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Wither Chet?

Alameida wonders about the seeming domination of investment banking by seemingly not-so-smart "Chet" types. There's good stuff in comments, and in Brad Delong's reply. I would also note, though, that intellectuals and intellecual-types have a tendency sometimes to underestimate the intelligence of perfectly smart un- or anti-intellectual sorts. I went to school with a lot of people who, given some arbitrary difficult problem to solve and an appropriate incentive to solve it, were (and no doubt are) very good at solving it. They're "smart." This turns out not to be the same as being interested in ideas or culture or having any store of knowledge beyond a very miscellaneous set of arbitrary facts picked up in the course of solving arbitrary problems. They don't necessarily have the capacity to make interesting conversation, say intelligent things about the topic at hand, or generally speaking act smart. But if you promise them a boatload of money to complete some dull, but difficult task, they'd probably do it very well while a more intellectual person might well decide that it was dull and spend their time doing something they find interesting.

Most of these people seem to have wound up being investment bankers, management consults, or practicing the other black arts of capitalism that Ivy Leaguers seem to dominate. Some went to med school, and if we're lucky they'll follow-through on their threats to engage in path-breaking medical research and save us all from Marburg Fever and whatever else it is that plagues us. I believe one of my roommates never read a book in his life unless absolutely forced to, but he certainly seems to program computers real well and that, it seems, requires you to be quite smart. But if you just met him somewhere, would you know he was smart? Very possibly not.

May 16, 2005 | Permalink

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If "smart" means obsessing all day over the details of social security, tax reform, and congressional procedure, rather than obsessing over EBITDAs, market sizes, and P/E ratios, then maybe you have a point.

Because we all know everyone who is smart likes to talk about public policy.

Posted by: right | May 16, 2005 6:20:23 PM

Thinking Chet isn't intellectual enough is no reason to suggest withering him. What are you, some sort of Harvard-educated life-draining lich?

Because we all know everyone who is smart likes to talk about public policy.

Thanks to The Corner, we know that the converse of this is not true.

Posted by: mds | May 16, 2005 6:33:19 PM

Matt's point that "But if you promise them a boatload of money to complete some dull, but difficult task, they'd probably do it very well while a more intellectual person might well decide that it was dull and spend their time doing something they find interesting" is an important one. Intellectuals, no matter what their cultural or political stripe, tend to respond to a different set of incentives than non-intellectuals, and while financial gain certainly is of interest to intellectuals, they are also likely to derive pleasure from jobs in which they can engage in abstract theorizing, research matters of cultural interest (including the study of art, political theory or intellectual history), or simply hang out with other intellectuals. Such other benefits will drive them away from jobs in which they must focus on number-crunching or rainmaking with people they find uninteresting. "Chets" aren't going to be distracted from their goals by things that pull more intellectual types into other fields, so they thrive in doing the dull and difficult tasks that Matt is talking about.

So, basically, to paraphrase Willie Nelson, if you want your kids to be focused primarily on getting rich, mommas, don't let your babies grow up to be intellectuals.

Posted by: mistermark | May 16, 2005 6:34:00 PM

well, of course intelligence/smarts mean many different things, so why is it that when it comes to college admission, so many on the right are sure that "intelligence" tracks "SAT scores" so perfectly?

Posted by: howard | May 16, 2005 6:35:19 PM

Thinking Chet isn't intellectual enough is no reason to suggest withering him. What are you, some sort of Harvard-educated life-draining lich?

A much better heading would be: "Chet. What's the deak?"

Posted by: PaulC | May 16, 2005 6:35:25 PM

while a more intellectual person might well decide that it was dull and spend their time doing something they find interesting.

eeesh. Don't talk about computer science this way. Many people genuinely think that engineering systems is interesting. And I am not willing to relinquish the word "intellectual" to describe only people who think it's boring.

You could say things like "public intellectual" or whatever which typically means arts&letters type stuff, social criticism, etc. But "intellectual" the adjective could just mean "analytical" or whatever, and that is obviously not strictly a characteristic of humanities type folks.

I'm sure you didn't mean to sound so arrogant, but unfortunately I'm also willing to bet that you really are that arrogant.

