The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Our Homogenous Elite

Posted on | February 22, 2013 | 45 Comments

If you’ve spent much time around the Washington, D.C., political establishment, you know how rare it is to encounter anyone there who might be what folks down home would call “a character.” Colorful people with interesting tales to tell — and interesting ways of telling them — are not common among Capitol Hill staffers, advocacy-group administrators, think-tank “senior fellows” and so forth.

D.C. is overcrowded with straight-A students, valedictorians, and every other type of book-smart goody-two-shoes who ever got beat up for his lunch money in grade school. Even newsrooms, once a bastion of motley hell-raisers and assorted eccentrics, are relatively tame collections of apple-polishing honor students in D.C.

You only notice this, however, if you come to D.C. after having worked somewhere else. I had more than a decade of small-town journalism under my belt before I came to Washington in 1997, so I noticed the weird conformity of the place, the general sameness of background that typifies bureaucratic personalities. However, most of the apparatchik class have never worked anywhere else: They interned in D.C. while in college, came to work in Washington immediately after graduation, and therefore lack any useful perspective on what life is like outside the bubble. Megan McArdle has a long essay on the subject today:

Since I moved to Washington, I have had series of extraordinary conversations with Washington journalists and policy analysts, in which I remark upon some perfectly ordinary facet of working class, or even business class life, only to have this revelation met with amazement. . . .
Then there was the time I responded to the now-standard lament that graduates of elite schools tend to gravitate to banking and consulting by pointing out that traditional management rotation programs frequently involve less-than-glamorous stints in line jobs; one of my friends from business school ended up running a call center for a telecoms firm. Another very smart, very wonky person who I deeply respect argued that this was an idiotic misuse of an elite MBA, for both the company and the MBA. Which is just 100% wrong. It is not a waste to have a smart, well-educated person in telecoms management. And senior executives at a telecom should have run a call center, or done something very similar: that’s where you learn to understand your customers, and the core challenges of your business.
But many of the mandarins have never worked for a business at all, except for a think tank, the government, a media organization, or a school–places that more or less deliberately shield their content producers from the money side of things. There is nothing wrong with any of these places, but culturally and operationally they’re very different from pretty much any other sort of institution. I don’t myself claim to understand how most businesses work, but having switched from business to media, I’m aware of how different they can be. . . .

Read the whole thing, because if she hasn’t hit the nail squarely on the head, Megan has certainly come very close to capturing the nature of the strange insularity in environments where, unless you have a certain degree from one of a handful of super-elite schools, don’t even bother applying. In other words, if you weren’t on the academic fast-track by seventh grade, or if at any time since seventh grade you stepped off the treadmill of hyper-achievement, there are certain positions which no amount of native smarts or hard work — or even any of the manipulative strategic-friendship tactics euphemistically called “networking” — can ever enable you to reach. If you didn’t graduate from Harvard/Yale/Princeton and land a certain job right out of school . . . Well, you can’t get there from here.

And this explains the homogeneity: All of the people in elite environments got there by jumping through the same set of hoops, and this has the effect of eliminating non-conformists.

Back in the day when Megan McArdle wrote for The Atlantic Monthly, I pointed out that she was practically the only one there who didn’t have Harvard on her resumé. Her background is Penn and U. Chicago, both top-notch schools, but . . . not Harvard.

IYKWIMAITYD.

Look, most people would think of a D.C.-based journalist like Dave Weigel as a certified member of the elite. Weigel attended Northwestern University, which has a highly-regarded journalism school and where annual tuition is $43,380. And yet, by D.C. standards, Weigel is a blue-collar plebian. He didn’t go to an Ivy League school, and thus is unlike Matthew Yglesias (Harvard), Ross Douthat (Harvard), and Josh Marshall (Princeton). Perhaps the greatest mystery in D.C. journalism is how Ezra Klein became godfather of the Juice Box Mafia despite having attended lowly UCLA.

Is the homogeneity of the elite a problem? Is there anything, policy-wise, that can or should be done to remedy it?

Well, as a proud alumnus of Jacksonvile (Ala.) State University, it would be an honor to be asked to address such lofty questions by anyone in a position to pay me to answer it, or who might have the influence to give my answer any practical effect. As it is, however, answering the Big Picture questions is above my pay-grade, and it would be ridiculously pretentious for me to think otherwise.

