Americans aren’t getting Dumber. They’re getting Smarter

It has become a common refrain among pundits on both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ to lament that America is in a state of ‘dumbing down’, with examples of pop culture (Keeping up With the Kardashians, MTV, etc) and education (political correctness in curriculum, SJWs on campus, etc) as evidence of America’s alleged intellectual decline. This belief may be more motivated by partisanship than data, and a confirmation bias may exist in that both sides are looking for evidence, however tenuous, of how the other side is making America ‘dumb’.

Liberals blame pols like Trump or too much religion; for conservatives, it’s pop culture, the rise of agnosticism and atheism, and the breakdown of the family structure/unit. But that doesn’t really answer the question if America is ‘dumbing down’, as ‘social decay’ and ‘dumbing down’ need not be mutually inclusive. The problem is there is conflicting evidence, making it hard to conclude either way but, but I generally believe that reports of America’s ‘dumbing down’ are largely overblown. For every example of how America is becoming dumber, I can find counterexamples.

Despite being on the ‘right’, I’ve long been a critic of the fashionable and perennial assertion that America is ‘dumbing-down’ or in a state of intellectual decline. Purported dumbing-down is refuted by counter evidence. There are 7 billion people alive. Assuming IQ does not fall much, that means there is 2x as much brainpower as when the population was only 3.5 billion, and technology and other advances helps further boost cognitive potential.

On sites such as Arxiv, thousand of technical papers published each year, and the rate of submissions keeps growing. Such growth is observed for almost all prestigious journals in economics and physics. There are new discoveries being made every year in fields as diverse as AI, economics, math, physics, computing, programming, biology, etc. Online, as evidenced by the massive traffic stats of websites and blogs such as Stack Overflow, Scott Aaronson’s blog Shtetl Optimized, Terrance Tao’s blog, Math Exchange, and Wait But Why, there is enormous interest in even the most complicated and esoteric subjects.

The number of submissions to top-5 economics journals (but also all journals) has surged:

Same for monthly submissions to Arxiv for the past 16 years:

And total number of submissions for the past 16 years:

And total number of papers and journals, going as far back as 1948:

The number of papers published has exceeded population growth. In 1968, the global population was 3.5 billion people and 200,000 papers had been published. By 2008, the population was 6.7 billion, a gain of about 90%, but the number of papers published had risen 150%.

America leads the world in scientific output:

Why do so many high-IQ foreigners want to come here? Because America, through its generous STEM grants & loans, institutions, as well as free market, rewards intellect more so than any other country. If you’re a promising physicist, mathematician or computer scientist, going to America offers the best shot at recognition and riches.

Yeah, there is a lot of useless leftist propaganda taught at universities, but there is also a lot of good theoretical and applied research in the sciences, many of which will have practical commercial applications in the future. Some people say you can learn everything online, and maybe this is true for certain STEM fields like pure math, but some fields like physics, engineering, and computer science require labs and other capital-inventive equipment that necessitates a research facility.

Often the Kurt Vonnegut short story Harrison Bergeron is retold as a sort of prophetic allegory for such dumbing-down. Over the past few years, I’ve heard it recited many times, most recently on a September 2017 Jordan Peterson podcast. This is self-refuting for two reasons: Harrison Bergeron was published in 1961, which may come as a surprise to many, and shows how such sentiment of perceived dumbing-down long predates the modern era. Probably every generation feels that their generation is dumbing-down.

Second, if it was intended to be prophetic, the timing (so far) is off. Since the story was published, there has been a proliferation of technological progress: the internet, personal computers, manned spaceflight, etc; however, the story is set in 2081, so it’s not inconceivable that in the next 60 years society could crumble into an egalitarian dystopia, but the evidence at the moment augers against that. Trends such as widening wealth inequality and the increased importance of IQ shows that America is becoming more individualistic and more unequal.

Up until very recently–the early 2000′s or so–the universities were an appendage of American society, not the body itself. When people complain America is dumbing-down or that Americans are dumb and ignorant, this is one of those instances, to borrow some cliched phrases, I say you need to ‘broaden your horizons’ and ‘get out more’. As dumb as America may seem, as I showed a few days ago regarding the IQ vs. corruption map, the rest of the world (save for a handful of Nordic countries) is worse. Australia is a giant welfare state funded by its natural resources. South America and Southern Europe have low national IQs and are overflowing with corruption, incompetence, and liberalism.

Social justice and fat acceptance is a bigger deal in Brazil, Canada (Jordan Peterson and the Canadian Human Rights Act), and Spain than in America. During the 17–19th centuries, Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy, and France used to be bastions intellectualism, producing volumes of art, philosophy, mathematics, and literature, but by the end of WW2 had lost their empires and intellectual dominance.

