Chapter 16


as of June 28, 2017

The debate in the first two chapters, can there be design without a designer, has appeared in other guises than design itself. In economic development, some people, such as Gunnar Myrdal, have asserted that poor countries could not develop without the direction of experts. Poor countries require planners, who would of course come from western, developed countries. This topdown planning, by experts, became known as “conscious design.”

Economic Development

Without a plan, development, where it occurs, is haphazard. Is that a bad thing? No one planned the great U.S. migrations west, first to mine gold, then to avoid the dust bowl, and more recently because Microsoft is in Washington, Silicon Valley is in the San Francisco Bay area, and Hollywood is in Los Angeles. No one planned all that, but it did happen, whereas planners’ dreams often do not. I referred to some present-day “conscious planning” in Chapter 11, discussing economic “clusters” sponsored by states. I think little of the idea of states determining what clusters they should support, other than those that already exist, that have sprung up on their own. Clusters like Silicon Valley form without state planning. Both tech and food clusters are forming in Brooklyn, which once operated as a bedroom suburb to Manhattan. Michelin built a tire factory in Greenville, South Carolina, after BMW opened one there, creating an automobile cluster.

Earlier, spinning mills (to provide yarn) and finishing facilities (the after-weaving treatment of fabric) opened near the weaving mills around Greensboro, North Carolina. One does not need an expert, a planner, to understand this, or to accomplish it. Once established, though, one might think the state has an interest in helping the cluster survive. No one paid attention as the textile industry virtually disappeared. Whether states could have—or should have—saved them is not clear, but such action was never proposed.

Let’s consider “the free market” to be the opposite of conscious development planning. The free market allowed mill owners to make disastrous decisions that decimated the textile industry in the first decade of the 21st century. At the same time, banks exploded, only to be saved by government. Proponents of free market development would have to explain why, without some authoritarian control, some places fall apart, and others never do develop. Detroit declared bankruptcy as automobile manufacturing, like textiles before it, moved south. Maybe this destruction and rebirth is ultimately good. Maybe it is inefficient, but otherwise inevitable. Maybe something between central planning and the “free market” is where we should be. It seems that we do not have the understanding, or the political will, to do better. Saving banks at the expense of the people they badly served is an example of political power, not of good economic development policy. We exercise no development principles that would consistently lead to smart or beneficial governmental action.

We can agree, then, that development planning requires experts. If they exist, no one knows who they are. W. Arthur Lewis earned a Nobel Prize as a development economist but do we remember any lesson he taught us, other than to rely on experts?1 Is there some lesson we are not following today, that would improve lives? The “west” pours money into Africa, but no noticeable economic development emerges. Mosquito nets to slow the spread of malaria surely improve lives, if they are used for that purpose, but often they are not. The living standards of those who survive remain stagnant, except those who misuse the nets for fishing, that is, for over-fishing. Sometimes there are successful vaccination campaigns, and sometimes those who came to vaccinate are murdered.

In 1973, E. F. Schumacher presented a picture of economic development that was appealing because it did not require highly capitalized entities, and did not seem to require experts to plan the operation.2 Schumacher argued against modern technology for underdeveloped areas, and against western “development” economists who advocated large, planned programs. Rather, he suggested that small-scale businesses could produce the goods and services these countries need, at this stage of development. Some entrepreneurs have struggled to success, but no small-scale business revolution followed.

Why? Probably for two reasons. One is that poor countries have monopolists who achieve their position through government corruption. Oh yes, that is a stereotype, but it is also largely true. On the other hand, what is also true is that most countries have many small entrepreneurs, too many to be eliminated by the billionaires. What keeps small entrepreneurs small, besides the enmity of the ruling elite, is lack of infrastructure and finance. What is needed is a way to collectivize savings and use them to support small startups or small expansions. This is a slow process, but is in fact happening. Individuals even in “undeveloped” countries have expertise to produce things. They lack a trustworthy financial system that can take some risks and share in the rewards. They lack the transportation infrastructure required to broaden their markets, and the legal system required to make and enforce contracts.2A And they are frustrated, especially in former colonies, by a bureaucracy that hinders rather than helps these individual entrepreneurs.

As economic development has progressed—very slowly, indeed—it has not gotten much help from “development economists,” so-called experts. It has gotten some help from new methods of finance, which required local expertise to establish. Thinking too large, western countries make the typical mistake of not knowing what kind of expertise they should provide. Perhaps the Peace Corps has been the most successful economic development assistance the United States has ever given to other countries.

Again, there is an intermediate concept. Between planned (by experts) development and free development (or non-development, or chaos), suppose there were several development ideas floating around. And suppose—a dilemma I have stated often—no one knows which might be the best idea, which one came from a true expert. So, some people say, fund several of them. Then, if it appears that one concept is better than the others, fund several variants of it. And then several variants of the variant that seems to work best. It might take 50 years or more to determine a successful development policy, but this is a way to get somewhere without thinking, a priori, that we know which so-called expert has the best ideas.

How would the results be assessed? Some planners who espouse one scheme might use criteria indicating success, while the funding agency, using different criteria, disagrees. In addition to this scheme ending in controversy and confusion, it commits a lot of funds to what we know will turn out to be failures. As we learned when the federal government supported several solar-energy startups, such failures—which actually show the dynamism of this multiple-factor approach to development—are politically disastrous.3 One might see Charter Schools as exactly this scheme: Throw out some money and try to determine, later, what success looks like, and why. And one might see federally imposed “common core” standards, generated by so-called experts, as creating the bureaucracy that will stifle this experiment.

The people with political expertise to get support for a project may not have the smarts to effectuate it. Or it may be the wrong project. When a real expert is put up for a position at The Federal Reserve, our Senate cannot confirm him. When we look at Supreme Court appointees we see that the problem often starts long before Senate hearings. Was Clarence Thomas really the best legal mind available? Or Samuel Alito? Or Sonia Sotomayor? Or Neil Gorsuch?  None of them was.

