It’s not made by great men

Let me apologize in advance for the long wind-up on this one, but I want to justify being a bit of a glib asshole about our political system here.

I have a friend who says he knows Nate Silver from back in the day. According to him (I’m sure Nate Silver would deny this and I’m sure I’m getting details wrong too), Silver was playing a lot of online poker and making money at it, then the other players got good so he quit to do something where the people around him would be dumber, so he could make more of an impact. Sports statistics was a natural choice. Then all these smart people (Voros McCracken, etc.) started doing sports stats too, so he looked for a new backwater, and found political statistics, where he dominated and revolutionized many things.

I have some other friends who are in business that involves managing large groups of peoples. I’ve asked them what the most important thing is and they say it’s hiring capable people. I ask if there’s anything else and they say, yes, making sure the most capable people get promoted as high as possible. And that’s it, there’s really nothing else you can do, they say. It’s obvious stuff, they admit, but they say it’s harder to do than I would think and that it’s not done well in a lot of cases.

The politicos on tv don’t impress me. Ed Rollins and James Carville, don’t seem like idiots but they also don’t seem like people who would rise to the top of very many fields. Actual elected officials are more of a mixed bag, with more outright morons (James Inhofe, Sarah Palin) and also more genuinely impressive people (Bill Clinton, Obama). If I had to break it down by party, I’d say that the Republican political consultants seem slightly sharper than their Democratic counterparts (especially among the older ones) while the Democratic elected officials seem a good deal sharper than their Republican counterparts.

But all in all, it’s just not an impressive group of people.

The same is true of the pundits on tv. Other than Paul Krugman (who of course didn’t come from a journalistic background) and maybe Ron Brownstein, they just don’t come across as people’s whose opinions I’d be interested in on any topic. They don’t know anything about anything, they don’t speak especially well, and their insights are all either stale conventional wisdom or something I read on a blog months ago.

Maybe it’s time to admit that the people at the top of our political/media heap just aren’t very bright. Politics and media are both areas where there isn’t a lot of good accreditation and review of people (the way there is to some extent in law or medicine or academia), nor is there much opportunity for constructive entrepreneurship (you have to be at some large organization to get anywhere) nor is there anyway to get to the top by just beating other people, as there might be in something like sports (I realize there are elections to win, but they are mostly rigged via gerrymandering etc.). Most of it doesn’t pay very well at the beginning, with all these unpaid internships and so on.

It seems like a system that would discourage ambitious young people from joining and then promote the people who do join in a capricious way.

Maybe it’s pointless to speculate this, but I do think that it’s part of why our national political system is just a disaster: it’s run by losers. Don’t get me wrong, these people could be corrupt and self-dealing and all that, but that doesn’t mean they’re not also incompetent.

114 replies
  1. 1
    Little Boots says:

    MORE thread? wander over to eschaton, will you?

    in the meantime, I will read this post.

  2. 2
    John Cole says:

    OT: Jon Stewart just interviewed what I think was an elf discussing Cleopatra.

  3. 3
    Little Boots says:

    you have a point. I read as much incisive commentary on these threads as I do in the punditocracy. it does seem to be pretty random who gets to be a pundit. (And only partially because Fred Hiatt exists.)

  4. 4
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    I think Carville is actually kind of dumb, myself; Begala was the brains, Carville the energy is my take.. Also, too, Carville is stuck in the mid-90s.

    But to the meat of your post: Abso-fucking-lutely. I often say that we too often attribute to greed or ill-will that which should be attributed to simple stupidity. Ezra Klein has said that, as he went from congressional office to office to interview ‘critters on HCR, he was shocked to learn how little they knew/understood about the bill. We often say here that the tax debate is muddled by people who don’t understand marginal taxation; I wonder how many CC’s don’t get it either, and I mean Blue Dogs, not Louie Goemert or Sarah Palin.

  5. 5
    Andrew says:

    While we’re talking about pundits: is there anybody who finds Chris Cilizza remotely interesting? I find his blog to be the most inane, CW-spouting pablum imaginable. And his powers of analysis, and his predictive powers, suck.

    How does he have a permanent perch at the WP? Actually, scratch that. I shouldn’t ask. Perhaps the real question is how do Ezra Klein, EJ Dionne, Stephen Perlstein, and Eugene Robinson find perches at the WP?

  6. 6
    Elizabelle says:


    You made me smile with your mention of Klein, Dionne, Pearlstein (especially!) and Robinson.

    Otherwise, I feel guilty clicking on the WaPost. It’s like sneaking a peek at Fox. (Except I don’t do that.)

  7. 7
    WarMunchkin says:

    Also, don’t journalists have to spend time reading and being informed about the details of certain issues? It seems like if they’re on TV breathlessly saying the first thing that comes to their mind for extended periods of time, they don’t have time to do, you know, journalism.

  8. 8
    Spiffy McBang says:

    How exactly does the Nate Silver anecdote fit in…?

  9. 9
    pandera says:

    Yep. Well said.

  10. 10

    I don’t find it especially revelatory that the hiring process for politicians does not select for the qualities that make a successful statesman; it selects for the qualities that make a successful campaigner, and those don’t overlap all that much.

    As for quality in general, it’s like the joke about outrunning the bear: to win elections doesn’t require being excellent on any kind of absolute scale (excellent at campaigning, remember, governing ability isn’t even on the menu); you just have to be better than the opponents. And that’s often a pretty shallow pool.

    As for the flies that swarm around the piles of shit we elect, just look at the incentives. For consultants, pundits, journalists, anyone who makes a living selling the idea that they have ideas…you get hired by the same people you’ll be working with for your whole career. If your ideas upset people or make the ideas of the people you’ll have to work with look stupid, they’re not going to hire you. Being excellent, never mind even competent, has nothing to do with it.

    PS, wikileaks has been forced offline. Their DNS provider has delisted them, saying the prolonged DDoS attacks were threatening their entire infrastructure.

  11. 11
    PeakVT says:

    Both pundits and politicians are essentially salespeople. Some are smart, many are not, but being a good salesperson is mostly about convincing people to trust you about a certain matter – whether or not you actually are. Raw brainpower isn’t the key attribute to becoming good salesperson.

  12. 12
    freelancer says:

    Some people are interesting, most of them aren’t.

    Also, I gotta stick up for Rachel Maddow as a voice of empiricism, critical thought, and all around impressiveness. The woman is a juggernaut and she makes doing what she does look so easy.

  13. 13
    Calouste says:


    Maybe it’s time to admit that the people at the top of our political/media heap just aren’t very bright.

    You say like that is a bug and not a feature.

    I have before made a comparison between the current media landscape and a passage in Nineteen Eighty Four. In that part of the book, someone explains to Winston Smith why Big Brother works so mch better than totalitarian regimes before them. Compare it to the Spanish Inquisition for example, he says. Even though they burned heretics at the stake, they allowed them to propagandize their thoughts at their trial and even their execution, and their thoughts florished. Stalin improved on that by making the people standing trial admit to their crimes, but that was so staged that no one really believed it. But Big Brother has improved on that. Not only do the accused in a trial confess to their crime, they genuinely believe that they committed a crime and that they deserve to be punished.

