Sunday, August 29, 2010

PART 2: President Obama, What We Mean by "Intelligence," and What He Means by "Hope"

In  Part 1 of this article, appearing a few posts ago, -- Your Cool Hot Center had hoped to persuade you that our very smart President's policymaking proceeds from abstract thinking, from the application of theory, not deductions from observations of the world as it is.  Put another way, he governs by deduction -- reasoning from the general (theory and ideology) to the particular (legislation, regulation, and policy) rather than by induction (observing facts and reasoning upwards to the theory or general belief, from which policy then proceeds). 

The theories from which the President proceeds are predominantly found in the writings of the academic left.  The theories are highly idealistic and prescriptive, even utopian; they arise mostly a priori from the ways that liberals would like the world to be.  Some of them are highly sophisticated and subtle and have gained a wide following among faculty and students.  A lot of those students are now stalwarts of this administration and the Democratic Party.  The influence of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, about which I've briefly written before, is central. 

People who have the ability to think abstractly, and who do it well, are regarded as intelligent.  (I myself regard them in that way.)  In formulating his policies, President Obama has relied on academics who think this way and share the President's preference for abstraction. 

And that's the point I want to make here: "high intelligence" -- the ability to think abstractly and reason from creative a priori assumptions -- is a very valuable and, I think, a pretty rare thing.  It is a critical part, if not the beginning, of almost all scientific and cultural advance.  It can be inspired; it can be laboriously thought out.   But we only know if that smart brain work has reached the right result when reasoning from abstract assumptions is tested by experiment. Brilliant or difficult thoughts may turn out to be false when they're tested against actual observation.  

This is a great way to run science.   It's a great way to run a university where all that brainy work product can get debated and tested and exposed and tried and, with any luck, let loose only when it's ripe.

It's a damned bad way to run a country.  

Barack Obama is the first one to try it as his fundamental basis of governing.  An exception might be Franklin Roosevelt and his Keynesian spending on public employment, but Roosevelt faced crises that make those identified by today's political leaders (not just Dems) look ridiculous.  And it didn't work. (Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was not published until 1936, but his ideas were widely circulated -- including direct presentation to Roosevelt -- in years prior.) 

To President Obama, the United States is his laboratory. He's got a fistful of theories from the academics he admires and he's trying them out.   He has no particular reason to believe they'll work.  But that's what the theory says, that's what the smart guys believe should be tried to achieve social justice and world peace, so that's what he's going to do.

And if we lab rats don't like what it's doing to our health care, our bank accounts, our standing abroad, and our freedom generally -- well, we just don't understand the theory.  Too dumb.  You can feel the President's impatience, his dismissiveness, when challenged.  As though there's little point in dealing with present reality when his whole point is that he is the author of a new reality, arriving any day now.

That this smart guy is failing with these theories will, I think, somewhat change the way the public perceives "intelligence" generally.  It may still admire the brilliant men and women of the academy, business, the arts, but it will no longer think of their gift in quite the same way.  The IQ required for the creation of lovely theories and the corralling of abstract concepts into something understandable is not the kind of "intelligence" required to get a fractured, diverse, freedom-loving people all headed in the same direction, and in identifying and solving real problems.  Not the problems imagined by social theorists (and, regrettably, sometimes by agenda- and grant-driven scientists), but the ones that really exist for folks generally. 

That kind of leadership requires some empathy for one's constituents and some understanding of their real concerns, not the pretend crises ginned up by social scientists and promoted by the journalists who graduated from their liberal arts programs. 

Which is not to say that effective leaders are not smart.  They are.  But consider this list of modern-era presidents I believe most people would regard as effective, whether or not they agreed with the agenda:  .  Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson.    (So I'm excluding both Bushes, Carter, Obama, Kennedy (too short a tenure), and Nixon's on the bubble.)  You may think these guys were inspired, or you may think they were just politically crafty operators, or you may think they were lucky --  but a list of the top three virtues of any one of them would not include "unusually high intelligence."   Because we don't think of their particular gift of practical leadership in that way. 

Again, my point:  Obama changes this.  In the future we are going to be much more skeptical of the claims for intelligence of persons whose smarts appear mainly derived from book-larnin', and elevate our regard for the cerebral circuitry of men and women who have actually slugged it out, actually gotten a big batch of humans to change things, accomplish something.

*   *   *

One last thing.

