Tag Archives: Stephen Bainbridge

What’s Eating American Intellectuals And, Now, What’s Eating Me

In yesterday’s post about what’s troubling American intellectuals I arrived at what I considered a fairly uncontroversial point of view, namely, that the diminished social stature of the intellectual – and, in some quarters, the scorn and mockery of educated “elites” — indicates something disturbing about our attitudes toward education and where we are headed as a society.

Just what that something might be is up for grabs, but I was tending toward the dramatic and alarming view that this is the first stage of the eclipse of liberal arts education in America, the onset of a dark age. I tried to hint at that in the final paragraph of my post.

Not a single comment all day — until last night, when someone registered his strong disagreement on my Facebook page, and I had the sinking feeling that maybe everybody had strongly disagreed with what I wrote, but was just too polite to say so.

Michael commented that he “lost all faith in the ‘liberal intellectuals’ long ago,” and he goes on to say my post fails to register how badly intellectuals of all stripes have failed us, so they might just deserve our scorn.

…it was a bunch of Ivy Leaguers who got us into the damn mess we’re in–the latest version of “the best and the brightest.” Your intellectual aristocracy has failed us, Louis. They’ve screwed up the environment probably beyond redemption, they’ve brought us war without end, they’ve totally fucked up the global casino economy. This last half century of downhill slide wasn’t the consequence of bunch of climate-denying yahoos and creationist boobs; it was all the brilliant scientists at MIT, all those glorious minds at the Kennedy School of Government, all those experts at G’town International relations, all those Harvard Business School MBAs. Thanks a million, minds.

Just to be clear, I am not out to defend tenured Ivy League professors, the best and the brightest, or an intellectual aristocracy (if there is such a thing). They don’t need me to defend them. Nor am I trying to put them at ease. I am simply trying to understand why they are so ill at ease these days, and what that might mean.

If I widen the historical lens I begin to wonder whether a certain idea of the intellectual is passing from the American stage and maybe from the world stage. Technocrats and scientists still garner our respect and admiration (despite what Michael says about the folks at MIT and elsewhere), and we are still captive to a narrative of scientific and technical progress; but we may have lost our faith in the idea that we can ever learn anything of consequence about human affairs or the human condition. That’s not something I can lay out arguments to prove; it is simply something I wonder about, and it’s a possibility I dread.

On the other hand, I can’t really go where Michael is going with his comment, partly because I recognize the inherent fallibility of all intellectual undertaking — it’s no surprise that the best and the brightest would fail to deliver us from evil; nobody can — and because I admit that most human endeavor ends in pure folly, no matter how noble and inspired and smart it might at first seem.

That is no reason to give up on education or enlightenment. This is a point Russell Kirk made, snidely, but powerfully, in a passage quoted by Bainbridge:

Populism is a revolt against the Smart Guys. I am very ready to confess that the present Smart Guys, as represented by the dominant mentality of the Academy and of what the Bergers call the Knowledge Class today, are insufficiently endowed with right reason and moral imagination. But it would not be an improvement to supplant them by persons of thoroughgoing ignorance and incompetence.

To be sure, the current wave of populism will pass. My concern is that after the revolution, we’re going to have to start rebuilding, and it’s difficult to do that in darkness.

What’s Eating American Intellectuals?

I had dinner the other night with a friend who has been worrying about the sorry plight of the liberal elite in the year of the Tea Party. Ivy Leaguers see themselves outflanked by Astroturfers, unsure of their prospects and unable to connect. My friend wondered aloud what liberal intellectuals now ought to do.

The conversation would not really have made much of an impression on me – it’s one of those conversations one is bound to have after an election like the last one — were it not for the curious way it began to resonate in subsequent days.

Walter Russell Mead echoed many of the themes of our dinner conversation in a post about the delusions of the “liberal intelligentsia,” who were misled by the Obama victory in 2008. People really just wanted things to get a little better after the disappointments and troubles of the Bush years, Mead argues; they didn’t want a liberal political agenda forced on them and watched over by the guardians of the liberal elite.

Delusional, disconnected, defeated.

But it’s not just liberals. Soon I found out that even more people were having virtually the same conversation we’d had. For instance, I came across these themes in a lament on Stephen Bainbridge’s blog, about the plight of the intellectual elite on the right. Bainbridge was responding to a post by Nils August Andresen, who has been publishing a series on FrumForum about the role of intellectuals – specifically academics, and even more specifically, Ivy League academics — in the GOP.

Bainbridge, Andresen and others are rightly worried that the GOP is turning over the reins of power to boobs on the tube and anti-intellectual demagogues. The Palin and Beck crowd can easily out-shout the Smart Guys. Populism threatens to make the GOP not just the party of no, but the party of no ideas.

It would be easy to multiply the examples. Intellectuals on both sides feel as if they are under siege, or desperately out of touch, as if they are being pushed out of public life, or – worse – that nobody’s listening.

