The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Monday, October 27, 2008

"None of us is as smart as all of us."

ᅠTrue or false? I'll look at that in a minute. First, Frank asked me where I got the idea that the upper-levels of Hollywood were less liberal than lower down. That's not an exquisite rephrasing, so please pardon me--I'm not trying to play games, it's just first thing in the morning.

I claim no scientific data. From the time of my first involvement in Hollywood more than forty years ago that the office workers in this town were about the same as office workers in any other job I'd had--if maybe a hair giddier about working in "the industry." But on issues like Civil Rights, marijuana, the Vietnam war, etc.--not much difference. As I got to know executives at higher levels at CBS, Universal, and so forth, it seemed to me that the artists and the management were two different groups when it came to their politics, with the actors, writers and directors shading much more to the "Left" and the higher-ups seeming to become more Right on a number of issues. Now, those executives seemed to me to be slightly less "Right" than executives with comparable power in other industries...but this is all impression. Listening to political conversations, having those conversations, looking at bumper stickers and political buttons, etc.

ᅠMy former agent, was a Conservative Republican (and an extraordinarily good guy) and sometimes bemoaned the dominance of Liberal POV in Hollywood, especially after 9/11, when he was afraid that many of his liberal friends "just didn't get it" about the danger of radical Islam. we had conversations in which he spoke of his perspective, and it was fairly similar to my own.

ᅠALL of this is subjective, but wherever I've gone in America, artists lean Left. And those entrenched in large organizations seem to lean Right more than average. Actors and writers tend to value their union--most of them, even successful ones, are middle-class IF THEY'RE LUCKY, and are very familiar with studios screwing artists over if they can--that for all but a few, the power of collective bargaining means the difference between getting totally screwed by the studios, and having a decent living. That definitely skews them to the Left. During those same strike deliberations, the execs are defending a very different perspective, and that would SEEM to put them on the road to leaning Right.

ᅠThese impressions have never really changed over the decades, but again, I could be wrong.

#

"None of us is as smart as all of us." Well, yes. Bobby Fischer would be a better choice to play chess than a hundred members of the local chess club. So I see that point. However, it has to be balanced with the opposite perspective: smart people are usually just exactly smart enough to screw themselves up, especially if they have so much faith in their intelligence that they think it can solve all their problems, or give them a more profoundly accurate vision of reality. Need I mention how Bobby Fischer ended up in life? Chess is an artificial game--it is not reality. When it comes to navigating the waters of our actual reality, I would look at what the very smartest people say...and then look at what the consensus of the "average" says...and then, usually, do what both sets agree upon.

If there is a radical thought coming from some genius somewhere, I would want to test it small-scale in the real world first. I'd also like to take a look at the "genius" and try to get some sense of whether that genius is actually calibrated for the real world, and not just an elaborate hallucination that he is able to dance around and, on the basis of brilliance, convince others that they should try it. I'm not a real "A priori" kind of guy when it comes right down to it.

ᅠSo I think that there are people who legitimately believe it is better for everyone if those at the top get the largest breaks. And others who just want to hold onto as much of the goodies as possibles, but couch that greed in the language of "trickle-down." I don't know what the percentage is one way or the other, but I think that greed and dishonesty are pretty evenly distributed between groups. And if you give them an inch, they'll take seven hundred billion dollars. But then, there is also a force that would like to give all power to the government. Some feel that they will BE that government, and want the power. Others that they want a "Nanny State." But I've met very very few people who really want to be taken care of completely--at least between the ages of say 20 and 60. So the problem to me is, how do you cancel out the worst at both ends? Money is the greatest corrupting force in the world, I think, because it is power that is more liquid than any other kind. Education, political office, intelligence, military rank...none of these things can be passed to your children as easily as money. None can be used as secret bribes as easily. None increase even when hiding in the dark of a bank vault.

ᅠSo I look at the temptation to grab a fistful of money as more immediate and poisonous than the urge to ascend to public office and be Kingfish. So I think we need a bit more political power pulling at private industry than we need the idea of unregulated free market. You just aren't taking human greed into sufficient account.

ᅠGreed and fear...we want to develop a system that takes both of them into account--as well as honesty, courage, sacrifice, and wisdom.

21 comments:

Marty S said...

Steve: The Bobby Fischer chess example was an extreme case designed to make the point that we don't all perform equally and that it is not unreasonable for those who perform better to be rewarded financially. As another example: In the game of tennis every player makes unforced errors, but some players make fewer unforced errors than others. These are the players who win championships. If we look at the income disparity between tennis players ranked in the top 4 and those ranked over a hundred its huge. So in industry their are some people who make fewer errors and/or contribute more good ideas why should it be shocking that they earn greater incomes than those who make more errors or contribute fewer good ideas.

Pagan Topologist said...

I would argue that the statement "None of us is as smart as all of us," is true but irrelevant. I suspect that most everyone has a correct insight somewhere that most people have never had. The problem is sorting the correct insights from the vast number of misconceptions that we all have, to achieve a composite "people's wisdom" is impossible. If it could be done, no doubt great and profound benefits would ensue. But, such wishful thinking leads nowhere; it amounts to the problem of simultaneously finding a million diamonds in a million multi-ton "haystacks" of identical looking cubic zirconia, and doing it quickly, thank you.

Josh Jasper said...

So in industry their are some people who make fewer errors and/or contribute more good ideas

Except when greed outweighs good sense, which is so common as to be expected on a cyclical basis.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

But marty s, isn't belief in free markets a form of "None of us is as smart as all of us"? :-) After all, the theory is that no one can plan as well as the invisible hand of all of us making our individual decisions.

