One of the things I’ve learned in life is that the salesmen for a company will be the most honest with you about their company. That’s not to imply that salesmen are all honest in their sales pitch. That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about life inside the company. Ask a sales guy, who is not selling you something, about his boss and his co-workers and he’ll usually give you the unvarnished truth. Often, they are the guys who know the flaws best, because they have to work around them to make deals.
That’s the thing with salespeople. They work for themselves, even though they take a salary and are employees. Some portion of their pay, maybe the bulk of it, is derived from their performance as a salesman. All salespeople have quotas and have to produce. Otherwise, they get fired. There’s no hiding in the bureaucracy for them. That means self-deception is not of any use to them. They have to know the defects of their firm and its products in order to mitigate them in front of clients.
The weird thing about salesmen is they never assume they are the cleverest guy in the room. Paranoia is a healthy trait in sales, as there are a million little things that can scuttle a deal. Working from the assumption that there could very well be someone in the room who knows something you don’t is a good way to avoid surprises. You ask more questions and you listen better. If you’re walking around thinking you are Wile E. Coyote, a safe could fall on your head.
I used to fish with a guy who made his living selling cars. He got into it as a way to pay for college. He would sell cars on the weekend and at night, while going to school during the day. When he finished college, he found that he could make a better living selling cars than anything else so he kept selling cars. Eventually he settled into selling BMW’s and Mercedes. He was able to make a nice, middle-class living at it, without too much stress.
Making small talk one day I mentioned something about lawyers and he laughed and told me that lawyers are his best clients, followed by stockbrokers. I naturally assumed it was because they made a lot of money and had expensive tastes. That was not it at all. He told me that overselling a lawyer was one of the easiest things to do in car sales. They walk around thinking they know everything and so they fall for every car sales trick in the book.
I’ve been thinking about this watching the political ructions. Donald Trump is a salesman and a very good one so he is doing extremely well as a novice politician, because politics is about sales. His competitors are mostly lawyers, who never took him seriously, because they are lawyers and smart. Everyone knows this so surely the smart lawyers will have no problem with the sales guy and his cheap theatrics.
The commentariat is similarly full of lawyers and people who went to law school. The funny thing about media lawyers is they rarely ever did real legal work. Those that did work in the business got out quickly and signed on for TV work. The other chattering skulls popped out of prep school and then went onto a private college, majoring in a soft field like political science. Like the lawyers, they walk around thinking they are the smartest guy in the room and they have been wrong about Trump at every turn.
To some degree, this is due to the difference between fields that reward the right answer and fields that reward clever answers. There’s no right answer as to why the French decided to attack uphill in the rain against the forces of Henry V at Agincourt. On the other hand, there is only one answer to the question of how many one centimeter spheres can fit into a one meter cube. You either have the correct answer or you do not and you have to show your work.
Where I’m heading with this is that lawyers probably suffer from the Dunning–Kruger effect because they were always the cheekiest and cleverest person in the classroom. They have high verbal skills and pretty credentials so they naturally assume that means they are brilliant. Steve Sailer points out that Barak Obama went from wall flower to social butterfly once he got into Harvard Law. His acceptance letter bestowed on him the sense he was the smartest guy in the room.
Now, the guys in the sales department have a different experience. They also have high verbal skills, but they spend their days losing many more deals than they win. They face the reality of their limitations every day. They also know that if they don’t sell, they don’t eat. There’s no failing up in their business. It’s why the sales guys can feast on lawyers. They have no illusions about themselves.
It’s another reason to wonder if the recipe for the managerial state contains ingredients that poison the stew. Failing up is a feature of the managerial class. They go from one failure to the next, rarely ever answering for their blunders. The economic team that advised Obama on the stimulus, for example, landed cushy positions in the academy. Tim Geithner is making millions influence peddling for Wall Street. This despite being 100% wrong about in their predictions.
A system based on mediocrities walking around convinced they are the smartest people in the room will inevitably become unstable. The unforced errors we are seeing could simply be a feature of a system that lacks a way to police the ranks. Instead, it rewards the most ruthless bureaucratic operators who are skilled at things useless to preserving the system. In many cases, like we saw with the housing bust-out, the most skillful members of the managerial class cause the greatest damage to it.