So, Jerry Lee Wilson’s autobiography has been making the rounds of the intertubes. (You can download the slim volume here.) Wilson is the inventor of the Soloflex and, more significantly, the infomercial. He’s an interesting case study in just how specific cleverness can be.

The Good

On the one hand, Wilson had some undoubtedly clever ideas. He conceived and tinkered together his exercise machine, and devised a novel form of direct marketing, which together made him a good-sized fortune. He is also, on his own telling, an accomplished pilot. And his writing is not without a certain charm:

That was the year of Kent State. I remember walking in to the Air Mail Facility at Des Moines that night, asking the ten pilots sitting around the table what they thought of it. They all said that more students should have been shot. I was the odd man out again. I felt ashamed at what the Guardsmen had done. I thought it was truly a cowardly act. Maybe the other pilots were just in a sour mood that night. The postal workers were only ten feet away sorting though a huge pile of charred mail from one of our planes that had crashed and burned the night before, killing the pilot. On that point the other pilots and I were in total agreement — better him than us. A few months later Barbara called Marilyn from Chadron to tell her that Lyle had been killed in a plane crash. All the Kime men died flying. His brother had been killed two years earlier in a helicopter that just came apart in the air. Lyle’s dad had killed himself doing loops in a Super Cub. He did them from ground level, bouncing his wheels off the ground at the bottom of each loop. He’d done it perfectly hundreds of times except for the last one.

The Bad

On the other hand, Wilson is, to judge by his writing, either completely insane, coked out of his gourd, or possibly both. He supports the notion that if “[y]ou want real leadership then our answers lie in benevolent dictatorships!”. Or consider this, ah, “novel” view of the modern economy:

I know, you probably think slavery is something that ended long ago, old history. Not so. We are all born slaves in this world. To wit, who is supposed to provide for your food, clothing and shelter, some other guy? Not unless you use force or fraud to compel him. We haven’t escaped slavery; Abraham Lincoln just changed the terms of it.

Today we’re free agent slaves, free to rent our slavery, our labor, to the highest bidder, able to walk off any job without notice or repercussions. Theoretically, employers enjoy the same right, to rent slavery at what is perceived to deliver the best return. I’m no more obliged to rent labor from one person that I am from the next, no more so than I’m required to rent this apartment over that one. As an employer, a slavemaster, I’m obliged to MY master, my customers, to make the best deal possible when renting slaves. If I don’t, competition will drive me out of business.

Have I mentioned how much I hate the modern practice of redefining words into meaninglessness? Then there’s this:

Lunch with the University of Oregon MBA faculty was always fun. I was lecturing there as an “Executive in Residence.” I really enjoyed sharing my experiences with the students but especially with the faculty.

At one lunch I drew out two organizational charts, one of the Holy Roman Empire and one of the American Church of State. …

… The Dean remarked that nobody had ever called him a Monk before and what did I mean by Church of State. I reminded him of the flowing purple and red ecclesiastical robes and hats the faculty wears at graduation and of the military always being represented on stage and of the prayers always offered and even the graduates in their priestly robes. What’s not to understand?

I stopped being invited after that. …

I’ll bet. (Incidentally, kinda casts doubt on the worth of a U of O MBA, doesn’t it?)

The Point

It’s amazing just how little correlation there is between cleverness in one area and perspicacity in another, or general intelligence, or wisdom. The human mind is a very complicated thing, and even some quite extraordinary ones aren’t worth a damn outside of very narrow fields. (I’m looking at you, Paul Krugman!)

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