Paul Sullivan — author of the terrific book, Clutch — has a fascinating piece in Saturday’s New York Times about the growing ranks of social scientists who are studying American elites.

As wealth in this country concentrates at the top — and, increasingly, at the top of the top — how that happened and who inhabits this upper echelon becomes an important research question.

Sullivan’s story offers three especially interesting tidbits:

  • One scholar he interviews “cited data that the United States now had the lowest level of intergenerational economic mobility in the world, after England.” If this is accurate, it’s terrifying. And if it persists, it fundamentally changes the very notion of America – both as a nation and an aspiration.
  • Northwestern professor Jeffrey Winters has identified what he calls the “income defense industry,” a loose alliance of “accountants, lawyers and financial advisers employed by the wealthy – and the merely affluent – to manage their financial affairs.” Isn’t this an argument for tax simplification? Wouldn’t the talents of the people in this industry be better deployed on something more productive than gaming the tax code?
  • In a finding that offers hope for the depressing consequences of that first tidbit, it turns out that a privileged upbringing matters much less than researchers thought, according to Michael Lindsay at Rice University. Instead, it was an early career opportunity that often provided the route to the top. “Being able to look beyond their specialty early – as opposed to being highly specialized early on and then thrust into a leadership role – distinguished great leaders more than any early advantage.”

Keep an eye on this research. It’s going to reveal a lot about this country and its people.

6 Responses to “What makes an elite?”

  1. Seb Zar says:

    A phenomenon to observe would be to look at the journey from being an elite in the sense that you create meaningful results for all, to actually being considered an elite in our society (I’m French so there are probably cultural differences).
    From my perspective, the way you “reach the top”, or the way you come to a point where you are considered an elite, is quite a different way than it used to be, although the necessary factors (such as personal values, being committed to producing the best possible outcome and so on)remain the same.
    Questions to ponder: What’s your definition of elite? In a person you meet, what traits draw you to the conclusion that she/he is part of the elite?

  2. Bob Calder says:

    I was initially upset that my son didn’t keep up with his Chinese after his career began, but now I see the career has taken him in unexpected directions and is blossoming far earlier than expected. After reading what you say about Lindsay, I’m thinking it might be that dynamic at work.

    Dan, Could you do a future post about how Ariely’s work works against what education reformers want to do with teachers? There is merit pay plus the problem of disincentivizing through micromanagement. Thanks! If you are interested in watching teachers discuss it, use the #edchat tag.

  3. Perry says:

    very cool research. It aligns with Outliers in that, certain advantages early on (not so much wealth and social status related) will give the same or better opportunity as being born in the right family.

  4. Phil Miller says:

    One of the things that will be interesting to see is how inter-connected the web of elites are.
    Two quick examples:
    1) I was struck by a local story in today’s paper about former Senator and current gubernatorial candidate Mrk Dayton of MN. One oberservation was that he has spent his life in public service, rather than merely revelling in his family’s inherited wealth(from Dayton-Hudson, now Target Corp).
    2) Look at the % of white house staffers who attended either Harvard or Yale. Forget the larger Ivy league. Just those two institutions account for a huge percentage.

    Well, part of the perpetuation of family and class wealth is penetrating various social institutions. It’s much easier to run for office when you can self fund and classmates hire each other.

    But I also wonder how cyclical this is. It seems like we’re in a new “gilded age” and that these trends move in cycles, not inexorably in one direction.

  5. Trevor says:

    I think you are right and this is terrifying. Our societies are becoming increasingly caste-based and ossified as a consequence. This has devastating consequences for our health care ( and educational systems.

    There is a direct correlation between how socially equal a society is and how well it does on international educational achievement rankings. An interesting example being Poland which has raced up ranking tables recently after requiring more equitable access to its schools. It turns out that upper and middle class kids do not suffer educationally from being forced to mix with lower class kids, but that lower class kids benefit enormously from the extended social contact more equity enables (this is blindingly obvious when you think about it). However, in English speaking countries our tendency is toward what could only be called ‘ghetto schools’ for the poor and walled schools of privilege for the rich. As in the rest of our society, this functions to enforce ever-greater inequity of opportunity. This turns out to be not just morally unjustifiable, but literally counter to the interests of rich and poor alike. And, as you say, it does much to undermine the very notion of America.

    But then, how could you ever convince someone that has the lion’s share that they would be better off with less?

  6. Scott Prengle says:

    To your second point – re: “Isn’t this an argument for tax simplification?” Oh, absolutely. I have been saying/thinking this for a long, long time. Back when I was a mere high school student in the early- to mid-70’s, I came across a book written by Bill Buckley called “Four Reforms – A Program for the 70’s” and one of the 4 was the adoption of a simple, flat tax system. I loved it then, and I have loved it every time it has been trotted out since then by the Forbes and Armey’s of the world. And the biggest reason I love the concept is simply for the fact that it would unleash the collective brainpower that is being totally wasted by, as you say, the accountants, lawyers, financial planners that do nothing more than help everyone else navigate a contrived, convoluted system of taxation – purely a make-work activity foisted upon us by a government with a bloated appetite for our hard earned dollars. Imagine what could happen if we unleashed that talent to help businesses work smarter and more efficiently, to find new ways of creating value and delivering useful goods and services to a consumer base that is able to chose between consumption and saving without considering “tax implications” constantly. The current system amounts to a big drag, indeed a drain, on the economy that this talent goes to waste.