Howard Schultz: this is your brain on platitudes

Howard Schultz on Velshi and Ruhle | MSNBC | 4/5/2019

I’ve sat through speeches by CEOs with my brain melting from the unceasing assault of platitudes. We all have. The future looks bright, every graph is rising, every employee is dedicated, every manager is a leader, we have one mission and our ideas will shake up the business.

What I didn’t know is that apparently some CEOs get drunk on applause and come to believe their nonsense.

Many people noticed the Ali Velshi/Stephanie Ruhle interview with Starbucks founder and currently unaligned Presidential candidate for 2020, Howard Schultz. It was trenchant.

Schultz is in a quest to gain his rightful position as the Leader of us all. Only he can fix it, his brain tells him. Only he has the Venti-sized leadership needed to knock a few partisan heads together and get them to be fiscally responsible. Passing fiscally conscious legislation is a matter of leadership, nothing more. Since we have rising income inequality, and since the government is run by Democrats and Republicans, it must mean by definition that it is the Democrats and Republicans who have kept Leaders such as himself from emerging.

Now this is some banal bullshit. Velshi and Ruhle weren’t having it. Velshi politely noted that his theory of the case, such as it is, is clearly inadequate when you consider that income inequality is a problem in many countries around the world where Democrats and Republicans do not exist.

Velshi is correct and this was an obvious counterpoint. But I want you to note the utter surprise in Schultz’s face when his platitudes don’t take. Start watching at around 5:30 minutes in.

“How can you disagree with that!” he says, dumbfounded, at minute 6:20 in the video. They’re platitudes, after all! No one can disagree with them and they ruffle no feathers and everyone claps!

In fact Schultz appears to be under the common misconception known as the Green Lantern theory of the Presidency. A term coined by political scientist Brendan Nyhan, it describes the fallacy that blames all legislative failures in government on the President’s lack of will. It admits to no other constraints, even though legislation is passed by Congress, and each member of Congress might have a mix of good and bad motivations on whether to cast a particular vote—and no amount of Presidential will is going to override their self-interest.

It goes on from there. At minute 7:30, he slings another platitude at Velshi and Ruhle expecting to instantly win the point. It’s a platitude, after all. Tried and tested in thousands of town halls and politicians’ speeches.

“Let me ask you this,” he says, “should we be spending more than we’re taking in?”

“It’s complicated,” Velshi says (I’m paraphrasing), to Schultz’s consternation.

But of course it is complicated! You would know that with a moment’s thought. Even in the smaller scale of a household, you decide if it is a time for big outlay, a remodel, a house purchase, etc.—when you take on debt deliberately, as long as you can borrow money cheaply. But in a national economy, sometimes deficit spending makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t, just as Velshi attempted to explain. Soundbites don’t make good policy.

Schultz is running for President on the strength of his accomplishments in business, which is supposed to mean that you understand the boring stuff. The nitty-gritty, the mechanics and the arithmetic, the incentives of the various players, their points-of-view, the whole boring clockwork that makes things happen. But Schultz has shown himself to be militantly banal and uninterested in these details.

This is worrying because he is so trapped in his airborne point-of-view, concerned with selling the cloudy ‘leadership’ he is going to bring, that he seems not to have understood that if he runs, he is almost guaranteed—arithmetically guaranteed, as Brian Beutler explains—to play the role of a spoiler and ensure the victory of Donald Trump, who he decries.

But arithmetic and logic are boring. Why focus on them when you have speeches to give, applause to gain?

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