Liability & Membership, Ltd.

April 24, 2012

Lifted from Harvard’s The Crimson, and thereafter chopped up and re-arranged:

According to the scholar Nathan C. Shiverick, Harvard ’52, the leisure bred by wealth creates a demand for an outlet to pass the time and expend energy and aggression. The conclusion of the Civil War ushered in great fortunes for some Bostonians. But Shiverick argues that more lies behind the phenomenon. In the 1880s, when the Irish gained municipal control of the city, the Brahmins were politically disenfranchised. The former ruling class of Boston reasserted itself by creating private charitable corporations and a network of hospitals, schools, almshouses. It was more than nobless oblige; it was a desire to recover some control over the city. Boston’s clubs were [and still are to some extent] the “caucus rooms of the city’s financial and charitable leaders.” The Brahmin establishment felt impelled to play some part in local government. As they had lost control of municipal institutions, they also lost their trust in them. It was this distrust that led to the incorporation of museums, orchestras and other charitable ventures. It was this power grab that lay behind the founding of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public Library.

Several of Boston's clubs.

The creation of the private corporation is essential to the structure of the clubs, says Shiverick. It allowed for the formation of partnerships with limited liability: each partner would not have to risk his whole fortune if disaster struck in the case of, say bankruptcy or lawsuits. In short, the corporation could be used not only to finance a railroad, but also, an orchestra, an orphanage, a polo club equipped with an imported, famous French chef or, as Shiverick notes, a “caucus room.” Thus, business, charitable and social interests all merged into a giant Brahmin front at the turn of the century. That front, moving with the intention of regaining some control of the city, mobilized itself in the clubrooms of Beacon Street mansions. And the old boys’ network, still unassailable, was born.

So exclusive is the Somerset Club, that one night in January 1945 when the club caught fire, the firemen ran through the front entrance before Joseph, the club’s legendary majordomo, ordered them to go around back though the servant’s entrance while he continued serving members their dinner.

The Algonquin is the most grandiose of the city’s clubs, the only one with a house designed especially for its own use, rather than a converted residence. Its massive granite exterior displays two stories of porticoed balconies. The inside boasts an enormous second floor reading room and a massive formal dining room on the fourth floor with 50-foot vaulted ceilings. The fifth floor offers sleeping accomodations. Unlike clubs like the Somerset, the Algonquin Club, since its founding in 1886, is all about business. The Club was founded by General Charles H. Taylor, the same man who resurrected the Boston Globe.

The Tavern (1884) is said to be so exclusive that the man who proposed forming the club, a teacher of Italian descent, was denied admission. Sort of. Another story tells how a man who ate with his toes created the club. Not quite. In fact, a group of young artists and like-minded Gilded Age Bostonian gentlemen would often meet together to dine at some of the restaurants in the Park Street area. One day a troup of vaudville freaks shoved their way through the entrance of the restaurant and demanded service. The “armless wonder” ate from his plate with his toes. The founding Taverners were appalled. One man, an Italian teacher, proposed that they find their own room. The group liked the idea, not him.

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Affirmative Distraction

July 29, 2010

Please excuse this article’s being here posted in place of overdue original content, but it makes some good points, and makes them well… especially for The New York Times. Though, it’s heartening that venerable rag hired Ross Douthat and let him write this. Mr. Douthat, in addition to NYT columnist, doubles as film critic for National Review and hails from New Haven, Connecticut. He joined the paper in 2009 and his career will bear watching.

In March of 2000, Pat Buchanan came to speak at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. Harvard being Harvard, the audience hissed and sneered and made wisecracks. Buchanan being Buchanan, he gave as good as he got. While the assembled Ivy Leaguers accused him of homophobia and racism and anti-Semitism, he accused Harvard — and by extension, the entire American elite — of discriminating against white Christians.

