Friday, January 2, 2009

Seeming vs. being

Tina Brown:
I remember being stunned when Tracy Hogg, the former nanny who wrote the bestselling mommy manual The Baby Whisperer told me that the mothers she worked for usually hired her without checking any of her references. She had a British accent, and . . . the Baby Whisperer’s posh vowels were enough, apparently, to convey a Mary Poppinsesque aroma of wholesomeness.
(H/T: Don Surber.) What Brown has in mind, among other things, is Bernie Madoff's swindle. The phrase "con man" comes from "confidence" -- the con man's trick being to inspire his victims to have confidence in him. The con man exudes charm, and has the sociopath's knack for seeming. He seems trustworthy, and takes advantage of people's belief that they can judge a man's character at a glance.

This problem recurs in many contexts. I'm reminded of how President Bush pronounced that, based on a one-time meeting with Vladimir Putin, he knew he could trust him:
I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.
This is one of the most idiotic statements Bush ever made, but in making it, he was only expressing what many other people believe: That they can form an accurate estimate of a person's character just by talking to them for a few minutes, or even by seeing them on TV. Some people aren't cynical enough to realize that there are other people who put tremendous effort into seeming to be things they are not.

Think about a job interview. Everybody tries to put on their best face for a job interview, but some people have a real knack for exuding an air of competence in that kind of situation and, as a result, they get hired for jobs that they aren't really qualified for. Yet the same personality trait -- an aptitude for seeming to know what they're doing -- will often stand them in good stead at the job, if no concrete measurement of productivity or work quality is applied. Having good "people skills" (at least when dealing with the boss) can indeed substitute for having any other skill, absent any effort to determine who is actually doing good work.

You see this in politics, as well. The likeability factor cannot be underestimated. The typically uninformed "swing" voter doesn't go point-by-point through the candidates' records and policy proposals, but instead watches the candidates on TV and decides which one he likes based on a gut-hunch impression: "Who do I like? Who do I trust?" And so you get a candidate like Barack Obama, whose calm demeanor and baritone voice conveys a sense of steady resolve -- "No Drama Obama," to borrow his campaign team's phrase -- convinced millions that a relative newcomer to politics ought to be entrusted with the presidency.

Tina Brown can't help being skeptical:
Thank God Obama was only kidding when he kept touting Change You Can Believe In. His own Cabinet choices have been cautious and well-researched, but that doesn’t mean we now have to climb into the tank and believe they suddenly know what they’re doing. Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, to whom our flailing economy has been entrusted, are protégés of the erstwhile genius Bob Rubin.
This is one reason why I keep saying of Team Obama's neo-Keynesian economic proposals, "It won't work." No amount of personal charm can suffice to void the laws of economics. As likeable as Obama is, his likeability cannot make demand-side interventionism work. At some point, being is more important than seeming.

No comments:

Post a Comment