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Elites: Markers and Makers

claud_alexander's picture

It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail. --Gore Vidal

A few years spent dinning the virtues of free trade agreements and supra-national organizations into the undergraduate minds of America's future elite left me with a small but abiding obsession with "the curve."

What bothered me at the time was how the curve meant that, one way or another, a set number of my students would have to get "bad" grades (C+ or B-). Not, perhaps, a fate worse than death, but traumatizing Destroyers-of-GPA nonetheless, at least for the kind of high-achieving non-legacy students that made it to that school. My abiding nightmare was that I'd have to slap such a grade on some perfectly average (i.e., B-B+) student, simply for having the bad luck of winding up in an especially good section.

Now, this never happened, but the chance that it might haunted me. So much, in fact, that -- I eventually realized -- I spent the first weeks of every quarter subconsciously assessing my sections to pick out which students I'd likely be able to consign to the "loser" grades with a good conscience. Put another way, grading on the curve meant unavoidably that I was in the business of manufacturing losers, and I was relieved whenever the course material was difficult enough -- or the human material dim enough -- that I could fulfill this role without actual injustice.

So far, so much mnemonic irrelevance. I only bring this up because I think there might be a broader dynamic at work in societies where the consensus becomes "average is over". That stigmatizing the average and adulating the elite produce unwelcome phenomena such as rampant cheating is well known. Less so, I think, is how a great deal of potentially useful endeavor goes into subjects or activities that are desirable primarily for their purely numerical quality of producing a few winners and a bunch of non-winners. Below the break, two examples, one from the military and one from professional economics (relevant sentences bolded).

Former Army officer and Vietnam veteran John T. Reed wrote a fascinating long reflection on how important getting "the Ranger tab" has become for aspiring officers (Corrente readers might remember Ranger School usually mentioned in press writeups of Petraeus and McChrystal).

“Elite” military units are big on bragging about the ratio of those who want to join that unit and those who actually are allowed to. In the song Ballad of the Green Berets there is a line: “One hundred men will test today, but only three win the green beret.”

It was my distinct impression at Ranger School that they flunked some guys because they did not master the subject matter, but that most who flunked were arbitrarily flunked just so the Rangers could brag about how hard it was to be a Ranger. I seem to recall that only one-third of my Ranger class was awarded the Ranger Tab on the airstrip at Eglin AFB. Probably two-thirds to three-quarters should have been. My Ranger buddy recalls that about two-thirds got the tab and one-third flunked. Another WP and Ranger classmate of mine says he thinks our ranger class had 237 guys, including many non-West Pointers, and that 92 ended up getting the tab. A Web site about a captain who died during Ranger training says about half flunk.

Ranger School is not rocket science. Flunking people arbitrarily to meet a bragging-rights quota was unfair to those who had earned the tab, but were denied it, and a waste of Army resources and manpower in that those who flunked for no good reason were generally not permitted to serve in Ranger units in spite of being qualified to do so. If they were career officers, flunking Ranger school probably also meant the end of their careers as far as ever making multiple stars was concerned.

There was no such arbitrary flunking out at West Point or Airborne (paratrooper) school, but there was at Ranger School. At my civilian graduate school, the Harvard MBA program, they do flunk out the bottom 10% every year. That is an arbitrary quota. But their reason is to motivate all the students and eliminate the notion that once you are admitted you can just loaf until graduation. Loafing was not a problem in Ranger School.


In a Time of War seemed to indicate that graduating from Ranger School and receiving the Ranger Tab is far more important to your career. According to the book, all eyes go to your left shoulder when fellow military first meet you and the lack of a Ranger Tab results in the question, “What happened to you at Ranger?” One West Point graduate who did not get the tab was unhappy to hear he was being assigned for the summer to West Point because he would be disgraced by not having the tab.

Reed adds further on that some of the "skills" imparted at Ranger school are pointless for anything other than "bragging rights."

