Friday, July 13, 2012

A question for David Brooks:

Isn't a meritocratic elite different from a hereditary elite, in that the leaders of today can't be assured that they'll be the leaders of tomorrow, let alone that their grandchildren will be? Having "a stewardship mentality," knowing you're "privileged," these things don't work in a society where elite status is precarious. Noblesse oblige rests on the confidence that one is, in fact, noblesse. A society with (some) social mobility is one in which there will always be anxiety among those at the top, who know they're in no way entitled to that position.


Miss Self-Important said...

Isn't that an argument in favor of hereditary aristocracy then? If meritocratic aristocracy produces so much personal status anxiety that everyone put in charge of major institutions just takes the money and runs, knowing the opportunity to do so is fleeting and their stake in the institution is tenuous anyway, then the solution is to stop putting such people in charge of institutions and establish hereditary control instead?

Phoebe said...

"Isn't that an argument in favor of hereditary aristocracy then?"

It sure does seem that way. So I guess my question for David Brooks was whether he's essentially arguing for a hereditary aristocracy. The caveats at the end say no, but the essential seems, to me, to say yes.

But the commenters, at least, seem to be missing that there are structural reasons why not all elites are the same. That it isn't (merely) that WASPs had better manners, or that kids these days are bratty. Even if today, social mobility in the U.S. is low, the perception of precariousness is inherent in a system calling itself a meritocracy. Those at the top feel they can't rest easy, which does impact everything down to the tips they leave in restaurants. The reason for all the helicopter parenting or whatever is that this elite doesn't feel confident that its children are guaranteed anything particular.

Miss Self-Important said...

No, I think Brooks is being serious--it's quite possible to quell this anxiety inside oneself in at least temporary ways and to adopt the ethos necessary to execute the position one holds, even if that position is not going to be inherited by your children or even held by you permanently.

I think I feel something like this whenever I teach undergrads - even though I am not personally a tenured professor and so am w/o much security in my position (and I know for certain that even if I stay in academia, I will not stay at the institution I'm now at), when I teach, I represent that institution, and I represent universities generally, and I want these institutions to outlive me. So I try to teach as well as I can, even though this requires that I sacrifice more of my time and energy than if I just saw myself as a sort of mercenary trying to get as much money for as little effort as possible.

That seems to be how most grad students I know approach teaching (give or take). Despite the extreme tenuousness of our personal positions, we have a broader commitment to academia and to universities as certain kinds of institutions that we want to perpetuate, and so we develop an ethos to guard them. I don't see why this same process wouldn't occur in other institutions in the country. Just b/c my position is cosmically insecure doesn't mean that I can't grasp that I have earned (earned!) a position of minor authority within an elite institution, and that this comes with obligations, and that I shouldn't embezzle Harvard's money or ignore all my students' emails and questions just because they haven't offered me a meal ticket for life.

Phoebe said...

Oh, I agree that it's possible to be a precarious/meritocratic elite and still not be entirely self-centered. (Although, re: TAing, part of it is that the teaching is part of your job training, and you're keen to self-improve, not unlike writing papers and the rest.) It's possible to realize your kids may not be whichever class you are or grew up and say, so it goes, they'll probably be just fine. But there need to be checks in place to make sure it isn't a total free-for-all, not because Harvard grad students are in great danger of being insufficiently serious, but because of the kind of stuff Brooks is talking about, ie. financial scandals and the like. One such check - and not one a conservative will probably be too wild about - would be a social safety net, which would make it so that parents could think, yeah, maybe my kid will be an air-conditioner-repairman and not a corporate lawyer like I am, and maybe the snob in me will mind, maybe that wasn't what I'd had in store for him, but he will, in fact, do just fine. As it stands, snobbery is all mixed up with genuine fear that a kid will be truly screwed.

Anonymous said...

I do not agree that people at the top have anxiety becasue they feel they don't beling there. On the contrary they do feel that they belong there.

Phoebe said...


The anxiety isn't that they think they don't deserve their status. They think they've earned their place, albeit with some I-acknowledge-my-cultural-and-economic-capital exceptions. It's that they know their status is not guaranteed, and more to the point, that their kids and grandkids might not have the same place in the world.

Withywindle said...

I'm not sure Americans really did trust their elites in the way back. I know what Brooks means, but I think there was an argument about this all the way back to Gordon Wood's happy Eden of Jefferson and Jackson. And the elites had plenty of insecurities in the days of, oh, Teddy Roosevelt and Henry James. I accuse Brooks of simplifying for journalistic purposes.

