The best two paragraphs I read today

Ezra wins:

…the campaign against Obama has metastasized into a variant of class
warfare. It’s the resentment of the meritocracy. What the GOP realized
was that Obama did come across different than the average American, but
not so much because he was black as because he was effortless. The very
set of supercharged talents and qualities that allowed Obama to
levitate past the boundaries of race and class make him different than
those who haven’t rocketed upward on the strength of their intelligence
and charisma and charm. After all, if you’re a fumbling, struggling
individual out in suburban Ohio, how can you believe that this guy who
doesn’t look to have struggled a day in his life cares about your
pathetic problems? Obama, in other words, is elite. As in "A group or
class of persons enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic
status." Obama isn’t an economic elite, but he is a social and
intellectual elite. And it’s that creeping sense that he’s different,
that he’s better and knows it, that McCain is trying to exploit.

The Obama campaign, similarly, has realized that McCain is an elite,
and that voters won’t believe that a guy who has so many houses that he
can’t keep track of them will care if they lose the small condo they
call home. This election, in other words, is becoming a contest to
decide which type of elite voters hate — or fear, or mistrust — more:
A social elite or an economic elite?

Here is the first Google Images entry for "mediocre."

Comments

"This election, in other words, is becoming a contest to decide which type of elite voters hate -- or fear, or mistrust -- more: A social elite or an economic elite?"

What comes across more clearly in memory?

Images and sound and speeches, or a text statistic in a newspaper about how many houses someone owns?

Also, is Obama considered an elitist because he has succeeded, or because his oratory skills are so refined that people feel he is speaking down to them?

McCain doesn't own a single house, if I recall correctly. They're all in his wife's name.

Does marrying into money make one an "elite"?

Was Bill Clinton considered an elite? Bill has a similarly impressive academic resume (perhaps more impressive) as Obama.

I agree with Robert Olson above. Obama's speaking style does cause a lot of people to internally roll their eyes.

It must have been an uncharacteristically slow reading day if the best thing you came across was another one of Ezra Klein's lukewarm retreads of the "Obama is too good for America" meme.

Josh wins the thread

Ahem. Middle America doesn't consider Obama an economic elite?

american politics make no sense. the majority of people there don't want to elect someone smarter than them to be in charge of the country. can anyone please explain?

It's a bit inaccurate to describe Obama's success as strictly due to meritocracy. Various articles have pointed out that his wife was crucial in giving him credibility with his original political constituency: the fact that she was born and raised in southside Chicago, went to school with Jesse Jackson's daughter, even the fact that she has darker skin than him.

In many ways, with his exotic outsider background, Barack Obama was as much an adult immigrant into African American society as Arnold Schwarzenneger was into mainstream American society; his wife opened doors for him to join networks of power and influence in the Chicago political machine. For all his intellectual merits, Obama's political career would have been stillborn without this; his "marrying into credibility" was far more significant in this sense than McCain's marrying into money.

Despite his accomplishments, people still see Bill Clinton as smart redneck. He eats at McDonald's, likes fat chicks, and cheats on his wife. That, they can relate to.

"The American people can tell when someone has proven himself"

Then Bush was elected how? Enjoy the various forms of porno headed to your email address Jim!

american politics make no sense. the majority of people there don't want to elect someone smarter than them to be in charge of the country. can anyone please explain?

Traditionally, Americans don't like the concept of *ANYONE* to "be in charge of the country". The idea of a sage father-figure or king ruling everything in a wise and benevolent manner is part of the European mythology, not American mythology. The belief in a benevolent monarch maps over quite nicely to a belief in social democracy - Europeans naturally look for someone smarter and wiser than themselves to control their lives.

Americans had a very long period of liberalism between monarchy and social democracy. Even though years of social engineering and incremental change has brought about a greater support for the welfare state, the traditional American cultural narrative is still one of freedom and individual action. Where as in the European narrative the King is the hero fighting for his people, in the American narrative the king is at best a bumbling fool and at worst a brutal despot.

So, if you see the king as inherently good, then you want him to be better than you. If you see a king as inherently dangerous or humiliating, you want someone who makes you feel like he is no better than you are.

Do you understand now?

And make that two, with david.

"Obama isn't an economic elite."

Cite?

Heh, the level of misinformation on Obama is truly amazing. I will just second zyph, in saying that the comments by both jim and david are utterly foolish and meritless. In terms of Obama being an "economic elite" -- it's my understanding his school loans weren't paid off until after his first book became successful.

If a lawyer and bomber pilot can qualify as elite, where do I sign up?

Wouldn't 30 years in the Senate qualify McCain to be an economic elite in itself? Just Senate salary (1987 - $89K, 2006 - $165K) puts a couple in the top 3% of earners. And if Obama had more time in the Senate he'd make some bank as well. Are we asking John McCain to apologize for his success?

http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/senate_salaries.htm

"it's my understanding his school loans weren't paid off until after his first book became successful."

