Simon Kuper makes a good point: we need, he says, to “bore ourselves with important stuff.” This point generalizes beyond the context he discusses.
It’s true in investing. “Split your money between cash and tracker funds and then forget it” gets you at least four-fifths of the way. But it’s boring. By contrast, great stories can be horribly misleading for investors: MoneyWeek’s "end of Britain” report was a more interesting story than “shares will probably rise a little because they normally do” – but it was much less true. And “exciting” growth stocks should usually be avoided unless they are just momentum plays: corporate growth is in fact largely random (pdf) – a boring but important fact.
It’s also true in economics. Economics should not – for the most part – be about bigthink and new paradigms but a dull interrogation of the facts: the gravest flaw with the simple-minded pro-market theories that many people mistake for mainstream economics is simply that they often don’t fit the facts. It’s a matter of debate about how far economics actually has become more empirical, but I agree with Tim that economists should be like plumbers.
And here’s the thing. Politics should also be boring. I don’t just mean this in the clichéd sense that “may you live in interesting times” is a curse. I mean that political debate should be dull.
This is partly because facts should perhaps play some role in politics. For example, amidst all the pompous waffle about Trump’s inauguration speech, hardly anybody bothered to point out the dull fact that his talk about crime and lob loss was inconsistent with the facts that crime has been falling and employment rising for months – a juxtaposition which of course poses the big question of why so many people believe Trump.
To take another example, I saw in the gym today that one of those speak your branes TV shows was asking “does prison work?” It’s a good question. But it should be answered by a dull investigation of the empirical evidence, not by talking heads.
The question posed by the dull Andrew Tyrie to the “charismatic” Boris Johnson was a great one that must always be asked: “This is all very interesting, Boris, except none of it is really true, is it?”
This is especially the case because so much politics is about administration. Brexit and a citizens’ income have a big thing in common – that their success or not hinges upon the dull grind of them being implemented well.
Of course, values also matter. But these must be investigated by philosophy seminars, not by people shouting at each other in TV studios. There should be no place in politics for gobshites like your Youngs, Morgans and Hartley-Brewers. One of the banes of our age is the belief among TV executives that politics programmes should reach a big audience. In fact, they shouldn’t appeal to any more people than those who buy books on history, philosophy and social science – which is at best a few tens of thousands. Yes, people should engage in politics – but after thinking, which is dull. I suspect the left would, in the long-run, be in better shape if people spent less time demonstrating and more time reading (say) Sam Bowles or John Roemer.
There is, therefore, much to be said for being boring.
But here’s the problem. Con-men know this. Bernie Madoff’s schtick was to look like a dull middle-aged man offering clients stable returns. And for years this boring appearance hid the fact that he was a thief.
And there are far more Madoffs than you might think. There are thousands of Very Serious People in finance, politics and business who project a boring image in the hope – often correct – that people will mistake this for competence: I suspect Theresa May pulled of this trick at the Home office. If you use etiolated technocratic language on the rare occasions you break your silence, you can get away with all sorts of daft ideas: journalists are easy to fool.
Being boring can be a sign of competence: think of Geoffrey Boycott’s batting or the great Arsenal back four. But it can also be a trick.
What we need, perhaps, is less appearance of dullness and more genuine dullness.