I conclude that they suffer from Commentator’s Disease, which consists in the confluence of several disabilities, the first being high intelligence. Washington, being a center of power, politics, graft, and corruption, attracts the very bright. An acquaintance once said, “Inside the Beltway, you assume that everyone is in the ninety-ninth percentile.” She meant that in the circles in which she moved, this was true. The city is rife with the very bright, most of them being invisible: campaign planners, pollsters, lawyers, scientists from NIH. The class includes many of the talking heads, the Pat Buchanans and Charles Krathammrs. They may be liberal or conservative, depending on their individual defects of character, but they are way smart.
The exceedingly intelligent form a social class seldom mentioned but inordinately influential. They are not recognized as what they are because they do not append IQs to their by-lines. As a quite ordinary example, consider the magazine The American Conservative, with many of whose writers I have some familiarity. The publisher, Ron Unz, studied theoretical physics at Stanford after graduating from Harvard. Bill Lind, Pat Buchanan, Taki, Steve Sailer, Kara Hopkins, John Derbyshire—I doubt that there is an IQ below 140 in the bunch. The same could be said of many other political slicks, left or right.
These people are not intellectual snobs. In the crowd they run with, they are average. The problem with them is that they hang out together. People tend to associate with those with whom they have things in common. At a hole-in-the-wall in DC like the Zoo Bar on upper Connecticut you may find a table of eight people in jeans and running shoes—Washington is about power, not style—consisting of a biochemist, an editor of a technical newsletter, a talking head you’ve seen, and so on, all highly educated. This clustering together by intelligence is sometimes called “cognitive stratification.” It exists, big time. The clusterers are by and large decent people, not full of themselves, and mean well.
But they don’t know what they are talking about in important respects. They think the Beltway contains America.
The second symptom of Commentator’s Disease is relative prosperity. The nature of Washington is that the very bright usually do well financially. I don’t mean that they are rich, though some are, but that they manage to find secure jobs in government or with law firms or they invest wisely or, in the case of commentators, angle for well-paid gigs with syndicates or networks. Usually there is nothing crooked in this. They are simply smart enough to work the system, and they live where the system is.
The aggregate effect of their brains, security, and isolation is that they are out of touch with the country as it really is. They do not know the bleak strip-development of Route 1 South toward Fredericksburg, red dirt and franchised cholesterol chutes and roaring traffic. Here the diabetic veteran lives in a decayed residential motel and makes his way on crutches to the down-scale diner where he drinks beer and waits to die because he hasn’t got anything else to wait for. (The example is not hypothetical.) Here the aging waitress gets to the diner somehow, aching with arthritis. “Too tired to work, too poor to stop.” I knew this woman. She is much of America. You don’t see her at the Zoo Bar. She has never been to such a place.
I often see victims of Commentator’s Disease arguing against the minimum wage on abstract grounds of economic theory. It is what commentators do—bandy abstractions, railing for or against Keynes, assaulting their ideological opponents with pointed phrases. They have never had to do the arithmetic of forty times the minimum wage minus taxes minus bus fare minus rent and gotta pay the cable because it is the only thing they have after work. They have never had to choose between the electric bill and a new coat as winter comes on.
The commentators don’t realize that not everybody is like them. Those with IQs of 140 and up (130 gets you into Mensa, I think) unconsciously believe that anything is possible. 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.
Some commentators urge letting people invest their Social Security taxes in the stock market. To them it is a question of abstract freedom and probably the Federalist papers. The commentators are smart enough to invest money. I’ll guess that at least half the population isn’t. Go into the tit bar (does it still exist) in Waldorf, Maryland, and ask the dump-truck drivers and nail-pounders what NASDAQ is.
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. A girl marries her high-school sweetheart in Busted Hump, Tennessee and he goes to work for the local pickle-bottling plant, which switches to hiring people as independent contractors to avoid paying benefits. Neither of the pair is real bright, just ordinary Americans trying to make a living. They live paycheck to paycheck because they don’t know how not to. Neither is lazy. They just don’t know how to start the next Microsoft. He dies of a heart attack at 45, she can’t make the mortgage, and…she is well and truly screwed.
At the Zoo Bar, they have great wings and some really good walk-in blues bands, and what you have to understand about Keynes is….