What would you have done? or, It made sense at the time…

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Something this website tries to promote is the notion that armchair quarterbacking is easy, particularly after the fact. We all know that, but we still all do it and often for good reason; we learn from mistakes by analyzing what happened and learn for next time.

The tough part is to learn when not to rely on that tactic, because it is the easiest thing in the world to say well you should have done this and x problem wouldn’t have happened. That may well be true, but that also is an exercise in making us feel good, in giving us comfort that we would never have done something that dumb.

Or would you have? Ever done something stupid? Or even something that turned out way worse than planned? (I’ll assume yes; if you haven’t then please start writing a blog, I’d like to read it!) So why is that different than for anyone else?

A key factor when looking at seemingly dumb decisions or comments in hindsight is that we can never know exactly what the person’s frame of reference was when making that decision or comment, at that exact time. We just remember the outcome; we lose the context in which that decision was made. At a certain point, if you’re going to do anything, you act without knowing all the facts. You can never know all the facts. As the facts do appear, in hindsight you may indeed look like a weapons-grade idiot, but at the time…maybe that was the best course.

In the energy field, it’s also easy to sit back and point out how silly some policies or developments seem, but as with many other things the key question is…what could have been done better in the same circumstances? This isn’t just a topic that applies to silly little decisions, but also to big structural, historical developments. For example, everyone hates pipelines these days, but refineries aren’t often located near where oil is produced. So you have to pipe the oil to the refineries because building a new refinery in a better location is not going to happen these days. At the time the refinery was built, that was the optimal spot. Now it’s not, and there are consequences people would rather not have to deal with. And there are countless examples like that.

With a polarized topic like energy, it’s easy to paint the other side as the bad guy. Politics is similar, but that topic is more directly linked to personal belief systems and philosophies, which is why no one will ever agree in those realms (nor should they, necessarily). In energy related fields however, we don’t need to get into the drama of those debates. Although it’s getting close…

Our western civilization has become what it is due to cheap energy sources. A great many people have spent a great deal of time ensuring that we have continued access to cheap energy, just as a great many people have taken for granted what a wild set of circumstances must be managed to make that happen. As usual, there is no rulebook…

And at the global level, it’s a thousand times more difficult. It’s one thing to make a decision where to build a refinery (oil is produced in one place, it’s consumed somewhere else…those are the endpoints and the answer will be between them). But at the most macro level with respect to energy, the global geopolitical nightmare has as many variables as there are people, and to effectively make big energy decisions you have to pretend you understand all that, plus project out into the future what everything will look like. And all the while, barking in your ear are lobby groups, government opponents, your constituents, people who want jobs, people who want to pay less taxes, a crazed media that will find a way to make the most harmless gesture either terrifying/infuriating/ridiculing to the general public. Suppose you were president of the United States; your job, or one tiny slice of it, is to make sure the American, and by logical extension the global, economy is humming smoothly. (Hey, no pressure there right?) A key part of the healthy economy is cheap and secure energy, so it will obviously be high on the agenda to make sure that’s available.

And now how exactly do you go about that? The complexity boggles the mind. How cheap should energy be? Should we allow drilling anywhere? Should we buy up all the oil sands in Canada, even though much of the population thinks that will put Florida under water? What about the Middle East; they control much of the world’s energy reserves but they’re crazier than dogs. Appease them? Protect them? Bomb them? Which ones? Negotiate? With the guy that was an ally 3 years ago but now is public enemy number one? Try all at once? Each of those decisions can have far ranging implications on multiple industries, such as how subsidies for one product can distort markets for others. And how about just energy supply in general? You can have the most logical plan laid out by the brightest band of advisors, and some clown at the helm of some country on the other side of the world invades the neighbor (not naming names, but doing this within 6 months of spending $50 billion on winter Olympics to introduce the world to the “new Russia”, now tell me who saw that coming…), oil prices spike, and the whole plan goes in the crapper. And the guy (inevitably it’s a guy) who decided to invade his neighbor had his own agenda, and it may very well have been crazy, but it may not have given what’s happening in that country, and all we know now is that it is part of our decision making process. And to compound matters, say the US president was aware of the invader’s agenda, and had to weigh the pros and cons of supporting or not supporting it…

And when those decisions are made, if the stars line up and luck is on the right side, that particular decision maker will go down in history as a brilliant strategic mind. And if the luck runs out and the whole thing turns into a smoldering fiasco like in (insert random Middle East country), the opposite eulogy is quickly drawn up. A prime example would be the famous search of Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. Not to defend Bush or Cheney or any of that grammar-mangling, face-shooting covey of loons, but at the end of the day… Do you think they didn’t consider the cost of every American life that would be lost? Does anyone truly think they are indifferent to that? In hindsight the decision appears crazy and odd, and may have changed the course of history and not for the better, but at the time…if you were the guardian of the free world, with your finger on the button, and great uncertainty out there, with enemies that had just proven they could strike right at the heart of your country, and with the chance, even remote, that some really nasty weaponry could fall into the wrong hands…what would you have done? Not knowing what you know now, just knowing at the time that you were a patriotic person who loved their country and had a tough choice to make about how to ensure its long term survival. Yes, it’s easy to take the decision alongside a page (or ten) of Bush’s goofiest quotes, and paint a picture to fit the outcome. Is that fair? Couldn’t the same be done for each and every one of us, for things infinitely less important, like why those $1,000 shoes seemed like such a good idea at the time?

At any rate you get the picture. Any big action is going to be made with a given set of incomplete, distorted, and biased information, and will also be made with the personal set of lenses impacting the decision maker at that time that the rest of the world will never know.

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