Sunday, December 13, 2009

Wanted: Philosopher-King. Only geniuses need apply.

Over at Neanderpundit, a lengthy discussion is ongoing in comments along the lines of "Sarah Palin: Brainiac or Bimbo?"

Leaving politics and personal assessments of Mrs. Palin's IQ aside, this raises an important question: Just what are we hiring a President to do? Discover a Unified Field Theory?

Is it actually possible to be too smart for the job? Is a 20-lb. brain a downcheck for a CEO's position? Extremely intelligent people tend to get mired in minutiae and become obsessed with all manner of personal hobbyhorses. Witness the mess that Woodrow Wilson, PhD, made of the postwar world; Tricky Dick was a salutatorian and got a scholarship to Duke Law School; Jimmy Carter, before beginning his second career as a bile-filled old coot, graduated 59th out of his class of 820 at Annapolis; none of these are presidencies I'd like to see repeated.


Kristophr said...

You are right. We don't want a genius for a leader.

We need a Sub-Genius.

Will Brown said...

Is it actually possible to be too smart for the job?

As a practical matter, I think the generalised answer has to be; "No".

A chief executive has to have the brain power to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of the proposals presented for consideration or action in a wide range of potential circumstance. S/he also has to accept that authority can be delegated, but not responsibility, and still create and abide by a delegation process.

Too often even really smart people assume that the ability to enact a decision equates to the necessity of doing so personally. Explicitly including such an enquiry into our electoral nomination process might help to preclude recurrance of at least some of the more egregious examples from US presidential history.

Not to mention making explicit what a president doesn't have authority to do during the nomination exercise.

The problem with Priest/Philosopher Kings isn't so much that they can do so much, but that there are so many encouraging them to get on with it. [If only in just this certain way, you understand.] Being able to concieve of so many possible actions can only give succumbing to the urging that much more impact (and thus be that much more damaging too).

Anonymous said...

I think it was William F. Buckley who said that he'd rather be led by the first 12 names in the phone book than the whole of the Harvard faculty.

Leadership requires intelligence but it's not the highest and best quality. Being decisive is.

I don't remember who said this:"the best solution is to do the right thing; the second best is to do the wrong thing; the worst is to dither."

Ed Foster said...

Reagan was pretty bright (First POTUS with a degree in economics) and I was impressed as hell with the brilliant series of articles and interviews he did with National Review while Governor of California.

But a bright butthead with a touch of sociopathy like Bill Clinton (Rhodes Scolar), or small town cluelessness and paranoia compounded by an excess of Quakerism (Nixon),fails due to his mindset, not ability to process information.

Nixon couldn't communicate, knew it, and was mistrustful of the people who couldn't trust him due to his secretive and insecure ways.

Clinton was a used car salesman who could talk to anybody, but he was also a totally unprincipled and undisciplined little boy, let loose in a candystore with Daddy's credit card and no limit.

Both were brilliant but flawed men. Nixon had substance but no people skills, Clinton had the persona but no real agenda except maintaining power.

The question is, who can be the next Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, or Reagan polymath? They were the only really impressive, fully functional Presidents of the 20th century, and a tough act to follow.

Anonymous said...

I'd take "too smart" as an indication of a bad imbalance among the broad range of skills required.

I'd take a clear set of principles and spine to follow them over genius, anyway.


Unknown said...

I would say the most important skill is the ability to judge people. This doesn't show up much in IQ tests or class standings.
Nobody out there has the bandwidth to evaluate all of the proposals and bills that are floated by governing wonks. The president needs to have good judgment in picking his advisers to match his needs and strengths and weakness. And in judging the desires and goals of the people that come to him with ideas, suggestions and concerns. And a ability to shrewdly work with or around those that are trying to thwart what he is trying to accomplish.

og said...

I'm more inclined to say, a person with a decent moral foundation and a respect for the rule of law and the constitution would do a better job. But I don't feel Palin is a dumbass- rather I think she has just what it takes, based on her history in Alaska.

TJP said...

I filled in the bubble next to "none of the above". We have foisted so much on the government, that no living person possesses the competence to do the job.

Will Brown said...

addenda to above:

I think the greatest contributor to the dilemma faced by any US president is the duality of the actual job requirement: chief executive and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

As CE s/he exercises ultimate decision-making direction over domestic law enforcement as well as direct authority over war-making activity as CinC. These two seperate responsibilities require consideration of mutually exclusive factors. Disregarding the rote-response issues, just how desirable is it to have a president that doesn't possess the intellectual horsepower to measure the conflicting considerations inherent to the close calls (sedition vs 1st Ammendment as example) exclusive of subordinate advice? Granted, the office is not that of an autocrat, but just how dependent (outside of statutory requirements) do we really desire such an individual to be on such - unelected - advisors?

