Learning from Mistakes

Learning from Mistakes
Profile photo of James E. Miller

okThe old idiom “you can lead a horse to water, but not make him drink” has proven itself true in the course of human learning. Or rather, it would be more accurate to label it man’s inability to learn from mistakes. You can hold a mirror up to grotesque instances of hypocrisy, but most men will remain mules – stubborn in their prejudice and beliefs. The ability to heed lessons from blunders is, often times, a skill unable to be mastered by the mass populace. A child might learn to not touch a searingly hot stove, but adults are apt to accept their condition of intellectual stupor – even when it proves painful.

It’s said the market process accounts for mistakes through the imposition of cost. This is true inasmuch as hemorrhaging income will inevitably result in bankruptcy. The problem is, man was not gifted with the same incentive to disregard plainly untrue, and even destructive, ideas. Like an abusive lover or a fond memory, the draw of allurement can be too intoxicating to let go. The innate learning process becomes corrupted in favor of emotional succor that accompanies comforting beliefs.

Take frail womanizer and disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner. His announcement to seek the Mayor’s office in New York City brought about plenty of jokes at the expense of his anatomy-sounding name. Rumors have swirled about his possible run for months. At first, they were dismissed due to the sexual exploits that forced him from office. Now he is pulling an about face à la Bill Clinton and attempting to lift his public perception back from the toilet. Seeing as how Weiner’s wife (that just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) is a former aide to Hillary “no shame” Clinton, the crushing ignominy of her husband’s pathetic attempt to woo over girls will be suppressed. There is little doubt Weiner will be crowned king of the Big Apple considering the city’s affinity for sleazebag politicians. After the Stalin-esque reign of tyrant Bloomberg, a philanderer who never made a dime in honest cash will seem like the second coming. The lies, theft, and heap of unscrupulous behavior that defines the state will continue under Weiner’s watch. Except this time, New Yorkers will feel warm and fuzzy over giving someone a second chance; even as Weiner deserves as much forgiveness as former Governor and escort-lover Eliot Spitzer. Which means the charade of being a reformed “family man” will go uncontested.

Weiner’s second coming (it is impossible to reference the guy without inadvertently writing a mind-gutter pun), touched by cognitive amnesia as it is, is mild relative to fellow political events. In the sociopath abode known as Congress, the gears of war are slowly turning for military intervention in Syria. The usual cabal of blood-dining war worshippers is sniffing out their next feast, all the while pressuring President Obama into interposing democracy in heart of the Middle East with the barrel of an M16. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a 15-3 vote, passed a bill that would arm rebels who are fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. The alliance of Syrian dissidents with radical Islamic elements, including Al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, does not weigh on the brains of elected imperialists. Supremacy is their target and whatever crazed, lunatic faction wishes to assist is given support.

Even this author will admit his own forgetfulness and ask: why are these Senators not yet behind bars, or worse, been assassinated by drone strike? The Department of Justice just confirmed the U.S. government was responsible for the murder of four citizens on account of their affiliation to terrorism – namely Al-Qaeda. These deaths were known about previously, but only now has Uncle Sam owned up to the deed. Anwar Awlaki, the most famous of these victims, was afforded no due process and was killed based simply off anti-American speeches. So why are Senators, who don’t just speak of putting arms in the hands of “the enemy” but actively support the cause, still walking free?

The self-styled sect of foreign policy “realists” who inhabit spacious offices in Washington D.C. are totally on board with the arming of jihadists in Syria. These Straussian chin-curlers present themselves as being above the fray of moral considerations. To the realist, simpleton notions of “good,” “bad,” “right,” or “wrong” are best left to the weak-minded folk. When confronted by the plain immorality of their hegemonic intentions, the term “gray area” is employed as they scoff at the immaturity of deductive reasoning. The foreign policy of these pragmatists is, somehow, indecipherable to anyone not residing within their bubble of influence.

But to assume foreign policy “realists” truly have America’s best interest at heart, the arming of Syrian rebels still fails to pass the sniff test of common sense. Washington’s last dabble into assisting the overthrow of an uncooperative regime backfired spectacularly. Libya, a country most Americans never heard of it prior to 2010, has been given over to Islamic radicalism in the absence of Muammar al-Gaddafi. Ambassador Chris Stevens infamously lost his life as a consequence of the coup, and its doubtful he will be the last. The disastrous invasion of Iraq has resulted in more sectarian violence than before Saddam Hussein’s ousting. Each intervention sows the seeds for another imperial adventure somewhere down the line – like a domino effect initiated by a meddlesome child. With fresh new sanctions on Iran and the war drums being sounded more forcefully and rhythmically for bloodshed in Syria, perpetual war, and the needless death it carries, show no signs of stopping. Instead of learning from the horror, the people clamor for “victory.”

