Dell, Obedience, and Parachute Mishaps

or Sell!

Buy Me!

Last week, as the PC market faced DOOM!, Dell had a potential buyer, Blackstone, back out.  While that was not particularly interesting to me, what happened next was.  Another investor, Oakmark Funds, sold their 24.5 million Dell shares.  To quote:

A “potential acquirer with access to non-public information decided to end its quest to acquire Dell at a higher price. Since they had information we didn’t, we believed it was prudent to assume they might be right. So we sold our stock and will put the proceeds into other stocks that we are more confident are undervalued,” said Bill Nygren, co-portfolio manager of the Oakmark Fund…

Blackstone, in their private dealings with Dell, likely saw things that Oakmark could not.  And what Blackstone saw freaked Blackstone out.  Oakmark took that as a signal that now was a good time to not own 1.4% of Dell.

This is a great example of a person recognizing his own ignorance and then leveraging the fact that, even though he doesn’t know all he’d like, he knows a person who does know more.  So he follows that person.  Given that we want to do what God wants us to, but we don’t actually know how to do that very well, a pretty good chunk of the Church is tied up in giving us information on how to do that.  Hence, prophets, prayer, scriptures, parents, etc.

A few comments:

(1)  Is that “blind obedience”?  Not at all.  Oakmark acted based on the best available information, eyes wide open.  More than wide open, in fact, because they were using both their own information and someone else’s.  So four eyes wide open.

(2) Note that Oakmark did not just follow anyone.  They picked the person who they thought had the best incentives and the most information, then followed their lead.  In general, that can be a pretty smart strategy.  That’s also why the Church makes clear who has the keys to speak for the Church.  And why we have a law of witnesses and confirming revelation.

(3) When evaluating how heavily to weight someone else’s decisions in your own choices, the key is not their “infallibility”.  The key is their relative knowledge compared to your own.  Hence it is silly to argue that one should not follow the prophet because prophets are fallible.  Of course they are.

But you should still use parachutes.

Not Good.

But that’s like saying you don’t wear a parachute because you read a book about all the times parachutes failed.  Parachutes may not be perfect, but they’re still way better than you flapping your arms real fast.

(4) That last example reminds me of this super-awesome children’s book you should get.

17 comments for “Dell, Obedience, and Parachute Mishaps

  1. This is one of the clearest and plainest analogies I’ve ever read of why we follow prophets, scriptures, prayer, etc. Brilliant. Thank you!


  2. I am not so sure the analogy works. Although I know that Blackstone is fallible, and so it may be wrong to bail out of the Dell deal, I do know with certainty that Blackstone had access to and had analyzed inside information that is not available to me. When I choose to follow a prophet, I don’t have that same certainty. I don’t know with the same level of certainty that inside information has in fact been communicated to them by God that is not equally available to me.

  3. I’m with Gary on this one. Blackstone may have felt that it wasn’t worth the risk, but some other group may believe that the risks are worth it. So which “prophet” do you follow?

  4. Gary and dba.brotherp–If you have no particular preference as to which prophet to follow, you don’t sound like a Latter-day Saint who takes the LDS teachings seriously.

    Look, when you examine the biographies of the First Presidency and Twelve, you have a lot of impressive people. When they act in consensus, their advice should be taken seriously by anyone who subscribes to the same values.

    Partly this is because any organization works more effectively if it can count on its members to follow through on guidance from its leaders. Even an imperfect plan can be more effective if it s carried out.

    But in addition, if you accept the Restoration, the Book of Mormon and the restoration of prophetic authority to the earth, you also expect that there is divine inspiration behind the most important decisiokns made by the Brethren.

    The Church was criticized back in the late ’70s and early ’80s for opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, but it is now clear that the ERA, if it had been enacted, would have become the authority cited by the courts to require same sex marriage. Indeed, I think it is clear that, at the time, the gay rights lobbies were suppirting the ERA for precisely that reason.The idea of same sex marriage, considered widely as a ridiculous hypothetical back then, has proved why we need to be careful about the unintended consequences of laws that are more emotional expressions than deliberate legislative efforts. The very simplicity of the ERA language made it a judicial multitool that could be bent to multiple purposes.From today’s perspective, it strikes me that the position of the Brethren was prophetic.

    By definition, we as individuals may not be in a position to judge the prophetic potency of guidance from the Brethren, since we ourselves lack a comparable gift. It might be decades before we can see clear reasons for their teachings. But we can look at the past erformance of the organization and decide the wise course is to follow the Brethren.

