Monday, January 19, 2015

The Truth

[If you're only interested in the truth about the Norwegian economy, feel free to scroll down!]

I may be far from the smartest or the most experienced voice among the Norwegian economic and financial commentators. But I have one advantage compared to practically all of the commentators you see on mainstream media (Dagens Næringsliv, NRK, Aftenposten, etc): I have no superior who's opinion and interests I would try to take into account when I talk about the economy. The lack of this kind of a boss does not give me any pure, 100 % independence, but I cannot think of any person who scores better than me on this one (many bloggers might tie with me, though). My only "bosses" are my readers, and I try to write what I know you want to read but without asking you for your approval or even comments beforehand. Sometimes I manage better, but sometimes my self-critical "bullshit radar" lets me down.

I said I know what you want to read. What is it then? It is nearly always the truth. I have learned recently that what makes even a stand-up comedian succeed is being able to tell the truth, from a new angle. For us who write, or act, the challenge is to try to deliver the truth without letting our conflicting interests get in the way. A writer like me knows that my audience wants the truth, but I --like everyone else-- only have my truth. I have many interests that may conflict with the truth, interests I need to remain aware of (e.g, the wish to be right rather than wrong), but my employer's interest is not one of them. I do not even have any career interest, other than that I have found speaking one's mind usually rather career enhancing as long as one does it even somewhat politely. To speak the truth: While sharing my truth, I have too often been impolite --many times unknowingly, although others might have viewed it differently-- and it nevertheless has not got me fired and has rather brought me acceptance among the higher ranks of the leadership. I got this kind of praise even when I was, paradoxically, fully prepared to make them pissed at me. (Actually I once made one "big boss" outright angry, only to later earn respect from him for my conduct that day.) They don't usually give you praise publicly, because the last thing they want is everyone trying to follow your example. There is a rational, empirically (by myself, so this is very subjective!) established "organizational health limit" when it comes to the number of "truth-tellers" and based on my experience it probably is in the low, single digits (when we talk about the ones who do it in front of the crowd, not just privately, one-to-one). The praise you might get means that the leader was happy to hear your opinion on this particular matter, and not just that, but she was, if not happy, then at least OK with your colleagues hearing it too. In other words, you really said something smart even if you were shit-scared of how it will come out the moment you opened your mouth, with your palms sweating and heart beating.

There is, of course, a "catch" in everything. If you have a big mouth, some of your colleagues will not like you, either because what you said was not nice or because of the "stinking air of intellectual superiority" they smelled in the way you did it, unashamedly, with the reckless impudence typical of "people like you". So you need to have a certain "haters gonna hate" attitude to speak out loud your truth. If you often feel that you "just can't keep it inside", then you have plenty of that attitude. We all interpret these things differently, and that is a fact you need to accept. Those "haters" are generally good people and have probably good reasons to not like the way you "roll", but you should never worry about it too much. A historical fact: Einstein, while still a student and without a PhD, pissed off most --if not all-- of the greatest physics professors of his day by being unable to see why they would not tolerate his honest critique of their magnificient theories; theories that he otherwise appreciated, and made this clear in his correspondence with the professors. All this happened despite the fact that Einstein's goal was to impress those professors, and we know about his goal because he had often attached a job application to the critique he sent these professors all around Europe.

Two lessons I have taken home from Einstein's story:

  1. Making these "mistakes" does not kill your career. It might kill a career, but then that career is most likely not the perfect one for you.
  2. Being once considered an "asshole" does not mean being always considered an asshole. Later in his life, Einstein was often praised for his kindness and humbleness. Of course, Einstein of all human beings alive back then must have understood that this too was a very relative thing: Even the same behaviour can be considered to be either impudent or humble, depending on if others see you as a smart-ass student or the greatest genius alive.

Back to business life. I have not yet fully figured this out, but I think that in private, 1-to-1 meetings the leaders would like everyone to tell the truth. I myself have probably too often mixed public with private, and done publicly what I should have done only privately. Neither have I figured out how many of you now think that I think I am an "Einstein". We all tend to take "comparing one's personal traits to someone else's" for "equating oneself with someone". And pointing out what I just pointed out in the previous sentence is no doubt taken by many as being a besserwisser. So I better stop. "Individual reasoning" does not take us further than this, so it is best to switch to "social reasoning" (I have no clue if these are scientific terms or not, nor do I care) if you --like Einstein-- want to score a job.

Before moving to the Norwegian economy, I want to assure you of one thing: I usually learn a lot from the mistakes I make, even if it takes some time!

Contemporary Norwegian Economy As I See It


 The truth is that the Norwegian economy is in a crisis. I would not be stating this as plainly as that, at least not at this moment, if I was the prime minister or the finance minister or the central bank governor, perhaps not even if I had only moral authority as one of the most respected professors in the nation. There is a reason why, for instance, professors Hilde Bjørnland and Ola Honningdal Grytten can be fairly honest --as professors should be-- compared to, say, bank economists. But even professors need to be careful of what they publicly say. So I do have respect for other commentators' and leaders' choices, as they need to be very careful of balancing between the need to make people aware of the difficulties that lie ahead and the need to avoid a panic. These people are usually neither lying nor telling the whole truth.

