The Self-Pity of the Harvard 'Poor'

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Context is the ongoing discussion provoked by 21st Century America's Marie Antoinette, the University of Chicago law professor who worried how his family would survive if taxes on income above $250,000 went up. Original entry here and main update here.

A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law who has chosen a comfortable-but-non-big-bucks career path writes in to say:

>>Seems to me that one of the chief reasons that Whiny Law Professor has such a skewed view of his appropriate peer group has to do with a post-Carnegie* meritocratic brand of ethics, with intelligence substituted for business savvy, that is distressingly common. So it was interesting, and consistent, to see that the wealthier groups were OK with more inequality.

Basic tenets (both fallacious in my view, but widely held) and notes on each:

    A. The good things in life should accrue to those who possess intelligence and have a generalized ability to succeed in a variety of professions (especially the more scholarly ones). High SAT scorers of the world unite!
     --yes these are virtues, but so are integrity, generosity, charity, family etc..., and these latter ones tend to be admired in principle by the meritocrats but discounted in practice (and there is of course a much longer discussion to be had on whether virtue ought even to be rewarded via socioeconomic factors, or whether virtue is properly its own reward)
     --a very Ivy League view of world
     --in tension with fact that many meritocrats knowingly (sometimes smugly) choose lower-paying jobs that are higher-prestige/more-interesting (professors, writers, government officials)
    - but this just exacerbates the resentment towards college classmates who, though perceived as no smarter or more successful, are making big $$ in boardrooms or on Wall Street

B. Exaggerated sense of one's own intelligence/generalized-ability-to-succeed
    --caused by fact that life, for some Meritocrats, consists of swimming into smaller and smaller (i.e. more specialized) pools and then mistaking one's size in that pool for size in the much larger (but no longer accessible, as time goes by) general intelligence/general-ability-to-succeed pool.
   --i.e., good college student + really good law school student + professor at top 5 law school = I am not just in top 10% of relevant pool but am top .1% of relevant pool, and deserve to be living a very very special kind of life (but what about all those who became professors at top 5 medical schools, humanities departments, editors at Random House, partners at Cravath, McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, holed up at Yaddo, etc....? Easy to forget they exist...)<<

More to say on this later. I think the analysis rings true. 


*For extra reference on the "post Carnegie" evolution of the professions, see of course Paul Starr's Social Transformation of American Medicine, plus this in The Atlantic 25 years ago.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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