The Other McCain

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

Freddie deBoer, ‘Elite Overproduction’ and the Inevitability of Competition

Posted on | March 12, 2023 | No Comments

Is Freddie deBoer part of the ‘elite’?

One aspect of my personality that most people don’t usually “get” is that I am intensely competitive by nature. The reason this trait is invisible is because, over the years, I found it advantageous to conceal it. “Never let ’em see you sweat” was my philosophy, and I made a point of appearing jocular, happy-go-lucky, a clownish scatterbrain whose success was mysterious because I didn’t even seem to be trying to succeed.

This posture of fake humility (because I am, in point of fact, arrogant as all hell) was modeled after a TV character, Detective Columbo.

With his rumpled overcoat, unkempt hair, ever-present cigar and low-energy vibe, Detective Columbo did not seem like a crime-solving genius. He didn’t seem to be interrogating suspects. He was just asking questions, many of which seemed irrelevant to the murder case under investigation, and the villain would think he was going to get away with his crime up until the point where — at the end of the interview, as Columbo was about to leave — he’d say, “Just one more thing . . .”

This is what’s known in card games as “sandbagging,” underbidding your hand, luring the opponent into error with the illusion of easy victory.

What you learn from watching Detective Columbo is the value of being underestimated in any competitive situation. If you’re really good at what you do, there’s no need to brag and boast in an effort to impress people with how good you are — your work will speak for itself. And your success will be all the more enjoyable because people will be surprised when you succeed: “How did this bumbling slob of a policeman manage to solve the murder?” Meanwhile, amongst the intelligentsia . ..

“Why So Many Elites Feel Like Losers” is the title of a recent essay by Freddie deBoer, who ponders the roots of an odd resentment:

The concept of “elite overproduction” has attracted a lot of attention in the past several years, and it’s not hard to see why. Most associated with Peter Turchin, a researcher who has attempted to develop models that describe and predict the flow of history, elite overproduction refers to periods during which societies generate more members of elite classes than the society can grant elite privileges. Turchin argues that these periods often produce social unrest, as the resentful elites jostle for the advantages to which they believe they’re entitled.

The key word here is “entitled.” What is involved in such an attitude of entitlement has to do with background, ambition and expectations. Most students at elite universities come from affluent backgrounds. Their parents are usually college-educated professionals, and the offspring of such families are expected to follow a similar career trajectory,  to emulate and hopefully exceed their own parents’ success. Highly intelligent, they are recognized as top students at an early age, chosen for “gifted” classes in elementary school, put onto the academic fast-track of honors classes in high school, and steered toward highly selective universities — the Ivy League, Northwestern, Stanford, etc. — where merely being admitted to the freshman class is a prestigious honor.

These youth are repeatedly told by their parents and teachers, like the chorus in Greek tragedy, that there is no limit to their future achievements. Nothing is beyond their reach, they are assured, and their experience of scholastic achievement — valedictorian, admitted to a very selective university — gives them no reason to doubt this prophesy of success. Their ambition is boundless. They expect to win.

Well, the freshman class at Harvard is nearly 2,000 kids, and the freshman class at Yale is over 1,500, and there simply aren’t enough chairs at the table of Ivy League greatness to accommodate every clever freshman who wants a seat. It is proverbial that the hardest part of graduating from Harvard is getting admitted to Harvard — well over 95% of freshmen eventually get their diploma — but then what? Harvard, Yale, Duke, NYU — go on down the list of elite universities, total up their graduating classes, and you realize that the top 20 schools are cranking out something over 30,000 “elite” graduates every year. Some of them are trained in fields like engineering or banking where their degrees will automatically qualify them for lucrative employment, but what will become of the liberal arts majors? A degree in English literature from Yale is a more prestigious credential than a similar diploma from a second-tier state university, but it’s still not a coupon that can be automatically redeemed for a big house and a new car.

