The Answer to Any Question

Posted 06.11.2010

Man_question_mark I'm in Florida on a business trip this morning and was watching the crew from Morning Joe broadcast live from Pensacola Beach as I was getting dressed and packing up in my hotel room. It's beyond sad watching the people there stay brave in the face of what they know is coming – millions of gallons of oil that's going to foul their beaches, destroy their environment and kill businesses that provide jobs and feed families.

With each new guest, essentially the same question was asked, "How did this happen?" I have a terrible feeling that we're going to be asking that question about the Gulf oil spill and a lot of other disasters for years and years to come. For every time we ask it, there will be all sorts of technical answers but at the simplest level, I think there is one answer to the question.

And for that, I have to give credit to radio and television host Tony Kornheiser who likes to tell a story about his friend Don Ohlmeyer, the legendary producer from NBC Sports. Kornheiser says that a long time ago, Ohlmeyer clarified a lot of things for him when he said, "Tony, it doesn't matter what question you ask, the answer is money.".

How did this happen? Money. Why did they take such risks? Money. Why didn't they have a back up plan in place? Money.

See how broadly applicable the theory is? It doesn't just apply to the Gulf spill or the subprime mortgage bubble. There is a story in the New York Times today about how teachers gamed the testing system so their students' scores would be higher. Why would they do that? Money. It also explains why we have a Bowl Championship Series in college football or why the major universities are suddenly reconfiguring their athletic conferences this week. Why did any of that happen? Money. Why are they doing that? Money.

Cynical? Maybe, but apply that theory to different situations you're wondering about over the next few days and see how often money seems to be at least part of the answer.

What does it tell us? We get the behavior we incent or disincent. Money can cause people to do things and not do things. Giving it can be an incentive. The threat of withholding or taking it away can also be an incentive. As we talk about how to avoid the next disaster, I hope our leaders are wise enough to figure out how money makes people behave.