Sunday, June 17, 2018

Instinct over Institutional Thinking

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

In terms of mathematics and geometry, we all know this...we learned it in elementary school.  However, as I progress through this life, I find that sentence to apply to most--if not nearly all--areas and situations that human beings encounter.  When dealing with any problem or issue, the most direct, obvious approach so often turns out to be the correct course of action.  The instinctive, the obvious...they so often turn out to be true.  And yet, it seems to be human nature that we don't trust those instincts.  When confronted with a problem or a question, we seem to so often ignore the most knee-jerk, direct, and obvious instinctive answer that comes to mind...and instead we move heaven and earth to look for a direction that is more complex, more thorough, or more complicated.  And time and again, we seem to be disappointed with the results of the complex, reasoned, "rationalized" approach that we choose.

Poker players have a phrase for this phenomenon:  "Think long...Think wrong".  Most any poker player can tell you--often in great detail--about times in which their opponent made a large bet, and they instinctively knew whether they should call or fold...but then that player thought about it...and thought about it...and thought about it...and then changed their mind from what their original instinct was.  And they turned out to be wrong.  Having played my share of poker myself, I can say that some of the biggest pots I've lost are those in which I thought through a situation too much and talked myself out of my instincts...and from my experience, the opposite rarely happens.

Whether you are a poker player, or whether your interests take you in a far different direction than playing cards and chips, there is no doubt you can think back in your own life and remember multiple situations where your instincts would have served you well--if only you hadn't allowed your mind to talk yourself out of your instincts.  When it comes to relationships, issues at your job, interactions with neighbors and other people, or a countless list of other aspects of most likely can think of multiple situations from your own past which make you think "I really wish I'd have stuck with my gut".

So often we allow ourselves to be seduced by complex, complicated, convoluted lines of thinking that--nevertheless--do not demonstrate any higher likelihood of actually resolving whatever issue or question we are dealing with.  But they sound better because they are so complex.  And we feel just a little smarter than our fellow man because we regurgitate these complex, Rube Goldberg approaches to the questions that daunt us.  And then, we scratch our heads wondering why the issues we've tried to resolve don't end up being resolved at all.

The shortest distance between two points really is a straight line.

Of the many elements of President Trump's personality that are problematic to his critics (but which seem like a breath of fresh air to we who support him), perhaps the most egregious is his penchant to trust his gut instinct above the advice, the protocol, the structure, and the institutional zeitgeist within which much of our politics and foreign policy have functioned for much of the last 100 years.  There are many examples of this, but consider for a moment the lead-up to, execution of, and post mortems since the President's summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. When the President initially engaged with the North Korean leader--making it very clear that the United States was willing and able to wipe him and his nation off the planet if they didn't denuclearize--the "experts", the diplomats, the journalists, and many of the government officials were aghast.  "You can't do that!!!!" was the refrain from that segment of society.  "It will lead us to World War III" so many of them said.

And then, when this approach actually bore fruit and brought Kim Jong Un to the table--with little if any leverage in his corner, it must be noted--we were again told what a horrible mistake it would be to actually meet with him.  The chattering classes and the "experts" provided us with all kinds of reasons why it would be abhorrent to meet with "Rocket Man" or "Lil' Kim".  You would be giving him legitimacy on the world stage, they said.  But isn't "legitimacy on the world stage" ultimately nothing more than an abstract, made-up concept that, in terms of concrete reality, doesn't actually amount to anything of significance?  But yet, the "experts" were so appalled that we would risk such an abstract and insignificant thing by having this summit.

And what were the results of the summit?  Well, truly we may not know the real results for years to come...but in the short term, the summit resulted in at least the commitment of North Korea to denuclearize, while The United States had to give up very little (War Games exercises...which we can engage in any number of other places in the world).  Now, how North Korea will (or won't) follow up on this commitment is something that only the sands of time can reveal...but the first step has been taken.  And it's a first step we as a nation have been unable to achieve with North Korea in the last 60 years.  Coincidentally, that 60 year period is the same amount of time that the "experts", the diplomats, the chattering classes, and the Intelligentsia have been forming our foreign policy and approach to North Korea and the rest of the world.

In other words, North Korea is a clear case where the vaunted institutions that we are told are the "experts" in such things ended up being exposed for what they really are--wannabe emperors with no clothes.  For six decades they have ignored gut instinct, basic human psychology, and straightforward approaches to dealing with North Korea for a series of complex, convoluted, confusing, and non-sensicle approaches to North Korea that were all "too clever by half" as our British friends might say.  Their approach didn't move the theoretical football one inch down the field...but yet we continued to allow them to call the plays--their lack of results notwithstanding.  Perhaps there was some sort of comfort in deferring these problems to those whom we were told were the "experts"...perhaps the excuse of "Well, that's how it's always been done" was placating to the American People in it's own right, and we just didn't scrutinize these institutions (or the institutionalists who form them) until recently.

But ultimately, the actions of these institutions ended up contributing far more to the problems we are trying to resolve now, as opposed to helping us make progress in these endeavors.  And it took a President (backed by a legion of Americans who are finally asking the question, "If these people are such experts, then why haven't they solved this North Korean thing before now?") who was from as far outside the beltway cacophony of intellectual incestuousness as one could possibly be to hit the reset button and--unthinkable to many--actually trust his instinct.

And his instinct worked...where their virtual Rube Goldberg machines of diplomacy and protocol had repeatedly failed.

The shortest distance between two points really was a straight line.

Now about that border wall...