Getting things right is hard work

The Weekend Australian of October 11-12, 2014 contained a strong article by regular contributor Judith Sloan criticising Dr Ken Henry, a former Secretary to the Australian Treasury.

Dr Sloan takes Dr Henry to task for a number of assertions that Dr Henry made in a recent speech to the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.

I’m not sure if this article is a transcript, but it appears to reflect the main elements of Dr Henry’s speech as reported by Dr Sloan. Having read it, I think Dr Sloan is on the right track – Ken Henry’s argument isn’t strong, and his conclusions and recommendations suffer from this.

This matter reminded me of just how difficult it is to get our thinking right about big issues.

While it affects all of us, I’ve noticed (only anecdotally, of course) it appears to become a problem especially for people who are moving into late middle age and who are re-thinking the assumptions which had hitherto underpinned their thinking and decision-making. In questioning previous assumptions, they go on to question previous conclusions, and sometimes reason themselves to rather different conclusions. I think Dr Henry may be undergoing this process.

He’s in good company! The 20th century British genius and economist, John Maynard Keynes, went through a similar process as he entered his 50s. Famous for his powers of perception and foresight into economic and financial developments, in the depths of the Great Depression Keynes abandoned economic orthodoxy, in 1933 advocating national self sufficiency (‘let goods be homespun’) and from 1936, with the publication of his General Theory, promoting economic policies which had previously been unthinkable among economic experts.

It’s not a matter of IQ or learning. Ken Henry is a giant in the field of Australian economic and public policy. A few years ago, one of his colleagues at Treasury described him as being ‘head and shoulders’ above his peers. Having worked at the Treasury, and worked intermittently with Ken, I have to concur. I don’t mean at all to pick on him.

I simply draw on this example to make the point that even the best of us can be wrong. And not just in the trivial sense of making mistakes now and then, but actually developing, for whatever reason, a worldview – a mindset – which prevents us from seeing the world as it is, as opposed to how we would like it to be. And when the best – and most charismatic – of us err in this way, their influence over policy development means that there can be serious consequences for our society. Just think of how the world is struggling to cope with the consequences of Keynes’ influence on economic policy, international finance, and government finance.

Keeping our mind-sets in trim, open to the world, consistent with the empirically-supported findings in fields of expertise, is hard work. It’s also hard to avoid becoming trapped by the self-justifying logic presented to us by our mind-sets, and to avoid the traps of confirmation bias and belief preservation. But we ought to do it for ourselves, and those in positions of influence have a duty to society to do it.


About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
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