If the basking in the holy light of incessant warmongering were not enough to prove human stubbornness, the recent tornado in Moore, Oklahoma should solidify my dispirited contention. The E-F5-measured storm obliterated everything it came in touch with, leaving an estimated $2 billion worth of damage in its path. Thousands lost their homes and face indefinite displacement. It’s only a matter of time before Keynesian devotees declare the storm an economic boon for the Sooner State. And I can only imagine the affectionate gaze from neoconservatives who revel in societal demolition.

The only thing that could make the Oklahoma tornado worse was if it could have been prevented. Unfortunately, due diligence says that yes, if the people had heeded earlier warnings, the catastrophe could have been largely avoided. Back in 1999, a tornado of similar strength tore through the same area. Experts calculated a 1% possibility of such an event happening again. Even in a world of measurable science, statistics is often a cruel predictor.

If that were the only enticement at work, the victims could be spared a bit of empathy. But the state, in an ongoing battle to capture hearts and minds, provided another form of encouragement: disaster insurance. When the government compensates victims of natural disaster with stolen money, it explicitly sends a signal to the receiver that relief will be available at any time in the future. It’s actually an anomaly to call government disaster relief insurance considering it’s a guaranteed payout regardless of circumstance. Unlike private insurance brokers, politicians and bureaucrats require no prior qualifications to dole out tax dollars – other than reassuring for themselves a safe reelection. It’s hard to say how many Moore residents were baited into living on a proven path of destruction. Washington’s readiness to aid the irresponsible was an assurance many, no doubt, kept in the back of their mind. The bleeding-hearts in the press who scream for disaster relief every time a barn topples over reject this lesson, seeing as how it renders their orchestrated compassion useless.

The mule, being a universal symbol for stubbornness, has become indistinguishable from the average news and politics ingester. Toeing the carefully-planned ideological path of media personalities, divergence from party line is a hurdle most pedestrians are incapable of clearing. When espousers of an ideology commit, or lend support to, a policy that is costly in terms of money or moral character, no apology is given. The same refuse-to-repent mindset seeps over the rest of life’s experiences. The man who sees himself as a firebrand is nothing but molded clay. It almost makes apoliticalism appear as a mark of intelligence.

Immanuel Kant famously referred to humanity as “crooked timber;” widely regarded as a reference to mankind’s inherent nature to sin. We accept this characterization, laugh at it, and offer no rebuttal to its existence. What’s not done is a forthright attempt to continually rectify our wrongs and pursue truth – even when it conflicts with inner bias. It’s far less painful to not acknowledge faulty logic. Perhaps there is a law of human nature for this, waiting to be discovered. If someone were to look back, many a millennia from now, and attempt to put his finger on man’s core fault, they could certainly formulate one.

  • @paulanderson27

    Life is risky. No one on this planet lives in a risk-free environment.

    We can address those risks by trying to avoid them, when we can or by trying to mitigate and manage the risks that we can't reasonably avoid.

    But you can't escape all of them. If you live in a flood plain, moving might be a good idea, but moving might also increase your risk of other threats like tornadoes, earthquakes, drought, or hurricanes.

    And there also might be good economic reasons for living in that 'dangerous' place, so it might be a better solution to use some portion of an economic surplus that can be generated by living on a coast or near a waterway or in a geologically unstable area towards mitigating the impacts of your increased risk if and when problems occur.

    So should each small community self-insure so that they can entirely handle their own disaster if and when it occurs? No. That would be a wasteful misallocation of capital.

    By spreading the risk pool across lots of communities or perhaps even lots of states, the chances of everyone in the pool needing a payout at the same time are diminished, so you can more efficiently handle the results of the disasters that do crop up without requiring every individual community to idle capital for a local rainy day that might never come or for a series of rainy days that hit in a shorter than predicted time period which might exhaust their local reserves.

    So even had your facts about Moore been correct, the conclusion you drew was flawed, because your "let them take care of their own problem" attitude would make for wasteful economic policy.

  • Ohhh Henry

    I haven't been following this story very closely but my impression has been that because he threatened to possibly halt the rampant growth of municipal government spending, the mayorissimo of T.O. has been marked down for "special treatment" by the unions who at all other times under every other administration are for all practical purposes the capi di capi of City Hall. Something similar happened in Ottawa with Larry O'Brien a few years ago. Elected on a firm promise of 0% tax increases, he was quickly ensnared in legal problems which apparently were instigated by the unions. Although he was acquitted it seemed that for the rest of his term he was effectively neutralized as an opponent to union featherbedding.

