What, Precisely, is the Issue with ‘Elites’? (updated)

Conservatives and libertarians often speak about “elites” in pejorative terms. Why is this? I doubt that many among us would argue in favor of mediocrity (like the senator who famously argued that mediocre people also deserve representation on the Supreme Court) and/or of extreme egalitarianism and social leveling. Indeed, quite a few outspoken conservatives and libertarians could themselves be considered to have elite status in view of their professional, economic, and/or scholarly accomplishments. And people using the E-word rarely make an attempt to clearly defined what category of people they are talking about. (With one major exception that I’ll discuss later in this post)   So what is the critique of elitism all about?

Several factors seem to me to be at work…

1)There is a perception that the multiple ladders of success which have existed in American society are increasingly being collapsed into a single ladder, with access tightly controlled via educational credentials

2)It is increasingly observed that these credentials actually have fairly low predictive power concerning an individual’s actual ability to perform important tasks and make wise judgments about institutional or national issues. The assumption that school-based knowledge generally trumps practical experience seems increasingly questionable as the sphere of activity for which this assertion is made has expanded, and is indeed increasingly viewed with suspicion or with outright disdain.

3)It is observed that people working in certain fields arrogate to themselves an assumed elite status despite the fact that their jobs actually require relatively little in terms of skill and judgment. Ace of Spades cited a history writer on class distinctions in Victorian England:

She noted, for example, that a Bank of England clerk would be a member of the middle/professional class, despite the fact that what he did all day was hand-write numbers into ledgers and do simple arithmetic and some filing work and the like, whereas, say, a carpenter actually did real thinking, real planning, at his job, with elements of real creativity. And yet it was the Bank of England clerk who was considered a “mind” worker and the carpenter merely a hand-laborer.

Ace suggests that “that distinction has obviously persisted, even in America, with the ingrained sort of idea that a low-level associate producer making crap money and rote choices on an MSNBC daytime talk show was somehow “above” someone making real command decisions in his occupation, like a plumber. And this sort of idea is very important to that low-level producer at MSNBC, because by thinking this way, he puts himself in the league of doctors and engineers.”

(The same prejudice can be seen in terminology currently used in discussions of community colleges and technical schools: that these institutions are needed to train people for “mid-skill” jobs, with the implied assumption being that people with 4-year degrees automatically have higher-skilled jobs than people with fewer years of seat time. Really? An undergraduate sociology major performing some rote job at a “non-profit” is doing something requiring higher skills than a toolmaker or an air traffic controller?)

4) Marriage, and even serious dating, seem increasingly to follow class boundaries, with “class” being defined very largely by educational credentials. Part of this is due to expanded educational and career opportunities for women—the doctor who once would have married his receptionist may now marry a female doctor—but a good part of it is, I think, due to the very high valuation placed on educational credentials. This phenomenon, of course, tends to lead to the solidification and perpetuation of class barriers.

5) People who have achieved success in one field too often assume a faux expertise in unrelated fields, as with the actor or singer who is credited with having something worthwhile to say about foreign policy or economics irrespective of lack of study/experience in those fields.

6) People who have achieved success via the manipulation of words and images have increasingly tended to discount all other forms of intelligence…for those who attacked George W Bush as “stupid”, for example, the fact that he learned to fly a supersonic fighter (the F-102, not the most pilot-friendly airplane ever designed) was a totally irrelevant piece of data.

(An interesting 1954 pulp novel, Year of Consent, posited a future America that was in reality run by those manipulators of words and image..a fact that many people in high level positions have failed to recognize…”“Even the biggest wheels only know part of it.  They think the Communications Administrative Department exists to help them–and not the other way around.”)

7)  Markers that have played a role in assessing class status in many societies–accent and manner of speech, in particular—seem to be becoming increasingly important. This factor had a lot to do with the hostility directed toward Sarah Palin as well as that directed toward George W Bush. Had these two individuals spoken in the manner expected of one who has attended boarding schools and expensive eastern colleges–regardless of the academic quality of those schools and colleges–their critics would still have probably disliked them, but the hostility would have lost much of its hysterical edge.  (The point about manner of speech also applies to some extent to the extreme hostility directed toward Donald Trump, who of course actually did attend one of those expensive eastern colleges, but comes across as more blue-collar and less Ivy in manner of talking.)

8) There is concern that those providing direction to institutions increasingly bear little of the burden for their own failures. This is especially true of government–particularly the legislature and the courts, where a bad decision will generally have no negative consequences whatsoever for the individuals making it and of those who run the K-12 government schools–but also to a disturbing extent in the business world, especially with regard to those corporations with close ties with government and those in the financial sector.

