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The First Duty of Intelligent Men


The 24-hour news cycle and its ubiquitous media brings every detail of every issue and policy to us.  Debates limit responses to critical issues to two minutes. Congressional hearings for cabinet nominees are similarly limited.  This precious time is wasted asking irrelevant questions for the purpose of political grandstanding. Otherwise why would Mike Pompeo of the CIA and Ben Carson of HUD be questioned about climate change?

What is lost is any sense of perspective or the larger issues. Occasionally it slips through. When questioned about free college by Bernie Sanders, Betsy Devos responded that nothing is truly free. Orwell noted, “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”

In isolation, every expense is easily justified, but Congress works in total and every expense is relative in its importance.

The big ideas do not happen in news cycles and sound bites. If anything, the daily news is a distraction that allows people to be engaged without thinking.  It misleads with only a part of the truth, feeding outrage without understanding or perspective.  It slays vaporous demons.

Henry Ford adopted the assembly line from an observation of a slaughterhouse.  His innovation reduced the time to produce a car from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes, an eight-fold improvement.  This process was demanding on his workers and he dramatically increased their wages to $5 a day, a very high wage at the time.  The increase was not altruistic as history so often attributes it, but was driven by a dramatic increase in productivity which came from an innovative idea.

Nucor Steel propelled technologies in continuous casting for steel production into a 400% reduction in the man-hours needed to produce steel.  Its guiding leader Ken Iverson saw labor costs dropping below the cost of transportation from overseas.  Technology and innovation secured American steel jobs, not protectionist trade policies. Iverson is deceased and Nucor’s current management no longer shares Iverson’s opinion on trade protectionism, but Nucor remains a largely nonunion company with a high paid and happy workforce.

We all struggle for marginal improvements, but great progress comes from ideas and innovation.  Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality and Bourgeois Dignity illuminates the source of our progress but emphasizes the magnitude. The improvement in human betterment in the last two centuries is so enormous by historical standards, an increase of at least 15-fold, that understanding its source becomes an important line of inquiry.  That this happened in the face of two world wars, multiple genocides, and several depressions makes it more stunning. If our most destructive global events did not stop the march of progress, what effect will trivial Congressional and political bickering have?

If we keep our liberal institutions functioning, our markets flowing, and respect the liberties of everyone this progress will continue.  It will not be consistent or equal and it will certainly not be painless. To the extent that we try to control these three factors (consistency, equality, or discomfort) we tend to retard growth and innovation, but not by much if we retain respect for liberty and dignity.

Our concerns about the cost of health care, pollution, and other social ills are mired in the marginalism of the present.  When we make leaps in the treatment of diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease- and we will- health care costs will plummet; not because of government policy but despite it.

We can watch the news and cheer our side, and feign outrage at the other, but the net effect is little different than if it was a football game. The choice is not between being uniformed or misinformed; but between big ideas and marginal ones.  You are not likely to find the former on the news.


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The True Anti-Intellectuals

Jeff Jacoby at The Boston Globe writes a wonderful piece to start the year,  What experts predict, reality will contradict

“I think that you listen too much to the soldiers,” wrote the British statesman Lord Salisbury to the viceroy of India in 1877. “No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts.”

But the experts themselves — often mistaken, but never in doubt — rarely seem to learn that lesson. Their forecasts will keep flowing in the year ahead, undeterred by their egregious blunders in the one just ended.

2016! Was there ever such a year for making donkeys out of seers? An entire column could be filled with nothing but the names of sages and savants, supposedly adept in the ways of politics, who confidently assured everyone that Donald J. Trump couldn’t possibly win the Republican presidential nomination, let alone be elected president of the United States.


Daniel Kahneman has observed that even the most credentialed and intelligent are prone to errors of probability. The more isolated that our academic establishments get from intellectual diversity the greater this error rate will likely become.

History is filled with predictions of an apocalypse that never happened, and missed the travesties that did. (although WWII was widely predicted.)

In a field of great uncertainty the best bet is a regression to the mean.  It’s as good a bet as always splitting aces or always doubling on a dealer 6.

The greater the certainty and the greater the credentialism of the predictors, the more likely the regression is  to be the preferred bet.

The less tolerant the consensus is of dissent or skepticism,  the more likely they are to be wrong.

Addressing the limits of the intellect is not to be anti-intellectual. It is the opposite. Knowing the limits allows wiser application, greater respect, and lower risk.  This makes intellectualism more acceptable and trustworthy to a wider populace. It is the blind faith in credentialism and consensus that damages the reputation of the intellectuals.  The cynicism and demonization of skepticism and true debate is the height of anti-intellectualism.

Even the wide swath of citizens that find policy and ideology boring can be quite animated at the consequences of these ideas. We would be surprised at the value that the addition of humility would bring to the world of ideas.

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Media Irony

What if Donald Trump wins?

And we realize that the triumph was largely due to the outsized and relatively free media coverage he got early on……

Because he drew such large audiences that it enhanced the profits of the very media outlets that abhor him.

He gets elected by the greed of the very liberal media outlets who thought that this exposure would end his career ….

And make them rich.

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The World is Too Much With US


from Garrett Swasey’s final sermon by Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe

The world is too much with us,” opens William Wordsworth’s famous sonnet. “Late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” If that was true when he penned those lines more than two centuries ago, in an epoch of slow-traveling news and more restrained societal norms, how much truer is it today, when instantaneous communication and no-holds-barred jousting has turned so much of our public life into ceaseless recrimination?

Most of us, most of the time, talk too much and listen too little. We avidly make use of technology to blast our complaints and contempt to the four corners of the Internet. Not only do we ascribe ugly intentions to those we disagree with or have been disappointed by, but we can’t wait to do so openly, rushing to Facebook or Yelp or the online comment box to post a strident put-down or a nasty innuendo.

Partisan controversy and electoral skirmishing is nothing new. But in our age, when news cycles are measured not in days but in hours, political camps wage nonstop war. To score a tactical gain, anything is permitted; to generate a flattering headline, everything is rationalized; to undermine an opponent, even the most obnoxious abuse is tolerated. And those of us in the business of commenting or reporting on public affairs soak it up and slosh it forward, doing our best to feed — or perhaps to induce — an appetite for calumny that grows ever more ravenous and undiscriminating.

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from David Daley in Salon, Camille Paglia takes on Jon Stewart, Trump, Sanders: “Liberals think of themselves as very open-minded, but that’s simply not true!”


I think Stewart’s show demonstrated the decline and vacuity of contemporary comedy. I cannot stand that smug, snarky, superior tone. I hated the fact that young people were getting their news through that filter of sophomoric snark.  Comedy, to me, is one of the major modern genres, and the big influences on my generation were Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. Then Joan Rivers had an enormous impact on me–she’s one of my major role models.  It’s the old caustic, confrontational style of Jewish comedy. It was Jewish comedians who turned stand-up from the old gag-meister shtick of vaudeville into a biting analysis of current social issues, and they really pushed the envelope.  Lenny Bruce used stand-up to produce gasps and silence from the audience. And that’s my standard–a comedy of personal risk.  And by that standard, I’m sorry, but Jon Stewart is not a major figure. He’s certainly a highly successful T.V. personality, but I think he has debased political discourse.  I find nothing incisive in his work.  As for his influence, if he helped produce the hackneyed polarization of moral liberals versus evil conservatives, then he’s partly at fault for the political stalemate in the United States.