If you think that an interest in humanities is superior to an interest in engineering, programming, finance, or medicine, that's a thought that I encourage you to keep to yourself.

Posted by: annoyed | May 16, 2005 6:38:13 PM

The intelligence necessary to program computers is overrated, especially by people who program computers. But there are plenty of things about computers that are of intellectual interest, and there are plenty of intellectuals in the computer industry.

Posted by: Walt Pohl | May 16, 2005 6:42:33 PM

I thought Brad's analysis was a little more to the point. Chet has some important skills that we don't normally view as "intelligence" but which are nevertheless worth lots of money in the process of deal making.

I agree with Matt that many people turn out to be smarter than they seem, and that might also be a factor with Chet. I disagree with Matt's emphasis on a willingness to solve dull problems for money. There is some of that, but there's also a lot of understanding what is interesting in domains that Matt may find dull.

Posted by: PaulC | May 16, 2005 6:45:21 PM

This turns out not to be the same as being interested in ideas or culture or having any store of knowledge beyond a very miscellaneous set of arbitrary facts picked up in the course of solving arbitrary problems.

Thing is, I find a lot of people have a very narrow idea of what "smart" is. They think that having a working knowledge of Wittgenstein, being able to discuss the differences among Flemish artists, knowing the history of Weimar Germany, and knowing about the bend points of Social Security makes one "smart". Yet, they would have no idea how to perform a DCF analysis of a company's theoretical value on a standalone basis as opposed to pro forma for a merger, they would not have a clue how to discuss the strategic rationale for a merger, nor would they have any idea how to structure the necessary financing for a transaction. It's just a different skill set.

Posted by: Al | May 16, 2005 6:46:32 PM

"But "intellectual" the adjective could just mean "analytical" or whatever,"

No, it couldn't.

Posted by: David Weman | May 16, 2005 6:51:35 PM

Holy cow. Is that Real Al? I think I just agreed with everything he wrote.

Posted by: PaulC | May 16, 2005 6:52:06 PM

Lordy, isn't it obvious that the reason Chets are swimming in cash is because they know how to play with the boys who run the world? Their unique skill set is that they know how to talk the language, are accepted by, and understand the customs of the monied elite to a point where they can manipulate outcomes.

They're not stupid. But their success isn't built upon their intelligence. It is largely built upon their social acceptability to play a certain very easy role that a lot of other people could play but who aren't allowed to, and their ability to effectively use it to make a marginal change that moves a whole boatload of money (usually due to the huge sums involved).

Chets have the same fundamental asset that a good Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman has: credibility in their market and teh ability to make a deal happen that wouldn't have happened without them (although even that's arguable in the case of Chets). If the wealth of this world were concentrated largely in the hands of Black women, then we'd have a totally different set of Chets, but they'd still be Chets. Chets are successful because they have the good fortune that wealth is distributed unequally and they know how to play with the boys who control most of it.

Posted by: theorajones | May 16, 2005 6:52:57 PM

But if you promise them a boatload of money to complete some dull, but difficult task, they'd probably do it very well while a more intellectual person might well decide that it was dull and spend their time doing something they find interesting.

All I know is I'm one of those "management consults" you mention, and I agree with this. I would turn down any boatload of money that would require me to think about and write on philosophy or public policy all day, so I spend my time doing something interesting: consulting.

Posted by: right | May 16, 2005 6:58:41 PM

"But "intellectual" the adjective could just mean "analytical" or whatever,"

No, it couldn't.


I dunno, I think it would be reasonable to say "he's a pretty intellectual guy" about someone who is just very logical about things. Above all, I think it typically means someone who thinks about stuff more than is necessary. But that doesn't have to mean thinks about politics, or art, or whatever.

Sure, strict definitions of intellectual may or may not mean that. But common usage is what I mean.

Posted by: cooled down a bit | May 16, 2005 7:00:15 PM

I actually think a great deal of people who are considered smart in the intellectual scene are actually either dumb or, at the very least, not very wise. This is particularly clear when they (1) use intentionally difficult and complex language to hide sloppy, inaccurate, or boring thoughts or (2) can hold forth at length on any number of subjects without bothering to become particularly knowledgable about the facts of those subjects. One of the problems with public intelligentsia today is that the vast majority of writers suffer from problem 2 and write a number of beautiful, clever, and smart things that are just wrong.

