Jun 17 • 1HR 28M

David Goodhart On Overvaluing Smarts

The British writer talks about the moral tensions of the modern economy.

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Unafraid conversations about anything

David Goodhart is a British journalist. In 1995 he founded Prospect, the center-left political magazine, where he served as editor for 15 years, and then became the director of Demos, the cross-party think tank. His book The Road to Somewhere coined the terms “Anywheres” and “Somewheres” to help us understand populism in the contemporary West. We also discuss his latest book, Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or click the dropdown menu to add the Dishcast to your podcast feed). For two clips of our convo — on why elites favor open borders, and why smart people are overvalued — head over to our YouTube page.

Early in the episode, David discusses how his adolescent schooling in Marxism was “a bit like how people sometimes talk about the classics as a sort of intellectual gymnasium — learning how to argue.” Which brings to mind the following note from a listener:

I feel compelled to tell you how much I enjoyed listening to your episode with Roosevelt Montás. I’m a retired lawyer in my 60s, and although I had a decent education growing up, my experience did not involve a full immersion in the classics. Hearing you two talk was like sitting in a dorm room in college — except the people talking are older, wiser, actually know what they were talking about. What a treat. I’m a pretty regular listener of the Dishcast, and this was the best yet in my opinion.

Much of this week’s episode with David centers on how our capitalist society ascribes too much social and moral value to cognitive ability. That theme was also central to our episode last year with Charles Murray, who emphasizes in the following clip the “unearned gift” of high IQ:

The following listener was a big fan of the episode (which we transcribed last week):

I must tell you that your conversation with Charles Murray was the single best podcast I’ve ever heard. So deep, broad, and thought provoking. Thank you both for your willingness to explore “unacceptable” ideas so thoughtfully and carefully.

I have read two of Charles’ books — Human Diversity and Facing Reality — and, among other things, I am stunned by how ordinary a person he seems to be. That sounds odd. What I mean to say is that, while few people could analyze and assemble so much data and present it so compellingly, his conclusions are what the average person “already knows.” I suspect that most people couldn’t plow through Human Diversity, but given a brief synopsis, they would say “duh.”

When you mentioned your deep respect for black culture in America, you touched on something I wish had been more developed in Charles’ books: the option we have of celebrating human diversity rather than resigning ourselves to it or denying it. I would like to develop that idea a bit further:

Conservation biologists understand (celebrate) the value of genetic diversity in nonhuman species, because each population potentially brings to the species genes that will allow it to flourish under some future environmental challenge, whether that be disease outbreak, climate change, competition from invasive species, etc. Humans too, as living organisms, have faced and will undoubtedly continue to face many unforeseen challenges, whether environmental, cultural, economic, etc. Hopefully, we will continue to rise to these challenges, but we have no way of knowing which genes from which populations will carry the critical traits that will allow us to do so.

So, all the better that races DO differ and ARE diverse — in the aggregate, on average. Population differences are GOOD for a species because they confer resilience!

Oh, and for the record, I tend to be center-left, with most of my friends leaning further to the left, so the ideas you presented are forbidden fruits. I cannot discuss them with anyone other than my husband, who can hardly bear to listen because they are so taboo in our circle.

Here’s another clip with Charles, bringing Christianity into the mix:

This next listener strongly dissents:

Charles Murray, and you as well, seem to believe that you can magically separate out the effects of culture and poverty, and determine the effect of “race” on intelligence, which you define as IQ. The problem is, everything you’ve discussed here is nonsense.

First, you assume that the term “race” describes a shorthand for people who share a common genetic background, and I suspect this is garbage. Most American Blacks have multi-ethnic backgrounds, with skin melanin being the main shared genetic feature. So, there’s little reason to believe that there’s a correlation between melanin content and other genetic features.

Second, you assume that IQ describes general intelligence, that G factor Murray talks about. But intelligence is clearly multi-dimensional. My wife and youngest daughter have a facility with Scrabble, and general word enumeration games, that is way beyond me, and they’re better writers than I am. On the other hand, I have a general facility with mathematics that they can’t match (though my oldest daughter might be able to). 

And that’s just two dimensions; I’d bet there are many more, encompassing things like artistic talent, architectural design and talents in other arenas. You yourself are an excellent writer and interviewer, but I’ve read your writings for years, and I’d bet your understanding of statistics is elementary at best.

