Wednesday, May 25, 2016

- Charles Murray's Rationalizations

There is no one in public policy that I find more continuously persuasive, than Charles Murray. His NR piece today makes the case for people like him, public policy ‘experts’ of the right, continuing their public opposition to Donald Trump. His points, as always, have at least some validity. But in my opinion he’s missing something critically important.

As you know, the #1 rule of RFNJ is: “How we decide is who we are.” And one thing I’ve noticed over the years is that what we all convince ourselves is free will, often isn’t. We tend to go with our strengths, the things that are easiest for us.

So in my case for example, without realizing it at the time, my insecurity about my modest upbringing pushed me in the direction of quant work. “My numbers are every bit as good as their numbers” I thought. (They being the Exeter - Harvard/MIT/Yale guys I was competing with.) I never imagined that someone with my modest lineage would be taken as seriously as those guys, and to some limited degree I was right.

I also have a friend (a former coworker) who is a much better mathematician than me, but who does similar work. He is the second son of a Spanish baron, and attended (and excelled in) the most elite schools in Europe. His upbringing was very different than mine, but he ended up in the same place. And when I got to know him, I discovered that the reason this was so was because he couldn’t trust his family emotionally, and as a second son he was seen as something less valuable for very amorphous reasons. He was drawn to mathematics because it allowed him to get ‘the right’ answer. Life is complicated but math has rules that can be learned and mastered, and this was a great comfort to him.

So here are two guys, with almost diametrically opposed life experiences, but came to the same place at roughly the same time, and ended up doing the same work. So what did we have in common? In terms of experience, not a thing. But we were both born with brains that made complex mathematics easier for us than most. So when presented with the gazillion life choices that make up a childhood, we both went to the areas where we were mentally strongest to come up with a solution. And by doing so over a lifetime, our strengths became even stronger and more likely to be chosen.

So where is the free will in that? Both of us were born with brains for math, so in effect that skill is what drove us. Whatever the problem we were facing, we tended toward our mutual strength to solve it. That’s not free will, that’s almost Taoist in its determinism. Our genes defined how our brains worked, and our brains put us on a path, which although they followed completely different routes, inevitably led us both to the exact same place.

So back to Charles Murray and Trump. Dr. Murray is urging his colleagues not to make any rationalizations about the reason Trump is saying the things he is, and to only judge him on the content of his words. Is this because that’s how Charles Murray thinks and speaks? In my opinion probably. And since it’s worked so well for him over the years, he’s urging others to do the same. But Donald Trump is not a personally risk averse policy expert. There is nothing about him which is academic. All the decisions in his life have come with an element of risk that Charles Murray has never had to face. And to treat his words in the same way, in my mind, is categorically incorrect.

I’m not a Trump fan, and I feel that way for some of the reasons Dr. Murray mentions. But to me, what Donald Trump looks like he’s doing with his public words is negotiating. He’s doing exactly what anyone in the private sector would do. He’s taking an extreme position in all things, and will then get all he can from the other interested parties. Is he going to pursue goals which are in the best interests of the country rather than himself? I have no clue. But neither does Dr. Murray. And if we’re both going to be speculating on something like that, then I think it’s going to be more helpful to judge Donald Trump for what he is, than to judge him for what Dr. Murray is. This isn’t a rationalization, though Dr. Murray would probably describe it as such. It’s simply trying to understand someone on their own terms.

So who is Donald Trump? He’s a man who was born with a huge safety net and has limited success compared to others in similar circumstances. Bu that same safety net gave him the chance to pursue highly risky strategies for success which he did not fear to do. In the meantime he’s been wildly successful at self-promotion and persuasion. I know half a dozen men who could buy and sell Donald Trump, that no-one has ever heard of. That lack of self promotion on their part may speak to some weaknesses of theirs, but it certainly speaks to Donald Trump's strengths. All these facts would tell me he has a big ego, and considerable courage. He is also probably of something less than a top tier intelligence, but not stupid either. Many a silver spoon has been the last thing hocked when the money was all gone.

All in, I share Dr. Murray’s view that he’s a man of dubious morals, dubious intelligence, and dubious character. But in my mind, so too is everyone in Washington. And this is not a multiple choice question. We don’t’ vote for the best person, but the best person available.

There is another issue which I think is deeply relevant here. The only way that Donald Trump seems meaningfully different to me is that his emotional message is very masculine, rather than the feminine message we typically see from right leaning pols. Those that are accustomed to the soft spoken pol would be taken aback by that confrontational style, and I believe this is having a meaningful effect on Dr. Murray in all the ways that he has been taught to ‘think’ like a woman.

I’m not impugning his character, intelligence, or motives. I’m not calling him effeminate in any way. But he has lived in a culture so steeped in Feminine propriety that I believe he can’t see around it. More than that, I believe that ‘thinking like a woman’ (to use my own shorthand) in some respects, is more natural for Dr. Murray than others. He isn’t irrational like many women, but he did choose a career where he is relatively insulated from personal risk of being incorrect, and where masculine dominance is frowned upon at the very least. His career path is one where his substantial intelligence and irreducible logic would be a huge driver of his success, but where he didn’t have to compete directly with other men.

It’s just speculation on my part, similar to his own about Donald Trump, but I think that sentiment is blinding him to the truth about the nominee. I think his horror at someone who communicates so differently than anyone who has come before, is forcing him to make a categorical error. And I think his advice to judge Trump on his public statements alone, while perfectly logical, is in fact incorrect.

How we decide is who we are. And that goes for Dr. Murray and Donald Trump both. If you want to understand how they decide, look at what they’re good at and the path they’ve chose in life. Look at the story, and see where success and failure have come to them. Then you can see who they really are, no matter if they try to hide it behind intellectual talk, or emotional bluster or both. It doesn’t matter where they started nor for that matter where they ended. Life and luck play a part in that for us all. But if you want to know them just look at how they got wherever it is. There is no lying about that.

If you apply the same standard to Hillary, it quickly becomes clear that she is a FAR worse choice than Trump.

PS - Guys, if you think it's worthy, please forward this one around. I've spent my whole life in the capital markets where suppression of the ego is critical to success, so I lack strong self promotion skills as well. But I really do think this piece speaks to how Trump should be best viewed to judge him accurately.

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