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On the Playing Fields of the Georgetown Day High School

claud_alexander's picture

In my four decades in national journalism – I started at the Associated Press in 1974 – I have grown increasingly concerned about how Americans respond to information, or put differently, how propagandists package their messaging to elicit the desired response. In an age of cynicism, the trick is to get the “big ha-ha!” – convincing you to laugh at the target whether deserved or not. --Robert Parry, the other day

Not the least interesting feature of having moved to the US in my early 20s is the occasional discovery of qualities many Americans seem to enjoy but that I, Buenos Aires-bred, instinctively recoil from. The roguish charm of the rote George Clooney character, for example, is one that I can't help but associate with overbearing grifters, so some of the guy's ur-roles are as odd to me as though someone had thought to cast Ricky Roma as the lead in a romantic comedy.

I thought of this social dissonance while exploring that peculiar embodiment of American credentialed meritocracy that is Vox,

noticing that their standard article summary ends with "Here's what you need to know." The line always bugs me, partly because it triggers flashbacks of bar- or newsroom idiot know-it-alls starting their spiel with "Look kid, sit down and let me tell you how it really is," partly because I don't understand why Vox's readership of successful or aspiring professional middle-class Americans, touchy in all kind of small ways, would tolerate being talked to like that.

The Robert Parry piece linked-to above led me to a partial answer, which I hereby respectfully submit, following lambert's foundational work, as a contribution towards A Theory of the Explainer Class. It's just high school, Jack. I don't mean this in the trivial sense that high school shapes who we are and we remember borne back ceaselessly into the past...zzzzzz..., but rather that the explainer class has never left the intellectual world of high school, which is why its members are so uniquely susceptible to, say, the threat of ostracizing ridicule (Parry's "big ha-ha!" journo consensus above), or unembarrassed by the exercise of unearned authority, such as Matty Yglesias, '03 Harvard philosophy BA who last week explainered, from his $1.2 million condo in Logan Circle, why a $15-minimum wage "is probably too high" .

Here's where I'd refine lambert's 20% of "functional and wannabe (strivers)" through the filter of undergraduate or at-most-masters education choices.

It's an interesting question whether the combination of rentier capitalism, social deference and high inequality will lead generally to an infantilization of the educated middle class. I'm thinking here of that bit in Orwell's "Inside the Whale" where he talks about how,

Towards the end of Mr Cyril Connolly's recent book, Enemies of Promise, there occurs an interesting and revealing passage. The first part of the book, is, more or less, an evaluation of present-day literature. Mr Connolly belongs exactly to the generation of the writers of 'the movement', and with not many reservations their values are his values. It is interesting to notice that among prose-writers he admires chiefly those specialising in violence — the would-be tough American school, Hemingway, etc. The latter part of the book, however, is autobiographical and consists of an account, fascinatingly accurate, of life at a preparatory school and Eton in the years 1910-20. Mr Connolly ends by remarking:

Were I to deduce anything from my feelings on leaving Eton, it might be called The Theory of Permanent Adolescence. It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development.
When you read the second sentence in this passage, your natural impulse is to look for the misprint. Presumably there is a 'not' left out, or something. But no, not a bit of it! He means it! And what is more, he is merely speaking the truth, in an inverted fashion. 'Cultured' middle-class life has reached a depth of softness at which a public-school education — five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery — can actually be looked back upon as an eventful period. To nearly all the writers who have counted during the thirties, what more has ever happened than Mr Connolly records in Enemies of Promise? It is the same pattern all the time; public school, university, a few trips abroad, then London. Hunger, hardship, solitude, exile, war, prison, persecution, manual labour — hardly even words.

So back when I was young and handsome and could get away with wearing half-turtle-necks while instilling into Bay-Area undergrads such as Vox's Jim Tankersky all they'd ever know about political economy, I was struck by two things about my colleagues in the PhD program. One, they were weirdly envious at the money made by people their age (or younger--gasp!) in Silicon Valley VCs, the GSB or even law school people, an envy I thought weird simply because, if you were smart and came from a good school and wanted to make money, well, then you wouldn't have chosen to become a grad student in [insert super-soft-social-science-here]. I remember this whenever I look up some Voxxer who's written an contemptuous piece about dirty-hippy complaints against Uber/TPP/Wal Mart/etc., and find, not some Galtian titan of the Harvard Business School (those go on to make money, which is why I'd interject them and many economists between the 1% and the rest of the ~20% we're talking about here), but rather an Ivy BA (not even a BS!, for you academic types) in some precious humanities thing like Russian literature or some super-soft social science (at the undergrad level, anyway) like polisci.