Do we really want someone who doesn't understand the concept of return on investment?

That said, looking over Obama's circuitous route to success and McCain's fortuitous rout tells me that our "system" is pretty crappy at recognizing merit a priori. Why would the people at large make a good decision?

The battle of the myths going on here an in American culture right now is entertaining.

The rarest thing in our current cultural climate seems to me to be a sincere empiricist, just trying to observe and describe what's going on in our culture without trying to influence it.

Does marrying into money make one an "elite"?

Nope. Makes him a working man.

McMain has had to work his ass off for the past eight years to get the nomination, and he's been working his ass off in the Senate a lot longer than that.

And likely at home a lot longer.

"No one works harder for his money than the man who marries it."
-- Old Irish proverb

I wonder if Tyler would have quoted two paragraphs on NRO or something about how the election is really about whether there are more people who resent academic elites or military elites.

Basically, 50% of the country wants a smart guy to be President and 50% of the country hates smart people and thus wants a stupid guy to be President. Clinton/Bush was the last time you'll see two smart guys running and the Republicans learned their lesson from that.

I like the original paragraphs, and it has seemed to me that Obama has been playing dumb a bit. But then, that was what let W squeeze through ... everybody plays dumb.

For a long time I attributed this to a post-Nixon thing, that no one trusted Presidents smart enough to be tricky. Maybe it is more general that that.

(Clinton had "aw shucks" down to a tee.)

We want some dumb*&% negotiating with Putin? I don't think so.

We want somebody who's smarter than us, but doesn't seem unapproachable.

Above, Adam wrote "Despite his accomplishments, people still see Bill Clinton as smart redneck. He eats at McDonald's, likes fat chicks, and cheats on his wife. That, they can relate to."

That's pretty much right, although the cheating part was a bridge too far for Bill.

Here's an interesting question: is being part of a cultural elite or an economic elite more likely to cause a risk to forming rational public policy? In theory, of course, neither should matter if you trust the candidates, but lets work from an assumption of lack of prior trust, as must be the case with undecided voters. (Tongue in cheek, of course.)

The economic elite has access to physical capital, primarily, while the cultural elite has access to intellectual and cultural capital. (Obviously there'll be significant overlap--both will have a more than typical amount of access to both, but we're talking emphases here.) For the economic elite, there'd be an incentive to push policies that favor growth of physical capital generally and any particular industries they happen to be invested in (e.g. oil, weaponry). The cultural elite would inverse that, acting in a way that maximizes their own cultural capital and subsidizing consumables that signal cultural capital (e.g. arugula, the Prius).

But one thing that distinguishes the two types of capital is that cultural is entirely positional. It's the kind of elite where you buy All Clad so you can scoff at those who buy shitty Walmart cookware and can scoff at the horrible design choices that the economic elite make in their McMansions (so hard to refrain from making a snide comment there). Though there are positional incentives for the economic elite, they don't form the bulk of incentives. Nothing they believe in itself relies on you being deprived of what they have.

So what you end up with is a lack of trust caused by the diametrically opposed interests of the cultural elite and everyone else, while with the economic you have people who are looking out for themselves but have no reason in itself to screw you over.

So Yancey, on the other side, did the brightest, crispest, Republican win? You can make this a Obama slur, but it's actually a national (two party) pattern.

Odograph,

Who was the "brightest, crispest" Republican in your opinion? For myself, I thought Giuliani was the most intelligent, but he didn't lose because of that, or that he was smug- he lost because he was a lousy campaigner who wasn't very conservative to boot. In fact, none of the Republican candidates were nearly as condescending as the two leading Democratic candidates.

@Zeph: I like the tack you try to take in your analysis, but I think you go over the edge with your assumptions here:
But one thing that distinguishes the two types of capital is that cultural is entirely positional. It's the kind of elite where you buy All Clad so you can scoff at those who buy shitty Walmart cookware and can scoff at the horrible design choices that the economic elite make in their McMansions (so hard to refrain from making a snide comment there). Though there are positional incentives for the economic elite, they don't form the bulk of incentives. Nothing they believe in itself relies on you being deprived of what they have.

Having done consumer research on why people buy All Clad cookware, I think you are wrong to assume that the primary motivator is to scoff at others that cannot or will not choose it over Walmart cookware. Many people are motivated by individualized preferences for quality in their purchase decisions, not relational preferences for superiority over others. In others words, many people buy All Clad because they: a) like to cook a lot, and b) believe better cookware will help them cook better and/or enjoy the experience more. What other people cook with doesn't enter their heads in the decision.

On the other side, research suggests that many, many people who strive for and/or have achieved economic elite status are motivated by an intrinsic need to be financially superior to others in their social group.

I would suggest that the leader with the most potential for success is internally motivated to achieve self-circumsribed outcomes rather than relative success compared to others. Tiger Woods, for example, sees the struggle for greatness as a struggle with himself, not with being better than Phil Mickelson. Constant comparison to others creates incentive to hold others back.

