February 22, 2013

AMERICA’S NEW MANDARINS: The paths to power and success are narrowing. So is the worldview of the powerful.

All elites are good at rationalizing their elite-ness, whether it’s meritocracy or “the divine right of kings”. The problem is the mandarin elite has some good arguments. They really are very bright and hard-working. It’s just that they’re also prone to be conformist, risk averse, obedient, and good at echoing the opinions of authority, because that is what this sort of examination system selects for.

The even greater danger is that they become more and more removed from the people they are supposed to serve. 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. I once had it suggested to me by a wonk of my acquaintance that I should write an article about how working class places I’ve worked usually had one or two verbally lightning-fast guys who I envied for their ability to generate an endless series of novel and hilarious one liners to pass the time. I said I’d take it under advisement, but what on earth would one title such an article? . . .

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.

In fact, I think that to some extent, the current political wars are a culture war not between social liberals and social conservatives, but between the values of the mandarin system, and the values of those who compete in the very different culture of ordinary businesses–ones outside glamor industries like tech or design. . . . Almost none of the kids I meet in Washington these days even had boring menial high school jobs working in a drugstore or waiting tables; they were doing “enriching” internships or academic programs. And thus the separation of the mandarin class grows ever more complete.

Read the whole thing. It’s particularly interesting when read next to this new piece by Angelo Codevilla.