The Brainy Bunch – by Thomas Sowell


Many people, including some conservatives, have been very impressed with how brainy the president and his advisers are. But that is not quite as reassuring as it might seem.

It was, after all, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brilliant “brains trust” advisers whose policies are now increasingly recognized as having prolonged the Great Depression of the 1930s, while claiming credit for ending it. The Great Depression ended only when the Second World War put an end to many New Deal policies.

FDR himself said that “Dr. New Deal” had been replaced by “Dr. Win-the-War.” But those today who are for big spending like to credit wartime big spending for bringing the Great Depression to an end. They never ask the question as to why previous depressions had always ended on their own, much faster than the one under FDR, and without government intervention or massive government spending.

Brainy folks were also present in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, especially in the Pentagon, where Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s brilliant “whiz kids” tried to micro-manage the Vietnam war, with disastrous results.

There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs.

Such people have been told all their lives how brilliant they are, until finally they feel forced to admit it, with all due modesty. But they not only tend to over-estimate their own brilliance, more fundamentally they tend to over-estimate how important brilliance itself is when dealing with real world problems.

Many crucial things in life are learned from experience, rather than from clever thoughts or clever words. Indeed, a gift for the clever phrasing so much admired by the media can be a fatal talent, especially for someone chosen to lead a government.

Make no mistake about it, Adolf Hitler was brilliant. His underlying beliefs may have been half-baked and his hatreds overwhelming, but he was a genius when it came to carrying out his plans politically, based on those beliefs and hatreds.

Starting from a position of Germany’s military weakness in the early 1930s, Hitler not only built up Germany’s war-making potential, he did so in ways that minimized the danger that his potential victims would match his military build-up with their own.

He said whatever soothing words they wanted to hear that would spare them the cost of military deterrence and the pain of contemplating another war.

He played some of the most highly educated people of his time for fools— not only foreign political leaders but also members of the intelligentsia. The editor of The Times of London filtered out reports that his own foreign correspondents in Germany sent him about the evils and dangers of the Nazis. In the United States, W.E.B. Du Bois— with a Ph.D. from Harvard— said that dictatorship in Germany was “absolutely necessary to get the state in order.”

In an age when facts seem to carry less weight than the visions of brilliant and charismatic leaders, it is more important than ever to look at the actual track records of those brilliant and charismatic leaders. After all, Hitler led Germany into military catastrophe and left much of the country in ruins.

Even in a country which suffered none of the wartime destruction that others suffered in the 20th century, Argentina began that century as one of the 10 richest nations in the world— ahead of France and Germany— and ended it as such an economic disaster that no one would even compare it to France or Germany.

Politically brilliant and charismatic leaders, promoting reckless government spending— of whom Juan Peron was the most prominent, but by no means alone— managed to create an economic disaster in a country with an abundance of natural resources and a country that was spared the stresses that wars inflicted on other nations in the 20th century.

Someone recently pointed out how much Barack Obama’s style and strategies resemble those of Latin American charismatic despots— the takeover of industries by demagogues who never ran a business, the rousing rhetoric of resentment addressed to the masses and the personal cult of the leader promoted by the media. But do we want to become the world’s largest banana republic?

To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His Web site is

  • FBastiat

    "Someone recently pointed out how much Barack Obama’s style and strategies resemble those of Latin American charismatic despots— the takeover of industries by demagogues who never ran a business, the rousing rhetoric of resentment addressed to the masses and the personal cult of the leader promoted by the media. But do we want to become the world’s largest banana republic?"From here:Recall how he spoke of an ideology that "resembles that of communism." Indeed: a crafted mythology as official history; government growth as a declared inevitability; administration of the masses economically (professedly to benefit the lower classes, really to establish a political elite); the use of the term socialization to denote usurpation by the State of the institutions of society; the invocation of "wrecker" saboteurs ("reactionaries" and "conservatives") to prove that statism never fails, but is only failed; militarism in the service of "pacification." Corporate socialism and Communist socialism are of course not twin totalitarianisms, but they are kindred Orwellianisms: Fantasy is Reality — reality, fantasy.

  • Bellerophon

    I am surprised that Sowell so completely misunderstands “brilliance”. It is not the capacity to score well on IQ tests, it is the ability to understand reality and use this understanding to further your goals.

    Intelligence is a measure of real world efficacy. I'd suggest that Sowell is confusing intelligence with erudition. A large vocabulary and the capacity to string words together isn't a measure of intelligence, it's a measure of memory. Obama and the rest of his entourage exhibit erudition but have demonstrated no visible signs of intelligence.

    Intelligent people learn from mistakes. Obama's toads cannot even admit mistakes much less learn from them. Intelligent people are quick to show off their ideas and welcome discussion. Those surrounding Obama work in darkness and yell “racist!” whenever their ideas are challenged.

    These people are not intelligent, they are merely an intellectually inbred gang of elitists hellbent on controlling every aspect of other people's lives.