    I've seen a couple of other mayors of Ontario municipalities, large and small, up close and my feeling is that all of these office-seekers are ridiculous buffoons … or to use your term "crackpots". Most of them however "go along to get along" with the powerful and dangerous groups who consider the municipal government budget to be their own personal ATM machine. The picture painted of those administrations in the media is therefore placid and trouble-free … taxes, spending and borrowing go up and up, essential services such as road repair and garbage collection are cut back, and the number of white-collar bureaucrats and contractors who make a living from municipal white elephants and boondoggles goes up, and up, and up. The crackpot mayors go to 200 different fundraising events per year and smile for the cameras, and occasionally when they comment on budgetary policy they vow that they will never, ever consider any budget that involves layoffs or staff reductions of any kind. Capisce?

  • @paulanderson27

    Because some "expert" predicted a "1%" chance, to you that is a "proven path of destruction?" That's one of the more ignorant claims I've heard lately, and I'll explain why.

    Tornadoes don't "target" certain areas. There's nothing about the geography around Moore that makes it more or less subject to getting hit than any other area in Tornado Alley.

    But if you want to take that attitude, then why haven't you FIRST chastised the residents along the Susquehanna river for re-building when it floods? Why not FIRST chastise people living in earthquake prone regions (the entire west coast) or places that are vulnerable to hurricanes (the east and gulf coasts?)

    Because those disasters, unlike the tornado threat, actually ARE predictably regular for those areas.

    You discredited an otherwise promising post with childish finger pointing that only highlights your hypocrisy and ignorance of the facts.

    "Since record-keeping began 200 years ago, the Susquehanna River Basin has proven one of the most flood-prone watersheds in the nation."

    "The main stem of the Susquehanna has flooded 14 times since 1810 – about every 15 years, on average. Even the Native Americans who once lived in the area told of frequent floods."

    "Tropical storm Agnes in 1972 caused the worst recorded flooding in the basin. Seventy-two people died and damaged topped $2.8 billion – about $14.3 billion in today’s dollars. Flood levels exceeded the record levels of the 1936 flood by as much as six feet in some places. It was the nation's most costly natural disaster until Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 and Hurricane Katrina in 2004."

    This is your area of the country, right? But you have the gall to point a finger at others? "Learning from Mistakes" was an ironically appropriate title for your very unfortunate post.

    So, by YOUR OWN "logic," if experts told the residents of Moore that they had a 1% chance of a another tornado hit (you didn't specify the time-frame, but let's go worst-case and say it was per year), does that mean you believe the residents of your area of Pennsylvania are more than six times LESS deserving to be "spared a bit of empathy?"

    After all, 1/15, the historical frequency of Susquehanna floods, is a 6.66% chance per year, is it not? So do you think your fellow Pennsylvanians are much bigger morons than those poor dumb Okies?

    Maybe you can explore that idea in your next contribution to your hometown paper, the Middletown Press and Journal. lol

    The "1%" I'm much more concerned with is the very small percentage of people in this country willing to vote for politicians who run on a platform of freedom. Poorly reasoned crap like this coming from someone associated in any way shape or form with that movement DOES NOT HELP.

    So please either learn something about your subject before you pontificate or just be quiet. Posting indefensible and poorly reasoned articles like this one helps no one but the enemies of liberty.

    • James E. MIller

      Thank you for the comment and, uh, somewhat argued rebuttal on your blog.

      I find it quite hilarious that out of all the points I made in the piece, you wrap your hatred around a statistic I admit lends itself to being a mental comfort. Of course 1% is an extremely low probability. But as I pointed out, government disaster insurance (insurance to pay out no matter what that is) was also a factor involved with enticing people to stay in the area.

      You clearly don't understand the tragedy of the commons principle.

      Thank you for basing your argument around my untimely death in an area which I no longer reside. Typically I respond to thought out rebuttals of my viewpoint. You clearly dedicated a good deal of research well in advance of responding. It just has no relevancy to what I wrote. Nice try.

  • James E. Miller

    The basis of my critique was that government incentivizes people to live in dangerous areas (I would classify a place that has seen two F5 tornadoes in less than two decades "dangerous") with disaster insurance.

    And I don't live in Middletown, Pennsylvania anymore. So if I were to adopt your inane argumentative style, I would say I learned the (non) lesson you are preaching and have already left. Therefore, your whole argument is bunk.

  • Chris

    "If you define "uh, somewhat argued" as completely refuting your point using facts and figures rather than biased assumptions, then sure. You're welcome."

    Uhh no, you actually missed the point entirely, which was about how government incentives often lead to disastrous consequences.

    "James, did you take statistics and probability in school?"

    I see, so you're taking that 1% risk figure as an infallible assessment by the weathermen… because they're always so right aren't they?

    Your emotional ranting would seem to place you a little too close to the Oaklahoma disaster. Maybe you should help with the relief efforts instead of whining online.