    Something similar happened in the media. In the olden days, there were people like Upton Sinclair who wrote nasty exposes of big business and couldn’t be silenced. So big business started buying up newspapers and tried to influence the news that way, but because there were still a number of proper journalists that didn’t work completely either. So they started hiring people who genuinely believed in the top 1% ideology, and what better recruiting ground for that than the priviliged, entitled family members of people in power, like Mrs. Alan Greenspan, daughter of a former Congressman Cokie Roberts (and you can complete the whole list yourself) to get people who genuinely believe that the top 1% are special because they are members of that top 1% themselves. Of course they expect far better pay than your average journalist, being members of the top 1%, but a few million here and there is a long term investment well made. And yes, one of the criteria these people are hired on is that they do not think for themselves or think outside the box of the top 1%.

  14. 14

    frankly, the sense i get from most pundits on the teevee, is that they are trying to say enough to get invited back, but still withhold the reason why they were asked there in the first place.

    i think there is a calculation of how much you want to claim to know, and how you came to know it.

    of course i would say that “the system” can move darned fast, and with stunning efficiency, when those who can influence it, want it to. sure there are plenty of know-nothings, and useful idiots who are kept around, but that goes with just about every organization or industry.

    the problem with the house and senate, the people who know its rules and how it operates the best, are the ones on the outside pissing in, the lobbyists and the think tankers.

  15. 15
    El Cruzado says:

    In fact punditry is one of those fields where being very good is a handicap. You’ll make the guys who pay your bills (more senior pundits) look bad.

  16. 16
    Crusty Dem says:

    @Joey Maloney:

    Exactly. It’s not that these pundits and politicians are stupid (though some undoubtedly are), it’s that they care about being successful, which means that what’s important to them and what’s important to us (or any normal observer) doesn’t exactly overlap. And I’d say the Republican politicians are in an even worse position, where ignorance is required to avoid forming rational opinions that would never jibe with their right wing world view. But it’s worth noting that the range of topics you can use to make a politician (or sometimes a pundit) look stupid is so broad that anyone who’s not a polymath will end up looking like a dolt.

    I mean, have you ever listed to a talk by a ridiculously overpaid business consultant? A CEO? A hedge fund manager? I’m not saying they’re all idiots, but generally, if they veer even slightly off their main field of interest, things tend to get ugly in a hurry. I’ve seen talks by MacArthur fellows that made me wonder if their grant applications were written in crayon.

    My point is, we’re all idiots about most things..

  17. 17
  18. 18
    Pooh says:

    Somewhat OT, but I can confirm that Silver was (and amongst “old timers” who started playing before about 2006, still is) something of an internet legend in the Poker world. Did some really ground breaking stuff on poker theory and situational analysis back in the day.

  19. 19
    hamletta says:

    Steve Gilliard used to rant about how liberal organizations didn’t pay up-and-comers diddly, which shut out a lot of young people who had brains and energy, but didn’t have family money to cover living expenses in places like DC and NYC, whereas the wingnut gravy train had at least some drippings to get their young people off to a good start.

    That’s a factor. Politics doesn’t pay shit until you get to the big leagues.

    And as others have said, campaigning is another skill entirely, not always combined with thoughtfulness.

    Only the people of Princeton would snap up bumper stickers that say “My Congressman is a rocket scientist.”

  20. 20
    Karen says:

    As someone who was a Broadcasting major when I went to college in the 80s, I can tell you when news went to shit.

    There used to be something called the Rule of 7s. No media could have more than 7 in a specific area, whether it was newspapers, TV stations or radio stations. A good rule because it stopped one point of view for the media.

    Then in the mid to late 80s, it became the Rule of 12.

    By the time Murdoch was involved, there were no longer any limits. When you own several newspapers and TV stations in the same region, there is no other point of view but YOURS.

    What was happening at the same time was that the organizations buying up the media cut their news divisions gradually until there was nearly nothing left. They used the excuse that it was too expensive to send journalists overseas when they were really buying the influence. When GE owns a network or Disney owns a network, voila, no bad press for them.

    Now reporters are really just news readers. Investigation is frowned upon unless it’s someone who is against the network’s best interests.

    People are just aware of it now but news died a long, long time ago. Thank goodness that other countries still have news and investigation because not only politics have been bought and paid for.

  21. 21
    NobodySpecial says:

    The idea of the political campaign isn’t that old, relatively speaking. It really got started sort-of with Jackson, and none other than Douglas was the first one to actually try stumping around the country. Forget about having to raise millions for TV ads, and running around the country shaking babies. Add in the Nixon-Kennedy debates, and that’s about the last time ‘statesmanship’ got anywhere within range of ‘looks and sounds electable’.

    We need politicians, and we elect hucksters.

  22. 22
    duck-billed placelot says:

    @Joey Maloney: This is partially because I’m of the ‘Fucking computers, how do they work’ camp, but:

    You know how SETI uses other people’s computers to actually compute stuff? Is there anyway that structure could be modified to spread wikileaks across a bunch of computers? Or maybe even like a peer-to-peer site? Why does it all have to be on Amazon or whoever’s servers, is what I’m asking?

    (Anyone, not just Joey, feel free to answer. Yes, I know, I’m hopelessly unknowing about the computers. Tell me anyway.)

  23. 23
    J. Michael Neal says:

    To miss the main point of your post, I don’t know Nate Silver, but my impression of him, based primarily upon what people around him have said, is a bit different. It’s not that he goes to places where he thinks he can make an impression because people are dumber. It’s that he is interested in places where he can do a lot of basic research.

    I get the sense that he gets bored with a subject after a while. He created PECOTA for Baseball Prospectus, and then looked at the fact that continuing to work for them meant doing endless tweaking of it rather than doing something completely original. So he moved on. And he was right: BP is only now doing it’s first major overhaul of the system, and even that uses a lot of the basic framework.

    As for online poke her, if he really quit it before he started doing baseball work, because he wanted to be around dumb people, then he made a colossal mistake. That would have before the big poke her boom, and he missed out on the opportunity to make a lot of idiots look stupid. So I doubt that that was the rationale.

  24. 24
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    Don’t get me wrong, these people could be corrupt and self-dealing and all that, but that doesn’t mean they’re not also incompetent.

    This comes closest to describing reality IMO. The people you’re describing are intentionally there to uphold the status quo. Whose intention, theirs or their employers (or someone else), that’s almost entirely beside the point and pretty much impossible to separate out anyway. People will swear up and down that they’re attacking the established order of things while they’re actually doing everything in their power to uphold it.

    So hiring incompetent people, if that means hiring people too uninformed or brainwashed to see what’s really going on, yes that’s part of it. Some of the CNN people strike me as particularly fitting that description. Other times the people are entirely aware of what’s going on, and want to enforce and uphold it with every breath, Kruathammer is just one of the worst examples. Then there’s David Gergen, a good example of a complete mixture. Teasing out which part of his Villager brain is just bamboozled and which part actually understands the way things are actually set up and just thinks that it’s right– it would take a multi-disciplinarian team of brain scientists, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists and philosophers the rest of their careers studying him to even make a dent.

    I agree with you about Paul Krugman being one of the very few who’s not either bought off or brainwashed. His column today is a must read, IMO.

  25. 25
    Ripley says:

    Your ass: what the fuck is up there?

  26. 26
    gocart mozart says:

    Karen, this. Nobody ever gets fired for being a suck up or a hack but excessively good journalism can be a real carear killer.

  27. 27
    Mark S. says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim:

    re: Krugman

    Here come the 500 comment threads tomorrow:

    What’s even more puzzling is the apparent indifference of the Obama team to the effect of such gestures on their supporters. One would have expected a candidate who rode the enthusiasm of activists to an upset victory in the Democratic primary to realize that this enthusiasm was an important asset. Instead, however, Mr. Obama almost seems as if he’s trying, systematically, to disappoint his once-fervent supporters, to convince the people who put him where he is that they made an embarrassing mistake.

