Does expertise matter anymore?

By Kent. R. Kroeger (May 12, 2018)

The Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz receiving his diploma

Radio personality Howard Stern once explained why actors are so deeply insecure and narcissistic: “They work in a business where they can spend years studying and practicing their craft and then still lose a movie role to some good-looking dick off the street that has never taken acting lessons.”

Before landing his first movie role (in George Lucas’ American Graffiti), Harrison Ford had as much training as an actor as I do — which is to say, none.

Some jobs simply don’t require years of study and experience.

Which is why we may be seeing a hardening in the Democrats’ resistance to President Donald Trump in tandem with a grudging acknowledgement, even among his most ardent critics, that his apparent incompetence hasn’t resulted in the fall of the American Republic.

Quite the opposite, America is booming, which only feeds a growing antipathy towards Trump among people that believe in the virtues of a meritocracy.

Even some of Trump’s supporters acknowledge the man is experientially-challenged.

Yet, there he is on TV, preening for the press corps as he welcomes home three Americans following their captivity in North Korea. These three men would not be home right now if not for Trump’s Twitter diplomacy.

Serious people must ask themselves, if Donald Trump can be a successful president, who is unqualified to hold the office? Does a dissertation-length resume actually work against politicians in today’s anti-establishment political environment.

If Trump succeeds, it undercuts the political establishment’s principle argument to voters since the Great Depression: You need our expertise.

The corollary is that because the political establishment exists to solve society’s problems, it is always against the establishment’s self-interest to actually solve any problems.

Along comes Trump: A man utterly lacking in the supposed temperament and competencies required to be the leader of the Free World.

Former Bill Clinton adviser James Carville describes Trump’s core competencies like this: “He doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t prepare for anything. He doesn’t study anything. He has no idea what is going on in the world or the country.”

I disagree with Carville on this point, but he does have a large body of supporting evidence.

Yet, over a year into his presidency, Trump’s lack of expertise doesn’t seem to be as debilitating as many expect. It may even be one of his greatest assets as he blows up every pretense, norm and worldview held by today’s global elites.

Trump is an invasive species. He is a human splinter deeply embedded and festering in the body politic. It hurts many of us to have him in the Oval Office, and pray as we do that Robert Mueller III can tweez him from power, privately we know we have him for at two and a half more years.

That means 900 more days where Trump can subvert the political status quo and continue traumatizing the world’s expert class.

In his first year and half, Trump has shown that the U.S. can take substantive actions against long-known trade abuses by the Chinese and not destroy the economy in the process. Sure, Trump’s stratagem against China could still backfire. But it could also lead to significant concessions with respect to intellectual property abuses and other unfair trade practices supported by the Chinese.

Trump is addressing real problems, not phantasms borne out of some partisan D.C. think tank. And, in doing so, is leading me to believe studying and hard work may be overrated. If Trump successfully denuclearizes the Korean peninsula, what were our diplomatic experts doing for the previous 65 years, besides drawing generous public salaries.

Maybe our country’s diplomatic challenges are not as difficult as the Foggy Bottom bureaucrats want Americans to believe. Maybe you don’t need trained diplomats for American diplomacy to be successful.

Quoting Howard Stern again: “Ben Carson proves you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to be a brain surgeon.”

What if diplomats are just modern versions of witch doctors — who are not actual doctors, for those unfamiliar with the history of witch-doctoring.

Donald Trump’s rank ignorance is proving to be more of an asset than a liability. When past policies don’t work, its time to try something different.

After eight years, Obama’s foreign policy team — Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Susan Rice, James Jones, Robert Gates, Samantha Power, James Clapper, John Brennan, Ben Rhodes, and others — accomplished little, despite their impressive résumés. Their biggest triumph, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is on life support, not unlike Obamacare, the administration’s signature domestic policy.

In this context, Trump’s potential breakthrough with North Korea must be maddening to former Obama officials, and he’s doing it by ignoring nearly every diplomatic rule in existence.

Trump leads with his gut (both literally and figuratively), and after every new Trump decision the Obama acolytes, now over-populating cable TV news, are reduced as they tell us the sky is about to fall. It hasn’t happened.

Let us review the major areas where Trump’s decisions have not brought down the skies, despite his expertise and temperament deficit:

North Korea: For 65 years, this country has made little progress on bringing an end to the conflict on the Korean peninsula. Along with the Obama administration foreign policy experts mentioned above, consider also the intellectual firepower Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush threw at Pyongyang. What was the net result? North Korea now has nuclear bombs and will soon be able to deliver them on ballistic missiles— maybe not reliably, but all they have to do is hit a target the size of the U.S. West Coast to be an existential threat.

