Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Limits of the Meritocratic Experiment

The United States is not much of a meritocracy... except when compared with almost every other society on earth. Throughout our history, men (usually men) of wealth have been able to advance socially and politically, and barriers to gaining that wealth have been lower, at least in terms of family connections, the right school, the right pedigree, or plain corruption and cronyism. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the halls of power in Washington were, by the early-to-mid-twentieth century, largely restricted to those with wealth and connections. The right university (usually Harvard and Yale) mattered a lot, but those too were restricted by legacies and such. Jews, Catholics, Latinos, Asians, blacks, and women were formally or informally excluded for much or all of this period. The 1950s and 1950s saw the first real openings, which gradually began to have an impact in the 1970s and 1980s.

The impact has been stunning. If you read biographies of people who were in positions of power at universities, business, and government in the 1950s, you see what privilege meant. You will see professors who finance their own research, people who took years abroad traveling, and so forth. Getting a job on Wall Street was about who your father knew as much as anything else. Social classes were much more rigid. The contrast even between a successful resume of 1970 and 2008 is dramatic.

This is with I think we see in the Obama appointees. Contrast Obama's academic career with his predecessor GWBush. No gentleman's C's at Yale for Obama. His whole team is like this. Their careers took off in the somewhat cutthroat world of the 1980s and the go-go '90s. We will see if this new somewhat-meritocracy does well. I hope so. Certainly, it is drawing from a broader talent pool than before.

On the other hand, there is something unsettling about these new pathways to success. You have to work your way up now, but there is too little time to do that. So in many places I perceive increased value of patronage. It is no accident that various Obama appointees are described as "so-and-so's protege." For example, people dispute whether Geithner, at 47, is Summers' or Rubin's protege. Not to pick on Geithner, but I'll wager that his swift career advancement depended as much on the approval of a couple of powerful people whom he had to cultivate as on his talent. The wager I am making is that there were equally-talented people in his cohort at Treasury who did not advance because they didn't become someone's golden boy. That is probably true of most of the new Obama appointees. It is largely true in the military as well. This contrasts with the histories of past administrations, where one can see that some people chosen because of their family connections outside the administration rather than personal connections within it.

It is also true that the corridors to power remain highly restricted to the ivy league schools. If Harvard and Yale grads are removed from Obama's appointments, few are left. The excessive purchase of those schools on power has actually increased over time. What has changed is the admission criteria to those have become more democratic, more meritocratic. The reason that Harvard and Yale remain so over-selected is the problem of patronage and proteges. A very talented graduate of Berkeley or Michigan doesn't know professor X who can get them a job with his friend Y so she can become a protege of Z. Even in academia (where harvesting talent should more obviously take precedence over cultivating proteges) the right recommendation is becoming ever more important to career advancement, not less. That is because so little else differentiates the mass of recent graduates now.

There is a warning here for Obama. The charge of 'elitism' comes from this ivy league filter. Nixon and Reagan resisted the "east coast establishment," as they called it, and drew more heavily from rural and western areas. GWBush, who is a full-fledged member of the east coast establishment, nonetheless empowered those outside it by rewarding people who came up through a parallel set of "christian" universities, law schools, and bible colleges. This was a very unfortunate reaction, because there is very little talent to draw on there. The resulting incompetence is killing us in Iraq, literally. Yet if ordinary people get this sense that they are excluded from the fortunate few, this will have such political implications.

Elitism is a real danger where meritocracy becomes attenuated after the beginning of one's career. I think that within institutions we need to find a way to seek out merit beyond personal networks. Meritocracy has not truly been achieved if, in some cases, one has only exchanged the rule of success from "who your father knows" to "who you know." As a country, we should work to find mechanisms to identify talent outside of personal patronage networks. Affirmative action, as initially conceived, was meant to do this in a crude way, to allow non-white-males to be evaluated (at least at the first instance) for actual talent. That is the beginning, not the end, of where we need to go as a society.

Ironically, Barack Obama is, himself, not of this world. His biography shows that he was admitted to privileged institutions, but shows very little reliance on knowing the right people. I wonder how keenly aware he is of this distinction.


Dr. Strangelove said...

It is worth noting that many high-ranking members (or nominees) of the Obama Administration hail from prestigious colleges, but not the classic East coast "Ivy League" colleges.

Non-Ivy League:
Joe Biden: University of Delaware, Syracuse University College of Law
Janet Napolitano: Santa Clara University, University of Virginia Law School
Tom Daschle: South Dakota State University
Rahm Emmanuel: Sarah Lawrence College, Northwestern University
Bill Richardson: Tufts University
Robert Gates: College of William & Mary, Indiana University, Georgetown University
Valerie Jarrett: Stanford, University of Michigan
Susan Rice: Stanford, Oxford
David Axelrod: University of Chicago
David Plouffe: University of Delaware (incomplete)
Christina Romer: College of William & Mary, MIT (later taught at Princeton, Berkeley)

Ivy League:
Hillary Clinton: Wellesley College, Yale Law School
Eric Holder: Columbia University, Columbia Law School
Peter Orszag: Princeton, London School of Economics
Tom Geithner: Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins
Paul Volcker: Princeton, London School of Economics
Lawrence Summers: MIT, Harvard

Dr. Strangelove said...

Like it or not, word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and trusted colleagues carry more weight than resume paper. We can hope for the patronage networks to be expanded and diluted--as appears to be happening--but I think they will not disappear so long as humans are in charge.

If Obama makes a concerted effort to appoint non-Ivy Leaguers to mid-to-high level positions, that would certainly help to bring many more people into an enlarged network.

The Law Talking Guy said...

You are correct that "Harvard and Yale" is too limited a comment to make. I remember David Brooks's comment during the Democratic primary, however, that it was funny watching the Harvard Law grad and the Yale Law grad battle over who was the real man or woman of the people.

Still, this is a very limited list of schools, is it not? If you exclude the politicians who are rather more self-made than the appointees (Biden, Napolitano, Richardson, Daschle) the school list gets smaller.

The Law Talking Guy said...

There is a distinction we must make. Patronage is about the recommendations of the friends and colleagues of the decisionmaker, not the recommendations of the friends and colleagues of the candidate.