    I anticipate a lot of “I never liked Krugman anyway,” and “Though he may be okay at economics, he doesn’t know shit about politics.”

  28. 28

    @duck-billed placelot: This is different from wikileaks’ data getting kicked off of Amazon. Don’t be insulted if you know this: DNS is the system whereby a funny-looking set of four numbers like gets associated with a nice, human-friendly mnemonic like The company that does that for wikileaks has stopped doing it so that now when you type into your browser instead of taking you to the site it responds, “fucking internet, how does it work?”

    If you follow Wikileaks’ twitterfeed it’ll keep you up to date on how to reach them. Currently works, though it looks like the site itself is still under heavy attack.

  29. 29
    duck-billed placelot says:

    @Joey Maloney: Not offended; I did have the two confused. It does seem like just a matter of time before the government(s) will lean on anyone who does their DNS hosting(?), so…what will they do? (Thanks! I’m going to go ahead and guess you’re an insomniac, since you’re explaining ridiculously elementary concepts to me.)

  30. 30
    Jayboy711 says:

    @freelancer: Rachel Maddow is powerhouse.

  31. 31
    Calouste says:

    @Joey Maloney:

    It’s all saber rattling. The NYT, Guardian, Le Monde, der Spiegel and El Pais have had the whole package for months and presumably still have a long list of articles lined up. And everyone and his dog had the opportunity to download it over the last week and quite a few have done so and are doing their own investigations.

  32. 32
    Jman says:

    @Mark S.: Krugman calls for new leadership in the Democratic party while John Cole says the Democrats don’t have anyone who can do any better than Obama. Unfortunately they are probably both accurate.

  33. 33

    @duck-billed placelot: Not insomniac, just posting from GMT+2.

    @Calouste: I don’t think it’s just saber-rattling. Sure, the internet interprets censorship as damage and routs around it, you can’t stop the signal, information wants to be free, blah blah blah, and this cat is long out of the bag. But to the extent that Lieberman is actually thinking this through and not just letting his inner dick wave, the point of the exercise is to intimidate the next leakers and keep the next leak from being distributed.

  34. 34
    soonergrunt says:

    I think the main cause with what you’ve described is, simply, that politics doesn’t select for the best and the brightest.
    The most effective politicians are those people who connect on a gut level, like Reagan and to a lesser extent, George W. Bush. It’s that kind of “hail fellow, well met!” kind of thing that turns people on. The people who can do this effortlessly get everything they want and need without a lot of work, and so are conditioned to not actually work. Again with Regan and Shrub, both of them were famous for sleeping in and working short days as President.
    Cough, Sarah Palin, half-term governor, cough.
    But she can work a crowd, can’t she?

  35. 35
    georgia pig says:

    My brushes with Dem party apparatus tells me politics in the US are generally so decentralized and unfocused that it’s really difficult to promote talent, leaving a yawning vacuum to be filled by the corrupt and the incompetent. Most entry level positions require copious time and don’t pay shit, so, while there are plenty of good people, there also tends to be large numbers of hucksters or morons who fall into it because they don’t have anything else they can do. Both of those are useful to moneyed interests, and the low pay makes it easier for them to be corrupted and/or manipulated.

    One recent thing here in NC brought this in focus for me. Our prior governor just pleaded guilty to a felony charge for failing to report a helicopter ride he received from a donor. He was also accused of other graft, like a sweetheart deal on a coastal lot in a development that went belly up in the real estate crash, but he wasn’t convicted of anything on that. Reading the newspaper post mortem, the thing that struck me was that the salary for the governor of NC at that time was 140k per year. Yeah, that’s nothing to sneeze at for the average joe, and the governor does get some nice perks, and you don’t want someone taking the job just for the money. But that’s for the head of a state with a multibillion dollar budget, and who is constantly rubbing elbows with folks making 100 times that much. Hell, we pay first year associates in our law firm that much, and they don’t know shit. You kind of get what you pay for, and we’ve set up a system where the moneyed interests pay so much better, e.g., nice set ups after you leave office, a show on Fox, etc., that there is little incentive for competition to bring in brighter, less corrupt and more competent people.

    An interesting thing to note is that 30 years of denigrating government service starting with Reagan has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s what demoralizing about the federal pay freeze, it’s just more of the same.

  36. 36
    Napoleon says:

    Doug J’s friends comments about Nate S. come off like it is a critique of him, but to me it just makes him sound even more savoy.

    Other then that I do think that nearly all pundits are more or less morons. The US media really is a petri (sp?) dish of of the Peter Principle at work.

    That aside I think something else is at work with the pundocracy, and that is they are stuck in an echo chamber. I think if I ran a news organization I would make it a rule that anyone (or at least most) of the people covering a candidate simply would be forbidden to travel with/talk to other reporters (maybe even basing them outside of NY or Wash) and I think I would not even have them attend the candidate’s press conferences. The group think that comes out of the press is amazing and part of the reason I think you see so much better analysis on the web at sites like this isn’t that people like DougJ or whoever are particularly insightful or brilliant, its that they haven’t had their outlook warped by the press echo chamber.

  37. 37
    SFAW says:

    Yeah, Nate only likes doing the easy stuff. Any schmoe with an IQ above room temp could do what he’s done, right?

    Seriously, WTF was the point of your attempted trashing of Nate? Yes, I know you were trying to point out that – holy shit, who’d a thunk it? – many fields have a Gaussian distribution vis-a-vis quality, and that there are a lot more people closer to X-bar than to +3-sigma, and that politics and punditry have even fewer than might be otherwise expected at the high end. (“High end” is used here to mean “high quality” or “high intelligence”.)

    Or am I missing the joke: this was an exercise to see if you could write in someone else’s style, and in today’s attempt, you were either Pantload (nah, you didn’t have any “can someone do my basic research for me?”-like quips) or Ericksdottir or Broder or some such?

    And, no, I don’t worship the ground on which Nate walks. I just get tired of the gratuitous bullshit.

    (Except if I’m the one doing it, of course.)

  38. 38
    stuckinred says:

    Ya’ll see this shit?

    For many conservatives, the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as the stimulus is formally known, has been Exhibit A in their case against the Obama administration, a symbol for an era they feel will be defined by out-of-control government spending.

    But the stimulus is also the largest-scale embodiment of what was, not long ago, a conservative priority: directing tax dollars to “faith-based initiatives,” as President George W. Bush called them.

    Read more:

  39. 39
    300baud says:

    I forget which Hollywood writer said it (although it might have been Mamet in Bambi vs Godzilla), but their basic take was that they expected Hollywood execs to be cynical people consciously turning out crap. They were surprised to learn that no, Hollywood execs actually like the stuff they make. They aren’t cynical; it’s just that the people who rise to the top are mediocre a particular way, one that lets them make stuff with mass appeal.

    I imagine politics and journalism, also both about producing for the masses, are similar.

  40. 40
    jayackroyd says:

    @J. Michael Neal:

    There are optimal online poker strategies. (These are distinct from tournament strategies, where the object is different–maximizing your prize is not the same strategy as maximizing the sum of the expected values of each pot you play–and it is harder to figure out an optimal strategy.) We know this because bots are banned, the same way we know blackjack card counting works, because counters are banned. If there were no optimal strategies, then the bots would lose, be welcome, and vanish.