What I can do is to describe the situation, or at least call your attention to those who describe it as well as does Megan McArdle:

As I say, the mandarins are in many senses deserving: they work very hard, and they are very smart. But there is one important thing they do not know, which is what it is like to be anyone except a mandarin. . . .
[T]he people entering journalism, or finance, or consulting, or any other “elite” profession, are increasingly the children of the children of those who rocketed to prosperity through the postwar education system. A window that opened is closing. The mandarins are pulling away from the rest of America. . . .

Like I said, read the whole thing. (Annual tuition at Penn is $39,088.)

 

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Comments

  • Steve Skubinna

    Crap. I first read your headline as “Our Homunculus Elite.” What a disappointment to reread it correctly.

  • http://profiles.google.com/rob5136 Rob Crawford

    “As I say, the mandarins are in many senses deserving: they work very hard, and they are very smart.”

    They do? They are?

    Where’s the evidence? Being clever at corruption and lusting for totalitarian rule is not sufficient. Show me something they’ve done well.

    (All our military and technological wonders? They are not the product of Ivy League brains, but of the educated.)

  • http://twitter.com/ChuckCJohnson Charles C. Johnson

    This is so true.

  • http://twitter.com/wjjhoge WJJ Hoge

    And then there are the folks who actually make stuff. Engineers. The best engineers I’ve worked with haven’t come from MIT or CalTech. They’ve come from schools like Tuskegee, Ball State, New Mexico A&M, and Cal Poly.

  • http://twitter.com/LibertySeeds Aube Rouge

    Centralization institutionalizes ignorance. It’s been known since the 50s by those outside the bubble.

  • Wombat_socho

    In a just world, everyone would be talking about Megan McArdle, while Andrew Sullivan would be languishing in poverty-stricken obscurity.

  • A Federal Employee

    As a Federal employee who works VERY FAR outside the Beltway (and thankful for that), I experience this mandarin effect routinely. We are second guessed on local conditions, lambasted over our decisions, and have our recommendations ignored … … … because the wonks in the head shed know better.

    They may work hard … … … but only because they seldom trust the folks in field, are micro managers, don’t understand their jobs (I am quite serious), or (to be fair) have their hands tied by political machinations in their agency, by Congress, or the White House.

    I’ve seen this firsthand. Worse, I’ve seen this exported outside the Beltway. I mind me one person hired by the DC Wonks right out of college, and sent to work in a regional office, telling us field types what to do.

    With ZERO EXPERIENCE in the job. Nada, zip, none. No formal training, not even in college — i asked. Yet this person could do no wrong, thanks the DC Wonks. This person remains employed, in the same job, and has demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of virtually every project we’ve worked on together. Nor am I the only person who thinks so. Others have experienced this person incompetence as well … … …. outside this agency. “Damaged goods” is to kind by half.

    Yet this person remains protected by the DC Wonks to this day. Meagan needs to experience the impacts from these mandarins before offering the benefit of the doubt. “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

  • http://www.leftbankofthecharles.com/ Charles

    Anthony Weiner attended the State University at Plattsburg, which both proves and disproves your point.

  • http://twitter.com/dustbury Charles G Hill

    I’ve never had a glamorous job in my life. Probably why I can still pass for sane at this age.

  • somefeller

    Lots of people talk about Megan McArdle. Most of such people wouldn’t associate with the people who write for this blog, however. But I’m sure Robert Stacy McCain can tell you about poverty-stricken obscurity.

  • CPAguy

    Terrific post and article.

  • http://evilbloggerlady.blogspot.com/ Evi L. Bloggerlady

    Well said Wombat. Well said. Although, if you ask normal people about Sully, very few know who he is. The blogosphere is big, but it is not that big, and it is very much ghettoized.

  • http://evilbloggerlady.blogspot.com/ Evi L. Bloggerlady

    Well somefeller, that was rather douchey.

  • http://evilbloggerlady.blogspot.com/ Evi L. Bloggerlady

    There are damn good engineers from MIT and CalTech, but they are equally good ones from the schools you listed (and I would add almost all State Universities with engineering programs, etc.). Engineering is rigorous and (thank goodness) objective. There is no faking it or BSing it like there is in many BA programs.

  • http://evilbloggerlady.blogspot.com/ Evi L. Bloggerlady

    You don’t think that played a role in how his own turned on him?

  • HMSLion

    Which is the Great Truth that will bring down the Mandarins.

    They aren’t the best. Aren’t the brightest. Merely the best connected.

  • Wombat_socho

    I do believe I’m going to take it personally. So long, loser.