Posted by: MDtoMN | May 16, 2005 7:01:49 PM

I think "curious" may be a better distinction than "smart". The Chets I know are intelligent but not intellectually curious.

I find this trait mind-boggling and find that I relate to people like that more like Diane Fosse studying a gorilla in the wild than an actual person. My latest subject is my roommate who subscribes to the WaPo strictly to line the cages at the animal shelter where she volunteers. She's intelligent, went to a good school, etc. but has no desire to engage in current events or anything outside her immediate concerns to the point that she won't even skim the headlines of a paper being dropped on her doorstep each morning. Every day with us it's the same conversation: "You're just going to take it to the shelter still wrapped in the plastic? You're not even going to open it? You really don't care what's in it? I can email you some articles from the online version if you want? Please...?"

Posted by: Rebecca | May 16, 2005 7:02:32 PM

We also need to get away from the idea that because I-Bankers are making $500k, whereas New Republic writers only make $50k, somehow I-Bankers should be 10X as "smart" as the New Republic writers, and then we are surprised when they aren't. Having a job with a high income level is not indicative of how smart someone is. In the case of I-Bankers, I think the high relative level of income simply has to do with a proximity to money. Is that a market failure? Perhaps, but it is not surprising. There are lots of people who are smart in all kinds of different ways but decide to become, e.g., teachers, and thus are simply not paid much. They simply have values other than money (as does our society).

Posted by: Al | May 16, 2005 7:05:45 PM

Sure, strict definitions of intellectual may or may not mean that. But common usage is what I mean.

Is it cheating if I consult a dictionary?

http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=intellectual
Having or showing intellect, especially to a high degree.

It's true that the noun "intellectual" is not usually applied to engineers, but nobody would question that, for instance, somebody who understands how a tunnel diode functions has or shows intellect. It seems to be more a matter of cultural snobbery than anything else that the term "intellectual" has a non-technical connotation. And, of course, it is reinforced by the fact that scientists and engineers are usually not inclined to apply the term to themselves or others in their field.

Posted by: PaulC | May 16, 2005 7:08:55 PM

I think Matt nailed the common usage of "intellectual" fairly well. People just don't use it to refer to anyone with analytical habits of thinking. It's used more like a cultural stereotype.

@ annoyed -- since when has calling someone an "intellectual" been a positive thing? Most of the time I hear it used to express casual contempt.

Posted by: AlanC9 | May 16, 2005 7:16:31 PM

We also need to get away from the idea that because I-Bankers are making $500k, whereas New Republic writers only make $50k, somehow I-Bankers should be 10X as "smart" as the New Republic writers,

I'm not sure who ever had the idea that salary is directly proportional to some measure of intelligence, or should be. It's not as if nobody has ever attempted to identify the factors that go into salary differences. It might be instructive to look at Adam Smith for start:

One example that always sticks in my mind (and is somewhat related to the present discussion) is:

http://www.adamsmith.org/smith/won-b1-c10-pt-1.htm

Fourthly, the wages of labour vary accordingly to the small or great trust which must be reposed in the workmen.

The wages of goldsmiths and jewellers are everywhere superior to those of many other workmen, not only of equal, but of much superior ingenuity, on account of the precious materials with which they are intrusted.

We trust our health to the physician: our fortune and sometimes our life and reputation to the lawyer and attorney. Such confidence could not safely be reposed in people of a very mean or low condition. Their reward must be such, therefore, as may give them that rank in the society which so important a trust requires. The long time and the great expense which must be laid out in their education, when combined with this circumstance, necessarily enhance still further the price of their labour.

Posted by: PaulC | May 16, 2005 7:24:05 PM

The boundary for the label "intellectual" with respect to science and engineering tends to be drawn between pure and applied sciences. Chemistry -> intellectual. ChemE -> not. Physics -> intellectual. Mechanical Engineering -> not. Computer science -> intellectual. Computer programming -> not. Not saying it's fair or deserved, but that's where I usually see the line drawn.