    It’s perfectly possible that Nate worked out an optimal strategy before many other people had. But a time came when many other people had worked out optimal strategies. This changes the game–you spend time seeking groups without an optimal strategy player. Optimal play is already tedious. Optimal play that starts by determining whether there is an optimal player in the game must be extremely tedious.

    In baseball, what the SABR stats guys figured out was that players were not being chosen optimally–that talents (speed, looking like a ballplayer) were commanding excessive salaries, while other talents (secondary average, onbase percentage) were underpaid. But as with the guy who solved the cocoa market, the model stopped working after it became widely known.

    In polling, what I think happened is Nate noticed that pollsters were not actually in the business of predicting elections accurately. Buried in the data they were collecting and summarizing were the seeds of accurate predictions, but they had other agendas besides accuracy. (How could there be a “democratic” or a “republican” pollster? Oh, and there was R2K.) Accuracy was not apparently the best way to get hired. And, look! Nate didn’t get hired either. By studying the polls, Nate could extract a model of the polls that WAS focused on predicting accurately. Add in the fact that he used Monte Carlo methods that nobody else was using (because, remember, they were not polling for accuracy; they were polling for clients) and he had an advantage.

    This is complicated, a little, because there were polls commission by media, who supposedly have interest only in accuracy. But maybe not! I’d in fact argue that accuracy was not necessarily a virtue for media pollsters either–that fluctuations pay better than accuracy, for example.

    Yikes. Sorry. Sometimes once I start typing…..

  41. 41
    Teri says:

    Where have the Statesman gone?

    Growing up, there was a sense of gravitas and dignity to being a politician. These days it seems becoming a politician is like just another reality show, with the winner given a title and cash prize. (Some of the cash is delayed until they are out of office, those pesky ethics rules) Do any little children say that they want to grow up and be president any more? The teenagers I see on a daily basis are a cynical and resigned lot. They sense that the game is rigged so nobody really wins, but you just keep plugging money into the machine and hope to hit a jackpot someday. With the politics of personal destruction and parsing of every essay, blog comment or television appearances the only people who want to become politicians are the people we should not trust to govern.

    When did “common-sense solutions” become better than reasoned discourse and consensus? When did “deficit hawks” replace sensible people who realize that you need to increase revenue to offset expenditures? When did being telegenic replace being smart? Was it when we started treating politicians like rock stars and listening to rock stars like politicians?

    Trying to find smart, reasonable people to run for even local office is difficult. Not only do they have to sacrifice time with their families to campaign, but their families become public fodder as well.

    We don’t have the roman “Bread and Circus” we have McDonald’s and American Idol.

    Do I have a solution or just a lament? Well I could cry a river, but I do work to change my locale. I write letters to the editor, I work to elect smart people to office. I hold those office holders accountable for their actions. I know my local issues. I read the proposals and educate myself on the issues. Why don’t I run for office? Serious health issues mean I can’t commit to being someplace because I need medical treatment.

    So as a wise man once said, “Become the change you want to see in the world”

  42. 42


    But the stimulus is also the largest-scale embodiment of what was, not long ago, a conservative priority: directing tax dollars to “faith-based initiatives,” as President George W. Bush called them.

    It stopped being a conservative priority the instant it became the priority of a blackity black black Demoblackity Blackitycrat. That’s not rocket surgery.

  43. 43
    LosGatosCA says:

    Journalists, politicians, celebrities are just not professionals, they are mainly hacks fronting for interests.

    The real professionals in media are the folks selling advertising and producers/ editors who package the content to attract the brand loyal viewers/readers that command advertising rates that create a profitable franchise.

    Everything, everyone else are just props used to enhance the brand to create the profit. Things, people that fit or define the brand are useful, whether they are smart, do good journalism, deliver a public service is just a coincidence or unintended consequence.

    I think Ben Bradlee summarized the media perfectly when he was asked his reaction on Deep Throat coming out:

    “Bob Woodward is going to make a lot of money.”

  44. 44
    Ron says:

    @jayackroyd: Your comment about poker strategy and bots is just completely off the mark. It’s actually pretty well known that in fact there is NOT a perfect poker strategy. In fact, it was a huge deal that they developed a computer that could perhaps beat a single player head to head at limit hold ’em a little while back. There are bots, but they are definitely not optimal. It’s quite possible that they are known to be +EV, but I’m not even sure about that. Keep in mind that the poker sites don’t really care who wins and who loses as long as the money keeps flowing through because they make their money on the rake which is independent of who actually wins. Also, what they can do well which the poker sites DO object to is data mining. You can improve your game by simply having large collections of statistics about your opponents. And it’s mostly because the sites don’t want their customers pissed off, not because it actually affects them.

  45. 45
    Triassic Sands says:

    Ed Rollins and James Carville, don’t seem like idiots

    You must know a different Ed Rollins and a different James Carville than I’m familiar with — Carville especially. The guy married Mary Matalin fergawdsake!!! Not an idiot?

  46. 46
    SFAW says:

    You kind of get what you pay for, and we’ve set up a system where the moneyed interests pay so much better,

    Heretic! Everyone knows that government workers are overpaid!

  47. 47
    SFAW says:

    It stopped being a conservative priority the instant it became the priority of a blackity black black Demoblackity Blackitycrat.

    Black? I thought he was Mooslim! That’s what I get for not paying attention.

    That’s not rocket surgery.

    Don’t know if that’s a Joey Maloney original, but it’s a beautiful thing, and I plan to use it. (Yeah, I know – WGAS?)

  48. 48
    300baud says:

    It occurs to me that this is perhaps just the problem of good taste in a mass market.

    Good taste is defined in a relative way. E.g., I’m not particularly fussy about what I eat, so compared with my chef friends, they have better taste in food. But I am pretty fussy about what I read, so relative to a lot of people, I think I have good taste in books.

    The problem in mass markets is that success is defined by popularity. Put my foodie friends in a random restaurant, and they’ll be disappointed. Give me any novel that they sell at Walgreens and I’ll look like you just handed me a stool sample. Worse, what’s successful, through being familiar, helps partly define the standards of taste.

    So basically, if you have good taste and don’t find a way to filter the crap, you’ll be eternally disappointed, like a foodie in a small town, or any serious reader or cinephile of 20 years ago. There are solutions for journalism (e..g, blogs and niche publishers). But if you have good taste in politics or national discourse, I think you are well and truly fucked; there you’re mismatched by definition.

  49. 49
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Mark S.:

    Krugman has been writing similar things for some time now, the reason I recommended today’s in particular as a must read is that I thought he just summarized recent events extremely well. A must read even if one’s reaction is to disagree or scream at it, in my opinion.

    I guess my point, if there is one, is that if people think that Krugman seems to have a (rare) clear-eyed, non-beltway-moron view of things, well that view now includes thinking that this White House is completely in the thrall of the essentially conservative (when was it not?) status quo in Washington, and it seems that its main purpose is to work to keep that healthy and in place. Including Wall Street, the banks, Wall Street and the banks pulling the strings of government pretty much at will, the media, the media claiming that right means left, and middle means extreme ultra right, and all the rest of it. All things that nearly everyone here is strongly against.

    That’s certainly the conclusion I’ve come to, and not, you know, right after the election. Took a while. I’ve read all of the fiercely-argued positions, mostly here actually, but – I’m unconvinced. The worst thing about the salary freeze, after the obvious one that it screws these people at the expense of people who deserve to be screwed far more, is that it tells the country that the Republican lies are actually truth. And then we wonder why people voted for Republicans, when “it’s so obvious they just lie about everything!” we scream.

