Ronald Reagan, in his Presidential farewell address in 1989, said:
All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ‘em know and nail ‘em on it. That would be a very American thing to do. (Source)
I want this blog to be a dinner table of sorts, that hosts conversations that may influence great change and connects with others across the net to expand the reaches of discussion.
While this blog is inspired by a Ronald Reagan quote, this is not a blog about Ronald Reagan.
Though, I do think people can learn a great deal about the way Ronald Reagan thought by reading the book, Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan that Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America, which is a collection of manuscripts of his 5 minute long, Paul Harvey-esque radio announcements from the 70s (the blog of that era) that covers a wide range of topics. If you’re going to bash the guy, at least give it a read and see what he thought.
This blog is meant to be about discussion about various topics. My beliefs have changed over time as a result of observation, reading, reflection, research and most of all, discussion. Discussion with some very patient individuals, I might add. I think improving the state of discussion can lead to big changes.
I’m a reformed progressive liberal. I’ve gradually transitioned from proud progressive liberal in my younger days, to “social liberal/fiscal conservative”, to conservative to what many call libertarian, but as I learn more I probably would refer to myself more as a classical liberal. Being a classical liberal means I have a healthy skepticism of politicians, even the ones I think I might like, like Reagan.
I think discussion is important to gaining a better understanding of my own beliefs as well as others. I thank all those in my life who patiently engaged with me in discussion.
I find it unfortunate that, as a society, we aren’t very good at carrying out discussion. Actually, that’s way too nice. We are really bad at it. This holds true for discussions over the dinner table, discussions between people with opposing viewpoints in media and discussion by our leaders in business and politics – and these people should be really good at it.
There are many reasons for the state of bad discussion. Here are few that I can think of, maybe you can think of more:
- We don’t have time for it.
- For topics such as politics and economics, we do not pay the direct costs for being wrong.
- We are settled in on the way we think and we don’t care to entertain opposing viewpoints, especially on topics where the direct cost of being wrong is imperceptible.
- We take opposition and being wrong much too personally.
- We have false, and more undesirable than warranted, understanding of the opposing viewpoint.
- We tend to give more weight to style — how we say things, not what we say. Things like confidence, speaking ability and apparent certainty often carry more weight than the logical merits or demerits of opposing viewpoints. This leads to sound bites designed to play on people’s emotions rather than their common sense and logic.
I hope this blog can help improve the state of discussion.
I was born and raised in the Midwest in a family that taught me the value of hard work, making responsible choices, dealing with the consequences for my actions and the value of life-long learning.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my parents made great sacrifices to move me from an urban school system corrupted by ideas that treated education as a secondary concern to a nearby school district that had kept education as its primary objective. My parents made a wise choice.
For several years, as some of our social and family ties remained in the old neighborhood, we made trips back. I witnessed firsthand the decline of my old neighborhood while my new neighborhood thrived.
These neighborhoods were separated by only a few miles. As a child I had ridden my bike between them. But they seemed worlds apart. They were worlds apart. Later I came to find out that each world was governed and influenced by very different ideas.
It wouldn’t be until later that I appreciated just how such ideas could influence the quality of our lives in big ways.
I went on to earn a degree in electrical engineering, where I took three electives in economics and and some more in logic. I worked as engineer for a few years and earned an MBA then switched to a career in finance and business.
While in college, I tagged along on a driving trip to Mexico with my girlfriend’s family. We crossed the border in Laredo, Texas and visited many places. When we crossed back into the U.S. at Laredo two weeks later the thought occurred to me how different the standard of living was for people on the north side of the Rio Grande than on the south side.
It reminded me of the difference I saw in my old and new neighborhoods, but the differences were even more pronounced. Much more pronounced.
After all, was there something inherently different about the soil? Was the soil more fertile in one place than the other? No, that couldn’t be it. What was it then?
Wondering about the differences between my old and new neighborhoods and the differences between the north and south sides of the Rio Grande started me down the path of my political evolution.
But it wasn’t just politics where I noticed differences. As an engineer, I worked for an electric utility company. While interacting with my counterparts at neighboring utilities, I noticed how different their construction standards were from ours. I thought that was remarkable. Since the utility industry was mature, I figured that a single best standard must have been settled upon by now. Why were the standards so different?
I learned they were different because each utility had a unique set of experiences and individuals in the utility that responded to those experiences.
I was assigned to an ambitious project to model the company’s distribution network. The managers hoped the new system would drive better capital investment decisions and reduce the need for experienced and expensive engineers. Much to the chagrin of my supervisors, I quickly decided those objectives would not be achieved. While working with our experienced engineers, it occurred to me that the computer system would not be able to replace the learned knowledge of the experienced engineer to be able to diagnose system problems that could not be modeled. Are tree branches touching the lines? Did the journeymen tighten the connections properly? What kind of equipment does that customer have? Those are the types of questions the experienced engineer had and I didn’t think the model would be able to replicate such knowledge. I recommended the project be killed.
My supervisors were not happy with my recommendation. I was removed from the project. Five years later, after I had moved onto something else, a former co-worker called to tell me they killed that project after spending a couple million dollars and five more years chasing a pipe dream.
I moved into the finance department at the utility company and found the creative financing arrangements that we seemed eager to undertake puzzling. To me it seemed like a lot of work with little financial benefit. When I asked my boss why we did it, I was told because other utility companies did and that’s what the executives expected from us. Also, I figured out that the business it brought to the investment banks seemed to translate into more favorable stock analyst reports from those same firms. Politics. Not much later, Enron — one of the other utility companies that set the standard for such creative financing — imploded. Luckily, we were never smart enough to do everything they did.
Soon I changed companies and moved to the headquarters of a national retail and service firm, where I have been lucky enough to learn a lot of good lessons on many topics like the faults of centralizing decision-making, the problems in the belief that statistics can be used to take the business to the next level, people matter, leadership matters.
I’ve been fortunate enough to witness several business leadership regimes at close range as well as work with thousands of individual business owners and operators across the county. I see the successes and failures resulting from their actions and their beliefs.
And much of this has taken place just three miles from where my parents decided to move to get me into a better school.
Over the years I’ve had a lot of insights by observing the things going on around me. I was drawn to the works of Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman and Walter Williams because what I read of them seemed to agree with some of the insights I made about the things going on around me. These gentlemen helped me find words to better articulate these insights and provided me with even more.
I continue to expand from there. Cafe Hayek, the blog of Russ Roberts and Don Boudreaux, has been an valuable source of learning, links to knowledge on the internet and additional readings. Russ Roberts’ EconTalk podcast has also been an valuable source of learning. Through those sources I’ve gained a better understanding of the works of Adam Smith and the conflict of visions of John Maynard Keynes and Friederich von Hayek. I’m also a big fan of Nassim Taleb’s works.
My own observations and the great information I’ve learned (and continue to learn) from all those mentioned above and more, have helped me find what I believe are good answers to those things I wondered about when I was younger:
- Why were school districts separated by only a few miles so different?
- Why was the standard of living in Mexico so much lower than the U.S.?
- Why does this business do well while others flounder and go out of business?
As well as answers for many other things.
But I’m always open (or try to be) to the possibility that I could be wrong. Staying open to that possibility helps me learn.
Thinking back to when I started wondering about my schools as a child, it feels like I’ve come a long way. I didn’t even have the faintest semblance of an answer back then. As far as I knew it was the soil.
Unfortunately, for many people, they don’t allow themselves to get much further than that. They know it’s not the soil, but they still don’t have the faintest semblance of an answer.
I didn’t learn the answers in school. I learned them from knocking about in the world, wondering, reading and discussing.