18 May 2008

Elitism, Money and Symbolic Analysis

Bainbridge discusses elitism. He's right to say that money is not the only factor contributing to elitism, and so it is not inherently paradoxical that the Obamas are labeled elitist in contrast to the Clintons, who have an order of magnitude more wealth.*

Bainbridge bases his arguments around some quotes from Christopher Lasch, with whom I am admittedly quite unfamiliar. Bainbridge leads with the following from Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites:
The new cognitive elite is made up of what Robert Reich called “symbolic analysts” — lawyers, academics, journalists, systems analysts, brokers, bankers, etc. These professionals traffic in information and manipulate words and numbers for a living.
I agree that wealth is a very incomplete picture of elitism. Quite significant, to be sure, but far, far from complete. Please refer to Bobos in Paradise, and David Brooks' theory of Status-Income Disequilibrium. Brooks describes "SID" affecting the professors, journalists, think-tank fellows, etc. who enjoy very high status but moderately high income. In comparison to, let's say, the millionaire owner-operator of a small construction firm, who are we to call elite? I'd say 99 times out of 100 the journalist is more a member of the elite than the builder despite the latter having 20 times the net worth.

However, I disagree that "symbolic analysis" is the keystone of the "new elite." Literacy is still much more of a defining characteristic than numeracy, for one. Who's more likely to be on the Sunday morning talk shows, the law prof or the mechanical engineering prof? Who's more popular at the upper echelon cocktail parties, the novelist or the mathematician? Numeracy is influential and impressive to people only when it makes you money, or at least relates to other people making money. Computational geometry will score you very little clout in elite circles; computational finance will open doors. This does not seem to hold as strongly in the sciences, where medical applications seem to command the most status: science as applied to medicine is almost always more prestigious than other scientific disciplines.**

Donald Knuth
and Milton Friedman were both excellent symbolic analysts, but I can guarantee 99.9% of the country has never even heard of Knuth. Richard Stallman and Eric S. Raymond have done more to shape the world than Eleanor Clift or Dinesh D'Souza, but I'm pretty sure the latter pair would be considered far more elite than the former.

Symbolic analysis may be a factor in elite-hood, but it misses something far more crucial. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I'm leaning towards the desire to be considered elite. The desire to influence people, perhaps. Even that, though, is incomplete. Stallman, for instance, seems to have a burning desire to influence, and to do so far and wide outside his field, and yet outside of software developers and CS-geeks, he will forever be unremarkable. All-in-all symbolic analysis seems a poor corner to base a definition of elitism on.

* Though I will refrain, I feel compelled to put quotes around every instance of elitism I type, because I feel like it's one of those words that's so loosely used that it's loosing touch with any coherent referent. It's more or less getting the "Fascist" treatment: people throw it around anytime they smell something related to wealth, education, selectivity, or meritocracy, just like people deploy "fascist" whenever something is right-wing and vaguely pro-statist. (Similarly it's an accusation that's almost entirely impossible to defend yourself from rationally. In the case of elitism, at least for politicians, it seems the only antidote is to be seen wearing a lot of blue jeans and engaging in folksy pastimes like bowling.) I have the same repugnant reaction to real elitism that I have to real Fascism, but I'm never really sure if I'm talking about the same thing as someone else when I hear either word, because both are lobbed into debates with the reckless abandon of a 3rd grader in a food fight on sloppy joe day.

** I always found it revealing that, to a first approximation, all of the chemical engineers I graduated with who were from the Northeast went into pharmaceuticals, while all the Midwesterners went into petrochem. I have a feeling that when the parents of John Q. Recentgraduate go to brunch at their Main Line club they're a lot more pleased to say that wee little Johnny is going to work for Astra Zeneca than BP, or NIH rather than the DOE. Of course I am now wildly and widely speculating, but sometimes I can't help myself.

1 comment:

  1. Good column.

    You would like Lasch and Lowi (The End of Liberalism).

    The Monk of W.H.