    Well, not so obvious, to the voters who just read the headlines. They read “Boehner and Cantor say that our financial slump is because of rich T-Bone eating federal workers! Obama says okay, we’ll freeze their salaries!”

    What in god’s name do we think that’s going to do?

    Now to be fair, DougJ actually just said that Krugman was one of the few who might have some interesting information to convey. Not that he agreed with his political positions necessarily. I’m going a little further, that’s all. I think there’s a reason that he’s worth listening to, about politics as well as economics, and it’s that he’s not buying the bullshit, and is good at verbalizing why.

  50. 50
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: “In the thrall of” = “in thrall to”. Don’t know where that came from, but it won’t let me edit :/

  51. 51
    Rook says:

    What you’ve described is called “The Peter Principle.”

  52. 52
    DougJ says:


    Not trashing Nate. Anyone who does basic research knows it is good to go where are other people aren’t. I thought that would be obvious.

  53. 53
    Napoleon says:


    Well put – this is why I think it is actually a complement to make the observation Doug’s friend made.

  54. 54
    300baud says:

    @duck-billed placelot:

    Is there anyway that structure could be modified to spread wikileaks across a bunch of computers? Or maybe even like a peer-to-peer site? Why does it all have to be on Amazon or whoever’s servers, is what I’m asking?

    That’s actually an excellent question. Joey covered the DNS bit, but the more abstract bit is about trust, and, in the academic sense, authority.

    As to authority, the question is, “How do you find the thing called Wikileaks?” The system we have, DNS, is all about authoritative answers, and they do that through a mix of centralization and distribution. There are some central servers, called root servers, that take a name like “” and say, “You should ask server X, Y, or Z; they know for sure.” Somebody keeps attacking servers X, Y, and Z.

    Then there’s the question of trust. Once you get a page, how do you know if it’s really from them? For regular web pages, via HTTP, you just trust DNS. For secure web pages, via HTTPS, each page is mathematically stamped in a way that your browser can verify, because it comes with a list of companies it trusts to verify that stamp belongs to the domain owners.

    Even if they were to spread Wikileaks content out over multiple servers, that doesn’t solve either the trust or the authority problem. Even peer-to-peer networks suffer from this. With BitTorrent, for example, you still need information on the exact thing you’re looking for, and a way of verifying that you got the right thing. All of that is wrapped up in the .torrent file, but you still have to get that from a trusted source.

    Does that help at all?

  55. 55
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: ” at the expense of” = “”instead of”.

    I guess I’ll have to proofread better if I know the edit might not work, argh.

  56. 56
    RobertB says:

    Napoleon up there touched on it; why would politics and governance be an area where the Peter Principle doesn’t work?

  57. 57
    Michael says:

    @Joey Maloney:

    wikileaks has been forced offline.

    The terrorists hate us for our freedoms.

  58. 58
    SFAW says:

    Orig post

    Silver was playing a lot of online poker and making money at it, then the other players got good so he quit to do something where the people around him would be dumber, so he could make more of an impact.


    Not trashing Nate. Anyone who does basic research knows it is good to go where are other people aren’t. I thought that would be obvious.

    Even with the most charitable reading of the first statement, the sentiment expressed in the second statement doesn’t really follow. It may be how you really felt when you started writing, but your fingers apparently had “other plans”.

    And, although I have sometimes been accused of being stooopid, I think I’m probably intelligent enough to know when something like the point you describe was “obvious”. It wasn’t.

  59. 59
    ET says:

    For the most part I try to ignore pundits – they don’t offer anything new, smart, or positive to the discourse.

    Occasionally an op-ed hits the right note but if stopped clocks can be right twice a day sometimes a pundit could make a good point.

  60. 60
    SFAW says:

    Napoleon up there touched on it; why would politics and governance be an area where the Peter Principle doesn’t work?

    You obviously don’t subscribe to the “American Exceptionalism” doctrine, a/k/a “America! Fcuk Yeah!”.

  61. 61
    Hawes says:

    If you have a choice between incompetence and conspiracy, always go with incompetence.

  62. 62
    Nick says:


    Black? I thought he was Mooslim

    Because apparently it’s impossible to be both.

  63. 63
    SFAW says:

    Because apparently it’s impossible to be both.

    No, but being both would mean a person might be the Antichrist. At least, if he were President.

  64. 64
    danielx says:

    Ah, so THAT is why every time a presidential election rolls around I look at the various candidates and think – “Is this really the best that we can do?” The old saying about how politics is show business for ugly people no longer holds true; I’ve not seen a candidate for office above school board who didn’t look good on television. The point made about politics being about selling yourself is well made – but salespeople, in my experience anyway, are not generally very good managers. The two positions require different skill sets, and very few people have both. Then there’s the whole issue about appealing to the lowest common denominator, which in America these days is pretty damn low. It used to drive me up the wall to hear about people voting for W because he was a guy with whom they’d like to have a beer – there are any number of people I enjoy having a beer with, but offhand I can’t think of any of them who are qualified to be president. We all know how that worked out…..

    But hey, it explains why Evan Bayh, to name one example, kept getting elected as governor and then senator in my fair state. He’s known a) to be a fence straddler to such a degree that his backside looks like a waffle iron, and b) to not take a leak in the morning without checking his appearance in the mirror and checking the latest opinion polls, but know what? It worked for him. He looks good, he has the ability to make the person he’s speaking with feel like he or she is important and valued, and he never – ever – strays outside narrow ranges of opinion and policy alternatives. That last characteristic, not coincidentally, makes him well-loved among the Villagers.

  65. 65
    WyldPirate says:


    Also, I gotta stick up for Rachel Maddow as a voice of empiricism, critical thought, and all around impressiveness. The woman is a juggernaut and she makes doing what she does look so easy.

    This. And that.

    Rachel Maddow smokes all of the “big dogs” of TV Journalism like a cheap fucking cigar, particularly when it comes to taking apart bullshit spin on complicated issues. She makes Brian Williams, David Gregory and Brokaw look like clowns and high school dropouts in comparison.

    I think her one weakness is as an interviewer. She is a bit too nice about things at times. I understand why. I like Lawrence O’Donnell a lot as he does not tolerate fools and liars, but he lets it show and it will eventually hurt him getting guests. Maddow probably has that in the back of her mind.

  66. 66
    Mark says:


    I know Nate a little bit (though I haven’t talked to him since he got really famous) and I can tell you that you got the timeline completely wrong.

    Nate was working for an accounting firm in the 1990s. Mind-numbing job. And he was gambling, and he was writing about baseball. Voros McCracken appears on the scene long before the US passes the oppressive regulations that drove most of the suckers out of online poker.

    The problem with consulting in baseball, and what drove Nate out, is that 1) no cigar-chomping GM was really going to listen to some guy who works with neural nets; and 2) baseball pays its analysts at roughly a 75% discount relative to corporate America.

    I gather that the political thing just kind of happened – Nate was a partner in Baseball Prospectus and he asked for leave to pursue this. Remember, he started out writing about the primaries on DailyKos under a pseudonym.

    As for his contributions: the presidential election was screaming for Monte Carlo analysis. One of the most brilliant observations of the last decade.

  67. 67
    WyldPirate says:


    Something similar happened in the media. In the olden days, there were people like Upton Sinclair who wrote nasty exposes of big business and couldn’t be silenced. So big business started buying up newspapers and tried to influence the news that way, but because there were still a number of proper journalists that didn’t work completely either.

    first, excellent post, Calouste. I like working in the analogy between Orwell, the Inquisition and Stalin.

