As I follow, with trepidation, the words and actions of the 45th President of the United States, I keep returning to what Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman wrote in his seminal book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’:
“As we navigate our lives, we normally allow ourselves to be guided by impressions and feelings, and the confidence we have in our intuitive beliefs and preferences is usually justified. But not always. We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.”
I am only a few years older than the current occupant of the White House, but I have learned to mistrust my ‘gut’, because it has lead me astray more often than not. At best, it is unpredictable (exactly what our 45th President aspires to be). Sometimes I get it right, as I was just this week when I put my money on Sergio Garcia to win the Masters, but normally I get it wrong as when I picked Duke to win the NCAA Tournament this year. My ‘gut’ has really lead me astray when it comes to picking stocks or making investment timing decisions, so I don’t do that anymore.
The ‘gut’ is being fed by impressions, impulses and messages involuntarily, or subconsciously, received from one’s environment, including exposure to social media. It gives people who are too impatient or lazy to do the hard work of planning, researching, and analysis, an alternative method of coming up with a solution for a problem or with a course of action. The ‘gut’ supplants a decision-making process that is supported by a carefully crafted strategy. The results are, more often than not, not pretty and the reason for that is that, as Kahneman states, ‘we are often confident, even when we are wrong’.
One major problem with acting upon a ‘gut’ feeling is that it is, by definition, a ‘one step at a time’ process that does not consider the implications and consequences of the action taken, while finding answers to real life situations requires us to think more like a chess master, several steps ahead. This makes impulsive, gut based, decisions the favorite tool of action oriented, type A, personalities. It allows for a ‘shoot, ready, aim’ pattern that satisfies the need for always being seen doing something.
Three months into his presidency, POTUS 45 shows all the hallmarks of a person who is supremely confident, even when he is wrong. His solution for dealing with error is brazen denial of facts, including his own words and actions. ‘Mea Culpa’ does not exist in his dictionary.
Impulsiveness at the White House is traditionally mitigated by an entrenched, professional and experienced bureaucracy that supplies the policy makers with position papers, fact sheets and scenario analyses prepared with the input of data analysis, historic perspective and the presentation of strategic options. But the present executive branch has been gutted by dismissal of adherents to the ‘ancien regime’ and by the slow pace of filling positions that require confirmation by the Senate. People in this administration have spoken openly about its intent to deconstruct the ‘administrative state’. And thus, there are few, if any, restraints on impulsive, gut based, decision making at this White House. Nowhere has this been more clearly demonstrated than by the flawed initial executive order on immigration and by the recent firing of 50 tomahawk missiles into Syria in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. It is the typical behavior of the person who can’t stand to be seen doing nothing, even when doing nothing, or further analysis, may be exactly what the situation requires. As others have pointed out, more than 400,000 people have already died in the Syrian civil war and more fireworks does not do anything to bring this tragedy, which is a threat to America’s security interest, to an end.
Some have said or written that the tomahawks fired on Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria were really directed at Pyongyang as a warning signal that the US will not stand idly by while Kim Jong-Un further develops his nuclear capability. And that it was no coincidence that this action was taken while the Chinese President was visiting Mar-a-Lago. Right or wrong, it is a dangerous signal to send. Our 45th President should go to the Korean Peninsula and acquaint himself with the geography, particularly the short distance between Seoul, a metropolis of 10 million people, and the North Korean military installations. Speaking about being ‘under the gun’! That is no place to be impulsive or trigger happy.
The bottom line is that no nation, much less a world leading nation, can rely on intuition of its head of State when it comes to dealing with policy matters, least of all foreign policy matters. The United States needs a carefully crafted, coherent, strategy to deal with the multiple threats presented to the world order that has been painstakingly built out of the ruins of two world wars and has preserved the peace for more than a half century. The biggest challenge for the free world, and the United States as its lead-representative, is the avoidance of a third world war. History has shown that global wars can be triggered by miscalculation and hubris. Only Congress can declare war, but, as we have learned the hard way, a lot of shooting can happen before Congress gets a chance (or gathers the will) to act. A presidential miscalculation, based on a misguided ‘gut’ judgment, can trigger a nuclear conflict with one or more of the bad actors who pose the largest security threat to world peace in our age.
Impulsiveness and a lack of strategy are a dangerous combination. Under current conditions and with this 45th President, the absence of a functioning administrative state threatens our security and prosperity more than the inertia inherent in a bureaucracy ever could.