Guest Post: No Wonder We're Failing: Our Power Elites' Sole Expertise Is Being Privileged

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh Smith from Of Two Minds

No Wonder We're Failing: Our Power Elites' Sole Expertise Is Being Privileged

The Power Elite which has been raised to occupy the privileged seats of political and financial power in America has a skillset limited to navigating the world of privilege.

The Power Elites are not monolithic: there are three distinct layers, each with its own defining characteristics.

Correspondent Judy T. recently recommended an extraordinary essay on the education and grooming received by the Political and Financial Power Elite: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education by William Deresiewicz.

I have roughly excerpted this long and important essay below.

In essence, Deresiewicz suggests that the Elite youth being groomed at exclusive Ivy league universities--an Elite education--are functionally incompetent in the real world and only skilled at a superficial facsimile of "independent thought" which is merely a higher order of groupthink and its attendent obedience.

Deresiewicz is addressing the privileged-by-birth/class Elite which is being groomed for positions high up in government, law and finance--the working Elites of the American Empire who make the decisions which impact billions of people.

A much thinner layer of Elites have little real power but plenty of wealth. These are the entrepreneural Elites glorified by breathless articles such as The Rise of the New Global Elite (The Atlantic).

This perspective takes the examples of Bill Gates (co-founder of Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook)--both children of privilege, we note--and a handful of hedge fund managers and other super-wealthy players as proof that meritocracy is still the great leveler, and that hard work and innovation now pay off more than ever.

This article claims that a "winner take all" economy is rewarding the wealthy because the wealthy are smarter, more innovative and harder working than the average bear, and so income inequality is the outcome of this.

This argument is higher-order propaganda: by establishing a superficially undeniable case that a handful of super-wealthy individuals has earned their great wealth rather than inherit it, then the argument is extended to cover all positions of wealth and power: it's all, ahem, "earned."

But as Deresiewicz scathingly delineates, the vast majority of the Power Elites in government, finance and global corporate leadership are trained to a mediocrity which they have been groomed to accept as excellence.

This highly-touted Innovative Elite only functions in the narrow sphere of technology and financial speculation. Its numbers are miniscule and its direct influence over policy is generally overstated.

The Third Elite is also a meritocracy: this is a group I would term Academic Elites. These are the young people who earn their doctorates from, do post-doc research in, and end up teaching at the creme da la creme science and math universities: MIT, Caltech, Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study, Harvard, UC Berkeley, et al.

Since I live in Berkeley, I have met many of these budding academic superstars, and I have found them to be uniformly unpretentious about their high-powered talent and knowledge. Just anecdotally, that suggests that carting a great ego around does not play very well in the hard-sciences Academic Elite.

A member of this Elite is occasionally appointed to some high position in government--for example, President Obama appointed physicist Steve Chu to be Secretary of Energy. Though these positions can be bully pulpits for various innovative ideas, they are essentially powerless.

Thus this third Elite also has limited access to the levers of power. (Anecdotally, they are often foreign-born citizens or second-generation immigrants--that is, they don't arise from families of established privilege and wealth.)

I have had a small taste of a privileged Elite education, as I graduated from the same prep school that President Obama attended in Honolulu, Hawaii (the oldest prep school west of the Rockies, mind you). My stepfather taught there, and so I was able to attend tuition-free.

I would say that an Elite education is only one piece in the Power Elites' grooming; ultimately, it's family connections and the mentoring of influential people which raise people to positions of State and financial power. This is not the networking one achieves by attending various meetings; you are born to it. (sorry, meritocracy propagandists.)

I would also be careful to separate the hard sciences Academic Elites from the Ivy League/law school layer that Deresiewicz describes. They are different Elites despite having some occasional crossover.

There are two classes manufactured in Elite education institutions: those destined to be handed the levers of power, and those destined to serve them as well-paid factotums and functionaries. Sadly, many believe the hokem about merit being the key to State and financial wealth and power, and on a superficial level of outliers and frontmen (Bill Clinton et al.), this is true enough to further the con.

