Tags: Enron | Reality?

An Enron Reality?

Sunday, 27 January 2002 12:00 AM

Recently two lawyers were debating the case of "Taliban John" Walker. The conservative lawyer gave reasons that Walker could be found guilty of treason or stripped of his citizenship. The liberal law professor gave various reasons that might mitigate his guilt or eliminate it entirely.

On a superficial level, this was to be expected. The conservative held Walker responsible for his actions, while the liberal sought to excuse him and put the blame on others.

But on a deeper level, the differing viewpoints of the two lawyers were even more revealing. The conservative used the facts of the case (so far as they are known) as a basis for his argument. The liberal, on the other hand, constructed a series of hypotheticals under which Walker's guilt would decrease or disappear.

That is, the two lawyers had fundamentally different concepts of reality. The conservative viewed reality as an external truth that one tries to discover. The liberal viewed reality as an internal idea that one tries to construct.

Well, which is it? They can't both be right. Is reality something outside ourselves that we try, however imperfectly, to uncover? Or is it something within ourselves that we are free to fabricate as we see fit?

This difference is not merely one between conservatives and liberals, or between the strict and the lenient. It is a basic difference in our view of the world.

I spent much of my working life in a large bureaucracy. I came into contact with people with a variety of educational backgrounds, from high school dropouts to the post-doctoral level. Yet the key difference between them was not their college degrees, but their perspective on reality. That is, when their own experience and the paperwork in front of them disagreed, where did they look to resolve the difference?

The worker bees, from janitors to those with Ph.D.s, put down the paperwork, got up out of their chairs, exited their offices, and went out to see for themselves what the story was. On the contrary, the drones (often but not always in management) looked at the paperwork and took that not just to represent reality, but to be reality.

The belief that what is on paper is the ultimate reality is common in lawyers, administrators and bureaucrats. Perhaps this is understandable – these people deal with paper constantly. But lawyers, administrators and bureaucrats run nearly everything, from the government, to the military, to schools and universities, to most large and medium businesses. That can cause problems.

The seemingly endless arguments over the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty covered many areas. But the key question was this: How could a piece of paper protect America against incoming missiles armed with nuclear, biological or chemical warheads?

Phrased this way, the question answers itself. A belief in the protective powers of paper would, in anyone but a diplomat, lawyer or academic, be seen as a delusion requiring psychiatric care. Why, then, are diplomats, lawyers and academics immune from accusations that they are suffering from delusions – or, rather, enjoying them?

The endless arguments finally ended when President Bush had the wisdom and courage to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. No one complains that the absence of that piece of paper now leaves us open to missiles launched by Iraq, North Korea, China or miscellaneous terrorists – all of which were ignoring the treaty in any case.

With the piece of paper no longer blocking our view, we can see the missiles aimed at us. We have freed ourselves to use our best scientific brains to develop defenses against them. We can see that our reliance on paper to protect us is at the intellectual level of a small child, who hides under the blanket so the boogeyman can't hurt him.

Nor are empty treaties the only example of this fundamental difference in our concept of reality. During the O.J. Simpson trial, prosecutors painstakingly piled up a mountain of evidence, while defense lawyers constructed hypotheses. But the jury ignored Simpson's blood at the murder scene, the victims' blood on Simpson's clothes, the cut on Simpson's hand, hair and fiber evidence, and the history of physical abuse.

Instead, the jury apparently believed the implausible hypotheses involving "Colombian drug lords" and evidence-planting by police. The reality fabricated by the defense overcame the reality of physical evidence presented by the prosecution. And as with the ABM Treaty, the fabricated reality became a matter of life and death.

Then, of course, there is the presidential election controversy, where Democrats tried to continue recounting "dimpled chads" until they obtained the "correct" result. How would they know that the "correct" result had been obtained so they could stop counting? Obviously, when their candidate was ahead. If there is a clearer example of an attempt to fabricate reality, I have yet to hear of it.

Lest one conclude that liberals are the only ones subject to the delusion that reality exists on paper and can be fabricated as needed, consider the Enron affair. On paper the company was sound, profitable and expanding. For those selling their stock, this concocted reality worked nicely. For those buying the stock, it didn't work so well.

But, you protest, the Enron affair probably involved criminal behavior. It is illegal for corporate officers and auditors to issue phony reports or shred subpoenaed documents. It is quite legal for lawyers to misstate testimony, mischaracterize evidence and fabricate preposterous theories. But is it any different morally or intellectually? In both cases, people concoct "facts" to further their own interests and enrich themselves.

Then there is the nursing supervisor who arrives on the ward to find too few nurses struggling to care for too many critically ill patients. Does she offer to send help or (foolish thought!) pitch in herself? No, she berates the nurses for being behind in their paperwork. To her, the real purpose of the hospital is neat charts, not healthy patients.

Similar to this are military officers, whose promotions depend on rating their units as ready for combat, whether they are or not. The reports, not the readiness, become the objective. The paper becomes the reality. And why not? The officers, like the nursing supervisor, are rewarded for their paperwork, not for actual results.

Even science is not immune from the harmful effects of shading the truth. If one hopes to be promoted at a university, one does not submit papers questioning prevailing "truths." Today global warming is the "truth." Articles questioning it are unlikely to be published, and if published are unlikely to get their authors government grants. If a drug company buys "research," everyone condemns it. If the government does something similar, everyone keeps quiet. One doesn't bad-mouth the chief source of money.

Perhaps the most glaring example of fabricating reality is what happens regularly in totalitarian states. Even as the Allied armies were advancing on Berlin, Hitler continued to receive encouraging reports from flunkies who were afraid to tell him the bitter truth. And even as the Soviet Union neared economic collapse, the Central Committee still believed they would "bury" us.

We can be thankful that tyrants often get unreliable information. But before we feel too superior, let us examine our own sources of information. Let us be more careful before we accept others' definition of reality.

Let us decide whether to emulate detectives who uncover evidence, or lawyers and judges who cover it up again. Let us decide whether to emulate real scientists who reach conclusions after studying the outside world, or phony scientists who torture the numbers until the outside world seems to conform to their biases.

A long time ago, Pontius Pilate asked, "What is truth?" We had better consider our answer carefully.

Otherwise, we may discover too late that we are stuck with an Enron-like version of reality, replete with dimpled chads, innocent traitors, Colombian drug lords, neat but bogus reports, research that supports prevailing biases, and delusions that pieces of paper protect us from incoming missiles.

Reality isn't always pleasant, and sometimes it is even frightening. But it is always something we strive to discover, not something we fabricate.

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Recently two lawyers were debating the case of Taliban John Walker. The conservative lawyer gave reasons that Walker could be found guilty of treason or stripped of his citizenship. The liberal law professor gave various reasons that might mitigate his guilt or eliminate...
Sunday, 27 January 2002 12:00 AM
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