by Conor Friedersdorf
A reader named Mark writes:
With regard to your comments on the limits of meritocracy, I agree with much of what you have to say (and I'm saying that as a Harvard Law graduate who used to work at big law firms, so maybe that's a statement against interest). However, I have to critique what seems to be an apparent assumption of yours, namely that the "Northeast professional elite" runs the country, and therefore we really have to worry about how that elite is created.
I'd agree that the Northeast professional elite runs much of the Northeast (who else would run it?), it doesn't really run the rest of the country. While Ivy League degrees are helpful things to have, much of the business, artistic and political elite in this country doesn't have degrees from Ivy League schools. There's no shortage of state school graduates in senior positions at Fortune 500 companies and in the Congress, and Wes Anderson graduated from the University of Texas, after all.
There are some professions in which there is a major Ivy League cultural bias, namely investment banking, the professoriate at good law schools and the profession that you are in. While those are all important professions that have great influence in our society, they don't dominate our society. No profession or particular group does, despite the pretensions and dreams of some. Let's not let an intelligent discussion on the limits of meritocracy fall into a version of the sort of anti-Eastern Establishment sort of rhetoric one finds in some elements of the political and cultural right that you have tangled with yourself.
Yes, that's a good point. It's one I tried to make myself back when I began talking about this subject:
In terms of who does more to shape the country and its future, try ranking Leon Panetta, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, an exceptional high school English teacher, David Foster Wallace, Barbara Streisand, Rick Warren, a successful small business man, Lynn Cheney, Haley Barbour, the mayor of Omaha, Nancy Pelosi, Kobe Bryant, Ezra Klein, Bill Keller, Sarah Palin, Chick Hearn, the scientist most responsible for Lipitor, Rush Limbaugh, a federal circuit court judge, the CEO of the biggest employer in Cleveland, a veteran police officer on the streets of Chicago, the Governor of Nevada, Rupert Murdoch, Malcolm Gladwell, Donald Bren and L. Ron Hubbard.
Were there an objectively correct ordering known only by God, what percentage of humans would arrive at it?
Yet here I've been focusing on the Ivy League and other elite colleges!
Insofar as I'm justified in doing so, I think it's because the northeast has been growing in influence lately. Our politics is emphasizing federal solutions that are impinging on the autonomy of the states, most notably with President Bush's awful "No Child Left Behind" and President Obama's health care bill. The growth of California was once financed largely by Bank of America, back when it was founded and headquartered in the Golden State. These days everything in the American economy seems to run through Wall Street, and its mistakes affect us all. Next go 'round, however, I'll be sure to start a discussion about another subset of our diverse elite.
In any case, I'm grateful for this e-mail, because it injects needed perspective into the conversation. I'd also observe that the anti-Eastern establishment rhetoric -- both the defensible and absurd variety -- are only going to intensify if its political wing persists in asserting more and more control over a diverse continent.
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