Over the course of the past few months, I've been increasingly asked for my thoughts on several econo-political topics, including, but not limited to "the bailout(s)," industry-specific solutions, regulatory overhaul, and others.
Those of you who've read my work over the course of the past year may also be wondering where or how I weigh in on these issues, and/or why I've remained relatively silent on issues which one would expect I'd be quite vocal.
To be honest, the only quasi-explanation I have to offer is that I just don't know.
Unlike professional writers, analysts, and pundits who depend on their words for sustenance, I have the convenience of not saying anything if/when I don't have anything good/useful/interesting to say. The events that have transpired over the past year or two (including those preceding events over decades past) have been a bit overwhelming, in terms of the time and knowledge required to not only stay abreast of, but more importantly to understand. While I'm hardly disappointed to still remain otherwise employed (knock on wood), I simply haven't had time to wrap my head around much of this information, at least not to the point where I would risk what little (if any) reputation I've managed to nurture by spouting off some uninformed nonsense the likes of which I've previously accused others.
Thus, while I haven't yet developed a comprehensive solution to our various ills, there is a slightly smaller issue into which I've put some time and effort.
Like many people, as I see the news scroll by on my monitor, I'm often overcome by feelings of anger and disappointment. I'm particularly enraged (although unsurprised) with the constant interference of pandering politicians and poorly-informed punditry presenting opinion as fact or careful analysis. That every Joe and Jane Schmo with a keyboard gets to voice their often similarly uninformed opinions reminds me of Steve Carrell's character in Anchorman when he declares "I DON'T KNOW WHAT WE'RE YELLING ABOUT...LOUD NOISES!" The complex, interrelated issues at hand seem to be way beyond the knowledge, experience, and understanding of virtually everyone, and yet everyone still has an opinion, everyone knows who was at fault, who we need to blame, and how we'll magically "fix the economy," whatever that means.
Various media participants and outlets have done their part to contribute to the hype and hysteria, often inciting outrage and chaos, when there is often little-to-no reason for doing so, other than to sell papers/eyeballs. To be sure, much of my ire has been focused on the media, specifically, the part that covers (or attempts to, as it were) business, finance, and economic happenings. Even to those of us who are actually trained, experienced, and possibly still work in such fields, there is much disagreement over what/how/why things happened as they did, and perhaps more importantly, how to "fix it." Yet we've seen the same sort of behaviour from virtually every media outlet that I described in the above paragraph, speaking very loudly and authoritatively on topics of which they don't appear to have the slightest understanding. Just pick up any daily Newspaper or click on over to Fox News or CNN to see some of the ridiculous crap being peddled by the "fair and balanced" media. (Just to be sure, the previous sentence applies to both sides, and everyone in-between.)
Despite a keen awareness that most reporting these days is unfortunately nothing but filler between advertisements, I've found it difficult to contain my immense dissapointment with the way inherently complicated concepts have been grossly over-simplified, mis-interpreted, and mangled over-and-over in popular media, of both the new- and main-steam varieties. To be sure, its altogether unsurprising to witness such a non-phenomenon when sensationalism and incendiary "reporting" are - or are perceived to be - the largest drivers of revenue for most media outlets. Contrarily, when there is - or there is perceived to be - little/no incentive to present balanced, well-argued/researched, and transparent information, it comes as no surprise that such things are few and far between.
In fairness, there are several media outlets who have found a way (not necessarily a profitable one perhaps) to practise what I'd call "responsible reporting" when it comes to these matters, and I applaud them for their efforts. These are the outlets I visit on a regular basis, and its little secret who they are. However, such outlets unfortunately represent a disproportionate minority, and are thus not nearly as popular as their sensationalist, more irresponsible brethren.
Of course this is hardly the biggest problem at stake, but it is perhaps one of the few that we have any ability to affect. Especially in such turbulent times, we should be extremely cognizant of the material presented to the general public, and the light in which this information is presented.
