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The Elite as a Tribe

It’s not often that I cite a MSM piece for it’s balance and thoughtfulness but I will recommend this one, from Alec MacGillis of MSNBC:

Academic elites fill Obama’s roster

All told, of Obama’s top 35 appointments so far, 22 have degrees from an Ivy League school, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago or one of the top British universities. For the other slots, the president-elect made do with graduates of Georgetown and the Universities of Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina.

While Obama’s picks have been lauded for their ethnic and ideological mix, they lack diversity in one regard: They are almost exclusively products of the nation’s elite institutions and generally share a more intellectual outlook than is often the norm in government. Their erudition has already begun to set a new tone in the capital, cheering Obama’s supporters and serving as a clarion call to other academics. Yale law professor Dan Kahan said several of his colleagues are for the first time considering leaving their perches for Washington.

“You know how Obama always said, ‘This is our moment; this is our time?’ ” Kahan said. “Well, academics and smart people think, ‘Hey, when he says this is our time, he’s talking about us.'”

Indeed. The Obamas may be moreso part of the bipartisan elite than were the Clintons whom academia overwhelmingly cheered, as Bill Clinton never could ( as Alec MacGillis duly notes) shed his ties to the Southern, good ol’ boy, wheeler-dealers of the courthouse clique. To an extent, Clinton reveled in winking at the corruption of his hambone cronies in wry TV soundbites. President-elect Obama is in far less of a hurry to bring Chicago’s more colorful political personalities to Washington and probably will not do so for several years until after Federal trials of Tony Rezko and investigations into city hall and the governor’s mansion and likely Federal trial of Governor Rod Blagojevich (D-IL) in Illinois have run their course.

I’m not unhappy with Obama’s appointments, finding them so far to be well qualified and I’ll offer high praise for Obama’s selection of General Jones and Secretary Gates. The Small Wars/COIN bloggers are jumping for joy and the national security bloggers, along with the conservative political bloggers, should be pleased; the next Defense Secretary or Secretary of State might easily have been Anthony Lake. It’s a more conservative national security group than any time during the Clinton administration. Count your blessings folks.

What strikes me as amusing though is the entirely visceral, euphorically emotive and almost tribal “he’s one of us” support from the elite for the President-elect. Reactions that run against the supposedly cerebral and “reality based” pretensions of empiricism and skepticism for which they make a claim but seldom practice because most of them are highly-trained, vertical thinking, experts. When you are accomplished within a domain and have built a reputation by operating within its’ often complex (to laymen) rule-sets, the price is often an acquired blindness that prevents you from challenging the cherished shibboleths of the group.  To look across domains and question fundamental premises in horizontal thinking fashion is to be the bull in the china shop. Or the skunk at the garden party. Or both.

Thorstein Veblen, who saw primitivism re-enacted in advanced capitalist societies would have understood this very well. So would Thomas Kuhn. The Bush administration, with its CEO-ex-jock mentality, was accurately criticized for it’s arrogant insularity and dismissal of critics and contrary evidence. I don’t know about you but I’ve been around an awful lot of very smart academics, including relatives and while their cognitive prowess is admirable, the unwillingness of many of them to reconsider assumptions in light of evidence ( or even notice that they need to do so) can be every bit as stubborn as that of a Wall Street “master of the universe”.

It’s great that Obama is appointing brilliant academics to high posts. Just throw some divergent, unorthodox, thinkers into the mix to keep them honest.

30 Responses to “The Elite as a Tribe”

  1. Shaunak Says:

    Mark, the link to your post "vertical thinking" is broken. It ends with "htm" when it should end with "html." Enjoyed reading your posts on horizontal and vertical thinking.Cheers,Shaunak

  2. Yours Truly Says:

    The A – Team? & now back to "Project for a New American Century"…

  3. Smitten Eagle Says:

    I wish I had something to add, but I don’t.
    Great piece, Zen.  Probably one of your best.

  4. zen Says:

    Much thanks for the catch Shaunak! Fixed! Also a new link on our now in custody governor.
    Gracias SE !