The fundamental question raised here has less to do with any given (or potential) example of office holder than it does with the process and mechanism by which such are selected and decided.

Referring back to the actual title of this post; by what standard is "genius" to be decided and, perhaps more importantly, how accountably by whom?

aczarnowski said...

As D&D taught me in my youth, intelligence and wisdom are two separate stats. I look for the later, not the former, in public servants.

Now if we could just get some candidates that didn't use Wis points to max Cha. This minimum-required-to-play crap is starting to get really old.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

The problem with people like Wilson is the unreal world of academia in which they live. His problem was not that he was too smart, his problem was that he could not see past his fancy Princeton PhD to an understanding of how the world actually worked. Thus his solutions to world problems generally tended to be socialistic, one-world, "let's all be friends" pie-in-the-sky.

I may have mentioned a time or two that I absolutely abhor Wilson. He and the bad Roosevelt (the one in the wheelchair, not the one who shot bears) top my pantheon of the worst presidents of all time...and Ă˜bama is lining up to jump onto their shoulders.

TJP said...


The responsibility of ultimate decision-making in law enforcement belongs to the judicial branch, and they should intervene only in certain circumstances. The chief law-making bodies are the states' legislatures, and those they delegate should be doing the bulk of the enforcement. At one time, the people also had a recognized power to disrupt crimes in progress.

It all started with a single Attorney General, but now it's a huge bureaucracy tasked with enforcing a slew of unconstitutional legislation. Oh those Federalists and their "potential instrument[s] of national tyranny".

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

It's not a matter of how much intelligence but of what kind of intelligence - book smarts versus real-world smarts.

I've known EMT's with master's degrees or doctorates in biology/engineering/physics/etc. who could rewrite the entire paramedic text backwards. Put those same people in an actual ambulance, and they can't even tell when to do CPR.

On the other hand, I've known people who barely graduated high school that I'd trust with my life if I were the patient. They struggled through their EMT class, and had trouble learning the material, but once they learned it they could reason out exactly how to apply it in any situation without any hesitation.

As aczarnowski said, it's a matter of Intelligence versus Wisdom. We need someone with the intelligence to understand what's happening, and the wisdom to apply that knowledge appropriately.

Anonymous said...

Senses of humor, hubris, humility.

Student of history and humanity.

Strength of convictions.

Strike a pose? Absolutely critical.

Stay the course.


WV: becariz Becaris that's what works; in politics, in business, in life.

og said...

BTW, I'm gonna get business cards that say "Bile filled old coot"

BobG said...

I don't want a leader, I want a representative.
If I wanted to play follow-the-leader, I'd join a cult.

Anonymous said...

Wisdom over intelligence any day.
Wisdom = intelligence + real world experience.
Too many intellectuals have been in school so / too long, they're indoctrinated with leftist socialism. And they have never held down a real-world job of any kind. Being in any kind of Big Gub'ment position doesn't count.
Definition of a conservative is a socialist that's been bitch-slapped by reality.

That's why, for all her flaws, I'd pick Sarah over any of the current crop of contenders. So far. Im praying and hoping that there may yet be another up-and-comer that will be better, but I'm not holding my breath.

B Woodman

Will Brown said...

@ TJP: Three points;

1) Uh, which branch of government is the Department of Justice a part of again?

2) Tam made the thread reasonably specific by the context of her post, although I'm reasonably certain the various states all adhere to the federal structural model as well.

3) I was deliberately careful to stipulate: "As CE s/he exercises ultimate decision-making direction over domestic law enforcement ..."; indicating that the President exercises ultimate authority over the enforcement of general adherence to the legal code, which would imply a distinction from it's (domestic law) origination (that would be the Legislative branch) or adjudication (Judical branch - note the similarity of word root for this one) process.

Since the entire post (Tam's and the linked-to post by Og) concerned determining the suitability of a candidate for highest office in the Executive branch (actually, there was some reference to a hypothetical CEO in industry as well), I hope you'll forgive me for not making the distinction more explicit in the first place.

Schmidt said...

@Leader qualifications:
success, not in politics or law,
not an idealist(next to the Mongols, they killed the most people..),
humility(nothing is ever simple, and a guy who thinks he always knows what to do is a recipe for disaster)

That kind of person is pretty much unelectable.

As to extreme intelligence, I think
the sample is too small. There are smart people who stay focused on the important stuff. And I wouldn't call those gents' extremely intelligent. Annapolis is not exactly physics at Caltech ..