When the Obama presidency is viewed as largely experimental, we gain a better understanding of what he means by "hope."  He has used that phrase a lot, most notably in the title of his (?) book, The Audacity of Hope.  Now, when he used that phrase, he was addressing a population that, by and large, did not feel itself in a "hopeless" condition.  (Oh, there were the Bush Derangement Syndrome people whose frantic loathing of the former president may have made them think they were without hope.  Those people don't count.)

So when he used that word, he could not have meant that he was offering hope where none existed.  I think he meant -- and I'm not making a joke here -- that he had in mind to try out all these pet theories of the academic left that no politician who cared about reelection would ever attempt, and hoped that the marvelous advantages that they predicted would come to pass.  (You may recall my theory that President Obama doesn't care so very much about re-election.)

We're Barack Obama's experiment.  He's "hoping" it will work.  (In fact, we'd all better "hope.")   That he's performing it on what is, for all its present problems, still the most successful and prosperous and free political system the world has ever seen -- that's the "audacity" part.

Intelligence is a wonderful thing and it is wonderful that we have a President who possesses it.   After I published Part 1 I heard from a several people who disagreed with my premise that Barack Obama is smart.   How could anybody so smart advance such dumb policies?    Well, again -- that's my point:   People we regard as intelligent have as a characteristic that they speculate  a lot -- there's a lot of what ifs  in their thinking.   Thinking that the President is dumb because his policies are having bad results or are poorly explained to the people they affect underestimates the guy and misidentifies the source of his problem. 

Barack Obama is a gifted, intelligent person steeped in the speculations of other intelligent people.   But we are now seeing the tragedy of his inexperience and, it must be said, his laziness.  His thinking is starved by his not knowing -- or, perhaps less charitably, by his willful ignoring.  (It's widely noted how prickly he gets when he's questioned about facts.)   He doesn't care.  The results of the leftist policies he has gotten the truly pathetic Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to bully through Congress will be the new facts, his experimental data.  He hopes his experiments give the results the people he admires have predicted.

Think back.  Remember your most arrogant and ideological (which is to say, theory-bound) professor.  Now imagine him or her as President.


  1. You say "That this smart guy is failing with these theories...". This might be a bit theoretical in itself. It's pretty clear that he's failed to do (or try to do) stuff you agree with, but I don't think that qualifies. Could you be more specific about which theories that he's been able to implement with legislation or policy that have even had time to succeed or fail? Perhaps you could direct me to one of your earlier entries or address it in a future blog. Thanks, Lou

  2. Dear Steve, I agree with the blogger Lou. But,you and others don't seem to understand that we gave the "worse job in the world to a black man" (The Onion). Who has had less than two years to fix the ruination of our place in the world, the economy, the environment, and our standing as peace makers now turned to violent and tortuous hawks. Remember Obama, and rightly so, voted against the war in Iraq. The destruction that we have faced over eight years under the Bush regime, (and here you seem to agree with all intelligent people) before Obama was sworn into office, could not be fixed by anyone in 20 months. He may have some weak advisers and yes that is his choice, but the battering of the only man willing and able to reverse the horror that the Bush regime brought to all Americans who earn less than two million dollars annually, does not deserve this constant and incessant belittling of his efforts to heal America. So lighten up on the him and let his policies take effect. God knows we let Bush's misguided policies ruin our country, why not give Obama's policies a chance to ruminate among the masses for several years before we throw a great mind to the wolves. Please forgive the mixed metaphor. Hope you are well, Louise

  3. Steve, I'm reminded of a wonderful quote, whose author I've forgotten, to wit: "One of life's great tragedies is seeing a beautiful theory assaulted by a gang of brutal facts."

    I don't think Obama is arrogant. But he is smart and willful. And he has no deputy with the seasoning and standing to say "Hold on a minute. This health thing could be a mess." Or whatever.

    More curious, and tragic, to me is the Afghan War. It seems like a "pretend" war to us at home who remain largely unaffected by it. But read Sebastian Junger's relentless chronicle "War" and you get a feeling for the intensity, firepower, courage, honor and sadness that surround this all too real conflict. I don't know how you can be Commander-in-Chief with so many troops in harm's way and not talk about their sacrifices every single day.

  4. Beautiful quote. It was Benjamin Franklin. Could not agree more about Afghanistan. What marginal benefit we're getting out of continuing to be there is beyond me. POTUS didn't send us there (and probably would not have, even when it made sense), but oddly he's made it a project. Don't get it. Thanks for checking in.