[Editor's Note: Originally offered in 2009. Still seems fairly trenchant, I'd say, if I knew what trenchant meant]
Why did the nascent United States produce so many great thinkers? Where are they now?
Great thinkers come to the fore when they are required. The founding of any great enterprise requires inspiration coupled to intellect. If the intellect is wanting, the inspiration is usually enough, but makes it harder to carry out the fruits of your inspiration except by dogged determination. Intellect alone is not useless -- it's worse than useless. On a good day it's counterproductive; the other 364 days it's destructive. You cannot come up with a worthwhile concept based solely on intellect. It qualifies you only to be a clerk or a sophist. Clerking is hard work, so everybody goes full sophist right away.
Now the world is run by sophists. They think that because they read a few books about people who were great that they are great in their turn. There are two problems with this surmise. One, the people they think were great probably weren't. Secondly, most people are incapable of much more than misremembering and misunderstanding the twaddle they read anyway, because education isn't very rigorous anymore. If you think the world's business is decided by simply choosing wisely between John Galt and Noam Chomsky, I don't know what to say to you. Mozart is never going to show up on American Idol.
I'll answer the question I posed in the opening myself. The reason Hamilton and Madison et. al. sat at the same table once is that it was required just then. There was an enormous market for ideas in the rough, right away. A few years later, the time for thinking like that was over. Old Muttonhead rightly sat at the head of the table and told Jefferson and Hamilton to put a sock in it, and see if they could manage to keep the spittoons emptied in their assigned offices before they got any more bright ideas. We could use some of the Old Muttonhead approach right now.
I read the news in the most desultory fashion because it's so useless to read twaddle filtered through incoherence and basted with a faction reduction. I hear, literally, gibberish. There is no such thing as a "toxic asset," for instance. An asset is pass/fail. It either is, or it's not. A banker prone to adjectives isn't much of a banker. There's that sophistry again. To hear a person with their hand on the levers of vital things utter such bosh indicates to me that the people that formerly put stupid back-seat-driver bright ideas in the suggestion box at their crummy jobs thrice daily are in charge of important things now.
Smart managers know the suggestion box is 99.9% for humoring cranks. The Internet is the world's suggestion box now, with much the same role.
What possible good could it do to read a paper that refers to a capital injection into the money supply and a transfer payment to non-productive sectors referred to interchangeably as "a bailout." It used to be only the journalist that was that ignorant. When the people the journalists are interviewing start talking like that, why listen at all?
My father was a banker. He told me the old saw about the only rule in the bank is the "3-6-3 Rule." Borrow at 3%, lend at 6%, and play golf at three.
It was a joke and pop never played golf and he never left at three and people were always coming in to the bank to rob it and shoot the guard. You see, you don't understand the joke. You think it means that bankers were effete and lazy and thick-headed. It really meant that the wisest of them knew that after you borrowed (judiciously) at 3% and lent (wisely) at 6% there was nothing left to do. If you kept coming up with bright ideas after that, it was all bad, brother.
Everybody's been working overtime in banking and government coming up with new and bright ideas to torture the language and the arithmetic so they could pat themselves on the back about how much smarter they are than everybody else. Can I have my bonus billion now? I'm going to invest it with Bernie Madoff because I'm so smahhht.
You're not captains of industry. You're not visionaries. You're not statesmen. You're supposed to be clerks. I'm sorry, but clerks don't get paid all that much -- and never get a piece of the action. They don't get statues in the park in their honor. I can read well enough to know that real clerks, honorable, hardworking clerks, are going to be taxed into the hereafter, never mind the foreseeable future, to make sure the fake clerks with delusions of grandeur don't have to go back to the real world they fled.
It's an honorable profession, being a clerk. I spend part of my day being one. You intellectual swells should try dabbling in it. To paraphrase Randle Patrick McMurphy: Sell big ideas someplace else; we're all stocked up here.