9) There is concern that the people directing institutions increasingly have life experiences totally different from their employees and customers. Many of the “robber barons” of yore had actually started as low-level workers, and regardless of how much they exploited their own workers, they could understand and identify with them in a manner that is very difficult for someone whose path has involved 6 years of college followed by a series of fast-track corporate assignments.

10) In addition to the previously-mentioned overemphasis on educational credentials, it is accurately perceived that there is now a movement toward granting special privileges–in the sense in which that term was applied to the nobility at the time of the French Revolution–to those who are college-educated and especially those who have acquired advanced degrees. Biden’s student-loan ‘forgiveness’ plan would mean that if two people are working side by side doing the same job, the one who did not attend college–or did not get an expensive and debt-funded degree–would be legally required to subsidize the one with the expensive degree and the big loan. This is reminiscent of the French nobility’s exemption from taxation.

11) There has long been a perception that members of one profession–lawyers–play a vastly disproportionate role in our political process, resulting in public policies that benefit that group and that often fail because they reflect an excessively-narrow worldview and set of life experiences.  In recent years, that critique has expended to encompass those in the financial and technology industries.

So, I don’t think the issues being raised are really about the existence of elites so much as they are about the current structure of many elite and faux-elite groups and the characteristics and performance of those who currently inhabit them.

I should note one prominent exception to my point about people using the E-word not really defining who they mean: a recent Rasmussen poll on the political and social opinions of ‘elites’, defined as people who have a postgraduate degree, earn at least $150K annually, and live in a high density area.  This rather strange definition of ‘elites’…is someone earning $160K in a high density (and high cost of living) area, albeit with for example a masters in education or sociology,  really automatically an ‘elite’? Does Warren Buffet fail the eliteness test because he lives in Nebraska? Is the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, a non-elite because her highest degree is a BA in political science?

Seems to me that this definition of ‘elites’ encompasses a lot of people who are not really elite in terms of spending, financial security, and any kind of actual authority…but who believe that they are entitled to such things and are resentful that they have not been granted them.

Interestingly, Rasmussen did not establish their definition of eliteness a priori and then conduct a survey to determine the attitudes of those matching the definition, rather, they observed the existence of a certain set of Americans who were consistently outliers in their attitudes, established a definition based on their demographics, and conducted a survey to find out more about their views.

Your thoughts on elites and elitism?

(This post is an update of this earlier post)

The Social and Economic Influence of AI and Robotics

…some historical precedents.

There is currently much discussion of the impending effects of artificial intelligence and robotics on employment, the economy, and our society as a whole. (here, for example)  I think it’s useful to look at some historical precedents, always keeping in mind the caution that ‘past results do not guarantee future outcomes.’

Peter Gaskell’s book Artisans and Machinery is about the effects of the industrial revolution, as seen by a contemporary observer.  I reviewed and excerpted it here, along with some much later commentary by the British writer and scientist CP Snow.

My post Attack of the Job-Killing Robots (three-part series) is a 30,000-foot view of the history of automation over the centuries and of some resulting automation panics.

Your thoughts?

Worthwhile Reading and Viewing

Allocation of IQ to thinking about relationships–different in men and women.  So argues this article, which is linked and discussed in a thread by Rob Henderson at Twitter.

The Great Untethering–school choice and remote work.

East of the Mississippi–19th century American landscape photography.

How Allied mass production drove the victory over the Axis powers. A YouTube documentary, which I haven’t seen yet but which looks promising.

What kinds of people are attracted to mass movements?  “(Eric) Hoffer emphasizes that creative people–those who experience creative flow–aren’t usually attracted to mass movements.”  (Twitter)  Makes sense, but is this really true?  Seems to me that there were quite a few creative scientists and artists who were strongly attracted to Communism, and I can think of at least one supposedly-creative philosopher who was strongly attracted to Naziism.

The Real Roaring Twenties Was… the 1720s.  So argues Anton Howes in this article.  His Twitter feed is here.

A 3D Reconstruction of the Aztec Capital of Tenochtitlan.

“Threads”

Meta’s new Twitter competitor is called “Threads”, the name deriving from ‘threads of conversation’.  (The use of the term in online discussion systems may owe something to its earlier use in operating system technology)

However, another connotation of the word “threads” seems appropriate for this particular product.  Marionettes–puppets–are manipulated via threads (OK, strings if you want) and controlled by a puppeteer.  They have no autonomy, they do what the puppeteer wants them to do.

Given that a lot of the support for Threads seems based on its promise of a ‘curated’ environment, this other meaning of the term fits quite well.  (See this post for early examples of this curation in practice)

It has becomes more and more clear how much power devolves to those who control the communications environment, and how difficult it is to overcome this advantage. See my related posts:

Comm Check

The Rage of the Prince-Electors

Book Review: Year of Consent