    You’re right in that we have seen this sort of stuff before in the media. We had the propagandizing William R. Hearst who caused untold damage. I sort of see Rupert Murdoch as the TV equivalent. Despite all of the damage to countries and reality that Hearst did and Murdoch are doing, i don’t see it being driven so much by ideology but profit.

    Profit and the desire for unchecked capitalism are at the root of the rot in our system. It is, as another poster in the thread said simply a feature and nut a bug that we get such venal, corruptible curs gravitating to, and rising through, the ranks of politics. They become useful, easily manipulated pawns for the monied interests to buy the government they want.

  68. 68
    sherifffruitfly says:

    “Maybe it’s time to admit that the people at the top of our political/media heap Americans generally just aren’t very bright.”

    Fixed it for you. You’re welcome.

  69. 69
    p.a. says:

    Working at a large (and i mean LARGE) corporation, at its lowest levels, i see a kind of tension, dialectic if you will, in the concept of promoting competent people. If manager A has under him employee x who is extremely competent, employee x is both an asset and a threat. Asset, obviously, in that he completes his/her tasks in an exemplary manner. Threat in that if manager B (whether on the same level as or above A) becomes aware of x’s excellence, B may seek to take x from A, or worse, replace A with x. So in effect we have both the problem of Nomenklatura and the Peter Principle involved.

    It takes an exceptional manager A to release employee x to advance.

    How is this germane to the post? Looking from the outside in it seems that political journalism selects for the careerist, Nomenklatura types.

    (ok I know that if any of you are familiar with me from my previous comments, you’re saying ‘when are his posts ever germane?’ shut up, it’s the holiday season!)

  70. 70
    PanAmerican says:

    Change is hard. Why would I need to update my skill sets?.. Consider leaving Amalgamated Buggy Whips?? I got bills to pay!

    Nate makes an interesting contrast to some of the prominent liberal bloggers. In ten years Duncan Black will be making the same: “something, something, BANKSTERS, something, something, EATED” posts he’s making today. On the same software, with the same page layout.

    Becoming pickled and hating the same old job but not being able to actualize any kind of personal growth or change is a terrible place to be.

  71. 71
    chopper says:

    @Mark S.:

    shrug. krugman’s great at economics, very good at times about politics. the funny thing is, despite being an excellent macroeconomist, when it comes to politics his ability to think about the long game slows down, as do any others’.

    take the recent tax cut hullabaloo. this is going to make me sound like a crazy obot, but i’m not really sure that the WH’s ‘outreach’ to the GOP was real, given that the house pulled a wicked trick to get the MC tax cuts alone voted on, and now the senate is putting that bill up tomorrow.

    i highly doubt that pelosi and reid (especially reid) got that shit together so quickly without the WH even knowing about it. i’m not going to get all ’11-D chess’ on that shit, but a large part of me thinks the WH ran cover on this issue so the dem leadership on the hill could work it in the back room.

    of course, it’s not like obama’s going to come out and say he intentionally played the GOP, so if you’re an obot you’ll believe it and if you’re an obama hater you’re going to just assume that obama wanted to capitulate but pelosi and reid bravely pulled him out of the fire all by themselves. krugman, of course, throws it all into the pile of ‘why i’m disappointed with obama’.

  72. 72
    JMS says:

    Getting elected is essentially getting a position in “sales”, and if you’ve ever worked in or with sales, the core competency there is selling (ie getting people to buy something from you, or go along with your point of view), not deep knowledge about the product or field per se. Now, that said, I think exceptional sales people DO have deep knowledge and are brighter than other sales people, but it’s not a requirement. (However, I do think that product knowledge is underrated in sales–in my first job I had to do a little of everything, so I would take orders for products that I also worked on, and a lot of people would call, not knowing what product in the line they wanted or if they wanted anything at all. I was no good at pushing a product on anyone, but the fact that I knew them very well because I had worked on them actually persuaded a lot of people to buy stuff) The opposite case–where someone is knowledgable and creative and good at problem solving, but couldn’t sell an umbrella in a downpour–those people won’t get sales jobs and they won’t get elected to office either. That’s just how our government and political system is set up. Maybe it would be better for us if instead of debates, we had candidates do some difficult but entertaining challenges on TV, and half their “votes” came from their score on these challenges, with the other half coming from actual voters–but again, that’s not how things work.

    Let’s add to that there are jobs where we want people to be as smart as possible and don’t care as much about “beside manner” (nobody really cares if the engineer who designed a bridge is a condescending ass if he designed a bridge that stays up and works well) and others where we penalize people heavily if we feel they are looking down on us, or we just don’t like them. This also comes up sometimes with a “difficult” employee–the likelihood an unpleasant employee will be fired is inversely proportional to the skill level and skill uniqueness of that person. People don’t expect that politicians need to be smart and politicians certainly haven’t paid any penalty for being stupid, so we don’t actually characterize politicians (or pundits for that matter) as people who have to be smart or competent to get their jobs. Thus things will continue this way for the forseeable future.

  73. 73
    Jim Pharo says:

    Doug, I think you forget that the morons who populate these various public perches didn’t hire themselves. Someone decided that Sarah Palin should be a VP nominee — it wasn’t her choice. Someone else decided that David Gregory would be a good on-air reporter and then MTP host.

    The point is that directing ire at these people is like blaming the actors for a bad script. The people making the casting decisions are a relatively small group, and are essentially anonymous and accountability-free.

    Our leverage is in not watching, not listening and not supporting the advertisers, etc., of the dumb bunnies, and instead flocking to Rachel, listening to Amy everyday, and visiting Balloon-Juice often. We won’t change many minds, and almost certainly won’t avoid the ongoing crash of our society, but we can at least preserve our values for the next generation to build on.

  74. 74
    Paris says:

    I’ve often thought that improving the quality of candidates is the biggest selling point for public financing of elections. How many more successful, experienced people would be willing to serve if the prostitution portion of our political process were removed?

  75. 75
    Tim H says:

    Dude, they’re corrupt because they’re dumb. Or maybe incapable of original thought is better. Corrupt has worked for decades, so they just up the ante.

  76. 76
    Svensker says:

    Maybe it’s time to admit that the people at the top of our political/media heap just aren’t very bright.

    Have you worked in corporate culture at all? Except for the very big smart guys at the top, most of the folks who rise to the top in any large culture are the ones who know how to operate the system, not necessarily the best and the brightest. When I worked in Hollywood I was appalled at most of the folks who were making the big bucks –a lot of them weren’t brilliant at anything except schmoozing. I’ve seen it in publishing, too, and the hubster saw it in government when he was there.

    I think — my theory only — is that very bright people are often too eccentric or too liable to go off the rails to survive in a corporate culture, instead they get shunted aside and compartmentalized so they aren’t a threat to the group. If their talents can be used, great, otherwise they’re out. And sometimes, very bright people don’t pursue a path to the top ruthlessly because they see too many nuances — they don’t know how to be single-minded in that way.

  77. 77
    DanF says:

    The biggest problem with political leaders is that the are self-selecting. You have to want to be a congressman, senator, president. So, right out of the gate, you’re probably egotistical. Relatedly, dumb people have a higher belief in their own competence and ability. Dangerous combo.

    I’m all for election by lottery. Increase the size of the house, lengthen the term to four years, and call adults up at random. Smart people, crazy people, dumb, evil, good-of-heart, all that is America. A true representative government. I guarantee that it would be a better congress than what we’ve got now. As for the talking heads … meh. They will continue to be crazy bastards.

