Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

02.21.13

America’s New Mandarins

The paths to power and success are narrowing. So is the worldview of the powerful.

Yesterday, I wrote about the silliness of requiring a file clerk to have a college degree. This morning, a friend sent me the following note about the narrowing of opportunity in modern America:

Random thought inspired by the NYT article re: requiring BAs for everything and your post, especially the note about your IT team and their varied backgrounds, which is far less likely to be true today.

It seems to me that a similar version of that narrowing-entry option is occurring in many fields

You've written in the past about how the top banks have steadily narrowed the pool of candidates whom they'll consider - e.g., only 5-6 schools will even be looked at. A similar phenomenon has been occurring in law as well, and not just post-08 . . . even before the recession.

Not sure I have a handle on the larger meaning of it all: it just seems like a generalized phenomenon to me that entry pathways are narrowing all over

He also pointed me to a telling passage in Diary of a Very Bad Year, Keith Gessen's interviews with a hedge-fund manager:  

HFM: I’m sure today I would never get hired.  

n+1: Really?  

HFM: Yeah, it would be impossible because I had no background, or I had a very exiguous background in finance. The guy who hired me always talked about hiring good intellectual athletes, people who were sort of mentally agile in an all-around way, and that the specifics of finance you could learn, which I think is true. But at the time, I mean, no hedge fund was really flooded with applicants, and that allowed him to let his mind range a little bit and consider different kinds of candidates. Today we have a recruiting group, and what do they do? They throw résumés at you, and it’s, like, one business school guy, one finance major after another, kids who, from the time they were twelve years old, were watching Jim Cramer and dreaming of working in a hedge fund. And I think in reality that probably they’re less likely to make good investors than people with sort of more interesting backgrounds.  

n+1: Why?  

HFM: Because I think that in the end the way that you make a ton of money is calling paradigm shifts, and people who are real finance types, maybe they can work really well within the paradigm of a particular kind of market or a particular set of rules of the game—and you can make money doing that—but the people who make huge money, the George Soroses and Julian Robertsons of the world, they’re the people who can step back and see when the paradigm is going to shift, and I think that comes from having a broader experience, a little bit of a different approach to how you think about things.l

I agree with both observations. Part of this, of course, is rising inequality and unemployment: people are desperate to get one of the seats on the lifeboat, and the lifeboat captain can be choosier and choosier.  

But I think that we are looking at something even deeper than that: the Mandarinization of America.  

The Chinese imperial bureaucracy was immensely powerful. Entrance was theoretically open to anyone, from any walk of society—as long as they could pass a very tough examination. The number of passes was tightly restricted to keep the bureaucracy at optimal size.  

Passing the tests and becoming a “scholar official” was a ticket to a very good, very secure life. And there is something to like about a system like this ... especially if you happen to be good at exams. Of course, once you gave the imperial bureaucracy a lot of power, and made entrance into said bureaucracy conditional on passing a tough exam, what you have is ... a country run by people who think that being good at exams is the most important thing on earth. Sound familiar?

The people who pass these sorts of admissions tests are very clever. But they're also, as time goes on, increasingly narrow. The way to pass a series of highly competitive exams is to focus every fiber of your being on learning what the authorities want, and giving it to them. To the extent that the "Tiger Mom" phenomenon is actually real, it's arguably the cultural legacy of the Mandarin system.

That system produced many benefits, but some of those benefits were also costs. A single elite taking a single exam means a single way of thinking:

The examination system also served to maintain cultural unity and consensus on basic values. The uniformity of the content of the examinations meant that the local elite and ambitious would-be elite all across China were being indoctrinated with the same values.

All elites are good at rationalizing their eliteness, whether it's meritocracy or “the divine right of kings.” The problem is the mandarin elite has some good arguments. They really are very bright and hardworking. It’s just that they’re also prone to be conformist, risk averse, obedient, and good at echoing the opinions of authority, because that is what this sort of examination system selects for.

The even greater danger is that they become more and more removed from the people they are supposed to serve. Since I moved to Washington, I have had series of extraordinary conversations with Washington journalists and policy analysts, in which I remark upon some perfectly ordinary facet of working-class, or even business-class life, only to have this revelation met with amazement. I once had it suggested to me by a wonk of my acquaintance that I should write an article about how working-class places I've worked usually had one or two verbally lightning-fast guys who I envied for their ability to generate an endless series of novel and hilarious one-liners to pass the time. I said I'd take it under advisement, but what on earth would one title such an article?

BREAKING: Cable Runners and Construction Workers Can Speak in Complete Sentences, Make Jokes.

