What if We Applied the Sleuthing Tactics of Jessica Fletcher to Public Policy?

In 1991, I was invited to give a lecture on conservatism to a high school class as part of a government class seminar. I began the speech with two questions, the first being, “how many of you bought something the day before?” Almost everyone raised their hand and I mentioned that if they were reflective of the general population, there were at least two hundred million plus exchanges. Then I asked, “how many of you believe that a small group in Washington DC can control an economy of 200 million plus exchanges a day?” No one raised their hands.

High school students instinctively understood that no modern day economy can be controlled or directed by small group of experts and you asked, "what does that have to do with Jessica Fletcher, the Murder She Wrote sleuth, played Angela Lansbury?" Mystery writer, Jessica Fletcher, often solved crimes that even the most hardened detectives failed at. What was her secret and what we can learn? I use the techniques and tactics of Jessica Fletcher and apply it to public policy.

The first thing is observation. Fletcher observed the little things that others failed to notice, leading her to come to different conclusions, often against conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom had Hillary winning this past election but what was not being observed is that many blue collar workers did not participate in Obama’s recovery and that many of these voters were ready for change, even if that change came in the form of Trump. Very few pundits saw this coming but there were a few, like Sean Trende, whose calculations showed many blue collar, whites could prove decisive in the 2016 election. Salena Zito noticed the discontent that many Republicans and blue collar workers were experiencing through a series of news stories about her contact with many voters throughout the Midwest. She saw the little thing that ran counter to conventional wisdom.

The second thing is thinking outside the box, and Jessica Fletcher is always willing to think outside the box as she solves crime by entertaining the unthinkable. Oftentimes, business leaders and politicians don’t think about the unexpected or think outside the box. In 1993, the World Trade Center was attacked but little damage resulted and very few people believed that a second attack would occur. One individual who did predict it was Morgan Stanley’s head of Security, Rick Rescorla, who died leading others to safety that day.

Hector Bywater was a journalist with foresight. He foresaw the coming conflict between Japan and the United States in the Pacific. In his book, The Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931-33, Bywater used an unusual method to make his point; he created a fictional historical account of an imaginable war between Japan and the United States. The real war that would occur sixteen years after the publication of his book resembled the fictional account in an eerily similar fashion. Bywater’s book detailed many of the early Japanese moves missed by many military experts. Thinking outside the box is another lesson to learn from the super sleuth.

Finally, allow the facts to lead you to the right conclusion. Jessica Fletcher comes to her conclusions based on the facts collected. Using her observations and collecting facts on the way, she solves the case. Facts can be stubborn and often one’s bias can blind us to the actual facts. In many areas, facts are overlooked due to bias. Economics is one area where one bias can lead to mistakes. Keynesian economists will always push for more government intervention policy simply because it was the way they were trained. In 1980, Ronald Reagan set America on a different course which was opposed by many economists who were trained in Keynesian economics. He observed that their solutions tried the previous decades didn’t work and looked at history to see what might work. Many of these economist allowed their bias to ignore that their ideas were not working, whereas Reagan saw that new ideas were needed. Herbert Hoover’s mistakes turned the 1929 recession into the Great Depression. He not only raised tariffs but he also increased government spending and taxes during an economic downturn. When some 3000 economists warned him of the potential disaster that his policies would lead to, he ignored the facts in front of him. How many times has Jessica Fletcher battled a detective whose bias about the case, based on past cases, blinds him to what Fletcher sees?

Jessica Fletcher’s lessons for us begins with observing the world around you, for you may pick up on what is happening. A political associate of mine has private sector clients and told me that this helps him in his political work as he observes what is really happening in the private sector and sees trends that other political operatives miss. The second is thinking outside the box, as your observations will lead you to view the world around you differently and come up with solutions that are not only different but that will work. Finally, use observations and follow up with facts collected. Allow the facts to reach your final conclusion. Jessica Fletcher, in every episode, begins by observing those around her to see if she can get a hint about the possible murderer and she isn’t afraid to think outside the box before coalescing the facts for the final conclusion.


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