Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Crazy, Bigoted, or Both?

In light of the less than inspiring debate performance of Obama, and the possibility being floated that he isn't all that bright, Joe Klein recently said that anyone who thinks Obama isn't extremely intelligent is either crazy or bigoted.  He was probably being nice, and thinks that both apply.
Of course I have my own opinion on Obama's intelligence, which you can probably guess, but I will detail them anyway; you might dismiss them as partisan, but I think many of these observations are generally useful.  The punchline - we have little evidence to say he is all that intelligent, and what evidence is offered on his behalf is problematic in the general assessment of intelligence.

I've always said that if you want to convince someone you are really smart, let them do at least 80 percent of the talking, with your 20 percent contribution being obsequious agreement.  This is one of the basic rules of how to win friends and influence people - let them talk about themselves and what interests them.  But among the smartest people, there is generally far more diversity of opinion and disagreement over ideas, which was a point I first heard made by Hayek.  So the uniformity of opinion that is often judged as a sign of intelligence could be the exact opposite - agreement on too many levels is probably more indicative of tribal loyalty than intelligence.  It is for this reason that the accusation that Obama might not be all that bright is indeed fighting words to many on the left - where intelligence is often equated with virtue, and intelligence is judged merely by adherence to liberal ideas.  Obama agrees with liberals, and this is the primary reason why they hail his intelligence.  People all over the IQ spectrum agree with liberals, so it is hardly restricted to the top 1 percent.

People in power, or who have the potential to be in power, always have a circle of people who benefit from them acquiring and maintaining power.  It is in the interest of such people to aggrandize the attributes of their de facto meal ticket.  George Stephanapolous would have gladly told you in 1991 that Bill Clinton was a faithful and loving husband, and probably would say so today, and the reason is pure self-interest.  If Bill Clinton doesn't get elected, George Stephanapolous is just another hirsute little person.  Because of the assumption that a smart person will surround himself with the smartest of the smart, testaments to your meal ticket's intelligence are even more self-serving.  Never believe the mythology that the inner circle will purposefully cultivate.  By the same logic, when it gets out that someone in the inner circle thinks the power broker is an empty suit, you should really give such an opinion a lot of weight, subject to the caveat that it could just be sour grapes over being demoted. 

Public speaking is a very poor indicator of general intelligence.  In my first year of graduate school, I was taught macroeconomics by Ed Prescott, who went on to win the Nobel Prize, but as a teacher he was absolutely incoherent. In my grad school experience, he wasn't alone - there were many of the same caliber who could never anchor the evening news.  If anything, a talent for public speaking is a skill that provides cover for a lack of intelligence in other areas.  The same holds true for a talent for writing.  Both require some degree of intelligence, but both can hide severe deficiencies.  Most of us have experienced the limitations of the press in areas where we know a lot about a topic, and yet seeing how they more often than not bungle the story, we trust that somehow in other areas they are getting it right. 

Giving a speech is one form of public speaking, but in modern day presidential politics, we know that the speech, while it may benefit from the input of the president, is not written by the president.  I don't happen to believe Obama is all that good of a speech giver, which may be an opinion that is influenced by my disagreement with the views expressed in such speeches (which again are probably not written by him), and moreover, "let there be no mistake," his rhetorical repetitiveness is highly annoying.  Perhaps my view on this is tainted by partisanship, but either way the general point remains that if you think Obama is smart because he is a good speaker, your making such judgments with the wrong evidence.  Have Barack Obama read the Gettysburg address, and then have Ed Prescott, and then make your judgment on the comparative intelligence of the two, and I can tell you flat out that your assessment would be off by 100 IQ points.  Giving a speech is a form of acting.  Again, to be a good actor takes a certain type of intelligence, but it can mask severe deficiencies in intelligence in other areas. 