  5. Hi Raymond,

    Please don’t presume to know how “seriously” I take LDS teachings. We’ve never met. You don’t know me. I’m calling you out on that comment.

    I was merely speaking about what I perceive as a flaw in the OP analogy.

  6. Raymond: What did I say that makes you think I don’t care which prophet to follow? My comment related to whether or not Frank’s analogy is flawed or not, nothing more.

    In the Blackstone Dell analogy, it is certain that Dell, who had possession of inside information, shared some of that information to Blackstone and did not share it with me, as a member of the public. I have no access to that information, but I do know it has been transmitted to somebody who has analyzed it, and I know that person walked from the deal. It seems like a reasonable conclusion that that I should do likewise. However, for the analogy to work in the context of the church, you must explain to me why I should be certain that God, the possessor of the inside information has revealed that information to a prophet, and that he will not reveal it to me also thus forcing me to rely solely on the advice or declaration of a prophet. But that is the question, and it is begging the question to just assume that issue away.

    The prophet of the Restoration was pretty clear that a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such. The brethren have also been pretty clear that it is our individual responsibility to find out whether any particular declaration is of God. You don’t discharge that responsibility by just assuming that prophets have received and correctly interpreted the will of God without further inquiry, simply because they happen to hold certain offices in the church.

  7. Perhaps Raymond was surprised at the professed lack of certainty, given President Monson’s seemingly endless archive of stories where he didn’t really know what he was doing, but the Spirit guided him to do the right thing.

    I think we can all agree that if we combine Gary’s wise citation of receiving personal confirmation of prophetic counsel with Raymond’s wise cautions we hit the bullseye.

    Also, great post Frank. Thoughtful and appropriate analogy.

  8. So, to summarize, we should follow the prophet because speculators…always make money?

    Note that Oakmark did not just follow anyone. They picked the person who they thought had the best incentives and the most information, then followed their lead. […] That’s also why the Church makes clear who has the keys to speak for the Church.

    Back in the olden days, you could take your pick of whatever itinerant prophet you felt good about, but in today’s corporate church that’s simply not an option. Since there’s no free market for prophetic counsel, I’m not sure what the behavior of a speculator is supposed to tell me about obedience to a monopolist.

    Look, when you examine the biographies of the First Presidency and Twelve, you have a lot of impressive people. When they act in consensus, their advice should be taken seriously by anyone who subscribes to the same values.

    So, to summarize, follow the prophet because he and his counselors are 1) impressive and 2) uniquely immune to groupthink? I’m curious what aspects of their biographies you consider impressive and why consensus decisions (rather than, say, actual prophecy billed as such and not simply unanticipated consequences of conservative positions) are the modern prophetic norm.

    It might be decades before we can see clear reasons for their teachings. But we can look at the past performance of the organization and decide the wise course is to follow the Brethren.

    In keeping with the speculator analogy, perhaps we should heed the prophetic counsel of Oakmark itself: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

  9. Infallibility can mean four (maybe five) things: 1) The prophet has never done and said and can never do and say anything wrong. 2) He has done and said wrong in the past but no longer does and says wrong since being called to serve as prophet. 3) He can err while acting as a human, even after being called to be the prophet, but never do or say anything wrong while acting as prophet. 4) He can do and say wrong, even while acting as a prophet, but the degree to which he is right is much more than anyone else and the degree to which he is wrong is much less than anyone else. 5) He is the best one at a particular place and time, but can be discovered to be wrong by regular people in a later period.

    It seems that hardly anyone in the LDS church believes no. 1 (perhaps during a more naive or less informed period of their lives). The more doctrinaire LDS who seldom appeal to reason to inform their religious knowledge appear to convey an attitude of no. 2 about the prophet. Doctrinaire LDS who appeal more to reason believe no. 3 (perhaps the most predominant belief among the core LDS population). Of course no. 3 begs the question of how do I know when the prophet is acting as a regular human and when he is acting as a prophet. LDS faithfuls who make strong appeals to reason to inform their body of religious knowledge, such as the writers at T&S and FAIR, appear to believe no. 4. Finally faithfuls who lean towards skepticism may adopt a no. 5 attitude. And this post seems to treat the prophet and many high-ranking leaders of the LDS church like no. 4 (perhaps no. 5 as well); they’re liable to make errors in words and actions, but their words and actions on the whole are simply superior to those of anyone else who has ever lived (with the exception of Jesus Christ and perhaps some past prophets) and therefore represent the closest thing to truth that we can get.

