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Donald Clegg: For the homeless, some prized thinking

The things I don’t know. Post-ER treatment beds for the homeless? What a concept! (See Shawn Vestal’s Feb. 2 column in The Spokesman-Review.) So, duh, we don’t just throw ’em back on the street with no aftercare. Sounds good to me. But I do have a question for myself. “Self,” says I, “why haven’t you ever thought of this before?”

Answer: “What you see is all you know.” Shortened to seven rather awkward letters, this nifty concept reads: WYSIAYK.

Nobel Prize winner in economics Daniel Kahneman coined this phrase and acronym in his most recent book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” It serves as a reminder that we all have huge blind spots, inevitable due to our various ignorances – see above paragraph – that are collectively far greater than the paltry amount we know, or think that we know.

Let’s take that Nobel Prize in economics, for example. If you recollect the various disasters perpetrated upon us by Nobel Prize-winning economists and their acolytes – deregulation/free market ideologue Milton Friedman leaps immediately to mind – then it might also be worth noting that the so-called prize doesn’t even exist.

Kahneman, who won the prize in 2002 for his pioneering work in the field that is now popularly called “behavioral economics,” is not an economist at all but a psychologist, and the only recipient I know to have also acknowledged that his prize is not, strictly speaking, a “Nobel.”

“Say what?” Yes, you heard correctly: the “Nobel Prize in economics” is nonexistent.

A bit of history: The prize has never been sanctioned by any member of the Nobel family, is not one of the five created by Alfred Nobel’s 1895 will, and was first awarded in 1969. In an ironic twist, economist Friedrich Hayek spoke against the awarding of the prize in economics during his own acceptance speech in 1974.

He said, “The Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess.” And he noted its “influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants, and the public generally.” Far from the attitude in the natural sciences, where fellow colleagues – genuine experts themselves – “will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence.”

So what, then, is the actual prize? I’ll spare you all its iterations, but “The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Honor of Alfred Nobel” is the current title. That Swedish, by the way, translates to “Bank of Sweden,” which was the wording in a few of its former lives.

All righty, then. I can occasionally read minds, and I hear yours asking, “So, how can this possibly have any pertinence to anything I care about?”

Well, getting back to medical treatment for the indigent, it appears that providing a little more effective aftercare can save us a whole bagful of cash. Just a few simple beds, not even rooms. And all it took was a little non-WYSIAYK thinking.

As for that other thing – the not-quite-Nobel – and the false credibility it confers, do you recall what one Mr. Alan Greenspan had to say, speaking before Congress, about the banking crisis? Only that his antiregulatory policies were “a mistake” and that he was “in a state of shocked disbelief.”

Hmmm. It seems to me that our various emperors of voodoo, trickle-down, housing-bubble-bursting, stock-market-crashing economic theories have a little WYSIAYK problem – as well as missing clothes.

Donald Clegg, a longtime Spokane resident, is an author and professional watercolor artist. Contact him via email at