|Muck and Mystery
Loitering With Intent
|blog - at - crumbtrail.org|
Intellectuals are always whining that they get no respect. There's truth in that, and it's worth thinking about.
The most depressing spectacle on the political landscape right now (besides a potential second term for Barack Obama) is the party of Lincoln entertaining the presidential ambitions of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann—women with better hairdos than heads. One needn’t be a GOP-hater like Paul Krugman or Maureen Dowd to be dismayed by the growing anti-intellectualism of the party. Even David Brooks, a conservative commentator, has observed that Republican disdain for liberal intellectuals has morphed into a disdain for all intellectuals.Or, as Herb Gintis once put it:
But modern intellectuals, having abandoned honest inquiry for unabashed activism, must themselves bear some blame for the backlash. ...
every time really smart people run the country, things go spectacularly wrong.
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.
So why do intelligent people consistently make such a hash of things? Because they are smart enough to talk themselves into anything. Ordinary mortals don’t engage in fancy mental gymnastics to reach conclusions that defy common sense. But intellectuals are particularly prone to this.
two basic cultural transmission mechanism lead humans to accept statements that they do not personally subject to scrutiny for factual validity. One is conformist transmission, whereby people see what the majority are doing, and copy it (Boyd and Richerson, 1985, Henrich and Boyd 2001). When there is much to learn and the cost of testing is high, this is a fitness enhancing strategy for a large fraction of the population, especially when the costs and benefits of different behaviors do not change rapidly over time. The other is the transmission by socialization, through which new members of society are induced to accept norms and values that they choose to follow. Norms and values cannot be scrutinized for truth value, since they have none. But, people can generally believe that those who subscribe to the norms and values of their society have higher fitness and well being than those who violate these norms. Moreover, this believe that "those who do good will do well" is generally true in most societies, so this belief can be personally validated. ...And lately, a resurgence in that old fraud Keynes' economic theories.
Fitness enhancing, however, does not always mean true in the scientific sense. Thus, many untrue beliefs have proliferated in even the most advanced societies.
... advanced intellectual sophistication is not a counterweight to any of the above assertions. Think of our own society, where the most educated classes have believed such things as (a) autism is caused by poor mothering, (b) fat is bad for you and carbohydrates are good for you, (c) colds are caught by sitting in a draft, (d) second hand smoke is so bad for non-smokers that smokers have absolutely no right to smoke in public. And so on. Not to mention whole ideologies, such as Freudian psychology and Marxian political theory.
The most common name for a misplaced emphasis on macroeconomic policy is “Keynesianism.” Despite his brilliance, John Maynard Keynes was always a bit of a fraud, and there is always a bit of clever trickery in massive fiscal stimulus and the related printing of paper money. But we must acknowledge that this fraud strangely seemed to work for many decades. (The great scientific and technological tailwind of the 20th century powered many economically delusional ideas.) Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, innovation expanded new and emerging fields as divergent as radio, movies, aeronautics, household appliances, polymer chemistry, and secondary oil recovery. In spite of their many mistakes, the New Dealers pushed technological innovation very hard.I've said much the same as this for many years.
The New Deal deficits, however misguided, were easily repaid by the growth of subsequent decades. During the Great Recession of the 2010s, by contrast, our policy leaders narrowly debate fiscal and monetary questions with much greater erudition, but have adopted a cargo-cult mentality with respect to the question of future innovation. As the years pass and the cargo fails to arrive, we eventually may doubt whether it will ever return. The age of monetary bubbles naturally ends in real austerity.
On the political right, we are seeing a quiet shift from the optimism of Jack Kemp to the pessimism of Ron Paul, from supply-side economics to the Tea Party, and from the idea that we can combine tax cuts with more spending to the idea that money is either hard or fake. A mischievous person might even ask whether “supply-side economics” really was just a sort of code word for “Keynesianism.” For now it suffices to acknowledge that lower marginal tax rates might not happen and would not substitute for the much-needed construction of hundreds of new nuclear reactors.
Intellectualism, in today’s society, isn’t about intellect. It’s just a pose, like hipsterism or faux-redneckism. Most of those people who self-identify as intellectuals aren’t especially bright, they’ve just adopted a lifestyle that’s littered with what they think are markers of intelligence.More importantly, even if they were especially bright compared to other humans they still aren't bright enough to deal with the current problem set. Their arrogance is inappropriate. If they were any where near as smart as they think that they are this would be obvious to them.