  78. 78
    sparky says:

    if i can be glib here for a second–you are only realizing this now? academia *cough* is perhaps a better analogy: for the most part the only people who want to be in it are the people who are in it. like any generalization there are exceptions but in the main it holds true.

    if you like, use the “life is high school” meme: who the hell wants to be in student government in high school except naifs, nitwits and nerds? post high school, the naifs sometimes get a clue and the nerds go on to get jobs and comment on blogs. this leaves you with your nitwits.

    historically, politics has always been the business of hacks. i don’t think it’s a coincidence that “great leaders” appear in difficult times–it’s precisely because those are the times when politics becomes everyone’s business.

    the only other major distinction i would point out is that with the advent of the teevee, one must, must be telegenic and charismatic in some fashion to be elected for anything other than local office. this narrows the field by oh, let’s say 98%.

    edit: @Svensker: quite well put, and as an eccentric who experimented with corporate culture i concur. business is i think a bit different in that the goal ($) is both easier to attain and less contentious, but otherwise yes, the conformist is and will be usually the top dog. that’s why people keep giving money to sarah palin–she is a master of the art of conforming to a notion in people’s heads.

  79. 79
    tomvox1 says:

    and also more genuinely impressive people (Bill Clinton, Obama)

    Jury’s still out on the Big O (and I don’t remember such respect for Clinton’s superior skills at the time of his exuent or during most of his presidency really–Patrick Ewing syndrome?). But Kthug is not a big fan and I fear I am starting to see things exactly his way. Is the gradual bleeding out of hope worse than never having any in the first place?

  80. 80
    Zach says:

    I have a friend who says he knows Nate Silver from back in the day. According to him (I’m sure Nate Silver would deny this and I’m sure I’m getting details wrong too), Silver was playing a lot of online poker and making money at it, then the other players got good so he quit to do something where the people around him would be dumber, so he could make more of an impact.

    Your friend’s undoubtedly wrong. No one who’s somewhat capable and even a little bit financially responsible has had to quit online poker because it’s no longer profitable. It’s more that the sort of lifestyle needed to continue to profit wildly in online poker has become less desirable. Just based on his ability to write and reason and his capability to (mostly) avoid petty online tiffs, I’m sure he’d make more playing online poker this year than he would working for Baseball Prospectus and possibly more than he makes working for the NY Times. This is discounting the value of the brand and his reportedly near-million-dollar book advance, though.

  81. 81
    Nick says:

    @tomvox1: Kthug was never a fan

  82. 82
    Nick says:

    @Mark S.: “Activists” didn’t bring Obama to victory. “Activists” were split between him and Hillary. Young voters and Black voters brought him to victory.

    Krugman is giving credit to the wrong people.

  83. 83
    Zach says:

    Also, it’s a little weird to start a post talking about Nate Silver and then say that there isn’t “much opportunity for constructive entrepreneurship” in media. Between 538 and Brietbart’s idiot empire it’s clear that there’s an avenue available for someone with a new idea in the news media. In both cases you’re talking about individual people who took media properties from zero to several million dollars in, what, 2 years or so?

    I wouldn’t even say that there’s not much opportunity for one of these media entrepreneurs to influence the sort of sunday-show common wisdom. Anything Brietbart says is somehow topical, and Silver changed the way that the Democratic primaries were covered (and how polls were reported in the General to a smaller extent).

  84. 84
    danimal says:

    DougJ’s analysis is spot-on.

    It must be hell to be an intelligent Republican in government. Not that Dems always use their intelligence to full capacity, but to be a Republican who must play stupid in order to be elected has to be really demeaning.

  85. 85
    mario says:


    Have you never read Bob Somerby?

  86. 86
    lol says:


    And before that, they were backing John Edwards in their infinite wisdom.

    The Netroots jumped on the Obama bandwagon late in the game and has been claiming credit for designing and building it ever since.

  87. 87
    ruemara says:

    @Mark S.:

    I like Krugman. He doesn’t know shit about politics. He knows economics. It doesn’t take much brilliance to say if you do things popular with your base, your base will be enthused. How to do those things, with the World’s Most Deliberately Stupid Deliberative Body, is where the actual work to do those things comes into play. It’s like saying if you save the planet from the flaming asteroid, people will be grateful. “No shite, so how do I do that? Uh…”

    Fucking politics, how does that work?

  88. 88

    Yeah, leave Nate alone.

    I was thinking last night that the political world (specifically the media around it) is full of smart people who aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are.

  89. 89
    PurpleGirl says:

    Don’t have time to read the thread right now (leaving the house soon for a few hours)… But wasn’t there a book that looked at how we got into the Viet Nam disaster… what was its title? Oh year… The Best and the Brightest. (They really weren’t, were they.)

  90. 90
    les says:


    Agreed. In my limited experience with big organizations, as an outside attorney looking in, success in a big company is the result of not being seen to fail, rather than actually accomplishing things. Add that to the sales aspect of politics, and the need to appeal to a lot of ill informed morons, you don’t have a process that will select for creativity or smarts. We’re stuck with a lot more Inhof’s than Sanders.

  91. 91
    Meg says:

    Yeah, and they hire Meghan McCain as a pundit.

  92. 92
    FlipYrWhig says:

    Krugman is right that things are bad and the public face has been conventional. Krugman, however, tends not to factor in the idea that the public face might be for show, because he himself deals in facts. And IMHO he tends to underplay the downside of parting with conventional wisdom and strategies, because he’s confident that facts and sense win out. I think he thinks that smart people with smart ideas who speak about them openly tend to carry the day. I’m not sure that’s true.

  93. 93
    Pongo says:

    Good points. I think there is an additional insidious factor involved, though. It’s not just that these folks are marginal intellects or downright incompetent, they are also unaware of their own shortcomings and believe their hype (the dreaded so-called ‘unconscious incompetents’ of personality testing fame). They are superficial people, lacking the interest or even ability to live a self-examined life. If society says that every utterance from their mouth or tweet from their fingers is valuable, then so be it. Who are they to disagree?

    Our media and politics have become perpetual moronic positive feedback loops with the elevation of every intellectual lightweight to an influential position only reinforcing the rise of the mediocre (or even downright stupid).

  94. 94
    Howlin Wolfe says:

    @Napoleon: More savoy? I’ve never met Napoleon, but I plan to make the time.
    After I’m done Stompin’ at the Savoy.

  95. 95
    Andrew says:

    Meh. I get fed up with politicians, but politicians are just people, in all their glories.

    Take a look at California to see how cutting politicians out of the governing process has worked. Turns out the general public f*cks things up even more than the politicians did.

  96. 96
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:


    Looking from the outside in it seems that political journalism selects for the careerist, Nomenklatura types.

    This chimes with my thinking. The US is showing to an alarming extent the same sort of schlerosis and internal paralysis via interlocking interests as did the USSR in the Krushchev era and later. It is hard to escape the feeling that Obama is our Gorbachev – a humane and well-intentioned reformer attempting to save a system which is beyond repair.

    I honestly don’t know how we can fix this state of affairs, short of some sort of trauma, on a scale much greater than what happened during the GWB administration, as apparently the latter wasn’t enough of a wake up call.

    Empires in decline generally don’t right themselves without going through either a collapse or a civil war. And in the absence of a viable and profoundly threatening anti-capitalist ideological movement, nobody wielding power in this country seems to have any sense of urgency about dealing with our problems. In a country where failure never has any negative consequences for the well connected, and people talk about the idea of “failing upwards” without laughing at the ridiculousness of the concept, of course we end up being ruled by fuckups – it is reverse Darwinism in action.