  5. Eddie Says:

    There has to be a toast or three in honor of him going down even earlier than expected.

  6. Lexington Green Says:

    Obama’s team is a monoculture which knows in its bones it is smarter than everybody else.  Whole sectors of human experience and beliefs are totally opaque to this crew, and it will lead to group think and avoidable errors.   Potential hazards based on historical precedent are immediately apparent.

  7. Dave Schuler Says:

    It’s not just that they’re "vertical thinkers".  It’s that they’re all guys who got where they are by giving the expected answer to every question.  That’s what our system teaches; that’s how you succeed in our system; people who give unexpected answers don’t succeed.

  8. zen Says:

    Hi Dave,
    There is a lot of "parrotism" in our system because our hierarchical orgs are designed mostly for the mass-production age and encourage sycophancy.  Sometimes the unexpected answerer does succeed wildly but it is a hard road ( except during emergencies, when ppl sometimes put aside their normally overriding social-behavioral-status concerns in the immediate interest of self-preservation. Once the crisis is over the, old hierarchy will try to sidelione the savior and reimpose old mores)

  9. A young curmudgeon Says:

    Excellent, thoughtful piece. The elite focus on "education" (nothing more than walking the lines of center-left conformity, outside the engineering departments that is) exemplifies the Western left. European bureaucracy is the perfect example of what horrors that will lead to. The US has not suffered Europe’s faith, and has a long way to go towards Europeanization. So they can keep their fun going in Washington for a long time before it really starts to impede true progress, capitalist creative destruction (not of the fraudulent government sponsored banking kind). Luckily, in the US there exists a strong counter current from a self-reliant middle class, and its structure is still quite decentralized.

  10. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Um, isn’t some intelligence better than what we’ve had for the past eight years?

  11. zen Says:

    Hi Cheryl,
    Rumsfeld and Cheney have not erred through lack of smarts.

  12. Lexington Green Says:

    To the contrary, in fact. 
    Rumsfeld and Cheney erred through being sure they were smarter than everybody else.  And they had some reason to think so. 
    I don’t think we’ll have any shortage of that attitude with this incoming lot. 
    It is always possible to be very smart but seriously wrong.  Highly educated smart people who know a wicked lot (as we said where I grew up) about some very specific field, i.e. those with Ph.Ds, are often acutely dumb about stuff normal people understand just fine.  One specific example.  Very smart people usually have the means to live in insulated and safe environments, and often have little conception of the brutality, stupidity and danger that dominates the life of most people in the world, or they forget what they once knew.  Paul Nitze talks about how he had to walk to school every day in Hyde Park wearking knickers.  He got hassled by the local tough guys, until he learned to make friends with the local teenage gang leader and be his pet smart kid.  He said he learned a lot about the reality of politics from the experience.  

  13. zen Says:

    Niels Bohr once said (paraphrasing here) than an expert was someone who had made all the mistakes that it was possible to make in a narrow field.

  14. Lexington Green Says:

    As we lawyers say, an expert is some guy from out of town with a briefcase.
    I once talked to a very drunk woman who had a Ph.D. in physics, who bluntly said that anyone without a Ph.D. in a hard science did not have any value as far as she could see.  In vino veritas indeed.  She bitterly and vocally resented the fact that she worked for and with people who had more money and prestige than she did, despite her years of effort to get the doctorate.  I told her that from my perspective, her expertise was a commodity that we purchase like printer paper, or toner or anything else we need to service our clients.  It was worth the market rate and nothing more.  That shut her up. 

  15. zen Says:

    As a rule, I tend to like physicists, who strike me as jollier, more imaginative, mathematicians. You seem to have run into a frustrated string theory type.
    Of course, Shane has some Edward Teller stories and the father of the H-Bomb didn’t sound exactly like the life of the party.
    You’re correct, there’s no direct connection between cerebral heavy lifting and market value. I’m pretty sure that getting a PhD in decoding mesoamerican glyphic texts is damn hard work too – second only to landing a cool, high paying, gig with such a degree.
    As a historian and educator I can only empathize ; )