  • http://evilbloggerlady.blogspot.com/ Evi L. Bloggerlady
  • http://wizbangblog.com/ Adjoran

    Yeah, I ride you guys hard, but he was over the top (or under the bottom).

  • http://wizbangblog.com/ Adjoran

    Your point is well made, but in fairness to McArdle, she said they were smart and worked hard, not that they actually accomplished anything positive.

  • FOAF

    Thank you ELB :^)!

  • http://wizbangblog.com/ Adjoran

    The whole concept of “elite” schools and programs is counter to the basic theory of capitalism: that the most accurate decisions are aggregates of multitudes of small decisions, made by all sorts of people in their own self-interests.

    Which may account for the disdain for capitalism among the elites, come to think of it . . .

  • FOAF

    … followed up by the world’s tiniest violin.

  • http://wizbangblog.com/ Adjoran

    The main difference between engineering and other “hard sciences” and the liberal arts is that it asks specific questions which require exact answers whose accuracy is verifiable.

    In the liberal arts the only “correct” answers are the ones the professor (or TA) wants to hear. And across hundreds of schools and faculties, oddly enough, subjective as it is, that answer is almost always the same.

  • http://deadcitizensrightssociety.wordpress.com/ rmnixondeceased

    In order to have class warfare, there must be rigorously enforced classes. This is a stratification witnessed in European society all through history and under all forms of central government. We are screwed. The plutocrats only listen to their echo chamber, totally insulated from reality.

  • Cube

    While I agree with what you said, there are many good people in the bureaucracy – I’ve worked with some. They are the reason anything gets done right at all. The system they have to work within really sucks though, partly for the reason you mention.

  • PhillyCon

    Dare I say it? Ms. McCardle is writing a corollary of Codevilla’s country class thesis. Don’t tell her.

  • A Federal Employee

    The good people are generally not the people who rise to the top and have a hand in setting policy. They are the ones who are in constant damage control thanks to the cluelessness of the DC Wonks.

    I fear that damage control is not enough to save our country.

  • PineBaroness

    Interesting post…there is another word for these mandarins – snobs, intellectual, elitist snobs!

  • Quartermaster

    Places like MIT and Cal Tech are not known for their under grad programs, all though they have them. Their names were made by their grad schools. Many states have the situation I encountered in Tennessee. If you wanted a BA degree in Engineering that meant something and you had the money, you went to Vanderbilt. If you didn’t have the money, you went to Tennessee Tech. The two places were of about equal quality in the early 70s. If you wanted to be part of a well connected Alumni association, then you went to UT Knoxville. BY law, UT Knoxville is a Research University and has a good grad program. But, it has a mediocre undergrad program.

    If you just wanted a piece of paper and didn’t care where it came from, there was always Memphis State. Vanderbilt’s under grad program is now down on the same level with UTK and Memphis.

    The objectivity among department heads in Engineering, however, is flagging. There is an idiot at UNC Asheville that loves Gender Studies and wants his students to take some of their electives. If you are familiar with the UNC, Chapel Hell, then you need to realize that moonbat attitude is metastisizing through the UNC system, even in Engineering.

  • Quartermaster

    Do you think she might suicide if she realized she was committing truth?

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    It will bring them down eventually, true, but they’ll be around long enough to do quite a bit of damage.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    Thank you.

    Use this link instead so that it autoplays:

    http://sadtrombone.com/?play=true

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    It isn’t – it’s merely, ultimately, a holding action.
    I am in a similar situation – have been for over twenty-five years – and what I’ve learned [the hard way] is to make these dingbats think that your idea is their idea.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    One of the positive things we can say about you, TD, is that you always understood and despised the Elites.

  • http://thecampofthesaints.org Bob Belvedere

    Intellectual Elitist dingbat snobs – because they don’t possess any useful smarts or any real creativity.

  • http://www.michellesmirror.com/ MOTUS

    Many of the Mandarins excell at academics because they are really good at memorizing things. For some reason knowing a lot of facts makes people think you are smart. But if memorizing things made you smart, than the country would be run by actors. Oh wait…that’s right; we are.

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  • http://deadcitizensrightssociety.wordpress.com/ rmnixondeceased

    Justifiably so as it turns out.

  • Wombat_socho

    Saved for the next deserving schmuck.

  • Wombat_socho

    No.

  • Quartermaster

    Persactly! There are too many morons with Ph.Ds in the world. Alas, not all those credentialed morons are from Ivy League Schools.