Obama’s Intelligence

One of the many annoying memes that was going around early in this campaign is that Obama was an unusually smart and intelligent candidate. My impression was exactly the opposite, and the meme seems to have slowed down, so perhaps otehrs are coming around to that realization, as well.

Half Sigma, however, now disagrees. In a series of posts (including More on Obama’s intelligence, Was Obama in the top 10% of the class at Harvard Law School?, Barack Obama’s high-IQ brother, and Harvard Law Review confirms Obama’s magna cum laude),

In the posts, Half Sigma misunderstands the role of general intelligence (or IQ) in higher education. Sigma claims that higher education is highly g loaded (that is, depends on general intelligence). Well, it’s definitely true that people with more higher education are much more likely to get into these institutions, but once there success depends more on study behaviors, access to high quality peers, prior knowledge, and so on.

With the sole exception of grades, Half Sigma’s other arguments for Obama’s intelligence are equally true of George W. Bush. And remember, even Bush’s grades were better than Kerry’s.

Of course, if you come from a politically correct background (as did both Bush and Obama), the g-loading of graduate school goes down anyway.

So: Obama’s smart enough. He’s smarter than most Americans. Like Bush. And also like Bush, would come to the office after the great shift of the talented and ambitious to business.

We may now be in the age of second-rate Presidents.

(Obviously, however, in the form of intelligence that may matter the most — experience — Obama is as lacking as Palin.)

20 thoughts on “Obama’s Intelligence”

  1. dan, you’re smoking the crack again. That comment about how first rate intelligence goes into business is particularly ill-timed.

    Barack is a lawyer. The top lawyers almost always get sucked in “public service” or “government” — as law clerks to judges. The other smart ones get sucked into life as law school professors. There is a direct connection between clerking and professors — constant skimming of talent from the elite law schools.

    Now, Barack skipped the clerk route, and I’d like to know why. The editor of Harvard Law SHOULD get a federal clerkship very easily. He is in line for a Supreme Court clerkship, or at least a very good appeals court. Instead, barack skips all of that to take a VERY crappy position at U of C. (non tenure track, no research, etc) and no clerkship.

    Did judges not think he was smart? Was he not looking? Did he realize he was not a good lawyer? Did he then realize that he was better in politics than in law?

  2. Charlie
    I work in a large law firm that pays 1st years 100k plus. Many of the lawyers were suma and magna in both their undergrad and law school classes (the CVs are posted on our intranet). I would say Dan is correct, the best and brightest law students wind up in large law firms that primarily do corporate law.

    As to why he never took a clerkship, I have a theory, and somebody might be able to prove me wrong on this, but I believe that most people with a serious interest in politics try to avoid putting out a lot of paper with their name on it, lest they write something that fits the time and circumstance but comes back to bite them later. Obama was offered a tenor track at UC, but he turned it down [1]. I’ve always assumed it was because as a full time tenor track he’d be expected to publish, and he’d always risk putting something in a law journal he’d have to defend on the Meet the Press 20 years later.

    Dan
    I’m curious about your “age of second-rate presidents” comment. Was there ever a time in American history where the best and the brightest really went into politics in droves? It could be argued, I suppose, that Washintgon, Adams, Jefferson and Madison truly were the best minds of their generation, but beyond that?

    [1] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/30/us/politics/30law.html?hp

  3. I’m curious about your “age of second-rate presidents” comment. Was there ever a time in American history where the best and the brightest really went into politics in droves? It could be argued, I suppose, that Washintgon, Adams, Jefferson and Madison truly were the best minds of their generation, but beyond that?

    You don’t have to go back that far. [1]

    Politics trails economics. America’s economic reforms in the 1970s — and the increase in compensation for the top in business since then — redirected those who were most ambitious to the business world, and away from politics.

    If you want your smartest and most able creating wealth instead of redistributing it, that’s a good thing.

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/06/19/the-foreign-policy-advantages-of-obama-as-bush-iii.html

  4. Brent:

    My advice for you is to flee your law firm as quickly as possible — as I did.

