Experience is Overrated
Experience is Overrated
July 29, 2016
Yesterday I tweeted this provocative claim:
This caused a predictable crap-tornado on Twitter. One of the most popular retorts came from Bill Kristol who replied “Tweeting.”
As luck would have it, I’m an expert at writing humor under the constraint of brevity. So I responded thusly.
That was fun.
But the bigger question is whether an inexperienced politician – who is well-educated, and experienced in business – could make good decisions based on the advice of experts. Let’s dig into that.
I heard three objections to my claims that as President of the United States I could master any political topic in an hour under the tutelage of the right advisors.
1. You can’t master constitutional law, international trade, or any other complicated field in an hour. No one can.
2. The real trick is finding the right advisors.
3. Trump wouldn’t listen to advice.
Taking these objections in order, I agree that no one can master an entire technical field in an hour. My point is about individual political decisions. (I should have been more clear on that.) Political decisions are relatively simple, and take this form:
Should we try to kill Bin Laden if we are only 60% sure we can do it, and Pakistan will be pissed-off either way?
Now assume you have advice from your Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of the CIA, and your Secretary of State. That decision wasn’t rocket science. It was closer to guessing. President Obama guessed right. Ex-President Carter guessed wrong when he tried to rescue Iranian captives. They both had world-class advice.
Most educated people could make informed decisions about most political questions if they had the benefit of world-class advisors. That’s my claim.
But how about international trade agreements, tax policy, and healthcare? Those are complicated, right? Yes. Indeed, no president understands those topics in sufficient detail to be trusted with a solo decision. So in those cases, you need advisors. That brings us to the question of how you can find the right advisors.
If it’s a military question, you ask the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to get you the right advisors for the topic.
If you have a law-and-order question, ask someone like Rudy Giuliani to come up with some suggested advisors. Giuliani could give you ten names from both parties.
If you need experts in economics, ask your Chief of Staff to round up a few top economists (Nobel winners, for example) from both parties and see if they all say the same thing. They won’t. So in that field, there is no such thing as useful expert advice.
And so on. The point is that it is easy for a President of the United States to assign people to find the best advisors. The President isn’t making phone calls and interviewing experts all day. The President sees the experts who have already been vetted by several other experts.
Some of my critics on Twitter correctly observe that the hard part is knowing which advisors are correct. That’s something every CEO deals with every day. Experienced business people know how to solicit competing opinions and size up experts in minutes. It isn’t a rare skill, but obviously some people do it better than others.
Keep in mind that the value of an advisor is subjective. If I told you President Obama took advice from Secretary of State Clinton, half of you would say that was smart, and half would say it was the dumbest thing he ever did. There is no such thing as “good advice” in most complicated situations. There is only advice that turns out well, often by chance. If Bin Laden had not been in that compound in Pakistan, the advice to go after him would look bad in retrospect.
Lastly, would Donald Trump be willing and able to take advice from experts, or would he ignore them and make his own crazy-Hitler decisions? I think we already have the answer to that in Paul Manafort. We can see with our own eyes that Trump has been following Manafort’s advice. Trump has been using the teleprompter more, and also moderating his extreme policy ideas to the middle. We don’t have to wonder if Trump takes expert advice. He’s doing it right in front of us, and in the most conspicuous way.
Do you remember the time Trump said something under-informed about legal penalties for abortion? Advisors (including his family) probably advised him to change his position on that immediately, and he did. We see Trump taking advice every day. I don’t know how you could miss it.
So while I agree with the critics that I can’t master a technical field in less than an hour, I do think any smart, educated, and experienced business person can understand a political issue in under an hour with the right advisors.
Keep in mind that Nixon was highly experienced. That didn’t help him. Obama was relatively inexperienced. Kennedy was relatively inexperienced. And Reagan wasn’t experienced with Washington DC politics and international affairs before office.
Experience is overrated. I say that in part because I live near Silicon Valley and watch inexperienced people changing the world every day. Smart matters. It matters a lot. Experience is often helpful, but it is also deeply overrated.
If you disagree with anything I said in this post, you should read my book.