But when the real Elites gather, the hard-working Elite functionaries find themselves relegated to the Siberia of inferiors.

Here is my rough excerpt of The Disadvantages of an Elite Education by William Deresiewicz. It suggests that the institutions of Elite education are failing at a fundamental level, and that the meritocracy so treasured as part of the American Dream is as threadbare as the "independence and expertise" of the Elites being groomed to power.

(Those who attend 2nd and 3rd Tier universities) are being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity--lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse. The elite like to think of themselves as belonging to a meritocracy, but that’s true only up to a point. Getting through the gate is very difficult, but once you’re in, there’s almost nothing you can do to get kicked out.

Elite schools nurture excellence, but they also nurture what a former Yale graduate student I know calls "entitled mediocrity."

Anyone who remembers the injured sanctimony with which Kenneth Lay greeted the notion that he should be held accountable for his actions will understand the mentality in question—the belief that once you’re in the club, you’ve got a God-given right to stay in the club.

One of the disadvantages of an elite education is the temptation it offers to mediocrity, another is the temptation it offers to security. When parents explain why they work so hard to give their children the best possible education, they invariably say it is because of the opportunities it opens up. But what of the opportunities it shuts down? An elite education gives you the chance to be rich— which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be. Yet the opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed.

Because students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them.

But if you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risks, which begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual. This will seem counterintuitive.

Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework.

If so few kids come to college understanding this, it is no wonder. Being an intellectual means, first of all, being passionate about ideas—and not just for the duration of a semester, for the sake of pleasing the teacher, or for getting a good grade.

Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big questions. When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel.

they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions— specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. Although the notion of breadth is implicit in the very idea of a liberal arts education, the admissions process increasingly selects for kids who have already begun to think of themselves in specialized terms—the junior journalist, the budding astronomer, the language prodigy. We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.

Indeed, that seems to be exactly what those schools want. There’s a reason elite schools speak of training leaders, not thinkers--holders of power, not its critics. An independent mind is independent of all allegiances, and elite schools, which get a large percentage of their budget from alumni giving, are strongly invested in fostering institutional loyalty.

As another friend, a third-generation Yalie, says, the purpose of Yale College is to manufacture Yale alumni.

The liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university, its center of gravity shifting to technical fields where scholarly expertise can be parlayed into lucrative business opportunities.

Yet there is a dimension of the intellectual life that lies above the passion for ideas, though so thoroughly has our culture been sanitized of it that it is hardly surprising if it was beyond the reach of even my most alert students. Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile.

Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time.

Thirty-two flavors, all of them vanilla. The most elite schools have become places of a narrow and suffocating normalcy. Everyone feels pressure to maintain the kind of appearance—and affect—that go with achievement. (Dress for success, medicate for success.) I know from long experience as an adviser that not every Yale student is appropriate and well-adjusted, which is exactly why it worries me that so many of them act that way. The tyranny of the normal must be very heavy in their lives.

"To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?...There is nobody--here among these grey arches, and moaning pigeons, and cheerful games and tradition and emulation, all so skilfully organised to prevent feeling alone." (Virginia Woolf)

Emerson says, he reported, that one of the purposes of friendship is to equip you for solitude.

There’s been much talk of late about the loss of privacy, but equally calamitous is its corollary, the loss of solitude. It used to be that you couldn’t always get together with your friends even when you wanted to. Now that students are in constant electronic contact, they never have trouble finding each other.

other students told me they found their peers too busy for intimacy. What happens when busyness and sociability leave no room for solitude? The ability to engage in introspection, I put it to my students that day, is the essential precondition for living an intellectual life, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. They took this in for a second, and then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, “So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?”

But I do know that the life of the mind is lived one mind at a time: one solitary, skeptical, resistant mind at a time. The best place to cultivate it is not within an educational system whose real purpose is to reproduce the class system.

