The Jury Talks Back


On Humility and Saying “I Don’t Know” Plus an Update on that Bloomberg Reporter’s Smear of a Trump Official

Filed under: Uncategorized — Patterico @ 7:59 am

I started out thinking I might write about the fallout from the noxious actions of Bloomberg reporter Ben Penn, who managed to get a Labor Department official fired by smearing him as anti-Semitic, when the guy is obviously anything but. But what is there to say? The Bloomberg reporter has doubled down, boasting that he got the guy fired which is good because he didn’t like his policies.

The Trump administration has not admitted error or offered the guy his job back. And Trump fans are of course excusing Trump for allowing this to happen, because of course you can’t expect Mr. “He Fights” to do the right thing when there is a narrative out there. There’s your update in a paragraph: nothing has changed. The media still sucks, Trump is still a gutless swine who cares about only himself, and his fans will still excuse literally anything he does.

Not much to say. So I’ll write about something else: our need to seek out leaders to act like they know everything.

I listened to a podcast from Russ Roberts last night in which he had a conversation with a listener of his named David Deppner, who had written Roberts a question. I thought it was neat and it reminded me of Robert Murphy’s podcast with me: a podcast episode where the host interviews someone not because they are famous, but because they wrote the host with a point of view that the host found interesting and the host decided to have them on to talk about it.

Deppner’s question challenged Roberts on his campaign for people to be humble and to say “I don’t know.” Roberts is one of the most well read and thoughtful people I have listened to. Yet he constantly says the words “I don’t know” and says we should all emphasize the limitations of our knowledge. Let’s not pretend we know the answers, he says, because often we don’t.

Deppner pointed out that for people in positions of leadership, this approach doesn’t work — and the bigger the position of leadership, the less it works. Imagine a Democrat on the presidential debate stage saying in response to a question: “That’s a complicated problem and we don’t necessarily know how to fix it.” They’d be toast faster than a really thin piece of toast in a really really powerful toaster. (I’m very good at similes, people. The best, really.) We want leaders who are confident. The guy in the Oval Office now is supremely incompetent but he’s the most confident guy on Earth, and I know smart people who hold out hope that his idiot policies (like tariffs) will somehow end up working out to be a great success — I think because they come under the sway of his supreme (misplaced) confidence.

Deppner talks about having run a business, and describes a time when an employee approached him and asked him about the future of the company. Deppner gave an answer that was nuanced, with predictions and discussions of risks and possibilities. The employee rebuked Deppner and said she wanted a leader like Gene Kranz, the guy in Apollo 13 who tells everyone exactly what they’re going to do and says “failure is not an option.” CEOs of giant corporations have to be more like Gene Kranz and less like David Deppner, argued Deppner. A humble guy who says “I don’t know” a lot can’t run a giant corporation like Pepsi.

I see this in the blogging world too, by the way. Readers gravitate towards people who project supreme confidence. Readers prefer a writer whose every interaction is a d[vowel deleted]ck-measuring contest and whose hostile interactions end with, say, a challenge to a real-life fight, rather than a writer who disagrees with someone and ends by saying “I disagree with you but I respect your opinion.” The Trumpy view that you never ever ever apologize and you never ever ever back down is popular because people like that in a leader. They look up to it. I personally think that is a sad comment on society, but I can’t pretend it’s not how society works. It is.

So what’s the answer? Well, Roberts has his own answer to all this, and because it’s Roberts, it’s nuanced. If you’re interested enough, listen to the episode. Having read the post, you’re probably looking for a definitive “here’s the answer to this problem” conclusion to the post, and I’m going to frustrate you by not providing it, thus creating a performative metaphor for the phenomenon I’m discussing: we want simple, confident answers, and we don’t like it when we don’t get them. Roberts has his answer, but I think the question itself is what’s really interesting, and my answer is: “I don’t know.”

P.S. But I do know one thing for sure: Bloomberg reporter Ben Penn is a deceptive crapweasel, and if Shirley Sherrod had a valid case against Andrew Breitbart (and I’m not saying he did) then Leif Olson has at least as valid a case against Penn.

Now isn’t that P.S. way more satisfying than the way the post was going to end otherwise?

1 Comment »

  1. ” …. way more satisfying than the way the post was going to end otherwise?”

    Hmmm, I …. don’t know. But it does spell out the need to cater to the lowest common denominator for commercio-political success. I wonder why that seems to be more necessary now than it used to be. A few years back, the predictions of the imminent “Idiocracy” seemed exaggerated ….

    Comment by Luke Stywalker — 9/5/2019 @ 12:44 am

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