Sunday, June 23, 2013

On error and risking everything

I have been stuck at home for days with a fierce cold.
Hot & sour soup from the local Chinese restaurant was the best medicine, and a steady stream of episodes of The West Wing. Then, when I could read a little (coffee suddenly brings back the focus), Malcolm Gladwell's new bit in The New Yorker about Albert O. Hirschman and how errors in planning lead to innovation - and the first example: the stunning miscalculations that preceded work on the Hoosac Tunnel. 
Gladwell does a great job of pitching Jeremy Adelman's recent biography of Hirschman, but more than that, he reinvigorated for me the notion of a true thinker. Hirschman was an economist who wrote unashamedly about unpredictable outcomes, and the role of creativity in problem solving. Interdisciplinary thinking is what we call it now, but all great thinkers have been able to draw on a broad body of knowledge and a good gut instinct.  
The other current in Gladwell's piece is his characterization of Hirschman as a man of action - and summing up Hirschman's opinion on the choices of exit or voice in responding to problems within an organization. Leaving, being the choice of exit and voice, staying and contributing your opinion, trying to fix something broken from within. The example given in the essay is school vouchers. Quoting Hirschman 'Those who hold power in the lazy monopoly may actually have an interest in creating some limited opportunities for exit on the part of those whose voice might be uncomfortable." Gladwell's argument is that Hirschman wasn't always afraid of the losing battle, or at least of not knowing whether success would be clear.  
This, from a man who fought in the Spanish Civil War, and in World War II brokered deals with gangsters in brothels to sneak Jews out of Nazi territory. An economist who routinely got his hands dirty, one of his enduring lessons must be: You can't always know if it will be worth the fight, but perhaps it is better to fight. 



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