Sunday, May 4, 2008

When the Experts are Wrong

Soon after I started working for the federal government in the early 80’s I took an introductory course on the Middle East . My instructor was one of those many people who considered himself a Middle East expert. He liked to punctuate his lectures with comments such as “Shuf habibi” (Look, buddy) to impress us with his knowledge of Arabic.

At one point he told us that our final grade depended solely on a paper we were to write. At the time the Iraqis and the Iranians were in the middle of the Iraq-Iran war. The Iranians had just bombed the only Iraqi access to the Arab Gulf , giving Iraq no way to export its oil. Looking at a map one day, I noticed that the only thing preventing Iraq from unfettered access to the Gulf was Kuwait (which had been placed there by the Brits who drew up the borders for that very purpose). I thought, “What would happen if Iraq ever invaded Kuwait ? How would America respond? What would be the reaction of the Soviet Union ?”

I did a little research and discovered that the territory now called Kuwait had been disputed for centuries. Long before the discovery of oil, tribal leaders in southern Iraq were laying claim to the area controlled by the Al-Sabah family (the current rulers of Kuwait ).

And so I wrote and handed in a little paper in which I simply asked the question of what would happen if Iraq ever invaded Kuwait . A few days later I got a call from the instructor. “Ed,” he said, “I can’t accept your paper. Your idea is preposterous. You’re going to have to write another paper if you want to pass the course.” A day or so later I received my paper that he had sent back to me. There were large red lines slashed through it. I still remember the line in capital letters THE ARAB LEAGUE WOULD NEVER ALLOW THIS. So I ran the paper through the shredder and wrote another stupid little paper about a subject in which I had no interest. A day or so later I got another call. “That was a great paper,” my instructor said. “I’m going to give you an A for the course.” Of course we all know that several years later Iraq did indeed invade Kuwait , igniting the first Gulf War. The expert had been wrong.

A decade later my family was moving to Augusta , Georgia , to begin another life after living nine years in North Africa and Saudi Arabia . During that time I had saved about $35,000. I had the money safely in low-yield bonds, but was thinking about putting it in the stock market. On my way to work one day, I was listening to a Christian financial advisor named Larry Burkett who had a radio show called Money Matters. He had just written a book entitled The Coming Economic Earthquake. The theme of the book was pretty simple. God was really angry at America for its waywardness and was going to punish it by crashing the stock market. Larry advised people to pull their money out of stocks because this was going to happen in the next six months.

I thought, “Well, if this is going to happen I’d better not put my money in stocks. He’s an expert and knows more than I do. Besides, he’s a Christian leader with a direct line to God.” So I kept my money in the low-yield account for the next five years. If anyone remembers, these were the years of the Clinton administration in which they balanced the budget and stock yields were about 20 percent per year. If I would have followed my first inclination, I could have doubled my money during that time. Again, the expert was wrong.

I guess it’s just who I am, the first-born submissive child and all that, but I still want to believe the experts. When General Petraeus says we are making progress in Iraq , and Condolezza Rice tells us that if we just do the right things there will be an independent Palestinian state by the end of the year, I still want to believe they are right. But my experience tells me that sometimes the experts are wrong.

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