Elite graduates have won a series of academic competitions — for top grades in high school, then for admission to top universities — which are supposed to qualify them for success, but the competition that actually matters doesn’t begin until after you get your diploma and go out into that terra incognita that undergrads call “the Real World.”

This is where the problem of “elite overproduction” becomes apparent. Every competition produces winners and losers, and many of the people we may think of as winners in the game of life are actually haunted by feelings of disappointment. They haven’t achieved as much as they hoped to achieve in their youth, or their success has been overshadowed by the even greater achievements of their former classmates, or their own success just isn’t as emotionally satisfying as they might wish.

Let’s grab some more from Freddie deBoer:

Elite overproduction has been on my mind because of a condition that, I find, grows more acute over time: the sense that many people, particularly the college-educated and the financially secure, are deeply unsatisfied with their status in society. It’s impossible to quantify these feelings, but I think many would agree with me about a pervasive sense of discontent among people who have elite aspirations and who feel that their years toiling in our meritocratic systems entitles them to fulfill those aspirations. Recent political upheaval has given voice to this unhappiness. I personally am a supporter of a new economic system and the socialist movements that began with Occupy Wall Street. But I also recognize the influence of elite overproduction in those movements; an essential part of their genesis was when graduates of top colleges found themselves unable to get the jobs they thought they deserved after the financial crisis. That anger has only spread and intensified since.

My son Jim was a teenager working construction jobs in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, and found his services in demand, as banks had repossessed a lot of houses that they wanted to re-sell. Jim worked for a contractor whose specialty was doing the kind of renovations that helped make these houses more marketable — upgrading the kitchen and bathrooms, installing new floors, etc. So while “graduates of top colleges” were rioting because they couldn’t “get the jobs they thought they deserved,” my son with a high school diploma was getting overtime hours rehabbing the houses that those college graduates couldn’t afford to buy. The irony is delicious, but the key point is about expectations — people with prestigious degrees expect certain things, and believe they deserve to have what they expect, and this is the source of the “discontent” to which deBoer refers. His observations about the political influence of such discontent are related to what Eric Hoffer observed in The True Believer in the section about “potential converts” to mass movements:

The permanent misfits are those who because of a lack of talent or some irreparable defect in mind or body cannot do the one thing for which their whole being craves. No achievement, however spectacular, in other fields can give them a sense of fulfillment. . . .
The most incurably frustrated — and, therefore, the most vehement — among the permanent misfits are those with an unfulfilled craving for creative work.

This is precisely the group upon which deBoer focuses in his essay:

Creative employment is uniquely valued in our culture, and I have noted an ambient anger about who gets to be a part of it. As someone who’s able to make a comfortable living as a writer, I often come into contact with people who are resentful that they haven’t been afforded the same opportunity. (I try to remind them that, under capitalism, success does not spring simplistically from talent and work ethic.) This resentment also exists in film, television, music… There have never been more people trying to make it professionally through the creation of art and culture, but success remains as elusive as ever.
On one hand, the 21st century would seem to be a strange time for people to feel artistically unfulfilled. After all, never in the history of the world has the capacity to create and reach an audience been more readily or cheaply available. The tools and platforms available for creative expression are vast, varied, and largely free to use. Many of those platforms are home to large audiences. . . .

Think about this. If you’re a musician, there are so many tools available now to help you produce quality recordings at home, and it is so easy to upload your music to Spotify, to create videos and upload them to YouTube, that there can be no excuse for your lack of success. You can no longer say, as frustrated musicians used to do, that you got mishandled by management or screwed over by your recording label. In the 21st-century music world, success is entirely up to you, and this fact only adds to the resentment felt by people who end up as losers in the competition.

What accounts for the self-inflicted misery of the “elites” is their sense of entitlement, the belief that they deserve success and happiness, the expectation that they should win every game they choose to play, which in turn leads them into an envious resentment of anyone who possesses anything that they covet. Think of the absurdity in the fact that Freddie deBoer is an object of envy to his would-be “writer” acquaintances.