Take Andrew Ross Sorkin, probably --before young Ezra's Vox valuation, anyway-- foremost among the courtiers produced by the Explainer Class. I was looking his background up right now in a properly-Popperian attempt to falsify my hypothesis about the kind of undergrad degrees finance or economics journalists tend to have. His Wikipedia entry caught me up short: Ivy, inevitably, but his degree a B.S. OK, those tend to be in serious fields like mathematics or physics, so, I guess my pattern's not that tight. But the complete lack of any indication about what major this BS might have been in bugged me, so I looked further and came across a Cornell alumni magazine profile that *still* didn't mention what exactly he graduated in, which really made me suspect there was something promising here. Finally, I found the answer in a New Yorkprofile, where I think the adoring nature of the interview ("Sorkin is where he is today, the most famous financial journalist of his generation, in large part because of his herculean work ethic.") led him to drop his guard a bit, and allow the writer to start a paragraph with "When the summer ended, Sorkin left for Cornell, where he majored in communications."... Communications!

I suspect this at some structural level inevitable because, well, nobody who's actually worked any particular job can be an unequivocal, fervent evangelist for it, at least not in the profession's own talking points. Every good journalist I've known had a low opinion of the profession, ditto academics: not in the sense that the profession is evil, but simply that what it manages to produces often happens in spite of, rather than because, the professional incentive structures that are in place. The great John Dolan touched on this problem in a review where he comments that the author like a lot of self-indoctrinated Leftists, never had to encounter actual academic leftists until he'd decided on his own that they were in the right. So he's embarrassingly enthusiastic about these people, who are, let's face it, unbearable. So one can begin to see how there might be a role for articulate BAs from good schools who'd like to make more money than their majors'd otherwise warrant in our brave new neoliberal world. Not a huge number of spots for that job (thing could be automated, really, Tom-Friedman-generator like), but there's a constellation of government-or-foundation non-jobs in cities where this particular class of "striver" constituency gathers, so there'll usually be plenty of names with which to freshen up the byline.

However, American credentialism probably plays a role as well. The "weird envy" I picked up among my non-economist-MBA-STEM-with-startups grad school colleagues cuts two ways. My guess is that anyone with that kind of degree, the one that you go into with an implicit guarantee that getting it will set you up to make some serious money, would find it intolerably shaming to become a financial or economics "correspondent," having constantly to play courtier to what are really successful versions of yourself, to whom you, with your degree, must inevitably appear as a pitiable loser. I think the only exception consists of people who are out of the financial game for very well-defined legal reasons, such as Business Insider's Henry Blodget.

But I'm forgetting that I structured this odd and overlong bit of mnemonic irrelevance by saying that there were two things I was stricken by as a grad student that are relevant to understanding the explainer class. The second was simply the reproduction of the kind of high school dynamics I'd imagined grad school was designed explicitly not to harbor. Many people there seemed to see the place as a kind of do-over: now they'd "do" high school the way they wish they'd have done it . So around the fifth time I heard the line about "not talking shop" I started to pick up that, perhaps, bringing up, ever, our common subject of inquiry was not thought ideal for dinner parties, or really any common social occasion outside of assigned courses and hurried talks before invited speakers. Alright, so what are we talking about? High school stuff! Or what I associate with high school stuff, a mass of vague social rankings, enlivened by bitter bilateral feuds over things such as who invited whom to a dinner party, or who was being very ridiculous by going after a guy who's clearly into someone else, but someone else said, and so on.

