Does talent matter?

by Chris Bertram on August 7, 2019

I’ve recently been in Germany which, to a greater extent than many other countries (such as my own), is a functioning and prosperous liberal democracy. It wasn’t always thus, as every participant in internet debate know very well. By the end of the Second World War, Germany had suffered the destruction of its cities and infrastructure, the loss of a large amount of its territory, and the death or maiming of a good part of its population and particularly of the young and active ones. Yet, though not without some external assistance, it was able to recover and outstrip its former adversaries within a very few decades.

Thinking about this made me reflect a little on whether people, in the sense of talented individuals, matter all that much. That they do is presupposed by the recruitment policies of firms and other institutions and by immigration policies that aim to recruit the “best and brightest”. Societies are lectured on how important it is not to miss out in the competition for “global talent”. Yet the experience of societies that have experienced great losses through war and other catastrophes suggests that provided the institutions and structures are right, when the “talented” are lost they will be quickly replaced by others who step into their shoes and do a much better job that might have previously been expected of those individuals.

I imagine some empirical and comparative work has been done by someone on all this, but it seems to me that getting the right people is much less important that having the institutions that will get the best out of whatever people happen to be around. I suppose a caveat is necessary: some jobs need people with particular training (doctoring or nursing, for example) and if we shoot all the doctors there won’t yet be people ready to take up the opportunities created by their vacancy. But given time, the talent of particular individuals may not be all that important to how well societies or companies do. Perhaps we don’t need to pay so much, then, to retain or attract the “talented”: there’s always someone else.



Brian Hanley 08.07.19 at 2:12 pm

You can also look at the history of the Black Death in Europe, which killed ~60% of the population. This became the foundation for the Renaissance. It made workers, peasants, and craftsmen the most valuable people. Advertisements from that era gave forgiveness for murder and other mayhem if you would visit. The entrenched wealth and privilege of the upper class was severely damaged and other people were given a chance.

This is an example of the effect of catastrophe on entrenched inequality. Scheidel wrote this piece 2 years ago regarding Trumpism, which is about as antithetical to its promises as a policy can be.

The evidence is that the model of the neo-classicals is correct. That model assumes perfect redistribution of wealth. Without perfect redistribution, society and economies will break. The lesson of history is that who wins is mostly arbitrary, mostly has little or nothing to do with merit, and everything to do with opportunity, application, and slamming the door on everyone else, then leaning on the door to keep it shut.

That is the real story of the human race.


David J Zimny 08.07.19 at 2:16 pm

“…[G]etting the right people is much less important that having the institutions that will get the best out of whatever people happen to be around.”

This is, of course, the assumption the Founding Fathers adopted in writing the Constitution. I’m afraid, though, that the American politics of the last few years would lead us to change “much less” to “almost as” or even “just as.” Even the best planned institutions will be wrecked if the wrong people are in control.


PeteW 08.07.19 at 2:17 pm

Different context, I know, but the Irish martial arts coach John Kavanagh, who has schooled numerous champions including the biggest name in the UFC, Conor McGregor, claims emphatically that there is no such thing as talent.


J. Bogart 08.07.19 at 2:20 pm

Have you been reading philosophy and history books again?
Why I have a photo of U.S. Grant.


Foster Boondoggle 08.07.19 at 2:22 pm

“The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.” (Unknown author, sometimes attributed to DeGaulle or Clemenceau.)


Robert Farley 08.07.19 at 3:20 pm

Army thinks about this question a lot. The answer it prefers is the one you give; it’s all about the institution, and if you cut off the most “talented” tenth of any given rank it wouldn’t make much difference in institutional performance. Some empirics suggest otherwise.

That’s old, of course, but it does suggest that “talent” (defined problematically, which is probably inevitable), has some impact on performance. But then there are institutional solutions to the problem.


Enzo Rossi 08.07.19 at 3:28 pm

I wonder to what extent this applies to university admissions.


William Timberman 08.07.19 at 3:32 pm

It would be interesting to see the results of some unbiased studies. My own experience suggests that there is indeed such a thing as talent, and that it does matter, but also that it’s far more widely distributed than anyone with a bit of power is willing to admit or to suffer. The sheer profligacy of the universe seems to have protected us so far from our own folly, but God only knows why, considering how miserably ungrateful we’ve been for the indulgence.


anonymousse 08.07.19 at 4:10 pm

The obvious other option is that perhaps some populations (ex: the Germans) are broadly more talented than others (ex: their competitors)-and replacing one German with another is empirically ‘better’ than replacing one X (Englishman?) with another.

But that’s doubleplusungood, so won’t be considered.


“This is, of course, the assumption the Founding Fathers adopted in writing the Constitution. I’m afraid, though, that the American politics of the last few years would lead us to change “much less” to “almost as” or even “just as.” Even the best planned institutions will be wrecked if the wrong people are in control.”

Wrong people. Like, the less talented…


Hidari 08.07.19 at 4:14 pm

Chris Dillow writes regularly about this at Stumbling and Mumbling: cf here:

and in his book:

The idea that politics is (and should be) about ‘great’ personalities he calls the Bonnie Tyler theory of politics: ‘holding out for a hero’. It is desire to be led by a ‘character’ that has led apparently sane (mainly white, mainly male, mainly middle class) people to think that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are appropriate leaders for nuclear armed states.

Of course there’s a political angle to all this. Thinkers on the right tend to prioritise (and over-prioritise) the role of the individual in politics: think of Nietzsche’s ubermensch, Heidegger’s Authentic Man, Kierkegaard’s idea of a (implicitly white) man making the ‘leap of faith’. And as sometime CT blogger Corey Robin has pointed out the Right tend to justify societies in which elites (or sometimes even individuals, dictators) hold all the power, and everyone else takes orders.

The left on the other hand, tends to take not individuals but processes, structures, groups, as its locus of analysis. The left too has fallen into the ‘holding out for a hero’ idea at times, but this is not really very Marxist. More common is to assume that the key point of politics is to change things so that ‘the institutions and structures are right’, as people can only flourish in institutions that will help them flourish (at the risk of creating a tautology.

It has to be said that the vast majority of social scientific data tends to support the views of the left rather than the right (cf, almost all findings of sociology and social psychology, the ‘Historical School’ in economics etc.)

CF also the examples of Germany in the OP: between 1933 and 1945 the Germans gave us a test of the idea that ‘great men’ who wished to ‘change the world’ and were prepared to ‘break the rules’ to get what they want is the way to go with results that we are all familiar with.


Harry 08.07.19 at 4:23 pm

I wouldn’t discount the need for talent in creating the infrastructure in the first place. One possibility is that it took a remarkably talented and well motivated elite to reconstruct Germany’s political and social infrastructure after WWII, and remarkable civil servants to develop the institutional basis of what has become the EU. Couldn’t it all have gone terribly wrong without Brandt, Adenauer, the external assisters, and the civil servants who are at the center of any successful institution building?

