The Rise of Expert Recommendations

Saturday night, after enjoying a falafel and pear cider with friends at Olympia’s Fish Tale Brew Pub, I read Washington State’s 39 page charter school initiative which will allow up to 40 public charter schools in Washington State over a five-year period. We’re one of nine states that doesn’t allow charter schools. Bill Gates and other charter school advocates are hoping the third time is the charm.

My reading was preparation for a forum discussion I was invited to lead Sunday morning at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Tacoma. My instructions were to take 20-30 minutes to provide some context for the initiative and then explain the arguments for and against it. Then the plan was to spend the remaining 30-40 minutes with the forty or so church members in an open-ended question and answer back-and-forth. I could have invited my right wing nut job of a neighbor who also happens to be one of my better friends. We’ve been debating the initiative during our early morning, pitch-black runs. That definitely would have been more entertaining, but I didn’t want to split the honorarium with him.

I was amazing. Like Fox News, “fair and balanced.” Today’s Tacoma News Tribune* probably describes my presentation as a Romney-Biden mix of preparation and passion**. I started with a joke. I said I think my wife came with me to make sure I wasn’t playing Chambers Bay—a golf course a few miles away, the site of the 2015 U.S. Open. Chuckles all around.

About five minutes into the larger context of education reform, the first hand, a middle-aged woman. “How are you going to vote?” What the heck I thought, I hadn’t even handed out the “Yes on 1240” and “No on 1240” handouts. “Like a good social studies teacher,” I said, “I think I’d like to wait until the very end to answer that.” “But I have to leave early,” she fired back. In the interest of maintaining some semblance of objectivity and suspense, I wiggled out of answering her. After I finished my presentation, an animated discussion ensued. With about ten minutes left, someone else popped the question. “So how are you ready to tell us how you’re going to vote?”

Since I still think like a social studies teacher, my initial thought was, come on people, don’t be lazy, think it through yourselves. But on the drive home, I thought about how I also depend upon expert recommendations. For example, when I first started thinking about how to invest my savings, I read John Bogle’s book, “Bogle on Mutual Funds: New Perspectives for the Intelligent Investor.” Here’s the updated version. Boggle turned me into a passive, index investor. He convinced me I wasn’t smart enough to invest in individual stocks or time the market. Instead of studying the financials of individual companies, I bought Vanguard mutual funds Bogle recommended.

That wasn’t laziness, it was thinking smarter, not harder. Increasingly, we’re all susceptible to information overload. We don’t have enough background knowledge or time to always learn enough to make perfectly informed decisions. So it makes sense to turn to connoisseurs. It makes sense to say to the egg-head education professor who knows public schools and spent Saturday night reading the initiative, “How should I vote?”

It’s a slippery slope though. It’s possible to be too dependent upon expert recommendations. Especially considering “experts” often have a vested interest in how you vote, invest, or spend money. Seconds after this Tuesday night’s Presidential debate, an army of political pundits will try to tell you what you should think about what you saw and heard. Odds are you and I and our democracy would be better off if we unplugged and talked to one another.

Modern life requires some dependence upon expert recommendations, the challenge is figuring out just how much.

At this point, my Washington State readers are wondering, how should they vote. I’ll make you a deal. There’s lots of things you know more about than me. Offer me an expert recommendation (via comments or email) and in return, I’ll tell you how to vote on I-1240.

* It appears as if the Seahawks amazing come from behind victory over the New England Patriots bumped our I-1240 forum from the front page.

** The Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates should be like an athletic tourney—win and advance. Romney and Biden advance to the winner’s bracket and Obama and Ryan to the losers. Given recent events, who wouldn’t want to see Romney v Biden. Then again, Obama v Ryan would be a real snoozer. Another idea. A tag-team format. Whenever you’re getting beat down you tag your partner and he comes to your rescue. Just like we used to do during especially rowdy sleepovers in grade school.

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