Now, France’s greatest intellectual export is postmodernism; for Germany and Italy, it’s overpriced unreliable cars (instead of cutting-edge rocket technology and philosophy such as Nietzsche). The Manhattan Project, the Jewish exodus out of Germany (and also other parts of Europe), and the Cold War contributed greatly to America’s intellectual dominance, especially in the sciences. With the exceptions of Penrose, Dawkins, and Hawking, Britain just doesn’t have many great scientists; they either move to America or were born in America. Same for Germany.

Many on the ‘right’ argue that college is ‘dumbed-down’, but one one hand, Charles Murray argues that college is only worthwhile for individuals with an IQ above a certain threshold, 120 or so, in contradiction of the former. It can’t be both. The evidence suggests Murray may still be right, despite creeping liberalism on campus.

That’s a pretty high threshold according to Murray, but others say college is ‘dumbed-down’, so it can’t be both. I suppose the threshold would apply to STEM an not other majors? Maybe Murray was referring to college back in his days, which had more rigorous standards, whereas today college may be easier. Nonetheless, the college dropout rate today is still very high (approx 60–50%), suggesting that even ‘dumbed-down’ courses may prove too challenging for many, in agreement with Murray’s findings, although people leave for reasons besides the coursework being too hard.

The college drop-out rate rate has remained persistently high. If college were as ‘dumbed-down’ as some insist it is, wouldn’t the drop-out rate be lower?

According to GDP per capita, a good proxy for national IQ, only Japan and Singapore rank higher:

In all of these maps, America consistently ranks among the top, and 10–15 points higher than low-IQ countries like Brazil and Turkey which struggle with recession, corruption, commodity export dependence, high inflation, failing currencies, and high crime.

As further evidence against ‘dumbing down’, a Wait But Why article about the Fermi Paradox, a topic that is fairly complicated, with a nod to Robin Hanson, too, went massively viral, getting thousands of ‘re-tweets’ and Facebook ‘shares’ and ‘likes’. It says it got almost 300 thousand Facebook likes and shares, a staggering number. That’s the most I have ever seen for an article anywhere; normally, an article gets a couple hundred, sometimes a thousand or two. The article discusses Hanson’s ‘Great Filter’, as well as the The Kardashev Scale, typically subjects that are of the the domain of physicists and astronomers, not average people.

Hanson is now an ‘esoteric celebrity‘, having attained digital fame and immortality with his ‘Filter’ concept, as well as his groundbreaking research on ‘Futarchy’, quantum mechanics, and prediction markets. Thanks to the viral article, thousands of more people now know who he is. But the fact that the article, which is about a complicated subject, went so viral is evidence against ‘dumbing down’, and that there is a huge, unmet demand for complicated stuff. The left wants to believe that people only want to read ‘social justice’ stories, that ‘black lives matter’ and so on. No, scientists, quants, nerds people who produce economic value and enrich the world with their knowledge and discoveries matter more.

America Remains the Intellectual Capital of the World

With the Nobel Prize nominations in the news, the alleged ‘dumbing down’ of America is mostly anecdotal, like an old wives’ tale regurgitated by liberal pundits until many hold it to be truth. For example, America leads the world in Nobel Prize laureates, and this is most evident in the high-IQ science categories:

The United States has won more Nobel prizes for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and economics since World War II than any other country, by a wide margin

And from Arxiv last week, a high-IQ repository of research: BULK LOCALITY FROM ENTANGLEMENT IN GAUGE/GRAVITY DUALITY. The location? Chicago. Not China or Europe, but America. Thousands of physics and math papers are produced every year at leading American research institutions like Caltech, MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and so on. It’s not surprising America has the highest per-capita research output of any country:

And America has the 3rd highest research and development (R&D) spending per capita in the world, bested only by Korea and Israel.

Per-capita, the US continues to lead the pack in patent applications:

Why do so many high-IQ foreigners want to come here? Because America, through its generous STEM grants & loans, institutions, as well as free market, rewards intellect more so than any other country. If you’re a promising physicist, mathematician or computer scientist, going to America offers the best shot at recognition and riches.

Yeah, there is a lot of useless leftist propaganda taught at universities, but there is also a lot of good theoretical and applied research in the sciences, many of which will have practical commercial applications in the future. Some people say you can learn everything online, and maybe this is true for certain STEM fields like pure math, but some fields like physics, engineering, and computer science require labs and other capital-inventive equipment that necessitates a research facility.

