Hindsight: Handle with Care

Hindsight often seems instructive, but there is always the danger of drawing the wrong lesson.  Here’s a case in point.  

I rather like Peggy Noonan’s work.  There are many times where she doesn’t match up to my rather conservative -- that’s financial and social -- perspectives.  But still, she is thoughtful and has on multiple occasions caused me to think about alternatives to my positions with a sympathy that I had not been able to call up on my own.

But a recent column has brought me to print.  Called “A Catastrophe Like No Other” (Wall Street Journal April 5-6, 2014), she rightly castigates the left for its unfailing (until recently) support for ObamaCare.  It was good, for example, to see Nancy Pelosi’s famous point that we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it make the list. There has been no more telling “Freudian slip” in politics in my lifetime.  Someone said a political gaffe is simply a politician telling the truth.

But as Ms. Noonan develops her column, she talks about how the left has, in many cases, modified its support.  Each succeeding level of support grows increasingly lukewarm: moving from “This is an excellent bill” through “We may need to make some changes” to “Posterity [will see this as] an advance in human freedom.” 

Then comes the error.  She likens this to discussions about Iraq policy during the Bush years.  And she brings forward the case of a friend who supported the policy over years of tortured results and attacks from just about every sector of American politics.  In the end she asks the friend ”If we had it to do over again, should we have gone in?  Would you support it?”

The answer, she reports, was “Of course not!” 

To which she adds: “Which told me everything.” 

With the greatest of respect, I submit that the answer told her nothing. 

We do not make political decisions, indeed any decision in life, in hindsight.  From the initial decision to go to war to remove Saddam Hussein from power through the end of the surge, there were twists and turns that were so far from anyone’s imagining at the initial decision point as to seem incredulous to those who experienced them.  Who could possibly have foreseen what would unfold?

And yet, decisions have to be made.

The problem here is that the validity of a decision can only be judged by the process through which the decision is arrived at -- not, as tempting as it may be, by the result of the decision.  Let’s do a thought experiment.

Your crazy brother-in-law recommends a stock to you that seems unlikely.  But for some reason, just to quiet him if for no other, you buy $100 of it and in a year it’s worth $1,000!  Just what lesson should you extract from this event?  Should you assume that since the outcome was good, that your otherwise flaky and unreliable brother-in-law should now be your financial advisor and that you should put all of your investment decisions into his hands?  Of course not!!

The fact of the matter is that the results of ANY chosen course of action is unpredictable, often in the extreme. One need only a modest investment of time in examining one’s own life to come up with multiple examples. In my case, a decision to decline a National Science Foundation grant for a high school summer program in favor of spending that summer in France led to a college major.  But more importantly, it started an unlikely chain of events that culminated in my marriage to my loving wife of now over forty years!  Obviously that was never part of my decision-making process. 

I ask you: Is there any way in which this experience provides the lesson that if you want a happy marriage you should eschew NSF grants in high school? Of course not.

What Ms. Noonan’s friend’s answer does tell us is that hindsight is often better than foresight. But I don’t think anyone would want to base a national column on that revelation. Or that things seldom work out exactly as planned!  Not precisely a revelation either.

The way to evaluate a decision is to examine the process by which it is made. Were all important sources of information included?  Was the analysis objective and well founded?  Were alternative given a fair hearing?  There are other questions, of course. But a decision that gets most of these right is, point of fact, a good decision.  And that’s true even if things turn out badly.

Now if the result of the Iraq war were to provide some kind of insight or knowledge applicable to future decisions on similar issues, that would be a contribution.  It’s entirely possible to discover, for example, that there was a source of information that we should have consulted and did not, and that we would be remiss not to do so in the future. 

Now that would be worth a column. 

Hindsight often seems instructive, but there is always the danger of drawing the wrong lesson.  Here’s a case in point.  

I rather like Peggy Noonan’s work.  There are many times where she doesn’t match up to my rather conservative -- that’s financial and social -- perspectives.  But still, she is thoughtful and has on multiple occasions caused me to think about alternatives to my positions with a sympathy that I had not been able to call up on my own.

But a recent column has brought me to print.  Called “A Catastrophe Like No Other” (Wall Street Journal April 5-6, 2014), she rightly castigates the left for its unfailing (until recently) support for ObamaCare.  It was good, for example, to see Nancy Pelosi’s famous point that we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it make the list. There has been no more telling “Freudian slip” in politics in my lifetime.  Someone said a political gaffe is simply a politician telling the truth.

But as Ms. Noonan develops her column, she talks about how the left has, in many cases, modified its support.  Each succeeding level of support grows increasingly lukewarm: moving from “This is an excellent bill” through “We may need to make some changes” to “Posterity [will see this as] an advance in human freedom.” 

Then comes the error.  She likens this to discussions about Iraq policy during the Bush years.  And she brings forward the case of a friend who supported the policy over years of tortured results and attacks from just about every sector of American politics.  In the end she asks the friend ”If we had it to do over again, should we have gone in?  Would you support it?”

The answer, she reports, was “Of course not!” 

To which she adds: “Which told me everything.” 

With the greatest of respect, I submit that the answer told her nothing. 

We do not make political decisions, indeed any decision in life, in hindsight.  From the initial decision to go to war to remove Saddam Hussein from power through the end of the surge, there were twists and turns that were so far from anyone’s imagining at the initial decision point as to seem incredulous to those who experienced them.  Who could possibly have foreseen what would unfold?

And yet, decisions have to be made.

The problem here is that the validity of a decision can only be judged by the process through which the decision is arrived at -- not, as tempting as it may be, by the result of the decision.  Let’s do a thought experiment.

Your crazy brother-in-law recommends a stock to you that seems unlikely.  But for some reason, just to quiet him if for no other, you buy $100 of it and in a year it’s worth $1,000!  Just what lesson should you extract from this event?  Should you assume that since the outcome was good, that your otherwise flaky and unreliable brother-in-law should now be your financial advisor and that you should put all of your investment decisions into his hands?  Of course not!!

The fact of the matter is that the results of ANY chosen course of action is unpredictable, often in the extreme. One need only a modest investment of time in examining one’s own life to come up with multiple examples. In my case, a decision to decline a National Science Foundation grant for a high school summer program in favor of spending that summer in France led to a college major.  But more importantly, it started an unlikely chain of events that culminated in my marriage to my loving wife of now over forty years!  Obviously that was never part of my decision-making process. 

I ask you: Is there any way in which this experience provides the lesson that if you want a happy marriage you should eschew NSF grants in high school? Of course not.

What Ms. Noonan’s friend’s answer does tell us is that hindsight is often better than foresight. But I don’t think anyone would want to base a national column on that revelation. Or that things seldom work out exactly as planned!  Not precisely a revelation either.

The way to evaluate a decision is to examine the process by which it is made. Were all important sources of information included?  Was the analysis objective and well founded?  Were alternative given a fair hearing?  There are other questions, of course. But a decision that gets most of these right is, point of fact, a good decision.  And that’s true even if things turn out badly.

Now if the result of the Iraq war were to provide some kind of insight or knowledge applicable to future decisions on similar issues, that would be a contribution.  It’s entirely possible to discover, for example, that there was a source of information that we should have consulted and did not, and that we would be remiss not to do so in the future. 

Now that would be worth a column. 

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