Rats Steering the Ship of State

by | Feb 10, 2017

Rats don’t jump from a sinking ship as commonly thought.  They actually steer the ship.

No, this isn’t a metaphor for Trump’s presidency.  It’s a metaphor for all presidencies, all politicians, all leaders in every endeavor, and all humans who believe that they are more rational and logical than the average person.  This is especially true for yours truly, Mr. Rat Brain.

Where did I get such a stupid metaphor?  From none other than Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, the renowned psychologist who spent a lifetime studying how people actually think and make decisions, including well-educated people with high IQs.

Only after spending a lot of time studying his studies did I realize that my 18 years of formal education and nearly a half-century of informal education were highly deficient, because none of it taught me how I actually think—or don’t think.  I would have avoided a lot of mistakes and embarrassment and a bad first marriage if I had learned this as a freshman in high school.

Kahneman would frequently give a talk titled, “Cognitive Limitations and Public Decision Making.”  He expressed dismay in the talk that “an organism equipped with an affective and hormonal system not much different from that of the jungle rat being given the ability to destroy every living thing by pushing a few buttons.”

He went on to lament that “crucial decisions are made today, as thousands of years ago, in terms of the intuitive guesses and preferences of a few men in positions of authority.”  As Kahneman’s extensive research revealed, these men (and women) don’t understand the inner workings of their own minds and thus make decisions on gut instincts instead of facts, reason, logic, and analysis.  Likewise, we elect them to office based on our own gut instincts instead of rationality and then wonder why things are so screwed up.  Of course, Republicans claim that they themselves are rational but Democrats are irrational—and vice versa.

This explains why I became a classical liberal, or libertarian in today’s parlance.  Libertarianism is based on reason, facts, and logic, or so we libertarians lie to ourselves.  Actually, libertarianism (as well as the discipline of economics) concludes that people are rational, which is a profoundly irrational conclusion totally divorced from reality.

Examples of irrationality abound in today’s politics.  Take Republicans who are angry that Congress hasn’t yet repealed and replaced ObamaCare.  This would be the same ObamaCare legislation and the corresponding thousands of pages of indecipherable rules and regulations that were thrown together hurriedly without thinking through the consequences.  It’s irrational to think that replacing ObamaCare with something else hurriedly thrown together will not result in chaos and other unintended consequences.

This is something that Kahneman addressed:  the tendency of decision makers to grossly underestimate the time it takes to get something done, which throws their entire organization (or nation) into chaos, wastes time and money, and makes their subordinates (or citizens) cynical and frustrated with their leadership.

It’s a behavior that I saw firsthand many times as a high-priced management consultant to movers and shakers in business, academia, and nonprofits.

Invariably, when developing strategic and operational plans in team meetings, executives would come up with timeframes for completing projects and initiatives that were about one-fifth of the actual time it would take.  This was completely irrational, because it went against their own years of experience in which projects and initiatives always took a lot longer than planned.   The only way of getting them to see this reality was for me to ask them how long it took to complete past projects and initiatives that were similar to the ones that they were currently planning.  After an awkward silence and sheepish looks, they would eventually admit that past plans always took a lot longer to implement than originally thought.

Hurried decision making also resulted in important issues and differences of opinion not being addressed, which resulted in the issues being submerged, only to bob to the surface later, like an unmoored anti-ship mine, to cause unnecessary conflicts, political gamesmanship, and expensive spinning of wheels.  The cure for this, I would tell my clients, was to spend more time in meetings at the front end to hammer out their differences and come together as a team so that the rest of the organization wasn’t hammered later as a result.  They thought I was off my rocker, because, as they said, meetings were an unproductive waste of time.  My response was, “That’s because you let them be an unproductive waste of time.”

Mind you, these were organizations of a couple of hundred employees to tens of thousands of employees—a tiny fraction of the size of a nation of 320 million people and a government of a few million employees, a government with an army and nuclear weapons.  It scares the bejeezus out of me, and should scare you too, to realize how out of control the US government is—how chaos reigns behind the curtain of pomp and ceremony, behind the marble facades, behind the wood-paneled committee rooms, and behind the gravitas of the people at the top.

But it’s just as much our fault as the fault of our leaders.  We demand that our leaders be decisive, be men and women of action, and be willing to quickly stick it to the other party and to our perceived enemies.  We think they are much smarter than they actually are, a false attribute that we also confer on so-called experts in other fields.  It doesn’t get much more irrational than this.

To see how irrational, consider all of the disasters that our leaders have inflicted on the nation.  For example, the brain trust of the Kennedy administration came up with the ill-planned folly of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and with sending “advisors” to Vietnam.   Then the Johnson administration, including the supposed genius, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the former CEO of Ford, thought we could win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, who were embroiled in not only a civil war but also a nationalist war against French colonialism, by bombing the crap out of them.  Fifty-five thousand American men died as a result of their hurried decisions and lack of planning, which in turn were the result of rat brains.

Learning nothing from these and other disasters, the administration of Bush the Second, with the support of congressional Democrats, thought we could magically turn Iraq into an enlightened democracy by conquering the Iraqi army, by deposing and hanging Saddam Hussein, and by firing all the Baathist Sunnis who knew how to run the government, including how to pick up garbage and keep power plants running.  Now many of those same Baathists have joined ISIS and are using American weapons to kill their Shiite enemies; and now, having removed the Sunni counterbalance to Shiite Iran, we are dismayed that Iran has become emboldened in the region.  It’s a similar disaster story in Afghanistan and Libya.

Trump’s travel ban is in the same vein.  It is a decision that was made hurriedly without thinking through the details and ramifications.  One can only imagine the finger-pointing, dissension, and chaos among Trump’s cabinet and their respective agencies.  The same with building the wall.  I’m no expert on border control, but as an Arizonan, I can think of scores of issues that have to be addressed, such as the boundary between Mexico and the Tohono O’odham tribal lands of southern Arizona, which are a main route for drug runners and illegal immigrants. There is not even a fence along the boundary, because the tribe wants free access to its historical lands.   How does this get resolved, what are the rights of Indian nations versus the federal government, how long will it take to get resolution when the issue will no doubt end up in court, and how will bad guys be kept from tunneling under the wall or climbing over it along its desolate stretches in the Sonoran desert?   These are not only important questions but rational ones.  However, one risks being typecast as anti-Trump or pro-illegal immigration by asking them.

And these issues pale in complexity and ramifications to other geopolitical issues, such as trade, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ISIS, and our relationships with China, Russia, Europe, and the rest of the world.

If you think that Kahneman was over the top in comparing the brains of rats to the brains of leaders, you might be right.  On the other hand, it would be much better for us if we saw our leaders and ourselves as being as irrational as rats much of the time.

If we were to spend more time understanding how we think and make decisions and less time making impulsive, irrational decisions, there might be fewer divorces, fewer kids raised in one-parent households, fewer personal bankruptcies, fewer American soldiers killed in foolish conflicts, fewer imbecilic government programs, and fewer bureaucrats and so-called experts telling us how to live our lives.

Take it from Mr. Rat Brain.

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