Then there was the time I responded to the now-standard lament that graduates of elite schools tend to gravitate to banking and consulting by pointing out that traditional management-rotation programs frequently involve less-than-glamorous stints in line jobs; one of my friends from business school ended up running a call center for a telecoms firm. Another very smart, very wonky person who I deeply respect argued that this was an idiotic misuse of an elite MBA, for both the company and the MBA. Which is just 100 percent wrong. It is not a waste to have a smart, well-educated person in telecoms management. And senior executives at a telecom should have run a call center, or done something very similar: that's where you learn to understand your customers, and the core challenges of your business.  

But many of the mandarins have never worked for a business at all, except for a think tank, the government, a media organization, or a school—places that more or less deliberately shield their content producers from the money side of things. There is nothing wrong with any of these places, but culturally and operationally they're very different from pretty much any other sort of institution. I don't myself claim to understand how most businesses work, but having switched from business to media, I'm aware of how different they can be.  

In fact, I think that to some extent, the current political wars are a culture war not between social liberals and social conservatives, but between the values of the mandarin system and the values of those who compete in the very different culture of ordinary businesses--ones outside glamour industries like tech or design.

What's remarkable is that this is coming from me. It's not like I came up on the mean streets of Camden, or come from a long line of dockworkers. Both my grandfathers were small-business owners. My father and most of his siblings have spent at least some time as professors. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and went through middle and high school at what is now the most expensive private school in New York City. (I should note that it wasn't anything of the kind when I went there. But still.) My experience of working-class life consists of some relatives, a few summer jobs, a stint in the secretarial pool at a nonprofit, three years with a firm that had a substantial cable-installation practice, and one year in a construction trailer at Ground Zero. Most of my work experience is in writing stuff, and then talking about what I write. I'm hardly the Voice of the Proletariat. Or the Voice of Industry, for that matter.

And yet, this is apparently considerably more experience than many of my fellow journalists have, especially the younger ones. The road to a job as a public intellectual now increasingly runs through a few elite schools, often followed by a series of very-low-paid internships that have to be subsidized by well-heeled parents, or at least a free bedroom in a major city. The fact that I have a somewhat meandering work and school history, and didn't become a journalist until I was 30, gives me some insight (she said, modestly) that is hard to get if you’re on a laser-focused track that shoots you out of third grade and straight toward a career where you write and think for a living. Almost none of the kids I meet in Washington these days even had boring menial high-school jobs working in a drugstore or waiting tables; they were doing “enriching” internships or academic programs. And thus the separation of the mandarin class grows ever more complete.  

I’m hinting at the final problem, which is that this ostensibly meritocratic system increasingly selects from those with enough wealth and connections to first, understand the system, and second, prepare the right credentials to enter it—as I believe it also did in Imperial China.  

And like all elites, they believe that they not only rule because they can, but because they should. Even many quite left-wing folks do not fundamentally question the idea that the world should be run by highly verbal people who test well and turn their work in on time. They may think that machine operators should have more power and money in the workplace, and salesmen and accountants should have less. But if they think there's anything wrong with the balance of power in the system we all live under, it is that clever mandarins do not have enough power to bend that system to their will. For the good of everyone else, of course. Not that they spend much time with everyone else, but they have excellent imaginations.

As I say, the mandarins are in many senses deserving: they work very hard, and they are very smart. But there is one important thing they do not know, which is what it is like to be anyone except a mandarin. The first generation to come out of the postwar education revolution did; their parents frequently had quite banal jobs, possibly ones that left them with dirt under their fingernails after a day's work. (I remember as a child watching my grandfather's hands with fascination: after decades in a service station, they were permanently darkened from oil and dirt. He would come home from work every day and go into the first-floor powder room to wash his hands and shave before dinner ... but though I watched him scrub and scrub very thoroughly, the gray never entirely came off.)  

But the people entering journalism, or finance, or consulting, or any other "elite" profession, are increasingly the children of the children of those who rocketed to prosperity through the postwar education system. A window that opened is closing. The mandarins are pulling away from the rest of America.  

I include myself in this group. Though I completely lacked the focused ambition of the young journalists I meet today, I am a truly stellar test-taker, from a family of stellar test-takers. I have a B.A. from Penn and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, credentials that I am well aware give me an entree that other people don't have. Nor do I think that these are bad things to have. Verbal fluency, fast reading, and a good memory are excellent qualities—in a writer.

But they are not the only qualities worth having, and the things that mandarins know are not the only things worth knowing. My grandfather had maybe 10 books in his house (that weren't written for children), but he could take a failing service station and make it succeed, while I'm pretty sure that I would take a successful gas station and make it fail. He also, I might add, was very successful at actually running a small town (as an alderman) and a charitable institution (the local Rotary). I'm not sure we're better off cutting off the paths to success and power taken by people like him, so that we can funnel it all through a series of academic hoops. I'm not sure we haven't ended up with a class of people who know everything about gas stations except what it takes to make one succeed.