The Narrow Band of Experience

Instapundit linked to a piece by Megan McArdle about America’s New Mandarins, wherein she talks about the people drawn into government and chattering class employment and their strengths and weaknesses:

All elites are good at rationalizing their elite-ness, whether it’s meritocracy or “the divine right of kings”. The problem is the mandarin elite has some good arguments. They really are very bright and hard-working. It’s just that they’re also prone to be conformist, risk averse, obedient, and good at echoing the opinions of authority, because that is what this sort of examination system selects for.

The even greater danger is that they become more and more removed from the people they are supposed to serve. Since I moved to Washington, I have had series of extraordinary conversations with Washington journalists and policy analysts, in which I remark upon some perfectly ordinary facet of working class, or even business class life, only to have this revelation met with amazement. I once had it suggested to me by a wonk of my acquaintance that I should write an article about how working class places I’ve worked usually had one or two verbally lightning-fast guys who I envied for their ability to generate an endless series of novel and hilarious one liners to pass the time. I said I’d take it under advisement, but what on earth would one title such an article? . . .

But many of the mandarins have never worked for a business at all, except for a think tank, the government, a media organization, or a school–places that more or less deliberately shield their content producers from the money side of things. There is nothing wrong with any of these places, but culturally and operationally they’re very different from pretty much any other sort of institution.

I have seen this a little in the tech sector, too, where suburban kids who liked computers went to school for computers and then emerged on the other side of college as highly paid engineers who lived pretty good livings with somewhat skewed understandings of how things worked. In a lot of cases, our politics diverged quite a bit, too. I can’t help but postulate that moving in the insular world of technology, where things can just be done because you will them to exist through programming and where the government doesn’t put its thumb quite down on your livelihood (yet), might help envelop and cocoon people, too.

Hey, speaking of my diverse employment background, check out this ten-year-old essay I’ve uncovered for you, gentle reader: Lessons from a Grocery Store. Also, don’t miss my currently running series Management Lessons From My Bad Bosses.

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2 thoughts on “The Narrow Band of Experience

  1. A long time ago, I had a girlfriend who grew up wealthy. I remember how shocked she was when I told her that most people don’t go to college. She was about 20 and should have known better by that point, but didn’t.

    Like McArdle says, there’s a lot that goes into non-mandarin work. During college, I worked at a Walmart instead of, as I was urged to by other students, taking unpaid internships. They said I wasn’t learning anything useful, which never jived with what I was actually experiencing at work. Also, I was earning cash, which was a great concern to me, but not them.

  2. I dated a West County girl myself. I remember once when we were on the way to my house, she realized aloud that the cars were older in my neighborhood.

    That’s human nature, to project outward from one’s experience like that. The real trouble happens when people without perspective get or assume power over other people.

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