed’s recent monetary policy choices that it casts a shadow of doubt over the whole book. Taibbi goes over some legitimate criticisms: that the Fed in the 1990s focused too little on bursting investment bubbles, that Greenspan and other policymakers during the time were blinded by ideology, that these policymakers dramatically miscalculated the effects of deregulating financial derivatives, etc.

Unfortunately, Taibbi goes much further than this and tries to convince the reader that Greenspan is both a bumbling idiot and a stooge for the super wealthy. When he discusses the Fed’s decision to keep rates low for most of the decade despite rising asset prices, there is zero discussion of a few critical facts: 1) inflation had shown no serious signs of increase, 2) the tech and housing bubbles weren’t widely recognized as “bubbles” until they had already popped, 3) and that Greenspan’s monetary policy decisions were agreed upon not only by most members of the Federal Open Market Committee at the time, but huge numbers of economists both inside and outside the Fed.

The point here is not to disagree with Taibbi’s conclusion about Greenspan. It’s that Taibbi’s chapter on the former Fed chairman is so way off that I can make just one of these two conclusions: either he has a) conveniently distorted the body of information on the subject to sway his readers, most of whom don’t know the first thing about monetary policy (just like I don’t understand climatology) and have no choice but to take his word for it, or that b) Taibbi himself doesn’t fully understand it.

In either case, it casts quite an ironic shadow over the remainder of the book. How am I supposed to believe Taibbi’s chapters on the 2008 banking crisis or on the recent healthcare legislation? Both are so complicated that to really understand them, you either need to be an expert or you need another expert to break them down. And by my judgment, Taibbi is not the man for this particular job.

No wonder, as Taibbi himself attests, people respond to an increasingly multifaceted and complex world by desperately clinging to simplicity. It’s not just the complexity that’s overwhelming; it’s the apparent lack of individuals willing to honestly help us through it.

To me this is yet another instance where the resurrection of human goodness — the point of Baha’u’llah’s and every other Spiritual Luminary’s arduous mission — is a mysterious antidote for so many of the world’s social problems. The importance of things like honesty, integrity, justice, and service to others applies not just to the so-called “masses”; it also applies to our administrators, academics, scientists, and every other type of expert who are needed more than ever to help us navigate our complex world.


3 thoughts on “The world needs honest experts

  1. I have not read Taibbi’s book but I grasped some points from your assessment.Thank you for bringing up “mean and profane” tone in journalism. This meanness and sarcasm often is seen in political and most debates in the media. This intensely pollutes truth and sincerity. Unfortunately masses are following suit.
    Credit to Taibbi, complexity is the major cause of frustration and anger in many aspects of modern life. But, I really do not agree that this is the cause for the Tea Party’s germination. I am suspicious that such “complexities” in economics and law have been intentionally and methodically used by some financial institutions and individuals to reap huge profits at the price of great risk to the safety and security of masses in the U.S. and abroad and everything is legal and there is no convincing solution at sight.
    I admire your conclusion that we need the “resurrection of human goodness”. I agree whole heartedly simply because of the lack of any other alternative. Unfortunately the prevailing premise nowadays is that humans do not have an innate “goodness” but rather greed and animal instincts.
    We need “good” experts to protect us; one good beginning is Elizabeth Warner the manager of the U.S. Consumer Protection Agency. Please look her up.

  2. re: Alan Greenspan, aren’t both you and Taibbi overlooking the Fed’s role in regulation? Had he not taken such an irresponsibly hard line on the cult of the free market, it’s likely that a lower percentage of economy-wide gains would’ve accrued to the wealthiest minority. Thus, while his monetary policy was explicable, it was also predicated on the decoupling of growth from inflation in which he was complicit.

    • I think you’re right. There were enough people during the 1990s who rang the alarm bell about all the financial deregulation that was occurring under Greenspan’s watch that you can’t give him (or people like Larry Summers, for instance) a pass. Lately I have lost some more respect for him as he has tried to argue publicly that fear of excessive government regulation, not lack of demand, is the reason why businesses aren’t spending, an argument that has little or no basis in actual evidence and reveals how glued to his ideology he is. It’s a bit of a sad fall from grace.

      But anyway, the way Matt Taibbi discusses his monetary policy decisions is wrong. Either he doesn’t properly remember the facts (inflation showed no signs of being a problem, and the good times weren’t exactly rolling for the poor and middle classes anyway despite the growth and unemployment numbers), or he’s trying to capitalize on the reader’s relative lack of expertise. I was a very low level researcher at the Fed during a couple of those years, but I was still there, and I can tell you that there were plenty of smart people who agreed with what the Fed was doing with monetary policy.

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