  97. 97
    Scribe9 says:

    Maybe it’s time to admit that the people at the top of our political/media heap just aren’t very bright.

    Wait — you’re just noticing this now?

  98. 98
    Fang says:

    Actually I think you’ve got a good handle on the problem – I’ve been having similar speculations.

    What we have is, despite its problem, a country, an economy, and so on that is a system that runs OK. Oh, it’s not perfect, it’s still evolving, but we’ve got an impressive cultural, information, and physical infrastructure, even if it’s in massive need of an upgrade.

    However, that means there are people who can work the system whose only skills ARE working the system. They don’t make, build, create, or improve – they manipulate it. By guile, by cleverness, by luck, by inheritance they work the system. They may just be in the right place and that’s all.

    You don’t even have to be smart. Maybe your part of the system works by bluster and lies.

    So though these people are good at elected, or getting daddy to give them a business or whatever, they’re not necessarily good at anything USEFUL. They’re not necessarily bright.

    So you get people who work the system, that’s it.

    This is further complicated by:
    * Our celebrety-obsessed culture.
    * Anti-intellectualism.

    My thoughts.

  99. 99
    kuvasz says:

    Note that while it is true that cream rises to the top, shit also floats, and clearly the reason why there are so many turds in Congress.

  100. 100
    robert green says:

    juan cole vs. jonah goldberg. if ever there was a better distillation of the problem in our society, i defy you to find an example.

    on one side a PhD with a facility for clear expression as a writer and thinker expressing slightly heterodox thoughts on a MAJOR issue of our time. on the other side the scion of a shrill hideous shell of a human being who managed to get her worthless son a job well above his intellectual pay grade (yes, national review has some non-morons on the payroll), said son unable to either read or write. the two of them had a debate in which one person made informed statements based on copious amounts of research. the other shot off-the-cuff remarks mostly based on e-mails he received from other people or from the halls of national review where he overheard colleagues say stuff. further, his ideas NEVER contradicted a pre-conceived worldview and he would not allow any new ideas to do such a thing.

    that cole pointed all of this out–that an arabist might JUST MAYBE have a more nuanced and realistic view of the arab world then some random dude with a blog…that fell on deaf ears outside of the small reality-based-blog community.

    of the two, which one was denied a position at a more major university for no reason? which one has a bigger wider brand in the “serious” community in our country? which one makes more money? which one has a major book deal constantly?

    please look no further then the case of cole v goldberg to see why we are FUCKED as a society.

  101. 101
    DougJ says:


    Yes, I used to read him religiously before he went crazy.

  102. 102
    DougJ says:


    So I think what it really was was that there other smart people analyzing it as well, so it was better to elsewhere to do things that were truly groundbreaking.

  103. 103
    robert green says:

    @DougJ: not really. nate silver managed to get hired/get his blog purchased by the NYTimes for a pretty major sum of money. so that’s as trad a business deal as it gets. total vanilla.

  104. 104
    Comrade Sock Puppet of the Great Satan says:

    “Add in the fact that he used Monte Carlo methods that nobody else was using (because, remember, they were not polling for accuracy; they were polling for clients) and he had an advantage.”

    I guess that’s the shocking thing. I mean Monte Carlo methods are decades old: I remember them being used in packages for process simulations and simulations of flow in rivers and water/wastewater treatment two decades ago, and it was old well established shit then. Packages to do them in Excel have been available for over fifteen years.

    How the fuck do polling firms, who have real honest to goodness statistians working for them, miss using Monte Carlo methods in polling until 2-3 years ago?

  105. 105

    RE: The Nate Silver Anecdote

    In medical science you see a similar thing with some math guys always looking for a field where the analysis is fairly basic and they’ve never seen, and aren’t really qualified to evaluate, fancy whizbang techniques that sound super sexy. First it’s something like Fourier analysis… which has been around for, what, like 200 years? Then it’s wavelets and then it’s fractals then who knows… I’m not sure what’s super hot right now… throw “nonlinear” out there and it can get people excited.

    I’m actually not complaining though… since you see so much atrocious math and statistics published, I’m glad to see more experts on such things in medical research… even if part of the reason is to be a big fish in a small pond.

  106. 106
    DougJ says:

    @J.W. Hamner:

    Yes, I am aware of that and have thought about getting involved with stuff like that myself. I don’t have a great idea of how much value it all has, though.

  107. 107


    It has positive value when it’s, say, a mathematician collaborating with an MD. Both people bring something to the table, and nice things can happen. It has negative value when it’s a scientist with no math background double clicking on “The Magic Fractals Toolbox” and just pushing buttons… and getting published because nobody else in their field knows anything about fractals, but they sure sound neat!

  108. 108
    chopper says:

    @J.W. Hamner:

    unfortunately, that process also gave us quants and the ‘magic copula function’ that ruined our financial system.

  109. 109


    Good point. In science it’s “just” wasted research time/money by blind alleys caused by poorly applied analysis techniques, not the entire world’s economy.

  110. 110
    Bruce (formerly Steve S.) says:

    Maybe it’s pointless to speculate this, but I do think that it’s part of why our national political system is just a disaster: it’s run by losers.

    Not sure I buy your thesis here. I’m not sure we can speak meaningfully about whether these people are “losers” or stupid, but there is one thing I am fairly sure of; most of the pundits who are selected to appear on television are carefully screened for conventional views.

  111. 111
    liberal says:

    In what specific ways do you think he went nuts? Not that I disagree.

  112. 112
    DougJ says:


    The stuff he wrote about the Henry Louis Gates arrest was so dumb I blocked it out. Also too, his hatred of Olbermann and Maddow.

  113. 113
    Comrade Luke says:

    It appears that this post has died, but just in case people come back I’d like to add:

    Maybe it’s time to admit that the people at the top of our political/media heap just aren’t very bright

    Can we add business too? The most eye-opening thing for me during our economic collapse is how so many – most – of the supposed icons of business are just flat-out stupid.

  114. 114
    Ecks says:

    Only the people of Princeton would snap up bumper stickers that say “My Congressman is a rocket scientist.”

    Having met some real life actual rocket scientists, I’m not so sure I’d be proud of having them in charge of anything much other than rockets and basic engineering. Competence is ofte a very tightly circumscribed thing.

    @Pongo: Absolutely. The media guys not only aren’t bright enough to realize that their incompetent, but they have a bunch of very convincing feedback telling them they are. Why, there are lots of producers and co-journalists patting them on the back, there are very serious awards they give each other, there are camera guys who point very large serious cameras at them while they make their pronouncements, and makeup people who make sure they look good for it, and once they’ve sat there and made all sorts of confident pronouncements, well the act starts to feel pretty convincing after a while. So you tell one that s/he’s glib and full of shit, and their first reaction is that, no, you’re just a jealous idiot who doesn’t get it. This is also, on deeper consideration, their second, third, and fourth through twentieth reactions too.

    But are they just corporate stooges there to shill an agenda? On some level. But they’re also salespeople themselves. If they don’t sell the news – if Americans don’t tune in to watch en masse – then they don’t sell advertising space, and their corporate lords will find a new camera face stat. And if you go on American TV and start spouting off with lots of smart, well-researched and incisive commentary, a lot of ordinary Americans will just roll their eyes at the insufferable egg-head, and switch to another channel. Rachel M appeals to people who like to think and have a solid baseline understanding, but she’s all kinds of wonky boring to those who don’t. Which is a large percent of the population I’m afraid.

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