More locally, I look at my own institution which has been in less-than-ideal environmental conditions in the past few years. To me it seems that we could make all sorts of errors in hiring faculty, staff, grad students, and things would be more or less fine but really I’m not at all convinced that many people who would be willing to run a large public university would have been able to do it well in these circumstances. (I think, in fact, we’ve been remarkably lucky). Our previous Chancellor really didn’t have the necessary skills — it ended up because she experienced a major failure, and had the sense to find another job for which she was better suited, and, after a ship-steadying interim, the Regents had the sense to choose our current Chancellor (whom who was a rejected finalist in the previous search).


NomadUK 08.07.19 at 4:32 pm

This is why my reaction to all of those high fliers who, complaining about insufficient tax cuts or over-regulation, threaten to leave whichever country has been putting up with them to this point is to say ‘Don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out.’ Though, actually, I’d be more than happy if the door propelled them some great distance.


Chris Bertram 08.07.19 at 4:56 pm

@Harry, I’m extremely confident that, were the current British Cabinet to be suddenly killed by a stray meteorite, a set of individuals of at least equal talent would replace them.


SamChevre 08.07.19 at 4:59 pm

Following on from Robert Farley @ 5, in my work experience there’s always talk of “top talent”, “hiring the best”, etc–but the big distinguishing factor is avoiding the worst, not getting the best. One really bad hire can do an amazing amount of damage; one really good hire vs OK hire will barely move the needle.


Aardvark Cheeselog 08.07.19 at 5:13 pm

Harry @8:

it took a remarkably talented and well motivated elite to reconstruct Germany’s political and social infrastructure after WWII

And yet these “remarkably” talented people were available after the population had been decimated (maybe literally? IDK) in a process that preferentially kills off those most energetic and dedicated to national well-being, it is said. That’s the point of OP: “remarkably” talented people are maybe not so remarkable after all.

I think there is such a thing as talent, and you see it on display in some kinds of artificial competitions. It appears you can’t be a serious contender for a gold medal in many Olympic sports if you’re not born with the right kind of genes for example. Probably not just anybody can master chess or go at the highest levels. Learning how to program computers competently seems to be remarkably difficult for most people. I can attest that lots of practice does not, by itself, transform one into a musician suitable for performing Western classical art music before a demanding audience. But these are not the kind of “talents” being discussed in OP.


nick j 08.07.19 at 5:13 pm

nobody’s indispensable.


Scott P. 08.07.19 at 5:27 pm

One possibility is that it took a remarkably talented and well motivated elite to reconstruct Germany’s political and social infrastructure after WWII, and remarkable civil servants to develop the institutional basis of what has become the EU.

It shouldn’t be overlooked that a lot of those people were Americans, British, and French, and also the effects of the Marshall Plan. We don’t see the same effects in East Germany.


Harry 08.07.19 at 5:31 pm

Chris — I don’t know. Almost everyone with talent in that party seems disqualified from office by virtue of their talent. Maybe the next level would be at least as talented, but… the rest of the eligible parliamentary party might be even worse than you think. Nothing would surprise me.


CJColucci 08.07.19 at 5:55 pm

I forget whether it was in The Caine Mutiny or Mr. Roberts, but one of the characters described the Navy as an institution “designed by geniuses to be run by idiots.” And I have heard a quotation attributed to Napoleon that the key to victory is training the average soldier to do the average thing under incredible pressure.


Mike 08.07.19 at 6:12 pm

A few bullet points on this:

-I think that strong institutions tend to have an homogenizing effect on the people that work within them; the rules and structures limit errors and improve worst-case scenarios, while simultaneously putting limits on the upside of contributions from talented individuals. For most large organizations (like a country) this tradeoff is well worth it.

-Talent is very difficult to identify when the scope of future challenges is broad. People viewed as talented may not have the specific skills necessary to address the problems that end up arising, which doesn’t mean they aren’t talented. Also, who is assessing talent? How good can they be at assessing talent if they don’t posses it?

-A lot of roles have a talent level necessary to perform the job sufficiently, and possessing higher levels of talent is better, but not meaningfully incrementally so. There may be a large collection of people with sufficient talent, and the value of talent-above-replacement may be less impactful than other completely random factors that impact performance, at which point it becomes likely that one of the many less-talented performers will outdo the most talented.


central texas 08.07.19 at 6:15 pm

Seems to me that we are in the midst of an experiment that could throw some light on this. We (the US) have a government led by people who abhor expertise and have actively sought to remove those with supposedly rare knowledge of fields of study or problems. They are often replaced by those whose familiarity with the matter at hand barely extends beyond spelling it.

Now we have to decide whether any undesirable outcome is the result of disparagement of talent or of poor structure that should compensate for the lack of it.


oldster 08.07.19 at 6:17 pm

I suspect that your hypothesis is correct: there are reserves of ability in the general population that are seldom tapped, and the indispensable men could be dispensed with, with profit.

“I suppose a caveat is necessary: some jobs need people with particular training (doctoring or nursing, for example) and if we shoot all the doctors there won’t yet be people ready to take up the opportunities created by their vacancy.”

Here you muddy the question a little by switching from “talent” to “training”. *Training* is important: if you do not have 3 – 5 years of training in medical school, then you will not be able to step into a surgery and do the job. But that’s compatible with claiming that no particular *talent* is needed to become a competent physician.

And in fact, I suspect that being a doctor requires much less talent, in the sense of innate, congenital ability, than does becoming a world-cup goal-tender, an Olympic swimmer, a grand-master chess player, and so on (agreeing with Aard Cheese above).

I also agree with SamChevre above:

“…the big distinguishing factor is avoiding the worst, not getting the best. One really bad hire can do an amazing amount of damage; one really good hire vs OK hire will barely move the needle.”

Trump is currently the best advertisement for the “Great Man” theory of history, simply because his unique blend of horrible attributes is wreaking astounding havoc that most corrupt and wicked politicians could not produce. Can Great Men improve the world? The question is not settled. Can Horrible Men make the world worse? Yes. Definitely.


Howard 08.07.19 at 6:39 pm

The famous Termites studied longitudinally in the mid of the twentieth century had routine greatly productive lives and did not make any obituary worthy contributions.
So the link between “talent” and “making a difference” in this case is questionable and needs to be rethought.


afeman 08.07.19 at 6:51 pm

I think at times about how the German educational and training system, with its apprenticeship-style structures, encourages an approach of committed competency, while the US tends to allow more for people dropping into a career out of nowhere. The latter seems to favor the individual personal fulfillment of a few (such as myself) that might come in from left field (and reflected by the extreme bifurcation elsewhere in the society), but I wonder if the former encourages better performance on average as well as steadier careers for more people.


Ebenezer Scrooge 08.07.19 at 6:59 pm

My favorite illustration of this thesis is the blog form itself. The first decade of bloggery created a commentariat that was far more diverse and intelligent than the incumbents inhabiting newspapers, magazines, and journals. The barriers to entry were low, and the new system rewarded talent, rather than connections. (Unfortunately, accuracy requires the past tense.)
Although there are two interrelated issues here. 1. Is “talent” a scarce commodity? 2. Are those deemed talented actually the best ones in their positions? I’d say that the answers to both #1 and #2 are both “no,” with the exception perhaps of athletics and scientists. Which may explain why our ruling class is so obsessed with both.