This is not enormously fascinating (it isn't to me now, and was even less so at the time) until you realize this kind of dynamic (to call it something) animates a great deal of DC discourse, which is why I started this post with Robert Parry having repeatedly to face the know-nothing "big ha-ha" journalistic consensus over the course of his career. Engaging with this at the level of arguments is as pointless as engaging any high school ridicule, because the dirty- and open secret is that nobody really knows exactly why anything is so "ha-ha", and if someone showed up to explain why it might not be so ha-ha (like Dean Baker, whose "Beat the Press" column swims against Sinclair's "It's difficult to make someone understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it"), they'd grasp not his point (which they don't care about--last time they thought about econ was while cramming for the Spring finals), but the fact that grasping it won't help them become director of media relations for Lyft.

To end this post on a constructive note, I think that critics of the status quo have to realize that a lot of the mainstream people they're engaging are highly incurious people who really are happiest writing stuff like extended analyses of the economy of Game of Thrones or gossiping about who got that job or was seen going out with that chick whose father worked once with Tina Brown. They react only to ridicule (they're a very touchy bunch, as Matt Bruenig has repeatedly discovered), and the only reason they've been able to pass themselves off as experts (I should say, "explainers") is that the actual experts (in terms of education) are out there making money, so that economics journalism becomes populated by people bound by a throwing-rocks-in-a-glass-house kind of omerta.

My own modest contribution to this campaign of ridicule is simply to append to anything I mention by Harvard philosophy major Matty Yglesias the line and link, written from his $1.2 million condo in Logan Circle. I'd welcome more ideas of this kind. To a very small extent, "I know these people" (as, according to either Dolan or Mark Ames, Hunter S. Thompson said about lower-middle-class Nixon voters), and arguments at the level of their purported ideas won't work because they don't live there--that's "shop". Ridicule, however, gets at what they really care about.

Weapons of the weak, obviously, but in general official America doesn't seem great at dealing with those these days.

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claud_alexander's picture
Submitted by claud_alexander on

No, thought "save" meant "save draft", not "post", then panicked. (Shouldn't try to do this while at work.) Eradicate the thing if you can.

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

Hmm, I've been saying we Americans do not mature past our senior year in high school for 40 years.
But of course, nobody takes it seriously; so we're a country lead by infants fighting over toys with nuclear weapons. Even the gods can't help that...

BruceMcF's picture
Submitted by BruceMcF on

That is, "Voice of the Students", by contrast to Vox Populi. A quick glance at google hits makes me think that that's correct.

Putting the put-down in the same Latin that they used to gussy up their site is as smugly arrogant about that bunch of neoliberal no-nothings as I can come up with right now.

Submitted by lambert on

Hence my slow response. (I also cleaned up the formatting. Two carriage returns between paragraphs for readability, please!)

1. First, you are not the first to say that "Washington DC is like high school"; see here for a current example. (I think the phrase "cool kids" for people in the Explainer Class like Ezra appeared in the left blogosphere c. 2003-2006, maybe from Digby, along with the high school trope, but I'm too lazy to find the links.) That is not a criticism, but rather a splendid example of the test of independent invention! (Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Grey invented the telephone at the same time.)

2. Excellent point on the educational background of the typical member of The Explainer Class. (This English major might argue that bloggers tend to be more clear thinking and better about data, because they tend to have subject matter expertise in what they blog about.) Of course, expertise and credentials are a blunt double-edged sword: Economists, or at least the dominant neo-liberal coterie of economists, actually make people more stupid, despite or perhaps because they are credentialled in their field; see agnotology.

3. "... there's a constellation of government-or-foundation non-jobs in cities where this particular class of "striver" constituency gathers..."

I see this post as breaking ground toward a more formal and polemic breakdown of the 20% (not sure what to call them, and maybe 19% is better. "Pillars of the regime" is what they are strategically).

I'm trying to think of a way to do that, but speaking of a scraping project using regular expressions... It would be fun to develop (somehow) a list of say 1000 names with occupations -- a statistician would have a better handle on sample size -- and then throw them those 1000 names into various class buckets (which would necessarily overlap, I think... The Explainer Class, the Political Class, the Academic Class, the Techie Class....). Perhaps by scraping the bylines of a list of news and trade publications, making sure we covered the trade press for all NAICS numbers? Something like that. With such a list, we could do a lot of modelling....

