‘The narrowing of opportunity in modern America’ (And the rise of the “mandarin” class)

030926-F-2828D-307I don’t say this very often, but I highly encourage everyone reading this post to read the attached article. It offers a great window into a world in which I spend considerable time, and it is spot on. If one wants to understand what’s going on in our government and in our economy this piece will offer some valuable perspective. (The article is 2 years old, but in this case it doesn’t matter.)

The “mandarins” populate the power centers of this country almost exclusively. There are very few “sons of truck drivers” on Capitol Hill, on Wall Street, or in the think tanks. (There are probably a few still in the trading pits in Chicago.)

I certainly am no son of a truck driver. My father was a naval officer and a graduate of the Naval Academy. It was always a given that I would go to college, and likely a good one. But we were never rich. We were never really “well off.” There were periods of struggle. A divorce. A wayward (but not really wayward) youth.

Though I interned at a news station on the Hill and my first job out of college was on the Hill, I commuted into DC from Fredericksburg Virginia 50 miles away. (Most of my young colleagues knew nothing of Virginia beyond Alexandria which is right across the Potomac river.) While interning and going to school I was also selling insurance over the phone at GEICO. After a short (and thoroughly disheartening for many reasons) stint on the Hill I had to retreat to the less expensive hinterlands. I was effectively out of politics for years.

But I did (happily) find my way back.

Many of the people I meet these days in our nation’s capital have never seen the inside of a call center and in the case of older folks would rather die than allow their sons or daughters to spend any time working in a call center. (Never mind working as a landscaper or in food service.) Many of the folks I bump into in Washington I sense have had very little experience with the world beyond Washington, New York, San Francisco and the leafy archipelago of  “elite” schools which are scattered across the North East. (There are a few in California.) They are more likely to know Paris than Cincinnati.

And these are the people who to a very large extent are writing the laws for the rest of America.

Many of these insulated “mandarins” (as the author of the attached article refers to them) are immensely talented and intelligent. Many do excellent work and work hard. In fact I would say that this is the norm. If one wants to slack through life DC is NOT the place to do it even if one is rich and privileged. But still, many of these decision makers, the policy creators, are I think missing a few “life notes.” Flyover country is a mystery to them. Middle America is a backward and scary place. Yet most of America is “middle America.” There is a dangerous disconnect.

I’m not saying that everyone who is making decisions in Washington should have spent time waiting tables or tending bar. Absolutely not. But I am saying that the country is well served by having a few people who have had to really hustle for a living at least at some point in their lives.

Again, the attached article is well worth a read.

(From The Daily Beast)

And yet, this is apparently considerably more experience than many of my fellow journalists have, especially the younger ones. The road to a job as a public intellectual now increasingly runs through a few elite schools, often followed by a series of very-low-paid internships that have to be subsidized by well-heeled parents, or at least a free bedroom in a major city. The fact that I have a somewhat meandering work and school history, and didn’t become a journalist until I was 30, gives me some insight (she said, modestly) that is hard to get if you’re on a laser-focused track that shoots you out of third grade and straight toward a career where you write and think for a living. Almost none of the kids I meet in Washington these days even had boring menial high-school jobs working in a drugstore or waiting tables; they were doing “enriching” internships or academic programs. And thus the separation of the mandarin class grows ever more complete.

I’m hinting at the final problem, which is that this ostensibly meritocratic system increasingly selects from those with enough wealth and connections to first, understand the system, and second, prepare the right credentials to enter it…

Click here for the article.

* I almost forgot.

I was recently at a conference at which Vice President Biden and his 30 something daughter addressed a ballroom of young wonks. The junior Biden explained to us how her childhood was “pretty typical.” I looked across the room of the generally liberal audience and I didn’t see many eye rolls, except for a young woman a few tables away who let’s just say clearly didn’t spend summers sailing off the coast of Nantucket. She saw me mid-eye roll and laughed.

Good luck to that girl.