A decade later, the note of white grievance that Buchanan struck that night is part of the conservative melody. You can hear it when Glenn Beck accuses Barack Obama of racism, or when Rush Limbaugh casts liberal policies as an exercise in “reparations.” It was sounded last year during the backlash against Sonia Sotomayor’s suggestion that a “wise Latina” jurist might have advantages over a white male judge, and again last week when conservatives attacked the Justice Department for supposedly going easy on members of the New Black Panther Party accused of voter intimidation.

To liberals, these grievances seem at once noxious and ridiculous. (Is there any group with less to complain about, they often wonder, than white Christian Americans?) But to understand the country’s present polarization, it’s worth recognizing what Pat Buchanan got right.

Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities. Unsurprisingly, they found that the admissions process seemed to favor black and Hispanic applicants, while whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to get in. But what was striking, as Russell K. Nieli pointed out last week on the conservative Web site Minding the Campus, was which whites were most disadvantaged by the process: the downscale, the rural and the working-class.

This was particularly pronounced among the private colleges in the study. For minority applicants, the lower a family’s socioeconomic position, the more likely the student was to be admitted. For whites, though, it was the reverse. An upper-middle-class white applicant was three times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications.

This may be a money-saving tactic. In a footnote, Espenshade and Radford suggest that these institutions, conscious of their mandate to be multiethnic, may reserve their financial aid dollars “for students who will help them look good on their numbers of minority students,” leaving little room to admit financially strapped whites.

But cultural biases seem to be at work as well. Nieli highlights one of the study’s more remarkable findings: while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances. Consciously or unconsciously, the gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural or right-wing or “Red America.”

This provides statistical confirmation for what alumni of highly selective universities already know. The most underrepresented groups on elite campuses often aren’t racial minorities; they’re working-class whites (and white Christians in particular) from conservative states and regions. Inevitably, the same underrepresentation persists in the elite professional ranks these campuses feed into: in law and philanthropy, finance and academia, the media and the arts.

This breeds paranoia, among elite and non-elites alike. Among the white working class, increasingly the most reliable Republican constituency, alienation from the American meritocracy fuels the kind of racially tinged conspiracy theories that Beck and others have exploited — that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Marxist hand-picked by a shadowy liberal cabal, that a Wall Street-Washington axis wants to flood the country with third world immigrants, and so forth.

Among the highly educated and liberal, meanwhile, the lack of contact with rural, working-class America generates all sorts of wild anxieties about what’s being plotted in the heartland. In the Bush years, liberals fretted about a looming evangelical theocracy. In the age of the Tea Parties, they see crypto-Klansmen and budding Timothy McVeighs everywhere they look.

This cultural divide has been widening for years, and bridging it is beyond any institution’s power. But it’s a problem admissions officers at top-tier colleges might want to keep in mind when they’re assembling their freshman classes.

If such universities are trying to create an elite as diverse as the nation it inhabits, they should remember that there’s more to diversity than skin color — and that both their school and their country might be better off if they admitted a few more R.O.T.C. cadets, and a few more aspiring farmers


In Decline, Graciously

July 2, 2010

Via The New York Times:

Satisfaction with our national progress should not make us forget its authors: the very Protestant elite that founded and long dominated our nation’s institutions of higher education and government, including the Supreme Court.

Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic, racial or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socioeconomic power by hewing voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds. The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph.

Like any ethno-racial or religious group, the population of white Protestants is internally diverse. It would be foolish to conflate the descendants of New England smallholders with the offspring of Scandinavian sod farmers in the Middle West, just as it would be a mistake to confuse the Milanese with the Sicilians, or the children of Havana doctors with the grandchildren of dirt farmers from Chiapas, Mexico.

So, when discussing the white elite that exercised such disproportionate power in American history, we are talking about a subgroup, mostly of English or Scots-Irish origin, whose ancestors came to this land in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their forebears fought the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution, embedding in it a distinctive set of beliefs of Protestant origin, including inalienable rights and the separation of church and state.

