Smart People Are Not Ruining America

Someone sent me an article by David Brooks, “How We Are Ruining America“.

Brooks is a conservative columnist, and a capable writer with interesting ideas, but my issue with him is not that he’s conservative so much as that he conflates various elements of class in a far-sighted, muddled way. The “we” that is ruining America is the supposed intellectual elite, the sneering over-literate people who sometimes get too snobby.

I’ll take out this passage:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

First of all, I’m probably part of that educated upper-middle-class elite that people in the Jobless Interior blame for wrecking the country. (We didn’t do it. More on that.) Even still, I had to Google soppressata and capicollo. I do a lot of Googling in restaurants and, quite honestly, prefer to avoid eating at the expensive places. High IQ or no, I’m still a central Pennsylvania boy at heart. Also, what’s wrong with eating Mexican food? I’ll take a taco truck over a $13 sandwich place, any day of the week.

We have a problem in this country. The economic elite is destroying it, and the intellectual elite is largely powerless to stop the wreckage, and while there are many sources of our powerlessness, one of the main ones is that we get the bulk of the hate. The plebeians lump us all together, because the economic elite has told them to do so. They make no distinction between the magazine columnist, who can barely afford her studio in Brooklyn, and the private-jet billionaire who just fired them by changing numbers in a spreadsheet.

Brooks has some good points, and the essay that I linked to is worth reading, not because he’s right on every call, but because he’s not wrong. For example, he writes:

Over the past few decades, upper-middle-class Americans have embraced behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life. As soon as they get money, they turn it into investments in their kids.

As a person in his 30s, this resonates with me. To be blunt, I don’t share the same feel-good attitudes toward “family” and childbearing that are common in our culture. The biological drives are very strong, but these impulses perpetuate inequality. Once you have a child, you give up all hope of an enlightened, disinterested view toward matters of progeny. You become an extreme partisan, no matter how smart you are, because that’s how biology works. There are now a small number of people in the rising generation for whom you’d literally kill if it protected their safety, health, and future place in society. Moreover, if you fail to give them what are objectively unfair advantages, you will think of yourself as a failed parent forever. Continuing the species mandates that people parent; unfortunately, parenting mandates that people perpetuate crushing inequalities that, from a distance, are inexcusably unjust.

Let’s be honest: college admissions are about the parents, not the kids. Well-adjusted 18-year-olds aren’t thinking about which schools are targets for investment bankers. In fact, an 18-year-old who even knows what investment banking even is… well, that kid has severe emotional problems. Investment banking is supposed to be a safety career, not a dream, and certainly not something that a teenager aspires to enter. There are good reasons for young kids to want to go to the best school possible, but careerism is not one of them.

What Brooks observes is true. I don’t think he gets to the core of why it’s true. Adults know that our society is in decline, which is why they’ll shank each other to get unfair advances for their own kids. The dynamic isn’t new, but the intensity of it is. Three decades ago, you got farther with a degree from a state university in what is now the Jobless Interior than you get, today, with an Ivy League degree. Parents obsess over educational pedigree because they know how important it is to have connections when society goes to shit. When the land is dark and thin, merit is devalued and nostalgia wins. Elite graduates aren’t highly valued because they’re smarter than anyone else, but because their cultural and educational experiences are reminiscent of “the time before”.

Brooks also says:

Well-educated people tend to live in places like Portland, New York and San Francisco that have housing and construction rules that keep the poor and less educated away from places with good schools and good job opportunities.

These rules have a devastating effect on economic growth nationwide. Research by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti suggests that zoning restrictions in the nation’s 220 top metro areas lowered aggregate U.S. growth by more than 50 percent from 1964 to 2009. The restrictions also have a crucial role in widening inequality. An analysis by Jonathan Rothwell finds that if the most restrictive cities became like the least restrictive, the inequality between different neighborhoods would be cut in half.

All true. All valid. Except, the emphasis is completely wrong. He implies that well-educated people are the problem. No. This is like the conservative contention that anti-vaxxers are liberal. Scientifically illiterate anti-intellectuals (on the left and right) are the problem, not leftists. Some of the NIMBYs are well-educated, and some are not.

