The late, not-so-great era of WASP ascendency

At the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein has penned a paean to the era of WASP ascendency in American life, whose spirit is captured by quotes such as the following:

Much can be—and has been—written about the shortcomings of the WASPocracy. As a class, it was exclusionary and hence tolerant of social prejudice, if not often downright snobbish. Tradition-minded, it tended to be dead to innovation and social change. Imagination wasn’t high on its list of admired qualities. [....]

Under WASP hegemony, corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places weren’t, as now, regular features of public life. Under WASP rule, stability, solidity, gravity and a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life. As a ruling class, today’s new meritocracy has failed to provide the positive qualities that older generations of WASPs provided. [....]

Trust, honor, character: The elements that have departed U.S. public life with the departure from prominence of WASP culture have not been taken up by the meritocrats. Many meritocrats who enter politics, when retired by the electorate from public life, proceed to careers in lobbying or other special-interest advocacy. University presidents no longer speak to the great issues in education but instead devote themselves to fundraising and public relations, and look to move on to the next, more prestigious university presidency.

The modern American meritocracy certainly has its serious hypocrisies and defects. One could write an entire book about the failures of the American elite in Iraq, the subprime crisis, and more. Perhaps someone named Christopher Hayes* might write such a book. He might call it Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy.

Yet there is something crazy and a little sad about Epstein’s essay. Sure the old WASP elite was a tad snobbish and stodgy. These were hardly their worst problems. Under WASP hegemony, corruption and incompetence were actually quite common in high places, more common than today, in fact. Perhaps the misconduct and stupidity produced fewer scandals. if so, that was only because these behaviors were better-concealed from public view.Where is the honor or the character in maintaining a system of exclusion to protect one group’s social and economic privileges at the expense of others?

The unapologetic exclusion of Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, gays, Catholics. and women did not enhance the integrity or the technical competence of American government. Nor did it noticeably improve elite professions such as scientific research or clinical medicine to exclude these same groups. When I was a Princeton undergraduate, a disgruntled alumnus wrote into the student newspaper to lament the rising presence of “big-city, high-SAT intellectuals,” who were apparently ruining the once-gentlemanly environment. Thirty years before, people like this man successfully maintained quotas that cruelly excluded many among my parents’ generation from attending elite schools. Not coincidentally, the Princeton of (say) 1950 or 1960 was a decidedly mediocre place. We who came later owe a great debt to the pioneering generation who smashed down these barriers and opened the road for others, as well. Our current elites should do some serious housecleaning, but not out of any misguided nostalgia for the unfair and mediocre non-meritocratic era we’ve left behind.

Perhaps I betray my own biases, but I think there is something undignified to celebrate an era and to celebrate the people who so mistreated our own parents, and many others besides. I do have one consolation. Epstein’s misguided essay beats this somewhat similar Walter Lippmann gem, which defines the genre.

*Yeah, I initially misspelled Chris Hayes’ name, which is ironic, given this clip from the University of Chicago’s 67th annual Latke-Hamantasch comic debate.

An IOU response to John Goodman

Last month, John Goodman excoriated a Wonkblog piece I wrote, which had  criticized Greg Mankiw’s defense of the 1%. I argued that Mankiw fails to appreciate what we all owe each other, given our differing roles and resources in a prosperous, interconnected society. I was caring for my dad at the time, and so didn’t have an opportunity to post a proper answer.

You get a flavor of Goodman’s argument from this passage:

Pollack even individualizes his argument by describing help he got from a tow truck driver at road side. Presumably, the tow truck driver got paid. So there was a mutually beneficial exchange ― the kind of exchange that is at the heart of the free enterprise system. But Pollack thinks he owes the tow truck driver something more:

                       My taxes help provide his child with subsidized lunches and preschool. I help provide his family with health insurance. That’s as it should be. I still get a very good deal. He had my back. I should have his.

But wait a minute. What exactly does he owe the tow truck driver? Does he owe more or less than he owes people living on $1 a day? Or people living on $2 a day? Or…?

If the tow truck driver has a moral claim against Pollack, we never learn what it is….

