Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

25 December 2008

Think People, Not Ideas


One of life’s great lessons—which many learn too late—is that people matter more than ideas.

I learned that lesson early in adulthood. My work acquainted me with an extraordinary scientist at the beginning of the biotech revolution. He was (maybe still is; we lost touch) one of the smartest men I’d ever met. Besides accumulating a host of academic awards, he had picked up his kid’s Rubik’s Cube and solved it, by himself, methodically, in less than an hour.

But he had far more than analytical intelligence. He was a thoroughly honest, decent and approachable man, with common sense and people skills rare in academia. I observed his finer qualities as I watched him prepare to launch a business in his brave new field.

Neither I nor the people he dealt with understood much about that field or his ideas. But we all understood how exceptionally talented he was. So I scraped together everything I could afford and invested in his new company. I still remember rushing down to the bank with a cashier’s check just in time to subscribe to the limited partnership. About six years later, my investment had increased fourteen fold.

Those like me who teach and do research often love ideas more than people. So do many political pundits. People are so slippery and complex. They can turn on you or, like Blago, rot from within. Ideas, in contrast, seem steady and unchanging.

Academics and pundits love it when good ideas triumph. That’s why scientists love the story of French physicist Louis de Broglie. He discovered the numerical relationship between the energy of a photon and the frequency of its electromagnetic waves. Among many other things, his formulas explain why X-rays are much more potent than ordinary red light.

De Broglie wrote up his discovery in his doctoral thesis at the University of Paris. But his thesis was too short, only a few pages. So the University famously refused to award him the degree. Five years later, after experiments confirmed his theory, De Broglie won the Nobel Prize for his thesis. Then he got his degree.

Outside the halls of academe, life is seldom like that. It’s not easy to verify good social or business ideas with a few experiments. You have to risk political or financial capital, sometimes both. Sometimes you have to put your reputation—and others’ lives, fortunes and sacred honor— at risk for decades.

So in social and political life good ideas often go begging. Harry Truman recognized the need for universal health care, but we still don’t have it. Jimmy Carter warned us thirty years ago to wean ourselves from oil. He wore sweaters in the White House as a symbol of conservation, but the nation ridiculed him. After the Japanese auto “invasion” of the 1980s, anyone could see that better engineered, lighter, smaller, more fuel efficient cars were the auto industry’s future. But Detroit never took the hint. Instead it stayed on its glide path toward oil addiction and a handout from Washington.

Were these failures of ideology or failures of leadership? The right ideas were old; they still are. What was missing was people who could understand them and put them to work, avoiding obstacles and exploiting changed circumstances.

Ideas also can be treacherous. They are so malleable. People can twist and abuse them, willfully or by neglect.

In the hands of Dubya and his crew, the notion that free markets are powerful tools for social progress became “greed is good.” Thomas Jefferson’s idea that the natural state of Man is liberty became “let’s force it down the throats of alien people who never had it and don’t understand it.” After thousands of American deaths, tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths, millions displaced and trillions spent, that ill-advised corollary is still in doubt.

Dubya’s everlasting tragedy is that not all of his ideas were bad. We know now that invading Iraq and privatizing Social Security were bad ideas. But some of Dubya’s ideas were good. He won in 2004 in part because he had a grand vision, while John Kerry had none. The problem was that most of Dubya’s ideas were wildly unrealistic, and he and his team were incompetent to identify the good ones and carry them out.

A love of ideas may be why the mainstream media took so long to warm to Barack Obama. Only last week, as it made Obama its “Man of the Year,” did Time Magazine finally get it right. Obama’s most important characteristics are not his race, his funny name, his unusual family background, his brilliant speechmaking, his charisma, his coolness under fire, or any of the other things about which our media obsessed endlessly. They are his competence and businesslike, non-ideological approach to solving problems—his willingness to go wherever the facts and pragmatism lead him.

We’ve lacked leaders with those traits for so long that it took Obama’s spectacular electoral success for Time to see the light. A bit late for voters, wouldn’t you say?

In fact, it’s hard to pin any ideas on Obama. Change is not an idea; it’s a campaign slogan. In his first news conference, Obama wouldn’t even commit himself to raising taxes on the rich. Let’s “take a look at the data,” he said, and then decide what to do. To him, ideas are not ends in themselves; they are only tools to build a more perfect union. That edifice, not the tools used to build it, are his final end. As his extraordinary campaign has shown, he’s a good builder.

We are in good hands not because Obama has good ideas (which he does), but because he’s a good person: superbly educated, smart, thoughtful, careful, humble, and endowed with extraordinary judgment and managerial skill. Somehow, despite all the myth and rumors, the American electorate picked the best candidate: the best leader, the best manager.

Obama picked his Cabinet the same way. With few exceptions, they’re low-key, highly skilled, non-ideological people like him. He even balanced the few ideological and political picks with opposing forces elsewhere in his administration. With every selection and announcement, he was telling us “ideas don’t matter; people do.” Ideas often have to change with circumstances.

If we can accept this bit of his leadership and run with it, we just might pull ourselves out of our slump quicker than anyone now expects. Pick the best people, and good ideas will follow. The converse just isn’t so.

With that idea firmly in mind, we can look forward to a new year with better leadership. Happy New Year!

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