Intelligence combined with humility is crucial to getting wise. I'd take a smart, sensible thirty something over a wise, but not bright sixty year old guy.
Wisdom is there for the taking, we just have to be willing to learn from our own and others' mistakes.

BTw, that discussion at Neanderpundit is hillarious.
I chipped in with a few links regarding her record and saying that she made herself look ignorant for her famous refusal to name a newspaper and Og deleted my posts and added some pretty disgusting and not very funny statements on top. Sure, I was a bit rude to him, but only after he started calling me an 'ancephalic moron', which is I believe inaccurate.

Well, it's his soapbox, but it was a pretty pathetic move.

og said...

Sorry, Tam. I hate to scrape a troll off on you, feel free to do with it what you please. It has two modes: Palin suxxors, and ad hominem. And it's a first person shooter dipstick. But that's- you know, just like for real.

TJP said...


No slight intended. I'm pointing out that what started out as a single cabinet position to assist in prosecuting the federal government's case, turned into a huge bureaucracy under executive power. The AG originally offered advice to the President. The Constitution only offers that the President has "executive Power", and the Framers apparently didn't expect the job to expand so rapidly from managing the federal government to managing almost everything in the land (by proxy), through mostly unconstitutional legislation.

That this is the de facto condition of the Office of the President goes along with my argument that the federal government exercises so much power and labors under so much responsibility that, say, 20 IQ points isn't going to make a difference in presidential performance. The faithful execution of the office requires a level of competence that is humanly impossible--so yes, the person we elect will always have a dilemma, starting with a requirement from the first day in office, to defend the Constitution and to execute the laws in the US Code which violate it.

Also: when I read "domestic law enforcement", I think of those institutions established by state governments; that's my source of misunderstanding.

rickn8or said...

Nevermind intelligence and wisdom; I'd settle for a president with integrity.

You know, someone that you didn't have to analyze every statement as "well I know what I heard, but what did (s)he SAY?".

Anonymous said...

damn anyone else but the socilaistic fool we have in there now!!

Someone with the wisdom of jefferson the balls of reagon and the honor and loyalty of washington.

Brad K. said...


That was precisely why I voted for McCain in '08. I have no use at all for the guy, I consider his nomination a monument to all the worst of the Republican party leadership, and a tribute to forlorn aspirations of mediocrity.

But America has shown a tendency to thrive under stupid Presidents. As you mention, it was the brilliant idiots that cost us the most. Not that I would call B. Hussein Obama a brilliant idiot. Because even the village idiot has a story to tell, and I don't want to denigrate the value of a village idiot to society.

Obama is much more dangerous than that.

What I want to know about Palin is - does she depend on competent people? Look at the Reagan years. President Ronald Reagan was never admired for his brilliance, aside from the smile - and aside from selecting an incredibly focused and competent coterie.

If all Palin has to bring with her are Alaskan business men - then she is a light weight, whatever her personal characteristics. A President leads a team, and if Palin doesn't have a heavy-hitting team, that bodes badly for the nation.

Because I do like Palin for coming from outside the realm of "Republican Party Leadership" - which, again, I don't want to compare to the village idiot.

It is too soon, to know who will be available for the '12 election. Unlike Hillary, Palin just doesn't have the organized crime and organized labor tie-ins. Palin could win among voters, and still lose to big money and backroom deals.

Schmidt said...

@Brad K

That pissed-off McCain adviser says she's a diva. Doesn't like to listen to others. He has an axe to grind, perhaps.

There's the Kilkenny letter from a Wasilla resident:

Make of that what you want. I don't think the letter was written just to discredit her. Said Anne Kilkenny really lives in Wasilla and said she wrote the letter to her friends just after they picked Palin for VP candidate. As to its accuracy, I think it's largely legit. I have not seen a believable de-bunking yet.

Tam is sensible, considerate, and much less billious than you. I doubt I'll come across as a troll here.

Tam said...


Maybe you missed the part of my post where I said that this wasn't a discussion about Emmanuel Goldst... er, Sarah Palin, but rather an exploration of just how important having an intellect of the first water is to being a good executive. So, let's not turn the comment thread into a "Boo, Palin!" or "Yay, Palin!", since neither are germane to the topic at hand.

(Further, you might want to do some research on which freshman class contains a higher percentage of valedictorians, CalTech or Annapolis.)

Schmidt said...

Yeah. I refrained from commenting about her. This particular one was directed at Brad K, who seemed interested. If I should refrain to answering short questions posed by other posters, I'll oblige you in the future.

I don't think grades accurately measure intelligence. Eager-beaver types like to have perfect grades, but people like Feynman and his ilk are still smarter.

