Yesterday, Charles Murray penned an op-ed piece in the Washington Post attempting to explain the estrangement between the bi-coastal elites and the mass of Americans who constitute the Tea Party movement:
The tea party appears to be of one mind on at least one thing: America has been taken over by a New Elite.
"On one side, we have the elites," Fox News host Glenn Beck explained last month, "and the other side, we have the regular people." The elites are "no longer in touch with what the country is really thinking," Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle complained this summer. And when Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell recently began a campaign ad by saying, "I didn't go to Yale," she could be confident that her supporters would approve.
All this has made the New Elite distinctly touchy (see Maureen Dowd's "Making Ignorance Chic"), dismissive (see Jacob Weisberg's "Elitist Nonsense") and defensive (see Anne Applebaum's "The Rise of the 'Ordinary' Elite").
"Elite?" they seem to be saying. "Who? Us?"
Why are the members of the New Elite feeling so put upon? They didn't object back in 1991, when Robert Reich said we had a new class of symbolic analysts in his book "The Work of Nations." They didn't raise a fuss in 2000 when David Brooks took an anthropologist's eye to their exotic tribe and labeled them bourgeois bohemians in "Bobos in Paradise." And they were surely pleased when Richard Florida celebrated their wonderfulness in his 2002 work, "The Rise of the Creative Class."
That a New Elite has emerged over the past 30 years is not really controversial. That its members differ from former elites is not controversial. What sets the tea party apart from other observers of the New Elite is its hostility, rooted in the charge that elites are isolated from mainstream America and ignorant about the lives of ordinary Americans.
Let me propose that those allegations have merit.
One of the easiest ways to make the point is to start with the principal gateway to membership in the New Elite, the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities. In the idealized view of the meritocrats, those schools were once the bastion of the Northeastern Establishment, favoring bluebloods and the wealthy, but now they are peopled by youth from all backgrounds who have gained admittance through talent, pluck and hard work.
That idealized view is only half-right. Over the past several decades, elite schools have indeed sought out academically talented students from all backgrounds. But the skyrocketing test scores of the freshman classes at Harvard, Yale, Stanford and other elite schools in the 1950s and 1960s were not accompanied by socioeconomic democratization.
The New Elite marry each other, combining their large incomes and genius genes, and then produce offspring who get the benefit of both.
We are watching the maturation of the cognitive stratification that Richard J. Herrnstein and I described in "The Bell Curve" back in 1994. When educational and professional opportunities first opened up, we saw social churning galore, as youngsters benefited from opportunities that their parents had been denied. But that phase lasted only a generation or two, slowed by this inescapable paradox:
The more efficiently a society identifies the most able young people of both sexes, sends them to the best colleges, unleashes them into an economy that is tailor-made for people with their abilities and lets proximity take its course, the sooner a New Elite -- the "cognitive elite" that Herrnstein and I described -- becomes a class unto itself. It is by no means a closed club, as Barack Obama's example proves. But the credentials for admission are increasingly held by the children of those who are already members. An elite that passes only money to the next generation is evanescent ("Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations," as the adage has it). An elite that also passes on ability is more tenacious, and the chasm between it and the rest of society widens.
We know, for one thing, that the New Elite clusters in a comparatively small number of cities and in selected neighborhoods in those cities. This concentration isn't limited to the elite neighborhoods of Washington, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and San Francisco. It extends to university cities with ancillary high-tech jobs, such as Austin and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle.
Read Murray's whole piece; there is a lot there that is important, but he actually misses the most important point that is implicit in his article and contradicts part of his thesis.
First some back of the envelop numbers:
According to Ivy League Universities, a web site devoted to assisting High School students in their efforts to get accepted into an Ivy League college, the number of students per year of the Ivies is as follows (with the percentage of students with Social Sciences as their major in parentheses.)