The Ranger Web site says the third phase of Ranger School takes place in a swamp. It sure does. Why? Do military units work in swamps? I suspect it may have happened once in the history of the world. American Revolutionary War officer Francis Marion was known as the Swamp Fox for some of his maneuvers in South Carolina. But I cannot recall off hand any other swamp operations by any other military unit of any country in any war in history.

When I searched for “military swamp operations” in Google, it asked me if I meant “swap.” Most of the resulting search results were about U.S. Army Ranger School or use of the phrase “drain the swamp” in military discussions. They do not teach Rangers how to drain the swamp. That’s probably the only thing they ought to teach about a swamp—other than to avoid them.

So why is one-third of Ranger School in a swamp? Probably because it sounds really horrible in a Hollywood way. In other words, it’s a show-off stunt chosen for its public-relations benefits, not its relevance to real military operations—not unlike rappelling and riding the “slide for life.”

If I were an Army commander near a swamp that contained enemy soldiers, my response to learning of where they were would probably be, “They’re in the swamp? Great! Let ’em stay there. They’ll be straggling out looking for food and medical care soon enough. We’ll get ’em then.” I sure as hell would not go into the swamp after them unless they proved able to mount significant operations against us from there, which I doubt they could. How would they rest? How would they get much equipment, weapons, and ammunition through the swamp? How would they get resupplied? How would they evacuate their wounded and sick? Ranger School students who die in the swamp phase often did so because it took too many hours to get them to a hospital.

During World War II in the Pacific, we let hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers languish on swamp-like tropical islands for the entire war.

Most Ranger School student deaths appear to be in the swamp phase.

As it happens, a fairly recent piece by Noah Smith shows, unwittingly, the same process at work at top mainstream economics departments.

But why do economists have the option to go work in consulting and finance? The answer is simple: They have the technical skills to do so. I’m not talking about fancy math. No one hires you to do real analysis -- that’s just something economists learn as an IQ test, then never use. If financial companies need someone to do serious math, they will hire a mathematician or a physicist. As for the general equilibrium models that macroeconomists call “math,” well…no one uses those for anything except publishing macroeconomics papers.

Real analysis, to use Reed's Ranger School terminology, acts then as a kind of "swamp phase" for aspiring economists. Perhaps the fact that so many mainstream economists never actually get around to finding out how money works should be seen as an opportunity cost of their having to spend time learning something they never use as an IQ test.

What I find simultaneously fascinating and alarming about all this is how elite-making criteria can become entirely divorced from what anyone actually does after attaining the elite marker. Oh, the markers have to be associated in some general way with good things such as toughness (Ranger school) or intelligence (real analysis), but what's critical is that they come out of an activity that will reliably yield some variant of a 10-80-10 distribution.

Over time, the distribution might start flattening out, as more and more people specialize in acquiring the elite-marking attribute, leading either to an arms race (as appears to have happened in high schoolers' extracurricular charity, learning, and "leadership" activities, once parents cottoned on to the fact that these were used to sort between otherwise identical SAT/GPAs), or to the abandonment of the elite-making activity as no longer fit for its intended purpose of marking out the people that matter (knowledge of "the canon" of European literature used to be thought important, I hear -- now any kind of moron has read Kafka and knows what to say about Flaubert).

The hypothesis, then, is something like: "A society obsessed with elites will pay disproportionate attention in performing or creating activities that will yield skewed distributions of achievement, quite regardless of how these activities might be useful to itself, or to how the time and energy spent in them might have been used otherwise." I'd be interested to know if anyone else has noticed something of the kind.

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Submitted by lambert on

A mathematical construct.

What's fascinating is that for reasons I forget*, nodes in a scale-free network (like the Internet) tend to be distributed along a power curve, with a very few highly connected hub nodes at the top, and then a steepish shoulder, and then a "long tail" of nodes with fewer and fewer connections.

So you see this topic feeds directly into network analysis and constraints on visual representation!

* It could even be random, with a few nodes having the dumb luck as first mover's advantage.

Submitted by lambert on

There is also the idea of society as a tournament, "tournament theory." Few winners, many losers (and a lot like Game of Thrones...). I would swear that there was an NC post on this, but I can't find it.