Chris Peterson 08.07.19 at 7:09 pm

One recent piece of interesting empirical work done on this was by two economists who looked at 50 years of IMO results (the most prestigious international math competition for high school students). They found that a) yes, talent matters (i.e., performance on the IMO predicts productivity in research mathematics down the line), but also b) institutions matter (i.e. in countries with weaker educational institutions, similarly talented students are not as productive later on in their career).

There’s obviously a feedback loop here (stronger institutions are capable of developing talent earlier on, and talent strengthens institutions).



rcriii 08.07.19 at 7:16 pm

Talent certainly matters, someone has to program the computers and play the instruments in the orchestra after all. But the talents that get rewarded with money, fame and power are only a small subset of the talents that are needed to run any organization or society, never mind when they are actively harmful to the undertaking.

As a recruiter, I am a firm believer that we have a hazy idea of what a ‘good’ candidate really is, and that we are, as SamChevre say, trying to weed out the worst, then make a selection among the rest that is fairly arbitrary.

That said, I also know that we occasionally luck into hiring someone with exceptional talent at something, but even then the institution matters in terms of providing them the opportunity exercise that talent. How many bad institutions suppress or drive out talent?


Dipper 08.07.19 at 7:44 pm

What matters is not what we believe, but how we behave.

Nature/nurture is still an open question, but every parent behaves as though it is 100% nurture. Similarly, states and organisations should behave as if it is 100% about institutions.


HcCarey 08.07.19 at 7:45 pm

There’s a phrase, often attributed to DeGaulle: “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.”

As a historian for a living, currently writing about the history of immigration to the US, I can’t miss how much disdain was heaped on immigrant groups are now held up as models of the right kind of people. It’s almost impossible to overstate the contempt in which Irish immigrants were held: similarly Italians, Poles, Jews, Chinese were all treated as mentally deficient losers from, as Trump would say “shithole countries;” “beaten men from beaten races,” as Frances Walker, Harvard economist, put it in the 1890s.


mary s 08.07.19 at 8:04 pm

I am remembering that, back when everyone was impressed by the Finnish educational system, one of its architects said that the main focus was on equity — as opposed to, say, excellence. Not that excellence isn’t important, of course. But an equitable approach tends to waste a lot less “talent.”


aristos 08.07.19 at 8:12 pm

Your general point may be correct but is not supported by the example of post war Germany. Germany in the decades before 1933 was a far more productive country in science and culture than after 1945. Managerial competence survived intact but creativity did not.


Dr. Hilarius 08.07.19 at 8:38 pm

I have no doubt that individual talent exists and matters but what matters more is whether a society harbors a culture and institutions which support talent. A society which values a competent, honest civil government is more likely to recover from the loss of talent and training than is a society where nepotism and corruption are expected and accepted. With institutional support, mediocrity might be sufficient to build prosperity but without that support no amount of talent will be enough.

Free market enthusiasts jabber on about regulations thwarting individual efforts but have oddly little to say about a country’s general welfare being sacrificed to keep a few mediocre hacks rich.


Harry 08.07.19 at 9:07 pm

Re College admissions: an Ivy League Dean of Admissions told me that his team think they can pick out 300 people they really want in no time at all, and that they could then take a pool of 6000 or so and a lottery would get them as good results as their forensic process. Make of that what you will…. (sounds right to me).


Gareth Wilson 08.07.19 at 9:21 pm

So organisations really aren’t missing out on the contributions of talented people if they exclude women and racial minorities, either formally or informally. That was a pretty feeble argument to begin with: the exclusion is unjust whatever effect it has on an organisation. But you still hear it all the time.


dbk 08.07.19 at 9:37 pm

Very, very good post.

Individual talent, at least in so-called “talent-demanding” fields, matters. But even individual talent fails to flourish without the structures and facilities provided by a “thoughtful” (well-regulated) state. And a well-regulated state – e.g. West Germany – will make the most of the more modest talents of a maximum number of its citizens. It’s a positive feedback loop, I think. [And, one might add, even where individual talent is emphasized, it can normally only reach its apex in a state which provides the appropriate support and encouragement.]

@Harry: my older child, who finished a fairly run-of-the-mill, non English-language high school abroad, once noted that every single one of his good friends would have done well – excelled, even – at his undergraduate institution (Princeton).

This all seems to me to be a fairly compelling core argument against libertarian views which tend to take a dim view of “the state” and its role – such a stance, imho, fails to take into account the science of being human, i.e. of membership in a genetically intensely social species.


Harry 08.07.19 at 11:34 pm

I was very struck on entering college (a very selective home to Oxbridge rejects about 75% from private schools) how few people were smarter than the majority friends from my comprehensive school from which hardly anyone went to college. But… that’s not to deny talent matters, just that it wasn’t being marshalled very well.


Faustusnotes 08.08.19 at 12:19 am

Bangladesh and Cambodia offer very good examples of this, when their entire professional or academic class were murdered. But they lacked the infrastructure to recover by themselves. I remember teaching public health and stats to two young Cambodians who had already been promoted to senior management positions In hospitals. I guess you could do some comparative studies to see if the deficit made a difference.

I agree with samchevre that avoiding the duds is most important!


J-D 08.08.19 at 2:18 am

My guess is that in the long run institutions matter more than the talents of individuals; but it’s not only the long run that matters, the short run matters too.

The main way to improve individuals and their talents and the use that is made of those talents is to improve institutions. (For example, special measures–effective or ineffective–to attract, select, and/or retain talented individuals are not themselves individuals, they are institutions.) This is the main reason why institutions matter more in the long run.


hix 08.08.19 at 2:37 am

Did anyone ever seriously claim the contrary? The companies that claim they recruit the best and brightest rarely do that or need them. Its frankly rather questionable the McKinseys and Goldman Sachs of this world have any positive productive role in society at all. They are looking for status showman, which is why when push comes to shove they woulrd rather recruit any idiot with the “right” college than looking at the top graduates from the other 99%. They even basically admit as much in less public fora no? I particular loved a description about how Goldman would recruit only graduates of US elte Universities for their Hong Kong (!) department and then complained they would not find enough “talented” people, read: Chinese Harvard graduates.


nastywoman 08.08.19 at 3:08 am

”Thinking about this made me reflect a little on whether people, in the sense of talented individuals, matter all that much”.

A long long time ago – at the turn of the century Paul Krugman wrote:

”Well, here’s my theory: The real divide between currently successful economies, like the U.S., and currently troubled ones, like Germany, is not political but philosophical; it’s not Karl Marx vs. Adam Smith, it’s Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative vs. William James’ pragmatism. What the Germans really want is a clear set of principles: rules that specify the nature of truth, the basis of morality, when shops will be open, and what a Deutsche mark is worth. Americans, by contrast, are philosophically and personally sloppy: They go with whatever seems more or less to work. If people want to go shopping at 11 P.M., that’s okay; if a dollar is sometimes worth 80 yen, sometimes 150, that’s also okay.

