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Expert Advice

I think one of the major problems afflicting American society today is that we have taken to listening to "experts" instead of using our own common sense and know-how. For example, in this article on the burst housing bubble (something I get to experience first hand both as someone looking for a new apartment in a market affected by the condo-conversion frenzy, and an employee of a home-building company feeling the pinch of lowered sales) Dean Baker states:

...the experts either looked the other way or said everything was fine. And, the politicians pushed policies that persuaded many moderate-income families to buy overvalued homes that they could not afford. And the mortgage brokers made a fortune selling bad mortgages. That is the way the US economy works these days. Those who mess up the economy do well, while their victims - in this case millions of moderate-income homebuyers who will lose their homes - pay the price for the experts' mistakes.

Once Americans approached life with skepticism, but now we are merely cynical. There is a difference. Cynicism doesn't have to actually be tied to action; it is merely a pose. Thus the spectacle of ostentatiously authority-mistrusting crowds slavishly hanging onto Al Gore's every word on global warming and running obediently to the car lot to bargain on a Prius, which will get no better mileage than a non-electric car with manual transmission (which will have less dangerous heavy metals in its makeup and also have more trunk space for those Whole Foods grocery bags).

I have a theory (based mostly on intuition and observation instead of expert-approved missals; there's a theme here) that this is part of the bad effects of post World War II liberal worship of all things European. There was always a trend to Euro-worship among American literatti, for historical reasons, but it didn't really reach the bulk of the non-literary crowd (i.e., everybody else) until around the Fifties. As progressive liberal admiration of European literature and European political ideology gained a foothold in the American mind, so did European thought processes -- like the tendency towards turning to an intellectual elite for an increasing number of important and not so important decisions.

Once the idea that we should be the "not-Europe" because after all our ancestors came here to get away from everything that was wrong with the place was a basic tenet of American action. The idea that one should buy a house or a car despite not being able to do so was anathema to the average American. Those days area long gone, and now most Americans are in debt to their grandkids' eyeballs, as much as any English lord. All that's left is to learn to pay our gambling debts and let our tailors starve, and we'll have come full circle.

(Via Mangan's Miscellany.)

Update: speaking of home ownership and its difficulties, in the comments to another post where Mangan points out that it's difficult to find employment if you are tied to a home you own (since you just can't pick up and move as easily as you could if you merely rent), a commenter actually takes issue with him:

By this lamentably weak logic, getting married, having children, getting old or anything that might conceivably negatively effect worker mobility causes unemployment. Big deal.

See what I mean about the lack of common sense in people today? I guess I really have to point out some things: your spouse and children aren't nailed to the floorboards -- unlike a house, they can move with you. And when you get old you generally aren't looking for a job, you are looking to retire. True, you could sell your house, but if your unemployment happens to coincide with a depressed housing market, good luck with that. You may have to sell at a loss, if you simply aren't foreclosed on. True, there are penalties for renters who have to move before their lease is up, but they can usually work something out with the landlord; you haven't lost a bushel of money, usually just a month's rent and your security deposit. Owning a home is a life commitment, or it should be -- too many people these days seem to treat it as a magic panacaea for all their financial problems; they believe all the promises of how becoming a homeowner will suddenly give them good credit, and wipe out their past of bad financial decisions. I toyed with the idea of buying, but five minutes consideration of my wacky finances and spendthrift ways (call me the prodigal daughter) canned that idea.

Comments (6)

CGHill [TypeKey Profile Page]:

Of course, most people considering a Prius can't drive a stick, and Toyota won't sell you one with a stick. (This is not mere posturing: most people, period, can't drive a stick.)

As regards my own house, P&I less tax advantages came to rather less than the rent I was paying in the CrappiFlatâ„¢. However, insurance has tripled, I now have a property-tax bill, and utilities have risen substantially, so it's hardly a wash: it costs serious money to own your own home. I still think it was worth it, but I am not about to pitch it as the Answer To Everyone's Prayers.

I actually looked at a Prius the last time I was car-shopping. But at the time (2000) the mileage the Prius got was very little better than that of the automatic Echo. As I can't drive stick either, I chose the Echo. That was the last car I've owned. (And thereby hangs a tale... for another time.)

I forgot to say -- maybe they've improved the mileage; I think at the time the weight of the battery and its accouterments cancelled out most of the mileage advantages. And it was about $10,000.00 more than the Echo.

Another car I looked at was that Honda batteried version they came out with briefly. It was a two-seater, which appealed to my misanthropic tendencies. Bit it was also much too expensive, and at the time it only came out in manual transmission as well.

I think the worship of "experts" is closely related to the extreme emphasis on education and training over the last 50 years. It seems increasingly difficult for many people to grasp that you can do things without having a precise menu to follow.

Closely related to the worship of expertise is excessive emphasis on specialization, regarding which I've always like this Heinlein passage:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Whenever I come across that passage, I want to say "will he settle for someone who can walk and chew gum at the same time?"

Yeah...it's quite a list...doubt if he could actually do *all* those things himself. Still, it's the right spirit.

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