Smart Asses

Shikha Dalmia had an interesting post up at Reason about why smart presidents do dumb things.

The team of the “best and brightest” that Lyndon Johnson inherited from John F. Kennedy embroiled America in an ignominy like Vietnam—not to mention Medicare, a fiscal quagmire that, unlike Vietnam, the country can neither exit nor fix without courting bankruptcy or seriously screwing over millions of seniors.

Moreover, George W. Bush’s failures resulted not from his alleged stupidity, as his most vitriolic critics believe, but the brainiacs in his Cabinet. Bush himself might have reveled in his Forest Grump image. But he assembled a team of intellectual stars including Dick Cheney, who was so smart that Beltway Republicans and Democrats wished that he had run for president; Paul Wolfowitz, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies; Condi Rice, provost of Stanford University; and Donald Rumsfeld, who made his mark in academia, politics, and military service. But this Mensa-worthy team, backed by Ivy League neocon intellectuals, left a legacy of Afghanistan, Iraq, and deficits as far as the eye can see.

The prize for discrediting intelligence, however, goes to President Obama. Unlike Bush, he wore his intellect on his sleeve, raising hopes that he could fix the country with sheer brainpower. But he has presided over a deterioration on every front: Deficits are worse, unemployment is higher, a double dip is imminent, and we have added another foreign misadventure.

She asks why smart people are capable of making such dumb policy and concludes that it’s because they are basically smart enough to talk themselves into anything. I think that grazes the point. It’s not like being smart is an impediment to being a good governor. Chris Christie is pretty smart. So is Paul Ryan. So was Ronald Reagan. Our Founding Fathers were the most educated men of their time.

So why has the concentration of intellect in Washington failed us? It’s because the current generation of intellectual titans are mired in groupthink and unable to accept the verdict of reality. Because they fail to realize that brains are a necessary but not sufficient condition for governance. Because they are, as hist_ed so succinctly put it, “Ivory Tower Dumb”.

The difference between smart people and dumb people is not that smart people have good ideas and dumb people have bad ones (although the former are statistically less likely to have ideas that begin with “Watch this!”) The difference is that smart people have ideas and dumb people don’t. Really smart people — and I’ve been around a few — are fountains of ideas. For a smart person, especially one with Ivy on their degree, all of these ideas seem brilliant.

But they’re not. Most ideas, no matter how beautiful they seem and no matter how much intellectual firepower is behind them, suck. The only way to tell the good ideas from the bad ideas is to try them out on reality, accept reality’s verdict and use any failure to inform better ideas.

Almost every business owner in America has had a business fail. Steve Jobs, memorialized last week as the most brilliant businessman in America, had numerous mis-steps along the way. Netflix, a smart company, just reversed course on an incredibly dumb business decision (hopefully not too late to save the company). When you look at some of the worst business decisions in history, you’ll frequently find they were dreamt up by smart people. The guys who made New Coke weren’t morons; they were smart people who were dead wrong, who extrapolated an idea badly because they were missing information.

For every scientific theory supported by acres of evidence, there are a dozen that not only failed, but failed badly. When I was a graduate student, all smart people regarded the cosmological constant as Einstein’s biggest blunder. Now it’s cannon. And Einstein himself was wrong about quantum mechanics. Robert Millikan, a brilliant physicist, famously predicted that the atom would not produce enough energy to blow the whistle on a peanut vendor’s cart. Kepler said he stumbled on the Laws of Planetary Motion only by exhausting every other possibility. Edison failed a hundred times as often as he succeeded.

Communism and fascism had tons of smart people who thought they were great ideas. Both Keynesian and Austrian economics have geniuses supporting them. There’s not a failed political idea out there that hasn’t had a team of PhD’s, Ivy League professors and Rhodes Scholars insisting it was awesome.

Americans especially can get fooled by smart people because the smart men who founded our country got it right (mostly). But that had less to do with genius than with collaboration. As individuals, they were perfectly capable of idiocy. Jefferson opposed industrialization; Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts; Hamilton tried to get us into dumb wars; Burr killed Hamilton; Franklin wanted all blacks sent back to Africa. They achieved great things because they argued out their ideas, made compromises and ultimately yielded when reality issued is verdict. They amended the Constitution twice immediately after it passed to correct blunders.

One of the most important books of the last decade or so is James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds. He demonstrates the way that smart people get lost in bad ideas. Using the Columbia disaster, where a bunch of brilliant engineers signed off on a re-entry that killed seven people, he shows the two flaws that make smart people do stupid things: groupthink and stubbornness; a tendency for people to start to all think alike under peer pressure and a refusal to admit when a mistake has been made. The former is a big reason, incidentally, that academia is so liberal. When you’re surrounded by like-thinking people, it’s hard to go against the grain.