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  17. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Help me, guys. I’m confused. Exactly who would be qualified, in your view, to fill these posts?
    Intelligence isn’t a qualification. In fact, it’s a disqualification.
    So you would prefer stumblebums like Heckuvajob Brownie?
    I do get what Mark is saying about horizontal intelligence as well as vertical intelligence and tend to agree that horizontal intelligence is important in these jobs. But subject-matter intelligence is, I would think, a basic requirement for, say, managing the nation’s nuclear stockpile. And wondering what you would say if Obama made some really out-of-the-box choices.
    I’m also wondering about the stereotyping that says that doing well in school results solely from answering the questions in the narrowly correct way. Again, there’s some truth in that, but many highly creative people have done well in school as well. They can learn the game and may play it well.
    And there’s that question of how one judges people who march to different drummers. Nonconformism is easy to see, but previous success is often the best marker for future success. Not infallible, but probably a more conservative criterion than "hey, this guy will shake things up." I’ve also seen many phonies who simulate nonconformism so that they stand out. They’ve been successful at that, but not much else.
    Not to mention how much influence the boss can have, even when herding cats.

  18. Wiggins Says:

    "…physicists, who strike me as jollier, more imaginative, mathematicians…"
    Clearly, you haven’t been hanging around with the right mathematicians ;-).

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  20. Lexington Green Says:

    You need smart people.  You need qualified people.  You need people with Ph.D.s.  You need people with credentials.  You need a preponderance of such people.
    You also need people with common sense and practical wisdom, people who are not likely to sink into groupthink, you need irritating and contrarian people who are willing to speak up and shout back across the table.  To the extent those are not the same people as depicted in paragraph 1, which they often are not, you need other people.   A little of this may go a long way.  None of it can be a real problem.
    You do not over-privilege one type of qualification.   You do not create a monoculture.  That gets you in trouble.  That seems to be the historical record. 
    A good contrasting case study is Eisenhower’s more diverse circle of advisors against Johnson’s.   FDR has a good mix of brainy guys and street-smart guys, who acted as a diverse set of sounding boards.  Similarly, GM had Ross Perot on its board and paid him literally a nine-figure buyout just to go away.  GM refused to benefit from the sef-made billionaire contrarian, and we are all going to pay for it. 

  21. zen Says:

    Hi Cheryl,
    You wrote: "Intelligence isn’t a qualification. In fact, it’s a disqualification.
    So you would prefer stumblebums like Heckuvajob Brownie?"
    I don’t think there was anything in the post that indicated a preference on my part for uneducated hacks as I had described Obama’s picks so far as "well qualified" and "brilliant". I am at home with intellectuals and academics and know many of them in both the humanities and the hard sciences.
    No, my point was that a) the enthusiasm that such people have for Obama has little or nothing to do with the empirical principles on which their intellectual training is based and is akin to the tribal instinct – "he’s one of us", and b) that experts are not bad appointees but many of them are far more cognizant with the strengths and applications of their field than they are with the inherent limitations that are part of the package. Expertise is very valuable but it is a frame for perception and a tool for action – wisdom comes when you know when other tools are more appropriate for the task than the one you happen to be best at.
    To use your example, I want appropriate PhDs managing nuclear weapons technology and materials and maintaining their safety and reliability. Plucking a random scientist from Sandia and asking them to formulate national nuclear weapons policy is not likely to be a good idea unless the scientist has other skills and knowledge to bring to the policy /administrative table beyond nuclear physics or engineering. Or has the time to acquire them "on the job".

    Many experts either cannot see that or their ego can’t permit it and the problem is magnified when it’s a roomful of experts in the same field feel a need for closing ranks against pesky questions from "outsiders" or "heretics". I’d much rather have a room of experts from a range of fields pondering a complex question than a group from just one field any day. When your health is in dire straits, your medical team has a range of specialists consulting together, not one composed only of surgeons.

  22. zen Says:

    Hey Wiggins,
    Present company excepted, of course 🙂

  23. joe Says:

    The problem maybe whenever or if they succumb to groupthink will they have enough contrarians to pull them out of a mess as Lexington Greene mentioned.