I say this because frankly, I'm not quite sure how to properly enunciate my fear that the various braintrusts (legislatures, the SEC, FDIC, Board of Directors of most banks, the general populace, etc) will, in trying to "stabilize" the economy, actually send us further into the abyss. If there were an ETF or other instrument to short the testicular fortitude of our Congressional and other "leaders" tasked with addressing our economic woes, I would be into that trade in serious size. I have little-to-no faith in their ability to understand the issues in front of them, and even less faith that the group as a whole will make the tough choices conducive to long-term sustainability and economic health. If what we've seen from both sides is any indication, we should expect more of the same short-term "solutions" which have generally failed to address any underlying issues, and quite likely prolonged the pain, and simply delayed confronting the real issues until a later date.
Showering the masses or individual companies with money (the exact faucet, pressure, and distribution pattern used is irrelevant here) may seem like the most politically expedient option, but as many others far more informed than I have argued, is actually counter-productive at a certain point. Eventually, we have to pay the piper and reduce leverage across the board to sustainable levels. (I'll leave it to 1-2 to discuss this in greater detail if he feels compelled to do so, since going down that path is a far-longer discussion than I'm interested in having here.)
So, perhaps if we can find a way to incentivize the media to be more careful about what information they present, and how it is presented, perhaps we can affect public opinion, and thereby affect the decisions made by the powers that be.
I realize that this is far easier said than done, but to oversimplify, I believe that those of us who "know" have a civic duty to share that knowledge with those who do not, especially when it just so happens that doing so may very well be critical to ensuring our future employment.
Some have argued that trying to improve the quality of business reporting is a fools errand, a futile effort. One follower on Twitter pointed out that if one possesses a functional understanding (or even capacity to understand) the material, they one will most likely pursue a more-lucrative career in the field rather than reporting on it. This may be true for many people for whom money is the primary motivator, however I know several people who forgo financial gain to report upon and analyze business and business news (for example, I don't do this for the money). Some of these people even have undergraduate or even advanced degrees in the fields which they cover, as shocking as that might seem.
The other solid criticism seems to be that news outlets and reporters wouldn't have much, if any incentive to comply with our requests. Judging from traditional media's well-documented aversion to change, this is a legitimate criticism for which I don't have a fantastic response. It would seem that any concerted effort to affect change would have to first gain sufficient visibility and popularity so as to make our stamp of approval an important sales/marketing tactic, or on the other hand, such that not having our support was perceived to be sufficiently detrimental to that outfit's credibility that they comply out of perceived necessity. This is a bit of a catch-22, as 1-2 was quick to point out when we spoke about this a few days ago, but one that I don't think is insurmountable.
I envision a largely-volunteer Non-Profit, at the core of which is a proprietary, secure database of business professionals and academics willing to make themselves available to whatever degree they're comfortable with to reporters and journalists. There are enough of us who make our thoughts, opinions, and analysis available for free already that I don't think this is asking too much. Think of something along the lines of Linkedin, except with the added ability of anonymity for those who need to remain so for professional concerns. These volunteers would be able to create a profile with whatever level of detail on their background, knowledge, experience, etc they feel comfortable providing. Reporters and journalist members would then be able to search the database for those with knowledge/experience on the subject matter they're covering.
Additionally, the website would allow volunteer members (like FT Alphaville's Long Room) to post corrections, criticisms, etc, on poor business/financial/economic reporting. This could even be extended to a ranking of various media outlets. In turn, this could be used to present awards each year for the best, most improved, etc ones, and also highlight repeat offenders so that the general public could be made aware which outlets they should avoid or take with a grain of salt.
Perhaps I'm delusional, perhaps I'm insane, but to me, this seems like a worthwhile cause. There's virtually no overhead besides maintaining the website, plenty of business professionals with newfound time on their hands, and a general politico-economic state of affairs that makes today a more important time than ever to put our knowledge and experience to good use.
Let me know what you think.
Good idea? Bad Idea? I'm a stupid schmuck? Whatever, just let me know. If this turns out to be a horriffic idea, then so be it, however if enough of you are with me then I stand ready to make this (or something like it) happen. Lets see how it goes.