    To attribute intelligence to such a pathetic group of losers is to debase the meaning of the word and to insult those of real intelligence from whom we benefit in ways we can never repay.

  • USMCSniper

    Obama's best and brightest — Gen. David Petraeus, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — are said to be just as brilliant and well-intentioned as their Kennedy and Johnson administration counterparts. And that’s what would make them so tragic if the situation does indeed go the way so many analysts and even military leaders themselves fear it could.

    These are the architects of our continued involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is actually a more perilous place than Iraq and begs comparison to Vietnam and Cambodia. They are gifted thinkers and strong leaders with great records of success and a deep concern about the safety of the country. But they are still leading the U.S. into a conflict where the goals are ill-defined and the insurgency is winning. That is because Obama and his leftist base has no intention of winning.

    The stewards of the Vietnam fiasco had pedigrees uncannily reminiscent of some major Obama leftist appointees. McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, was, as Halberstam put it, “a legend in his time at Groton, the brightest boy at Yale, dean of Harvard College at a precocious age.” His deputy, Walt Rostow, “had always been a prodigy, always the youngest to do something,” whether at Yale, M.I.T. or as a Rhodes scholar. Robert McNamara, the defense secretary, was the youngest and highest paid Harvard Business School assistant professor of his era before making a mark as a World War II Army analyst, and, at age 44, becoming the first non-Ford to lead the Ford Motor Company.

    The rest is history that would destroy the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and inflict grave national wounds that only now are healing. In addition, the cowardly betrayal of Vietnam and Cambodia by the post Watergate Democrat Congress resulted in more Vietnamese deaths (1.6 million) in the purges and reeducation camps by the NVA and in the “Killing Fields” in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 -1978 than all the casulaties from all sides in the previous 12 years of the war from 1961 – 1973.

    Best and brightest? We shall see soon.

  • 080

    It seems to me that liberals adhere to the “findings” of moder philosophy that one deals with science or else nonsense. This idea reigns supreme. There is an area that is not science nor is it nonsense. That is the area in which we all live: the area of common sense and tradition. As for the “social sciences” they are not science at all. It is not sufficient for a science to be right now and then. It must be right all the time. Can anyone say which science meets that criterion. Physics does. When it fails there is something wrong.

  • brenanc

    I don't think Sowell misunderstands intelligence at all. I would bet that he agrees with your definition Bellerophon. I think Sowell is talking about people that the media and “right-thinking people” deem intelligent. If you look at how Sowell deconstructs the works of these geniuses, I think you'll find that he made your point, albeit differently.

    Our sniper friend (see below) provide some more examples of the same and provides a look ahead for Obama's current crop of “Whiz Kids.”

  • poetcomic1

    Juan and Eva Peron! I KNEW the Obamas seemed familiar!

  • Bellerophon

    I hope you're right. It's just that to suggest that what Obama's minions are engaging in is, in any way, related to real intelligence can be considered as a call for anti-intellectualism. We have more than enough of that.

    What we need is someone who can clearly explain ideas like liberty, free markets and limited government and demonstrate them at the level of everyday experience. Doing that requires real genius.

  • dgene

    When one looks at who the Lying Buffoon's water carriers in govt. are, one can hardly call them either the best or the brightest.

    Between Pelosi Read Rangel Schumer Levin Boxer Franks – Demtard hypocritical crap.

    The best and the brightest are certainly not here.

    Any passion they have tends to be that of the misguided. Quite unconvincing.

    The Pres is just another socialist rat, out for thievery from thee and me.

    Still find it amazing that the reporters, supposedly educated, just do not laugh in their faces

  • bubba4

    Someone recently pointed out how much Barack Obama’s style and strategies resemble those of Latin American charismatic despots— the takeover of industries by demagogues who never ran a business, the rousing rhetoric of resentment addressed to the masses and the personal cult of the leader promoted by the media. But do we want to become the world’s largest banana republic?

    Yeah? Who pointed that out? You?

    Obama hasn't “taken over” any industries you lying hack. You guys just can't get through an article without lying. I especially love how FPM just take it as fact that the New Deal was really a terrible thing that prolonged the depression. This is straight up bizarro world folks.

  • CowboyUp

    Lol, bubba’s trying to bail the Titanic with a 1 gal. bucket. But he’s not a lefty himself, he’ll tell you himself.

    I established it as fact that the fdr administration’s policies prolonged the depression and made it worse over two decades before FPM even existed, even they admitted it, and only a bizarro hack would deny it.

    When the fed hires and fires CEO’s, determines pay and bonuses, bumps unsecured creditor unions ahead of all the secured creditors in bankrupcies, and tells auto companies what they will make, that’s taking over industries, unless one’s a reality denying left wing hack. We all know bubba isn’t one of those.

    Dr, Sowell nails it again. He has been around the block, and his education didn’t include a lobotomy like so many others I’m told are smart or intelligent, but show know signs of it to me. Good at playing or fooling people isn’t what I call smart.

  • Brett Gossage

    Thomas Sowell, so right, again.