The kid who’s loading up on AP courses junior year or editing three campus publications while double-majoring, the kid whom everyone wants at their college or law school but no one wants in their classroom, the kid who doesn’t have a minute to breathe, let alone think, will soon be running a corporation or an institution or a government.

She will have many achievements but little experience, great success but no vision. The disadvantage of an elite education is that it’s given us the elite we have, and the elite we’re going to have. (emphasis added)

Thank you, Judy, for recommending this insightful essay.

No wonder the U.S. is imploding--its State and financial Elites believe their mediocre groupthink is actually brilliant. That self-serving self-deception and hubris has cost us dearly, and will continue to do so.

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goldmiddelfinger's picture

Ain't it the truth? How about describing the Daley family of Chicago? What could Wm Daley possibly offer JPM but a rolodex of like minded jackoffs?

Michael's picture

NAFTA passed the Senate 61-38. Senate supporters were 34 Republicans and 27 Democrats. Clinton signed it into law on December 8, 1993.

Clinton is responsible for completely decimating the consumer goods manufacturing sector and the sheeple love him for it. I don't get it.

It is impossible to create sustainable employment without a healthy manufacturing sector.

Thank you Bill Clinton. The elites love you.

Michael's picture

I would give my left nut to be able to buy an Apple Ipod made in the USA.

Sofa King's picture

Good'll be able to keep your nuts for the foreseeable future.

Star Warrior's picture

You must have an abudance of left nuts........either that or your mad

lynnybee's picture

 "Thank you Bill Clinton. The elites love you." ........

Please don't forget ROBERT RUBIN !!   ROBERT RUBIN, MY ALL-TIME FAV ELITE !!  When will he be in jail ?  

goldmiddelfinger's picture

The great thing about having looted Goldman for $200 million is that for the rest of your life you can be a slobbering shitbucket and still find other slime ridden butt-weasels like Sandy Weill and Bill Clinton that want to be close to you.


Bob's picture

In his defense, he did sign the repeal of Glass-Steagall after inventing extraordinary rendition. 

How can you not love Bill?

Michael's picture

Bill Clinton is my favorite destroyer of our economy.

litoralkey's picture

For future reference, if you want to post about the "Clinton Body Count", use this original group of amateur researchers and documentors website archive:

jeff montanye's picture

interesting stuff.  are these killings better or worse than iraq?  than afghanistan?  how much does order of magnitude of number of dead matter?

Hephasteus's picture

He's been quite the murderous little fuck now hasn't he. Which is why I love calling his wife a giant evil fucking cunt.

goldmiddelfinger's picture

Had Bubba not listened to Robbing Robby Rubin and his enabler "Empires built of Sandy" Weill, home prices would quietly be right where they are now and the Dow would be at 20,000.

hugolp's picture

Repealing Glass-Steagal Act was one of the few good things Bill Clinton did.

M.B. Drapier's picture

But German manufacturing industry is scarcely much more protected than that of the US, and yet it's doing pretty well - selling cars to China and all that. It seems it was primarily the credit bubble and the FIRE economy which shrank US manufacturing (in employment terms), not free trade.

three chord sloth's picture

Incorrect. German manufacturing employment is declining as well. In 1991, 29% of Germans worked in manufacturing; now it is down to 19%... and the loses are accelerating, dropping nearly a full percentage point each of the last three years.,1518,737554,00.html

trav7777's picture

100% correct.  Was just thinking about this last night...Daley's not a fucking banker, he's the spawn of a political crook.  A job at JPM means one of two things:  either he is being paid back by them for something he has done as far as a favor or he is being paid for something he will do as far as a favor.  The guy knows fuckall about banking or finance.

Michael's picture

I'm just glad the elites make them old government fucks work till the day they die. They don't deserve to enjoy a comfy retirement. Unlike me who retired 5 years ago when I was 45. I had no reason to continue working under current conditions.

