The danger of speaking out—or not speaking out
“The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”
Bill Gates epitomizes the danger of speaking out: hoping to address a pressing global issue, he proposed a remedy for reducing carbon emissions via population control that led many people to conclude he is a monster with bizarre and flawed ideas of how to achieve that goal. Hoping to squelch some of the criticism, he released a halfhearted explanation of his rationale that did nothing to deter his detractors.
My point is not to criticize or defend his proposal but to highlight the personal risk inherent in speaking out on sensitive issues that polarize people. This likely explains why so many prominent people choose not to speak out, even though society may benefit from their ideas. Instead, they cede the stage to Joe Sixpack and politicians who are masters of demagoguery and campaigning, not thinking up novel solutions to pressing problems. So no matter if you agree or disagree with Gates's plan, you should give him credit for having the guts to speak out, not cower in silence, hoping someone else will solve the problem.
“Most CEOs in North America aren't on social media networks. In fact, one study puts the percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs who are active on Twitter at less than six percent.”
— Allan Gates in The Social CEO in a Crisis
The legions of wealthy or otherwise prominent people who choose to shy away from political, economic, scientific, or social debates likely think they are better off keeping quiet. Perhaps they are in the short run, but they will eventually regret not becoming involved. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to look at the world and realize that it is run by people who are bereft of great ideas. Instead of deep thinking and cogent discussions that solve problems, they pat themselves on the back for using divisive platitudes and rehashing freeze-dried ideas from bygone American politicians.
Years ago, as virtually everyone was convinced that the United States was destined to be the world's indomitable economic superpower, in the late 1980s I read the writing on the wall and concluded that we were headed for an economic collapse so severe it will result in civil unrest. In a book I published in the 1990s, I predicted this will culminate in a civil war. That seemed like an extreme prognostication at the time, but some prominent people now agree with me. For example, in a radio interview on Bob Brinker's Moneytalk, Thomas Mackell, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, discussed the possibility of intergenerational warfare in the United States.
On August 4th 2009, Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee and the man who Obama initially selected to be Secretary of Commerce, said that “we’re basically on the path to a banana-republic-type of financial situation in this country” within 10 years. “We're going to undermine fundamentally the quality of life for our children by doing this. […] It will be hard for our kids to buy a car, buy a house, or send their kids to college. The standard of living will drop.”
The standard of living dropped significantly during President Obama's first term. Americans accustomed to rising prosperity saw average income fall.
As our standard of living drops even more, anger and resentment will brew in millions of Americans who feel entitled to a good life. Rather than put their thinking caps on and solve problems that are solvable (I proposed some solutions in this blog and have many to add), they will resort to violence in desperation to achieve their objectives. The net result of that violence is predicted by history: it will fail and result in a net loss.
So where does that leave the prominent people? Sitting pretty on their piles of gold? Not likely. They will be running like scared rabbits for safety or rapidly cooling to room temperature. As an ER doctor, I've seen how viciously violent people can be—and I'm not speaking only of sociopaths and others with mental illness (learn how to spot a sociopath). Given the right provocation, even people who've led exemplary lives can become murderous savages. For example, I was able to peer deep inside the skull of one patient, without a CT scan or MRI, after his best friend ventilated his skull with a bullet that erased most of what he had north of the eyebrows. In another case, my predominantly liberal yuppie town was shocked when a heretofore perfect gentleman massacred a rich business owner in the parking lot of an upscale restaurant.
People are slow learners: violence magnifies problems; it does not solve them. Nevertheless, people and nations often gravitate to violence in an impulsive and impetuous need to scratch the itch of revenge.
Many—arguably, most—Americans blame the über-rich for running our economy into the ground by using their money to influence politicians who vote for plans such as TARP and the bailouts that transferred wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich and well-connected. When the economy collapses, and it will, those rich will be running for cover, like Saddam Hussein after the fall of his régime.
Some very wealthy people are indeed tinkering with our economy to our detriment, but most rich folks are just minding their own business creating products and services we purchase, thereby augmenting their wealth. There are even more non-tycoons who are dragging our system down. For example, I know a man who was able to retire decades early and live like a king because he thought of a clever way to run much of his business on cash the IRS and other revenue officials never saw. No income, no taxes, right?
I went on one date with a woman who shocked me by admitting that she hadn't bothered to file tax returns or pay taxes in years. Her beauty and stunningly attractive body put my hormones into overdrive, but as fond as I am of supremely gorgeous women who are blind enough to think that I'm hot, I am even more fond of doing the right thing, and consorting with unprincipled people is not justifiable, period. Goodbye, fox; hello, more Saturday nights alone.
I met many similar people in the ER. Officially poor, they received government assistance even though their cash-only means of generating income without taxes made them able to afford luxuries that I as an ER doctor (paid somewhat more than an average doctor) could not begin to afford: motorhomes, $70,000 cars, exotic vacations, and more. My income was rapidly dissipated by a home that many teachers could afford, a Jeep Grand Cherokee, a snowmobile and Sea-doo (both of which I am now selling to help a deported person reenter the U.S.), and a stockpile of electronic parts and machine tools that enable me to create things you will love to buy. If I become rich, I will likely have mental midgets gunning for me, too, alleging that I stole money from them when all I did was create products they eagerly purchased.
I wrote the following to a reviewer disappointed by Paul Allen's Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft:
Your superb review is one of the most insightful ones I've ever read; it is incisive and demonstrates your intelligence. I bought but haven't yet read Idea Man so I can't comment on what Allen wrote, or didn't write, but his reticence may have been motivated by seeing how other big shots who open up are often blasted for their opinions. Being in the limelight can expose and even magnify imperfections that would go unnoticed in others. Perhaps that's why so many influential people are so reluctant to reveal who they really are and what they believe – and why. This disappoints me because it robs society of the fruits of great minds.
The Internet is littered with comments from people of average intelligence who can emote but rarely do much good. If Allen and others with great minds would reveal more of what they're thinking, perhaps they would shed some light on our economic or other problems. But they usually won't speak up, perhaps fearing that by entering the fray they will be blasted by people who see things differently or just revel in ad hominem attacks and character assassination.
Why I lost respect for Johnny Bench
When I was a kid and cared about sports, Willie Horton and Johnny Bench were my two favorite baseball players. My opinion of Bench nosedived while seeing him interviewed by Anna Kooiman on July 14, 2015 after she mentioned Pete Rose: a timely topic given that (1) Cincinnati will host the All-Star Game on that date, (2) Cincinnati's Pete Rose was one of the greatest players ever, and (3) he will soon present his case to the Major League Baseball Commissioner regarding his suspension.
Since they played on the same team, Bench almost surely has a strong opinion on that topic, but he ran from it like a scared rabbit. There's something pathetic about a spineless man afraid to express his opinion, diving for PC safety, disgustingly bereft of courage. From the artful way Bench dodged this topic, he is clearly intelligent—obviously bright enough to say something such as, “Anna, the question really boils down to whether a phenomenal player whose playing ability earned him a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame should be banned because he gambled.” Bench either agrees or disagrees. There's plenty of room in the bleachers, but when you're in the limelight, weighing in on such topics comes with the territory.