By elevating the children of farmers and janitors as well as lawyers and stockbrokers, we’ve created what seems like the most capable, hardworking, high-I.Q. elite in all of human history.Our country is in the dump because our leaders are so wise and capable! Yeah, that explains it all. We would never have been mired in Vietnam if our leaders had been less intelligent. Ditto Iraq. If those Wall Street bankers weren’t so damn smart we might not be in a recession. If Jefferey Immelt wasn’t so gosh darned bright, General Electric would actually pay its income taxes and hire American workers. They’re just guilty of a little hubristic overreach, that’s all. Boys will be boys.
And for the last 10 years, we’ve watched this same elite lead us off a cliff — mostly by being too smart for its own good.
In hereditary aristocracies, debacles tend to flow from stupidity and pigheadedness: think of the Charge of the Light Brigade or the Battle of the Somme. In one-party states, they tend to flow from ideological mania: think of China’s Great Leap Forward, or Stalin’s experiment with “Lysenkoist” agriculture.
In meritocracies, though, it’s the very intelligence of our leaders that creates the worst disasters. Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks than lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world. (Or as Calvin Trillin put it in these pages, quoting a tweedy WASP waxing nostalgic for the days when Wall Street was dominated by his fellow bluebloods: “Do you think our guys could have invented, say, credit default swaps? Give me a break! They couldn’t have done the math.”)
Let’s put out an urgent call to the more dim-witted people out there: Please come forward and lead us.
What the hell is this guy smoking? Since when is “infatuation with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world” a sign of intelligence?
One of the things I consistently harp on is the mediocrity of our leaders. One of our major political parties is dominated by pig-ignorant know-nothings and the other one ain’t much better. You basically have to believe the earth is flat to get the Republican nomination, but even wise Democrats have to pretend to be stupid in order to be popular. Watch Obama, who has a law degree from Harvard, shuck and jive and drop his G’s when he’s trying to keep it real with the folks. It’s rather embarrassing. Say what you want about him, he’s an intelligent and articulate guy. It’s discomfiting to watch him veer dangerously close to a kind of “I have been to mountaintop” black Baptist minister persona. It’s subtle but definitely noticeable. Seeing as how he usually does it when speaking to a predominately black audience, it’s also a tad condescending.
For eight years we were ruled by a certifiable moron who enjoyed a high level of popularity throughout his first term. It took a large segment of this country about five whole years —until Hurricane Katrina or thereabouts — to wake up and realize that, you know what Marge, I think Bush might be a little incompetent! He was an extreme example, of course, but the fact is your average American president has the intellectual depth of a high school football coach (and the ethics of a pick pocket) Think Warren Harding. Think Calvin Coolidge. Think William McKinley, who launched the Spanish American War because God told him he needed to Christianize the already Christian Philippines. Think William Henry Harrison, who’s greatest contribution to the country was dying within a month of taking office (he was an Indian killer). Think Andrew Jackson, who kicked off the whole trend.
Bush’s neoconservative “intellectual” advisers were complete nincompoops. A child could have poked holes in every one of their arguments in favor of invading Iraq. I remember chuckling out loud when I heard an Australian reporter describe Richard Perle as a “bit thick.” Like many other people, she bought the sales pitch that these men were deep thinkers. She was genuinely surprised to learn otherwise.
Our political class as a whole is a monument to ineptitude. Whenever I see our politicians in action, I shake my head and think to myself, “Gosh, I guess they’ll let anybody into law school.” I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say that this country is neck deep in serious shit. We might even be witnessing the nascent stages of a revolution. People everywhere are pissed, and what do our statesmen spend time on? Voting to make “In God We Trust” the national motto. This would be regarded as criminal negligence in any other profession, but we accept it as natural because we expect nothing more from them. The Republic base — they of the protruding brow ridges and signs that say “ Get Your Government Hands Off My Medicare! — demand it.
They remind you of the British political class between the World Wars — the Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax types — thick-headed weaklings who were totally unable to grasp the nature of the problems they were facing. Their thinking was as antiquated as their top hats and watch fobs, and history rudely showed them the door. We could be witnessing a similarly phenomenon. Listening to how badly our politicians misjudge our predicament is frightening. Just today John Boehner who, to use Douthat’s own terminology, could fairly be described as a “low-wattage elite,” was on TV telling us that the rich pay most of the taxes. How much more do you want them to do? he asked with a straight face. They are almost begging for history to sweep them aside.
Now our business leaders do possess a certain animal shrewdness that can be confused with genuine intelligence, but they have focused it all on the narrow aim of making a profit at the expense of everything else. The world we live in is the world they intentionally made. They want high unemployment. It drives down wages and makes people insecure so they cling to their crappy part-time jobs. They want us to be debt-ridden peons on the brink of destitution: frightened workers don’t form unions. Anyway, I don’t think intelligence is half as important in business as cannibalistic ruthlessness, which our elites possess in abundance.
I’d like to turn now to the shallowness of mainstream political punditry, as exemplified by Ross Douthat, Tom Friedman and David Brooks, but this has already gone on longer than is politically correct for the blogs, so I’ll inelegantly just drop it here.