Posted by: Rebecca | May 16, 2005 7:30:41 PM

On the distinction between intellect and intelligence, I think that Richard Hofstadter's observations are still the best:

[I]ntelligence is an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, and predictable range....Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind. Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines. Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole.

From Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Somewhat dated by still highly relevant.

We probably all know intelligent people whom we don't consider intellectual, though the converse, at least using the definition above, is not really plausible, despite the number of people who may try to pass as intellectuals. C. P. Snow could probably tell us why such poseurs are more often found in humanities than in scientific or engineering circles.

On the Chets of the world, a friend of mine once told me, "It's not hard to make a lot of money, as long as you're not interested in anything else except making a lot of money."

Posted by: RSA | May 16, 2005 7:33:17 PM

To clarify on my post about applied vs. pure science and the label "intellectual", I meant whether the pursuit is traditionally seen as intellectual. You can definitely be an applied scientist and be an intellectual but people tend not to associate that label with that profession by default. I think it has to do with breadth vs. depth of knowledge - applied science tends to require a great deal of depth of knowledge, while pure science focuses more on breadth.

That may actually be the distinction between intellectual or not -- someone with depth of knowledge (like the I-Banker or an engineer) is not usually given the label "intellectual" while someone with breadth of knowledge (humanities majors, etc.) is, regardless of their relative intelligence. Or, to go back to my previous idea, is intellectual curiosity and cultural literacy the benchmark that we use to label someone as "intellectual" and we are more likely to assume that someone who has a breadth of knowledge is intellectually curious?

Posted by: Rebecca | May 16, 2005 7:39:11 PM

Here are a few things I object to:

1. The idea of having some ranking of "legitimate" vs. "not legitimate" motivations for picking a career. Some people want to think they're more popular than others (frat boys=> IBanking), others want to think they're more rich (doctors, sometimes), others want to think they're more smart (economists, engineers, pundits, sometimes). Additionally there are lots of motivations which are not usually related to one's desired self-image (e.g. desire to help others, plain-old interest in the subject).

If you're really self-critical and honest, you will admit that you have plenty of emotional motivations for choosing your line of work (assuming you're lucky enough to have much of a choice in careers). These emotional motivations are not always pretty. Greed is not the only sin here. Intellectual narcissism is pretty common too, in lots of different fields.

So: none of us are perfect, don't throw stones, glass house, yadda yadda.

2. Elevating your own personal concept of what is interesting into a globally objective standard for what should be interesting. (e.g., look, some people like engineering, just accept it.)

3. Using "smart" in quotation marks to describe people who do things that you think are uninteresting. This is just a lame thing to do.

Clearly there is an emotional component to this whole discussion: terms like "smart," "intellectual" etc. are clearly emotionally loaded. It's fruitless and petty to focus this much on drawing lines about who "counts as smart" or "counts as intellectual."

Posted by: not all that annoyed anymore | May 16, 2005 7:48:44 PM

I think your making all this far more complicated than it really is. An 'intellectual', as the word is commonly used, is someone who likes to think, he does it for recreation. A 'Chet' as it's put here, may not enjoy exercising his mind, and may think it's a bit of a chore, but unlike an intellectual, he is actually good at thinking where intellectuals usually aren't very good at it. That there are people who like to think but are very bad at like a guy who plays golf four times a week and enjoys it immensely but can't break 100, is a concept that people who like to call themselves intellectuals seem to have trouble with but 'Chet' understands very well.

One must take issue with MY's statement:

But if you promise them a boatload of money to complete some dull, but difficult task, they'd probably do it very well while a more intellectual person might well decide that it was dull and spend their time doing something they find interesting.

If there is a boatload of money involved, Chet will be handling it, not an intellectual, irregardless of whether it's a problem an intellectual would find interesting or not.

Last but not least, intellectuals usually aren't allowed anywhere near things that society thinks it is important not to screw up, for why, see above. A stupid investment banker can cause real damage, like that Nick Leeson (?) guy that blew up Barings Bros. a couple of years ago, while a stupid article in the New Republic basically is no skin off anyone's nose.

Posted by: j mct | May 16, 2005 8:03:25 PM

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