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February 23, 2013

Our Homogenous Elite

Posted on | February 22, 2013 | 

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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 apparatchikclass 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.


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.)

From The Other McCain: http://theothermccain.com/

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