The Smart People Know That What They Don’t Know Can Hurt Them

As a result of good fortune and our own diligent efforts, we’ve come to know quite a few highly intelligent people over our many years. Both of our parents are very smart people in very different ways, the friends they invited to the house also tended to be very smart in various ways that fascinated us as we eavesdropped on the adult conversations, and thus we learned at an early age to cultivate friendships whenever possible with very smart people.
At this point our circle of friends includes all sorts of people, some of them not so bright but endearingly good in other important ways, but also professors at prestigious universities and award-winning authors and journalists and fully-fledged partners at fancy-pants law firms and successful politicians, as well as many artists and musicians and entrepreneurs whose genius hasn’t yet been appreciated. One thing we’ve noticed about very smart people is that they don’t brag about how smart they are, and are more acutely aware than most about how much of the infinite store of possible knowledge that they don’t know.
President Donald Trump has proclaimed himself a “very stable genius,” and has claimed to know more than anybody about everything from taxes and debt to “the awesome power of nuclear” and America’s government and the Bible, and he clearly considers himself the greatest polymath to occupy the White House since at least the administration of President Thomas Jefferson. Which we find worrisome, especially with this coronavirus spreading around the world and spooking all the global stock markets as it inflicts increasing pain on the world economy.
Last week Trump donned a campaign ball cap and visited the Centers for Disease Control, where he boasted that all the doctors he’d encountered were awestruck by his deep knowledge of epidemiology in general and the coronavirus in particular. “Maybe I have a natural ability,” Trump explained, noting that he had a “great, super-genius” uncle who taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That’s the same uncle who told his nephew that atomic bombs are very destructive, by the way, which is why Trump claims to know more than anybody about “the awesome power of nuclear.” At the same time he admitted being surprised to learn that the normal seasonal influenza is also often deadly, although that’s pretty common knowledge, and even though the flu had killed his uncle’s father and his own paternal grandfather, which the all the press already knew.
All of the very smart people we know would have let the doctors at the CDC who are clearly smarter about epidemiology in general and the coronavirus in particular do all the talking and be in charge, but Trump has his own ways of doing things. He has hunches that the coronavirus isn’t as deadly as the medical experts say, and that it will all be miraculously over come spring, and that although he’s not going to shake any hands and will keep a cruise ship full of American citizens at sea to contain the virus there’s really nothing to worry about. Unless you have complete faith in Trump’s “very stable genius,” it’s not reassuring.
At the same time, there’s all the economic fallout from what might very well prove an over-blown panic about the coronavirus. Mass public events and private vacations are being cancelled, elementary and post-graduate classes are being sent on-line, workforces are being asked to work from home, supply chains between vital countries in the global economy are being disrupted, and stock markets everywhere are tanking. Trump still touts the “best economy” ever but the federal government is running trillion-dollar deficits and the Federal Reserve Board is already damned near to zero on its interest rates, and more worrisomely the bond markets are offering a zero yield, and all the smart people we know about this stuff freely admit they don’t know what to do in case of a possible recession, as deficit spending and lower interest rates and newly-printed money are the usual answer.
Trump might very well propose a stimulus package of deficit spending and quantitative easing of freshly-printed money to keep the economy afloat, much as President Barack Obama did during the last recession, in which case all t he Republicans and Democrats will probably all change sides. We’ll freely admit that we don’t know what to do, and will retain our usual wariness about what all the smart people admit they don’t know, and continue to hope for the best.

— Bud Norman

Sounding Smart to Stupid People

Many years ago we had a friend on our high school debate team who adopted the odd habit of adding an extra syllable to words. When devising a plan he would “strategetize” rather “strategize,” for instance, and he was adamant that “conservativism” rather than “conservatism” is the political philosophy espoused by conservatives.
He did this on the belief that most people are impressed and intimated by multi-syllabic words, and that by adding an extra consonant to a three-syllable word he could make it one-third more impressive and intimidating. Judging by the awestruck looks that would cross some people’s faces whenever he unleashed one of his new and improved coinages, and they way they seemed willing to accept whatever nonsensical argument he was making, we were forced concede there might be something to his theory. We tried to persuade him that although his highfalutin and fundamentally incorrect verbiage made him sound smart to stupid people it also made him sound stupid to smart people, but he’d laugh off the criticism by noting that because there are far more stupid people than smart people he would ultimately be more widely regarded as smart by saying such stupid things. As much as his mispronunciations grated on our sensitive ears, we had to admit there was probably something to that theory as well.
Our friend has since become a highly successful businessman, of course, and we’re pleased to hear that he’s still a staunch conservative. Perhaps he’s calling himself a “conservativist” these days, and still insisting that all the lexicographers and the rest of the English-speaking world have it wrong, but at any rate he still seems to be plying his shrewdly cynical rhetorical skills on behalf of the right causes. This is good to know, because liberalism in general and President Barack Obama in particular are especially adept at sounding smart to stupid people even when it entails the modest political cost of sounding stupid to smart people. Although they haven’t yet mastered the art of the extra syllable, they have an undeniable knack for manufacturing slogans with poll-tested mass appeal that somehow strike a more informed audience as wrong.
Two examples shouted out during Obama’s address Monday on behalf of his beleaguered Obamacare. The speech mostly extolled the great successes of the program, with some conspicuously uninspiring examples standing as props behind the podium, which will seem suspicious enough to smart people, but the president did briefly acknowledge the widely-reported difficulties with the web site that is supposed to make it all run and promised that a “surge” of the “best and brightest” professionals from the public and private sectors would soon have it all worked out. Smart people will immediately note the uncharacteristically generous acknowledgement of professional expertise in the private sector, especially on behalf of a program that seems designed to drive the money-loving bastards out of the of the health care field, but those of a certain age and a still-sound memory will be struck by the use of “surge” and “best and brightest.”
One needn’t be too old to remember when the word “surge” became associated with President George W. Bush’s military strategy — or “strategery,” if you prefer — to deal with the insurgency in Iraq. Then-Sen. Obama ridiculed the idea, and voted against its funding, but it proved successful enough in the field that President Obama uses the word “surge” with certainty that it will reassure a wary public that a sufficient outpouring of manpower will solve any problem. Smart people will savor the irony, even as they worry that a mass influx of soldiers will solve a military problem more often than a massive influx of computer programmers can fix a fundamentally-flawed health care system.
More seasoned readers will also raise an eyebrow at that “best and brightest” reference. They’ll recall that the phrase was introduced into parlance by David Halberstam’s book of same title about the Kennedy and Johnson administration stars who urged on the war in Vietnam. “The Best and Brightest” was meant ironically, of course, and as it became a cliché it was always used with sarcastic quotation marks. Anyone familiar with the phrase’s early usage will not be reassured that the “best and brightest” have been unleashed on America’s health.
Other examples abound in Obama’s political career. He once promised “peace in our time,” apparently either unaware or unconcerned that the slogan was famously associated with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s disastrous attempt at appeasing Adolf Hitler, and his apologists have created such formulations as “leading from behind.” “Hope and Change,” “Yes, We can,” “the failed policies of the Bush administration” and all the other vague slogans of his first presidential campaign had the same winning effect on the stupid and same calculated disregard for the smart, and all were delivered with a smug cocksureness and upraised chin that even our shrewd high school friend could not equal. It might not work with Obamacare, as even the stupidest among us can figure out when their health care costs are rising and grandma’s hip replacement is being put off, but most of the time it seems to work well enough. In order to counter this dangerous strategery, conservativists will have to learn to fight back.

— Bud Norman