South China Morning Post
Here’s a pop quiz: in which major developed nation do one out of five citizens believe the sun revolves around the earth?
We all know the answer. It is the same country where a quarter of all biology teachers think that dinosaurs and humans roamed the earth at the same time. It is, of course, the same country where Donald J. Trump could become the next president.
America has long had a reputation for being the dumbest of the rich nations. Mostly, this is a source of amusement, but increasingly has become one of trepidation, in light of the global reach of US trade, fiscal and military policy. A couple of years ago the Canadian news magazine Maclean’s ran an article titled The Menace Next Door: a Dumb America.
There are two ways to interpret Trumpism. If this is yet another expression of a certain timeless Yankee madness, then chill out. If, however, American stupidity has reached a new critical mass, it might be time to load up on gold and oil futures.
The scholar Richard Hofstadter argued, in his 1963 work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, that periods of passionate irrationality are cyclical in the country’s history, not constant. He began researching his theories during the virulent attacks on “experts” and academics that accompanied the Red Scare in the 1950s. Six years after he published his book, America put a man on the moon, a milestone that encouraged a spike in popular interest in the sciences.
In Hofstadter’s book we meet individuals like the Oklahoma university president who proclaimed: “I want to build a university that will make our football team proud,” a tongue-in-cheek riposte against a tight-fisted state budget. Snobs might laugh but football mania is part of the egalitarian impulse which helped spread education to the masses.
In 1900, a greater proportion of Americans were literate than any other nation, a fact that surprises many. As the world became more technologically complex in the 20th century, Americans readily jumped on the education bandwagon, and until recently had a greater proportion of college graduates than any other nation.
However, in the 1970s America’s educational gains began to plateau. This goes a long way in explaining declines in real incomes of those with lower skills, according to the economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, authors of The Race Between Technology and Education.
The timing could not be worse, because economic returns to the educated have been rising while those to the low-skilled have dried up. Moreover, because of widening wealth gaps, the rich can pay for top education for their children while the poor go to the schools where biology teachers think early man enjoyed dino roasts on Sundays.
“As income inequality expands, kids from more privileged backgrounds start and probably finish further and further ahead of their less privileged peers,” the sociologist Robert Putnam wrote last year in the book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.
Yet minorities, not Trump’s white supporters, are disproportionately affected by rising economic segregation. About 75 per cent of black and Hispanic kids attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as low-income, compared with only about a third of white students.
Other than allowing for an expression of rage, it is hard to see anything in Trump’s programme that could help his key constituency. He has not offered a consistent or coherent platform. He also lies once every five minutes, according to an analysis of his speeches by the news group Politico. So even if he did somehow get elected, there is no reason to believe he would follow up on his promises, which include blowing up the education department.
Note, however, that Trump has stumped experts so far. The famed political statistician Nate Silver is among the many who failed to predict Trump’s electoral clout. Does this show the limits of trained intelligence?
Does this show, even, that there is a method to the madness, that the tension between the magical and rational thinkers in the United States has macroeconomic benefits, and is good for innovation. The last great American backlash against the experts helped put a man on the moon. Maybe this time, they’re aiming for the sun?
Cathy Holcombe is a Hong Kong-based financial writer