In an “ambitious randomized social experiment,” poor people—crowded into projects and other inferior housing with each other—were “liberated,” that is, provided housing in areas not quite as poor. As expected, those families, on average, were seen later to have improved their housing conditions. The question—the point of the project—was: What other outcomes had improved? Participants also had better health, when followed up years later, than a control group. However, if the object of this experiment was to incorporate these people into economic development, it did not do well.4

Families in the experimental group did not experience better employment or income outcomes than the other families. The children in the Section 8 and experimental groups did not have better educational achievements than those in the control group and were not significantly less likely to engage in most forms of risky or criminal behavior.

These disappointing results from a truly innovative study do not imply that we cannot learn. Neither do they tell us what we should learn.  The initial reaction has been that the families were moved when both adults and children had already been conditioned by and to the norms of the poor areas from which they were drawn. That should not have been a surprise. Apparently organizers of that program assumed that better values would be transmitted from their new neighbors (who presumably had worked, saved, and invested in their children) to the formerly worse off. This assumption is worse than simplistic—it is wrong. It does not understand the role of tribes, clans, extended families—units in which members think of “us” and, of those not in the unit, “them.” And it does not understand how long-lasting values, or traits, or world views remain tribe-bound. Nor does it understand the role of social interaction in transmitting values.

The results from the “Moving To Opportunity” program most reported come from Boston. The experiment was also conducted in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. Presenting results from Yonkers, NY, where a court ordered a similar program, the authors comment on “inconsistent” findings among these areas, “depending upon how the data are analyzed.”4A These authors also contend that

Adults who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods were more likely to work and less likely to receive welfare than were adults who stayed in high-poverty neighborhoods.

Indeed, different “experts” have come to different conclusions, at least in part by measuring different outcomes. Chetty and Hendren tell us that children who moved with their families from a lower income to a higher income setting gained income themselves, measured when they become 26 years old. The amount of the gain is greater the younger they were when their family made the move.5 

The moves made in the Chetty-Hendren study were based on individual circumstances, not through a federal program. It could be that what was missing from government programs was individual initiative. But even the results of the Moving To Opportunity experiment are in dispute. Responding to an article by Susan Clampet-Lundquist and Douglas Massey, a number of authors (including those of the original study) “disagree with each of the[ir] main methodological and substantive points.”4B

So what do the development “experts” recommend?4C   The “chaos” of unplanned development allows individual actions to determine outcomes. It might be that the government can provide only opportunity, but it also might be that few take that opportunity, and only few of them benefit from it.  One problem with both randomized experiments and ex-post studies is that the average result masks the positive results, and the reasons for them.  No study of these programs discusses their costs, which might lead to asking if there were a better way to achieve such limited outcomes. Perhaps, rather than randomly selecting families to be moved into better circumstances, an effective path to development would require more initiatives from the people given these new opportunities.

Political Values

William Easterly builds a case for the set of values he calls “individualistic” as a better basis for economic development than “collectivist” values—which might be called autocratic. One way to distinguish these two “world views” is that in the individualistic model, leaders (presidents, prime ministers) are there to serve the people, whereas in the autocratic model, the people are there to serve the leaders (kings, emperors, dictators). Easterly thinks little of the “call in the experts” approach. As part of his argument that these values have an impact on economic development, he provides several correlations of long-lasting values and economic growth.

[W]hen the group’s interests are supreme, there is an insider/outsider distinction in which members behave well with regard to their own group but are free to cheat and abuse those outside the group. . . The insiders who support the regime and receive its patronage see nothing strange in the regime’s brutal repression of outsiders whom the insiders do not respect anyway.6

It can take centuries for values to change. For example, using organ donations as a measure of willingness to give to strangers:

[W]hether towns in northern Italy were or were not free cities at the time of the battle of Legnano in 1176 helps predict whether they have an organ donor association today.7

“Free” cities means not ruled by autocrats, thus having individualistic values, not values dominated by “us” and “them.” When poor people are moved into housing among the non-poor, we should expect that they were “us” to themselves, and “them” to the people who defined the neighborhood as “better off.” Having black neighbors did not influence the attitude of Archie Bunker toward race in All In The Family, a television program with a correct understanding of sociological realities. To Archie, the Jeffersons, although friendly and decent people, were “them.”

Japan would seem to stand in contrast with Easterly’s theory. Very much an authoritarian country, it developed into an economic and military powerhouse. Singapore might be another counter-example, where an authoritarian leader imposed the value of tolerance, even forcing persons from different ethnic groups to live in the same apartment buildings.  The United Arab Emirates may be one of the most poly-ethnic areas, but I am unaware of any government effort to ameliorate conflicts that may emerge therefrom. On the other hand, Cuba’s authoritarian society, successful at providing education and health benefits to all, has been an economic development disaster. There are too many counter-examples for Easterly’s theory, although interesting, to be convincing.

That is, yes, there are (at the extremes) two kinds of culture, which we can call authoritarian and individualistic. The United States, clearly the most successful developing country since World War II, has effectively harnessed the economic energy of individualism. That there is a political drift toward authoritarianism indicates either that there is no relationship between this social structure and economic progress, or that there is, but people do not understand it. Or that the public does not care—they are willing to sacrifice development to to achieve other outcomes (such as “security”).  Though there are clever theories of how these structures come about, what difference they make to an individual or even a country is not at all clear.8 Once again we are generating so-called “development” experts who cannot guide us to any place that would lead to greater development of poor countries, or cities, or neighborhoods.

If there is to be top-down, expert-determined development, it needs to be more all-encompassing, quicker to spot those who, without its help, will founder in the real world. Could we really do that? Would experimenters, researchers, allow programmatic change as part of the process?

There are people who decry any such government interference, arguing that it distorts the incentives under which people flourish. That argument cannot apply to people who clearly do not flourish. As I suggested in Chapter 12 on Expert Talk, ideology often dominates fact. Appealing to belief, rather than fact, is how so-called experts command popular attention. Policy, be it towards international economic development or patches of an underdeveloped United States, drifts along on the left-right spectrum of “more government” to “less government,” without experts who could articulate a plan by which people who are not succeeding the way things are, would do so.

On the other hand, I am supposing that there are real experts, and that they are in positions to influence policy.

[President Donald] Trump is wary of expertise. . . He filled the executive branch accordingly. . . . Trump has left open hundreds of important positions in government, largely because he sees no value in them.8A

It could be that Trump sees value in the positions, but not in the persons in them. It could be that Trump is correct, that he distinguishes knowledge—which the hold-overs from former administrations certainly have—from expertise. Commenters are perhaps too quick to assume that people who have performed functions, in government or not, have performed them well.

