01 February 2018

General Intelligence and General Stupidity - Smart People Know the Difference

As an old guy I've given up on the notion of meeting someone who is brilliant. So, if I'm told that someone is brilliant, I want to know in what. Because while I know that the most we can hope for is having one thing that we're really good at - if we're lucky, even great at. That's what we can hope for , being pretty good or even great at at least one thing. But the only guarantee we have is that there will be at least half a dozen tasks and activities that make us look like complete idiots when we try them.

So it is too simple to say of someone, "He's brilliant," or "He's an idiot." You have to be more specific and clarify on what task is he brilliant or an idiot.

The ideal politician would be brilliant at two things: politics and policy. Politics makes you successful at the ballot box, it gets you elected. Policy makes your community successful - your average person able to make more money and live longer. Ideally a politician would be great at getting elected and enacting effective policy. I think FDR is an example of this. FDR got elected president four times. He helped the country navigate its way out of the Great Depression and through World War II. He wasn't ideological but was open to experimentation, trying whatever he thought would work to lower unemployment from the 25% it was when his presidency started. And he knew that the Nazis were not just "their" problem but were ours. He had press conferences twice a week and his willingness to answer questions on the host of issues the country faced gradually won over even hardened journalists. He also gave a weekly radio address; years after he'd died, his wife Eleanor said that people would approach her to say how much they missed having him explain "their government" to them. By the end of his presidency the country - indeed - the world was a better place. That's the simplest measure of effective policy.

You haven't heard of the worst politician. Not only can this guy not get elected or get any media coverage, but he has truly bad ideas. He might be ranting to some long-suffering friends in a coffee shop diner somewhere but he's not winning any elections. Bad at politics and bad at policy.

View from Adlai Stevenson College at UC Santa Cruz
My college was named after Adlai Stevenson, who ran for president in 1952 and 1956. I don't pretend to know much about him but by all reports his policy solutions were thoughtful and ahead of his time but he ended up running against Eisenhower, the man who led the Allied troops against Hitler. Stevenson was seemingly gifted at policy but not terribly effective at politics - at least at the national level.

Which brings us to Trump. He might understand the media better than anyone in my lifetime. He continues to dominate news coverage of every cycle, regardless of what seems to be going on anywhere else. He was so good at politics that he was able to get elected without having held any office before and having been caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by the pussy. It seems highly probable that he had help from Putin but the punchline is that he won the election. He won by offering to make the country more like the former Confederacy, his base. The states whose lifestyles, decisions and policies put them at the bottom of every meaningful list - from household income to life expectancy - all thought he had the best ideas (well, 8 of the 10 poorest states) and the states at the top of every meaningful list (well, 9 of the 10 richest states) all voted against him. He wants to renege on trade deals, lower immigration, and build walls in a time when the most prosperous counties, states, and countries are more tightly integrating with the rest of the world rather than sealing themselves off from it. Trump is an idiot savant, a man brilliant at politics and an idiot at policy.

For my nickle, this makes him the most dangerous man in politics. If he were this bad at policy but just as bad at politics, he might have a talk radio show but he wouldn't have the White House. If he were as naturally gifted at policy as he is at media coverage and politics, it would be a joy to have him in the White House.

Which brings me back to the claim that no one is generally intelligent at everything. We all have our weaknesses, our areas of absurd inadequacy and stupidity. There is, though, one way to not make this evident. People who are aware of their areas of weakness and don't do that thing they do so poorly - whether it be choose their own clothes or tell jokes or dance or calculate equations or analyze data - are people who seem really with it. A person who knows his limits is a person who can leave a great impression; you don't see him look foolish.

And this is might be Trump's biggest weakness of all. He understands policy and governance so poorly that he doesn't even understand how poorly he understands it. The final thing that makes him so dangerous? He doesn't even know that he's bad at what he's bad at. Sadly, Trump won't be the guy who leaves you with such a favorable impression because he only does what he's great at; instead, he insists on showing you how badly he does what he thinks he does so well.

The closest thing to general intelligence is the ability to discern what we are intelligent at and what we're stupid at and focus on the first and avoid the second. Sadly, we're led by a guy who doesn't even have enough intelligence to know the difference between what he's brilliant at and what he's stupid at.

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