Dumb towns getting dumber; smart towns getting smarter?

On our trip through Kansas, it was impossible not to notice the difference in average intelligence between Lawrence, the university town, and Liberal, a beef-processing and Walmart town.  In 1900, the costs of moving away from one’s home town were high.  You’d see your family and friends only once every year or two.  You’d talk on the phone or communicate via telegraph only in an emergency.  These costs discouraged enough folks from moving that every town had its intellectuals.  They dreamed of moving to Manhattan, but they never did.  You’d find them at the library, in the local theater company, running a Great Books club, etc.

In 2006, you can move 300 miles away and get back home every weekend on an Interstate highway in a few hours.  You can move 2000 miles away and get back home every month for $300 round-trip on an airliner.  For a fixed $20 per month, you can get a voice-over-IP phone and make unlimited long-distance calls.  For free, you can exchange email and instant messages.  You can get the benefits of moving, associating with other smart interesting people, without many of the costs formerly imposed on those who moved away from their home towns.

What’s the result of all of this investment in transportation and telecommunications infrastructure?  Where formerly intelligent people were more or less randomly distributed and “lay where they fell”, our society is now sorting people by intelligence into smart and dumb towns and regions.

18 thoughts on “Dumb towns getting dumber; smart towns getting smarter?

  1. The ease of communication does work the other way too – you can now communicate with the interesting folks without moving to Manhattan.

  2. According to Professor Edward L Glaeser, a very well-respected urban economist at Harvard and a co-worker of the recently fired/resigned Dr. Larry Summers, there is a big gap of “human capitals” between growing city and dying city. For example, Boston, home of a million PHDs, MDs, MBAs and other Ds I don’t understand, the human capitals (ie collective brain power) is driving the city’s growth, and city like Detroit has no growth potential due to the city’s relatively low percentage of PHDs, MDs, MBAs and other Ds I don’t understand. If you want to learn more about the importance of “smarter city getting more smart and dumber city getting more dumb” observation of Dr. Greenspun, I encourage you to read Professor Glaeser’s papers (free from Harvard’s website espercally one named Why does anyone still live in Detroit?).

  3. It’s interesting that you’ve picked Liberal as the low-IQ example.

    I’ve never been to Liberal but I have a friend who lives there.

    He’s one of those very expensive IBM consultants and his projects since 2001 have included scores of Beowulf clusters for all sorts of “high IQ” customers who had to hire help from Liberal, KS.

    He lives in Liberal because he can. He’s a short flight to Denver and can get from there to anywhere. Between that and cheap high speed Internet access there is no reason to suffer living in a location like Boston or San Francisco.

    As for Liberal itself, it:

    *is the home town of “Dorothy” from the Wizard of Oz
    * has a library with a history going back over 100 years (http://www.lmlibrary.org/about/history.cfm)
    * is the sister town of Olney, England, and
    * has a large air museum (http://www.liberalairmuseum.com/).

    Each year on Shrove Tuesday the towns race against each other in the “International Pancake Race”.

    By the way, the town is called “Liberal” because in pioneer days it had the only water for miles. The man who owned the water was “mighty liberal” with the way he shared it. That spirit of genuinely altruistic sharing is not something generally associated with larger cities.

    I was a member of IBM’s Linux National Practice for the first three years of its existence. During that time the overwhelming majority of the team (including myself) lived in small towns like Liberal because we could. We were paid the same as someone living in a big city but didn’t have the problems of a high cost of living, crime, traffic, and general filth.

    I know the comparison city in the post was Lawrence which is hardly like the cities I have mentioned but the fact remains: there is no reason to live in a population center today and many people have a high enough IQ to recognize that fact.

  4. It would be nice if the software behind this site could understand that a new-line implies an BR tag, a double new-line implies a P tag, and multiple sequential spaces implies non-breaking spaces. If we are supposed to enter explicit HTML (which many sites prohibit) a notice to that effect would be helpful. The automagical conversion of the girl’s name to a picture and a link was an interesting surprise as well.

  5. “You can get the benefits of moving, associating with other smart interesting people, without many of the costs formerly imposed on those who moved away from their home towns.”

    Or you can associate with smart, interesting from the comfort of your small town using the internet.

  6. You may have retired to a small town now, but no serious company is going to take someone serious who has never left Liberal, KS their entire life. They may be hired to do menial labor (like setting up Linux clusters, a task only different from automotive repair work in degree, not kind). But real intellectual work is not going to be trusted in the hands of a Luddite that has never been to a real school and engaged in a dynamic environment with the wealth and diversity of modern challenges that can only be seen in the cradles of civilization. Even Denver barely qualifies for this elevated status. You may be trusted with challenging work based on prior experience, but it is impossible to hide under a rock your entire life and still fully participate in the modern culture. Still, the type of work that may be sent over the wire to a retired graybeard, is not going to be same kind of frontline pioneering work that the ants at the Institute would be weaving.