If the traditional economic analysis sees development as emanating from a combination of political structure and values, it might be profitable to ask what effect development itself has on values, and, ultimately, political structure. Haidt, for example, summarizes recent political science research:

As societies become more prosperous and safe, they generally become more open and tolerant.8B

He assumes a free, individualistic form of government—democratic capitalism—and is trying to explain how this trend towards a globalist perspective brings about a nationalistic reaction. That we see such a reaction—an increasing appeal to a “them” vs. “us” political force—is illustrated by the surge of Donald Trump to the Republican nomination for president in 2016, and the British vote to leave the European Union.

Although Haidt does try to leave us with “policy” prescriptions, they are of the broad, vague, academic kind. But it is useful to understand that “expert” based attempts to assist economic development in countries in Asia, Africa and South America, may entirely miss the mark for their failure to emphasize values and political structures. Experts want to impose economic development, whereas perhaps the best we can do is allow it, even foster it. As we have learned in Iraq and Libya, ridding the world or oppressive dictators accomplishes very little, either for the world of for the citizens of those countries.8B

We are told that providing homes to the homeless—and perhaps better homes to the badly housed—saves money, because the receivers of these homes then have fewer health problems for which they cannot pay.9 If we take it as given that the public will attend to these peoples’ health needs, then free housing may be an economical way to do it. Now, name me the well-informed expert who can speak to this issue, so that governmental units—federal, state, local—could identify the needs (How many “permanent” homeless are there? How do we find them? What is “substandard” housing?), identify the locations for new homes (say by building on top of current parking lots, so the housing does not displace parking), and assure the public that this is just the type of housing, in just the right places, that will improve lives and reduce public cost.

It seems that economic development needs experts.  If any exist, they are hard to find and powerless to get effective programs in place. Those who designed the Moving To Opportunity thought they would succeed, that they could break the “culture” of poverty. They were good people following well-intentioned ideas. It turns out they were not economic development experts. They expected that “good” values would be obvious, when experienced; and would be adopted by people whose “tribal” experience was with other values unfortunately less conducive to increasing their incomes. However, culture is persistent, even when it is not benevolent.

Culture is equally a product of and a generator of prosperity. The United States in the 21st century is in need of national leadership to encourage local economic development.  Leaders will turn to “experts” for advice. Such expertise, if it exists, is rare. If it does exist, political leaders are unlikely to be able to find it, and would surely not support it. But we know that.


War is destruction—of physical capital, of human capital, of spirit. War depletes the amount of resources available for the common good. It is the opposite of economic development. Yet for thousands of years countries thought they got rich from conquest, exploitation and suppression. In fact they would have gotten richer from enterprise and trade. But “leaders” got to be leaders by being best in battle. You could not expect those people to understand that battle itself was a poor route to economic development. As a civilization, as the dominant life form on this planet, humans still do not seem to get it.

We “lost” in Vietnam. The good guys won. Surely everyone knows that now. Surely everyone understands how badly led the United States was, entering a war that had no rationale. Whatever reasons we had for that war were bad reasons—bad for us as individuals, for us as a country, and, indeed, for the world. At least, I later thought, we would never do such a stupid thing again.

And then the Bush administration falsely tied Saddam Hussein to the attack on America on September 11, 2001, lied about weapons of mass destruction, failed to go after Osama Bin Laden and the real bad guys in Afghanistan, led us into the longest war in American history, accomplishing nothing. Just who advocates actions like this? Who follows such advocacy? Why does the public go along with such clearly bad decisions?10  If this would be the level at which “conscious design” would operate, let’s have none of it.

Shall We Talk About It?

Chapter 12 is about the American conversation. I discussed the inanity of that conversation when it involves the military. We seem unable to engage in a rational discussion of whether we should we go to war, against whom, and what we hope to accomplish thereby. War advocates act as if there is no time for such a discussion. We are in imminent danger, we must proceed with their plans NOW. Fear triumphs over thought.

The discussion quickly is transformed to the politics of decision-making, away from the merits of decisions. The failure of the American conversation is the failure of the role of citizens to monitor and question the country’s political leadership. The result of the failure of real civilian control of the military can be seen on several levels. First, we do not know which wars, if any, to be in—or on what side. Second, because of poor civilian leadership, the military does not know why we are in a war, and therefore cannot articulate and pursue relevant objectives. Third, the military does not have the appropriate equipment or technical expertise to achieve objectives, when it finally manages to state what they are.

One might conclude that it would be smart not to be in wars. The “war” on drugs has had no effect on drugs. The “war” on poverty has had no effect (since 1970) by most measures, probably some in reality, but it is difficult to measure.11 The “war” on terrorism is a joke—we do not know what it is or where it is. Our actions increase membership in terrorist organizations. We blithely call people we have jailed “terrorists,” although many are not, and others cannot be proved to be.12  As the prosecution could not win at a fair trial, they chose not to have one.  Calling a policy a “war” only notifies the American public that we are about to expend billions of dollars to achieve nothing. Again and again, government operatives demonstrate their lack of expertise.  Issues are mis-perceived, actions are inappropriate, and the result is disaster.

You and I can do little directly about the lack of expertise at high policy levels. But we can do something about the ignorance of the American public about the effect of its government’s policies and actions.  I suggested earlier that the place to begin to solve this problem would be talk radio and television.  However, the same elements that get wealthy from war use that wealth to control the air waves. Where Chapter 12 was about he conversation, this chapter is about some topics of that conversation.

[W]e spend too much money on the military and we spend it stupidly, thereby shortchanging many of the functions that make the most difference to the welfare of the troops and their success in combat. We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield realities than with our unending faith that advanced technology will ensure victory, and with the economic interests and political influence of contractors. . .

“We’re buying the wrong things, and paying too much for them,” Charles A. Stevenson, a onetime staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former professor at the National War College, told me.13

It takes no great insight to understand how defense contractors spread work to sub-contractors in key congressional districts, and change the topic from “is this procurement good for the military” to “is this procurement good for the re-election of this congressman.” These procurements do not relate to military competence, only to political competence.

