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

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Number Three

January 30, 2010

Old wives say death comes in threes. Those old wives who are also students of high-brow American letters will be well-vindicated by the trio which chose this week to shuffle off the mortal coil: Zinn, Salinger, Auchincloss.

Howard Zinn wrote A People’s History of the United States, a leftist polemic repudiating the idea that our founding fathers were anything but wealthy, white Protestants who hated paying taxes. That is, Republicans. He went on to teach at universities across the country and involved himself vocally in the civil rights struggles of his day. Professor Zinn died on Wednesday, January 27. He was 87 years old.

J.D. Salinger was an accomplished author of short stories, once (fleetingly) compared favorably to John Cheever in that genre. His most notable work, though, is The Catcher in the Rye, a coming-of-age story about precarious innocence and discontent. Its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, became a widely-identified with symbol of youthful rebellion while his creater, Mr. Salinger, became a reclusive eccentric, holed up in the foothills of Cornish, New Hampshire and suing to keep his words out of print. Mr. Salinger also died on Wednesday. He was 91.

More subtle horns announced the passing of Louis Auchincloss, the descendant of wealthy Scots who made a career of profiling, in fiction and memoir, New York’s Patrician class. Mr. Auchincloss wrote nearly 50 books, averaging one per year, each year of his career, a rate of production all the more impressive considering his simultaneous duties as a partner with Hawkins, Delafield & Wood, a prominent Wall Street law firm. Mr. Auchincloss was also the president of the American Academy of Arts & Letters. As an older author, he allowed his books to be edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, his cousin.

Louis Auchincloss, author and attorney.

“I’m rather inclined to be edgy when I’m not writing,” explained the author, of his reasons for turning out books in such droves. He was certainly as edgy as a man can be, while still starting sentences with the phrase “I’m rather inclined.”

Mr. Auchincloss wrote books about country clubs, boardrooms, summer homes, and dinner parties. Though ridiculed as “America’s foremost author of manners,” Gore Vidal defended Mr. Auchincloss: “Nobody else took those kinds of people, because nobody else understood them, except in the dumbest way.”

Mr. Auchincloss came to writing, and to the law, in the usual way of his generation: preparatory school at Groton, undergraduate work at Yale University, and legal studies at the University of Virginia. He served in the Navy during the second World War and then wrote The Indifferent Children under the name Andrew Lee. It was so well-recieved that he used his real name ever after.

In 1951 Mr. Auchincloss quit the practice of law to devote all his time to writing. Realizing that it wasn’t making any difference, he went back to work in 1954. He was later commissioned to write a short biography of President Theodore Roosevelt for Times Books. He delivered it personally, ahead of schedule, and handed over one he’d written of Calvin Coolidge also. Unfortunately, they told him, Coolidge had been assigned to somebody else.

Mr. Auchincloss died this past Tuesday, January 26. He was 92 years old.


How It Happened

October 20, 2009

New York Times contributor Calvin Trillin wrote a column titled “Wall Street Smarts” for the October 13, 2009 edition of that rag, in which he recounts a meeting with a well-dressed, old-fashioned sage in a Manhattan bar. The piece is reprinted in its entirety here, below, both for the style of its prose and the wisdom of its subject.

“If you really want to know why the financial system nearly collapsed in the fall of 2008, I can tell you in one simple sentence.” The statement came from a man sitting three or four stools away from me in a sparsely populated Midtown bar, where I was waiting for a friend. “But I have to buy you a drink to hear it?” I asked.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I can buy my own drinks. My 401(k) is intact. I got out of the market 8 or 10 years ago, when I saw what was happening.”

He did indeed look capable of buying his own drinks — one of which, a dry martini, straight up, was on the bar in front of him. He was a well-preserved, gray-haired man of about retirement age, dressed in the same sort of clothes he must have worn on some Ivy League campus in the late ’50s or early ’60s — a tweed jacket, gray pants, a blue button-down shirt and a club tie that, seen from a distance, seemed adorned with tiny brussels sprouts.

"He did indeed look capable of buying his own drinks."

"Capable of buying his own drinks."

“O.K.,” I said. “Let’s hear it.” “The financial system nearly collapsed,” he said, “because smart guys had started working on Wall Street.” He took a sip of his martini, and stared straight at the row of bottles behind the bar, as if the conversation was now over.

“But weren’t there smart guys on Wall Street in the first place?” I asked. He looked at me the way a mathematics teacher might look at a child who, despite heroic efforts by the teacher, seemed incapable of learning the most rudimentary principles of long division. “You are either a lot younger than you look or you don’t have much of a memory,” he said. “One of the speakers at my 25th reunion said that, according to a survey he had done of those attending, income was now precisely in inverse proportion to academic standing in the class, and that was partly because everyone in the lower third of the class had become a Wall Street millionaire.”

I reflected on my own college class, of roughly the same era. The top student had been appointed a federal appeals court judge — earning, by Wall Street standards, tip money. A lot of the people with similarly impressive academic records became professors. I could picture the future titans of Wall Street dozing in the back rows of some gut course like Geology 101, popularly known as Rocks for Jocks.

“That actually sounds more or less accurate,” I said. “Of course it’s accurate,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong: the guys from the lower third of the class who went to Wall Street had a lot of nice qualities. Most of them were pleasant enough. They made a good impression. And now we realize that by the standards that came later, they weren’t really greedy. They just wanted a nice house in Greenwich and maybe a sailboat. A lot of them were from families that had always been on Wall Street, so they were accustomed to nice houses in Greenwich. They didn’t feel the need to leverage the entire business so they could make the sort of money that easily supports the second oceangoing yacht.”

“So what happened?” “I told you what happened. Smart guys started going to Wall Street.”

“Why?” “I thought you’d never ask,” he said, making a practiced gesture with his eyebrows that caused the bartender to get started mixing another martini. “Two things happened. One is that the amount of money that could be made on Wall Street with hedge fund and private equity operations became just mind-blowing. At the same time, college was getting so expensive that people from reasonably prosperous families were graduating with huge debts.

So even the smart guys went to Wall Street, maybe telling themselves that in a few years they’d have so much money they could then become professors or legal-services lawyers or whatever they’d wanted to be in the first place. That’s when you started reading stories about the percentage of the graduating class of Harvard College who planned to go into the financial industry or go to business school so they could then go into the financial industry. That’s when you started reading about these geniuses from M.I.T. and Caltech who instead of going to graduate school in physics went to Wall Street to calculate arbitrage odds.”

“But you still haven’t told me how that brought on the financial crisis.”

“Did you ever hear the word ‘derivatives’?” he said. “Do you think our guys could have invented, say, credit default swaps? Give me a break! They couldn’t have done the math.”

“Why do I get the feeling that there’s one more step in this scenario?” I said. “Because there is,” he said. “When the smart guys started this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place, who was running the firms they worked for? Our guys! The lower third of the class! Guys who didn’t have the foggiest notion of what a credit default swap was. All our guys knew was that they were getting disgustingly rich, and they had gotten to like that. All of that easy money had eaten away at their sense of enoughness.”

“So having smart guys there almost caused Wall Street to collapse.”

“You got it,” he said. “It took you awhile, but you got it.” The theory sounded too simple to be true, but right offhand I couldn’t find any flaws in it. I found myself contemplating the sort of havoc a horde of smart guys could wreak in other industries. I saw those industries falling one by one, done in by superior intelligence. “I think I need a drink,” I said.

He nodded at my glass and made another one of those eyebrow gestures to the bartender. “Please,” he said. “Allow me.”