Phoebe said...


Maybe not "trust," but I think there's a sense in which elites are taken less seriously, or resented more, if they're not there by birthright, and if everyone in the society feels that but for luck/talent, they too could be in that spot. The pushy go-getter vs. the beleaguered aristocrat who didn't ask for this, but has it all the same. This is important, actually, because it helps explain why, even if old-time WASP elites were just as corrupt/hopeless as meritocrats or more so, they may have gotten more respect.

Miss Self-Important said...

But isn't the desire to be good at what one does as plausible a motivation in investment banking or government as in academia? Don't we want to prove ourselves and be excellent--in the classroom, or in journals--at least as much as young bankers/lawyers/bureaucrats? And can't that drive be mixed in with (or even stem from) a respect for the institutions we're at? I don't really see how it's impossible to put aside our cosmic fears about mobility and the future when we are called on to perform in official capacities. I can still go home after teaching and bite my nails over the academic job market and how terribly people in my program have been faring in it, but this doesn't make it impossible to see that even my anxious present position is an elite, privileged, authoritative one.

About alleviating anxiety through welfare provision - everyone already "knows" that most skilled laborers can make a decent living w/o relying on welfare or gov't programs, at least insofar as these statistics are commonly available. (Maybe this is not common knowledge? Where I grew up, this was known.) But aspirant parents still don't want their kids to be a/c-repairmen or pipe-fitters, b/c there's no status in that. I don't think that knowing that mechanics make $60-$70k a year is going to persuade them NOT to send their kids to SAT prep and violin lessons. You'd need not a bigger social safety net to assuage these parents' anxieties, but to somehow tie receiving welfare to prestige, which I'm not sure is useful or possible. Moreover, I'm not really sure that it's fear that their kids will actually starve to death unless they go to an Ivy League school that drives these parents so much as fear that their kids won't be happy w/o the accouterments of prestige.

Phoebe said...


I don't doubt that there are segments of society with a much better idea of what a pipe-fitter makes than some group of UMC parents in Styles territory. But - as I learned at the non-public school - there is absolutely a sense among the very wealthy that they themselves are "normal," and that anyone less so is a charity case. Part of this has to do with how private schools are organized - a bunch of kids whose families can pay in full, or could until some crisis, and then, on the other hand, an influx of scholarship kids from below-middle-class, actually-poor backgrounds. You can go to one of these schools and never learn that there's any kind of middle class in New York, let alone outside of New York.

But even if we leave misperceptions and snobbery out of it, there are these rather persistant news stories about the End of the Blue-Collar Worker, about how you can no longer just get by with a high school diploma, and how, with the BA the new high school degree, it had better be one excellent BA, or a grad degree, or something. So, while specific skilled trades may be doing fine in any economy, the snooty-class parents who worry their kids may slide aren't just being snooty.

And re: teaching, banking, I think there's an obvious difference, which is that one of these is about the money. I don't think people are assumed to work at a particular bank because they believe in the noble mission of that institution. (Not that they're all secretly socialists who think banks are evil.) Given that, as everyone's happy to point out, money these days is status - there's cultural capital too, but vast sums of money are all that ensure anything gets passed down the generations - it would make sense that things would get more cutthroat where money's involved.

Britta said...

I know plenty of (U)MC parents whose children have become plumbers and electricians and the parents are happy, because their children are gainfully employed doing something the children enjoy. Most of these kids went to elite colleges, but decided, after graduation from Wellesley, that electrician was a better career than some less well paid, more boring white collar work. This is a place where the NYTimes Styles section really doesn't capture the zeitgeist of UMC parents around the US.

A difference between academia and banking is, empirically, regardless of how bankers feel about their work, they have drained as much as they could out of the system for themselves and their friends at the expense of everyone else. For all accounts, every choice was made to maximize short-term profit at the expense of long-term stability and gain. Whether this was purposely done or accidentally done doesn't really matter (I read somewhere that being stupid is almost a worse offense than being evil). AFAIK, there's not been a major shortage of quality teaching in academia, where professors have been milking the system at the expense of their students (and by extension, the parents). If anything, the quality of teaching is a relative constant despite admin's attempts to offer less for more money (higher tuition but more adjuncts and grad student teaching.) I agree that while grad students may be less qualified or experienced than professors, that's often not the case they're worse teachers, and grad students tend to put more into it.