Now, the American way doesn’t always work better. Even today, Detroit can’t or won’t make luxury cars to German standards; Amtrak can’t or won’t provide the precision scheduling that Germans take for granted. America remains remarkably bad at exporting; the sheer quality of some German products, the virtuosity of German engineering, have allowed the country to remain a powerful exporter despite having the world’s highest labor costs. And Germany did a better job of resisting the inflationary pressures of the ’70s and ’80s than we did.

But the world has changed in a way that seems to favor flexibility over discipline. With technology and markets in flux, not everything worth doing is worth doing well…”

Well – here is my theory –
It’s the philosophy that everything worth doing is worth doing well… which matters ”that much”.


nastywoman 08.08.19 at 3:23 am

”everything worth doing is worth doing well”

– didn’t mean that it is actually some exceptional or isolated ”German thing” – as this Furniture Maker in New England (we know) proves and then there are ”Italian Talents” – and Italy – which does everything worth doing is worth doing well – if it does it – in a far more fascinating and enjoyful way as anybody else – and anybody who ever drove a Ferrari can attest to – and building a Ferrari – NOW that’s REAL talent! –
-(including the believe – that ”communism” is when everybody can afford a Ferrari)


nastywoman 08.08.19 at 5:05 am

– and about ”talent” per se –
let’s take me – ”one of the least talented Blonds” – but when I once in Germany coloured my hair dark and learned how to deconstruct machinery -(and furniture)
AND -(very important) was able to reconstruct it again I gained all this respect -(even from Academics) who always knew that I never was ”talented” at all.

And is this perhaps: ”Des Rätsels Lösung”?


bad Jim 08.08.19 at 5:06 am

My first professional job was with my father’s start-up. I had some familiarity with the aerospace industry, which is where my father, his partner, and various consultants came from. I once complained that the task I faced, designing a control panel and writing the software to make it work, would normally be performed by a team.

One of the aerospace veterans, a professor of mathematics, explained that the point of hiring a team was to find the person who would actually get things done. I’m not sure he was wrong; he handled his project capably, and so, to my amazement, did I.

In a later start-up it took just three of us to design and prototype a bulky piece of electromechanical equipment. We relied of course on subcontractors to bend and cut and weld the metal parts, to mold the plastic housings, to print the circuit boards, and we knew how to get this done, and knew who could do this work, from our previous employment. This is a success story embedded in a particular cultural environment, an industrial infrastructure which may no longer exist, at least in my neighborhood.


hix 08.08.19 at 5:17 am

Put another way: There are always far more talents than jobs that require those talents. Most work is dull. That remains true today and was certainly true after the second world war. IT is one of the typical example of a supposedly rare skill job that always thinks it lacks talents, but then, why would anyone in his right mind with somewhat transferable apptitude put up with the way the industry threats people and the permanent risk of a cylical downturn, structural shift or whatever else that can go wrong?


hix 08.08.19 at 5:28 am

Sorry for third post in a row, i´ll happily concede i personally would genuinly lack the aptitude for the IT, with my inability to write everything concentrated in a row. Thinking of stuff like this regarding how IT threats people:
“The other piece that gets overlooked in the Google story is the value of hard work. When reporters write about Google, they write about it as if it was inevitable. The actual experience was more like, “Could you work 130 hours in a week?” The answer is yes, if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom. The nap rooms at Google were there because it was safer to stay in the office than walk to your car at 3 a.m. For my first five years, I did at least one all-nighter a week, except when I was on vacation—and the vacations were few and far between.”

And that is definitly not the result of a lack of talents since in that case people would go from unreasonable to more reasonable hours in a downturn. In reality many go to unemployment and the rest stays with even more unreasonable hours.


quanticle 08.08.19 at 5:29 am

Robert Farley @6

I think you’d enjoy reading McNamara’s Folly: The Use of Low IQ Troops in the Vietnam War.

It’s a book that goes into much greater depth about the last time the US military allowed its military aptitude test standards to slip, when it faced a shortfall of troops for the Vietnam War. The result was even more disastrous than what the Slate article describes. Oftentimes, these troops, through their own incompetence and poor impulse control were more of a threat to their comrades than they were to the opposing forces.

As it turns out, IQ is positively correlated with all sorts of things, like impulse control and “common sense”, such as not bouncing “dud” grenades on the floor of the mess tent. Gwern’s review of the book has more details, but the conclusion is clear: talent absolutely matters. The only reason you would think it doesn’t matter is if you’re e.g. at a university, and everyone is above the “waterline” of IQ/talent required to reasonably function in modern society.


quanticle 08.08.19 at 5:55 am

Another bit of supporting evidence for, “Of course talent matters! Why would you think it doesn’t?” is Gottfredson’s survey on the effect of g on life outcomes. To quote:

The key observation here is that personnel psychologists no longer dispute the conclusion that g helps to predict performance in most, if not all, jobs (Hartigan & Wigdor, 1989). Rather, their disputes concern how large the predictive validities are, often in the context of deciding the appropriate composition of a personnel selection battery.

g can be said to be the most powerful single predictor of overall job performance. First, no other measured trait, except perhaps conscientiousness (Landy, et. al. 1994 pp. 271, 273) has such general utility across the sweep of jobs in the U.S. economy. More specific personality traits and aptitudes, such as extraversion or spatial aptitude sometimes seem essential above and beyond g, but across a more limited range of jobs (e.g. Barrick & Mount, 1991; Gottfredson 1986a).

Second, no other single predictor measured to date (specific aptitude, personality, education, experience) seems to have such consistently high predictive validities for job performance.

Later, Gottfredson looks at how g affects trainability, and finds that even on simple tasks, where everyone can eventually reach a high level of performance, people with low g took, in some cases, 12-24 months to reach a level of proficiency that high-g folks reached after 3 months. So talent matters, even for tasks where everyone can eventually figure out what to do. As it turns out there’s a huge range in what “eventually” can mean!


hix 08.08.19 at 8:06 am

Wben you think you have seen it all, someone tells you the Vietnam war was lost because the soldiers iq was too low.


reason 08.08.19 at 8:40 am

Maybe the fact that everything was flattened (except know-how) was not the “even though” but “because”. If you have to decide on what to do next, it probably makes it easy if it is right in front of you (i.e. there were no shortage of worthwhile projects, just a shortage of workers to do it). And so there was an easy beneficial spiral of productive projects being completed, workers being paid well and workers spending money enabling new projects. If growth in the economy relies on “creative destruction” (which is really destructive creation – i.e. the new driving out the old), there is no such spiral because while some win, others lose.


Rob 08.08.19 at 9:06 am

Does talent matter? Do institutions? Does culture? Probably all three.

Is there even one kind of “talent”? The ability to learn quickly might be good for assimilating into an existing culture, so when multinational firms engage in the “search for global talent” they’re looking for people who can assimilate into their corporate culture and institutions.

A very different kind of “talent” would be the ability to subvert the culture or institutions, by imagining and enacting alternatives to them. When it works, it tends to be called “innovation”, and has little difficulty in calling the innovator talented. When it doesn’t work, the innovator might be regarded as un-talented – they evidently lacked the talent to understand the wisdom of the culture and institutions!