    I am sure there are many, many smart lawyers at your firm and others. But at least at my Ivy League law school, the top 20% of the class did clerkships. Many clerks go on to law firms and do practice law — but the smartest of them ended up ended up as law school professors (perhaps after a few years at a nice white shoe firm). Becoming a law firm partner is not a demonstration of intelligence — it is a marker for greed and social pathology.

    My point is Obama was the editor of the Harvard frickin Law Review — and instead of taking a federal clerkship he took a year off to write a book and take a crappy, non-tenure track job at Chicago. Why didn’t he do the clerkship?

    And dan, the idea that the smartest or most ambitious men became politicians — well, I don’t think has been true at since Herbert Hoover became President. Doesn’t change the fact that Sarah Palin is still bimbo level stupid.

  5. Taking a clerkship wouldn’t be Keepin’ It Real. Need to stay close to the street, pressin’ flesh in the ‘hood. Doesn’t matter how intelligent a candidate is; to get elected and to lead the People, one needs to be seen as smarter than the mean voter, but not too much smarter. To be followed, a leader must seem reachable. HW Bush and WJ Clinton were experts at masking their New-England-refined high intellect with the Texan drawl and down home Southern accent, respectively. GW Bush seems pretty good at it, too. Obama seems to be able to turn it on as well. RW Reagan’s California slow talk did the trick. JE Carter had trouble with it, despite the Southern accent. (That’s as far back as I go. ;-\ )

  6. ” Sigma claims that higher education is highly g loaded (that is, depends on general intelligence). ”

    no he doesn’t. he says being able to graduate magna from HLS is highly g-loaded. it is. the average IQ at HLS is 145. if he’s below average, he’d still have a really high IQ. the rest of the post is not relevant to sigma’s post.

    (this doesn’t mean you should vote for obama or that his policies are good; i don’t think they are. but he is probably the smartest candidate in the race, while palin and biden are probably the dumbest)

  7. i hope palin becomes president and is a great success. the look on certain faces, republican and democrat, would be worth enduring four years of obama.

  8. “And also like Bush, would come to the office after the great shift of the talented and ambitious to business. ”

    I’d really like to see some sort of evidence to that effect. What you offer is extremely conjectural. My experience–from studying and teaching at elite institutions–is that the career trajectories of the “best and brightest” (and I definitely put that term in quotation marks) have varied tremendously over the last two decades.

    I also agree with razib. We’ve had a string of very smart presidents–Bush, Clinton, Bush, etc.–and I’m not convinced that being “intelligent” in the aggregate sense correlates very well with a successful presidency.

  9. I see no basis for the statements that Gov. Palin lacks intelligence compared to Obama. Obama went to Harvard, and apparently performed tolerably there, which probably means he is smart, or is a good schmoozer or both.

    Gov. Palin, due to poverty, did not have the option of an elite education.

    Are we saying that only those with good SAT scores and the wealth or luck to go to elite institutions are smart?

    I can say from own direct experience practicing law, that the people who went to purportedly elite schools, including Harvard, are often not the best lawyers. Common sense, practicality, a work ethic, courtesy, and many other critical attributes seem to be inversely correlated, if anything, with elite credentials. So, even if these people have higher tested IQs, so what? IQ or g or whatever it is, is only one component of what makes someone successful, effective, trustworthy or anything else.

    Or am I too lacking in g to get the point of all this?

  10. “bama went to Harvard, and apparently performed tolerably there, which probably means he is smart, or is a good schmoozer or both.”

    obama graduated with magna from HLS. that is not “tolerable.”

    and yes, it is harder if you are poor to go to an elite school. but it is not that difficult to get scholarships and what not to a relatively good school. she went to 5 schools in 6 years and graduated with a not-too-hard-degree from a not-too-hard-school. you can draw fewer inferences about her IQ than you can about obama’s because of the variance of the sample pool here, so i’m not as confident she’s dumb (e.g., IQ 110) as sigma is.

  11. General intelligence stands out as an obvious cause for group-level differences, but on an individual level weakly correlates with success. In general, the higher you go in any profession, the less variance general intelligence explains, because things like long-term memory schema, self-efficacy, and behaviors matter more.

