Elites, Cont'd

by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

I attended Wharton and worked for one of the top strategy consulting firms for four years before heading off to a successful Wall Street career.  During my career, I had a chance to recruit and interview literally hundreds of top-5 b-school MBA's.  So you could say I have had a lot of exposure to the "elites".

My take is that top schools prepare individuals to be "carrerists".  That is, they train them to do what it takes to obtain the highest-paying secure job possible.  To do this, they must have adequate (but hardly brilliant) analytical skills and be fairly personable (again, not off the scale).  Most important, they must give off an aura of rock-hard determination and cold confidence. It is this impression which matters in trading floors and boardrooms.  You could say that the elites have developed an extra sense, a pair of finely tuned antenna that can tell whether someone they meet really is that determined. 

The problem, of course, is that entitlement goes hand in hand with this confidence/determination.  In fact, if the basic evidence of determination is the ability to delay gratification, then the elites feel like that gratification must be eventually be proportionate to their willingness to suffer (that is, enormous).  In this basic value, there is little difference between Washington and Wall Street elites, even if their politics might be different. 

There are two problems with the elites as described above.

One is that Washington elites envy their fellow Wall Street (and corporate) elites their out-sized compensation.  To compensate for their inadequacy on this front, Washington elites must have more power; to have more power, they must make more and more decisions that affect more and people's lives. Since their basic value is determination, then they will run over any principles necessary to achieve their goal.  This is why the Obama administration seems mystified over public dissatisfaction with the bank bail outs: after all, they "worked", so why should anyone care if they were "fair"?  Or why a 2000-page banking bill with nebulous effects can be trumpeted as a "victory" when it doesn't address the basic transgressions by banks that caused the crisis.  This tunnel-vision will come at a high cost, IMO, as voters feel ignored in the process.  BTW, I voted for Obama.

Second, determination comes at the cost of other positive attributes, mainly creativity and a basic humanity.  I've read how some commenters on the Dish have praised the academic work ethic of elites.  My favorite question to ask consulting firm candidates was, "what was your favorite course in college?"  Most, uncharacteristically, would stammer.  They had no favorite course.  They were at an Ivy to prove they could work hard, not to enjoy learning.   Many even acted like it was simply an unfair question--one they had not been given a chance to prepare for.  They were not "robots", but that description wasn't completely inaccurate either. So we end up governed by coldly calculating elites that lack creativity, curiosity and humanity.

Other than that, it is a great outcome...

Finally, I would say to any college age Dish readers: don't strive so hard to sit in that interview chair across from the likes of me.  The fact is, the life of the elites shouldn't be subject of envy.  I sounds like a cliche, but having been there and done that, I can tell you I wasn't exactly surrounded by happy, well-adjusted people. There are better ways to be successful, and most of these involve risking security.  If you can stomach that, then don't follow the "elites" path.