Ideas are great. But they ultimately have to be tested against reality and you have to accept reality’s verdict. I’ve been harping on liberals lately for refusing to admit their Keynesian stimulus didn’t work, so I’ll take a swipe at conservatives. It has become cannon that tax cuts are needed to stimulate the economy. This is despite a lost decade in which taxes were the lowest since before World War II, but jobs grew slowly, incomes stagnated and we ended up making almost no progress. This is despite four separate waves of tax cuts aimed specifically at this recession. But groupthink and stubbornness keeps smart conservatives from acknowledging that tax cuts may not be the answer. Hell, I don’t want to acknowledge that myself. I still think a payroll taxcut isn’t a bad idea.

That’s what I think we need to look for in politicians in general and a President in particular. A willingness to acknowledge mis-steps, to go against the grain and to acknowledge reality’s verdict on seemingly good ideas. I had hoped that Obama would be that way, but his stubbornness on Keynesian economics is just the latest illustration of his refusal to acknowledge reality. Of course, I don’t know that any of the GOP field feel bound by reality.

To me, this is one of conservatism’s core values: a willingness to acknowledge reality over dogma. Reagan reversed course on taxes when the deficit got big, reversed course on nuclear talks when the landscape changed and reversed course on Catastrophic Care when seniors went into open rebellion. Now this would be seen as flip-flopping. Then it was seen as a virtue: changing your opinion when the facts changed. Today’s slate — both liberal and conservative — seem more interested in just ignoring the facts. And all the brains in the world can’t overcome that.

Comments are closed.

  1. mikedomi39

    Today’s slate — both liberal and conservative — seem more interested in just ignoring the facts. And all the brains in the world can’t overcome that.

    Agreed.

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  2. Poosh

    It’s a confusion that comes with the mistake of conflating intellectuality with being merely academic.

    The author of the article seems pretty stupid him/herself which is somewhat ironic.

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  3. Seattle Outcast

    The guys who made New Coke weren’t morons; they were smart people who were dead wrong, who extrapolated an idea badly because they were missing information.

    It’s actually worse than that – they decided they just fucking knew better than everyone else, despite being repeatedly told that they were making a mistake. KFC almost did the same thing – a couple of “experts” informed them that people must be getting bored with the same old flavor of chicken and that they’d flock to a “new and improved” version: extra crispy. There were a lot of executives that thought that this a real winner – it got far enough that the CEO said “are you fucking nuts?” and told them in no uncertain terms that original was remaining on the menu.

    Pizza Hut also went down this path when they decided they needed a large presence in the delivery market. The quality of the product suffered, eat-in restaurants lost business, and their reputation is shit. But they compete with Domino’s, and after twenty years of trying they still haven’t beaten them.

    Don’t even get me started on Jack in the Box…..

    Can you tell I spent a lot of time in the restaurant business?

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  4. Miguelito

    Yeah, Jack in the Box nearly imploded not too long ago, but they’ve been doing a lot better in the last few years. I actually drive right by their “Innovation Center” (and I think main corp offices) pretty often as it’s like 2 miles from my house. I always chuckle when I see that sign though.

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  5. Mississippi Yankee

    Perry admitted his mistake and switched from democrat to GOP, as did Reagan.

    Can I put you down a being firmly in his camp?

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  6. Mississippi Yankee

    His party hadn’t had the state since Ann Richardson (before Gov. Bush). He switched parties when his man Gore lost the 2000 election, to Bush BTW.

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  7. Seattle Outcast

    Bingo – extry cripsy perfoms OK, grilled far less so – but better than BBQ, but original still outsells everything else combined. They were just going to dump the original recipie for extra crispy and tell the world to suck it.

    The rule is, unless there is actually a problem with your product, don’t screw with a proven thing. Wendy’s is a good example of this – their core burgers hadn’t changed in 40 years. The recent move to revamp their burger was a direct response to customer feedback and loss of market share. The end result was a better burger.

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  8. briggie

    Kepler said he stumbled on the Laws of Planetary Motion only by exhausting every other possibility.

    Planck also did the same thing with his E = nhv equation. Can’t blame him though. The idea that radiation emitted from a black body was discrete and not continuous was a rather radical thing to propose.

    Newton worked out some the framework of his laws of motion, and then let it collect dust for 20 years. It only came to light when another physicist asked Newton about it because of a bet he was trying to win. Or so the story goes according to my orbital dynamics book, which was written more than 30 years ago. Also remember that Newton almost went blind by staring at the sun. There are also plenty of other stories regarding him.

    he shows the two flaws that make smart people do stupid things: groupthink and stubbornness

    Refusal to admit to making a mistake is probably the worst trait one can have. Going against the grain and being seen as a crank certainly coerces people to make strange decisions (See Planck).

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  9. Hal_10000 *

    Newton was a fascinating guy. He also said he came across his discoveries by basically thinking about them non-stop. And he did lots of work on astrology and biblical symbolism.

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