Vagueness of Intelligence and Unique Contributions

Vague IntelligenceOne of the most annoying thing in the world to me, is when someone tells me that they aren’t smart. I understand: I bring this out in people. I know a lot of stuff and I’m quick witted. And above all, I’m an intellectual. But none of that means anything but that I’m oriented in a particular way. I’ve been carrying around books with me for as long as I can remember. It’s just the way that I am. But that doesn’t make me smart in any kind of absolute sense, because I don’t even know what it is to be smart in an absolute sense.

I do know what it is to be smart when it comes to an IQ test. Those tests measure very specific things. As I recall, they measured some kind of special reasoning — there were blocks involved. And there were “general knowledge” questions like, “What is a mantis?” When I was young, I did very well with the blocks and not very well with the questions. Now it would probably be reversed. I’ve noticed cognitive degeneration over the last two decades. But I’ve certainly gained “general knowledge” at a far faster rate than I have been aging.

There are an infinite number of ways to be smart. All kinds of people impress me with their intellects in various ways. My greatest complaint with people is that they bore me, not that they aren’t smart enough. But I’ve known people who can’t do math at all, who are absolutely brilliant dealing with numbers that represent dollars. I think that shows the way people put up blocks around themselves and stop themselves from being “smart.” But the bigger issue is that no one feels smart because the things they understand seem obvious. Personally, I think anyone who understands the game of cricket is brilliant.

“I saw on Facebook that Rich joined a band called the 999 Megabytes. They haven’t got a gig.”

People think that I’m smart because I am good at the kinds of things that we think of as smart. So we don’t think of people with a preternatural ability to rebuild carburetors as smart. I do! But there is a way that people get a pass by claiming not to be smart. If someone asked me how to solve a differential equation, I couldn’t get away with, “Oh, it’s easy! You just do it!” But that’s what people do all the time with things like rebuilding carburetors, watching cricket, and playing guitar.

Another thing I hate is the distinction between being “book learning” and having “common sense.” For one thing, I have no idea what “common sense” is. If it is so common, why are people constantly complaining that other people don’t have it? As far as I can tell, “common sense” is anything that you know. That’s bad enough. But “book learning” is even worse. It implies that the knowledge wasn’t acquired quite legitimately. Rather than figuring it out for yourself, someone told you. Of course, someone also told them the “common sense” of not running out in traffic, it’s just that they don’t remember it.

But the notion of “common sense” is something more than just a face saving device. It is an indication that everyone actually knows that there are a great many ways to be smart — all wonderfully useful under the proper conditions. I just wish we could get more explicit about that so that I don’t have to hear phrases like, “I’m not book smart, but I have common sense.” That always makes me feel like I’m intimidating people. And I’m really too selfish to intend that. If I find you boring, I’ll just be gone.

All of that was prelude so that I could tell you a story and about how smart I am. The other day, Will told me, “I saw on Facebook that Rich joined a band called the 999 Megabytes. They haven’t got a gig.” Here’s the thing: I don’t like Rich and I never have. But I do know that he has a lot of talent as a musician. So he’s in a band. Whatever.

The next day Will told me the same story. I said, “You told me that yesterday. Is there some reason I should care? I know Rich is a pretty good musician.” Will replied, “Gigabyte?” I said, “Oh! That’s funny. So Rich didn’t join a band?” He told me that he had not. Even realizing it was a joke, I needed to be assured that Rich hadn’t, in fact, joined a band just to make a joke.

At the same time that I was totally clueless about joke, it also bothered me that it wasn’t quite right. I mean, a gigabyte isn’t a thousand megabytes; it’s 1,024 megabytes. Now sure, it’s true that 999 megabytes is also not a gig, but so too is 999 kilobytes. But that’s the thing: I would gladly trade all that mindless digital knowledge for just having gotten the joke in the first place.

It takes all kinds in this world. And I’m happy that I add something unique to my small part of the world. I wish other people were more happy with their own unique contributions to the world.


That image above really has nothing to do with this article. But hey: mouse fairy. That’s brilliant.

How “Whites” Washed Away Their Identities

Between the World and MeBut race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible — this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white — Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish — and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I cannot call it. As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs, the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates
Between the World and Me

Bernie Sanders $18 Trillion Would Save Us Money

Bernie SandersRecently, when The Wall Street Journal wrote a big article about how Bernie Sanders’ proposals would cost $18 trillion, I was mostly pleased. It indicated two things that are good. First, it showed that he is succeeding enough to cause people to notice. Second, it shows that conservatives are at least a little concerned about him. Republicans can just dismiss him as a socialist if they want. But that’s just for public consumption. They know that in a general election, that isn’t going to mean much. Unless they can tie that word to Sanders’ actual (hugely popular) policies, it won’t mean a thing.

The big “$18 trillion” article is an attempt to do just that. But as Dean Baker has already shown, $15 trillion of that is universal Medicare. And if everyone had Medicare, they wouldn’t have to have private insurance (although they still could). And the one thing we know about Medicare is that it is far more efficient than private insurance. And the bottom line is that the $15 trillion would save the private sector more than $15 trillion. James Kwak laid it out:

But we are already spending a ton of money on health care — with embarrassingly poor results. In 2013, total premiums for private health insurance cost Americans $962 billion, individuals and families paid $339 billion out of their own pockets and “other private revenues” accounted for another $121 billion of health care (data here). That’s $1.4 trillion of health care spending, paid for by families and businesses, most of which would be replaced by Sanders’s plan. Project that out for ten years, add health care inflation, and you’re talking about a lot more than $15 trillion.

