Thursday, September 28, 2006

Book Review – Non-fiction

The Paradox of Choice – by Barry Schwartz - 2004

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man – by John M. Perkins - 2005
The Wisdom of Crowds – by James Surowiecki - 2004

Ó 2006 by QiN-Hombre

Into my world, came three unrelated how-things-work books. After reading these consecutively, I asked myself - can 'Confessions' give us 'Wisdom' to clarify a 'Paradox'?

‘Confessions’ attempts to exonerate the writer’s part in his own description of the United States’ economic steamroll over developing countries. Perkinss enlightens us to the invisible conspiracy of epic proportions behind the scenes in the late 20th Century. But the sentimental and diffident kiss-and-tell didn't make it for me. The writer’s theory of ‘corporatocracy’ is sometimes palatable in terms of the profit-making by the millions of unrelated, yet connected, benefactors of the American ‘Empire’. Yet, it is sometimes hard to believe the excommunicated, the jilted, or the loser, in the post-game analysis, no matter how right they may be.

He theorized that if third-world dictators were not in the back pocket of the US interests, and didn’t capitulate quietly to US pressure (the author gave examples of Omar Torrijos in Panama, and his successor, Manuel Noriega), Perkins said, what happened to these two, would and did happen to others. In his own description, Perkins was an economist paid to inflate a country’s ability to pay for electrification projects. This so that 'American contractors secretly in cahoots with his consulting firm, could make money hand over fist'. This ostensibly so the 'U.S. government could then control these countries with staggering debt'. The corrupt free market (what was done quietly in our name) with the aid of corrupt local politicians, were giving developing countries the choice and the ability to enter the 20th Century.

Which brings us to having choice in a world growing more complex by the minute, no matter where one lives.

Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore College professor clues us in on a somewhat Quakerly concept of being satisfied with limited options, many times considering one option at a time and simply saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The modern world gives us seemingly unlimited options. Are we happier for more and more choice? Schwartz thinks not. However, most would bristle at the thought of a central committee in a command economy, making decisions on what style, color and quantity of shoes to produce for us to be able to buy.

As the world gets more complicated and choices more abundant, miniscule and immediate, Friends find it harder and harder to isolate themselves from this luxury and complexity.

Schwartz’s hypothesis says that having too many choices creates psychological stress, especially when combined with regret - if we had just made a better decision and picked this one instead of that one. But we as Friends do not pick among shades of color in decisions mostly (as Schwartz also reminds us against in order to be satisfied persons), we have business brought to us usually requiring a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’.

Good decision-making and governance are on many of our minds of late, considering the recent news article in the

Philadelphia Inquirer regarding Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s now publicly exposed problems of some being frustrated with the state and speed of its decisions.

James Surowiecki has written a very important work, mentioning historic Friends at key points in his thesis: the best decisions are made by groups of cohesive but decentralized, independent thinkers.

Critics of Quakerism cite the ‘tyranny of peer pressure’ in making us less than independent individuals. We have political alliances within our Society and Friends sometimes feel we should ‘go along to get along’ where we become so identified with the group that the possibility of dissent seems practically unthinkable. This very explanation figures heavily in Surowiecki’s thesis about how groups should not make decisions.

The flip side of that conundrum is the trust Friends hopefully have for each other in this decision process. Many times we must know each other (well) before we can trust each other, and Surowiecki has credited 19th Century Friends, as having the intra-group trust which enabled modern capitalism to develop and flourish. (Because without some inherent trust in a system, the cost of policing such would obviate any benefit that it offers.) Quakers were remarkable in the public eye for their trustworthiness and cooperation, simply because it was the exception to the general way of deception and sharp dealing at the time. And many times it made Friends wealthy.

Even in modern times, we find that in both Friends Society, as well as the wider society, Surowiecki writes, “ if trust is the most valuable product of (market) interactions, corruption is the most damaging.” Friends many times take the long-term perspective on our Society, and trust in each other seems to be bolstered from this perspective. So Friends in Philadelphia, and all other places might consider their trust of one another and how that might be bolstered.

Surowiecki, describes how the economic bubble of the 1990’s removed the long-term perspective from Wall Street’s view. Investors also stopped doing due diligence because of the large short-term returns – hence the famous scandals of Enron, Global Crossing, Tyco, and WorldCom. And auditors, the supposed system guardians of business integrity, also became so identified with this success, they failed in their vigilance, in their rush to believe the hype, and to share in the wealth.

Failures of decision-making where dissent was suppressed have expressed in many famous examples. The author cites two - the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961) and the Columbia disaster (2003). The Columbia Mission Management Team failed to evaluate properly the critical effect of debris hitting the exterior insulation of the craft before the ship’s re-entry into the atmosphere. The team’s Chief structured the agenda and dialog tightly in the committee meeting and proposed the issue as already resolved before any independent thinking could have occurred. At least we Friends never do that.

Surowiecki cites NASA as transformed at some point in recent history - from a bottom-up, meritocratic culture, into a centralized hierarchy that certainly failed in that Columbia mission. The author also cites other contributing factors in that most of the newer NASA employees come directly from graduate school and do not have the previous work experience to enable the group to have important work experience and diversity of opinion. Even though aerospace engineers in the 1960’s wore the same white shirt and crew cut, they embodied the diversity and independence of opinion which ‘put a man on the moon’.

But, even considering the Apollo era – ‘the Eagle has landed’ - in an obvious analytical and engineering success - Friends might still feel that spirituality is part of the truth in our world. In ‘Confessions’ John Perkins felt those who are primitive, spiritual and exploited - The Condor’ - might have something to teach the developed, rational and consumerist world - ‘The Eagle’.

Perkins closed his work quoting ‘The Prophesy of the Condor and Eagle’. The prophesy, from the mists of history, says that around 1490, these two paths of consciousness, would converge and would nearly drive the Condor to extinction. But, according to legend - 500 years later - in the New Age, or the Age of Aquarius - the Eagle and Condor would have the opportunity to make peace and fly together in the same sky, along the same path. Could now be our opportunity to solve the paradox with pure wisdom?


Post a Comment

<< Home