It is not as though white Protestants relinquished power quickly or without reservation. Catholic immigrants, whether from Ireland or Southern Europe, faced a century of organized discrimination and were regularly denounced as slavish devotees of the pope unsuited to democratic participation.

And, although anti-Semitism in America never had anything like the purchase it had in Europe, it was a persistent barrier. Protestants like Abbott Lawrence Lowell, a great president of Harvard in the early 20th century, tried to impose formal quotas to limit Jewish admissions to the university. The Protestant governing elite must also bear its own share of responsibility for slavery and racial discrimination.

Yet, after the ideals of meritocratic inclusion gained a foothold, progress was remarkably steady and smooth. Take Princeton University, a longtime bastion of the Southern Protestant elite in particular. The Princeton of F. Scott Fitzgerald was segregated and exclusive. When Hemingway described Robert Cohn in the opening of “The Sun Also Rises” as a Jew who had been “the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton,” he was using shorthand for a character at once isolated, insecure and pugnacious. As late as 1958, the year of the “dirty bicker” in which Jews were conspicuously excluded from its eating clubs, Princeton could fairly have been seen as a redoubt of all-male Protestant privilege.

In the 1960s, however, Princeton made a conscious decision to change, eventually opening its admissions to urban ethnic minorities and women. That decision has now borne fruit. Astonishingly, the last three Supreme Court nominees — Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — are Princeton graduates, from the Classes of 1972, ’76, and ’81, respectively. The appointments of these three justices to replace Protestant predecessors turned the demographic balance of the court.

Why did the Protestant elite open its institutions to all comers? The answer can be traced in large part to the anti-aristocratic ideals of the Constitution, which banned titles of nobility and thus encouraged success based on merit. For many years, the Protestant elite was itself open to rising white Protestants not from old-family backgrounds.

Money certainly granted entrée into governing circles, but education was probably more important to the way the Protestant elite defined itself, which is why the opening of the great American universities has had such an epochal effect in changing the demographics of American elites. Another key source was the ideal of fair play, imported from the ideology of the English public schools, but practiced far more widely in the United States than in the class-ridden mother country.

Together, these social beliefs in equality undercut the impulse toward exclusive privilege that every successful group indulges on occasion. A handful of exceptions for admission to societies, clubs and colleges — trivial in and of themselves — helped break down barriers more broadly. This was not just a case of an elite looking outside itself for rejuvenation: the inclusiveness of the last 50 years has been the product of sincerely held ideals put into action.

Interestingly, this era of inclusion was accompanied by a corresponding diffusion of the distinctive fashion (or rather anti-fashion) of the Protestant elite class. The style now generically called “prep,” originally known as “Ivy League,” was long purveyed by Jewish and immigrant haberdashers (the “J.” in the New Haven store J. Press stands for Jacobi) and then taken global by Ralph Lauren, né Lifshitz. But until the Protestant-dominated Ivy League began to open up, the wearers of the style were restricted to that elite subculture.

The spread of Ivy League style is therefore not a frivolous matter. Today the wearing of the tweed is not anachronism or assimilation, but a mark of respect for the distinctive ethnic group that opened its doors to all — an accomplishment that must be remembered, acknowledged and emulated.


Pretenders To The Throne

May 19, 2010

Rush Limbaugh is an author, in the most sluttish sense of that word (that is, its loosest and most non-discriminatory application). So are Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity. They’ve all published (and, to some extent, written) books. “Books” is another loosely and generously applied word, but it’s true all their books share some commonality: they’re double-spaced, published in large font, and don’t include any words requiring a dictionary. These guys know their audience, and it’s not the Harvard political science department. Rush himself has less than a year’s worth of Southeast Missouri State University under his belt.

William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote real books. The single-spaced kind, with no pictures. He graduated from Yale University and published his first, God & Man at Yale, shortly thereafter. It was revolutionary for its time, and he followed up with over 50 more; some political discourse, others spy novels, travel journals, or biographies. He also served briefly in the Central Intelligence Agency, as a field officer in Mexico, and hosted the talk show Firing Line. He wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column, On The Right, ran for mayor of New York, and founded a magazine, National Review. NR is still a bastion of conservative thought… not just of party line conservatism, but of conservative thought. Through it, he mentored young thinkers like Dinesh D’Souza and Richard Brookhiser.

