Bill Maher had a couple of guests this week who spoke about the Federal Reserve. Fortunately, one had a clue about the topic. Strangely, though, neither Maher himself (who confessed to ignorance on the topic) nor his guest (who merely demonstrated ignorance on the topic) was the least shy about offering an opinion about what the Fed should or should not do. The guest who did have a clue was Niall Ferguson, who is one of the world’s leading experts on finance and the Fed, and was able to rein in the nonsense that passed as commentary and likely would have gone far off the beam had it been left unchecked.
But what amazes me is the willingness of Maher and his one guest to offer opinions about what should be done with the Fed. We don’t do this in other domains. Imagine letting a group of citizens sit around and agree to the best means of performing heart surgery or constructing a nuclear power plant. We don’t let the average person define what engine design will get the best mileage but we let the average person decide whether the Federal Reserve should or should not have certain powers. This might just turn out to be one of the weaknesses of democracy.
One of my heroes, W. Edwards Deming, once said that you can trust a man who knows his limitations. The same could be said of voters. Fortunately, for now, we do have a Fed and it is run by experts. Sadly, the voters and politicians who are watching its performance still seem little aware of what a crisis it has averted with its policy.
The good news is that we Americans don’t just readily accept the opinion of so-called experts; the bad news is that we Americans don’t just easily accept the opinion of so-called experts. I sometimes wonder if Americans’ love for imposing their less than carefully arrived at opinions in this time of increasing complexity and resultant need for expertise might not create a spectacular collision or two before we decide to again trust experts.