Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Expert Myth

Ownership of an electric guitar ought to, as far I can ascertain, confer upon one instant membership of the counterculture. Stars from Elvis the Rolling Stones to the Sex Pistols have felt obliged to rail against the establishment until either an interview with Richard Nixon or a knighthood or a lucrative butter advert intervened.

Not me though. I’ve got two very fine electric guitars, but I still can’t help respecting authority. When I meet doctors, traffic wardens, even liveried waiters I automatically adopt a deferential, almost obsequious demeanour. I’m a borderline cop groupie. The same automatic respect for authority has always underpinned my faith in politicians, Whichever party was actually in power I always believed that the cabinet would be composed of people who were better educated, more insightful and basically brainier then me.

The ruling class seemed to be qualitatively different to the people I knew. They had their own special books, giving prizes to their favoured authors to celebrate the fact that they weren’t Stephen King, Maeve Binchy or the late but still perplexingly prolific Robert Ludlum. They have their own special music too. You need only listen to a couple of episodes of Desert Island Discs to realise that the people that actually run the country listen to very old music from Germany, or Italy or one of the other old Axis powers rather than the new pop music that’s so popular with the general populace. If you’re easily impressed, as I am, it’s all very impressive.

The events of the past month or so have shaken that faith. The behaviour of both the main political parties has betrayed more than just a temporary fallibility. It’s more like a freewheeling cluelessness that suggests that they have never understood the world financial system.Further, once you read a some of the news coverage it’s increasingly clear that no-one does. Very few financial commentators foresaw the global economic cataclysm triggered by the transparent short-termism of the sub-prime farrago. Those few that claim they did clearly didn’t voice sufficiently convincing warnings in the correct circles, or we wouldn’t be in this pickle.

Despite the received wisdom that City moguls are a breed apart, to be paid staggering sums for their expertise in guiding the powerhouse at the heart of the British economy, the most tempting conclusion to be drawn from recent developments is that the City boys just got lucky for a while and that now the vast tide of money that has been sloshing around the world since the last recession a decade ago has receded are exposed as the bluffers the always were.

The regular cabinet reshuffles give the lie to the idea that our ministers are experts in their particular rĂ´les, or indeed in anything particular. They aren’t even political idealists in the main. They’re just people who have quite understandably plumped for a job that has a decent wage, a subsidized canteen with a late bar licence and an even chance of a peerage at the end of it all. Who among us wouldn’t make the same choices, given the option?

We, the unqualified electorate, are content to bob along like corks borne upon the great torrent of history without really understanding the forces that drive us. But here’s the thing, a realisation that is at first terrifying but after a short time becomes strangely empowering: No-one really understands any of it. If you look at it in the right light, all human history can be seen as a succession of egregious cock-ups perpetrated by people who ought to have known better. And yet we endure. MPs, the security services, BBC producers and journalists will make terrible mistakes again. They always have before. And everything will be fine.


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