4. Nice quote from Bruenig:

The media is full of children of privilege who have never meaningfully known someone from the class of people they so often say horrific things about. To read the daily internet happenings on poverty in the US is to basically just watch a parlor game of elites opine in extremely “uncivil” ways about the plight of people that they don’t afford any dignity, humanity, or decency. But because everyone in the media is upper class, they gloss over this stuff without even noticing it.

Adding, I had Matt Bruenig confused with Matt Groening:

Oh well!

5. I think the goal is not merely to ridicule, but to split. That is what one does to Pillars of the Regime. Even the lowliest worm can turn....

claud_alexander's picture
Submitted by claud_alexander on

As it happens, I was just about to do a small anti-Voxxer post on along the lines of

Matt O'Brien, who "grew up in the Washington area (his family lives in McLean), and graduated from Harvard in 2008 with a degree in history and a secondary concentration in government" will now wonksplain Why your middle-class salary is better than you might think

(Bruenig did his usual over-polite demolition here.)

But let me turn to the web-scraping, regex project, which interests me strangely.

My focus on ridicule as a strategy isn't motivated by malice (well, not a lot), but rather because I think it wouldn't take a lot of data-gathering or -visualization to dispel a little the nimbus surrounding these cool kids.

Over the course of my ill-humored posts, I've been struck by the regularity with which this brave new class of meritocratic data journalists turn out to be neither meritocratic (besides Ivy minimum, some signs of DC area families) and not to be "data-" anything.

It's not just that they're almost never in data-intensive fields (btw, didn't mean to imply that an econ or polisci phd any guarantee of intelligence: I could tell you stories...), but that, when they're not recycling Econ 101 arguments against a minimum wage, their work turns out be parasitic of some recent think-tank or university conference.

Therefore, I will, at some point later this week, write a scraper to collect all the names appearing in Vox's bylines in the past month and those in Wonkblog's in July of 2013. (A scraper essential for this--even single page views of those sites make one want to self-harm.)

Once I have a list of unique names (and it'd be interesting to find out how many of those there actually are), I'll post it so that some simple variables can be compiled for each individual. My categories right now are

  • High school, what and especially where
  • Undergrad. Where and in what
  • Work prior/concurrent with Vox/Wonkblog. Each job entry will ideally have both the when and the where.

(with a Google spreadsheet, perhaps micro- and super-casual crowdsourcing would be an option?)

In terms of presentation, a network graph overlaid on a map might be a quick way of visualizing the thing.

The result would, in a very small and in some ways ridiculous way, be rather unique as a piece of research. People who follow these things clearly have a vague sense of who these people are, but it would be interesting to see the whole bunch of them at a glance. To anyone who's ever frequented midcentury British historiography, it's basically "Namierizing" the visible portion of contemporary explainer class.

One reason I swerved away (or rebounded bloodily) from the statistical modeling favored by econ and polisci types is because I think that, for many useful historical or political questions, we're basically able to get the entire population, or such a huge chunk of it that it makes little difference. We therefore don't really have to enter into the howling wilderness of sampling, regression conditions or identification strategies ("instruments," in my day, now "randomized experiments") to get some interesting results.

Or so we'll see.

Will try to do better on the carriage returns, anyway.

Submitted by lambert on

Interesting, very interesting, and one cannot but think such a tool would have broad general utility....

I assume you have a server to run this one; but I have one also and it might be a useful resource. (We'd also have to figure out, although it's probable you already know how to do this, how not to look like spammers or workers of evil?)

Also, could I ask you to consider not making this a one-off, and making it work with config files? One of my favorite quotes, from Ursula LeGuin:

I have this to say before I go to sleep. Now listen: There are not very many of the Shing. That's a great piece of news and wisdom and advice.

I don't see any reason why this tool wouldn't scale up to more than this initial list. And if we wanted a bigger list of say 10 of 100 sources (URLs + scraping patterns?) then it would be easy to change the config files and have a longer run. And that way, also, somebody like me could be changing config files without messing about with your code....

UPDATE And it would be nice if the output were HTML or XML markup with some semantics...