(Centennial Fellow) While it included some reasonably expressed generalities, President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech was also a mix of black swan obliviousness and invisible gorilla syndrome, with some goulash for the gullible thrown in as well.
The worst of it revealed much that’s wrong with politics, even as it was delivered in a tone of morally superior wisdom that clearly caused some commentators to forget the test of wisdom. It is found in outcomes far different from a recovery so mangled that average middle-class income per household actually declined thousands of dollars more than during the preceding recession.
Let’s review some of the speech by talking first about black swans, moving through my list of other figurative allusions and throwing in a few concrete illustrations among many possibilities.
Black swan theory owes its formulation to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a professor of risk engineering who starts with the obvious observation that there’s a lot we don’t know. For centuries, people thought all swans were white, and then black ones were found in Australia, he tells us. His notion is that time and again, something wholly unanticipated will pop out of the rushes to make our best-laid calculations go awry.
This theory is important in politics because we too often get vast schemes — think of “Obamacare,” the Affordable Care Act — that boast of a vast understanding they cannot possibly have, meaning calamity lurks. The answer to avoiding unintended, untoward consequences of major magnitude is to take just one small, prudent step at a time and to remain alert to possibilities not discoverable in expertise never so omnisciently informed as it pretends to be.
That seems unlikely as Obama and Congress plot some new doozy of a program to fix global warming.
As Yale economist William Nordhaus has pointed out, something along the lines of an early Al Gore cap-and-trade proposal could do trillions of dollars more damage than good. There are some nonthreatening, possibly productive actions that might help, such as still more reliance on natural gas. But considering the president’s warning in his speech to “act before it’s too late” and his overreach already in regulation and pork to the unworthy, I wonder if Katie or Republicans should consider barring the door.
Next we come to an important insight about how the visible can be invisible. Though not originated by cognitive psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, the idea does owe the gorilla connection to an experiment the two conducted at Harvard University more than 10 years ago.
They had students watch a video with instructions to count basketball passes made by a bunch of players. In the middle of it, a woman dressed as a gorilla walks out and thumps her chest. Half the students tested did not even notice her.
The moral of the story is that people easily miss what is right before their eyes when their attention is primarily directed at something else. In a way, it’s the other side of the black swan coin — instead of understandably not seeing what has never appeared before you, you fail to see what has ostentatiously appeared before you.
Politicians do this all the time, as when they pass minimum wage laws despite considerable evidence showing they do far more harm than good, costing people jobs. These ladies and gentlemen get so diverted by their wish to play the role of widely worshipped intervening angels that they neglect the economic reality thumping its chest directly in front of them.
Is that what Obama did when he called for an increase of the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour, making it sound as if a great many families are dependent on this income when in fact it mostly goes to a tiny percentage of workers adding to a family total?
I am not sure but suspect he was intentionally feeding goulash to the gullible for political advantage, although I have to concede that, despite its alliterative attraction, “goulash” is not quite the right word. It refers to a nourishing stew, and there was nothing nourishing about this nonsense.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado and a Centennial Institute Fellow.