Perhaps the greatest failure of leadership is that failure itself has no consequences. Gerald Ford, an un-elected president, pardoned Richard Nixon for all of his illegal activities. President Obama steadfastly refused to look into illegal (not to mention immoral) CIA activities—let’s call it what it is, torture. Those activities were directed by experts, of course, among them James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.

Selling themselves to the government as experts on the psychology of terrorism, they were paid $80 million over the years of the Bush-Cheney administration when the programme was in force.14

Except, as should have been known at the time, they weren’t experts at all.

They had no expertise in terrorism or counter-terrorism, had never interrogated al-Qaeda members or anyone else for that matter. When it came to actually working with detained terrorists and suspected terrorists they were essentially without any relevant experience.15

No one was looking for expertise to solve the real problem—obtaining actionable intelligence about planned attacks on The United States. The expertise sought was to devise a defendable protocol for torture. That is like hiring people to devise a way to “win” the Vietnam war, to maintain Algeria as a colony of France, or to support the South African apartheid regime. The only advice a real expert should provide, in such a case, is STOP IT!

The result of having no conversation about how our leaders pursue self-destructive policies, is that our leaders continue to do so, unafraid of retribution.

For our generals, our politicians, and most of our citizenry, there is almost no accountability or personal consequence for military failure. This is a dangerous development-and one whose dangers multiply the longer it persists.16

Where there is no accountability, there can be no expertise.  Generals are good at rising through the Pentagon bureaucracy, but there seems to be no correlation between that and any other skill.17 When one of them, General Eric Shinseki, was put in charge of medical care for veterans, he could not do an effective job.  Functionaries at the Veterans Administration long ago realized the lesson we learned in Chapter 12: Saying that you are good is more important than being good. So they made up data.16A  When the data were shown to be false, Shinseki resigned, but few VA employees (by May, 2015, only 18) were terminated for this behavior.16B

The United states has consistently overthrown democracies to install dictators. We did that in Guatemala. We did that in Iran. We supported free elections in Gaza and then, when the “wrong” side (Hamas) won, we supported Israel’s occupation. We supported free elections in Egypt and then, when the Muslim Brotherhood won, we supported (or at least did not resist) its overthrow. We seem to have some skills, albeit used for malicious and self-defeating purposes. But when it comes to why we have a military, what we want them to do:

[R]epeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war.

Robert Scales tells us:

During my 35 years in the Army, it became clear to me that from Gettysburg to Hamburger Hill to the streets of Baghdad, the American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths.18

What procurement officers have ever been held accountable for equipping our armed forces with inferior weapons? No organization relies on expertise at the top as much as the military does. Yet we expend little effort to see that there is expertise where it is needed. Like the CIA, the military actively blocks any congressional inquiry into that subject, and holds no one accountable for its horrendous failures. Similarly, Jose Rodriguez, who destroyed videotapes of the CIA’s torture of alleged terrorists, knowingly destroyed evidence of crimes, for which he suffered no consequence without consequence.

Criminals and Patients

Expertise is called upon to assist people who must make decisions. Consider criminal sentencing, for example. Some people think that total discretion in the hands of a judge produces a randomness of sentences for seemingly similar crimes. That is why legislatures have provided guidelines, sometimes mandatory, for judges to follow. Here is one so-called expert’s view of sentencing:

Today, we need smarter and more individualized sentencing and corrections policies that allow judges, prosecutors, corrections officers, and other practitioners to target more carefully those individual offenders who should be imprisoned and those who are the most appropriate candidates for effective treatment, intermediate sanctions, or community-corrections programs.19

Just how is a judge going to know who are the most “appropriate” candidates for what punishment? No doubt by applying some formula derived by relating punishments to post-incarceration outcomes, controlling for the nature of the crime. There is legislation to that effect:

Oregon legislation that went into effect in January of 2006 required that Oregon pre-sentence reports “provide an analysis of what disposition is most likely to reduce the offender’s criminal conduct,” and “provide an assessment of the availability to the offender of any relevant programs or treatment in or out of custody, whether provided by the department or another entity.” OR. REV. STAT. § 144.791 (2007).20

As above, how is whoever writes the pre-sentence report going to make a recommendation like this? It is a call to bring more “expertise” into sentencing. Who could be against that? But is there such expertise, or is this legislation bound to provide employment for so-called experts, no doubt sincere, using standard social science tools to rationalize sentences that might be quite as wrong as those the judge would determine on his own? The unfortunate truth is that we write legislation like this to induce more objective (data-based) decision-making, not knowing if we achieve better decision-making.

On the other hand, should no science be applied to the subject of recidivism? We know that people are more affected by rewards than by punishments. Most sentences do provide for reduced time as a reward for “good behavior.” Would the carrot approach work after prison? (A cash payment for being on time to meet one’s parole officer?) I know of no study that has devised a reward system and tested its effects. Surely this literature is calling for some other type of reward, as reduced sentences for “good” behavior are nearly universal. There may be information on this subject, but I am skeptical that there is expertise.

This objectification trend, deriving parameters from large studies and then applying them to individuals, is called “Evidence Based Sentencing.” In Chapter 3 I questioned evidence-based medicine, pointing out that penalties for doctors who defy averages, who call for non-ordinary tests, will reduce premium quality medical care to just average. Patients with hard to detect maladies will be sacrificed for efficiency. I do not have the answer, but the social scientists who think they know what medical tests are appropriate, or what sentence best reduces recidivism on the average, may cause a lot of harm to mis-diagnosed patients or inaccurately assessed convicts.

We seem to agree that individual decision makers do not possess the expertise necessary to make their decisions. Going to outside “experts,” who apply some sort of multivariate analysis to individual cases, is a scary solution. If either “evidence based” concept becomes policy, it will turn out to be unsatisfactory. These same concerns for individual fairness will resurface; at which time we will look for “experts” to tell us what went wrong, and how to correct it.

Perhaps more unfortunately, if the issue involves state action, politicians will not look for expertise. A “solution” to a politician is more votes, not a good outcome of the issue. In October, 2014, several states imposed a 21-day quarantine on travelers who might, just might, be carriers of the ebola virus. Persons with no symptoms, who could not therefore be contagious, were subject to this quarantine if they simply had visited a country that had ebola victims. Scientists were uniformly against such policies.