It’s hard to decide what’s really going on here. Are these just post-election blues, or have intellectuals begun to grasp some greater truth, not just about the intellectual death of the GOP or what’s really the matter with Kansas, but about their own diminished, marginal social position?

This much seems tolerably clear. A society that does not accord a place of prestige to intellectuals hasn’t simply stopped believing in the wisdom of tenured faculty at Ivy League institutions. Professors can earn or lose public face — and the social status and access to power — that comes with it. But a society that excludes, marginalizes or mocks intellectual elites has lost a certain faith.

It has stopped believing in the idea that educated people have any special insight into human affairs, and maybe even that such insight is possible. And so it has stopped believing in the value of education – or at least a certain kind of education: the liberal arts, the study of history, language and society – and the power of ideas to help people make sense of history, the problems of the day, or the future. If this is where we are, or where things are heading, then I’m worried, too.

‘Mr. Rajaratnam seemed in good spirits’

That was the report from a “friend” on October 20th. Whether Mr. Rajaratnam’s good spirits have held up despite recent events — which have ranged from the collapse of his firm, the Galleon Group, to accusations that he was funding the Tamil Tigers — is less clear; but perhaps Mr. Rajaratnam knew all along that that he had friends out there, and that his friends would rise to his defense. No need to be glum.

Friends of Raj have included, so far, a number of prominent newspaper columnists and professors of law and finance, as well as, it would appear, the entire editorial staff of The Wall Street Journal.

Most are not defending Mr. Rajaratnam himself: nobody, not even his closest friends, have stepped up to declare him innocent or incapable of any wrongdoing. Instead, we are asked to consider that what the Feds call insider trading is really another form of market transparency, or alternatively, that it is, or ought to be, perfectly legal for outsiders to trade on information provided by insiders, even if those insiders betray their fiduciary duties in providing that information.

The latter of these arguments could amount to little more than this: if you tell me a secret, and I act on that information, you may have violated a trust, but I have not. I have only acted in my own self-interest, and what else can you expect me to do? Of course this conveniently overlooks the question how I induced you to tell me the secret, or how I colluded with you in violation of a trust. Any investigation of wrongdoing at Galleon will likely focus on whether there were inducements in Mr. Rajaratnam’s network of informants and contacts, or what form collusion took. After all, we’re not really being asked to believe that these were just friendly exchanges.

Or are we? Mr. Rajaratnam cultivated friends in high places and friends with access to proprietary information, to be sure. And as L. Gordon Crovitz noted in a piece that tries to blur the line between insider and outsider trading:

Information flows these days are increasingly about networks, including information about markets shared by members of various communities. Traders use Web sites to compare notes on companies and use social media like Facebook to share information, looking for an edge. Sophisticated traders such as hedge funds draw on more selected networks such as their investors.

The word “community” is doing a lot of work here it shouldn’t do. And it’s a little hard to imagine an entire hedge fund entrusted to the fortunes of six-degree, social media friendships. The role these informal exchanges played in giving Galleon the “edge” that Mr. Rajaratnam insisted upon is most likely negligible. Instead, it seems fair to assume, Mr. Rajaratnam and his associates depended on what Crovitz calls “more sophisticated” social information networks. (If you like acronyms, call them SINs). How sophisticated, and how social, remains to be seen.

The other argument, the argument about market transparency, is usually attributed to Milton Friedman (but originates, according to Stephen Bainbridge, with Henry Manne). Friedman summed it up when he quipped: “you should want more insider trading, not less. You want to give the people most likely to have knowledge about deficiencies of the company an incentive to make the public aware of that.” The merits of this view aside — and Bainbridge has argued persuasively that its merits are slim — it paints a deliberately naive picture of the markets, with knowledgeable insiders merely lacking some incentive to inform “the public” of a company’s deficiencies.

The public? It’s difficult to say why Friedman should choose this word. No doubt about it, inside information about a company’s shortcomings, or failures, or misdeeds can serve the public, or be a public good; and in a perfect world, or even a better world, there might be real incentives and protections for those who come forward with information about companies that serves the public interest. But in our world, in the real world, who among the public, broadly construed, the publicus, would benefit from this kind of information, or even know how to benefit from it?

It’s a very small percentage of the public, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. It’s a “community,” to use Crovitz’s word. But the trouble is this: this particular community is like a gated enclave, restricted, shut off from the traffic and noise of the public world. Just Mr. Rajaratnam and friends — nobody else; a very small, very closed circle, a social information network, to which only a select few are privy.

There are, no doubt, many such networks of friends and boon companions where the line between inside and outside is blurred: after all, friends don’t let friends stay out in the cold. But these social information networks are still a long way from true transparency and public disclosure, or information that is a public good, even though we have all the technology we need to make information public. What we lack is the political intelligence to do it right, or maybe just the political will to do it at all.