  7. Zbigniew, perhaps you can communicate with smart people in other cities, but it’s hard to do so outside a purely technical context.

    A intelligent person in Flint, MI can’t go for coffee with an intelligent person who lives in Manhattan, nor can she have a dinner party with brainy friends who from Boston.

    I find that my smart friends who live in Cleveland seem to be feel a lot more unhappy and misunderstood than my smart friends who live in San Francisco.

  8. mikhail bruttleheimer – You’re pretty good at jumping to conclusions, aren’t you? First, I am not retired. I am now the CTO of an early stage software company in the health care industry which is currently concluding a successful round of fund raising. Second, no one has mentioned menial labor; I am talking about a person who has, on scores of occasions, educated the customer, designed the solution, and run a profitable multi-million dollar project. Hmm, I have just done a search at Google for “mikhail bruttleheimer” and that search produced zero results. I think the time I spent writing this has been wasted talking to a nobody. Go out and accomplish something (I don’t care what city you live in while you are doing it), then come back and we’ll talk.

  9. Internet friends, your general analysis of Lawrence may be true, but your methods are very flawed. It turns out that the visible culture of each town may lead you to the conclusions I’ve read on this blog, but Lawrence is peopled with probably an equal number of intellegently challenged people. Lawrence’s population is just bigger. And there’s a college, which means there are more psuedo-intellectuals sitting in coffeehouses stroking eachothers egos. “Smart towns” populate themselves with just as many dumb people trying to be smart as the genuinely intellegent. Take it from a long time Jayhawk.

  10. It does tend to elicit a reflexive spasm when someone avers that a class that includes you is statistically inferior. But of course, the inflammatory nature of the commentary does not impugn its substantive claim. It’s a pretty weakly supported claim, in any case, and scarcely merits any sort of defensive reaction, although it is interesting and worthy of discussion. I find that my best colleagues are found in remote locations. The ability to retire from the unhealthful urban environment while performing stimulating and rewarding work is reserved for the better minds among us. I do expect that the average intelligence of urban populations will vary with the density of intellectual attractions, and I do expect impoverished areas with moderate to high population density to suffer as well, but lower density and scenic areas tend to attract those with the power to choose their workplace, and small towns tend to attract people who care enough about the welfare of their children to have good success in childrearing.

  11. When I’ve driven across the USA I’ve noticed the same thing, and yet I just don’t see it here in New Zealand. I do a bit of a random sampling of rural NZ people by the technique of failing to get to where I’m going in a sailplane and landing in a handy paddock. My take on it, for what it’s worth, is that here farmers are small businessmen who each have to be reasonably skilled at everything from accounting to soil science to building a fence to animal husbandry. Many (maybe most by now) have university education. In the USA the family farm is long gone, replaced by huge companies, a few skilled managers, and mostly unskilled and uneducated labour.

  12. Wish I would have known you were coming to Lawrence, I would have offerend to show you around our little Oasis on the Plains. 🙂

  13. “It was impossible not to notice the difference in average intelligence between Lawrence, the university town, and Liberal, a beef-processing and Walmart town.” I just don’t see how one can make such a judgement passing through. But the author seems to be in need of stimulation – which he is finding in high risk flying — and casting the world in black and white may make the world more interesting to him.

  14. Even if once true (perhaps pre-Internet), how long will this stay true? Living in the suburbs of a mega-city is not any more stimulating than living in a smaller town.

    Flip this around – consider this as an intelligence test of sorts. Given a choice, would you live where real estate is pricey, where traffic is a pain, and where the pollution levels are greater?

    Given a choice, for someone of more average means, spending far less for a decent place to live and raise your kids is a very smart choice.

  15. Perhaps there is some self-sorting going on, but communities still need a mix of types to thrive.

  16. I lived in the Chicago area for 35 years. I never quite liked the arrogance that the wealth promulgated, and I didn’t like the way the “have nots” retaliated with either violence or substance abuse. I am now raising my family in a smaller town, and am taking advantage of it’s safety, slower moving, politeness, etc., for my children’s sake. What I have found, though, is that these people refuse to think for themselves and fight for their town; fight for their rights and their wallets, while the so called “leaders” of this town are running roughshod over residents trying to “keep up with the Jones” without a clue what they are doing. Am I destined to either live in a smart, jerky town…or a town of polite stupidity? One can’t have small, SMART town to live in???? Can’t have your cake and eat it too? This nation needs large cities with large business, but it also needs small towns with natural beauty…there has got to be a place filled with good, caring people who also know how, and are willing to, THINK and FIGHT for what is right against the obvious wrong.

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