Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The intelligence of the political class

Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.
- Ambrose Bierce

Robert Bakker's monumentally interesting book The Dinosaur Heresies is a must-read for anyone who - like me - is a dino fan. In it, he argues convincingly that dinosaurs were warm blooded and led active lives. This view has, in the years since its 1986 publication, become more or less orthodox science.

He also argues - much less convincingly - that they were intelligent. It may be that we have poor ways to measure intelligence based on the fossil record, and in any case intelligence is probably overrated as a survival trait. But it seems to me that dinosaur's intelligence was, well, stupid.

They're not the only ones. George Will is by any rational measure a very intelligent man. Educated at Oxford and Princeton, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, he embodies the virtues of what David Brooks called the "educated class".

And yet we see times when his intelligence is stupid, like his latest piece on Sarah Palin. He writes of populism, and misses not only center mass, but the entire target:
America, its luck exhausted, at last has a president from the academic culture, that grating blend of knowingness and unrealism. But the reaction against this must somewhat please him. That reaction is populism, a celebration of intellectual ordinariness. This is not a stance that will strengthen the Republican Party, which recently has become ruinously weak among highly educated whites.
His analysis is logical, consistent, well thought out, and entirely wrong. The reason is that he's playing by the old rules, and hasn't adjusted to how the Internet has changed politics. There's no roadmap, and so the old careful analysis techniques - the weights assigned to various attributes that have led to success in the past - are no longer any guide.

Clayton Christensen wrote the single most terrifying business book I've ever read. In The Innovator's Dilemma, he says that it's obvious why badly-managed companies go out of business (they're badly managed, duh). He asks a very interesting question: why do well-managed companies go out of business? He says that it's all about managing innovation.

Christensen posits two types of innovation. Continuous innovation (what he calls sustaining technologies) is easy to manage: it's more of what we have, only better. Well managed companies excel at growing sustaining technologies. There are also revolutionary innovations (what he calls disruptive technologies) that change how the game is played. It doesn't matter how much better your buggy whip is, you won't be able to grow your business on that product line.

Companies almost always fail at managing disruptive technology transformations, because they are well managed. The entire corporate structure is based on producing and selling at a particular price point. A product that kills your cash cow because it's priced 50% lower probably can't be sold effectively at that company, no matter how brilliantly disruptive it is. IBM sold million dollar mainframe computers. While they certainly knew how to make minicomputers, all the incentives were for them to push customers to bigger and more expensive machines. Minicomputers couldn't become too compelling without undercutting the quarterly sales targets, and so DEC ate IBM's lunch. And then Compaq ate DEC's lunch with PCs.

There is a massively disruptive force reshaping politics today, and the current establishment doesn't know how to deal with it. And so they continue to do what they've always done, because it's what made them successful. Right now, they're dismissing the changes. Will, again:
Populism has had as many incarnations as it has had provocations, but its constant ingredient has been resentment, and hence whininess. Populism does not wax in tranquil times; it is a cathartic response to serious problems. But it always wanes because it never seems serious as a solution.
Ah, but what happens when populism no longer needs the press, because the Internet lets the movement organize without the help - and even against the efforts - of the current political gatekeepers? What happens to populism when it's combined with this disruptive innovation?

Walter Russell Meade gets it. The Tea Partiers may have been relegated to the Long Tail by the political gatekeepers, but they are a storming of the gates:
But you don’t have to buy every line item (or even any line item) in the emerging Tea Party program to see the movement’s potential. Its ruling passion is a belief in the ability of the ordinary citizen to make decisions for himself or herself without the guidance or ‘help’ of experts and professionals. No idea has deeper roots in American history and culture and by global standards Americans have historically distrusted doctors, lawyers, bankers, preachers and professors: everybody who presumes that their special insider knowledge gives them a special right to decide what’s best for the rest of us and historically no political force has been stronger than the determination of ordinary Americans to flatten the social and political hierarchy.
Now that's enabled by the disruptive technology of the Internet. George Will, despite all his intelligence - maybe because of his intelligence - cannot be a part of this New Revolution. He's made a highly successful career out of brilliantly managing sustaining political innovations. But the game has changed, and the emergence of talent from the Internet's Long Tail, without the need for the blessings of his educated class, seems to have him out of his depth. "Intellectual ordinariness"? He just doesn't see how Palin is harnessing the Internet better than anyone. She's brilliantly riding the disruptive wave.

He doesn't see, even though it's right before his eyes. His intelligence seems to be making him stupid. The dinosaurs smell a change in the air, and roar their defiance.


Bob said...

Good post. Didn't realize you were a Meade fan. Do you agree with his spectrum theory of US foreign policy? I fall under the Jacksonian category in that one, as I suspect many gun bloggers do.

Borepatch said...

I really like Meade's analysis, but don't see myself as "pure" anything. Probably 60% Jacksonian, 20% Jeffersonian, and 20% Hamiltonian. I used to have a lot of Wisonian, but it's all gone to Jackson.

Probably good fodder for a post.

Bob said...

I think that, even better than a post, it might be a fun meme, since most people will be unfamiliar with Meade's Spectrum. Just make up one of those questionnaires that, when completed, tells you where you fall on the Spectrum. It will probably make a pretty good meme and go viral in the gun blogging community.

Atom Smasher said...

Will is another one who just doesn't get it. We're sick of *anyone* smugly telling us what to do. Do I think Sarah Palin is the smartest person in the world? No. But so what? She reminds me of my sister, and I *like* my sister. I *trust* my sister.

And it's just the presidency - it's not hard. Facing inward, Do Nothing, Shrink Government, Trust the People. Facing outward, smile at your friends, smile broadly at your enemies, and growl and show your teeth at the barking poodles.

Hell's Bells, I voted for McCain; I'm supposed to think a Sarah Palin would somehow be a worse Prez? Pundit, *please*.

BS Footprint said...

I agree with you about the disruptive technology thing. I think that the political landscape is changing much more quickly than the elites realize. We're approaching a tipping point in politics (in fact we may have passed it already).

Here's one of my favorite posts about disruptive technologies: The collapse of complex business models -- take from it what you will.