Johnny Dangereaux's picture

You got that right trav7777. People are waking up, even in Chicago. Here is a story about our parking meter deal w/ Morgan Stanly. The revolving door of gangsters is brazen to say the least. How to rid the foxes from the hen house?

greyghost's picture mean i have been paris hiltoned...we are screwed!!!!!!!

Panafrican Funktron Robot's picture

I guess John Wheeler III found out that the privilages of being elite do not extend to telling the general public the truth about what the fuck is really going on.

These kind of people don't end up dead in a landfill for no reason.

NOTW777's picture

Cancers I & II - leftist "universities" and MSM

midtowng's picture

If the universities are so leftist, how come they keep producing such conservative elites?

jeff montanye's picture

they are more impotent than we know or they admit?  

Fred Hayek's picture

They're not conservative in any meaningful way.  Not in the sense of a William F. Buckley call to support certain values in society.  They simply want the status quo in which they're rich and powerful to prevail. 

There was a New York magazine article about the ebb and flow of relations between Obama and the banksters which, when speaking of Jamie Dimon, casually noted that Dimon like most of his peers is a democrat.


AnAnonymous's picture

The elite fulfill their own purpose: cloning themselves. So what? The US is a society of clones and the US elite have good positions.

Apocalicious's picture

I very strong element of what I teach my children is skepticism of the experts. If we taught them to question their instructors, taught them self-reliance, self-awareness, humility, introspection, and the REAL scientific method (question everything, assume nothing, find evidence that disproves the null hypothesis, theories are made to challenged and changed), we would all be better off. I also believe intellectual curiosity is more important than academic credentials.


I believe there are 3 types of people in the world. 1) People who don't want to be wrong, 2) people who don't want to look wrong, and 3) people who don't give a shit. You can usually spot #3 right away. But often, the people who don't want to look wrong are precisely those who never question their own insular group-think. Those who don't want to BE wrong accept that they often are wrong, but are driven to fix their mistakes instead of cover them up. I suppose this fits perfectly with the article - the effete elite are #2.


Very good piece.

cityguyusa's picture

Yeah, that's great to do all that the problem is your children don't get a forum to air what they've learned because nobody cares.  Those that have the power will certainly insure their silence.

Robslob's picture

Dont worry...they will leave soon enough when nothing is left to pillage...


Goodbye Amerika and Hello Brazil!

cougar_w's picture

Self deception is a crime of ignorance, generally. People cannot lead who do not understand how the world operates. They get their positions of power via family and money, but they cannot steer the ship and keep it off the rocks because they've never heard of these rumored rocks beneath the water and refuse to believe it.

I've been amused by the "powers that be" meme here at ZH. As if these people are gods or something. Well one of their own (cannot recall his name) called TPTB "infants" in the context of them knowing very little, having no real experiences, and not being very emotionally stable. I think one can extend that and say that people suffering from socio-pathology (a clinical mental illness) also act like infants most of the time. That Elites and sociopaths are both naturals in governance explains why they have taken over. It would be very hard to tell one from the other without a backing in clinical psychology, once they are all mixed together in the same room playing the same games.

The elites will kill us because they are limited and over their heads. The sociopaths will kill us for personal gain. Either way, we die.

flattrader's picture


Why even bother anymore?

Just link to the article/essay and say "Enjoy!"

Convolved Man's picture

Do not disparage the elites.  They must not be distracted from their primary task of creating wealth, which can be redistributed among others less fortunate.

Dr. Porkchop's picture

So the young elite are basically Bertie Wooster.

puckles's picture

Bertie Wooster sans Jeeves, but with an IPAD/IPhone, and all the other I-crap.

Kristian's picture

But the good news is: the stockmarket is up again.

SheepDog-One's picture

'Stockmarket' mean that thing no one is in anymore except Bernanke and Geithner?

plocequ1's picture

Yes, Thats the one. Its all good. Thanks Ben and Tim.

Gloomy's picture

Reuters) - Asian buyers rushed into the market after prices fell from record highs to look for bargains, betting on growing demand and a bright price outlook for the rest of the year.