In my personal experience, there are definitely some people with capabilities that others do not have, where those capabilities can’t be traced to some acknowledged educational experience. I ask myself “why is this person so good at this?” and the answer is not obvious. An easy assumption is that there is some natural and innate quality of intelligence that has enabled this person to surpass our normal expectations. This is the assumption behind the notion of “genius” or “gifted” people.

I wonder, though. If you see a kid kicking a ball care bear against a wall every day for three hours, you’d expect the kid to grow up to be good at kicking things accurately. We can admire the talent, but we can also explain it as a result of practice rather than innate endowments. But how do you observe someone practicing less visible skills? Being good at thinking conceptually involves a lot of time spent thinking about things, but the direct connection between this activity and skills later in life (whether those problems are problems of law, physics, philosophy, engineering, or whatever) is much less easy for us to observe. They could be spending hours a day thinking about theoretical physics and we’d have no idea! Now when I encounter some unusually “talented” person, I wonder how much hidden practice went into those skills.

Of course, this just moves the goalposts a bit: why do some people have the drive to sit and think about theoretical physics until they become very good at it? Sure, maybe they’re no more talented that anyone else, but they still ended up doing something remarkable, and we can observe that most people don’t do this, so we still need an explanation for the outliers. We could also ask why some people think of learning as being perfect assimilation into culture and institutions (you’ve learned well if you’re indistinguishable from everyone else!) and others think of learning as beginning at the point where you’re doing something that other people aren’t doing, even if most experiments end in failure.


Dipper 08.08.19 at 9:53 am

well this thread is taking a bizarre turn. Lots of lefties arguing that IQ is a measure of innate talent (but we will pass on racial distributions at this point), and a right-wing troll like me is abut to argue that IQ is a meaningless measure, but …

one of the things I notice as a birdwatcher is how many of my fellow birders have simultaneously a very keen intelligence and knowledge-base round birds, to the extent of being familiar with academic research on birds and other wild-life, and an ability to ask smart questions about what they are seeing and how the life-cycle or evolution works, whilst simultaneously having bypassed most standard measures of intelligence and are generally employed in trades with low academic entry requirements. So I don’t see how IQ or its related measures tells us much. Apart from maths ability.

“Could you work 130 hours in a week?”” well I could birdwatch for 130 hours a week absolutely no problem. So either someone is working 130 hours a week because they are doing something that is to all intents and purposes a paid hobby, or else they have a deep belief that this effort will be rewarded. If you don’t believe that the effort will be rewarded because People Like You aren’t in evidence in the hierarchy of your organisation, then you are much less likely to put in that effort.


Cranky Observer 08.08.19 at 11:22 am

I suggest distinguishing between management as an occupation/skill/talent and non-management occupations with a performance/creativity element. There are a very few highly skilled managers who have made a significant difference in organizations and the world, but as noted above in 99.999% of organizational situations firing the top 10% of the managers and replacing them with a combination of random selections from the ranks and off the streets would improve the performance of the organization. Whereas creativity-based activities, such as true fundamental software design and programming (a far cry from “IT”), medical research, creation of music, etc do seem to have an elite corps of highly talented performers that the average person cannot match no matter how much training they take or how many hours they work.


Trader Joe 08.08.19 at 11:39 am

Its been my experience that talent requires 4 ingredients: opportunity, aptitude, interest and dedication.

Opportunity is often the piece the individual has no control over – for example it could be that I have the talent to be the greatest concert violinist that ever lived, unfortunately I never had the opportunity to take up the instrument so the world will never know.

Once opportunity is provided -aptitude will be revealed provided that the person has an interest in pursuing the talent and the dedication to develop it sincerely. To my example, even if I had been shown the violin at age 5, if I’d rather play football instead we’d still never know about my latent violin talent.

To the OP – where society and infrastructure supports or creates talent is by providing the opportunities and the resources to convert the talent to use. To some extent its functions like coaching in sports or arts – there is lot of talent available, but without the right coaching, support, infrastructure it might not be identified or developed.

Postwar Germany certainly provided some unique opportunities – I’d argue that someone who managed to survive the war already demonstrated some rather exceptional character skill such that they were hardly luck of the draw candidates for leadership when the war finally ended.


Z 08.08.19 at 12:37 pm

Yet the experience of societies that have experienced great losses through war and other catastrophes suggests that provided the institutions and structures are right, when the “talented” are lost they will be quickly replaced by others

Talent carries a strong presumption of strictly individual capability. Institutions and structures are rather abstract and wide scale entities. It seems to me that explicitly discussing these two levels at the exclusion of others sets up a false dichotomy (to begin with, the idea of an individual talent to build functional societies sounds almost like an oxymoron while on the other hand the institutions imposed by the American occupation were initially quite similar in three axis power, with markedly different outcomes). At the very least, what happens at the level of interpersonal relations, the educative potential of the society and the make up of the different social universes forming the general society are also relevant. They seem to me to be much more so than either abstract institutions or individual talent when discussing why and how post-war Germany became the society it is now.

Incidentally, I don’t think the concept of functional liberal democracy can remain analytically meaningful and include today’s Germany (I’m OK with the suppression of either adjective).


Zamfir 08.08.19 at 1:06 pm

Cranky, I don’t find it obvious that such industries truly rely on exceptional people. Perhaps it is true, but it would be hard to prove. Success in music, for example, seems to have a large self-reinforcing “famous for being famous” component. There are far more good musicians/entertainers than positions. once someone achieves a position of fame, we tend to ascribe qualities to them that set them apart from less famous people. But those qualities are very nebulous, and there is a good case that they are mostly after-the-fact rationalisation for the fame. If the most famous 1000 entertainers were to die tomorrow, another batch will become the most famous 1000. Quite possibly without much objective loss in quality.

The software industry seems to have similar winner-take-all characteristics, perhaps more on the firm level than on the personal level. Take any important software system or business, and imagine that it never existed, and neither any of the people who worked on it. The likely outcome is often that some other system would have grown to fill roughly the same niche, and other people would be hailed as irreplaceable geniuses.


hac 08.08.19 at 2:00 pm

A minor problem with waiting for ‘saviors’ is that about a quarter of the canonical type this society acknowledges as a valid savior tend to be psychopathic:

Just check out the hoopla around Elizabeth Holmes from 5 years ago (compared by a seasoned Stanford scientist to Archimedes) and the hot mess that is her psychology (interestingly, she is descended from Maréchal Davout, one of Napoleon’s top field generals, and her background is analogous, mutatis mutandis, to N’s own modest minor nobility background).


CJColucci 08.08.19 at 2:21 pm

Zamfir–One of the many weird experiments I would fund if I had the money is to have a classical music concert with a mystery soloist doing one of the warhorse violin concerti. The mystery soloist would actually be the second-best violinist in the orchestra, performing behind a screen. I’d then poll the audience and the critics to get their reactions, their satisfaction with the performance, their guesses as to which Big Name soloist it might be, and the like.


engels 08.08.19 at 4:48 pm

What Harry (#36) said.