Predictably, agencies that sponsored medical services abroad avoided airports in those mis-informed states. No one who did that was in fact infected with ebola. In the states that panicked, governors, citing the lack of ebola cases in their states, claimed success for their policies. Just one more example of politicians with very private agendas not understanding the problem, not contributing to the solution, but not getting into trouble for any of it.21

Embedded Expertise

In Chapter 11 I discussed branding as a way, from the consumer’s point of view, to delegate choice. One learns to trust that Brand X T shirts are comfortable, long lasting, and of interesting color. You get them at Site Y, and so, when you need T shirts, you go to Site Y, order Brand X, and you are done with it.

Then I went on to view stores the same way. Some people choose to shop at Whole Foods, despite their prices. Yes, Safeway might say that you can get a pork roast for a lower price, but is it the same roast? (I do not mean to disparage Safeway’s quality.  There is not one near me.) Is it worth even finding out? We let people employed by these firms do most of our selecting. We have decided that they do so expertly, or at least well enough to save us the time of shopping from the entire universe.

There is one other concept of embedding expertise in the options we are offered. The concept is called “nudging,” as articulated by Cass Sunstein.22 An example of nudging is the special on a restaurant’s menu. The restaurant can make more money on an item that will sell well. They can take the order faster, prepare the food faster, get it out of the kitchen faster. Perhaps they tailor their special around deals they get on its ingredients. They pass some of these advantages on to their customers in the special’s price. If the customer thinks the special is a good deal, he/she will return, order that day’s special, etc. The restaurant has nudged the customer to a high-margin item, and also branded itself and its specials. The restaurant will now make food decisions for the customer. The customer sees expertise embedded in the word “special,” and everyone is better off for it.

Sunstein’s concept is not so benign. Like the discussion above on “experts” in economic development, “experts” think they know better than the people living there just what those people need to be better off in some sense with which they might not agree. Nudging is a method of pushing people to behave the way the experts want them to. Rather than ban a large size soft drink, Sunstein would make it hard to order, or expensive, nudging the purchaser away from it. This is indeed paternalistic. We do not ban smoking in restaurants because it is bad for the smoker, but because it is bad for others. The individual smoker will not consider those others in his decisions. The others use government to improve their own environment, to enforce their anti-smoking will. To this day some people find anti-smoking law offensive. I find them thrilling, a form of collective action as historically important as were unions, in their time. We do not need “experts” nudging us. We need a mechanism by which the vast majority of the people can escape offensive behavior by a minority, while not disallowing that behavior.  You can still smoke, and I can go to a restaurant and breathe.

Branding works because the customer selects himself into the club—whatever club he chooses—the club whose choices he finds compatible with his own. Categorizing is similar. CDBaby ( sells CDs by people you never heard of. There has to be some categorization so the consumer can efficiently find relevant options. For example, one CD of mine (Red Shadow, The Economics Rock & Roll Band) is listed as “70s Rock.” True, this is a CD re-issue of the two LPs Red Shadow produced in the 1970s. I would have characterized them by their lyrics, radical politics, radical economics. But how many CDs would be in such a category? How many people would look there?  I do not think that categorizing Red Shadow, either by its era or by its meaning, is nudging the consumer to buy it. It is helping the consumer to find it, just as Whole Foods helps the consumer find organic produce, and Safeway helps the consumer find less expensive produce.

Like Whole Foods, is something of a brand. You go to that site because you want to explore lesser known artists. A different and just as reasonable approach is to buy only CDs that millions of other people have purchased—CDs that have already passed a test of appeal to many people. “Top Ten” lists provide this information to prospective purchasers. Categorization is a great help in a society in which there are multiple substitutes for anything you want to purchase. Branding these categories allows you to determine where you find things attractive to you, and then return there to make future selections easier.

Nudging assumes that someone knows more than you do about not just the technical aspects of what you are about to purchase, but the benefits you will get from that purchase. Who would do this nudging? To Sunstein, this is a role for government. For government’s so-called experts. If you think they have done so well in the past, be sure to read Chapter 3, where I discuss the federal government’s “food pyramids,” which for many years nudged us to carbohydrates. They might be partly responsible for the obese nation we are becoming. Nudging is manipulative. Perhaps it should be called “steering.” If there were really expertise behind it, we might appreciate it. How likely is that?

A category represents some consistent characteristic. A brand is supposed to stand for a quality within that characteristic. A brand does not say to the consumer “we know better than you what will please you, so buy this.” It says “We want you to know our standards. If you like them, buy more.” Sites such as, take a different approach. They substitute data for expertise. They tell you what items others have considered, and how people react to items they have purchased. Averaging the choices of others may not be a good source of wisdom. A corollary to the rarity of experts is that expertise will not be found embedded in averages. The “wisdom of the crowd,” as I have said earlier in this book, is an oxymoron. Wisdom is not a crowd phenomenon. It is an expert phenomenon.

Real Experts

In the second decade of the 21st century, recent college graduates are complaining that the story they were told—get a degree, you will get a job and make a decent salary—is not true. This is a problem, maybe a bigger problem than the one that is the subject of this book. I have not been concerned about the average person who will understand just enough to carry out instructions, make a few helpful suggestions throughout his/her career, and then retire with an income. All of these people would owe their living to experts, to people who correctly solve problems, who establish the norms that others follow. Such experts, for example, would have prompted the federal government to understand the failure of aggregate demand brought about by the recession of 2008, and to attack that failure with fiscal action.  Those who opposed that advice, it is now clear, were ignorant.23 But their policies prevailed.

Given that real experts did propose solutions to the recession, what went wrong? Legislators, expert in getting elected, but not in doing what elected legislators are supposed to do, are as culpable as a timid administration that failed to propose real answers. Because we do not elect expert legislators, we get people who cannot solve problems—who cannot find real experts, or are not even looking for them, or will not listen to them.  In the 2000-teens, some listen to Paul Ryan, instead.

We need real experts in key places, including on the radio, and television. I encourage this to include and inform the public in the conversation. Corporations engage real experts to design and select goods under a brand, to modify DNA and do other technical wizardry. Under what criteria do they do it? The company will determine if they do a “good job,” but whether that is a good job for the public, or only for the company, we do not know. It has not worked in places we can easily see it, such as the development of genetically modified foods. Fracking works well for the oil industry, but badly for anyone living close to where it is being done. The need may not be for expertise in carrying out policies—it is expertise in formulating policies that benefit society. Is leaving such decisions to corporations really smart?