A lot of very smart people were bored or not motivated to excell at boring subjects, such as literature, civics..etc.

theirritablearchitect said...

"...The responsibility of ultimate decision-making in law enforcement belongs to the judicial branch..."

And here, I present to you, someone who actually believes that government will restrain itself, just because there is something called the Constitution.

That attitude is precisely who we have arrived at our current state of affairs.

I have nothing to offer someone who thinks this way.

Firehand said...

"Annapolis is not exactly physics at Caltech .. "
Yes, he has to have some slander of the military thrown in, just to cover all the bases.

Schmidt said...

Slander? Hardly. Almost everyone who is not dumb, is literate, not blind, and has guts can be a decent soldier, but very few people have what it takes to actually contribute to modern physics.

That's just a fact. It's that complex. Most people don't have the kind of magical(oops.. mathemathical) talent to learn the maths required to understand said physics.

Kind of unfortunate, but it's that way. Whereas, learning how to be a naval officer is something anyone with guts and more than half a brain(~IQ 115 plus) can do.

Rick R. said...

Schmidt --

Leaving aside the idea that learning to be a naval officer is something "anyone with guts and more than half a brain(~IQ 115 plus) can do" (besides, I know some naval officerrs I am quite respectful of that would agree), there is the fact that Annapolis isn't exactly "OCS for dummies".

It's a pretty tough school, specializing in engineering. Just like West Point and (I believe) Colorado Springs. The dumbest rock in one of the service is still a pretty bright bulb.

RIck R. said...


"Dumbest rock in one of the service academies"

Ed Foster said...

Schmidt, getting into the academies is competitive. A serious winnowing.

These aren't (forgive me) European military academies, these people all graduate with engineering degrees from some of the best E schools in the world, in addition to finishing a ruthless emotional and physical elimination, designed to "Stress the best and lose the rest".

All that on top of a degree in military science from the only effective military on the planet.

It's a 91 hour work week (not counting homework) under constant pressure, deliberatly designed to break most people. And, with only one 2 week and 2 one week vacations per year.

I spent 2 years giving intelligence tests for a living, and have a fairly good idea of correlation between standard scores and behavior.

I doubt I ever saw an American officer from one of the "Trade Schools" who could have scored lower than second standard deviation, call it low to mid 130's on a Wechsler/Binet/Grace type test.

About the same as a typical mechanical engineer or medical doctor. Not suprising, as they all have degrees in engineering or computer science.

But I suspect the average scores would be in the borderline genius range, with an impressive number of Schwartzkopf type near supermen. All with a pragmatism and tested emotional stability virtually unknown in any comparable group of civilians.

I was an NCO who went to college afterward on the G.I. Bill, without which I would probably be a chicken farmer and part time lumberjack in Killingworth Connecticut.

But my brother is a retired Navy Commander and graduate of the Naval Staff College in Newport, and I know something of the breed.

Other armies produce competent officers in their individual fields, but none require the intellectual capabilities found in the academy trained American officer.

His education never really ends, and by the time he makes Lt. Colonel or Naval Commander he has commonly added two or three masters degrees or doctorates, often from civilian schools, plus 2 to 4 years of staff college, and has been rotated through and trained in virtually every arm of his service.

Even the other English speaking militaries don't ask of the average officer what America does.

It's been argued that it's a waste to train every officer to do every job, and I agree it increases the expense dramatically.

But when an infantry commander knows what his armor and artillery support are truely capable of, fully understands his logistics, and understands everything on the battlefield, he is able to operate with an efficiency and speed not found in opposing forces.

That, more than all the electronics, is the heart of C3I and modern military practice.

Why did the British get Basrah and Khorramshah in the most recent gulf war?

Because neither required the ability to move more than a few miles from the start point, and the British military, qualitatively the second best in the world, could no longer manuver with the American military. Not even with loaned equiptment and a head start.

Without the kind of officers the academies train, none of that would be possible.

Show me another military in the world that requires it's officers to know and discuss the strong and weak points of Hegle and Kant, Rousseau, Shopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Marx,and expound on Sephardic influences on trade in the medeval Balkans.

All while fixing a tank engine, mining a bridge under fire, and plotting a rolling envelopment of an attacking force with combined arms.

There is literally nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Every other force on the planet is rigidly compartmentalised, with each part of it commanded by specialists in their respective field.

You get what you pay for.

Schmidt said...

Shit. I lost a longish reply. I'll make one later.

One thing: paying for it:

Are you sure the Fed, that's been busy debasing the currency ever since the gold standard fell, and some time before, is going to print money that'll be taken seriously forever?