So, Respect!, Øystein Olsen! Respect! (with certain qualifications related to the conflicts caused by the electoral cycle and your pressing need to do "something" so that it looks like you are doing your job, even if that something turns out to be against the long-term interests of the Norwegian people, and so the right thing to do would have been to not do it), Erna Solberg and Siv Jensen! This is a tough place to be, but we can be sure that this crisis will make Norway stronger in the long run. It is up to you, Øystein, Erna and Siv, to help your fellow citizens, old and new alike, to make the best out of this crisis. Do not do "something". Do the right thing! Forget your own, petty, personal interests. Read that Churchill biography again, if it helps. Whatever you do, do not make us find out in 20 years that you were "just like all the rest", that you only looked confident but let every single piece of criticism and the fear thereof to affect your decisions. This is all up to you. You make the final decisions, and those choices will affect how the future generations of Norwegians will remember you. I do not think I need to remind you that you only live once, but I do it nevertheless.

We are supposed to be here, now -- in this crisis --, whether we like it or not. If there was no such need for temporary sacrifice in life, at least half of the working age population would skip going to work tomorrow morning. Or if they already do, then what I meant is that 75 % of them would skip it. You get the point.

When one tries to be funny, one needs to be careful: I view Norwegians as hard-working as any other nationalities, if not more so. Let's say we replaced, overnight, the current Norwegian population --one by one-- with people from Denmark, Finland or Poland. We gave them the salaries of persons they replace (who we had sent to Spain to get some needed vitamin D); their bank accounts; their Teslas, Porsche Panameras and Audi Q5s; the beautifully renovated homes and gardens where the new people could kose themselves and just slappe av; the Canada Goose jackets and Mulberry bags; the nice bosses who know how "stiv nakke" makes it impossible to type "" in the web browser at the office; and finally we told them how high the market price of their home was in 2014 (Note: we don't know yet how much they can sell it for in 2015). These people would probably all call in sick tomorrow morning!  Yes, even the traditionally hard-working Finns. (I'm a Finn, but I can speak only partly from my own experience, as I have never been that hard-working to start with. The stereotype has been, of course, beneficial for me. That it comes with the addition "...and hard-drinking" is a small cost to pay for being considered hard-working.)

To make the above thought experiment more realistic, I suggest we do not replace the CEOs of the largest banks overnight, as we need someone who is willing, from day 1, to keep providing traditional mortgages to first-time home buyers and home equity lines of credit ("rammelån") to the ones who are driving cars manufactured before 2011 or who have not renovated their kitchen since 2010 (these are often the same ones who many view as having "limited means"). I cannot stress this point about the bank leadership enough, as I see a huge risk for an immediate recession if the credit flow to households slows markedly down from the growth rate of around 6 %. That would bring to an end the "age of plenty", it would make the "paradox of gluttony" turn into "paradox of thrift" (sometimes it is best to refer to "deflation" with a more benign name, in order to avoid inducing panic), and our psychological experiment would be ruined. Ruined! (I will bear like Robert Shiller the risk of being considered just another jealous foreigner.)

I use the word "crisis" here also because there is one thing I feel I need to criticize in this post. And it is the use of the word "crisis". One should consider carefully how one uses it. A politician might think that it is wise (= it is aligned with the long-term interest of the whole nation) to make people think that there is no big crisis when there seems to be a bit too many reasons to think there is a huge crisis and run. I would agree with this politician. It is wise to try to prevent a panic. The problem is that it is usually not wise to say to people "There is no crisis". And it is a big mistake to say it five times during a single interview. People are way too smart for that kind of tricks. People can usually be divided into two camps based on their reaction after they hear from a politician that "there is no crisis":

  1. Those who are happy to hear this, because they were already dead-scared, had stopped buying stuff (save canned food which they had started to pile in their basement) and they wished that it was all just a bad dream. They were searching for the "fairy" that would tell them that everything was OK.
  2. Those who were not yet that scared but became a lot more scared when they realized that there must be something that the government and the financial authorities know that makes them say this kind of silly things. This category is comprised of an absolute majority of the people, and the individuals who command the most spending power in the economy are all in this category.

So let us be brave and avoid saying silly things. Just like there are options between "doing something --anything" and "doing nothing", there are options between saying "there is a crisis" and saying "there is no crisis".

But some of us, sometimes, have to say how things really are. In my opinion, that task falls mainly on the ones who are fairly independent and without much authority. People like me.

Norway is in a crisis, and we better make it a good crisis by making sure there will be a relatively soft landing. We have reached the destination of this flight and we better get all the people out of the plane in one piece. It is fun to fly but it becomes boring if you never reach any destination. Even a very bumpy landing is million times better than no landing at all.

Nevertheless, I hope you have enjoyed your flight and I welcome you to fly again with Norwegian -- we hope to see you on board in a couple of years!

(I know you will not sue me for that, Bjørn Kjos. You are currently safely on my list of top-2 business leaders in Norway. Probably on the top of it. We all are better off having intelligent risk-takers like you. People like you make the world go forward, no matter if you "make it or break it", and that is why you can count me as a fan. I do not know if it is true that you have broken a chair in a meeting after you got angry, but I know that I might have done the same. A chair can take it, whereas a business cannot take a "Chair", or a CEO, who does not have a strong, passionate mind. That kind of a mind is needed to push the limits. This is especially true in one of the toughest businesses of all, the airline business, where leaders like you, Herb Kelleher and Michael O'Leary often do better than the rest. All the best, Mr Kjos!)