  • Chris Horlacher

    Once again, you are trying to draw attention away from the real issue, while congratulating yourself for being evasive.

    Also, your emotions or whether or not you take personal offense to an example betrays your ability to objectively read what is being said. If you thought it would be a better example for the author to use his own hometown rather than another that is your prerogative, but it is utterly pointless to argue this direction if you're trying to dispel what is actually being pointed out here.

    So far the only constructive thing you've said is "Great article, but I think there are better examples you could have used to make your point." Do you have anything else to offer, or are you going to continue publicly masturbating?

  • Jerry

    I do not agree that each event is independant. In our part of the world hail storms are a regular occurrence. There are areas that are more prone to crop damage than others. Insurance rates reflect that. My father could testify to that over nearly a century of living in one area.

  • @paulanderson27

    Chris, I didn't miss the point of his post. Did you miss the part where I wrote "You discredited an otherwise promising post…?" I guess you did. I got what he was going for, but he went about it in a poorly reasoned and offensive manner.

    My point was to show that the author had actually become a poster child for the phenomenon he described in his first paragraph:

    "You can hold a mirror up to grotesque instances of hypocrisy, but most men will remain mules – stubborn in their prejudice and beliefs." And that's funny, because that's exactly what happened… to the author.

    I demonstrated the author's hypocrisy in his failure to describe much riskier behavior in his own hometown (about which you would think he would be more well versed), and I'm laughing about it now, because apparently he has decided to go all-in and make himself a caricature of his own post.

    If you don't see the funny in that, then I'd suggest you're not paying attention. But then we already know that's the case, because you still think I missed his point. :)

    Also, you actually ARE completely missing the point about the statistics. It doesn't matter what the specific percentage was. And again, had you been paying attention, you might have noticed that I was the one *questioning* that number. The author was the one using it to try to make his point (factually incorrect as it was).

    Each tornado is an independent event. The tornado doesn't know which areas have been hit before and which haven't, so calling Moore a "proven path of destruction" was just factually wrong, and claiming that these people are deserving of less empathy because of where they decided to live is offensive, evidence of either a lack of intelligence or good judgement, and unhelpful.

    And by the way, what makes you think I haven't contributed to the relief efforts in Moore? I have, and I hope you have too. Doing things for others helps you as well as them, and you sound like someone who could benefit from doing something positive.

  • James E. MIller

    Paul, I want to acknowledge your correctness in a yet-to-be-approved comment over my misreading of 1% and less than 1%. There was indeed a less than 1% chance of a tornado passing through Moore following the 1999 disaster. I misread, that much I admit. Though I fail to see a significant difference between 1% or less than 1%; in other words, someone is not likely to change their mind after being told there is a 1% chance of a natural disaster rather than the less than 1%.

    As the article points out, I try my best to learn from my mistakes and acknowledge when I am incorrect.

    The rest of your detached rant does not warrant comment. I look forward to another long winded reply pointing out my insignificant mistake as some kind of refute of my whole world view.

  • @paulanderson27

    My last two comments were not published here. So it's not clear that I'll be able to respond to your post. It turns out the author twisted the meaning of the "expert" prediction that he quoted. It was a reassurance and not a warning, so his entire basis for criticizing the citizens of Moore was false.

    I have a problem with people manufacturing evidence. Do you?

  • @paulanderson27

    Oh good, looks like I can comment now.

    Chris, in my opinion the "real issue" with this article is the author's use of a (misinterpreted? manufactured? misunderstood?) quote as pretext for blaming the victims of a recent tragedy and what that behavior says about the author's honesty and character. You can assert that I'm missing whatever issue you believe to be the "real" one in this post, but that's the issue for me.

    If you believe that my objectivity is in question, then why not point out some examples? I'm not impressed by unsupported assertions and insults.

  • @paulanderson27

    James, if you go back to read the original information on the city of Moore website, the meaning is clear. By saying that the chances were less than 1%, the city officials were trying to reassure residents not warn them.

    If you don't understand why people might think it's disgusting that you blamed the victims of a deadly natural disaster for their own predicament based on wrong information, then again I have to say – writing is not your thing.

  • Jerry

    "So should we just clear out the entire Midwest and import all of our wheat and corn from Canada?"

    The residents and the insurance companies will have to sort that out between themselves. As long as the government stays out of the picture and rebuilding is done by the residents and businesses/farmers on their own dime, no problem. Our farmes in our higher risk areas still continue, the land continues to trade and the operators pay insurance or accept the full risk on their own. But as soon as another entity like the goverment enters the picture, risks are changed, people are led to make poor decisions. 1% plus or minus is basically an opinion. You take it for what it's worth. One may use it as a one small part in making a decision. Life is all risk.

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James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of Mises Canada and a regular contributor to the Mitrailleuse . Send him mail

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