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Change Your Mind

Mises Daily: Monday, February 08, 2010 by

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"People don't think the shallow reading harms them, but it does."

Despite the juiced-up GDP numbers of the last two quarters, there is no illusion that the depression is over and the boom has resumed. While GDP is reported as being positive, the employment numbers remain weak. The headline jobless number has one in ten people out of work. Include those who have become discouraged and dropped out of the labor force, and the number is one in five. Since the start of the depression at the end of 2007, 8.4 million payroll jobs have been lost.

Gaining employment has been especially hard for young people. "From December 2008 to December 2009, the employment of 16–24 year olds in the United States fell by 1.78 million, or a third of the total drop in employment of 5.4 million," reports David G. Blanchflower in The Peninsula. Even college graduates are suffering as wages fall with fewer opportunities.

The artificial boom that misdirected so much capital into financial services, real estate, and other areas of consumer and investor excess also misdirected human resources. The bust now is cleansing those unneeded and redundant jobs. But those professions were what college students had been preparing for.

Now those boom-time career opportunities will be limited, if not gone. For example, despite the crash and the extensive layoffs in the industry, money-management firms report receiving the same number of applications for entry-level jobs.

And while Washington is trying valiantly to reinflate boom-time industries and protect those jobs with cheap money, government bailouts, and deficit spending, Austrian economists know that the structure of production — including employment and the services that work provides — must change to meet consumer demands .

"The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind — computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers," writes Daniel H. Pink, "the keys to the kingdom are changing hands."

A Whole New Mind

In his bestselling book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Pink argues that the future belongs to those who can recognize patterns, empathize with others, be creative, and provide meaning to peoples' lives.

The left hemisphere of our brains handles the logical, sequential, and analytical heavy lifting, while the right hemisphere is our intuitive, holistic, and nonlinear side. The job market has put a premium on left-brain work and, to the extent that education trains workers, it focuses on left-brain thinking. Pink contends that technology, globalization, and material abundance are now sending simple paper-pushing white-collar professions the way of the buggy whip.

First our manufacturing was shipped overseas; next we ended up talking to someone in India when calling for technical support; soon the accountant doing your taxes or the lawyer drawing up your will or corporate documents will be working from many time zones away and doing that work for much less than what those services now cost.

The accountants and lawyers who survive will provide creativity, compassion, and caring in their service. Art students will be more in demand than MBAs; and designers of all types who can combine utility with significance, will be valued more than ever.

Those who can tell or write stories will thrive, according to Pink. With all the world's facts and figures a click away at virtually no cost, the storyteller's ability to provide "context enriched by emotion" is what will be prized. Success in the "Conceptual Age" will mean understanding the connections between diverse disciplines — what the author refers to as "symphony ."

One of the important elements of symphony is the use of metaphor or "imaginative rationality" to see relationships, communicate ideas, and understand others.

In Thinking as a Science, Henry Hazlitt makes the point that we tend to imitate the authors we read, and so it is important to only read the best books. Our thinking is formed by our reading and it's not enough to only occasionally read serious work while mostly reading useless books, magazines, and newspapers. People don't think the shallow reading harms them, but it does. "This is just as if they were to buy and eat unnutritious and indigestible food," Hazlitt explains, "and excuse themselves on the ground that they ate nourishing and digestible food along with it."

"One good meal will not offset a week of bad ones; one good book will never offset any number of poor books." For one to stay competitive, a person can't be satisfied that they have already read the required substantial books and can now relax and only ingest junk.

In Thinking, Hazlitt lays out a prescription for what ails most everyone, the neglect of thinking: "real thinking, independent thinking, hard thinking." People don't try to think through a problem themselves, but instead they "read up" on it. They examine what someone else has thought about a problem. And we are also quick to jump at the first solution presented, because "remaining in a state of doubt is unpleasant," Hazlitt reminds us. But the deeper, more satisfying solutions are the ones that come from accepting the unpleasantness of doubt and not jumping at the superficial answer.

Recognizing that we have problems concentrating, Hazlitt suggests a half hour each day be devoted to thinking about a single problem and removing temporary interest in other things. Hazlitt urges the reader to evaluate problems a number of different ways and cautions us not to be prejudiced when problem solving. By this he means we should not desire for an opinion to be right because we would benefit if it were or because we already hold that opinion, and we should not wish for an opinion to be wrong because it would force us to change our current opinion. He writes that one "must be constantly and uncompromisingly sounding his own opinions. Eternal vigilance is the price of an open mind."

"Eternal vigilance is the price of an open mind."
– Henry Hazlitt

In his chapter entitled "Thinking as an Art," Hazlitt stresses that memorizing a rule is nothing; applying what you learn is everything. He points out that, while the educated flatter themselves that their correct speech comes from the study of grammar, it's really derived from their unconscious imitation of the language of those they come in contact with and the books they read. "And needless to say, the cultivated man comes into contact with other cultivated men and with good literature; the ignoramus does not."

The job market is likely to be dismal for a long time, as government continues to try every trick in the Keynesian playbook to no avail. Only those who embrace Pink's advice to develop a whole new mind, and Hazlitt's recommendation to develop real thinking and problem-solving skills, will be successfully employed in the dark days ahead.