Belmont Club

The Plight of the First Bored

Kenneth Anderson at the Volokh Conspiracy makes the observation that Occupy Wall Street is really about the return of the aristocratic problem of primogeniture, though he calls it the problem of “trendy supply meets trendy demand”. “My point … was to observe that the Occupy movement was in large part about elite intra-class struggle, between an upper tier elite that was (and is) doing pretty well, and a lower tier elite that faces serious pressures and downward mobility.”

Back in the days of the landed aristocracy, when the size of the family wealth pie was fixed to the acreage of the desmain, every aristocrat had the credential but only the first-born actually had the money. “In Western Europe, most younger sons of the nobility had no prospect of inheriting property, and were obliged to seek careers in the Church, in military service, or in government.” The same phenomenon may apply to Occupy, where people in possession of academic credentials find themselves flipping burgers or working as housekeepers. Angry and unwilling to seek careers in the Church or the military, these princelings naturally prefer an expansion of government jobs to keep them in suitable employment.

But it’s a trap.

The problem is that the existence of the elite system itself implies limited room at the top. For what is the sense of having an elite if anyone can join? An elite system is by definition one in which many are called but few are chosen. Anderson argues that by overprinting degrees, the academic gatekeepers have created a whole generation of risk averse elites, where those who have it will fight tooth and nail to keep it; while those who want it but don’t have it, will grovel to whatever extent is necessary to get it.

Glenn’s [Reynolds] piece points toward something that needs much more study and discussion, and impact on policy: the linkage between the crisis in higher education and its business model, on the one hand, and elite formation and reproduction, on the other. That includes the tendencies reinforced by that selection process – not all of which are obvious, but which have large consequences for the way in which our current elites operate …

The system of high school college placement and higher education itself induces fantastic risk aversion, and that is accelerating, in large part on account of grade inflation that leave students in high school (applying to college) and in the university compressed against a top grade – in which there is mostly room to fall and fail. When the median grade in the liberal arts is an A-, you mostly have only to go down and given the cost of the credential and its consequences – well in excess of any educational value in the liberal arts – you will act in the most risk averse, strategic way and take only classes in which you already know you will do at least that well. The analogue of risk aversion in higher education in real life is downward mobility. As the Occupy movement demonstrates, downward mobility is a serious prospect.

To the Marxian idea of the “reserve army of the unemployed” is added the notion of the “reserve army of wannabee elites”. Ironically, calls by the OWS to expand tertiary education — to make it a “right” — and the Presidents stated intention to increase the percentage of college degreed students will have the effect of making the competition even more desperate; and just as those who would fight inflation by printing more money unintentionally make their plight worse, so would the preferred strategy of the current credentialed elites. But it wasn’t always like that. I noted in the previous thread’s comment section on Jeremy Lin that:

Recently I came across the River of Doubt, which tells the story of what Theodore Roosevelt did after the White House.

The River of Doubt—it is a black, uncharted tributary of the Amazon that snakes through one of the most treacherous jungles in the world. Indians armed with poison-tipped arrows haunt its shadows; piranhas glide through its waters; boulder-strewn rapids turn the river into a roiling cauldron.

After his humiliating election defeat in 1912, Roosevelt set his sights on the most punishing physical challenge he could find, the first descent of an unmapped, rapids-choked tributary of the Amazon. Together with his son Kermit and Brazil’s most famous explorer, Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, Roosevelt accomplished a feat so great that many at the time refused to believe it. In the process, he changed the map of the western hemisphere forever.

Along the way, Roosevelt and his men faced an unbelievable series of hardships, losing their canoes and supplies to punishing whitewater rapids, and enduring starvation, Indian attack, disease, drowning, and a murder within their own ranks. Three men died, and Roosevelt was brought to the brink of suicide. …

It’s hard to imagine people doing that today. It would be as if a former US President took off in an experimental spacecraft and went to Mars. He nearly died, and indeed his son believed his father’s time had come. That attitude, I think, represents what an Ivy League education ought to give you: an indomitable amateurism, a kind of duty to yourself and your nation; a Cross you have to carry — as opposed to the airs it often depicted giving those who don’t understand what the Right Stuff is.

Maybe it’s an attitude that’s been lost and perhaps the biggest damage that the modern cult of the elite has inflicted on American culture is to turn it into some kind of Third World class culture where certain endeavors are reserved only for the right people.

The conclusion that, “maybe it’s an attitude that’s been lost and perhaps the biggest damage that the modern cult of the elite has inflicted on American culture is to turn it into some kind of Third World class culture where certain endeavors are reserved only for the right people” was written before reading Andersen’s post, yet on reflection it was making a similar point.

All elitisms run the risk of inbreeding and sterility. The real benefit of a perceived equality among citizens, as driven by the rough and tumble of economic competition, is not only that it expands the wealth pie but also continuously changes the diners at the table. That means that some at the head table may never have the proper politically correct manners, but that is the price of vitality. The problem with socialism and its near cousins is that it places the selection of winners and losers (even if called “industrial policy”) in the hands of the status quo, who quite naturally will put their friends and family first in line.

The actual cost of “fairness” may ultimately be stagnation. The elite cocoon becomes a prison and the path towards a “degree” is transformed into another type of servitude and feudal relation. Is there any way out? Perhaps not without shaking up the elite system. It may be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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