Bailout Question: Is This the Time for Mass Movements or Expert Opinion?

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Nate Silver takes one side:

I’m sorry, but somewhere between 99.9% and 99.999999% of us are severely underqualified to be making policy recommendations on [the financial industry bailout]. And I’m certainly in the majority on this one… This is neither the time nor the place for mass movements — this is the time for expert opinion. Once the experts (and I’m not one of them) have reached some kind of a consensus about what the best course of action is (and they haven’t yet), then figure out who is impeding that action for political or other disingenuous reasons and tackle them — do whatever you can to remove them from the playing field.

And David Sirota takes the other:

The big flaw in [Silver’s] rationale, of course, is the entire concept of “expert opinion.” What exactly is “expert opinion?” That term usually refers to the Very Serious People the Establishment and Media Say Are Experts – that is, people like the Wall Street CEOs in front of Congress and people like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner – all who had direct hands in destroying the economy. Silver – incredibly – would have us simply wait for this “expert opinion” to tell us what to do, without any regard for the fact that this “expert opinion” is exactly what got us into the situation we’re in.

I think both Silver and Sirota are right, and wrong.

I acknowledge that people that this country treated as all-knowing titans of finance (Wall Street CEOs, high-level government officials, deregulating senators) led us into a ditch. But I also acknowledge that other people who are also experts disagreed with them as they did so, and have different recommendations than they do now. I further acknowledge that I know less about finance than any of them.

I also acknowledge that both good and bad ideas can come from a single person or set of people. When Geithner says that his TARP II program is the best way to rejuvenate the credit markets and bring stability to the financial industry, I’m inclined to give him his fair shot. Knowing how to make complex things work is the upside of being an elite expert.

But when Geithner fights to keep executive compensation limits to a minimum, I don’t give him the same benefit of the doubt. Trying to protect members of the privileged overclass (aka your buddies) is the downside of being an elite expert.

So if you’re a member of the blogosphere or the progressive movement, here’s how I suggest you think about expert opinion. (1) Recognize your own shortcomings. We’re entitled to our opinions on the economy, for example, but if we can’t predict the long-term financial fallout of implementing them, we have to acknowledge that. (2) Find people with an established track record whose values you trust. Use their knowledge to fill in the gaps in your understanding. (3) Remain skeptical of those in power; they seek to protect their position and the position of those around them. Raise hell where your knowledge and your instincts signal to you that something is amiss, and where your lack of knowledge is not in danger of leading you astray.

This doesn’t mean that everyone gets a seat at the policy-making table. ExxonMobil shouldn’t be a part of our national conversation on energy policy. Lobbying firms for the health care industry poison the debate over health care. People who argue for a proposal exclusively because the adoption of that proposal serves their bottom line or the bottom line of their clients can be dismissed. But experts and everyday people, if they are acting in good faith, must all be part of the argument; the country’s interest is probably served worse if either of them dominate.

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