Premiums in Hong Kong had risen to as much as $1.50 an ounce over London prices, from 70 cents to $1 at the end of last year.


"Supply is tight in the physical market," said a Hong Kong-based dealer. "Two days ago when we had the big drop, premium went up to $1.50, but today it is a little quieter ahead of the U.S. employment data."


Spot gold prices fell to as low as $1,363.8 an ounce this week, down nearly five percent from its peak of $1,430.95 hit on Dec. 7. Gold was trading at $1,368.50 by 0609 GMT on Friday.


As long as prices stay below $1,400, physical purchase is expected to remain active, dealers said.


Jewellers, bullion traders and investors across the region, from India, Thailand to China, have joined the buying spree, betting on a rosy price outlook for the precious metal in 2011.


The price of gold is expected to average nearly $1,500 an ounce this year, as investors keep buying the metal as a safe haven on bullish factors such as low interest rates, currency weakness and inflation fears, Barclays Capital said.


Bullion traders in India, the world's top gold consumer, rushed in to place deals after prices remained steady in the vicinity of their lowest since late November, as they sought to stock up for the upcoming harvesting festivals, when demand for gold goes up, dealers said.


"Sales are much better as people are comfortable at current prices, they are all preparing for wedding and harvesting season," said Haresh Acharya, head of bullion desk, Parker Agrochem, an Ahmedabad-based wholesaler.


The most-active gold for February delivery on the Multi Commodity Exchange (MCX) was trading 0.22 percent lower at 20,383 rupees per 10 grams, trading near its lowest level since Nov 29.


"People would get attracted more at sub-20,000 rupees level," said Acharya.


"I have sold a tonne of gold in the last 2-3 days itself, there's a renewed enthusiasm among traders, especially before the weddings," said an official with a state-run bullion importing bank. Wedding season will re-start in February.

youngandhealthy's picture

Nothing is new under the sun.

The romans had this.

The Europeans have it in the forms of Kings and Dukes.

The Chines are rebuilding it.

Why shouldn't the Americans? They are not special.

MMT Roolz's picture

Perhaps an Upper Class Twit of the Year competition.  Preferably ending the same way as the original Python:

Miles Kendig's picture

Varuca Salt did grow up to be in charge.  No wonder the power elite believe all is well, so long as they have their AMEX Black Card and a moment of respite at the Mayflower to take care of it all.  Why else have tax payers but to pick up the AMEX tab or answer the room service call?

janchup's picture

Dont take your concepts so seriously.

topcallingtroll's picture

By definition only the top one or two percent can be in the top one or two percent unless this is Lake Wobegon.  I guess I'm not understanding why people who are not in the top one or two percent assume that the fix is in, evidenced mostly by the fact that they themselves are not in the top one or two percent.  98 percent won't make it.  I'm not sure that means the system is unfair.  ninety percent of wealth is lost after three generations.  ( you know the old phrase "from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves.)  It's only a small number that have managed to maintain dynastic wealth.  I don't think they are the reason that 98 percent of the population is not in the top two percent.

francismarion's picture

You note that 98 percent of the population is not in the two percent at the top. I appreciate your pointing out that seminal and crushingly obvious but, so far, largely ignored arithematical imperative. That would seem to be the source of the  disdain many here display for the elite, rather than any legitimate disaffection for the source of the elite's prestige. Perhaps if the non-elite that are belly-acheing here were smarter or harder workers or possessed of innate skills of innovation or insights into the operation of markets or at least ruthless climbers that knew how to marry well, they could be part of the two percent.

Instead, the alternative for many here seems not to be the acquisition of some talent to succeed in the world as it is, but rather to imagine some horrid existence where the of buying guns, gold, ammo and freeze-dried food places them in line to become an elite in a new, more fearsome world. And it is that world they pine for. Dupes and degenerate sociopaths all.

Easier by far for far too many to hate rather than to achieve; and almost as gratifying for the incompetent, envious and wrathful that find inspiration and voice in many of these postings to despise than to aspire.