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The world is complex, so why do we let our candidates talk to us like simpletons?

Nov 7, 2016

The Next Idea

One of my favorite movies from last year was The Big Short. It brilliantly explained many of the complex factors that set in motion the collapse of the subprime mortgage market. It also captured the arrogance of the age. But the movie got one thing wrong. It suggested that only a few insiders understood what was really happening, when in fact many professionals and academics knew as early as 2003 that a crash was coming.

The real problem was that the people who had developed this deep expertise were either ignored or criticized by leaders who could dismiss their insights as too difficult to understand or too complex to be of any real consequence. They replaced these faint warnings with the reassuring bravado of the great and powerful Oz: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

The true believers thought the financial wizards had done their homework and had their best interests at heart. They lost it all. Most importantly, they lost faith in the system.

If you don’t think simplicity sells, listen to the messages from the campaign trail:

We are going to build a Great Wall that spans the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Since no one has undertaken such an effort in ages, we might want to consult some folks in Beijing or Berlin as to the cost and engineering required to really get the job done right.

Or, perhaps you would prefer the opposition:

The same party that couldn’t get a single conviction on the thieves who mugged the economy is now going to extract from them the $75 billion dollars needed to make college education free for everyone? Maybe we should consult the odds makers before betting on this one.

Marketers, politicians and scammers alike make the complex seem simple because it excuses them from having to actually understand the situation. It also allows them complete deniability. They can say they were simply misinformed. The truth is they were never informed.

Founding father Thomas Paine warned that a poorly informed public would be easily coerced by the cunning and the predatory. Well, here we are now. We are being given simple answers for simple people.

We can't embrace simplicity until after we have worked through complexity.

Think back to the horde of financial experts who promised that the go-go real estate markets that preceded The Big Short would go on and on. There are only two plausible explanations for what they did: They were either great pretenders out of their depth, or duplicitous liars trying to get what they could while the going was good. Why didn’t we listen to the expert fact checkers? Because simple is easier to sell.

We all want simplicity, but modernity is complex: economics, politics, the job, the commute, the whole shebang. We can’t embrace simplicity until after we have worked through complexity. Your iPhone, your Google search, your package delivery are all made simple because legions of scientists, engineers and designers first delved into the depths of complexity. In most of our jobs we use our specialized expertise to navigate our way through complex entanglements.

So why are we letting our candidates treat us like simpletons?

Why not ask them hard questions? Like, “how will that work?”, “how much will it cost?”, “how did you come up with that number?” and that showstopper, “where exactly will the money come from?” You would ask the same questions to someone who was going to remodel your kitchen. Why not ask them of someone who claims they are going to remodel your country?

Or, we can go on believing that it’s really all that simple until the next Big Short. But by then it will be … simply too late.

Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of business administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.

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