Thursday, October 21, 2010

Part 1: What's Wrong with America's Elites?

I had meant to take this up rather later, after addressing schools, but the Economist's Schumpeter blog has been writing on the subject so it seems current.

There is currently a very strong current of anti-elitism in America.  While much of this seems to me unjustified, I don't believe all of it is.  The problem with any elite is that it will necessarily set the conditions of success in a way that self-perpetuates itself, even if not necessarily consciously so.  This is a problem because it leads to a lack of diversity of viewpoint and selects people that match the profiles of the existing elite more than they do the needs of the current society.  This of course isn't entirely avoidable though I do think recognizing it and mitigating the effects of this is within the capacity of the human animal.

In America, the particular quality that bothers me about the elite is its complete intolerance of failure, at least failure early in life.  While I don't disagree that the elite is composed of extremely talented people from extremely diverse origins, it's remarkable the extent in which the elite's background is similar once they are past their origins.  Pretty much invariably it consists of over-achiever in high school, remarkable college record followed by elite college education, and topped off with a pretty smooth progress up the career ladder.

What you don't see is someone becoming part of the elite after, self-educating themselves and doing odd jobs including as a ferryman until reaching 24 (Lincoln), resigning from law school to chase women around France not attaining a serious position until the ripe old age of 32 (Bismarck), or years of being unable to find a teaching position followed by years of low level government employment (Einstein).  These are just the first three to occur to me, previously it seemed less uncommon for someone to rise to prominence later in life.  We still allow this in the arts and a few other places, but few that are important in politics or other influential posts have these kinds of backgrounds.  Not that such men were ever common but the system that selects the elite seems far more unforgiving of failure, and later redemption, than it ever did in the past.

This, of course, is at a time when most of us expect to go through many jobs in our life and when education has become more important than ever but difficult to access at elite levels if the standard path of elite preparation is not followed.  There is an appearance that it has become very difficult to join the elite unless you are young, and either privileged, or dedicated enough, to be able pay dues in the form of unpaid internships or other activities that stand out from the crowd.  A brilliant mind that led a distracted youth would have little chance today of joining the elite if they had spent their youth chasing women around the country working odd jobs, well unless they happened to be doing this in Asia or Africa. 

This matters for two reasons.  First of all, it neglects a large part of the talent pool.  There are a lot of people that went on to be very successful despite dissolute youths, it is very hard for these individuals to break into the elite today (unless of course the parents are well connected, which would have been a requirement earlier as well, still it is the less well off that seem to me more likely to fall into this category than the ones that grew up with natural role models for the modern elite).  Second, this leads to too many people in positions of power that haven't experienced the kinds of hardships common in the adult lives of Americans.  It may be true they faced deprivation when they were young.  But did they have the experience of not being able to find a job or of having to work for years outside their field?  How about switching career paths in mid-life?

This of course shouldn't be an insurmountable problem.  There are other ways of choosing elites.  Consciousness of this could lead to a greater focus on giving people a second chance at education and making it easier to attend college while raising a family (extending unemployment benefits as long as someone is attending college would be a good first start).  More means of acquiring needed certifications would help.  In general, the problem isn't with the elites we are getting now, most of them are great people, the problem, and the resentment, is there are a lot of ways that someone worthy can be excluded.  Admitting this, and dealing with it, would at least help mitigate the resentment Americans are feeling.

Of course, on a purely symbolic level, appointing someone to a prominent position that didn't get their degree till later and that experienced significant bouts of unemployment would probably help quite a bit.  There may be someone like this in the administration but if so, they are doing little to promote the fact

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