Finally, you have no answer to the remarkable changes in IQ in Ashkenazi Jews over the past century. Supposedly IQ is supposed to represent an innate and unchangeable measurement of intelligence. And if you believe that average IQ of an ethnic group is a meaningful measurement, then you have to explain the changes in average IQ among American Jews over the past century. Goddard in the early 20th century claimed that 83% of tested Jews were feebleminded, while today, the great grandchildren of those feebleminded Jews now have IQs 1/2 to a full standard deviation above their co-nationalists. 

There’s an obvious answer here: IQ tests simply don’t test anything fundamental, but instead test how integrated into American culture the tested subjects were at the time.

These are serious challenges to the idea that specific ethnic groups have unchangeable intellectual talents: some of your ethnic groups are non-homogeneous genetically, your definition of intelligence is simplistic, and there’s clear evidence that social integration greatly overwhelms any inter-group average differences. It is obvious that some people are more talented in one area than another, and that a significant amount of these differences are determined genetically. But when you move from the case of individuals to trying to correlate American racial groups with intelligence, I truly believe you’re just making a big mistake. 

Many Blacks in this country have grown up with the expectations that they simply can’t succeed on their own. I find it impossible to believe that we can filter out the effect of being raised with the expectation of failure. I work in tech, and it seems that a seriously disproportionate number of Blacks at my Gang of Five company come from the Caribbean — where, of course, Blacks are a majority and don’t face the same expectations of failure. We had a panel discussion on race and all the panelists came from the Caribbean, and all had stories of parental expectations that you’d expect from a stereotypical Asian-American family today.

That said, right now, the Woke are acting more patronizing (and in my view, racist) than anything since the ‘60s. At this point, the Woke (I refuse to apply this label to the whole Left) treat Blacks as incredibly fragile beings who can’t handle any discussions of problems that aren’t laid at the feet of white people’s racism. It’s pretty disgusting.

Instead of going point for point with my reader, here’s a comprehensive list of Dish coverage on the subject from the blog days. Another listener recommends a related guest for the Dishcast:

After ruminating on some of your recent podcasts, I’d like to suggest a future guest: Paige Harden, author of The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality and professor of behavioral psychology at the University of Texas-Austin. I imagine you’ve read her profile in The New Yorker. Since your conversation with Briahna Joy Gray, the tension between matters of structure and personal agency have been echoing in my head.

When I listen to other guests of yours, other podcast hosts, other conservatives, I see everywhere the tension between structure and personal agency. And having read Harden’s book this fall, I’ve been thinking of her work more and more as a bridge between these seemingly divergent world views. She swims in the same research waters as Charles Murray and Robert Plomin — but she (a) is explicitly clear that this research has, as of yet, no value in studying ethnic groups and (b) treats environmental factors differently than they do.

On the latter, Harden makes some compelling arguments about the interplay between environment and expression of individuals’ genes (and thus abilities). It’s easy to see the corollaries in personal ability and responsibility (both with strong roots in genetics) versus the leftist tendency to dismiss people’s actions vis a vis blaming structural inequalities.

Harden sometimes trades in some language verging on woke, for lack of a better term, but her more nuanced philosophical references are to John Rawls, not neo-Marxists. She’s really quite convincing. Also, I’ve always appreciated that you ask your guests to reflect on their upbringing and how they got where they are. Having read that New Yorker piece and her book, I think hers is an interesting story in and of itself.

It is indeed. Harden is a great idea for a guest. I’ll confess that I felt I needed to read her book thoroughly to engage her, and didn’t have the time so put it off. Thanks for the reminder.


A reader responds to a quote we posted last week praising Mike Pence for standing up to Trump after the assault on the Capitol:

Pence had innumerable chances over years to expose Trump for exactly what he was. Besides one forceful speech since, there hasn’t been much else from the MAGA-excommunicated, nearly-executed veep. How about a live appearance before the Jan 6 Commission, Mr Vice President? Probably not.

While I agree that Mike Pence may have saved the republic on Jan 6, he only did so with a gun to his head — with an actual gallows erected for him, while the Capitol was being stormed and people were dying. Better late than never, but he really cut it close, no?

Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney are the profiles in courage here, along with all those Capitol police. Pence doesn’t deserve this lionization … at least not yet.

