Expertise and Authority

In my late teens, I went through a period of wanting to be a diplomat for the State Department.  The prospect of traveling, learning languages, and being an actor in world history appealed to me.  My father, a former case officer in Vietnam, recommended joining the CIA instead.  As he put it to me (and as old Company hands had put it to him), diplomats only ever think they know what is going on in a given country.  It is the spies that really know.

The knowledgeableness — and even competence — of intelligence agencies have been called into question over the past few years with the inability to track down bin Laden and, before that, the inability to accurately assess Iraq’s nuclear capabilities.  I was surprised to read recently in an article by John Le Carré for The New Yorker that, contrary to my father’s impression, this may have long been the case.

Discussing his time as an insider in British intelligence, Le Carré writes about his disappointment with the discrepancy between what he had imagined it to be and what it turned out to actually be.  In terms reminiscent of the longings of many career professionals, he describes “fantasizing about a real British secret service, somewhere else, that did everything right that we either did wrong or didn’t do at all.”

As an IT consultant I encounter many technical experts, and am a bit of one myself in some rather abstruse areas.  A common frustration among these experts is that expertise does not always grant them authority, as one would expect in a meritorious modern corporate society.  Instead, contrarily, they find that corporate authority tends to confer expertise.  The managerial classes inside the corporations we work with are able to dictate technical directions not because they know about these technologies, but rather simply because they have the authority to do so.

In part this is simply how the system works.  Expertise and authority go together, but not in the ways one would expect.  In the corporate world, authority granted through expertise in one area, say managerial or financial expertise and a track record of success, grants additional and possibly unjustified acknowledgment of expertise in unrelated fields.

Another reason, however, must be due to the incommunicability of IT expertise.  The field is complicated and its practitioners are not generally known for their communication abilities.  Whereas the spooks of the intelligence world are not allowed to communicate their detailed knowledge to the layman, the IT professional is simply unable to.  IT professionals speak “geek talk,” while business professionals speak corporate speak, and translators between these two dialects are few and far between.  Philosophically, however, such translations and transitions are possible, and the people who can do it make excellent careers for themselves.

What happens, however, when the whole notion of expertise is called into question.  As Stanley Rosen once said of Nietzsche, what happens when the esoteric becomes exoteric, and what we all know about our own failings and shortcomings as “experts” becomes public knowledge?

Such a thing seems to be happening now with the world economic crisis (I’m waiting for an expert to come along with a better moniker for this downward spiral we seem to all be going through, but for the moment “WEC” seems to be working).  The world economic crisis seems to have occurred because people who should have known better: bankers, traders, investors and economists, never put a stop to a problem with bad debt, bad credit and bubble markets of worldwide proportions.  As I understand it, all these people knew things weren’t kosher but were hoping to take advantage of market distortions to make huge profits before bailing out at the last moment, but like the unfortunate fellow who raced James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, they all failed to jump when they were supposed to.

Yet they were the experts.  As back up we have men like Henry Paulson at the Treasury to fix these messes, and he started out sounding authoritative about what needed to be done.  We needed $700 billion to fix the situation or at least to make it not so bad and the government had a plan, we were told, to do so.  However, the plan has mutated and meandered to the point that it now looks like it is being made up as we go along.  This in itself may not be such a bad thing, but is this meandering the sort of thing experts are supposed to do?

Recently the heads of the automotive industry came to Washington to ask for bailout money and, as we now all know, they didn’t have a plan for how they planned to spend it.  Is that how experts act?

After the flood, the big discussion now seems to be whether we should try to preserve our laissez-faire system or try to improve it and correct it with more regulation.  The sages of Wall Street seem to actually like this solution, which is in itself an admission that they no longer see themselves as experts or, apparently, of even being capable of managing their own affairs.  They would prefer that another authority correct their own excesses for them, since they no longer trust themselves.

But if there are no experts any longer on Wall Street, where all they had to do was look after their own interests, can we really expect to find one in Washington that will look over all of our interests?  I don’t mean to be a knee-jerk conservative on this matter, but does it make sense that when our clever people make it clear that they are not so clever or competent after all, we must look for someone that much more clever than all of them put together to fix things?  Can that level of expertise even exist?

And so I find myself fantasizing about a different America, indeed a different world, in which they get everything right that we either do wrong or don’t do at all.

2 thoughts on “Expertise and Authority”

  1. well, it did and does exist but that doesn’t mean anyone is willing to listen.

    An example are those analysts and investors who realized that Madoff’s split-strike conversion strategy could not produce such stable profits, and reviewed Madoff’s records and then concluded it was fraud. Many people fell for Madoff’s "it’s proprietary information" and "don’t tell anyone you are invested with me."
    "In 1999, trader Harry Markopolos wrote that "Madoff Securities is the world’s largest Ponzi Scheme," in a letter to the SEC."

    "The fact is that the only people who seem to have taken concrete action to protect investors from Mr. Madoff are private research shops like Aksia LLC. Its analysts did the real work of figuring out that Mr. Madoff’s claimed investment strategy couldn’t be happening at the volumes he claimed to be trading. Likewise, it was the short sellers who first blew the whistle on Enron, while the SEC was clueless and the firm’s auditors were asleep."

    Why do I care aside from being out of a high paying job recently myself in UI Design and Business Analysis? I am no big time investor but for 10 years at least I’d been commenting to my best friend "I don’t understand how economics works." and "Where is all the money coming from?" and "How come I don’t think it is funny that banks ‘accidently’ give a dog a credit card?"

    Looking at US economics from a larger patterns view, which is the best of my skills, I saw a pattern that didn’t match, it made no sense, there was too much money focused in all the same places. The problem with my simple observation was the ground I was standing on – the asumption I made – that is if you are an honest person, expecting the numbers to match, not expecting that it is possible they won’t add up.

    It was that one thing that I could not understand, how could an entire country try and fool itself? I did not expect that so many would be asleep at the wheel or that there were so many wolves driving those vehicles. It was the piece of the analysis pie that I presumed as innocent when it just wasn’t.

    My friend remarked to me recently "The reason you couldn’t see how the economy works is because it didn’t work. The economic machine you were looking at — it wasn’t working, we just didn’t see it break down until now."

    As an outsider some of the things I noticed where advertising programs that probably cost more than they could bring in. Even accounting for companies wanting market share, it still did not seem to be economically feasible.

    Sometimes I have overcome this fault such as judging a politian by his face, such as Nixon and Geo W Bush. However I was conned when traveling recently, and after reading about this kind of person I realized he displayed several of the "tells" of his behavior such as changing his tone and volumn of his voice in odd ways which con artists use to sound more convincing or commanding and confuse their prey.

    It is important that individuals learn to recognize such behavior in others whether it is on an individual or national level – it always comes down to if something doesn’t feel right or the money is too easy it isn’t right.

    Even if I had seen more clearly how the economics in N. America weren’t working, I’d still be out of a job now, because we would still have to wait until the economy broke down.

    Just like me trying to explain how important the Web would be and how it would work to a diverse team of Microsoft employees in 1992. They could not understand what I said and asked my boss to fire me so that what I was predicting would not happen. I call it the Cassandra Effect. Even if you know, it does not mean anyone will or can listen and understand you or change anything.

  2. Fair point you produce in Expertise and Authority. Absorbing to study the post and alternating positions scripted by subscribers on other sites.I’m direct and honest, that way everyone acknowledges what I mean.

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