Rush & co. are noisy, arrogant pretenders to Buckley’s throne. Buckley earned the title Lion of The Right; today’s pundits are hyenas cackling over the lion’s leavings. None enjoy his intellect or joi de vivre; Buckley was playmaker, coach, and commissioner of a game in which the rest are Monday morning quarterbacks. They abstain from play, whereas Buckley launched a movement and defined conservative thought. Limbaugh and the others define only conservative rhetoric, and trust their audience not to spot the difference.

William F. Buckley, Jr.


The Great Unknown (Or, Caveat Emptor)

May 11, 2010

United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ imminent vacation of the bench means the Obama administration will have another chance to add a friendly jurist to the Court, and Solicitor General Elena Kagan is the President’s pick.

Typically, proposed justices are vetted against their judicial records: were their decisions often overturned by higher courts, or upheld? Did they hold fair trials? Did they often commit reversible error, as decided by reviewing judges? Have they written thoughtful, scholarly opinions which carefully set out their reasoning? The judicial history assembled by each judge reads like a resume, and those resumes are the yardsticks by which candidates for the nation’s highest court are measured.

Unfamiliar with Solicitor Kagan’s judicial record? Not sure, based on her published opinions and decisions, how she feels about pressing issues or how she behaves as a judge?

So is America, because Ms. Kagan has never been a judge. She has no record in the courtroom, no library of opinions, no history of having decisions upheld or overturned… in short, she has no judicial resume which might hint at even a whiff of qualification.

Perhaps the President based his support on her commendable record of service in the Solicitor General’s office? If so, there must be some stellar example of federal advocacy in it, because she’s barely been on the job one year. Hardly enough time to have compiled anything even close to a reviewable record of performance, good or bad.

True, she did well as the Dean of Harvard Law School. She strengthened what was already the world’s finest law school and made a demonstrable effort to reach out to conservative factions of the faculty, earning a reputation as a concensus-builder. But running a school is much different from serving as a justice on the most powerful country in the world’s most powerful court.

Ms. Kagan is likely a very deft administrator and a skilled attorney; you have to be, to run Harvard Law and to represent the United States government in court as Solicitor General. Unfortunately, neither of these things begins to hint at, let alone establish, her qualifications as a judge, let alone one sitting on the Supreme Court. And, considering the lifetime appointments which justices enjoy, there is little room for error in their selection… and even less for the dangers of the unknown, untested, and unproven.


Dollars & Sense

April 7, 2010

Online salary database PayScale.com undertook recently to rank American schools by their students’ average income upon graduation, and then again ten years out. Things broke down thus:

  1. Dartmouth College ($58,000 / $129,000)
  2. MIT ($71,000 / $126,000)
  3. Harvard University ($60,000 / $126,000)
  4. Harvey Mudd College ($71,000 / $125,000)
  5. Stanford University ($67,000 / $124,000)
  6. Princeton University ($65,000 / $124,000)
  7. Colgate University ($51,000 / $122,000)
  8. University of Notre Dame ($55,000 / $121,000)
  9. Yale University ($56,000 / $120,000)
  10. University of Pennsylvania ($60,000 / $118,000)

This year wasn’t the first that Dartmouth topped the list; though its graduates start at one of the lower top-ten median salaries, their rise in earnings over the subsequent ten years is largely due to an alumni network legendary for its loyalty.

Al Lee, PayScale’s Director of Quantitative Analysis, doesn’t give much credence to his report, though: “Even more than where you go to school, the degree you get is a bigger influencer of your pay for the vast majority of Americans.” True, Mr. Lee… but then again, the vast majority of Americans didn’t go to any of these schools.

Dartmouth wins again.