So how much would Sander’s $15 trillion Medicare for All system save? That’s open to debate. But one of the economists that The Wall Street Journal article quoted, Gerald Friedman, did some calculations. And he found that over the ten year window that we are talking about here, Sanders’ plan would save the US $5 trillion. So if you add in the $3 trillion of other programs, Bernie Sanders would be saving us $2 trillion — or $200 billion per year. Oh! My! God!

Of course, this isn’t going to make The Wall Street Journal sing the praises of Bernie Sanders. They aren’t interested in saving money. They are interested in serving the interests of the power elite — even if those interests are very short sighted. And even if they liked the Medicare for All program, they know that Sanders is going to push all kinds of other policies that will challenge the rich.

Robert Reich wrote a short article about this issue, 4 Reasons Why The Wall Street Journal’s Attack on Bernie is Bogus. Mostly, it covers ground that I’ve been talking about here. But I thought his fourth point was important:

Bernie’s proposed spending on education and infrastructure aren’t really “spending” at all, but investments in the nation’s future productivity. If we don’t make them, we’re all poorer.

This is typical. Bernie Sanders has some great ideas for improving the nation. But the conservative response is not to consider them seriously. It is just to start shouting large numbers that are meaningless.

Carly Fiorina Didn’t Go From Secretary to CEO

Carly FiorinaWhen Carly Fiorina ran for Senate from California back 2010, her campaign was so hapless, that I didn’t even much pay attention to it. She ran against Barbara Boxer — always a bit of a climb for the idiots down in the southern part of the state — in a great year for Republicans, and she still managed to lose by 10 percentage points. The main thing I knew about her was that she had had a terrible career in business. But apparently, in the business world, there is no such thing as failure, so she ran around acting like she was some great hero.

But Friday morning, I was reading Paul Krugman, Fantasies and Fictions at GOP Debate. It’s a good article, but I was shocked by something he wrote in passing, “Oh, and if her life is a story of going from ‘secretary to CEO,’ mine is one of going from mailman to columnist and economist. Sorry, working menial jobs while you’re in school doesn’t make your life a Horatio Alger story.” It shocked me because I had taken that whole story at face value. It’s one of her big selling points: meritocracy and all that — she started at the bottom!

So I turned to Wikipedia. She wasn’t some lower middle class girl who went on to make it big. She wasn’t even an ordinary middle (or upper-middle or upper) class girl who went on to make it big. Her father was Joseph Tyree Sneed III. He was dean of the Duke University School of Law before becoming a justice on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He was at least a law professor from the time that Carly was three years old. These are all indicative of the kind of childhood that creates successful people. Freedom from want and exposure to the best that our society offers are what we should strive to provide for all children — but don’t.

Now, I’m not putting down Fiorina for this. It’s great that she had this kind of life growing up. But she’s lying about her career — in a big and calculated way. In 1976, she got her Bachelor’s degree from Stanford — a school her father taught at from 1962 to 1971 — I wonder if that helped her get admitted?! She then got a Master’s degree in business (What else?!) from University of Maryland. From there, she went straight into a management trainee program at AT&T.

So where does all this business about “secretary to CEO” come from? Well, after she got her undergraduate degree, she headed down to UCLA to study law. I guess she was gonna be like her old man. But after one semester, she decided it wasn’t for her. So she got a job as a secretary for a real estate brokerage. She had it for six months — I assume until she could start another academic year. So basically: it was a summer job. I’m sure there are lots of people born rich who could similarly claim that they went from “waiter to CEO.”

What’s so terrible about this is that there have been people who have worked their way up in this way — although I know of none in such a spectacular way as Fiorina implies. And that makes it that much worse. She was never one of those people who started at the bottom. She started on the management track and did what was expected of her.

She really is a vile human being. A great social conservative who lies with aplomb.

Update (21 September 2015 8:46 am)

According to Melinda Henneberger, “She worked only briefly in that real estate office before heading off to Italy for a year with her first husband, Todd Bartlem.” So she didn’t go straight off to the University of Maryland. Instead, like poor Americans everywhere, she took a year off to live in Europe.

Anniversary Post: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Ends

don't ask, don't tellOn this day in 2011, the US military ended its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. It was a terrible policy, because it managed to do exactly the opposite of what was intended. As far as I can tell, it caused the military to systematize the oppression of LGB service members. And as a result, the oppression went way up. Although you really have to wonder about the petty, frightened souls who ratted out their fellow soldiers. These, after all, were supposed to be people who would die for each other. But finding out that one of them was “gay” — well that was right out!

The only reason I bring this up today, is that it’s been four years and the military hasn’t been destroyed. Of course, before it happened, that’s exactly what conservatives predicted. For example, John McCain said it was a potentially deadly distraction. But even at the time, people were noting that most western countries had had LGB soldiers for a long time without problem. But that didn’t matter, because America was “exceptional!” In this case, that apparently meant: totally incompetent.

Transgender people are still forbidden in the military. But this is only because we are incredibly slow learners.