Otherwise, we do not by and large look for help from those people who went to school to get a better job. We look for people who are interested in their subject, who work to fulfill that interest, not their bank accounts. If such people exist.

We have a system of education that is really a sort of euphemism for indoctrination. It’s not designed to create critical thinkers.24

We ask a lot of our citizens. I think people do want to be informed, even though most are not. I do not think “the public” will ever be informed from their own probing into sources, distilling “truths” that will serve them well. That is too difficult. It requires skills most people will never have, information most people cannot get, and it takes time to which most people will not commit. As with leaders who thought the solution to every problem was a war, what people believe does not serve them. That is a disequilibrium looking for a correction. We do not need many real experts, just some who both speak the truth and are listened to. Do we have the institutions, the forums for excellent reporters and expert commentators, so the truth will not only be told, but understood? We do not need to know who the substantive experts are, if there are people expert at finding them and telling us about them. And if those reporters have a history of being correct, using a forum we trust.

We do not need many real experts, just some who both speak the truth and are listened to. Do we have the institutions, the forums for excellent reporters and expert commentators, so the truth will not only be told, but understood? With the 2016 election of Donald Trump, we have elevated non-experts into expert information provider roles.24A  This can come to no good. We do not need to know who the substantive experts are, if there are people expert at finding them and telling us about them. And if those reporters have a history of being correct, using a forum we trust. A democratic government should support, not attack such people.

Unfortunately,“excel” in today’s world means “get rich,” which is why we have experts at constructing computer games but not at constructing political campaigns based on honesty and knowledge. With few exceptions, the immense wealth of very few people has inspired a search for wealth—not satisfaction, not happiness, not excellence.

There is also the virtually unregulated food system that is geared toward making money rather than feeding people.25

Many people provide advice. The Blender Girl says to soak nuts in an acid bath, created by adding cider vinegar or lemon juice to water. When you soak, you will

notice particles and a murky film on the surface and sediment on the bottom. These are the anti-nutrients that soaking has drawn out: better in the bowl than in our bodies!26

But if they do get into our bodies, we are told that soaking in an alkaline solution—adding sodium bicarbonate to our bath-water—is the way to induce them out.27 It could be that what the nuts leave are “anti-nutrients,” and it could be that one draws such things from nuts with acid and from humans with alkaline. And some or all of these claims could be wrong. Advice is easy to come by, but is it expertise?

I do know that a baking soda bath feels good, and that Blender Girl’s recipes are both inventive and first rate. That is, there are some claims of expertise that I can determine for myself. Others, I cannot. Should I believe those I cannot assess based on those I can?

What we need in food, as in other areas, is some overall expert who would accept or dismiss the claims of the single-issue so-called experts, and tell us which are correct. Just as what attorneys need, more than some credentialed expert, is a real expert who can recommend the appropriate expert for the issue at hand. Mark Bittman is perhaps performing that function for food. I rely on PC Magazine to perform this service in electronics. No one performs this function—and possibly no one could—in statistical analysis in litigation. Bad “experts” are engaged time and time again.

I ran across a law firm that has a motto:

Above all else, we recognize that litigation is about results.28

In my view, litigation is about determining the truth and coming to a reasonable, correct conclusion between parties who would not do so on their own. Which is why this law firm would never engage my services. And why my view—how I live my life—is naive. But I do believe that my skill—expertise in discerning and explaining the truth—is the path to a successful United States. If we go into the future unable to distinguish what is true from what is a special interest’s obfuscation, individual so-called experts will flourish while real expertise is discarded.

“Excel” in media means many things, but seldom knowledge. There, also, lies a discordance between “success” and real expertise. The result is a lack of experts, at least their absence from the places where they could do the most good.

One example will illustrate this problem. A Federal Sixth Circuit panel overturned a district court opinion finding laws that prevented same-sex marriage unconstitutional.29  Circuit disagreed, which is why the same-sex marriage issue was decided by the Supreme Court. That much was widely and accurately reported. Anyone who reads newspapers should know it.

And nothing more. As described in Chapter 12 (with reference to congressional hearings), the media covered the game, not analyzing (or even describing) the substance of what the game was about.

The Sixth Circuit panel was split 2-1. Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey wrote a brilliant, compelling dissent that not only made the majority look like school children at play, but encompassed every other circuit court opinion. Of the majority on her panel she wrote that their opinion

wholly fails to grapple with the relevant constitutional question in this appeal: whether a state’s constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage violates equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead . . . [they lead] us through a largely irrelevant discourse on democracy and federalism.30

This is just a summary introductory statement. Whether Judge Daughtrey delivers—I think that she does—could be discussed; and in that discussion, the public could be educated about the issues, what courts have found concerning the issues, and how attorneys frame the discussion to get around both facts and logic.

Here we have an issue in which even the court’s majority, finding that states should be allowed to ban same-sex marriage, understands that the future is against those states. The majority would tell same sex couples who would like to marry to wait for the rest of society to catch up. They act as if the Supreme Court’s finding against racial segregation in schools should have left it to the states to determine when they would follow suit. Instead, the federal government forced states to desegregate, as surely most people agree they should have.

All reporters need do is read Judge Daughtrey’s dissent, and engage in a discussion not about the technicalities of supreme court review, but about the humanity expressed in this writing, accepted by most other courts, but not even dealt with by the Sixth Circuit majority. Almost no one outside the legal system knows that there was a dissent in the Sixth Circuit, or how intelligent and encompassing it is. The news reports the machinations, but not the substance, perhaps because the majority’s opinion had none.

In June, 2015, the Supreme Court essentially sided with Judge Daughtrey.31A Some officials persisted in refusing to recognize same-sex marriage.  With better reporting, some people might have been more able to understand the issues, and accept the Court’s ruling.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway discuss the issues I am raising here, how to determine which expert (in their case, about science) is correct, in the last real chapter of Merchants of Doubt.31 One section, referring to the several so-called expert stories they tell, is titled “Why Didn’t Scientists Stand Up?” Of course so-called scientists did stand up, to defend smoking, to assail climate change, etc. Where was their opposition—real experts? Where were legal reporters? What reporters did—what they do—is describe the controversy, even if one half of it is a manufactured lie. Find me a litigation reporter who has said “This side of the argument is correct, and here is why.” Instead they debate the politics and personalities on the Supreme Court; which side will win, not which side should win.