DCA 08.08.19 at 5:29 pm

I’ll reinforce that the point is being missed by examples from the low side, such as McNamara’s Folly (which I’ve read). The issue is whether there is, in most areas, a 0.01% of people who make a big difference to the success of an organization–or could you do just as well with the best 5% and better design? I’d also emphasize the organization part: in solo activities (language learning, musical performance, mathematics) there really are prodigies whose brains just happen to be wired exceptionally well for that activity (Mozart, Ramanujan, George Green). But that has little, maybe nothing, to do with the issue raised in the post.
[NB “best” means “viewed as exceptionally good at X by other observers”. IQ may correlate for some of this, but trying to capture human abilities by a single variable is folly].


Zamfir 08.08.19 at 5:57 pm

@CJColucci, that reminds me of the weird position of absolute performance in sports. People put great importance on watching the best athletes, with the fastest times etc. And this reflects in much more prestige and money for the top performers.

As time goes by, the overall performance trends upwards, and middle of the pack athletes set better performances than old athletes. No one cares, the old athletes keep their glory, and the middle-pack athletes get no where near the attention, prestige or money of the old-time champions. And presumably, if a war or whatever had prevented the current top-10 from playing, people would happily cheer for number 11 as champion.

I assume that a similar effect comes into play for solo violinists. People want to see the stars, not the 2nd rank. But that is not because of something intrinsic in the music. Even if the stars are objectively better, it’s only their relative performance that counts. Imagine away the stars, and now the 2nd rank are the stars, and everyone is still happy.

It’s a general principle whenever competition comes into play. It makes minute differences super important (or even imagined differences), and people obsess over unique talents and anything else that can give that edge inside the system. But the overall system does not need those talents as much – it would function basically the same if everyone was a notch less talented.


Chris Armstrong 08.08.19 at 8:21 pm

Chris, there’s one sort of evidence you could turn to (indeed, which I’m surprised you haven’t turned to!). This is the economic literature on productivity and migration. When you take people from a low-productivity country and send them to a high-productivity country, does the average productivity of the latter go down? Turns out the answer is no. The migrants very quickly become just as productive as the average citizen. This suggests that infrastructure, institutions, social capital, knowledge and perhaps a whole load of other contextual factors are determining individual productivity, rather than any attributes of individuals. That’s grist to your mill, I would have thought.


dbk 08.08.19 at 10:40 pm

“…so we still need an explanation for the outliers.”

Malcolm Gladwell’s book (I know, he’s not fashionable with the intellectual in crowd, but still) “Outliers” is pretty interesting on this point.

One thing he notes is that “mastery” of a given field, assuming talent and opportunity, seems to demand a minimum of 10,000 hours invested in gaining said mastery.

Anecdotally, I returned to studying piano after 40 years some time ago, and invested around 2,000 hours over the course of 2 years. The results were pretty impressive – even though I have no innate musical ability.


Steve 08.08.19 at 11:40 pm

I worry that part of the problem here lies in the sheer impossibility of picking apart nature (talent) and nurture (institutions). My parents were both teachers and after they retired spent some time helping out at a local primary school: both were astonished (and saddened) to realise that, even by the age of 6 or 7, kids from poorer households were already less likely to have focus and concentration than kids from (slightly) better-off households. I feel as if I have seen something similar across my entire life: I went to a very socially-diverse school and knew some kids who went on to be surgeons or university lecturers, others who went on to work in dead end jobs. The key difference wasn’t innate intelligence or even interest, but just an ability to stick at it. Again, I doubt that this is innate, so much as formed through early experience, which is, itself, structured by the socio-economic order. All of which is a long winded way of saying ‘institutions’!


J-D 08.09.19 at 1:08 am


well this thread is taking a bizarre turn. Lots of lefties arguing that IQ is a measure of innate talent (but we will pass on racial distributions at this point), and a right-wing troll like me is abut to argue that IQ is a meaningless measure, but …

No, that’s not true. Only one commenter here has mentioned IQ as if it’s a measure of innate talent. I don’t know whether quanticle is a lefty, but quanticle is certainly not ‘lots of lefties’.


John Quiggin 08.09.19 at 1:53 am

Chris @61 “When you take people from a low-productivity country and send them to a high-productivity country, does the average productivity of the latter go down? Turns out the answer is no. The migrants very quickly become just as productive as the average citizen. “

It’s slightly more complicated than that. AFAIK, the results are conditional on the education level of the migrants. That is, migrants rapidly become as productive as locals with the same education level.

More generally, a lot of the discussion above seems off-point in relation to migration. Except maybe for certain sports where talent is evident at an early age, migration policy can’t select for or against innate talent as distinct from skills acquired through education.

Finally, it’s clear that the effects of migration are massively greater for the migrants themselves than for non-migrants in either the source or the destination country. This fact creates a high ethical bar for those who want to give priority to the concerns of non-migrants.


Omega Centauri 08.09.19 at 4:23 am

If you are comparing economic performance at the country level, then talent matters and so do institutions. And its possible for a country to do well in generating local talent and poorly in using it -or vice versa. A good example of the former is Nigeria, which generates large numbers of highly educated individuals, but gets failing marks in providing them opportunity. The opposite extreme might the the US, where our graduate schools, and tech industries are stocked with highly educated immigrants. Interestingly, my Algerian/French friend remarks makes the point that Germany is run by Germans, but the US and the other advanced European countries are staffed/run by immigrants.

So clearly Germany is balanced in terms of talent generation and talent usage, while many countries are unbalanced. In terms of economic performance the ability to substitute skilled foreign talent is a lifesaver for many.

Like many things, the pyramid model is a useful mental tool. A certain top level of talent can be crucial, but the competence of the much wider lower layers is also crucial. The tip of the pyramid thrives of creativity, the lower layers require basic competence and diligence. And the institutions need to be able to support the entire structure.


nastywoman 08.09.19 at 5:56 am

In conclusion:
I’ve been to Germany too – which, to a greater extent than many other countries (such as my homeland the US), is a functioning and prosperous liberal democracy.

It wasn’t always thus. By the end of the Second World War, Germany had suffered the destruction of its cities and infrastructure, and the death or maiming of a good part of its population and the US (America) – very helpful taught the Germans ”how to behave in the future”.

And then Germany was able to recover and outstrip its former adversaries within a very few decades – not so much with individual talent but with a common philosophy of: ”Everything worth doing is worth doing well…” –
while the US -(and the UK) – instead of focusing on such a philosophy got kind of… confused? – as the celebration of ”talented individuals” became far more important than any ”common” (work) philosophy.
AND the YUUUGEST mistake –
by celebrating ”the upper end of talent” – the (supposedly) ”lower end of talent” – the common workers ”work” didn’t get celebrated anymore… (like in Germany) AND that’s why America -(and the UK?) have become ”Predominant Service Economies” and NOT (like Germany) a ”Predominant Production Economy” – and that’ why Germany (still) can focus and has (still) ”a functioning and prosperous liberal democracy” and the US and the UK…
not so much.