* * *

And then there's the cult of "leadership" (i.e., made it to the top of the power curve). There aren't Presidents, or CEOs, or coaches, or even ministers; everybody is a leader.

* * *

And then of course there's this:

"Coffee is for closers." Read the comments, they're horrifying.

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Submitted by claud_alexander on

. . . the one we're meant to worship is the bell-shaped one.

Apropos mindless Glengarry Glen Ross dynamics (can probably recite that speech--has an overlap with porteño verbal violence that I found weirdly comforting while in the Bay Area), do check out what the former officer I mentioned above wrote about The 'U.S. military’s marathon, 30-year, single-elimination, suck-up tournament'
OR 'How America selects its generals'

Feel a real cognitive dissonance with this guy, btw. He writes books on real-estate advice (!), is some kind of star high school football coach (!!) and sincerely admires Jamie Dimon (?!?!--aowgh). Every healthy prejudice in my body says that nothing intelligent or honest can come out of that, yet his military pieces some of the best I've read anywhere. I guess this is what left-right alliances against the plutocratic center feel like.

Submitted by lambert on

... talking to stone right wingers (at least those without regional or racial identification) far easier than talking to a Democratic loyalist or a liberal academic. At least I know where I stand.

* * *

So, the "suck up" rule is how the power curve is implemented in the Army. I think the power curve in the Army might be less steep than in wealth. I'm thinking that suck up is not so much a universal as one function for power curve construction among others. The rules for climbing in a corporate or political heirarchy would be similar but not identical. The Army because of its rigidity would be a limit case.

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Submitted by claud_alexander on

Via Lars P. Syll's blog, a short talk by an actual scientist (you know, the kind that wouldn't find Noah Smith's IQ tests all that informative) on the kind of distortion that can happen when random fluctuations (your "dumb first-mover advantage) are extolled as the elite model for everyone else.

Apropos your interest in contemporary "agnotology" tag, note his final point about being willing to do things that one's not not good at. Ties in with something I remember vividly about the elite types I was once around. They got to where they were by being excellent at doing a set number of things high school and college taught them were the things that marked out the elite smart people, and were averse to engaging with anything that they did not master at a similar level, becoming in a sense "Prisoners of Excellence" --God, the things I could do as an Atlantic editor. . .

Basically, the only way many of them are ever willing to learn new things is if there's a superstructure of classes, syllabi, exercises to walk them through it, with an obligatory final grade that will tell them they are good at it. The experience of being bad at something (however brief) seems otherwise too distressing. (All this feeds perfectly into the credentializing machine, btw. Nobody dares make a move without at least some kind of paid MOOC.)

PS. A trivial but at the time personally unwelcome consequence of this is that grad student conversations were generally **INSANELY BORING**, because topics were limited, in effect, to what everyone already knew. Bringing up something people might not know would cause those people distress, and they might feel that (the conversation being multilateral) it's part of a deliberate attempt to "show them up", so. . . "great bad movies" we can all laugh at, Cormac McCarthy, the money made by Law and GSB people and sordid departmental gossip.
Were the humanities any better? Or did people also freeze if you brought up some non-syllabus author you thought was good?

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Submitted by claud_alexander on

Oddly moving, too, at least in an academic/intellectual environment full of Alec Baldwins ("you can't [code/model/natural-language-process/algorithmically-reduce/whatever] shit, you ARE shit") .

Submitted by lambert on

Well, here's a differing view. And I got hooked, too, I suppose for some of the same reasons I got hooked on Dune when I was a lot younger, another deeply reactionary book with a great plot and great characters.

I think the airport bookstore "Leadership Secrets of Jamie Lannister" types will write anything. That doesn't tell me a lot.

Of course, as a New Englander, "Winter is coming" really rings true for me (as it should also for people who are worried about climate. The Baffler article seems to present Martin as trapped within TINA or even encouraging the belief. But surely the biggest story arc of all is the tragic inability of Westoros to cope with winter's approach?