Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Simplicity is Just So Darn Complicated

Obama Explains
Originally uploaded by AndrewCline
I had to testify in a civil trial recently (not a personal matter--just a subject about which I had some knowledge). When the lawyers were "prepping" me they continually urged me to give the shortest and simplest answers possible. I'm sure I frustrated them because my tendency is to say things like, "Well, my answer is yes, but you have to appreciate the context and know a bit of history in order to understand what I mean." I'm not sure what lawyers intend to convey when they roll their eyes back into their heads, but I think it has something to do with billable hours.

These days there seems to be a yearning for simplicity. It's related in part to the economic collapse. Americans have awakened to the reality that basic assumptions just weren't so much of a sure thing after all. We all knew that putting money into a 401k or similar financial instrument would mean that it all would be sitting there once the gold watch is awarded and the rocking chair ordered. And now that has all turned to dust amidst a bewildering array of Ponzi schemes, insurance conglomerates, hedge funds, government bailouts, and multi-million dollar bonuses for failure.

It used to be that when something was thought to be a sure thing one would say that you could "take it to the bank." Don't look for that little catch phrase anytime soon.

I suppose most of us who mercifully don't feed daily on economic news just assumed that some smart people understood all this stuff. We certainly didn't, but neither did we care as long we knew those smart people were doing their job. We have now come to the horrifying realization that not only were they not doing their job, but THEY don't understand this mess either.

There is one thing that is clear from the Congressional hearings and the "expert" punditry of recent months. No one--I repeat NO ONE--knows what the hell is going on.

And now it falls to our new president, thankfully one both gifted and eloquent, to become the guy to make sense of this in terms that we economic simpletons can understand. In addition to the boatload of issues on his plate, Barack Obama has also had to become the Explainer-in-Chief. The irony is that few political figures in recent time have been as willing as Obama to talk about nuances and complexities and to eschew simple answers to deeper questions. But alas, simplicity seems to be the pathway to hope in these difficult times.

Stephen Covey, author of the Seven Habits books,
often quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes thusly:
I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.
I note that in using this quote more recently Covey has offered up only his "right arm" rather than his life in exchange for that elusive simplicity (Covey, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, New York: Free Press, 2004, page 103). I suspect this may be related to the devaluation of all things in our present climate. He's probably keeping the left arm under a mattress somewhere.

The quote, however, is provocative and useful. The crisis we are going through is devastating to millions of people. There is only one compensation that I can think of and that is the hope that we will be driven back to this country's fundamental values of respect, opportunity, justice, and a rule of law driven by a democratic spirit. In the name of free enterprise we have sanctioned greed and honored plunderers. They must pay their due, but we must learn their lesson.

In the end, it's the simple things that really matter, no matter how complex they may be.