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June 18, 2004

Aristocracy of Mind

I've been thinking of a way to describe what I think is the problem with a great deal of left intellectual dissent. David Brooks, once again, proves his value and insight.

I just got yet another entreaty from Front Page to send money to support poor pitiful Republicans on college campuses. I don't go in for that kind of charity, and quite frankly David Horowitz has gotten on my last nerve several times. On the other hand, it is true that he suggested I get a sponsor for my writing. Perhaps that is foreseeable, but in the meantime I get quite annoyed with the suggestions that there is something wrong with the academy. I have tried to reconcile what I think is obviously true about it - those who can't do teach. And there's a great deal of utility in any institution that forces one to examine all the possibilities.

But out here in the marketplace, all the possibilities don't count. And it is a mark of great intelligence to know what to discard.

Now read David Brooks:

Knowledge-class types are more likely to value leaders who possess what may be called university skills: the ability to read and digest large amounts of information and discuss their way through to a nuanced solution. Democratic administrations tend to value self-expression over self-discipline. Democratic candidates from Clinton to Kerry often run late.

Managers are more likely to value leaders whom they see as simple, straight-talking men and women of faith. They prize leaders who are good at managing people, not just ideas. They are more likely to distrust those who seem overly intellectual or narcissistically self-reflective.

Excellent. This is exactly what I think.

Posted by mbowen at June 18, 2004 12:44 PM

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Brooks gets part of it wrong. Managers prize leaders who are good at managing people, not just ideas.


Managers prize leaders who are good at managing people NOT ideas.

This is a significant difference.

Posted by: Lester Spence at June 18, 2004 12:48 PM

Managers - of other peoples wealth - prize compliance with the party line above all else. Compliance being the core of the governance process, yielding all the benefits that the hierarchical control [influence] system is intended to yield.

Posted by: xavier moon at June 18, 2004 04:53 PM

That's the kind of person I want minding my money.

Posted by: Cobb at June 18, 2004 08:06 PM

Ah, but what kind of person do you want minding YOU? David Brooks? Rumsfeld? Bush 43? And I don't mean "manage YOU" from the distance, I mean being your boss in your work of choice.

I think Brooks' distinction is a cute one. I'm not sure that's how it is, at all. If you want to read a good book about managing people, try Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest. It's not a management book, neither a practical guide of jolly tips from the real world, nor even a scholarly examination of management theory. But it IS a scholarly book, about the conflict between authoritarian and egalitarien "impulse" in primitive man. I don't think David Brooks has pondered anything comparable to what's in that book, nor does he want to. He just wants to be his own pretty independent (i.e. unmanaged) journalist self while telling the rest of us how to behave.

Posted by: Bill Benzon at June 19, 2004 03:43 AM

This question is driving me crazy because there are so many inferences that tend to peter out outside the scope of Brooks' assertions. And yet I know he's saying something that has deep meaning. I think it's more difficult to capture this than I thought.

I'll just try to answer the simple question of what kind of boss I want. After all, I just met a big baller a few months ago who is doing massive business in Beijing. I haven't managed to work for him directly but there is food around the corner. Here's what I imagine him to be.

Already independently wealthy. That means he doesn't have to work but he works to accomplish his dreams.

Male. That means I have a level of intimacy and ball scratching frankness which allows me to communicate bad news.

Family man. That means he is not tilting at windmills, but understands and respects that everyone is not a missionary or a disciple.

Ugly & Smart. Essentially, someone who understands and respects the meritocracy of work.

Loyal & Predictable. The more power this person has, the more important Loyalty is.

Posted by: Cobb at June 19, 2004 08:36 AM

While you're pondering, let me mention one of the major differences between the world of academic research and the world of practical affairs.

In the research world you can take your time gathering evidence and making your case. You don't have to publish until it's all lined up. In fact, if the evidence isn't in place, you can't publish at all.

In the world of practical affairs you have no choice but to make decisions of even the highest consequence on the basis of very poor evidence. If you refuse to decide, insisting on better evidence, you will be overtaken by events and a choice will be forced on you.

Someone who is constitutionally a ponderer is going to have a difficult time making effective practicle decisions.

Posted by: Bill Benzon at June 19, 2004 12:18 PM

If you can't say something brilliant, it's better not wo say anything at all. This is going to be the death of academia. People still need to understand calculus - to hell with superstring theory.

Anyway, I'm in a new direction.. here's the verbiage that didn't work. I'll pick it up sometime in the future....

my work of choice happens to require a mix of both types. i am a programmer which means i work like a craftsman. i am thinking of new ways to improve and standardize, and there are hundreds of decisions i must make which makes my immediate work product unsupervisable. i could not do my work well in an environment which pushes. at the same time, since i am my own boss and am responsible for the bottom line, i must make promises and binding agreements.

i'd also suggest that matters of economy are inherently bound in the distinction. a creative whose audience is the mass of americans can be assured that a standard raft of puppies, babies, bullets and blood will be subjects in perpetual demand. there are thus infinite variations of the theme from which he can draw ideas of value. for such a creative, supply and demand are less than secondary objects of his attention. therefore his discipline is less likely bound to a schedule. indeed

a path through the forest is a good metaphor. to a woodcutter, the path must necessarily take one to the largest and most profitable trees. the forward thinking woodcutter will make the path wide enough for trucks to take the trees out and avoid the younger trees which will provide future supply. the decision will be based on a set of priorities which once fixed cannot be undone without great expense.

the naturalist's path through the forest would be designed to highlight those features best known...

Posted by: Cobb at June 20, 2004 02:09 PM