Brooks, on The Machine

February 28, 2010

David Brooks, The New York Times‘ token conservative, recently wrote an opinion called “The Power Elite” which was published in that newspaper on February 18 of this year. In it, he accurately plots the trajectory of America’s confidence in its leadership and establishments as the composition of those institutions “progresses” …or rather, fails to. It’s worth a read, and presented here, below, sans editing. Mr. Brooks is on to something. 

One of the great achievements of modern times is that we have made society more fair. Sixty years ago, the upper echelons were dominated by what E. Digby Baltzell called The Protestant Establishment and C. Wright Mills called The Power Elite. If your father went to Harvard, you had a 90 percent chance of getting in yourself, and the path upward from there was grooved in your favor. 

Since then, we have opened up opportunities for women, African-Americans, Jews, Italians, Poles, Hispanics and members of many other groups. Moreover, we’ve changed the criteria for success. It is less necessary to be clubbable. It is more important to be smart and hard-working. 

Yet here’s the funny thing. As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower. 

It’s not even clear that society is better led. Fifty years ago, the financial world was dominated by well-connected blue bloods who drank at lunch and played golf in the afternoons. Now financial firms recruit from the cream of the Ivy League. In 2007, 47 percent of Harvard grads went into finance or consulting. Yet would we say that banks are performing more ably than they were a half-century ago? 

Alas...

 Government used to be staffed by party hacks. Today, it is staffed by people from public policy schools. But does government work better than it did before? 

Journalism used to be the preserve of working-class stiffs who filed stories and hit the bars. Now it is the preserve of cultured analysts who file stories and hit the water bottles. Is the media overall more reputable now than it was then? 

The promise of the meritocracy has not been fulfilled. The talent level is higher, but the reputation is lower. 

Why has this happened? I can think of a few contributing factors. 

First, the meritocracy is based on an overly narrow definition of talent. Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years, we’ve seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating. 

Second, this new system has created new social chasms. In the old days, there were obviously big differences between people whose lives were defined by “The Philadelphia Story” and those who were defined by “The Grapes of Wrath.” But if you ran the largest bank in Murfreesboro, Tenn., you probably lived in Murfreesboro. Now you live in Charlotte or New York City. You might have married a secretary. Now you marry another banker. You would have had similar lifestyle habits as other people in town. Now the lifestyle patterns of the college-educated are very different from the patterns in other classes. Social attitudes are very different, too. 

It could be that Americans actually feel less connected to their leadership class now than they did then, with good reason. 

Third, leadership-class solidarity is weaker. The Protestant Establishment was inbred. On the other hand, those social connections placed informal limits on strife. Personal scandals were hushed up. Now members of the leadership class are engaged in a perpetual state of war. Each side seeks daily advantage in ways that poison the long-term reputations of everybody involved. 

Fourth, time horizons have shrunk. If you were an old blue blood, you traced your lineage back centuries, and there was a decent chance that you’d hand your company down to members of your clan. That subtly encouraged long-term thinking. 

Now people respond to ever-faster performance criteria — daily stock prices or tracking polls. This perversely encourages reckless behavior. To leave a mark in a fast, competitive world, leaders seek to hit grandiose home runs. Clinton tried to transform health care. Bush tried to transform the Middle East. Obama has tried to transform health care, energy and much more. 

There’s less emphasis on steady, gradual change and more emphasis on the big swing. This produces more spectacular failures and more uncertainty. Many Americans, not caught up on the romance of this sort of heroism, are terrified. 

Fifth, society is too transparent. Since Watergate, we have tried to make government as open as possible. But as William Galston of the Brookings Institution jokes, government should sometimes be shrouded for the same reason that middle-aged people should be clothed. This isn’t Galston’s point, but I’d observe that the more government has become transparent, the less people are inclined to trust it. 

This is not to say that we should return to the days of the WASP ascendancy. That’s neither possible nor desirable. Rather, our system of promotion has grown some pretty serious problems, which are more evident with each passing day.