The zoning/housing issue has little to do with educational pedigree. It’s generational. Boomers got into the housing market when prices were fair; then, they passed a bunch of self-serving legislation to thwart supply growth (as noted) and let a bunch of nonresident scumbags buy coastal real estate in order to spike land prices and apartment rents. Generation X was affected, but Millennials just got screwed. Further, Boomers have perpetuated a work culture based on hierarchy and socio-physical dominance, making it difficult to have a career in a company unless one works on-site in close proximity to the (very wealthy) people at the top. This creates abnormal demand for real estate in major cities, because peoples’ careers depend on them living there, even though the Internet was supposed to make location irrelevant. Consequently, we have a bipolar nation where one stretch of the country has affordable houses, even in beautiful locations, but offers no jobs; and the other offers jobs but offers no path to homeownership other than winning a hedge-fund or startup lottery.

Truth time

This is not a balanced country, politically speaking. First, while we have two parties, we’ve become polarized to such a point that most places suffer under a local one-party system. Sure, if you were to integrate over the country’s 3.8 million square miles, you might get a balanced picture. However, it’s much rarer these days, as opposed to fifty years ago, to see liberals on the Republican ticket in Massachusetts, or Democratic state legislatures in places like Texas. That’s bad for everyone. It means that there’s less competition in politics, especially at the local level from which important services are delivered. Gerrymandering is much at fault, and so is economic inequality, and I can’t cover these topics in depth. The point is: one-party systems suck, and the people in so-called “Red” and “Blue” States both deserve better.

Second, we’ve tilted far to the right over the past thirty years. The right wing has been winning, and the left flank sits in territory that would be conservative by European standards. Therefore, if you want to explore what’s wrong with the country, you cannot give equal time to left and right. Sure, there are plenty of stupid, obnoxious, and inflexible leftists who deserve some ridicule (much like their stupid, obnoxious, inflexible counterparts on the right) but the bulk of the damage has been done by one side. Three-sigma leftists are completely irrelevant in the U.S., while outlier right-wingers may not be in charge, but get audience with those who are, and have been able to shape the future over the past forty years. The 3-sigma right-winger of 1970 wanted to reduce the inheritance tax; in 2010, it was eliminated.

To equate the sometimes-smug, deadpan-self-deprecating, left-of-center intellectual elite with the bullying, pilfering, warmongering, and environmentally perilous economic elite is… beyond irresponsible. Who does more damage, the Buzzfeed columnist who can barely afford his Manhattan rent and takes a pot shot at obese Wal-Mart customers, or the billionaires who are selling off the country?

I don’t know what “the cultural elite” is or whether I’m part of it. (After all, I had to Google capicollo.) Let’s say that I am; I’m close enough to take blame and dislike for it, at least. I’m a skilled writer; good enough with words to provoke such envious rage from Paul Graham that he had me banned from Hacker News and Quora. That’s something, right?

When I look around in my circle, I don’t see an exclusive “intellectual elite”. I see people from all sorts of backgrounds: black, Latino, transgender, Midwestern, Southern, European, Asian, sons of restaurant owners and daughters of coal miners. We accept people who are different from us. If you’re smart, no one cares where you’re from; we don’t even really care where you went to college, because it’s correlated with almost nothing after age 30. Most of the best writers and artists don’t have elite degrees at all.

For a contrast, how often do you see Davos Men hang around with anyone but other Davos Men? Never. How much do corporate executives care about people who weren’t born into their milieu. They don’t.

The intellectual elite is far more diverse in every dimension than the economic one. People who are interesting and curious don’t like boring people, but interesting people come from everywhere: even from dismal white towns in Appalachia. We may sneer at conservative, redneck culture, but we’re a lot more open to people from that sort of background than the economic elite. Why? The economic elite wants to hold power at all costs. It does so by creating artificial scarcities… real scarcities that actually hurt people.