Along comes Trump, and there is a genuine non-zero chance the Korean War will end on his watch.

Paris Climate Accords: Trump’s pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords led MSNBC contributor Donny Deutsch to declare that “if we go 3.6 percent (he meant degrees Celsius) warmer, the world ends.”

Deutsch reinforces the general rule not to get your climate science information from advertising executives.

But what Deutsch was trying to say is still well taken. Is now the time for the U.S. to step back from its significant efforts to address climate change? According to the 2017 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, since 2005 annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have declined by 758 million metric tons, nearly as large as the 770 million metric ton decline for the entire European Union.

However, what has changed since Trump’s decision? Not much. The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) forecasts that wind generation will rise to 741,000 MWh/d in 2018 and to 766,000 MWh/d in 2019, while solar’s contribution by 2019 will be almost double what it was in 2016. As for coal, U.S. consumption will decline between 2017 to 2019 by 34 million short tons.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Agency (2018)

The truth is, since leaving the Paris Accords, the U.S. (and the world) are moving faster, not slower, towards achieving 100 percent renewable energy sources in the second half of this century. The U.S. government’s ability to alter energy markets is marginal compared to broader market forces and Trump’s decision on the Paris Accords hasn’t changed any of the macro trends in worldwide energy consumption.

So much for Donny Deutsch’s doomsday scenario. And this should be a lesson to all partisans (Democrat or Republican) who wallow in the cynical urgency of ‘end of times’ rhetoric: ‘Doomsday’ predictions never materialize and are almost always powered by partisan bullsh*t.

The U.S. Economy: Even the most partisan Democrats acknowledge the U.S. economy under Trump is stronger than any time since the 2008 financial crisis. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently announced the U.S. unemployment rate is at its lowest level since 2000. Yet, Valerie Jarrett, the former Barack Obama White House adviser, said on CNN’s New Day that most of the credit should still go to Obama and not the current president.

“Look, I think we have to look at it over a longer horizon than that,” she said. “If you think about what the economy was like when President Obama took office, we were losing 750,000 jobs a month. Under his watch, the unemployment rate dropped in half and it’s encouraging to see that we’re continuing to make progress.”

She is correct. But winning in politics is about controlling perceptions. And in the terms of the economy, Trump is dominating the argument. According to a April 2018 poll by Quinnipiac University, 46 percent of Democrats agreed that Trump, not Obama, was the reason behind the economy’s current state.

Of course, a number of economy-crushing threats loom on the horizon — student loan debt, upward pressures on energy prices (thanks in part to Trump’s decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal), potential trade wars, and growing government debts worldwide.

A recent report by the International Monetary Fund stated that global debt was at $164 trillion in 2016, an all-time high. It is particularly worrisome that China, with the fastest growing large economy, is entering uncharted territory with respect to debt.

“The big concern about China is that debt to GDP is still rising,” says Gregor Irwin, chief economist at Global Counsel. “It’s projected to rise further still, and it’s very high by the standards of other countries or by historical standards, and frankly, it looks unsustainable. So that is a genuine concern over the next few years over the stability of the global economy."

But none of these threats can be pinned on Trump. He didn’t invent government debt, though he’s adding to ours like a stoned Kardashian with a credit card on New York’s Fifth Avenue. And his decision to raise tariffs on steel and aluminum imports and selected imports from China, while potentially a drag on specific economic sectors, is not expected to have much of an impact on the world economy. As of now, Trump oversees a robust U.S. economy that shows few signs of slowing down.

Of course, all of this Trumpian success could come crashing down in heartbeat. The Trump administration has yet to face a significant crisis that was not of its own making.

When that happens, and it will, we may witness the true limits of Trump’s ‘pulled-it-out-of-his-ass’ decision-making process.

Which leads back to this essay’s central question: Does expertise matter anymore?

Of course, it matters. Knowledge is irreplaceable. No society can keep re-inventing its knowledge base. The most successful organizations are always moving forward.

However, is it possible that people with the most expertise, both through education and work experience, are less creative in the application of knowledge to real problems?

Perhaps there is an optimal mix of expert advice and ‘outside-the-box’ thinking?

One of the most robust findings in industrial organization research is that an organization’s diversity, with respect to opinions, experiences and educational backgrounds, helps it navigate uncharted waters.

That may be the biggest lesson on display by the Trump administration.

Expertise matters, but not to the degree or in the way we may assume.


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I am a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion (You can contact me at:

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