Yancey, I didn't notice any of the Republicans mentioning intellectual achievements. I kind of worry that you are reinforcing the reason why not. That is, if you have to be mediocre to not be too smug or too elite, then we're set up for (at best) mediocre Presidents.

... does the Executive have too much power? Is that why we think this way?

I know that I will be glued to my set tonight watching Instant Noodle Superstar. That's quite a temple they've built - fit for a living god.

Obama's arrogance isn't his only arrogance problem.

Per Krugster
"...so that voters see this as a race between a Democrat and a Republican. And that’s a race the Democrat will easily win."
http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2008/08/paul-krugman-ac.html

These folks still don't get that their economy of scale is slipping right out from under their feet.

When enough people believe something is a foregone conclusion, it cannot happen. If it wasn't for the constant polling, McCain would win in a landslide.

Can we stop dismissing Obama's academic achievements as a function of affirmative action?

Obama graduated in the top 10% of his class at Harvard Law School. For those of you who don't know, grades are determined in most classes in law school, certainly in 1L classes, by a single final exam at the end of the class. The professor who is grading only sees the students' work and an examination number. The professor never knows the race, ethnicity, or name of the student whose exam is being graded. Obama's exceptionally high grades came because of his hard work and intelligence. Race did not help him at all. At Harvard Law, there have been quite a few people who have had PhD's in hard sciences, but still did not make the top 10%. (Here is a link where Harvard Economics Professor Greg Mankiw admitted that Obama had better grades at Harvard Law than he did (scroll to the bottom of the post): http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2007/06/brainiac-for-president.html) Doing that well at an elite law school indicates that Obama is far more intelligent than most politicians.

You may disagree with his policies, or dislike his temperament, but please stop implying that his academic success is a function of his race as opposed to his intelligence.

It strikes me as pretty silly to take something entirely unprecedented like a black presidential candidate and say that his success was a function of his race.

That's like saying My Big Fat Greek Wedding was successful because it was an independent movie. There hasn't been an independent movie before or since and there have been a number of non-independent movies that have been more successful than My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

In 2004 John Edwards ran for president with a similarly slim resume when compared to Obama and he was the runner up and chosen as vice president. Obama is a more talented politician than Edwards. He's a more talented orator, had a better organization, and had the good fortune of having been on record as being against a very unpopular war at it's begining.

Of course being black impacted the nature of Obama's success. His constituency skewed younger and blacker because of it, but the argument that being black is an asset in running for president in 2008 but in every year prior to that it made it pretty much impossible strikes me as a leap too far into a river too dry.

Yancey Ward:

If you're going to accuse someone of "the crime of public smugness," then could you please provide examples illustrating this "smugness."

Senator Obama has on many occasions provided detailed, nuanced answers that do not lend themselves to soundbite format (e.g., Senator Obama talking about the needs of balancing security with civil liberties, or discussing abortion). Do these traits, thoughtfulness and nuance, count as smug? Do you prefer a President who views the world in dichotomies (e.g., good vs. evil, us vs. them, Republicans vs. Democrats, good Americans vs. bad Americans)? While trying to express the complexity involved in many of the problems may come of as smug, there are many Americans, who view it as an honest evaluation of our problems.

The very set of supercharged talents and qualities that allowed Obama to levitate past the boundaries of race and class make him different than those who haven't rocketed upward on the strength of their intelligence and charisma and charm. After all, if you're a fumbling, struggling individual out in suburban Ohio, how can you believe that this guy who doesn't look to have struggled a day in his life cares about your pathetic problems? Obama, in other words, is elite. As in "A group or class of persons enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status." Obama isn't an economic elite, but he is a social and intellectual elite. And it's that creeping sense that he's different, that he's better and knows it...

As far as I can tell, the only "supercharged" talent or quality I've seen from Obama is that he's a nice guy and takes tests very well. Clearly a very smart person. But far from the best paragraphs of the day, this seems like a bunch of elitest claptrap.

Klein is way off the mark on something. He's making the argument that folks might resent Obama's lack of struggle, since, I presume, he's so smart and charismatic that everything comes easily to him where the stupidity of the common man makes things more difficult.

That presumes being smart and charismatic can help you meet most any challenge, and my experience is that's simply not the case. Being endowed with wonderful talents, if anything, should increase either your struggles or your list of accomplishments. Obama does not appear to have accomplished anything unusually great or struggled with anything major.

I don't resent him for this, I simply ask why. If he's truly super intelligent, how come he's accomplished so little? No answer I can think of does much credit to Obama. Possibilities:
1. He's skated by and wasted his superb gifts.
2. He's not super smart.
3. The whole theory that super intelligence is highly determinative in the ability to do something good is largely crap.

I'd say it's a combination of the three, with a fair amount of emphasis on the fact that folks generally overestimate the role of pure intelligence and underestimate the roles of having good judgement and working your ass off.

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