“Smartness” and the Geithner Conundrum

You might think that the word “smartness” would imply that the person possessing smartness is very bright and has used that intelligence and knowledge to successfully solve problems. But, as David Kaib notes, among our supposed betters, smartness means something entirely different (boldface mine):

Ho points out that Wall Street banks recruit heavily from a few top schools, especially Harvard and Princeton. Even students who have the capacity to attend one of these elite schools but choose not to are presumed to be ‘less smart,’ as are those who attend these schools but choose a different path from Wall Street. This is because “smartness is defined by a continued aggressive striving to perpetuate elite status.” (56) These firms seek to trade on the prestige and social capital of students coming from top schools. A background in business or economics or some other subject that might be thought relevant is not required (at least for those from the top schools). Instead, “smart” graduates get trained for a month, are oriented, and then are put to work on big deals, convincing clients how they should be spending their money and running their businesses.

Similarly, this sort of smartness infuses the movement for corporate education reform. It can be seen in the pattern of seeking to provide maximum power to a few executives over public education, displacing the authority of schools boards, unions and the constituencies these represent: parents and teachers, and more broadly, citizens. This can mean mayoral control over schools, or top school administrators (some, like in Chicago, now labeled CEOs), or state appointed boards like Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission. The idea that a single strong authority can “fix” schools by overriding the concerns of other stakeholders is so commonplace it was the theme of the movie Waiting for Superman, which focused on reform darling / authoritarian and DC Chancellor Michele Rhee. Rhee made a name for herself through her confrontational style in relation to teachers and parents, famously taking a film crew along with her to fire a teacher. Significant experience teaching or administering schools is not required to wield this sort of unchecked power.

Most people don’t think like this: the circular reasoning–or arrogance–is astonishing. ‘Smart’ people are smart because they wish to acquire power, prestige, and status. Self-sacrifice and true service are for suckers.

The reason I bring Geithner into this is simply because it is consistent with his inexplicable rise to power. I think what Matt Stoller wrote about Geithner seems on target (to error is Mad Biologist…; boldface mine):

Geithner is at heart a grifter, a petty con artist with the right manners and breeding to lie at the top echelons of American finance at a moment when the government and financial services industry needed someone to be the face of their multi-trillion dollar three card monte. He’s going to make his money, now that he’s done living his life of fantastic power after his upbringing of remarkable mysterious privilege. After reading this book and documenting lie after lie after lie, I’m convinced that there’s more here than just a self-serving corrupt official. There’s an entire culture, of figures at Treasury, the Federal Reserve, in the entire Democratic Party elite structure, and in the world of journalism, a culture in which Geithner is seen as some sort of role model.

We have seen this before (not in our lifetimes, as will be readily apparent; boldface mine):

The Late Roman Empire was not designed to be an efficient government, but to keep the emperor in power and to benefit the members of the administration. Many of these could enjoy highly successful careers by the standards of the day without ever being effective in the role that they were theoretically supposed to perform. Sheer size prevented rapid collapse or catastrophe. Its weakness was not obvious, but this only meant that collapse could come in sudden, dramatic stages, such as the loss of the African provinces to the Vandals. Gradually, the empire’s institutions rotted and became less and less capable of dealing with any crisis, but still did not face serious competition. Lost wars were damaging, but the damage was not fatal to the empire itself….

…Long decline was the fate of the Roman Empire. In the end, it may well have been ‘murdered’ by barbarian invaders, but these struck at a body made vulnerable by prolonged decay.

Just how much ruin is there in a nation?

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