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Tuesday, August 3, 2004


My wife copied down this quote from Eric Hoffer and left it on my bedside table:

"In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

I suspect that most of us have areas of our lives where we are learners, and areas where we are learned. It's wisdom well-taken, isn't it, that in everything where we seem to be successful, we should have the humility and intellectual honesty to consider whether we haven't crossed over the boundary from learner to learned?

But it seems to be wisdom seldom taken. So consider for a moment the areas where you might rightly be regarded by your peers as learned. Are you open -- truly open -- to the new idea?

Of course we all say "yes." How can we not? But is the reality in fact something different? What I see at times, for example, is learned people proclaiming that the new idea "has been tried before." They pretend that the new idea is in fact an old, failed idea, and warn others away from it. Now, there's nothing new under the sun, so to speak, and so the reality of innovations is that most of them are combinations of ideas, tools, and strategies tried and discarded before. Thus it is easy for the learned to reject the new by telling himself that it is really old.

And so in field after field, the innovations of learners overtake the conventions of the learned, who are the last to discover that yes, the world has changed.

This is a vulnerability borne of pride. It was pride that led editorial writers at the New York Times, for example, to proclaim in 1921 that Robert Goddard, the eventual father of rocket science, "lacks the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." It takes humility, on the other hand, to follow the advice of Peter Drucker, who once wrote that, "It is much cheaper to make yourself obsolete than to be made obsolete by your competitors."

Drucker was 91 years old when he made that observation. Would that the rest of us had so much humility age 21. So ask yourself: am I a learner, or just learned? Look at what you do through the eyes of the learner. Maybe you'll discover the next big idea.

Did I ever mention that I used to do public speaking on management and leadership? Sometimes I still bust out with something like the foregoing, usually in my sleep. Thank you for your patience. I now return you to your regular programming.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Monday, August 2, 2004

Preferences Revealed

The only good thing about getting on a kiddy caterpillar roller coaster with your two year-old, wrenching your back, and having the injury get progressively worse until you are laid up for most of the weekend is that you get caught up on your magazines. This is how I found myself reading one of the most remarkably dense statements I have ever encountered, in a February issue of National Review, no less.

The statement comes from Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, in his review of Gregg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox. I'll confess at the outset an admiration for Easterbrook, who has convictions that lean left but whose pursuit of truth frequently leads him to chip away at the shibboleths of big-government socialism. Would that the Right had more people as intellectually honest. My feeling for Moore is mildly positive as well; I've heard him speak before, and his message about the unrestrained, shamelessly profligate spending of Republican-dominated state legislatures in the 1990's is sure to boil any thinking man's blood.

But here is Moore trying to puncture Easterbrook's claim that material progress may not secure happiness, and in fact may mitigate against it:

". . . as an economist, I'm a bit of a skeptic on Easterbrook's 'paradox of progress' argument. We economists believe in 'revealed preferences': If you choose something voluntarily, then -- we assume -- you are better off. If getting richer and having more and more things doesn't make us happier, why do we spend so much of our lives trying to get more money?"

I am hard put to come up with a sentence that more ferociously skewers by caricature the economist than that last. I wonder how an adult can even formulate such a thought without shrinking from it in embarrassment. Who among us does not know someone who has wrecked his life on the rocks of his own material success, and as a result is mired in deep, abject misery? Indeed, who among us has not lain awake in the twilight hours -- when the heart is least stifled and our thoughts most honest -- and feared that such might well be his own wretched lot?

But such is the nature of economics, that the model must trump human experience. Revealed preferences are a critical assumption because otherwise we must understand the black box of the human heart and mind, and this cannot be done with slide rule and statistics.

A great failing of professional economists, and of the ideologies which make them their high priests, is that they transmogrify simple descriptive models of human behavior into prescriptions. Man seeks material gain because it is what he believes is best for him -- this is a description that allows us to build predictive models of behavior. Somehow the average economist has turned this into a prescription for living. Eat, drink, and be merry, he says, for it grows the GDP.

Indeed, it seems that economists turn the old adage about accountants on its head: They know the value of everything, and the cost of nothing.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments