The Audacity of Conceit

Intelligent idiots, smart fools, multi-degreed morons - lots of monikers could describe a category of individuals dismayingly prominent in the ruling elites of the West. They are the people so divorced from reality, so engrossed in bookish pursuits that - for all their undoubted intellectual accomplishments and often as a direct consequence thereof - they invariably end up with egg on their faces whenever they try to engage in practical activities.

Worse yet, they idolize each other, sticking up for one another out of class solidarity. Case in point: a few days ago I watched a gathering of noted media intellectuals on C-SPAN.  David Brooks of the New York Times was supposed to counterbalance the four leftist pundits who vigorously extolled Barack Obama's genius.  But even the token conservative's criticism was perfunctory. Having poked a couple of holes in the administration's economic agenda, Brooks waxed lyrical about Obama's personnel policy. He was struck by the "sheer intellectual brilliance" of the economic team Obama has assembled, people "like Larry Summers" who dazzle any gathering and dominate any discussion.

Apparently, the NYT columnist was unable to see the inherent contradiction in his effusive praises: if the people who formulate the administration's economic policy are so smart, why is it so disastrous? Last January, these wizards of smart predicted that if Obama's stimulus package were passed, the unemployment rate would not go beyond 8 percent by the end of the year. At this point, it is nearing 10 percent and shows no sign of slowing down. How could they be so wrong with their vaunted brilliance?

It is a common mistake of intellectuals to confuse IQ with common sense and verbal fluency with leadership qualities. They are simply unable to comprehend that academic success does not necessarily translate into a firm grasp on reality; the knack for endlessly bloviating on an abstruse subject does not automatically imply administrative ability; an academic degree is not a substitute for practical experience; and a professors' lounge is not a corporate boardroom.

Nobody would deny that the members of Obama's circle of economic advisors are indeed academically adept, well-spoken men and women. But have any of them ever run a lemonade stand, much less a bona fide business?  Have they ever met a payroll? Do they know what it means to toss and turn in bed, worrying over the coming rise in vendor prices? They may have academic theories and marshal vast amounts of data,  but have little practical knowledge of how things work in the real world.

So what do they bring to the administration other than long resumes and fearsome reputations as intellectual polemicists? All these brilliant academics have been brought on board for the sole purpose of lending an intellectual veneer to Obama's political schemes and validate his power grab. Hence the pitiful sight of these noted intellectuals being trotted out to the microphones to bleat pathetically in defense  of the administration's  agenda.  

Which should vividly remind us of the conduct of the Vietnam War by another undeniably brilliant man, full of theories and impressively in command of the data, Robert McNamara, "the perfect man" in Lyndon Johnson admiring characterization, who died earlier this week at 93. John F. Kennedy brought a team of "the best and the brightest" from Harvard to manage the war.  They invaded the Pentagon and set about doing what they did best (and actually the only thing they knew): writing learned position papers, drawing charts and measuring results.

They developed a sophisticated plan and confidently awaited the inevitable outcome: the enemy would capitulate when all the curves on their charts would converge to a single point, signifying such and such level of devastation of the North Vietnamese industrial base, such and such number of casualties and other equally weighty indicators. Finally the day came when the fateful point was reached and ... nothing happened. The enemy blithely continued fighting.

The "best and the brightest" rushed back to their equations, they checked and rechecked the numbers but couldn't find anything wrong with them.  And yet the benighted North Vietnamese, apparently unaware that they were supposed  to surrender, had no intention of complying with the scientific logic of the Harvard men. Not one of them realized what they would have known had they studied Tacitus:  that it is not the resources or the level of casualties that determine the outcome of any war, but the resolve to go on fighting in spite of the casualties, i.e. the grit and the fighting spirit.

Karl Marx memorably said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. McNamara's  war management was a tragedy. Nearly half a century later, Obama's economic policy, which amounts to an all-out assault on the U.S. economy, repeats history as a farce -- which would be hilarious, if we didn't have to live with the consequences.
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