In some ways this is all very surprising. After all, the 20th century was the century of collectivism. It was the century of communism, socialism, national socialism (fascism) and the welfare state. Each and every one of these isms was devoted to taking from some and giving to others. After all these years and all that misery you would think that someone, somewhere would have perfected an argument for forcible redistribution of income. And yet what we find today at the leftwing blogs is truly pitiful.

No doubt Goodman would find this liberal fascist perspective pitiful, too. Continue Reading…

“Thank you” doesn’t begin to cover it

I’ve been listening to Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogya magesterial history of the United States Army in Europe during World War II. This history is gripping, often painful, filled with courage, extreme violence, many fiascos and defeats along the path to ultimate victory. Driving my daughter to a college event today, I happened to encounter the gravestones below. “Thank you” doesn’t begin to cover it.

Continue Reading…

My city was gone.

Superstar political scientist Robert Putnam (who was a wonderful employer and informal mentor to me, too many years ago) is now writing a book about the economic and social decline of his northern Ohio hometown. He provides a web preview in today’s New York Times. It begins:

My hometown — Port Clinton, Ohio, population 6,050 — was in the 1950s a passable embodiment of the American dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for the children of bankers and factory workers alike.

But a half-century later, wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the Port Clinton High School lot next to decrepit “junkers” in which homeless classmates live. The American dream has morphed into a split-screen American nightmare. And the story of this small town, and the divergent destinies of its children, turns out to be sadly representative of America….

A previous semi-popular work raised similar themes.

A personal programming note, and a comment on strong and weak ties

Cross-posted at the Incidental Economist and RBC.

I haven’t been lighting up the internets much lately. I’m away helping to care for my dad, who has kidney cancer. On Tuesday he had a radical laparoscopic nephrectomy. Amazingly, he was home the next day. He is recovering nicely. Hopefully the surgery has addressed this cancer. I’ll have more to say about this care episode and others on another occasion. For the moment, I will offer two observations.

My dad is 84. He’s been married to my stepmother Arlene for 34 years now. He’s been semi-retired or retired for most of those years. He worked for 35 years as an engineer. Like many engineers of his generation, he made a heavy life investment in his employer. The return on this investment was to be squeezed out in the wave of mid-1980s leveraged buyouts that, in his particular case, left a broken-up company and many broken implicit contracts before the pertinent corporate raider, Paul Bilzerian, found himself in legal jeopardy.

Although my dad definitely missed the paycheck and the dollars in his once-overvalued pension, in many ways he was happier. My stepmother was a teacher in Bergen County, New Jersey. They were fortunate to have bought their home years ago. Things worked out.

My dad has used his time to engage very fully in the lives of my sister and me, but also the lives of my four step-sisters, and (later) their partners and children. It’s never easy to be a step-parent. Many men aren’t welcomed to really do it. Many more screw it up or don’t engage.

That’s not my dad. He’s much more giving with his time than his friendly but work-centric son. And it shows…. Continue Reading…

Talking Personal Finance with Helaine Olen: Parts 1 and 2

Here are the first two segments of my interview with Helaine Olen regarding her book, Pound Foolish. You can see a more extensive interview with Olen, with arguably better production values, on Frontline’s the retirement gamble this week. RBC readers are familiar with my obsessions with personal finance, e.g. with this post.

In Part 1, we discuss how she got into this game, what it was like to do the Money Makeover feature for the Los Angeles Times. As I nod to project the wisdom of a sage and swig some diet soda, we discuss what I regard as the financial industry’s most basic dilemma: The best advice fits on a 3×5 index card and is available for free at the library.

We also discuss why divorce is bad for your financial health, and why trusting financial advisors is generally a bad idea, even if one assumes that this person is above ethical reproach. We note the false hopes placed in personal financial skills to offset stagnant wages for millions of Americans. Finally, we observe that Suze Orman isn’t one of the world’s greatest financial advisors, but she has found one of the world’s greatest sales gigs. At least Orman is less predatory than many of the other finance gurus.

In Part II, we start to get into the meat of things. We start by discussing the dinners for senior citizens, at which entrepreneurs sell rip-off variable annuities to seniors desperately (often fairly realistically) afraid that they will outlive their savings. As a warm-up, these salespeople predictably trash Social Security—the one solid source of annuitized wealth Americans can turn to in their retirement years.

I’m cross-posting this with the Incidental Economist. I’m doing so to compare the comment threads on the two sites.