Home > #OWS, finance, rant > How informed does an opinion have to be before it’s taken seriously?

How informed does an opinion have to be before it’s taken seriously?

March 28, 2012

How informed should an opinion have to be before it’s taken seriously?

I’m kind of on one end of the spectrum here. I would argue that you only need to know enough to get it right.

The original power of Occupy for me is in the following sentiment: you don’t need to understand the system’s insides and outs in order to know the system is screwing you. Of course it’s a different thing to fix something, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

So, if you are a student with $80,000 in loans, a degree, and no job prospects, and all your friends are in the same or similar situations, then you can fairly say that the system is broken. And you’d have a powerful argument. The beauty of this argument, in fact, is that you and your friends provides living examples of how the system is broken, and defies all expert opinion to the contrary.

And one thing that we have had enough of lately is expert opinion.

This question came up at a recent Occupy Wall Street Alternative Banking group meeting, and not for the first time. The context was the collapse of MF Global, and we were talking about tri-party repos, which have intermediaries, and (maybe) fiduciary duties, and various questions arose over the legal issues as well as the question of whether Corzine et al had yet been asked these questions by Congress.

The details don’t matter. The point is, it’s complicated, and the question came up whether we had to know absolutely everything in order to be seen as asking an informed opinion and in order to be taken seriously.

Now, it’s a good idea for us to know the basics: the parties involved, their relationship to each other, and especially their individual incentives. But on the question of knowing if a specific question has been asked before, I think that doesn’t really matter. The truth is, we are some of the wonkier people in financial matters, and if we don’t know about it, then probably most people don’t.

And moreover, since we are trying to figure out how to represent the average person in such situations, that’s a good enough test. In fact, even if a question has been asked, if it hasn’t been adequately answered for the sake of the 99%, it’s still fine to ask and ask again until we have a satisfactory answer.

I’m all for being informed myself, and I like informed debates, but I don’t want to get stuck in some “cult of expertise”, where I think nobody is allowed to have an opinion unless they are incredibly well versed in something, especially when the underlying issue is actually one of ethics and justice.

Think about it: such thinking gives experts an incentive to make things more complicated in order to exclude non-experts. In fact I’d argue that such a “cult of expertise” incentive does in fact exist, has existed for some time, and the result is our financial system, tax system, and legal system.

It’s bullshit. We need to allow people who know enough to get it right, and have skin in the game, to enter the debate, and be heard, even if they don’t know the intricacies of the legal issues etc.. Those intricacies, likelier than not, have been partially put in there to confuse the very people the system was putatively set up to serve.

Categories: #OWS, finance, rant
  1. Dan L
    March 28, 2012 at 10:22 am

    A bit of devil’s advocacy: The fact that one person (and perhaps also that person’s friends) is 80K in debt, educated, and jobless is not a powerful argument that the system is broken. The powerful argument comes from actual statistics demonstrating that this is, in fact, very common.

    • March 28, 2012 at 10:24 am

      Agreed that that is even more powerful. I just mean that the results of a system should be taken into consideration, sometimes above the way the specialists describe the system and how wonderful it is. But yes, you’re right.

  2. March 28, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    I definitely agree with your point that expertise should not be a prerequisite for providing worthwhile input.

    How do you judge how much knowledge is “enough” though?

    • March 28, 2012 at 1:43 pm

      I know! It’s hard. It takes a longer and more confusing conversation, but that’s when you make progress.

  3. stephen
    March 28, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    “The details don’t matter. The point is, it’s complicated, and the question came up whether we had to know absolutely everything in order to be seen as asking an informed opinion and in order to be taken seriously.”

    Actually, speaking as someone who agrees with a number of the points of the “Occupy” movement but does not support the movement wholesale, if you want to be taken seriously by others who may not subscribe to your views, your best bet is to gather data on how the system (as currently implemented) is screwing *them*, and propose alternatives to that system.

    For example, if you *really* want to reach seniors / baby-boomers, and others who aren’t students and haven’t paid tuition for many, many years (in a different system), you need to show them how subsidizing bank bailouts by keeping short-term interest rates at zero for ten or twenty years (a la Japan) will absolutely *destroy* their savings. Note that this course doesn’t require you (or your intended audience) to understand tri-party repos, rehypothetication, or inverse-libor-cubed interest rate swaps.

    Just show the facts about how the current arrangement is screwing them, and you’ll be taken *very* seriously. Believe me, the grain and cattle farmers who just saw their “sacrosanct customer funds” evaporate out of their commodity trading accounts at MF Global are probably a *lot* more sympathetic to Occupiers than they were a year ago; they now have direct evidence that the system, as currently implemented, is screwing *them*.

    what do others think?

    stephen

  4. Deborah gieringer
    March 28, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    Being “immediately screwed,” as with the grain and cattle farmers, can be lesson-inducing. But the threat of being screwed in 20 years …. i don’t know that it’s easy to get that taken seriously. In fact, I think it’s really, really hard, and how and why that’s so is really worth taking on …. It requires more than facts and logical arguments ……

  5. March 29, 2012 at 1:06 am

    “We need to allow people who know enough to get it right, and have skin in the game, to enter the debate, and be heard, even if they don’t know the intricacies of the legal issues etc.”

    The intricacies of the legal issues are a result of some thirty years of changing the effect of law (often with complex waivers) until the laws, and the rules and regulations that once enforced them, can be argued to be quaint, old-fashioned, out-of-date and thus were to be justifiably annulled by new legislation. When residual protestations are brought up to claim that financial fraud should still exist, tortuous and incredibly convoluted arguments are offered to insinuate that it’s too complicated for non-experts, non-statisticians, the digitally illiterate to possibly understand, so such gray areas get slimed through as also being under the modernized law.

    The average joe and jane, and joe-six-pack as well, need to be informed enough to realize that much financial fraud (e.g. loan sharking, usuary, unfounded and risky ponzi schemes, melding of high-risk-investment with savings-based banking, unsupervised/unfunded-prosecutions of transactions, etc.) was legitimized by institutional corruption and bribery that can be reversed only by dismembering personhood from corporate structure and speech from money.

  6. March 29, 2012 at 5:32 am

    Cathy,
    I believe the importance is a difference between the outcome and the way to get there.

    Then there’s also a difference between the ability to validate the outcome and to validate the path to get there. Those two get easily confused, and ends get lost in means – even though it’s generally easier to validate the ends than the means (if for nothing else, the means tends to have side effects, so the frame is wider).

    I say generally, because as you undoubltedly know, the sheer amount of biases etc. make even validating the ends pretty damn hard sometimes – say your example is a prime case of when an individual could feel like the end is not being achieved, on their small local sample (and situation you describe wasn’t unusual if you went to study some obscure stuff like say foresnic anthropology where there are about three positions ever in the whole of UK – never mind recessions or what – and of course most of your friends would be from your studies, thus sample bias etc. etc..).

    I’m silently (or not anymore) implying that the ability to validate something means having “informed opinion”.

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