After years of reporting the legal game, like a play-by-play announcer, like every other legal “expert,” Linda Greenhouse now appears as an “opinion” columnist. She started timidly, but seems to be finding her way to becoming a real expert—one who does not stop at telling us what the arguments are, but tells us which argument makes sense.

In decades of court-watching, I have struggled — sometimes it has seemed against all odds — to maintain the belief that the Supreme Court really is a court and not just a collection of politicians in robes. This past week, I’ve found myself struggling against the impulse to say two words: I surrender.32

In Chapter 2 I was critical of Nicolai Ouroussoff, a New York Times architecture writer, for his enthusiastic embrace, in 2011, of a clearly awkward building that bore no relationship to the world in which it had been placed. In 2014 we have a different architecture writer, one willing to stand up with a contrarian view:

1 World Trade speaks volumes about political opportunism, outmoded thinking and upside-down urban priorities. . . Even a tower with an outsize claim on the civic soul needs to be more than tall and shiny.33

It’s not that a negative review is necessarily the right review, but Kimmelman seems to grasp the concept that a building needs to be seen as a part of the place in which it sits, and the reason it exists. That is something we ask of our experts, to see a larger picture. “The point is that something better was possible in Lower Manhattan.” What we got to replace the World Trade Center was competent, but not expert. On the other hand, who we now get as an architecture writer does seem to have some expertise. Is this progress, or happenstance?

Oreskes and Conway speculate that real scientists “create new knowledge, but they have little training in how to communicate to broad audiences.”

Someone else can best popularize it. Someone else can better communicate it.34

This may be the answer. People like Bill Nye, “The Science Guy” He’s not really the first—we recognize Carl Sagan’s role, and that of others who participate both in science and in the media. But Sagan did not leave astronomy to be the translator of science to the masses. To him, that was a sometimes job. We need more, as Nye understands. As Linda Greenhouse and Mark Bittman understand.

Perhaps Paul Krugman, who left his professorship at Princeton to be a public intellectual in New York, is taking on a similar role in economics. The problem, of course, is that some will say that, rather than disseminating expert opinion, they are spreading misinformation. However, Krugman has proved himself. Among economists, he is the “brand” to follow.

Oreskes and Conway’s final sentence is unarguable, but equally unexceptional:

We all need a better understanding of what science really is, how to recognize real science when we see it, and how to separate it from the garbage.

Substitute “expertise” for “science,” and you have an anemic prescription for the ills described in this book. As a voice in the crowd shouted, when told that in no language could two positives make a negative, “Yeah, right.” This proposed universal ability to differentiate between expertise and shallowness will never happen.

What we can reasonably hope for, however, are individuals or possibly (but doubtfully) an institution that will tell us what is real science, what is not, what is really an expert opinion and what is pretense. The National Academy of Sciences is perhaps the United States’ attempt to formulate such an institution, but it is fundamentally flawed:

  • It comes out of the academic consensus, and is thus unable to understand and accept new approaches. Where was the National Academy when a bacteriological basis for ulcers was proposed?
  • It does not see as its role—and this is just as well—to arbitrate between opposing views where choice of one over the other has political policy implications.
  • It cannot move quickly.
  • Its tepid conclusions follow from a committee structure that tries to indulge many “experts,” but often fails to include any.

No one refers to the National Academy when reviewing debates about smoking causing cancer, second-hand-smoke causing emphysema, carbon fuels causing global warming. Their books on statistical analysis of discrimination are embarrassingly bad. Our attempt to establish a “this is really science” academy is a failure. But throwing all issues out there for everyone to have his own unfounded opinion is a failure, also. That is the world in which we now live. It allows so-called experts to thrive, and encourages real experts to hide.


  1. To his credit, Lewis cut short his two year appointment to Ghana when he saw how corrupt their development plan was. Would his have been any better? He was a good man, but was he an expert?
  2. E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, HarperCollins (1973).
  3. In Angola,

    the roads are so poor that the biggest farms often burn crops, because they cannot get them to market before they rot.

    Michael Specter, “Extreme City,” The New Yorker, June 1, 2015, p. 32, quotation at 33.

  4. “Failures are an inevitable part of any program that requires experimentation.” Christopher Jencks, “Did We Lose the War on Poverty-II,” 42 New York Review of Books 7, April 23, 2015 at 39.
  5. Forward, Final Impacts Evaluation, Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration Program, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, November, 2011.
  6. Rebecca C. Fauth et al., “Seven Years Later: Effects of a Neighborhood Mobility Program on Poor Black and Latino Adults’ Well-being,” 49 Journal of Health and Social Behavior 2:119 (2008).
  7. Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility, Harvard University (April, 2015).
  8. Jens Ludwig et al., “What Can We Learn about Neighborhood Effects from the Moving To Opportunity Experiment,” 114 American Journal of Sociology 1:144 (2008).
  9. Tim Harford, convinced that the “rational choice” model of economics is correct, presents what he thinks is social science knowledge. His summaries and connections of ideas are interesting, but are they expert? Based on a 2001 journal article describing “early results” of the Moving To Opportunity study, Harford discusses what the authors “discovered.” He is unaware of other programs, other analyses, and methodological disputes. The Logic of Life, Little, Brown (2008), starting at page 140.
  10. William Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts, Basic Books (2013) at 140-141, next quotation at 141-142.
  11. Tyranny, 141-142. This language (“helps” predict) implies a variable in a regression analysis, which it is. See Luigi Guiso,Paola Sapienza and Luigi Zingales, “Long Term Persistence,” NBER (2008). The regression has so little explanatory power that I would not take the “significance” of this one variable seriously.
  12. T.M. Luhrmann, in “Wheat People vs. Rice People,” New York Times December 4, 2014, suggests that differences in how major crops are grown leads to long-lasting cultural differences in behavior. Like most of the readers who commented on this article, I am skeptical that such simplistic thinking demonstrates expertise. It serves mostly to further the use of the word “academic” to mean silly and irrelevant.
  13. David Remnick, “One Hundred Days,” The New Yorker, May 1, 2017, starts at 17.
  14. Jonathan Haidt, “When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism,” The American Interest, July 10, 2016.
  15. It is worth noting that we are not good at identifying such dictators. We were told that North Korea had such a form of government, to the detriment of its population, and that turned out to be correct. Then we were told that North Vietnam was a similar menace, and that turned out to be incorrect. First the French, then the Americans, caused horrific harm, whereas “Communist” Vietnam has liberated the people and prospered.
  16. See, for example, Scott Carrier, “Room For Improvement,” Mother Jones, March-April 2015 at 30.
  17. The Iraq war wasn’t an innocent mistake, a venture undertaken on the basis of intelligence that turned out to be wrong. America invaded Iraq because the Bush administration wanted a war. The public justifications for the invasion were nothing but pretexts, and falsified pretexts at that. We were, in a fundamental sense, lied into war.

