How US Elites are Chosen: A Portrait of the Ticket Takers

How US Elites are Chosen: A Portrait of the Ticket Takers. By Robin Hanson.

Lauren A. Rivera’s Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs is a depressing book because it tells how the world works:

Pedigree takes readers behind the closed doors of top-tier investment banks, consulting firms, and law firms to reveal the truth about who really gets hired for the nation’s highest-paying entry-level jobs, who doesn’t, and why.

While I often assume that prestige is a big driver of human behavior, my poll respondents hardly admitted to putting much weight on prestige when picking experts. And many complain that I put too much emphasis on the concept. However, these elite employers strongly confirm my view, as they focus overwhelmingly on prestige when picking junior employees.

They only recruit at the most elite colleges, and they want recruits to be attractive, energetic, articulate, socially smooth, and have had elite personal connections, jobs, and extracurriculars. They don’t that much care about your grades, what you’ve learned, or what you did in your jobs or extracurriculars, as long as they were prestigious. …

Employers have little patience with candidates who didn’t pick the most prestigious possible college or job, but were swayed by other considerations. Such as topics of interest, limited money, or the needs of a spouse or family.

A “serious” person always picks max prestige. Always.

Yet for extracurriculars, you are not supposed to connect those to your career plans, as “nerds” do. You must instead do something with no practical value, but that is prestigious. Like varsity athletes in lacrosse or crew, sports that are too expensive for ordinary folks to pursue. Excess interest in ideas marks you as a “boring” “tool”.

An interesting criteria is that you must tell a mesmerizing story about your life, a story told almost entirely in terms of choices that you made to pursue your internal goals, without external constraints having much influence. And even though you have been chosen for your very consistent lifetime pursuit of prestige, that is very much not allowed to be one of your main goals. You were instead pursuing other goals, and prestige just happened as a side effect. Lucky you.

The author convincingly argues that this is not that much of a “meritocracy”, in that the features sought are much easier for elite parents to promote in their kids, and many of them are not actually that useful to society. …

All of this seems to fit my experience in academia, where at the highest levels the focus is overwhelming on gaining the endorsement of prestigious schools, journals, jobs, funders, etc. Whether the work you do is useful to society or even accurate is someone else’s job; your job to gain prestige and so you only do those other things if your prestige incentives encourage them. …

Failure to attend a super-elite school was an indicator of intellectual failure, regardless of a student’s grades or standardized test scores. Many evaluators believed that high-achievement students as lessor-ranked institutions (even top fifteen …) … must have slipped up. … In addition to being an indicator of potential intellectual deficits, the decision to go to a lower-ranked school was often interpreted as evidence of moral failings, such as faulty judgement or a lack of foresight on the students part. …

Grades are often distrusted by employers in general. Most evaluators did not believe that grades were an indicator of intelligence. …

Training at Le Cordon Bleu for six months to satisfy a longing to be an expert pastry maker impressed evaluators in ways that narratives about doggedly working long hours at non glamorous jobs in order to pay bills did not. … Vivid stories could overwhelm other aspects of the interview.

Vox Populi:

An analysis of those who are chosen by the elite reveals that it is not talent, ability, or cognitive capability that determines “success” by the elite’s worldly standards, but rather ruthless ambition and desire for external approval. …

The key phrase: “A “serious” person always picks max prestige. Always.” …

Because what the elite are selecting for is not intelligence or potential, but rather, one’s anticipated willingness to sell one’s soul to them.

Dominic Cummings:

Politics is full of people who want to prove they’re the smartest person in the room but they almost never realise that the room they’re in rarely has any really smart people in it!

The picture is of a self-selecting elite who are dumbing down, avoiding their more intelligent competitors, but think they are brilliant. No wonder today’s leaders are so less competent.