It’s not like Freddie is sitting in the lap of luxury, feted at cocktail soirees, flying off to Aspen or Paris to speak at swanky conferences. He has merely found a niche that affords him what he considers a “comfortable living” as an essayist and — as I’m sure he is aware, although his envious acquaintances might not have figured it out — it took him years of patient toil to reach that level of comfort. Fifteen years ago, his living was not nearly so “comfortable,” as he was a mere spare-time blogger with a day job teaching school, but he stuck with it long enough to accumulate a substantial readership, which he was then able to monetize when Substack became a thing. He is the Detective Columbo of political/culture essayists, you might say, a rumpled-coat writer who “won” the competition by dogged determination. “Just one more thing . . .”

What accounts for the spoiled-child tantrums of so many of these “elite” types? The shouting-down of Judge Kyle Duncan at Stanford Law School — what caused that? You can say that “woke” ideology is to blame, but why are law students at Stanford so vulnerable to “wokeness”? Why was it so easy to persuade these elite students that they are victims of oppression, merely because someone disagrees with them?

Most obviously, (a) they weren’t spanked as children, but also (b) they weren’t taught proper sportsmanship. A tough-minded attitude — the ability to maintain one’s poise when suffering the pain of defeat — used to be drilled into the minds of boys: Nobody cares about your hurt feelings.

Our coaches were generally men who had lived through the Depression, and who had fought in World War II or Korea, and they understood what real suffering was. They also understood that the games we were playing were about preparing us for the duties of manhood, which require the ability to endure hardship. Certainly they did not tolerate any boohooing over mere hurt feelings and, indeed, we were taught to sustain physical injury without complaint. “Walk it off” was the general instruction to any player who twisted an ankle or whatever, and I’m sure many of my teammates kept playing despite injuries that nowadays would have had them rushed off to the emergency room for an ultrasound.

Never will I forget the time my nose got busted in a youth football game and I ran to the sidelines with the blood pouring down my face, signaling Coach Chuck Starnes to send in a substitute. Coach Starnes grabbed my jersey, pulled it up and roughly rubbed the blood off my face with it, then yelled: “Now, get back in there!” And so I did, without complaint.

Nearly all adults had that kind of attitude when I was kid. Parents, teachers, coaches — all of them came from hard times, and when they dished out the punishment, we had no choice but to accept it. You couldn’t treat kids that way nowadays without being investigated by the Department of Family Services, but the current regime of mandatory mollycoddling hasn’t improved the lives of young people; on the contrary, the abandonment of corporal punishment has rendered many young people incapable of coping with the unavoidable reality of adulthood, namely that life is a competition, and it takes mental toughness to succeed in any competitive endeavor. The whiny brats at Stanford, who claimed to be suffering “harm” merely because Judge Duncan had been invited to speak on campus, are symptomatic of this lack of mental toughness. Any emotionally healthy young adult ought to be able to tolerate disagreement, but the Stanford Law students who disrupted the judge’s speech are not emotionally healthy. They are sick — warped by privilege, accustomed to having their whims indulged — and unfit for the responsibilities of adult life. What they need is the rough hand of a Coach Starnes to teach them: Nobody cares about your hurt feelings.

In any properly ordered educational institution, the students should never be guaranteed success. The possibility of failure or expulsion is necessary to prevent the sort of puerile misbehavior that the spoiled “elite” students at Stanford Law demonstrated last week. You want to be part of the “elite”? By God, boy, you’d better act the part, then, or else you’re going to get kicked out to make your way in the world without that “elite” diploma to which you think you’re entitled.

After all, if “elite overproduction” is a problem, these whiny brats are not really such precious human commodities. We have a surplus of these emotionally vulnerable young whiners, and universities ought not hesitate to expel them if they can’t behave themselves. Sometimes the solution is so obvious, the intelligentsia can’t see it.