[ Monday, May 04, 2009 ]


Off Topic: Perhaps the most disturbing thing I've ever seen. Last week I was in New York for the CIT Healthcare Finance Conference, a gathering of small healthcare businesses and potential financing sources, where company executives give short presentations on their companies and then meet with possible investors or lenders. Lunch involved a group of healthcare investment bankers talking about the current state of lending in their particular lending spaces, followed by a question-and-answer session. The first question, or more importantly the response to the question, left me with my mouth gaping, staring around at my dining companions to see if I was the only one so aghast. I even sent myself an email via blackberry as I sat there, stunned, since I needed to digest what had just happened.

The reason I'm reminded to comment is this piece in the Detroit Free Press (via my blogfather).

I've been attending events like this CIT conference for 20 years, going back to the very end of the Reagan administration, and often the lunch presentation will have industry experts giving their take on current events in the industry, followed by question and answer sessions. That's what happened in New York. But at every other such event I've ever been at, the industry experts would say what they thought was good and bad about what the then-current administration was doing. They would state their opinions, and why they thought the administration's moves were right or wrong. They would acknowledge if there was a difference of opinion, and would give the other side its due (but state why, in their opinion, that position was wrong, unworkable, misguided, etc.). Sometimes I'd disagree with the speaker, but at least I'd have learned what they thought and why.

Well, in New York, the very first question after the lunch was basically this: "Is the current administration doing the right thing to revive the economy?" The answer:

First, the moderator just stared at the guy who asked the question. Then he replied to the questioner, "Do you?" The questioner persisted: really, I want to know. The moderator turned to the panel of investment bankers and asked if any of them wanted to tackle the question. They all refused. Nobody would say anything.

I was stunned. Why are these guys afraid to speak their minds? Can they not give an honest opinion, if that opinion is critical of the current administration? Are they afraid of the regulators? Are they afraid that, since they're in the finance business, the government will punish them if they say anything controversial? Were they afraid of the repercussions if someone in the room was an Obama fan? I've never seen anything like it. I still, to some extent, can't believe it.

UPDATE: click the permalink below to see the comments, which are worthwhile. Also, see this, as further to my comment.

Jeff [11:29 PM]

I think it's at least as likely that people just don't know the answer to that question, and don't want to be on record saying something that turns out to have been wrong.

I haven't noticed a shortage of people willing to criticize Obama. I think the - admittedly unfocused and ad hominem - tea parties are good evidence of that.
I don't think so. When speakers like that don't know the answer to the question, or don't want to be caught taking a position or making a prediction that turns out to be wrong, they argue both sides. They'll say, "the administration is proposing X, which would be good if 1, 2, and 3 happen; but if 4, 5, and 6 happen, Y would be much better. We'll see if it turns out the way they think." Or something like that. That way, they look smart, show off their knowledge, but totally hedge their bets. They didn't do that. They know what X is (the administration's proposals), they know what Y is, and they know what 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are. Every single person on the panel was afraid to even voice the position of the Devil's Advocate. Why? I can only think of one reason.

As for the tea parties, they seem to me to be the exact opposite of "ad hominem." Their focus is clearly on concepts (the reach of government, government spending, deficit spending) and legislation (ARRA, bailouts). The particular people they boo, they boo because of the positions those people have taken on those concepts and that legislation. They boo Republicans as much as they boo Democrats. They are clearly fiscal conservatives, which would make them natural (classic, Reagan) Republican, but they're much more libertarian that anything else, and the current state of the Republican party isn't particularly fiscally conservative. They're unfocused in the way all true grass-roots protests are unfocused; but they seem pretty well focused to me on the concept of limited government and the specific legislative issues surrounding the Stimulus.

Also, protesting at a tea party and speaking out publicly at a finance conference are clearly two distinct propositions. I can easily find out the names of the people speaking at the CIT conference, but it would be much harder to identify the guy holding a sign at a tea party protest. There's a certain "balaclava" quality of anonymity to participating in a mass protest that doesn't equate to standing in front of a finance conference and making a statement for the record.

Which raises another point. The tea party protesters are people who just don't protest. The people who normally protest aren't, the people who usually tut-tut under their breath are out protesting, and the people who usually feel free to give their honest opinions don't. I'm really not concerned about the Freaky Friday protester switch, although it's interesting as a curiosity. What deeply troubles me is that finance experts are afraid to be honest in a public meeting.

Thanks for your comment.
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