Big Smoke

’cause it’s hard to see from where I’m standin’

Missing The Point

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I never expected to read such an anti-intellectual diatribe on the New York Times as Ross Douthat’s column, blaming social mobility and a “meritocracy” for Jon Corzine’s crash and burn:

But this sudden fall from grace doesn’t make Corzine’s life story any less emblematic of our meritocratic era. Indeed, his rise, recklessness and ruin are all of a piece. For decades, the United States has been opening paths to privilege for its brightest and most determined young people, culling the best and the brightest from Illinois and Mississippi and Montana and placing them in positions of power in Manhattan and Washington.

We got to the moon by scouring the country for intelligent people from all walks of life and throwing them into our top colleges. A pragmatic approach to seeking the best and the brightest was exactly what made this country great.

In this stead, to blame Corzine’s intelligence for his fall is deeply hurtful. It’s hurtful because it implies that he’s risen too high, too fast. That he’s Icarus. That he’s uppity. How can that be interpreted as anything other than an attack on our fundamental national pride, social mobility? It’s also hurtful because it implies that we don’t want intelligent people in office; that we would prefer unmitigated disasters like George W. Bush or, god forbid, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry or Herman Cain. It’s with that frame of mind that this passage made me blanch:

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.

It is a mark of intelligence to know one’s limitations. Has Douthat never read Plato? “I know one thing: That I know nothing.” Assuming you know all the answers is a mark of ignorance. Indeed, which politician of late was more sure of himself than George W. Bush?

Douthat argues, “we still need the best and brightest, but we need them to have somehow learned humility along the way.” He quotes the bible, “pride goeth before a fall.” I can think of a better quote. John Dalberg-Acton’s “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Humble people do not run for public office. Asking for humility in an elected official is like asking for a vegan steak-chef. As such, it is no surprise when Corzine, who has fought tooth and nail in the service of his own career (and leaves MF Global with a $12 million golden parachute after running it into the ground), and has actually held public office – at the cost of $100 million in campaign funds – fails spectacularly. It is no surprise when any public figure fleeces the public, no matter their origin. That’s how the system is built.

I cannot stress enough that intelligence and success are rarely intertwined in America, beyond perhaps a cool cunning. A closer correlation to success in this country is pure chutzpah. To the aggressive goes the spoils. Our leaders were never academics with PhDs. They were street brawlers with JDs. And with that, I quote H. L. Mencken:

The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods.

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