Let’s draw a concrete example. A white kid with a 1500 SAT, from a merely middle-middle-class background, in St. Louis… will not get into Stanford, because of that obnoxious extracurricular bar. I’m not going to defend legacy admissions, or the systematic preference for non-academic activities and traits that are highly class-correlated (e.g., interesting travel, recommendations from notable people, “achievements” that involved parental pull). If I were in charge, I’d argue for 100% academic admissions, but I’m not. Both the economic and intellectual elite seem to benefit from the socioeconomic garbage that infests college admissions.

I suppose that when people get bounced at this particular door, they feel like it’s “the intellectual elite” that’s keeping them out. After all, the admissions officer isn’t part of the economic elite, so that puts her in the other one by default, right? Here’s the thing, though. The admissions officer doesn’t enjoy rejecting people. She has to make painful close calls based on limited information. And she’d probably agree that she turns down more great students than she can admit, and asks the question: why does getting into Stanford matter so much in the first place? It’s not like the country only has ten good colleges.

It’s a good question. Why does getting in to an exclusive college matter so much? It’s not the intellectual elite who are making elite degrees so essential in the corporate world (and so expensive). It’s the economic elite.

For the Baby Boom generation, college pedigree wasn’t nearly as big of a deal. You didn’t need to go to Stanford or Harvard to have a decent shot at a good first job, because good jobs were more plentiful back then. It’s a uglier picture now, but whose fault is that? Harvard professors didn’t take away the good jobs; corporate executives did.

There’s more disparity than overlap between the economic elite and the intellectual elite. People with the good fortune to be part of both are exceedingly rare. You can write that region as a set of measure zero, and not be that far off. Meanwhile, interests of the two elites have diverged. We’re headed for conflict, and our society needs for the right side to win.

The intellectual elite wants what’s best for the world’s people. We’re haughty and occasionally imperious. Sometimes, we get things wrong. We dish out a lot of figurative shit to people who misuse the word “literally”. However, we still have a stake in the rest of the world because… well, because we come from it. No one is born an intellectual. That’s kind of the point; how would it be virtuous if one could be born with it? The economic elite, however, is hereditary both by construction and intent. They fancy themselves a superior species, and have the resources to isolate their progeny from the consequences of everything they do. They’ve receded from all forms of accountability (except for the final kind that may come if they destroy the planet). They’ve weakened national governments while advancing corporate hegemony. They’ve thrown social justice, cultural progress, and environmental sustainability under the bus just to get 8.0% richer each year rather than 7.5%.

There’s a tendency in American culture, out of some skewed interest in fairness, to represent the intellectual elite (conflated with the left, though that may not be fair to intellectuals or to leftists) and the corporate/economic elite (which is more authoritarian than conservative) in some kind of parity. Sure, those downsizing corporate executives are elitist jerks… but so are people who buy arugula at Whole Foods!

Above is one of those cases where attempted parity leads to absurdity. Since the autumn of 2016, I’ve felt it necessary to scream out against these sorts of false equivalences. They’re incendiary, incorrect, and dangerous. Why is there so much more disproportionate hatred for a mostly-harmless intellectual elite over a destructive, global economic one? I think that the answer’s obvious: availability. People in the Jobless Interior come in contact with those of us in the perceived intellectual or cultural elite. Many of us are from those places that have since become jobless, and are disturbed by what has happened. Meanwhile, the (justifiably) angry people in the Red States never meet the Davos Men and Sand Hill Road tech barons who are actually destroying their lives.

The proletarians get screwed over, and usually don’t know why it’s happening. For whatever reason, we get blamed, as if not only ought we to have protected them, but as if we built the processes that take their jobs away and immiserate their cities. I’d be willing to take all the blame, if it were due. The problem is that it’s incorrect to blame us. If you want to hate me for the books I read or words I use or food I eat, go ahead. Let’s not get distracted. We have a shared enemy. The country isn’t being destroyed by people using the word “intersectionality”. No, it’s being wrecked by the weakening of unions, corporate downsizing, accumulated environmental damage, rising anti-intellectualism, and creeping plutocracy. We have a real enemy and it’s time to put our (very mild) differences aside and fight.