I can understand why some people get mad that STEM academics make a lot (if $60–120k is ‘a lot’) of money, especially taxpayer money, but here is the ‘unfair’ reality of how the modern world works: governments, corporations, and colleges like to give smart people free stuff. Why? Because those are the people who create the most economic value, so investing in them is a good idea. Maybe it’s not fair, but little in life is. They are the people who create innovation and jobs, which in turn grows the economy. In addition, smart people also make more money, which means more money for Uncle Sam. Here’s that Pareto Principle again: the top 20% of earners pay 84% of income tax, and the lowest 20% of income earners have a negative effective tax rate:

And smart people earn more money:

High-IQ immigrants create companies, which means more jobs, tax revenue, and consumer spending. High-IQ researchers create technologies — stuff like computers, airplanes, phones, appliances, and medical devices — that indirectly create billions of dollars of economic value:

Or to quote professor George Reisman, “…highly productive and provident one percent that provides the standard of living of a largely ignorant and ungrateful ninety-nine percent…The wealth of the 1 percent is the overwhelming source of the supply of goods that people buy and of the demand for labor that people sell…The wealth of the rich is not to be found in a huge pile of goods from which only capitalists benefit, but in the means of production that benefit us all.”

This is not an argument for open borders, but the economy benefits by opening the door to high-IQ people from all walks of life, and then offering economic incentives for smart people to innovate and create.

Or, to put it Keynesian terms, investing in smart people has a higher multiplier than investing in low/average-IQ people.

Americans are getting smarter

A defining charcteristic of the post-2008 intellectual Renaissance is that America is stronger and more influential than ever. The left predicted in 2008, incorrectly, that the over-hyped financial problem would usher in a post-America era. The exact opposite happened. As evidenced by historically low treasury yields, an always rising stock market that has vastly outperformed its global peers, an effective federal reserve and congress, the indefatigable consumer, quarter after quarter of blowout profits & earnings for multinationals, low inflation, surging Bay Area real estate, tech companies and Ivy League institutions being inundated with foreign applicants, America and its institutions, more than ever, have become the center of the universe and the envy of the world all over. As much as the left wants a post-America era, it refuses to happen.

But many on the left insist America is dumbing down, especially compared to other nations, but the empirical evidence contradicts this.

If America is ‘dumbed-down’, then many other countries are even worse. In the global IQ ranking, America ranks pretty high (#18). Because of its high population and high-IQ, America has more intellectuals than any country. And this is with a sizable Hispanic and African American population, two groups that to tend to perform poorly on SAT and IQ tests. Canada and Norway, both predominately white countries, differ from America by only a single IQ point. There are two possible explanations: thanks to rigorous public schooling and the growing socioeconomic premium on high intelligence, American whites are smarter than whites anywhere else; or secondly, due to the growing population of high-scoring Asian Americans. However you choose to interpret it, this is promising for America’s future as an economic and intellectual superpower.

As more evidence America is one of the most intellectual nations in the world with the most rigorous public schooling, here’s a passage from an article in The Atlantic documenting a father’s struggle to do her 13-year-old daughter’s homework for a week:

I have found, at both schools, that whenever I bring up the homework issue with teachers or administrators, their response is that they are required by the state to cover a certain amount of material. There are standardized tests, and everyone — students, teachers, schools — is being evaluated on those tests.

It takes him 3–5 hours each night to complete the assignments. So much for America dumbing down, as much as the liberals wish for it to happen or fear it happening.

From Josh Brown of The Reformed Broker Crowdsourced Terror, Hyper-Competition and the Acceleration of Acceleration

Market share matters more than money in an environment where the only thing that counts is the valuation at which you can sell stock. Stock seems to sell quicker based on total addressable market (TAM) and your size within that market these days. The town car landgrab is old school — something from a time before time. The tactics and savagery are a throwback but the motivation behind it is thoroughly modern, an artifact of now. Uber is worth $20 billion dollars and it’s nowhere near any kind of public offering. How can this be, the company was only founded in 2009? They’re in 200 cities across more than 40 countries. They claim the ability to offer a ride to 43 percent of Americans within 8 seconds. That’s how this can be. Overnight.

Agree. It’s amazing, but completely rational how Uber is such a valuable company. As we’re said before, in today’s hyper-meritocracy, anyone with a good idea and some coding can be a billionaire in a couple years. When people say capitalism is dead or American is in decline, I tell them about the overnight web 2.0 success stories or about the stock market, private equity and real estate. It’s not that capitalism is dead, you’re either not smart enough to participate or stuck in a rut. Stop blaming outside forces; blame yourself. People want to believe in things that confirm their biases while ignoring countervailing data. They want to believe the economy is weak because wages are not going up fast enough and too many people are out of work, that the market is rigged because of QE, or that they cannot conceive how America is doing so well when the doom and gloom media is blaring bad news 24–7.