By the same logic, a good or bad performance in a debate is not necessarily a good indicator of general intelligence; although I think it is a better indicator than a speech.  But it can be an important indicator for one skill that you would generally want your president to have - ability to think on your feet and be persuasive.  This is especially true in situations of diplomacy and negotiations with foreign governments, where policy plays itself out in private conversations that are not scripted in advance, and which have the same debate dynamic - i.e. you may only have one shot at making your case, and failure to do so can have adverse consequences for your policy objective.

So what about education?  Surely an undergraduate degree from Columbia, and a law degree from Harvard, can be trusted as an indication of high intelligence.  This same logic somehow never applied to an undergraduate degree from Yale, and a Harvard MBA.  Perhaps this was because, in the days when George W. Bush was attending school, the old boys network was enough to get you through the rigors of an Ivy league education.  Maybe that is so.  But the new boys network - affirmitive action - was very much in play during the years Obama was being educated.  I've seen affirmitive action firsthand in academia - frankly, there was and is enormous pressure to apply different standards for admissions and grading. 

But don't take my word for it, use some elementary logic.  If Obama's grades supported the mythology of his vaunted intelligence, Obama would surely have them tattood to his forehead by now, which means his unwillingness to release his grades is probably indicative of very poor grades.  And yet such grades did not stop the upgrade from Occidental College to Columbia, nor did it preclude admission to Harvard law school. For yet more evidence, look at Obama's own career as a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, one of the top law schools in the country.  Obama never published one scholarly article on constitutional law - you try doing that and getting a job as an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago.  Your only hope is to claim that despite your alabaster complexion, you are part Cherokee - than you can teach at Harvard! 

As a partial digression, I am especially suspicious of people emerging from a legal education as being prone to grossly over-estimate their own intelligence.  The primacy of the legal profession as the training ground for politicians, and thus their prominence in the history of the governance of our country, leads to an inlated sense of their own self-importance.  (Henry Ford, as an example, probably did more for this country than all but 2 or 3 presidents, but businessmen will never be accorded the same respect as our government leaders.)   It also leads to an inflated sense of intelligence.  This is compounded by the fact that the finest schools in America all have a law school - despite the fact that the field is not technically very difficult, and rests on a fairly rudimentary knowledge of logic, it gets the imprimatur of our most elite institutions.  Having had a much more mathematical education than your typical lawyer, I am suspicious of anyone who hasn't at some point in time stared for 2 hours straight at one page in a text trying to understand how the author got from line 9 of the proof to line 10.  Such an experience provides a necessary dose of humility and self-knowledge about the limits of your own intelligence, and I don't get the sense that many lawyers have had that experience. 

Finally, and this will come across as a brag, I have spent my career studying and working with many people who would generally test in the top 1 percent of the population for IQ.  The fact that 99 percent of the population generally lags this top 1 percent is a truly depressing fact.  We are clearly the smartest species, but that is a very low hurdle to clear.  Generally people think they are a lot smarter than they are, which is true across all levels, but the danger comes in the fact that the bottom 99 percent severely over-estimates the intelligence of the top 1 percent, who are only too happy to be thought of in such glowing terms.  This is especially dangerous in government, where we are prone to place too much trust in government under the theory that it is run by the best and the brightest.  The best and the brightest are still pretty dim, but in contrast to the lesser mortals who by necessity learn from their mistakes in their private actions, the best and the brightest are inclined to stay blind to their own shortcomings.  As a result, bad government policies have a persistence that is best measured in geological time.  Politics is not a math problem - it is generally a fight over power and money - it is definitively not a fight between smart and stupid policies.


Anonymous pbryon said...

I think you say it in there somewhere, but smart person does not always equal smart policy or smart decision, and dumb person does not always equal dumb policy or dumb decision.

For proof, I rest my case at you restarting this blog.

2:17 PM  
Blogger jed namegah said...

if i may speak for all the 99% of the people that you say are the 'lower99%"

-the reason people rite blogs is becasue they have no freinds.

-the reson people restart blogs is becasue they have no freinds

-finally the reason people rite blogs is becasue they move to austin

your friend Jed"the luck 1%" clampett (drinking moonshine from the c -ment pond

6:20 PM  

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