Partly with banking you have the classic principle/agent problem with asymmetries of knowledge and attendant moral hazard, which isn't really the case with teaching. Barring some conspiracy or something going really wrong, teaching evaluations in aggregate can give the school an idea of how good the teacher is.

PG said...

I'm a little doubtful of how beneficent old American elitisms were, given that in the 1960s you could still find old white Southern men insisting that their families had always taken good care of Negroes. If you insist on equality, then built into that is an assumption that everyone ought to be able to look out for themselves, and anyone you look out for is in the position of a child and an inferior. The shrinking and near-disappearance of the concept of unconscionability in contracts -- the concept that either the contract itself is too inequitable, or that the parties are too unequal to bargain fairly -- might even be a metric by which to judge how much we now think everyone ought to be able to look out for himself.

The growth in libertarianism's popularity since the 1970s ties into this too. Actual libertarians were horrified by Cass Sunstein's "libertarian paternalism," in which a populace too busy to evaluate all options would be guided -- but not forced -- to the best ones. (eg having to opt OUT of insurance, retirement savings, etc) Libertarian paternalism requires a benevolent elite, albeit probably one more technocratic than the Groton Class of 1932, that can make an educated guess at what's best for everyone. Even without the fear of corruption (are you setting defaults based on your palm's being greased by insurers and Fidelity 401K managers?), there's the libertarian small-d democrat's distaste for the idea that anyone guides him, a grown-ass man, who is just as good as anyone else.

I was rereading To Kill a Mockingbird recently, and I was struck by something Atticus -- surely one of the heroes of the American elite, of Good Family and also endowed with brains, skill and virtue -- says. He talks about how worthless any white man is who takes advantage of the ignorance of a Negro. Embedded in that is the assumption that Negroes need to be protected from their ignorance, that they are not fit for the rough and tumble of the marketplace, so that it is particularly immoral to take advantage of their ignorance in a way that's not true even for "white trash."

It probably makes someone like Broder uncomfortable to realize this, but I'd bet the South is where pretensions of aristocracy hung on longest and most resistantly, yet they were obviously toxic in many ways. In the New South where all are equal in the struggle for money -- the Faulknerian transition -- there's no clear class system, no one that the good Atticus type of whites are paternalistically looking out for.

I'd add that actual job insecurity, not just a general class insecurity, leads people to be less careful of institutions. If GM or JP Morgan or Skadden Arps might lay me off the moment it would help boost their profits, screw 'em -- why should I be a caretaker for an institution that won't take care of me?

Phoebe said...


"I know plenty of (U)MC parents whose children have become plumbers and electricians and the parents are happy, because their children are gainfully employed doing something the children enjoy."

I... don't. I know plenty of such kids who might have preferred that, but who were steered elsewhere by their parents, parents who are or are not Styles-ish, who did or did not grow up in "elite" circumstances. Maybe there's regional variation? So it goes with anecdata.


"I'd add that actual job insecurity, not just a general class insecurity, leads people to be less careful of institutions."

I think MSI would disagree - she's saying that Harvard grad students, who can be almost assured of not becoming Harvard profs (even if they're in a better spot for that than most anyone else), are nevertheless dedicated TAs. I might agree, though, at least for most cases. I'd add that there's another factor, which is that employees today are often expected to be very publicly rah-rah about their employers, using social media and the like to promote them. Leaving it ambiguous what they actually feel, loyalty-wise.

CW said...

I don't think academia should pat itself on the back too much. Decades of tuition rising faster than inflaction play a major part in the anxiety experienced by the upper middle class. In the state system, that may be driven by decreased public funding, but private colleges are some of the worst offenders. My kids are much more likely to graduate with massive debts, and part of that is the fault of academia.

PG said...

I think MSI would disagree - she's saying that Harvard grad students, who can be almost assured of not becoming Harvard profs (even if they're in a better spot for that than most anyone else), are nevertheless dedicated TAs.

I don't think TAs are a useful example for the phenomenon Brooks is discussing. They are early in their careers and it behooves them in such a competitive job market to do their best because of the need to aggrandize their own reputations, regardless of the institution. There's no option for them to take money and run; they're getting paid minimally now and their rewards are pretty much all in the future and based on their behaving well today. And Harvard students are surely quick to complain if they're feeling underserved. As someone else commented, there's no need to wait for the scandal, the lawsuit and the discovery process to find out whether a TA is not serving the institution well.