Commentator’s Disease

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Beltway think-tanky types hang around almost entirely with other people in the 99th percentile of intelligence, and this, Fred Reed says, leads  them to develop commentator’s disease:

Denizens of this class know that if they decided to learn, say, classical Greek, they could. You get the book and go at it. It would take work, yes, and time, but the outcome would be certain.

They don’t understand that the waitress has an IQ of 85 and can’t learn much of anything.

Conservatives think in terms of merciless abstractions and liberals insist that everyone is equal. Not even close. Further, people with barely a high-school education and low-voltage minds regard any intellectual task with utter discouragement.
Liberal commentators want everyone to go to college, when about a fifth of people have the brains. Conservatives think that people can rise by hard work and sacrifice as certainly many people have. Thing is, most people can’t. Commentators only see those who made it.

The tendency of the Beltway 99th to live in an imaginary world, of conservatives to think that everybody can be a Horatio Alger, of liberals to believe that inequality arises from discrimination, guarantees wretched policy. Those who can do almost anything need to recognize the existence of those who can do almost nothing. Few of the latter are parasites. The waitress has worked all her life, as has the truck driver. They ended up with nothing.

Which is easy to do.


  1. Aretae says:

    I read that when it came out. While I think he’s right about most conservative and liberal commentators, I think this is a poor analysis.

    Houston, for instance, has the highest percentage of folks in the country that believe that hard work is all it takes to do well for yourself. Oddly, it’s also the place in the country where it’s the most true.

    I’m gonna repeat: The individuals, including poor stupid folks, in Houston think that all it takes is hard work — and in Houston, they’re mostly right.

    Of course, Texas state government meets only part time every other year, the Texas governor is a mostly ceremonial post, Houston has no zoning, and Texans are mostly “leave me alone” types.

    I’d suggest that Mr. Reed go to Houston and reconsider his critique of the Horatio Alger story.

  2. Rebecca says:

    I also thought he was off the mark somewhat in his analysis in that it seemed simplistic (either you have an IQ of 140 and above, or 85). Actually most people are in between the two numbers, and it is not IQ alone that determines character traits, like an appreciation of hard work and living a live-and-let-live existence (zoning encroachments).

    Commentators are not the only groups that influence each other’s thinking, and valuing hard work is not rocket science.

  3. David Foster says:

    I think it is highly questionable that the average “commentator” has an IQ anywhere near the 99th percentile. This certainly does not appear to be true of journalists, even prominent ones. And I doubt it’s true of think-tank denizens — getting jobs at most of these places is highly influenced by connections and social smoothness as well as credentials. These are not theoretical physicists.

  4. David Foster says:

    Thinking about this some more, the real problem with the commentariat is almost exactly the opposite of the one Reed identifies. It’s not that they think everyone else is as smart as they are; it’s that they think everyone else is really really dumb.

  5. Aretae says:


    I have to defend Mr. Reed now.

    The average person in the country has an IQ near 100. The average journalist has an IQ near 105-110. The average top-end commentariat in DC has an IQ near 125. 125 is well below the 140 that Mr. Reed suggests, but it’s close to 2 standard deviations above the norm, and near the 98th %ile. I’d give him his points, even if they’re mildly exaggerated.

    Fact is that the worldview of someone with an IQ of 125 (Someone who is roughly as smart as most Harvard students) has a very different outlook on the world than someone with an IQ of 100 (College is really a bit too tough, unless I have stellar study habits, iron will, and a beer allergy).

  6. Isegoria says:

    I don’t think Reed’s point is that commentators are supremely intelligent. The 99th percentile is not that selective. If you went to a major university, you were dealing with the top 12 percent, or so, of high school graduates, when you first got there, and many didn’t make it to sophomore year, so the top 1 percent is really just the “A” students at good schools — the kind of people who might go on to a good law school, not just the Stephen Hawking types.

    As Charles Murray has pointed out, in our modern meritocratic society, these people live their lives almost entirely surrounded by people just like them. In their experience, the “dumb kids” are the 89th-percentile freshmen who get C- grades in English Comp 101. So, they do think they’re smarter than most other people, but they don’t have any practical experience with ordinary people working ordinary jobs with other ordinary people. Their world view is grossly distorted — and this distortion is amplified by the fact that they’re often making decisions for the ordinary people, not for their successful peers.

    Also, I don’t doubt for a second that Reed understands the value of hard work and the value of government policies that let hard work reap rewards, but plenty of people are on the left-hand side of the ability curve, and their hard work isn’t especially remunerative. Hard work gets them further than laziness, but they aren’t management material, they’re not good with finances, and they’re quite vulnerable to a bad turn of events. That doesn’t mean that bureaucratic welfare programs are the answer, but a simplistic “markets are good” stance tends to assume rational, competent actors, and many real people aren’t especially rational or competent, they don’t delay gratification, and they don’t realize what hit them when a chance accident means that they can’t work their manual labor job, and their savings dry up all too fast.

  7. David Foster says:

    Aretae, well, they don’t seem that smart, judging from some of the stuff they write and say. I wonder, for instance, how many of them have the kind of ability to analyze cause-and-effect in the way that a factory manager or a mechanic needs to be able to do.

    Totally true that too many of these people live in their own disconnected world, but the result of this is not to make them think everyone else is as smart as them. Rather, their attitude is more like the attitude of Frederick Winslow Taylor to the workers whose every motion he wished to control, with a completely rigid separation of thinking from doing.

  8. Isegoria says:

    Perhaps the reason why commentators — and politicians — don’t seem smart when they speak is because their job is not to understand and then convey the truth.

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