Monday, March 14, 2011

Peer pressure

I've finally gotten around to reading The Big Short, Michael Lewis's account of the mortgage mess and of the handful of people who saw it coming (and profited from their insight). It's a distressingly compelling story -- indeed, so far it reads more like fiction than not, though I keep reminding myself that what happened (and is still happening) was real.

Lewis often makes the point, if not in so many words, that the skeptics he profiled felt totally isolated from their peers. I've no doubt some of them were made to feel like lepers, unfit for polite Wall Street company. Yet these people were the ones to whom we all should have been paying attention.

In a totally different realm, Bob Rosenbaum writes in Slate about Major Harold Hering, one of the Air Force officers entrusted with a launch key for nuclear missiles. Hering made the mistake of taking his Air Force oath too seriously for the taste of his superiors. By the terms of that oath he felt it necessary to ask a question.
How could he know that an order to launch his missiles was "lawful"? That it came from a sane president, one who wasn't "imbalance[d]" or "berserk," as Maj. Hering's lawyer eventually, colorfully put it?
According to Rosenbaum, there's still no good answer to that question.

Hering paid heavily for his integrity.
Hering needed a lawyer because as soon as he asked the question he was yanked out of missile training class, and after two years of appeals, eventually had to leave the Air Force, trade in a launch key for the ignition keys to an 18-wheeler.
Hering did a far greater service for this country than those who shorted the mortgage-bond market did. However, they have one thing in common: they asked inconvenient questions that bucked the conventional wisdom.

They also turned out to be right.

Maybe we should be paying more attention to the contrary voices of our society instead of dismissing them out of hand.

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