Points taken. But to be honest, any mainstream Republican who opposed the attempted coup is a hero in my book. Another reader quotes me and dissents:

The early Biden assurance that inflation was only a blip has become ridiculous, as Janet Yellen herself has conceded. No, Biden isn’t responsible for most of it. But some of it? Yep. A massive boost to demand when supply is crippled is dumb policy making. And imagine how worse it would be if Biden had gotten his entire package. Larry Summers was right — again.

European countries did not have stimulus like we did, yet they are experiencing similar levels of inflation. This would indicate that inflation is a world-wide phenomenon and not tied to our particular stimulus packages. Also, Larry Summers has been pretty much wrong on everything — here’s a synopsis from 2013 (or just google “larry summers wrong on everything” and see the articles that pop up). Money quote:

And Summers has made a lot of errors in the past 20 years, despite the eminence of his research. As a government official, he helped author a series of ultimately disastrous or wrongheaded policies, from his big deregulatory moves as a Clinton administration apparatchik to his too-tepid response to the Great Recession as Obama's chief economic adviser. Summers pushed a stimulus that was too meek, and, along with his chief ally, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, he helped to ensure that millions of desperate mortgage-holders would stay underwater by failing to support a "cramdown" that would have allowed federal bankruptcy judges to have banks reduce mortgage balances, cut interest rates, and lengthen the terms of loans. At the same time, he supported every bailout of financial firms.

All of this has left the economy still in the doldrums, five years after Lehman Brothers' 2008 collapse, and hurt the middle class. Yet in no instance has Summers ever been known to publicly acknowledge a mistake.

Sorry, but the EU provided a Covid stimulus of $2.2 trillion. And Summers was clearly right in this case, and Janet Yellen wrong. Another reader also pushes back on the passage I wrote above:

I have a bone to pick with you when you discuss the Biden economic policy. Your contention is that the American Rescue Plan was “dumb policy making” because it exacerbated inflation. Fair enough — but if we are going to discuss the economy, then we need to have a full exploration of the policy choices and their implications.

Yes, we have had six months of multi-decade high inflation, but we also have had about a year of near-record lows in unemployment and record-high job creation. Before you dismiss that as simply due to the reopening of the economy post-COVID, it’s worth noting that the American economic recovery has vastly outperformed all prognostications, as well as other Western economies. So in sum, the result of Biden’s policy is high inflation, high growth, high job creation, low unemployment.

Let’s be clear then: when you criticize the ARP as too big and thus causing inflation, you are advocating for stable prices at the cost of a low growth, high unemployment environment. It’s a fair argument, I suppose. But after having lived through the weak economic recovery engineered by Larry Summers during the Obama administration, one that choked the early careers of many millennials, I’m not sure Biden’s choice was particularly egregious. 

But what we may well be about to get is stagflation — as interest rates go up even as inflation continues. It’s possible we fucked up both times: in 2009 with too little stimulus and in 2020 too much. I understand why those decisions were taken and the reasons were sane. But they were still wrong.

Tim Noah has been doing great work lately on these questions of inflation and recession, including an interview with Summers. This next reader defends Biden’s record on the economy and beyond:

The pragmatic counter-argument to your criticism of Biden is this: his economic program, while inflationary, produced unprecedented job growth after a recession, reductions by 50% in child poverty, more than five new business startups, and increases in business investment and personal bank balances of more than 20%. It’s among the reasons the American economy is outperforming China’s for the first time in two generations.

Biden’s signature foreign policy achievements in Central Europe have led to the enlargement of NATO and awakened Europe to its responsibilities to its own security, all of which will contain Russia over the long term. This precedent, coupled with the Aussie-Brit nuclear deal, opens real possibilities for containing China’s potential regional expansion in Asia.

At home, Biden’s Justice Department, like Gerald Ford’s, is fumigating the fetid stench of politics it inherited. The Biden White House has re-opened the doors to governors and mayors who need help from Washington in a disaster, regardless of partisan affiliation or views of Dear Leader; and it is laying the groundwork for a much-needed affordable-housing boom in our cities.

