From Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen interviews Walter Russell Mead


COWEN: How would you change or improve the training that goes into America’s foreign policy elite?

MEAD: Well, I would start by trying to draw people’s attention to that, over the last 40 years, there’s been an enormous increase in the number of PhD grads engaged in the formation of American foreign policy. There’s also been an extraordinary decline in the effectiveness of American foreign policy. We really ought to take that to heart.

COWEN: Do you think of it as an advantage that you don’t have a PhD?

MEAD: Huge advantage.

COWEN: How would you describe that advantage?

MEAD: I don’t really believe in disciplines. I see connections between things. I start from reality. I’m not trying to be anti-intellectual here. You need ideas to help you organize your perceptions of reality. But I think there’s a tendency in a lot of social science disciplines — you start from a bunch of really smart, engaged people who have been thinking about a set of questions and say, “We’ll do a lot better if we stop randomly thinking about everything that pops up and try, in some systematic way, to organize our thinking of this.”

I think you do get some gains from that, but you see, over time, the focus of the discipline has this tendency to shift. The discipline tends to become more inward navel-gazing. “What’s the history of our efforts to systematize our thinking about this?” The discipline becomes more and more, in a sense, ideological and internally focused and less pragmatic.

I think that some of the problem, though, is not so much in the intellectual weaknesses of a lot of conventional postgrad education, but simply almost the crime against humanity of having whole generations of smart people spend the first 30, 35 years of their lives in a total bubble, where they’re in this academic setting, and the rule . . . They become socialized into the academy, just as much as prisoners get socialized into the routines of a prison.

HKO thoughts:

Academics from the Kennedy and Johnson administration directed much of the Viet Nam fiasco.

Academics in economics have taken Keynesian ideas to an illogical extreme.

It’s very hard to argue in logical terms that spending money unwisely is the way to get wealthy.” – Russ Roberts

This is perhaps as simple a refutation of Keynesianism as you will find (though many simple refutations on many different fronts will be found in this book). But because an honest encapsulation of one of the basic tenets of Keynesianism is that unwise, unnecessary spending can be a great promotion of the public good via manipulation of aggregate demand, it is necessary for us to reduce the tenet to its real logical conclusion—that somehow spending money foolishly will create a non-foolish result.

Bahnsen, David L.. There’s No Free Lunch: 250 Economic Truths (p. 266). Post Hill Press. Kindle Edition.

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
-Friedrich von Hayek

I think the genius of the GI Bill after WWII was to take GIs that had a real view of the world at its worst and then provide them with a higher education.  The more foreign policy is directed by academics without this dose of reality the more dangerous they become.

I have been impressed by authors such as Jonah Goldberg (BA- Goucher)  and Kevin Williamson (BA- Yale) who do not possess advanced degrees but write of economics and politics with both intellectual depth and readability.  Like Mead they are free to thread thinking from various disciplines.

Many of the departments of higher academia are plagued by a lack of intellectual diversity.  The atmosphere of ‘wokeness’ and cancel culture is just a form of intellectual McCarthyism.