    Paul Krugman, “Errors and Lies,” The New York Times, May 18, 2015 at A19.

  18. Christopher Jencks has tried to estimate a more realistic view of poverty over time than the government measures, but he cannot connect its probable decline to the “war.”  Nor does he ask how many of the poor are the same year after year, a more serious issue than counting them. See Christopher Jencks, “The War On Poverty: Was It Lost?” New York Review of Books April 2, 2015 at 82.
  19. Exactly 119 detainees were held at CIA sites in various countries from 17 September 2001 to 22 January 2009. . . Of all who were held and interrogated, 22 per cent were found to be innocent. There was no process for freeing them. 

    David Bromwich, “Working The Dark Side,” London Review of Books, January 8, 2015 at 15. Bromwich is discussing the Senate Committee report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  20. James Fallows, “The Tragedy of The American Military,” The Atlantic, January/February 2015 at 79 and then 83.
  21. Bromwich in The London Review (2015) at 15.
  22. Mark Danner and Hugh Eakin, “The CIA: The Devastating Indictment,” (also a review of the Senate report), New York Review of Books, February 5, 2015 at 31.
  23. Fallows, “The Tragedy . . .” at 77. Next indented quotation from the same page.
  24. Colin Powell, for example was successful in his rise to general, but that it left him unqualified for a policy position such as Secretary of State is painfully obvious.
  25. See, for example, Donovan Slack, “VA bosses in 7 states falsified vets’ wait times for care,” USA Today, April 7, 2016. “In some cases investigators found manipulation had been going on for as long as a decade.”
  26. Amy Sherman, “Was only one person fired at the VA for withholding services as Jeb Bush says?” Politifact, May 22, 2015. Others may have been terminated since.
  27. Robert H. Scales, “Gun Trouble,” The Atlantic, January/February 2015 at 81.
  28. Roger K. Warren, “The Application of Principles of Evidence-Based Practice to State Sentencing Practice and Policy,” 43 University of San Francisco Law Review 585 (2009) at 634.
  29. Ibid., note 190 at 627.
  30. See Anemona Hartocollis, “Notable Absence of New Ebola Quarantines at New York Area Airports,” New York Times, November 30, 2014.
  31. Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Yale University Press (2008); Cass R. Sunstein, Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism, Yale University Press (2014)
  32. Paul Ryan, who takes the lead for Republicans in economics matters, wrote in the New York Times in February, 2009:

    [W]hen the dust settles on 2009, with millions of baby boomers retiring and entitlement spending exploding, taxpayers will face a financial nightmare.

    No, they did not. A number of so-called economic experts exposed themselves in a now obviously incorrect open letter to Ben Bernanke (Chair of the Federal Reserve) published in the Wall Street Journal on November 15, 2010. In 2014, Bloomberg News contacted nine of the signatories, not one of whom admitted having been incorrect. See

  33. Edward Snowden interviewed in “Snowden in Exile,” The Nation, November 17, 2014 at 21.
  34. In 2017, Donald Trump, newly elected president, instructed his Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, to tell us “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” (Quoted in Matt Ford, “Trump’s Press Secretary Falsely Claims: ‘Largest Audience Ever to Witness an Inauguration, Period,’” The, January 21, 2017. The Washington Post noted:

    The crowd, however enthusiastic, was visibly smaller than the turnout for Obama’s inauguration in 2009, when Washington was infused with a sense of hope.
    Philip Rucker, John Wagner and David A. Fahrenthold, “Trump takes office, vows an end to ‘American Carnage,’” January 21, 2017.

  35. Mark Bittman, “Don’t Ask How To Feed The 9 Billion,” New York Times, November 12, 2014.
  36. Tess Masters, The Blender Girl, Ten Speed Press (2014), at 22.
  37. See Mark Sircus, Sodium Bicarbonate: Nature’s Unique First Aid Remedy, Square One (2014); or Dr. Mercola at baking soda natural remedy.
  38. The firm is Corr, Cronin, Michelson, Bumgardner & Preece, in Seattle. Neil Hornick (The Phantom Captain) who, along with David Cronin and me comprised The Sidewalkers (1962), found it. Neither David nor I is associated with it.
  39. DeBoer vf. Snyder, 772F.3d 388 (6th Cir, 2014), quotation below at 421.
  40. Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S.___ (2015), 135 S.Ct. 2584. Besides Judge Daughtrey’s dissent in DeBoers, another good example of correcting the bad thinking of same-sex marriage deniers is Judge Posner’s decision in Baskin v. Bogan, 766 F.3d 648 (7th Cir. 2014). 
  41. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt, Bloomsbury Press (2010).
  42. Linda Greenhouse, “Law in the Raw,” New York Times November 13, 2014. The issue in the “past week” is the Supreme Court’s decision to take a case about language in The Affordable Care Act that restricts subsidies to persons who had signed up at a state-created web site. The D.C. Circuit had already agreed to rehear the case en banc. Only politics would have spurred Supreme Court action.
  43. Michael Kimmelman, “A Soaring Emblem of New York, and Its Upside-Down Priorities,” New York Times, November 30, 2014. Some readers expressed disagreement with Kimmelman, December 8, 2014.
  44. Merchants of Doubt at 236. Next indented quotation at 265.