Or is this a far – faaar too simplistic conclusion?


nastywoman 08.09.19 at 6:15 am

and about ”immigrants”
”Stuttgart” the city – in a German area where the philosophy of:
”Everything worth doing is worth doing well…” sometimes could be overdone is ”the city of integration”:

”Stuttgart is a diverse and open-minded city that fosters a genuine welcoming culture and cares about treating refugees in a humane way.
Stuttgart follows the so-called “Stuttgart Way”, which is a special strategy characterised by various overlapping measures: Refugees are housed in the suburbs, in all districts where possible, and live in newly built accommodation as well as rented or city-owned properties. Wherever possible, we try to avoid mass accommodation in Stuttgart.
Independent sponsors take care of the refugees’ welfare. Our designated on-site representatives are responsible for the refugees’ social and educational welfare so that people receive the best possible support in the most effective way. This work is supported throughout the city by many local volunteers, who form circles of friends to offer assistance to refugees. Stuttgart attaches great importance to considering the specific needs of the different refugee groups and making sure that they receive basic services in a timely and demand-driven way.
The city is ahead of the game nationally when it comes to offering language courses for every refugee as soon as possible, which we do by using our own municipal resources. Language courses are combined with various measures designed to provide an insight into our working world”.

And thusly a insight into the work philosophy that: ”Everything worth doing is worth doing well…”
-(or did I now overdo it…?)


Chris Bertram 08.09.19 at 6:28 am

@ChrisArmstrong @61 > interestingly, anti-immigration economist Paul Collier builds his case on the new migrants dragging down productivity with their third-world mores! (As you say, there’s no evidence for this.)


nastywoman 08.09.19 at 6:34 am

– and perhaps to illustrate what I really mean – there is this joke in Stuttgart about some… some – let’s say ”Pianist” or ”Prof” in a bar – who talks about his ”talent” and then – from a corner a worker (obvious by his blue outfit) dryly remarks :

”Halt dei Gosch ich schaff beim Bosch”!

– which roughly translates into: Shut up I work at Bosch -(or Porsche or Mercedes Benz)
and didn’t some UK (Rolls) or US (GM) workers – once – say the same thing?


reason 08.09.19 at 7:41 am

As an aside to what I wrote above I should emphasize that I think the term creative destruction is one of the great misdirections of intellectual history. If the term used was correctly destructive creation a lot of damaging memes would have been avoided.

There is a less important sense in which a flattened society is conducive to growth – the lack of vested interests which must enhance innovation. Or in other words, “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”.


Scott P. 08.09.19 at 5:40 pm

that’s why America -(and the UK?) have become ”Predominant Service Economies” and NOT (like Germany) a ”Predominant Production Economy”

United States GDP contributions: Services 80.2%, Industry 18.9%, Agriculture 0.9%
United Kingdom GDP contributions: Services 80.2%, Industry 19.2%, Agriculture 0.6%
Germany GDP contributions: Services 70%, Industry 29.1%, Agriculture 0.9%

Does a 10% difference really make Germany a “Predominant Production Economy”?


divelly 08.09.19 at 7:56 pm

Charlie Parker, possibly the greatest instrumentalist in Jazz history, was glued to his axe 24/7/365 from childhood.
“Excuse me sir, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Practice, practice, practice!”
Wm. Buckley, right twice a day like the stopped(analog) clock said the first few pages of the Boston phone book (Remember those?) would do a better job than Congress.


nastywoman 08.09.19 at 8:48 pm

”Does a 10% difference really make Germany a “Predominant Production Economy”?

No –
not some 10% of such data – just for example the fact that Germany has to exports a lot more of ”the (manufactured) products” the Germans can consume.
(look at the Data of the Trade Plus)

Or – that a whole like ”Bundesland Baden Württemberg” – directly or indirectly -(meaning all the hair-dressers too) – are living from the wealth – which is produced by manufacturing of high quality cars and high quality machinery?
(and do you know – that the crisis of Detroits Car Industry also let to a major crisis in Detroits hair-salons?)

Or – if you are commenting from the US – just check your household –
How much is ‘Made in US’ -(and how much ‘Made in Germany’)

Or in other words: ”United States GDP contributions: Services 80.2%, Industry 18.9%, Agriculture 0.9%” might NOT tell you – that the US is compared to Germany such a ”Predominant Consumer Industry” –
(Attention unfunny Joke!)
– that a lot of very unhappy workers -(in the once flourishing US manufacturing areas) voted for the German Baron von Clownstick as President.


nastywoman 08.09.19 at 9:18 pm

– and @72
for a documentary about ”Made in Germany” – we once looked at quite a few US households – and while in so called ”poor households” nearly everything was
”Made in China”
in so called ”Rich American Households” nearly everything is either ‘Made in Germany’ (mainly the cars and other machinery) – ”Made in France” -(Fashion and Fashion related products) or/and – ”Made in Italy” (the Gucci bags and the Coffee Machines)

(and the point that US might be still Nr. 1 in the production of weapons and planes – shouldn’t count – as those are more ‘consumer bads’ as ‘consumer goods’)


nastywoman 08.09.19 at 9:32 pm

– and if I may add – and as I like London so tremendously – would it be okay to say that London has a ‘Predominantly Banking Service Economy’ as even if we are at our favourite Italian Restaurant (Tozi) the waiter loves to joke – if just 10% of ”Banking” would leave the city – he might lose his job?

So – just ten percent can mean – a lot?


ph 08.10.19 at 1:32 am

Interesting – talents vary – large numbers of small, nimble fingers come in very handy when multi-national confectioners are looking for cheap labor in dark, distant places. The Wapo reports that the administration is planning to block some chocolate imports from Africa.

Talent becomes effective under particular circumstances – the need for cash makes indenturing their children to chocolate manufacturers the right choice for poor African families. The children themselves miss their chance at an education in many cases. Their talent for doing something other than picking cocoa beans remains untapped.

Choosing to pay 5x the price for a bar of chocolate or a piece of tropical fruit requires a re-evaluation of one’s identity and one’s priorities. Choosing to focus on the sins of the past, or perceived sins of the present is a much cheaper and preferable option for many. The talent for self-deception is integral in most modern economies.

In informal discussions with my own students, as talented as any I know, not one would be willing to stop eating chocolate to improve conditions for indentured children working for multi-nationals in Africa today. Pay 5x as much for access to chocolate? Forget it.

The good news is that we do see some very talented people in institutions and governments who do understand the problem of under-utilizing the talents of the majority on the lower end of the economic-scale. The bad news is that many couldn’t care less. How many consumers wonder why bananas and chocolate are so inexpensive?

That kind of willful ignorance is a feature of a particular kind of talent.


Barry 08.10.19 at 1:42 am

Chris Bertram 08.09.19 at 6:28 am

” @ChrisArmstrong @61 > interestingly, anti-immigration economist Paul Collier builds his case on the new migrants dragging down productivity with their third-world mores! (As you say, there’s no evidence for this.)”

As the saying goes, lazy immigrants living off of welfare while simultaneously taking our jobs.


nastywoman 08.10.19 at 10:55 am

”In informal discussions with my own students, as talented as any I know, not one would be willing to stop eating chocolate to improve conditions for indentured children working for multi-nationals in Africa today”.

Aren’t you teaching in Japan?

