Decision Making

I’ve read a lot of economics in recent years, and I like it. My introduction to it was a little unusual. I started by copyediting test banks, which are boring, boring, boring. They ask the same questions over and over, just changing the wording a tad here and there. Snore. However, rote learning works if you have the right incentive, such as being paid a nice multiple of minimum wage to read.
Having waded through about a gazillion tests, one day I got a shot at a study guide. It was a different-shaped presentation of the material, and it gave me better perspective and clearer understanding.

Economics started, as we all know, with Malthus and the dismal science. The necessity for the study of economics is the scarcity of resources. This is the fact Malthus revealed, often observed but never before discussed: there is never enough of anything to go around. Malthus was a visionary, and he made severely incorrect predictions. He failed to foresee the growth of productivity, but he can easily be forgiven for that. During his lifetime agriculture was the primary industry practically everywhere, including in mining and manufacturing centers, and production of new real estate had ceased long ago. The Industrial Age was beginning to warm up, and the rapid growth of productivity was just getting under way. He missed it. Big deal. Nobody’s perfect.

Meantime, Adam Smith of the invisible hand made his gigantic contribution: given the scarcity of resources, allocation of them is extremely important, and we should address it rationally.

No field of study remains the same over the centuries, and the study of economics has widened from allocation of resources to decision making in general. Granted, this is largely so as to be able to analyze allocation of resources in the field (i.e., by morons, adrenaline junkies, and the obsessive-compulsive). So the economists draw up tables and construct models and do insanely complex statistical projections to guide and analyze decision making. (A model is a gadget to simplify the calculations. It’s the equivalent of making pi equal to 3.)

I’m a Quaker.* Unprogrammed Quakers have no clergy and Do Not Vote in Meeting. We form committees and manage the Meeting in meetings.** We make decisions by general agreement. (Please don’t call it consensus; there’s a subtle but real difference.).

When a large body with a respectable amount of resources must make decisions without voting, it is essential to give the discourse shape and limits. Quakers call this process, and it is as sacred as anything outside of the testimonies, or guiding moral principles.

Process is time-consuming; Quaker time is the opposite of a New York minute. It is, however, extremely reliable as to outcome. The only time I have seen it fail was when process was skirted at the behest of a Friend with an axe to grind.

Here’s how it works: An item goes on the agenda for monthly business meeting. Say the sidewalk needs repair. The property committee has inspected the sidewalk, gotten estimates, and tentatively selected an option. However, it’s a matter of thousands of dollars and years of walking on it. Because it will affect everyone, and not just financially, the property committee takes the estimates to the full body and makes a short presentation. “We need to repair the sidewalk. Blue stone costs x. Concrete costs y. Brick costs z. The reason it’s so expensive is because the frost line… installation… drainage.… We want it to last.” Then Friends ask questions: Does concrete last longer than blue stone? How well will the materials hold up to the riding lawn mower? Where’s the money coming from?

Someone does a quick calculation and reports the approximate cost per year for each material and method of installation. Friends talk it over, rub their chins, and pick the cheapest one with acceptable esthetic quality and life. The clerk of the meeting states the resolution: So we’re going to go with blue stone and the deep excavation and drainage, to start as soon as the ground’s warm enough this spring? A chorus of Approve rolls through the room and it’s time for the next item.
Because Quakers spend so much time on process, we learn not to waste time. One can take a weekend-long course on clerking (leading) a Quaker meeting, and one of the things they teach is how to gently shut down Friends who have had their say and want to say it over and over. But everyone does get a say, and one of the responsibilities of the clerk is to take the sense of the meeting.
Huh? Sense of the meeting?

The sense of the meeting is the way the wind is blowing. Sometimes it’s strong and steady in one direction; sometimes it eddies around; sometimes it gusts every which way. Sometimes it seems to be strong and steady southwest and suddenly it’s veering north by northwest. If it has settled in one direction, that’s the sense of the meeting and Friends are ready to approve; otherwise the sense of the meeting is that Friends aren’t ready to decide. A decision may be sent back to committee for further research, or the clerk may suggest that we season it—move on for now, think it over, and come back to it at the next meeting.

That’s no way to run a business, you’re thinking. Well, it’s certainly not fashionable. But it does tap collective wisdom, which is an excellent antidote to groupthink. Quaker meetings have been thriving on it for a long, long time. The next time you’re stuck in a boring, unproductive meeting, ask yourself how the Quakers would do it.

* There are programmed Quakers, like former president Nixon, who have clergy. They are mainly a Western phenomenon, at least in this country. I am an unprogrammed Quaker; this is the original flavor, prevalent in the East.

**Meeting, capped, the body of the church; meeting, lowercase, a group of people having a chat.

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