    Of the four major candidates, both Palin and Obama are obviously deficient in their schemata.

  12. “deficient in their schemata.”

    Again, you have outrun my vocabulary, hence whatever this may mean, it is not obvious to low-g readers like me.

    “obama graduated with magna from HLS. that is not ‘tolerable.'”

    Meh. There was a joint “magna” from my law school class. One guy was brilliant, and worked very hard. The woman who also got it was smart, but not brilliant, and obviously was a dedicated student, and not terribly impressive otherwise. These paper credentials impress me less and less the older I get and the more I see. A person who is good at taking exams or writing papers may or may not be good at all kinds of other stuff. I have observed that people who get advanced degrees in hard sciences are in fact usually much smarter than other people, but I also observe that they often have offsetting defects, including inflated self-valuation that makes them bitter when less smart people who have other valuable attributes get more of life’s prizes. Academic credentials are a poor indicator of the quality of work a person will actually do, their value to an organization, or much of anything else. What I do see is that such people form cartels to maintain the “value” of their paper. In the law it is comical to see the high-credentialled young lawyers at big firms working like dogs while some plaintiffs lawyer with a blue collar demeanor and a third-tier law degree runs circles around them. I am working on a case like that right now. This happens pretty frequently. The smartypantses would like to run the whole world all the time, but thank God they never will.

  13. “Meh. There was a joint “magna” from my law school class. One guy was brilliant, and worked very hard. The woman who also got it was smart, but not brilliant, and obviously was a dedicated student, and not terribly impressive otherwise. These paper credentials impress me less and less the older I get and the more I see. ”

    1) who cares what your personal experience was?

    2) what law school did you go to? your credibility increases if you went to harvard, yale, etc. if not, who cares?

  14. “Schema: a mental set, or representation, or knowledge (declarative or procedural), what someone knows, experience. [1]”

    yes, this is distinct from pure “g.” i know plenty of high g retards. they say stupid things really coherently.

  15. Lexington’s point, I believe, is along the lines that performance is well explained by a small number of values that encompass crystallized intelligence, general intelligence, motivation, and behavior, so that attempting to use group-level statistics to make a guess of an individual’s general intelligence based on performance involves tolerating a considerable amount of error.

  16. ” so that attempting to use group-level statistics to make a guess of an individual’s general intelligence based on performance involves tolerating a considerable amount of error.”

    that’s an irrelevant point. assuming no giant conspiracy to graduate black magna’s from HLS (this is a non-trivial chance, but put this to the side), obama’s IQ is safely within the 135-150 interval. that’s 1 standard deviation, enough error for you? he’s still the smartest candidate. we’re not talking about performance, blah, blah, blah. who’s the smartest candidate? that was sigma’s question, and sigma’s answer was a plausible and likely one. there is a non-trivial chance that mccain has a higher measured IQ than obama, pretty much a zero chance that palin or biden does.

    people who start making red-herring arguments are showing either their stupidity or their emotionality. seeing as i have 6 years on record trying to state facts as accurately as i can without putting my personal biases to the fore i think i have some credibility on this score. although to be honest this debate has been useful in smoking out the stupids and the emotionals.

  17. p.s. there have also been some very cogent points about the nature of affirmative action at elite law schools with data and some plausible, if to me ultimately unconvincing though not ludicrous, arguments about how obama should have been given a “black magna.” so one can make the negative case re: sigma’s assertion without being totally laughable. just because an r-squared is “only” 0.50 doesn’t mean that it’s not significant.

  18. that’s an irrelevant point. assuming no giant conspiracy to graduate black magna’s from HLS (this is a non-trivial chance, but put this to the side), obama’s IQ is safely within the 135-150 interval. that’s 1 standard deviation, enough error for you? he’s still the smartest candidate. we’re not talking about performance, blah, blah, blah. who’s the smartest candidate?

    Has anyone actually looked at what a probabilistic interval for the candidates’ fluid intelligence would be? It would be interesting to read.

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