And I’m shocked – as all the German ”Fridays for Future” students I know – would be willing to stop eating chocolate to improve conditions for indentured children – like helping them NOT to have to work for multi-national corporations in Africa today?


Ivo 08.10.19 at 1:54 pm

Rob@50 asked ‘Is there even one kind of “talent”?’ but subsequently did not answer that very good question to my satisfaction, discussing only meta-talents.

If each person could have only one talent, the world would be as sad as when there was only one partner suited for you to spend your life with. It’s a kind of naturalistic fallacy, thinking ‘one’ is somehow special and more likely.

Let’s assume each person has a talent for at least a dozen different occupations. If circumstances demand that everyone gets redistributed into jobs and the redistribution happens in an effective way, such that everyone gets one of the jobs for which they have a talent, then it will seem like talent doesn’t matter, when in fact talent was exactly what determined the most effective redistribution into the jobs that were available and necessary.


otpup 08.10.19 at 4:14 pm

Does a 10% difference really make Germany a “Predominant Production Economy”?
@Scott P, @nastywoman

That 10% means that Germany more than 50% larger manufacturing sector in relative terms, which translates roughly into 50% more well paying blue collar jobs, 50% technical/engineering jobs which fall into that category (rather than being counted as “services”). And some portion of the service sector produces demand for a portion of the manufacturing workforce. So yeah, the social effects (income equality, job security, etc) could be quite significant.
Also I would have to think the ability of an economy to innovate or adapt to new circumstances is probably inversely proportional to the relative size of the financial services industry.


otpup 08.10.19 at 4:18 pm

@78 Just for accuracy’s sake, both are possible, especially given a larger immigration stream. Not saying that it is necessarily true at any particular moment.


bianca steele 08.10.19 at 9:06 pm

There are really two questions regarding talent, I think. One is whether the the people identified as “talented” can be replaced efficiently. The other is whether criteria other than “talent” can be made critical. If “talent” matters, and talent is found across class and racial groupings, then efficiency calls for equality. If talent doesn’t matter, then excluding women, nonwhites, the children of workers, and Muslims is perfectly efficient. Of course, one can define “talent” so that it encompasses “non merit related” qualities, so that he problem disappears.

Then what is meant by “institutions”? Imagine one organization in which everybody works individually and is responsible for developing their own individual knowledge and decision making, and a second organization which works in a more social fashion, where the organization takes responsibility for those things. Those require institutions very different from one another, well beyond internal rules and decision making processes.


divelly 08.11.19 at 1:05 am

@ 76
Is the Pareto distribution a real thing?
“Made in Japan” used to mean fish tank treasure chests.


nastywoman 08.11.19 at 5:44 am

– and having to eat a terrible croissant on a Sunday –
(as ”the good baker” is on vacation) –
it might be time to redefine our idea of ”talent” – especially since it needs so little talent to make money as a banker – but so incredible much ”talent” to make a truly good croissant as a baker.


hix 08.11.19 at 6:00 pm

The high industry share of gdp in Germany is not replicable and not necessarily a big achievment. It worked quite well during the last decade under favouralbe circumstances, thats about it. As far as those industrial products are expensive household products bought by rich Americans, their value is mostly that of a status symbol, adding about as much to global societies well being as financial service exports….


ph 08.12.19 at 2:28 am

Recruiting the best:

Canada takes the same “liberal” approach to refugees and immigration.


nastywoman 08.12.19 at 5:42 am

”The high industry share of gdp in Germany is not replicable and not necessarily a big achievment”.

Yes – the big achievement is to provide a lot of jobs which pay living wages and which on top of it also give the workers a sense of pride – that’s the achievement the terrible US job (Predominant Service and Consumer Economy) job market doesn’t provide.


nastywoman 08.12.19 at 6:10 am

– and I think the topic of this post is/was:
”Does talent matter”? –
and the fact that ”the talent” of often ignored so called ”simple workers” still matters a lot in a country – which still has a functioning and prosperous liberal democracy – is adding a lot more to global societies well being as financial service exports…

As we once helped Chinese and US and even a UK Camera Team which tried to find out ”how it’s all connected” – and perhaps it would global societies if global academia would try to find out too?


nastywoman 08.12.19 at 6:30 am

– or why not mentioning ”the talent” of the supposedly ”utmost successful and competitive economy of this world” – which, to an even greater extent than Germany is a functioning and prosperous liberal democracy.

And do you guys know – that Switzerlands ”functioning and prosperous liberal democracy” is still based on the Zunftsystem?

(translated via google)
”As guilds – from the Old High German meaning “too modest” – one refers to the estates of artisans, as they have emerged since the Middle Ages for the protection of common interests and existed until the 19th century, in certain regions (for example in Switzerland) to today.
The guilds formed a social and economic system for regulating supplies of raw materials, employment, wages, prices, sales volumes and widowhood. Guilds sometimes included several occupational groups. According to the medieval tradition, the outer signs were coats of arms, guild symbols and clothing, depending on the guild order.
The guilds dictated production methods to their members to secure qualities. Although they prevented overproduction, they prevented the introduction of new, more productive, possibly less harmful production techniques. They guaranteed their members a befitting, so “just” income. Consumers were guaranteed a stable price-performance ratio by eliminating price competition – but at a high price level.

And this type of ”talent” still matters very much.


SusanC 08.12.19 at 7:56 am

@52: in science research, hiring someone who can sucessfully manage your lab (or division of lab) is way harder than hiring a world-class scientist. The pool of adequate individuals is really small, even given an almost unlimited budget. (Having seen close up some instances of almost infinite budget being made available).

[*] i think I’d better not name names here, but “infinite budget” narrows the list of candidates for which organization I’m thinking of. (It wasn’t DARPA).


Moz of Yarramulla 08.12.19 at 10:58 am

Surely observing the performance of Germany since the formation of the EU is more like observing the performance of California “the world’s fifth largest economy” and wondering at its hugeness and productivity? Comparing that to an actual country is missing the point – the “German economy” is part of the larger EU economy and I suspect can’t reasonably be separated from it.

Which leads me to the idea that talent is like experise, and as with the “talent” for being tall and black, it’s not evenly distributed but equally it’s not necessarily distributed as you might expect (pro sports people disproportionately have few other career paths open). But both talent and experise move or are moved to places that can afford to pay for them, so observing the final distribution of talented people in institutions is a bit like looking at Germany just after WWII and wondering why there are so few rocket scientists. What you’re seeing is a mishmash of who values talent, who can identify it, who can put people in places where their talents stand out (Einstein was apparently not outstanding as a patent examiner) and so on.


mpowell 08.12.19 at 5:27 pm

Just to return to the assumption of the OP – why are we making the assumption that the German population surviving at the end of WWII had a different average talent level than the pre-war average? Yes, individuals are lost, but how are group averages impacted? And whatever combination of genes, culture and environment gave rise to adult cohorts in 1939, why do we expect a different result for the cohorts coming of age post 1945?

There is plenty to discuss here, but the original example seems very strange and not particularly relevant. Maybe I am missing something about known patterns of German loss of life during the war.

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