In the 1979 motion picture Being There, Peter Sellers played Chance the Gardener, a man said to be “stuffed with rice pudding between the ears” but who gave the President of the United States brilliant economic advice, that “as long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well…in the garden.” Last month, I sat in an economic forecasting dinner where professors from a famous business school predicted that the economy should be turning around by mid-summer, and that by the end of 2009, a recovery should be in full swing. Then there was Anderson Cooper on CNN tonight asking another economist whether we’re in a depression. What ties these people together is that none of them have any idea what the future holds. So why do we bother listening?
There really is little magic in understanding why we’re in a mess today, and what it’ll take to get out of the mess. We’re in a mess because we lost confidence in the system (rightfully so), and in order to get out, the consumers need to feel confident again. Nowhere in the solution does reality matter. Because we know that current home prices are as affordable as they’ve ever been in the last 30 years. We know that sooner or later, people will need to buy new cars, replace furniture, fix up their homes, or get the latest fashion. Relatives need to be visited (even those you hate, especially if they have money), nails must be polished, family vacations taken, and graduation gifts gifted.
Business is not that hard. We are not asked to launch the space shuttle or to put a man on the moon. But we have managed to make it more complex. In his book Traffic, author Tom Vanderbilt, argues that the more safety valves we build into the system (safer cars, safer roads, more traffic lights, etc.) the more we act dangerously. Simply put, the driver of a car with bald tires in snow will drive slower than the driver of a four-wheel drive with studded tires. Guess which car will be going faster? And which one will likely cause a fatality? The crash of 2008-2009 is perhaps a warning that our managers aren’t capable of running businesses at the speed of light. The bankers who never experienced massive foreclosures, the CEOs who only saw economic upswings and spiking share prices, the fund managers who sold ever more complex products that few understood, specialists who never bothered running businesses, but who were more focused on running numbers, managing risks through checklists rather than experience and common sense—in the long run, they weren’t any better than Chance, the Gardener.
Warren Buffet wrote another one of his “gee, I screwed up to the tune of a few billion dollars” shareholder letters. It’s been posted on the Berkshire Hathaway web-site over the week-end, and I am sure that analysts from around the world are dissecting every other word. He provides a refreshing amount of humility, honesty, and most importantly, simplicity to the business world. I wonder why it isn’t required reading for every business school student (or better yet, every CEO).
I will take my time to read it to see if Buffet feels that the “roots are not severed” and whether “..all will be well..in (our) garden.”
Joseph Lee is an independent consultant and executive coach. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management where he teaches a second-year MBA course in Management Consulting. In addition, Mr. Lee is also an author, writing International Business Thrillers, including his debut novel The Sky Burns Red (赤く燃える空) which was published in Japan. A sequel is scheduled to be released Spring, 2009.