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Marty Robins

Marty Robins

Posted: June 23, 2010 01:09 PM

Stop the Happy Talk Already! How Optimism and Overconfidence Are Ruining America

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I'm writing this on the fourth day of a power outage at our home in suburban Chicago. The outage was caused by a severe thunderstorm -- hardly an unusual occurrence during Chicago summers -- yet our electric utility in its recorded messages and on its website, keeps referring to "extreme weather." This is the third outage of more than two hours in the last 60 days and at least the 15th such outage -- requiring us to activate our generator -- in the last eight years.

One would perhaps expect such a situation in North Korea or Somalia, but not in a major metropolitan area of the U.S. Its existence illustrates a more fundamental problem with America than just an antiquated power grid. We are rapidly losing our national ability to "do the basics" and deal with what used to be routine problems, because we are disregarding the likelihood of their occurrence, as a result of our national emphasis on a positive outlook, optimism about the future and confidence in ourselves and our ability to overcome problems.

Whether it is an electric utility which is ill prepared to deal with inevitable storms and seems overwhelmed when they happen (but has recently made a major acquisition of another utility 700 miles away), an oil company and its regulators who are ill prepared to deal with inevitable equipment malfunctions in the Gulf of Mexico or lenders and borrowers entering into loan transactions which are viable only if incomes and property values keep increasing, we seem to believe that everything will go according to plan. This is simply not correct, and we must start anticipating deviations with meaningful contingency plans and be realistic about what can be accomplished. Pretending that bad things will not happen does not prevent them.

However, everywhere one looks in business and government, we see the opposite. Our current Administration came into office with the belief that it could deal with two wars, the worst recession in 70 years and a growing terrorism threat and still pursue major long-term changes in energy policy, major changes in education policy, not to mention remaking the health care system.

Is anyone surprised that unemployment is near 10% even with many temporary census jobs, oil is spewing out of control in the Gulf, and we have had numerous terroristic attacks in the U.S. in the last year? This Administration was completely unrealistic about its own (or anyone else's) capabilities and bit off far more than it could chew, with predictable results.

Similarly, we see private firms not making plans or allowing margin for error to deal with inevitable problems from their tactics and strategies, be they large acquisitions, liberalization of credit standards or drilling for oil in extremely deep water. To the contrary, the reasonable desire for optimists and positive thinkers frequently goes too far and results in "shooting of messengers" who express concern about potential or developing problems. Witness the cookie cutter oil spill response plans filed with the MMS, which emphasized protection of [non-existent] Gulf walruses, indicating the plans were just cut and paste jobs from Alaska.

Too many people in senior positions seem to feel that they have fully thought through each situation, when they 'don't know what they don't know.' Such emboldened people have caused a great deal of harm when they overruled or silenced those who expressed reservations. We have heard far too many "leaders" exclaim after the fact 'Who could have imagined [fill in disastrous event]?' when someone did imagine it, but was told not to worry about it.

As a society, we need to accept that the best case scenario of anything should not be assumed and that one who expresses concern about possible problems is not inherently a doomsayer, but may have useful insight. A positive outlook is a good thing, and much better than someone who sees only the negative and makes miserable those around them, but we also need to and can understand our limitations and properly address basic needs before addressing more complicated objectives.

For example,

• Let's make sure that we are using the best feasible techniques for our oil drilling and are genuinely prepared to respond to spills and blowouts before worrying about preventing global warming 30 years from now through electric cars, cap and trade and "green" federal buildings;

• Let's modernize our power grids and natural gas distribution mechanisms, many of which date back to the '30's and '40's before having our utilities pursue exotic alternative energy technologies and "strategic" acquisitions;

• Let's use the pending financial regulation bill to hone in on prevention of financial collapse instead of addressing peripheral issues such as debit card interchange fees and car dealer credit disclosure practices, neither of which had anything to do with the problems in our financial system;

• Let's make sure we prevent wrongful acts by apparent terrorists that we apprehend, before worrying about showing the world how an enlightened legal system handles such matters; and

• Let's have our elementary and secondary schools concentrate on successfully teaching the 3R's and other basics, such as financial literacy, which are subject to measurement on standardized tests, before moving on to higher order skills.

In these difficult times, there is a natural tendency for everyone to look to our institutions for grand plans to solve our myriad of dire problems and for the institutions and their principals to believe that they are uniquely capable of doing so. It is also natural for all concerned to hope for the best rather than dwell on the worst. However, more realism for all will be instrumental in bringing about the best and avoiding the worst.