The authority for questions

Paul Jacob

9/18/2011 12:29:16 AM - Paul Jacob

Question authority. Usually taken as advice to doubt, why not take the slogan literally? Whether you harbor niggly little suspicions or a big fat, full-form dubiety, always ask questions. Probe. And direct those queries to those who say they know something.

That’s how we learn.

These days, accountants and economists should be in high demand, because the most contentious issues seem to be our financial fiascos. It’s becoming an increasingly long list:

  •   Social Security (looming)
  •   The depression (ongoing) following the secondary mortgage market collapse (historical)
  •   Federal government budgeting (historical and ongoing)
  •   Bernie Madoff’s pyramid investment scheme (old news)
  •   The Solyndra/“Solargate” debacle (new news)

Obviously, there’s enough fiascos to go around, these days, in the financial world.

What’s interesting is that in each case some experts bucked a general trend of complacent or even enthusiastic support for these debacles-in-the-making.

According to Fox News’s investigation of the Solyndra subsidy and bankruptcy (two great debacles that often appear together), “emails released from the House Energy and Commerce Committee suggest the Obama administration did later ignore or discount warning signs about the viability” of the solar energy company:

In one Aug. 19, 2009, email obtained by the House panel, it was clear to some administration officials that the solar company had shaky finances.
“While debt coverage is robust under stress conditions, the project cash balance goes to $62,000.00 in September 2011,” said the email, which was prescient since the company did in fact go bankrupt in that very time frame.

But of course the politicians and administration “experts” went on with the project anyway.

This pattern repeats. You see a few Cassandras, but most experts go with the flow of political hope and enthusiasm. That’s why I qualified my allegiance, above, to the leading authorities with the phrase “experts I trust.” The truth is, when it comes to politics, at least, human beings appear prone to herdish behavior.

Or maybe that’s pack behavior. Alpha dogs marshal the betas to bear their teeth at any questioning of alpha dominance, at least until it’s too late.

This explains the “third rail” of the political climate up until about a decade ago. If you questioned the wisdom of the Social Security deal, if you dared doubt the sunny prophecies and hopes and dreams of experts and recipients, you were marginalized. This only stopped after Social Security began nearing its second end game.

From the beginning, there were economists who warned that Social Security was unstable. But they were ignored — at least politically.

Now we know that, had they been listened to and followed, the great, grinding inefficiencies of the system, the Greenspan Commission’s re-making of the basic deal (which over-burdened America’s poor and middle-class and further cut off savings in the nation), and even today’s looming crisis could all have been avoided.

But enthusiastic insiders got their way, and the long cycle of fraudulent politics was set in place.

Further, it was not as if the insider experts didn’t have a clue. Even Paul Samuelson praised Social Security as a Ponzi scheme in the late Sixties. (Hint: When your favorite program is compared favorably to a fraud, prick up your ears.)

You can see the disparity in experts regarding boom and bust, too.

The Paul Krugmans of this world are many. Their function is to bolster up a precarious fraud. They are often well-paid for their support. But, amongst the scholars identified with the Austrian School of Mises and Hayek, there were more than a few who warned of the instability of the markets, as caused by Federal Reserve monetary policy and federal government subsidies into the mortgage market. One investment guru associated with the movement, Peter Schiff, even bucked the bullies of the bull market in the lead up to the collapse. Now he’s been exonerated. But the contempt reserved for him before events went according to his warnings was quite clear and more than enough to make plain the wolfish behavior of the so-called experts

The Bernie Madoff story, too, has its lone expert, bucking the pro-Bernie mania. Harry Markopolos repeatedly warned the SEC about Madoff’s massive fraud. He titled his book on the story No One Would Listen.

So the lesson seems to be: Question authority in both senses. Ask questions. And doubt. Most “authorities” are wrong.

On Fox Business’s Stossel, this week, John Stossel interviewed David H. Freedman, author of Wrong. The program was “Questioning Authority” and the topic proved as live an issue as it ever was. Freedman offers some good advice on the subject of his book’s subtitle: Why Experts Keep Failing Us — And How to Know When Not to Trust Them. Talk about a timely message.

Thankfully, increasing numbers of Americans go further than merely polarize their allegiances to experts, left and right, doubting others and trusting “their own.” They have taken independence of mind a step further. As Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch have argued in The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix America, the growth of independence from both of America’s major parties is on the increase. Narrow partisanship is on the wane. It’s a boom time to be “an Independent.”

And this might mean that something will change regarding our trust in experts.

As the experts’ schemes collapse down around our ears, more and more Americans doubt authority. We have legitimate questions for the official experts. We challenge them. We no longer allow ourselves to be lulled by schemers’ reassuring tones of “we know what’s best.”