The QE argument is refuted by the fact:

Small & medium size lending is well-off the pre-2008 highs. QE was intended to increase such activity, so QE is not overheating the economy as many feared it would.

The fed is tapering and will likely finish the purchasing program by the end of 2014. Stocks have posted strong gains since May 2013, when tapering was first announced; treasuries are mostly unchanged.

The recent falling yields is due to trouble in Europe and the flight to safety trade, not the fed. Europe is having a QE effect on America.

A major reason why stocks are rising is because of improving economic fundamentals as measured by record profits & earnings, consumer spending, exports and consumer credit as well as stock buyback programs and mergers.

Uber will be worth up to $140 billion before the IPO. I’ll add, as we’re written before, the future of America is much like today but to the extreme. So whatever trend is existing now, such as rising healthcare, textbooks and tuition costs, will be amplified. Wealth inequality will keep widening. The wage premium on high-IQ and college degrees will keep increasing. The labor market will become more competitive. Web 2.0 valuations, along with Bay Area real estate and treasuries, will keep going up. Stocks will keep rising with no bear market.

We’re in a greater-moderation of no downturns and monotonically increasing growth, which will continue for what will seem like forever. Policy makers have conquered the business cycle; they have conquered the rate hike; and they have conquered the bear market. Next comes the type 1 civilization transition, the singularity, a theory of everything, mind uploading, a halo ring that will encircle the earth, space colonies, a matrix, and much more. But back the present, don’t get your hopes up, liberals, that there will be some sort of 2008-like crisis to reset the new world order to a more egalitarian state. Not going to happen.

2-year stock targets: Dow: 20,000; S&P 500: 2,600; Facebook: $140; Google: $800 (combined $1600); Tesla: $600; Amazon: $400.

Predicting foreign matters is harder. Just assume if things get out of hand in the Middle East there will be boots on the ground, especially under Clinton or, hopefully, if the republicans can control all three branches of government with a super-majority. The later would be the best for the economy and national security, and Wall Street would rejoice under such circumstances, sending stocks much higher.

In the post-2008 world, there hasn’t been a better time in history to be smart and or rich. Whether it’s in stocks, real estate, web 2.0, finance, and coding, smart people are making all the gains in this protracted economic and wealth creation boom. This trend will continue for decades to come, of smart people rising to the top and less intelligent people being pushed to the margins.

A dissenting view from iSteve:

Chinese students also seem rather adept at cheating. Boo hoo hoo the Chinese are stigmatized. We don’t need more multiculturalism or HBD nerdery that supposes ethnicity and background are meaningless as long as the group in question is well-represented at LAN parties and anime conventions.

This is an example of favoritism and no different than liberals using quotas against whites except it’s quotas against well-qualified foreigners. Part of HBD, in contrast to politics, is about celebrating innate talent, exceptionalism and skill of the individual in contrast to the forces of collective leveling.

To quote Mortimer Zuckerman of U.S. News and World Report (emphasis mine), “God is not necessarily an American. National success in the international marketplace today turns more and more on human creative power, highly educated and motivated workers, organizational talent and capital investment and these we have been neglecting.”

In the context of post-2008 American exceptionalism and pro-growth policy, the lesson of the 2008 financial problem is we need to have systems in place to stem crisis as soon as it arises instead of letting key institutions fail, and secondly, let’s stop instigating class warfare against bankers, traders and other economically valuable people. These financial instruments, while hard to understand and occasionally prone to blowing up, are important in ways that are hard to describe, but take my word on it. It’s like what Steven Pinker would say: the left would rather have society regress than risk creative destruction.

Let’s stop attacking the wealth creators and instead find ways to control entitlement spending. In the events leading up to the financial problem of 2008, mistakes were made and things got out of control, but mistakes and bad luck are not fraud, which is the crux of Megan McArdle’s argument and others. In attacking the bailouts and crony capitalism, the libs think they are defending the tax payer, but many tax payers such as myself supported the bank bailouts because they created economic value. Second, income taxes went up in 2013 due to Obama’s inability to compromise, not out of economic necessity.

From web 2.0, Tesla, and Uber to breakthroughs in physics all in just the past few years we’re witnessing a flourishing of knowledge and wealth creation like never seen before. As a rational optimist, there’s a lot to be optimistic about.