The Internet has had innumerable salutary effects on society but one of its decidedly non-wondrous outgrowths is the bull market in half-baked, ill-informed snark. The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle detailed this beautifully over the weekend in if everyone Else is Such an idiot, How Come You’re Not Rich HERE, during which the author dismantles Forbes’ criticism of the coherent if ill-fated Netflix Qwickster strategy. Ms McArdle writes:
I don’t want to pick on [Forbes], particularly, because I’ve read some version of this lament about Netflix about a thousand times. And indeed, I completely agree that the Qwikster disaster was nothing short of debacletacular.
But how do we get from “that was a bad idea” to “Reed Hastings doesn’t understand what business he’s in?” When Internet commentators see odd behavior that they don’t understand, why do they assume that the most parsimonious explanation is that management must be a bunch of drooling morons?
This tendency, to sit at a laptop and blamestorm without any type of detailed research, is the most destructive and lazy type of epidemic and politics is of course ground zero for the phenomenon. In terms of economic policy, a cursory examination of this morning’s media extends the accepted conclusion that both the Eurocrats and President Obama are the intellectual equivalent of drunken, “drooling morons.” Consider, though, how likely it is that you know more about the economic situation than they do. POTUS or Ms. Merkel have access to literally any information they need, including the attention of any global expert, (even professor Krugman at 3:00am if necessary, although I’d bet he’d be cranky) to respond to niggling questions. Add to this that the job security of said politicians is more dependent on economic factors than any other concern, it is a reasonable conclusion that to believe your comprehension of the situation is better than theirs is a colossal feat of arrogance.
To backtrack a couple thousand years, the general assumption regarding the fall of Rome is that the contemporary leadership was characterized by the same kind of ignorant as POTUS. The historical record, however, clearly displays that the intelligentsia of the time was well aware of Rome’s failings, they just couldn’t figure out a way to fix them. Pointedly, the corruption of the Senate and political control by wealthy elite paved the way for the dissolution of democracy and the onset of empire. They were not ignorant, contrary to popular belief, just overrun by socioeconomic trends too powerful to harness.
Returning to modernity, it is clear from McArdle’s post that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was, with the spin-off strategy, attempting to address very real structural issues within his firm. The plan clearly ended up as an online Bay of Pigs, but the drivers behind it are completely explicable with a modicum of research. I would argue that the behavior of politicians is similarly intelligible, with electoral money-raising, pandering to constituents and poll-watching replacing rising digital streaming rights as major motivational culprits.
Labeling corporate or political celebrities “idiots” is to some extent to self-identify as part of the problem. Getting rid of these “idiots” will solve nothing, except to provide new vessels for sneering, self-congratulatory scorn. Focusing on the forces that makes these people appear to be morons, and widely publicizing these drivers to the point where they enter the general consciousness, actually provides an avenue for progress.