Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Sam Smith

It's only a week after the inauguration and already post-partisan depression is settling in. It turns out, to the amazement of the Obama administration and much of the media, that a lot of people besides the president have ideas as to how to handle the fiscal crisis.

Part of it is partisan as should have been expected. After all, the only place post partisanship really exists is under a dictator. And the political dissent is not just coming from Republicans, but also from progressives who are quickly facing up to their differences with the new president.

This is the way a democracy is meant to work and it is far from a childish thing to put away.

But that only tells part of the story. Obama and his top aides are indubitably of high intelligence, but so is much of Washington. What is lacking at times like this is a sufficiency of common sense, the sort of social intelligence that used to characterize the good politician before the lawyers took over the trade.

I have argued in the past that Washington is run these days by high functioning autistics, suffering a sort of political Asperger's Syndrome, who can't seem to connect the data in their minds with the realities of life.

A example: after clipping all the latest best stories I could find on the fiscal crisis, I searched for two words: "small business." They didn't appear because no one seems to notice the importance of small business if you want to create jobs.

But a year ago the Small Business Administration reported that small businesses (less than 500 employees) employed 51% of nation's private non-farm workforce. From 2003 to 2004 companies with less than 20 employees created roughly 1.6 million net new jobs. Companies with 20 to 499 employees created around 275,000 net new jobs. Meanwhile, employment at companies with more than 500 employees shrank by 214,000. The SBA also reported that over the last 20 years small businesses have created roughly 3 out of 4 net new private non-farm US jobs.

Why this indifference? Three possible reasons are that small business people are poorly represented in Congress, they're weak in lobbying and they don't give enough money to candidates.

But it is also true that as a greater percentage of power players become lawyers, MBAs or financial whizzes, a lesser percentage even pause to think about small business. And this is not a partisan issue; both major parties ignore the smaller firms.

Trained in theories that assume life is directed from the top, they gravitate naturally towards policies and solutions that reflect their education. The first bailout was as gross a reflection of this as one could imagine, but even the Obama version stumbles under the weight of grand presumptions that will supposedly trickle down to main street.

Thus we found initially little interest in decentralizing to bankruptcy judges the decisions on foreclosures as being proposed by John Conyers. Today's Washington Post, for example, shoved the story onto the business page, noting that "Democrats have backed off efforts to include the provision in the economic stimulus package that's making its way through Congress."

Why the reticence? Something like it worked for FDR, it's common sense, and it would even make Obama look good. But it's not the sort of thing you learn about in law and business school. And it's too close to the ground for comfort. And the banks don't like it.

Which brings up a final problem with what's happening in Washington - beyond the political Asperger's syndrome and beyond the distortions that come with too many years hanging around academics. The problem is that well educated people make more money and thus inevitably class begin to affect judgment.

I've been struck, for example, by how little Democrats talk about foreclosures anymore, by how the words poor and poverty seem to have become politically incorrect, and how bored liberals become when you mention single payer healthcare.

There is absolutely no doubt that if Lyndon Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell were drafting a bailout it would be dramatically different from what Obama has come up with. And politics has surprisingly little to do with it. It is far more about what and who you care about most. As Roosevelt demonstrated, you can overcome the liabilities of intelligence or social and financial success with common sense, good judgment and a well directed heart, but you have to work at it.

Keith E. Stanovich has written a book called What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought, published by Yale University Press.
Writes Kacie Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"Stanovich suggests that IQ tests focus on valuable qualities and capacities that are highly relevant to our daily lives. But he believes the tests would be far more effective if they took into account not only mental 'brightness' but also rationality - including such abilities as 'judicious decision making, efficient behavioral regulation, sensible goal prioritization ... [and] the proper calibration of evidence.'

"Our understanding of intelligence, he writes, has been muddled by the discrepancy between the vague, comprehensive vernacular term, which encompasses all the functions and manifestations of 'smarts,' and the narrower theories that 'confine the concept of intelligence to the set of mental abilities actually tested on extant IQ tests.' The latter conceptualization allows intelligence to coexist with foolishness because IQ tests do not measure the rationality required to abstain from dumb decisions, according to the author. . . In an earlier work, Stanovich coined his own term - dysrationalia - for 'the inability to think and behave rationally despite adequate intelligence.' That 'disorder' he suggests, might afflict some of the smartest people you know."

So if things don't go quite right with the latest bailout and the recovery in general, don't chalk it all off just to politics. It's also about how people connect their knowledge to real life, the judgments they make, and what and who they really care about most.