Seriously, though, I think that whether "None of us is as smart as all of us" is true for practical purposes depends on circumstances.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

So I look at the temptation to grab a fistful of money as more immediate and poisonous than the urge to ascend to public office and be Kingfish. So I think we need a bit more political power pulling at private industry than we need the idea of unregulated free market. You just aren't taking human greed into sufficient account.ᅠ

The worst havoc has been caused by people like Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot who weren't especially motivated by money. There are worse goals than being Kingfish, though even there, it matters how much they're stealing.

It's pretty clear that a lawless free market isn't what we want. I say lawless rather than unregulated because there was a lot of fraud (more by lenders than borrowers, I think) and it was just let run. The lawsuits are barely getting started.

However, this isn't because money is scarier than political power.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Back to your title....I have a notion that part of what went wrong is too much hierarchy. A lot of this mess was the result of people following orders and doing their jobs, rather than feeling free to use their judgement.

I don't know what a peaceful, high population, developed society would look like where governments and bosses have a lot less authority would look like, but I think it's the direction we need to move in.

Lynn said...

too much hierarchy - That's a very good point. If "none of us is as smart as all of us" it does no good to have just a few people making decisions while most just follow orders and try to cover their own posteriors.

On the other hand, there's the "too many cooks in the kitchen" theory. If you have a lot of people trying to make decisions you end up with a mess. I guess that's part of hierarchy too.

Maybe we're always going to end up with a mess no matter what. What we need is system where everyone is always responsible for their own messes.

Scott Masterton said...

The real genesis of this problem has nothing to do with free markets (just a truly democratic expression of our desires) and everything to do with big business getting into bed with big government. Government is the only entity that has a monopoly on force; a business cannot force you to buy its products. If ideas are bad ones in a free market they naturally become extinct. If ideas are bad in a market supported by government, then when bad decisions are made the government points its not so metaphorical gun at the consumers and forces them to pay. What's to stop bad decisions from being made? Nothing anymore.

The dirty little secret is that big business LOVES regulation...it pushes out the little guy and only two or three get to play. Freddie Mack and Fannie May made extremely bad business decision with the encouragement of government and when the stumbled government was there to pick up the pieces with the fruit of our labor...pretty good gig if you can get it.

Peace,
Scott.

Mike Ralls said...

>But I've met very very few people who really want to be taken care of completely--at least between the ages of say 20 and 60.<

I'd argue that most of the people who play the lottery have dreams of being taken care of completely - most of the fantasies of the people who play it center around quitting their job and having a permanent vacation where their needs and desires are taken care of with very little effort on their part.

Anonymous said...

"I look at the temptation to grab a fistful of money as more immediate and poisonous than the urge to ascend to public office and be Kingfish."

I don't, for the reason Nancy Lebovitz and Arnold Kling gave: status-seeking is every bit as capable of being corrupt and harmful as wealth-seeking. Historically, the uttermost bloodbaths of the 20th century were brought about by some of those Kingfishes.

A Depression is no fun, but I'd rather deal with a Depression than a Ukrainian famine.


--Erich Schwarz

Marty S said...

I find it interesting that we can acknowledge that some people are superior athletes, musicians artists etc., but not that different people have different smarts and that many people make more than others because they contribute. My sister never graduated high school and started in a small company as a junior bookkeeper. She learned the business of the company made good suggestion that saved the company a lot of money and twenty years later ended becoming CFO and making a six figure income. I have two master's degrees and never cracker the six figure barrier. Obviously she had a talent the company needed and got paid for it. People like my sister in my mind deserve what they earn.

Steven Barnes said...

Marty--

I don't know anyone who doesn't think that some people are smarter and more capable and valuable than others. What I see is that people disagree whether such people can really be selected out with tests, or if those who are better rewarded in a society are rewarded purely on the basis of their efforts, or are helped along by belonging to the right social group or have the right skin color.

Marty S said...

Steve: Everybody who is "smarter" doesn't make it big. Some don't make it because they lack the personality skills that are equally important. Some don't make because they start with socio-economic disadvantages and some less qualified do make because they are born into the right family with money and or the right connections. I don't dispute that. I just dispute the idea that there aren't a large number of people who earn their superior income with superior performance and hard work not because life handed it to them.

Some Guy said...

"None of us is as smart as all
of us"...

For anyone who's interested, I just thought I'd mention that there's a very interesting book on just this question, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. Though I'm still a member of the "someone is smarter than all of us" club, it partially changed my perspective. If I remember right (and WAY oversimplifying) the mean answer of a group, even a group with no special knowledge or training, tended to be more accurate than the vast majority of the individual members' answers, but a few individuals would have answers that were more accurate yet. A fun read...

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm misunderstanding some of the other posters, but it seems to me you are all missing the point about this phrase. The aphorism, which comes from a Japanese proverb, is really about listening to the views of others. Even very smart people put themselves at a disadvantage when they make decisions and reach judgments wholly inside their own frame of reference. To be most effective, it is necessary to accept that the input of others has the ability to inform and improve your knowledge and conclusions.

I see this proverb as a challenge to arrogance. "I don't need to listen to you; I know the right answer already". If someone says that, in my experience they are less likely to be right than the person who asked for input from others. Not only that, the probability of that being true is very high, i.e. the correlation between good judgments and willingness to listen is very high.

What I have never understood is the widely held view that being open to input to others is a sign of weakness. Arrogance is a sign of weakness - fear of being challenged. Openness is a sign of confidence and strength. It also makes better decisions happen.

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