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Author Michael Lewis started his career as a bond trader at Salomon Brothers at the exact same time as I was an equity options strategist at Kidder, Peabody. His first book Liar's Poker talked about that culture and what really goes on at Wall Street bond desks. Needless to say, I was hooked. Since then, he has traveled an interesting long road of investigative, narrative books that read like detective novels and uncover stories no one else has bothered to explore deeply by interviewing actual people involved who then become his stories'"characters." He is interested in character and the deeper underpinnings of financial and sociological phenomena. I think I've read just about every book he's written along with countless others about politics and the reasons why people vote as they do and identify with groups and ideals as they do. Daniel Kahneman's best-selling "Thinking Fast and Slow" is brilliant. I highly recommend it.

I caught this interview with Lewis on MSNBC this morning and did my best to transcribe it, pausing the DVR to get it as correct as I could before the cache filled up and I could refine it any further. But the gist is there and the text is reasonably accurate. What I was interested in is that his 13,000-word article in this month's "Vanity Fair," where he is a contributing editor, concerns the sleepy old Department of Agriculture where he thought he might gain some insights without arousing any resistance or notice. He was right.

I share it here with you all here because of some insights he offers about "the mind" and gut responses (the subject of The Undoing Project) and also our collective yearning to predict and understand things (like the election and the popularity of Donald Trump) that are inherently UNKNOWABLE (like our RV). Insights abound. You can probably find the whole interview on the website or YouTube later, but until then, it proves thought-provoking and insightful reading.


[Author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball and numerous other books]

INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk through this book and the lessons to be learned from it in terms of what we’re talking about today, the kind of guy Donald Trump is and how he appealed to people.

ML: The book is about two people [Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky] who explore how the mind works. They’re the first people to ask what the mind is doing when it’s making decisions and making judgments, particularly where it goes wrong. One of the things they would say is people want the world to be a far more certain place than it is. They don’t think naturally, probabilistically. Amos famously said reality is not a point, it’s a cloud of possibilities sprinkled through the world. What we like is people who make that world seem certain, and that’s one of the things Donald Trump does. It’s what all con men do; they assert with great authority and certitude about things which are uncertain. I think that’s part of his appeal.

But when I think what’s the relation between this book and our current president? These guys were looking at the mistakes people make when they trust their gut, and this is a guy who trusts his gut constantly. And the kinds of mistakes these guys make is they pay attention too much to what they just heard or what they just saw, or what’s memorable or vivid, they think in stereotypes, they’re lead astray in systematic ways. 

INTERVIEWER: And he was a gut choice for the people that voted for him to because if you ask the the 33% or 35% of supporters that are currently holding strong [for Trump] right now, they’re not particularly bothered by the fact that Obamacare wasn’t repealed and replaced or that there’s no wall yet. They think that he’s a symbol of something, that he’s out there fighting for them. He’s a gut guy for them.

ML: You’re right. I think if we’re going to be honest, you need more than psychology to explain Donald Trump, you need psychiatry. And my guys [the subjects of his book] weren’t psychiatrists; they didn’t think much of psychiatry.

[Discussion of ML’s career as an author.]

INTERVIEWER: In the last election, 2016, all the models, all the data guys had Hillary Clinton at 98% chance of winning, a month out, close. 

ML: With one exception: Nate Silver. [FiveThirtyEight] He had her at 87% explaining that this is a probabilistic matter. You cannot say for certainty because things can happen. And things did happen. There were mistakes in the data; there were polling errors. And [Silver said] if there are systematic polling errors in these states, you’re going to have a problem. So in a funny way, his way of thinking about it got about as close to the truth as you could get. And the other idea that you’re going to wander the country and read the wind as a lone person, that’s not going to work either. Of course, there’s always going to be some person who predicted it, but the question is how they predicted it? There’s a lot of luck involved. 

The point is there is these are inherently unknowable things. So we go to political experts to tell us what will happen because we feel so uncomfortable with the uncertainty. 

Regarding Lewis’s 13,000 word article in this month's Vanity Affair about the USDA.

The motives of the people that are there in the Department of Agriculture under Donald Trump. For example, Sam Clovis who was appointed by Donald Trump as the head of the Department of Science. Most people probably don’t even know there is a Department of Science in the Department of Agriculture. They have a budget of roughly $3 billion dollars a year that they spend to make grants to researchers most of which is in relation to climate change: how are we going to grow food or raise livestock in a different climate. So this research will have a big effect on how we’re living in 50 years. If it’s done well, it’s important.

The person who ran this during the Obama administration was a woman named Cathie Woteki. She had spent the better part of a 50-year career as an agricultural scientist and she was exquisitely familiar with the job she was given. Her whole life had prepared her for it. They guy Trump puts in is a right-wing radio talk show host from Iowa who has no science at all in his background, this guy Clovis. He just withdrew his name, yesterday.

INTERVIEWER: His previous experience was as a Russian military specialist. 

ML: My overall observation was the government is appointing people who don’t have qualifications or they don’t even bother to staff the job. So, my bottom line question is, if you were just to disable the Federal Government, what happens?

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