According to the US Census Bureau statistics from 2008, there were approximately 9,407,000 High School age students between the ages of 16-19 (out of a total number of young people in that age group of 17,110,000, which includes those who have graduated HS, those who are already in college, and those who have dropped out.) This is the pool from which the Ivy Leagues choose their students.
Further, the percent who graduate with a Social Science major is significant. In the modern academy, post-grade inflation, Social Science students do not have to graduate with a rigorous course of study which includes any understanding of how to evaluate policies or apply the scientific method and its derivatives. Further, I would suggest that a Social Science major serves as a proxy statistic for those who believe in some form of social engineering. After all, few of us question the expertise of Harvard engineers or biologists in their field of expertise, but many of us do question the prescriptions that seem to flow endlessly from the Social Science policy makers who still seem to believe, all evidence to the contrary, that they can make people better.
Now take the next step:
Let us assume that the top two percent of students nationally are capable of mastering college courses at the Ivy League level*; that means there are approximately 188,140 High School students graduating each year who have the intellectual ability for admission to the Ivy leagues. (I am most interested in order of magnitude effects; I recognize not everyone in the top 2% has the drive, academic motivation, or other qualities necessary to amass the kind of High School record amenable to Ivy League acceptance, but in point of fact, there are at least close to 200,000 HS graduates each year who would, under the proper circumstances, be able to succeed at Harvard or Yale; further, the top 2% number might be too restrictive, which means there would be a significantly greater pool. However, for the purposes of this discussion, lets stipulate we are looking at the top 2% as measured by testing specifically designed to elicit information about academic qualifications. The most selective schools, Harvard and Yale, for example, accept 3200 students for their first year class. (I understand that the elites recruit from more than just Harvard and Yale, but again, for the purposes of this post, the numbers would not move much.)
*[It is generally recognized that those with an IQ 2 standard deviations above the mean have the requisite intellectual capacity to master college level material at elite universities; there is a tremendous quantity of literature supporting the use of IQ as a measure of potential for success in academia. Approximately 2.3% of the population is above 2 SD's; I rounded down to restrict the pool further.]
What does all this have to do with Charles Murray's article?
It is unmistakable that many Ivy Leaguers pride themselves on their success in getting onto the elite conveyor belt; further, many seem to believe that it bestows upon them a special wisdom not shared by the less enlightened denizens of flyover country (which includes all those who did not grow up in the right neighborhoods and the right circumstances.) The point that Charles Murray misses and that the self-satisfied elites also miss is that there is far more intelligence and expertise (even if we maintain the very restrictive standard of top 2%) outside of the elite neighborhoods, such as the Ivy Leagues, than within.
Let us assume that approximately 20% of the most gifted High School graduates are accepted into an elite school; that means 80% are not going to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, etc. Many of them are going into the US Military; many go into business; many go to State Schools and second tier colleges. The upshot is that there are far more people who are the intellectual equals to those who matriculate at the elite schools than there are, in fact, in those schools. Further, as noted by Murray, the limited experiences of the elites who are voluntarily estranged from the average American (how does one maintain one's status as a member in good standing in the elites if one goes to a NASCAR race or enjoys hunting or fishing?) means that they lack what is known among the non-illuminati as common sense. If you haven't ever run a business it is not only supremely arrogant, but also fails the test of common sense, to imagine you can tell businessmen how to run their businesses; such humility is more easily learned outside of the Ivy Leagues.
Arrogance is never a becoming attitude; when those who are arrogant base it on successfully passing through a filter which has minimal relevance for the real world, retribution by the hoi polloi who resent their betters can only be a matter of time. The original Tea Partiers of 1773 were not deterred by the knowledge that the Mother Country was the repository of elegance, charm, and manners that the rubes of the New World could never share. In a world in which the ability to actually succeed at creating value is only partially related to the ability to amass the entrance requirements for Harvard, the loss of that necessary differentiation by our elites has caused them to sacrifice their authority and relevance. We do not need Harvard Social Scientists to tell us how to live our lives; most of us know better what is good for us.