  10. I also want to add that I’m with Gary (2). To equate Blackstone to an LDS prophet doesn’t work, for a couple of reasons. First, the subject matter that the prophet is claiming to have privy knowledge about is much different than Blackstone’s information about Dell. The LDS prophet is claiming to have special information about God, the afterlife, and what we need to do in order to live with God in the afterlife. Second, I can empirically know that Dell exists and that there is non-public information about Dell that only buyers whose bid has been accepted by the company are entitled by law to know. I can also empirically know (or at least know by very strong reasoning) that Blackstone was slated to buy Dell, and even had access to non-public information, but then backed out last minute. Thus I have good reason to believe that Blackstone is more informed about Dell than I am. I can’t empirically know that God exists, that we continue to exist after we die, or that the prophet has special access to such information that I don’t.

  11. I’d also like to add that to equate the wedding feast to judgement day doesn’t work. First of all at a wedding feast we eat and are merry, then we rest. On judgement day we get judged then we are either cast down to one of the lower kingdoms or put to work furthering God’s kingdom. Second, unlike the virgins we aren’t just waiting around with lamps. We won’t be saved just because we had extra stuff in case judgment day comes a little late, we have to be constantly doing good, not just standing outside the church. Third, most of us aren’t virgins anyway so it doesn’t apply. Also I don’t think the ratio will be 50/50.

  12. I’m curious… how many of the above commentors are willing to say that they have experienced revelation? How many have an understanding of how prophets and apostles gain information?

  13. Hi Old Man,

    I don’t know what your definition of revelation is but I’ll tell you my experiences. I have not had any personal visitations by heavenly beings. I have not heard any heavenly voices. But I have experienced what I believe is divine guidance. I’m sure everyone experiences it differently but mine usually follows a pattern. Sometimes it takes awhile for me to recognise it and every once-in-awhile, things turn out differently than what I thought they would.

    As for how apostles and prophets gain information, I’m sure each one of them learns in a different way and I’m sure God communicates to them in a way that they understand, just like God does with me.

  14. I have heard the voice of Christ. No doubt about it. Once he was personal and to the point and very instructive. He kindly pointed out how much I had to learn.

    On another occasion I had a conversation where I think I heard/sensed a bit of kind irony when I was going though a very hard crisis of faith.

    On yet another occasion I have heard the voice of Christ and I argued back. It was permissible. I would not necessarily recommend arguing back with Christ. I think he gave me an advisory, a chance for me to back out of a difficult situation. I knew what was right and pointed this out strongly. I was so taken aback by this intrusive conversation I had no time to really think, but it made me mad that he would allow compromise. (He gave permission for an easy way out. Maybe I should have taken it.)

    Because of this very personal communication, I think that I am in a rather good position to argue with ANY authority. Besides which, if I do it wrong, I recognize the voice. The voice is not shy and will point out whatever. Because of this I know I have permission to differ with the prophet.

    This is on top of many occasions where I know that I have had revelation and several times where I heard the voice but did not know what it was because of lack of experience.

    I am a professional doubter. These experiences have challenged me. So, now I know people, whom I trust implicitly, who have had much, much deeper experiences than this who also have permission to differ with the prophet. We all believe in the basic truths of the Gospel and the power of the priesthood. We all pay tithing.

  15. Wonderful analogy!
    While I see Gary’s point, the best part of this analogy is that epistemology isn’t at the crux. What matters is that following is a choice and that infallibility isn’t the only metric used when deciding who we follow.

    The analogy depends more on the relationships within the fields examined (blackstone is to oakmark as the prophet is to members) than the similarity of how blackstone got its information and how the prophet got in his. In the business world, blackstone had seen more than oakmark and in Mormonism the prophet has seen more/experienced more (i.e. watched previous prophets make decisions, witnessed more ordinances and ministered to more people and places to say the least) than the members.

    Whether or not oakmark should have trusted black stone is debatable (for all we know the decision was based on their own internal finances that we don’t know about) and whether or not we should trust the prophet is debatable in its own way but that doesn’t change the analogy.

  16. Excellent. I also liked your roulette wheel analogy from way back when and have used it in teaching many times.

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