Your hopes for a politics of dynamic centrism, which I share, does not take into account that as many as 10 million of our fellow citizens are prone to political violence due to the real-world influence of Great Replacement Theory, according to Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago. There is no comparable threat from the illiberalism on the left — which is a problem, nonetheless. In the wake of Trump’s loss in 2020, leading Republicans, including the governors of Florida and Texas, are competing for those constituents. That’s a movement my fellow classical liberals and I — stretching from the center-left to the center-right — can and should live without. Bill Buckley wouldn’t have sucked up to them.

In the real world, the GOP wooing of the violent right poses an existential threat to our quality of life. It’s why I am voting straight Democratic in 2022. And it is why I would gladly vote for Biden, again in 2024, if he sought re-election.

Happy to air your perspective. This next reader is bracing himself for Trump 2024:

I know it gives you a warm feeling all over to write a column about the revolt against the woke, but it won’t be wokism that propels Republicans into office in 2022 and returns Trump to power in 2024 — something I agree will be a disaster for the republic. Trump’s return to power feels inevitable to me today. The January 6th hearings will make no difference to Trump supporters.

Don’t get me wrong; I think wokism is annoying and stupid, but it is not the threat to the nation that you believe it is, and it never was. Wokism has destroyed the left and that is the real tragedy. Instead of a populist left railing against the rich, we have a bourgeois left railing against heterosexual white men, leaving the working class in the thrall of an American Orban. The working class now feels that the left and Democrats have failed them; and they are right, they have.

Americans will vote for Republican for one reason: inflation. It should be no surprise that inflation is out of control, but both Biden and Trump spent billions helping people who were unable to work during Covid (the right policy) without raising taxes (the wrong policy). Now, to fight inflation we need to raise taxes and that is impossible; there aren’t the votes in the Senate.

American tax policy is insane. You can have low taxes, or you can solve social problems like helping people who can’t work because of a pandemic, an inadequate public health system still unprepared for the next pandemic, homelessness and addiction, and crime. But you can’t have both. It really isn’t that complicated.

Grateful as always for the counterpoints, and you can always send your own to dish@andrewsullivan.com. Another dissenter gets historical:

(Library Of Congress/Getty Images)

I agree wholeheartedly with your clarion condemnation of the odious Trump. But you are wide of the historical mark when you state that Trump is “the first real tyrannical spirit to inhabit the office since Andrew Jackson.” Jackson was authoritarian in character. He was a product of the trauma of the Revolution and he brought his military identity to the White House. But he was not a tyrant or dictator. (There is more historical evidence for Lincoln as dictatorial than Jackson.) More appropriate — if non-American — comparisons for Trump would be Henry VIII, Wilhelm II, Mussolini and Nixon.

Mind you, an interesting Dishcast guest would be Jon Meacham to discuss US presidents with authoritarian tendencies: Adams Sr., Polk, Andrew Johnson, Teddy R and Wilson. All expressed some form of authoritarianism, but sometimes the presidency and the nation derived benefit

Another digs deeper into the Jackson comparison:

I suggest you interview W.H. Brands, who wrote a biography of Andrew Jackson. There are many ways to judge a history book, but to me an important criterion is, did I learn anything I did not already know?  Reading this book I did.

I am only going to mention one of a good number events in Jackson’s life that Brands brings to the forefront. After the Battle of New Orleans, Gen. Jackson had ordered that a curfew remain in effect and that the city was to remain under martial law. For good reason: while the British offensive on one flank was a disaster, they had relative success on the other flank, and their remaining commander could have ended the truce and ordered another attack. 

But the British never did a follow-up attack. One New Orleans business man then took Andrew Jackson to court, claiming he endured an unnecessary economic loss on account of the military curfew. 

The court ruled in the businessman’s favor. AND, incredibly, Andrew Jackson paid the fine! Now stop and think, what must have been on Old Hickory’s mind. Here he risks life and limb to save the city from British domination, and he’s fined. Andrew could think, why should I pay?  I’ve got the Army in my control, I’m not just a commander whom soldiers fear, but also one that has the adulation and respect of my soldiers and the populace at large.   

To me, that episode reveals that Jackson was hardly the tyrant he is portrayed to be by most modernists steeped in presentism. He should never be placed in the same sentence as Trump unless the word “contrast” or “opposite” is used. Let's keep Old Hickory away from any such comparisons and let his image remain on that $20 bill!

Well I learned something from that email — so many thanks. Meacham is a good idea too.