Right now, even the birds flitting around are talking about how the massive 'money printing' is going to lead to a disaster of epic proportions. What will happen to the awesome war machine then?

Brad K. said...


The flip side of paying for a fine military, is motivating one.

America has been blessed with enough men and women willing to serve in the defense of their country. It is the honor of our nation to respect that service.

When a nation, a family, a community - a Presidential administration - disparage the services, when the honor of flag and nation are disparaged, that can rebound for generations, on who is willing or interested in serving.

Ed Foster writes eloquently of the sterling caliber of Academy graduates, and even selectees that don't make it to graduation.

The enlisted ranks have had the reputation for being an avenue for class change - many underprivileged men and women have learned about themselves, and a different way of living, through enlisted service over the centuries. Many have enjoyed technical educations, some an entrance to a formerly unavailable college. Nearly all have learned a deep understanding and commitment to duty and honor.

A President that publicly and deliberately will not honor the flag risks losing part or all of the dedication and commitment of those considering military service.

The nation has long benefited from the service of men and women from diverse communities within our national society; learning to live together, learning about each other, different beliefs and cultural heritages, these have all played an incalculably valuable role in threading a common thread of service through families and communities. Our returning veterans, whether short one-term service or retired at thirty (30) years, tend to meld communities together. Most continue to serve as exemplary citizens the rest of their lives, and even longer through their families.

Military service is a partial exile from civilian life. Finding volunteers to make up the ranks of those in service depends on offering opportunities - retaining the best in service for extended enlistments, and for officers, extended service, depends largely on motivation - a sense of service, of devotion, a belief that the organization, the nation is served.

Nothing can destroy that motivation faster than disrespect and a President that fails to act as if he leads a fine military, when dealing with foreign affairs. A President that recklessly increases the likelihood of conflict, that fails to avoid dangerous situations - that doesn't exemplify the duty and honor of those in service - cannot motivate good citizens to serve a failed cause.

@ Tam,

Back to your original question - Does Palin need to be super-smart, or even average-smart? No. She would have to show some wisdom, some character, and skill in selecting people to work with that get the job done well. I have seen she has the popular appeal, but we already have a leader with nothing to bring to the game but crowd appeal. Yes, she has the experience of governing, where B. Hussein Obama only had fund raising on his resume, and playing ball with some unsavory contacts.

I haven't seen that Palin has enough background to be a great asset to the Oval Office. Still watching, though.

Schmidt said...

@Brad K

Exactly. The army's been hemorrhaging experienced officers ever since Bush waltzed into Iraq on false pretences. And probably well before then, because of Clinton abusing army to draw attention away from his sordid affairs.

According to Army data, the portion of junior officers (lieutenants and captains) choosing to depart for civilian life rose last year to 8.6%, up from 6.3% in 2004. The attrition rate for majors rose to 7% last year, up from 6.4% in 2005. And the rate for lieutenant colonels was 13.7%, the highest in more than a decade.

The figures mark the lowest retention rate of graduates after the completion of their mandatory duty since at least 1977, with the exception of members of three classes in the late 1980s who were encouraged to leave as the military downsized following the end of the Cold War.

Majors, captains are mostly staying, but they're giving them pretty big bonuses for that. $20 K , 35K $ for battle-tested captains.

You had slick Willie before that, and now there's Obama. At least GWB elder was a combat veteran. Bush the lesser could've gone to Vietnam, just like McCain did. If he wanted to. I bet on that, I mean, his father was pretty influential, all it'd take would be a phonecall, and he could've transferred to regular air force. I sort of wonder why he did not.

tim said...


I tried following your link to NeanderPundit only to discover that Og censors the perfectly civil comments of those who simply disagree with him, and despite his penchant for discourteous and utterly profane personal attacks. I assume that's his way of making his (and only his) point.

So, I'll comment here instead. As I said (and was censored for doing so), Ms. Palin appears to be quite smart, but also quite phony. The Kilkenny letter (which I hadn't seen until just now) seems to reinforce that point. Her actions would seem to belie her public image of integrity, abandoning her responsibility as governor and hiring a ghost writer to help her cash in on her opportunity to make a killing with a best selling book.

This time next year I expect she'll have a show on Fox News, along side the other talking parrots...but I do hope she sticks around long enough to screw up the 2012 elections, if only for the comic relief and SNL skits.

For what it's worth, having personally dealt with executives at fairly lofty levels in the business world, I think the job requires both intelligence and leadership. Shooting from the hip only works for so long, but Palin seems to be just such an executive.

Thanks for listening to an opposing point of view. ;-)