    In order to make groupthink testable, Irving Janis devised eight symptoms that are indicative of groupthink (1977).Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking. Rationalising warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, disfigured, impotent, or stupid. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of "disloyalty". Self censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement. Mindguards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

  24. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    I guess I’m a bit more agnostic when it comes to people’s state of mind and am unwilling to accuse Obama’s appointees of groupthink until I see them working together and succumbing.
    I know it’s a meme in certain political quarters to say that there’s an unthinking admiration for our President-Elect, but people at these levels are hardly the sort to be taken over by it.
    All I see so far on this thread is stereotypical suppositions, not evidence about the specific people appointed.
    New co-workers and a boss can make all the difference. I’m not saying that they will, just that this is a factor that this group doesn’t seem to be considering.

  25. Lexington Green Says:

    "All I see so far on this thread is stereotypical suppositions, not evidence about the specific people appointed."
    It’s a blog.  Hence, speculation, eneralization, impressionistic comments, gut level responses to stimuli, etc. are not bugs but features.  
    There are other venues for making linear, fact-bound, presentations of testable hypotheses.  A blog is at least one step before that stage.  It is part of the conversation that leads up to that stage — or not, since most ideas don’t ultimately merit the "Full Cleveland".   

  26. Dave Schuler Says:

    I note something that seems to be missing from the calculus of qualifications:  track record.  Demonstrated ability to manage.  You can always hire guys with PhD’s as consultants.

  27. zen Says:

    I’m reacting to a lengthy news story from the not exactly stereotypically conservative news organization, MSNBC.
    I don’t think that one side of the political divide can collectively escape tendencies rooted in human nature, our educational system and common culture though there will always be sharp individuals who do, regardless of their politics. Building an organizational system and making the decision process resilient means anticipating possible problems related to the worldview of the personnel and how the org manages information flows. Had the Bush administration taken that approach, instead of reinforcing group solidarity, narrowing informational streams, filtering them and weeding out dissent, they’d have had far fewer problems than they did.

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  30. A Young Curmudgeon\ Says:

    Cheryl Rofer: I think you are confused about how the commenters and our host use the word intelligence. A bunch of degrees certainly is not a sufficient condition, nor a necessary one. It does mean that you have some discipline and are probably a long-term thinker, considering you used years and years to acquire the degrees. However, people with advanced degrees are way too confident in their presumed superiority, with little to show for it, actually, they have demonstrated their inability to compete on the basis of truly valued skills (the market place) .

    To me, a good way to determine intelligence is looking at what a person consistently writes (or says), (a blog is a good instrument to gauge a person’s thinking skills, a combination of street smarts, common sense, awareness, and knowledge on a wide range on relevant topics. Beyond these qualities (which degreed people often lack and are actually hostile to), personal courage, the wisdom of a life of experience in the real world, perhaps being well-traveled, etc. It is a wide range of qualities, and again, the narrow confines of Western academia are certainly not the place where these qualities are widespread or fostered.

    That Obama likes to rely on the products of politically correct academia is logical — he himself is the ultimate political correct product of academia. It is the creation of the multiculturalist relativist postmodern legacy of western christianity which has given him a post-racial platform on which to rise to the top of the world. Yet what real skills does he himself have? Skills that save lives, produce market value, and skills that are in general gained from a virtuous life of dogged persistence and discipline, instead of one of ambitious gameplaying in the twisted Orwellian world of politically correct academia followed by the nightmare of Chicago politics and being cheered on by millions who themselves are afraid of an independent, and thus by necessity skillful life.

    The irony of this all is that for the past 8 years these academics + bureaucrats THOUGHT they were the rebels. In reality they were in control all along, because they shape the long-term culture of the nation. They now have consolidated their power and their tribal and statist nature as well as their inability to force or create change (almost all beneficial change ultimately comes from the creative destruction of the marketplace) will slowly become more visible to all. Conservatism is fundamentally an anti-change movement in a culture changing away from its classical liberal foundation, and it is horribly bad at being the conductor of a vehicle it is trying to coax to dismantle itself while driving. It’ll be good to be recognized as the true rebels from now on.

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