Arnold Kling  

Friday's Rant

Question for Brad DeLong... What Do We Owe the Deserving S...

I need to stop this. I don't want to turn into the Paul Krugman of the right.

You will recall that on the list of books that influenced me, number one was David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest. Halberstam describes Senator Joe McCarthy as a serial liar. Before the press could investigate one of his accusations, McCarthy would have made the issue moot by making an even more outrageous charge.

That is how our ruling class operates today. Don Boudreaux reminds us that when the stimulus was sold it was with a promise that 90 percent of the jobs created or saved would be in the private sector. Before anyone can focus on the outlandish claims made for the stimulus, we now have the outlandish claims made for the health bill. No doubt we are about to hear outlandish claims for the financial regulation bill and whatever new initiatives the ruling class wishes to impose on the country.

I've been thinking about the ruling class in terms of the following matrix, which sorts people by college attainment and skill level, giving sample occupations for each category.

not college educatedcollege educated
unskilledmanual laborerpublic school teacher*

*I am not saying that teachers are incompetent. What I would claim is that the preparation that they receive from taking education classes has little or no impact on their classroom effectiveness.

My theory of the ruling class is that it comes from the lower right quadrant. That is, people who are highly educated but lacking in useful skills. If you will, the suits are in the lower-right quadrant and the geeks are in the upper-right quadrant.

My theory is that the ruling class gets its strongest support from people in the lower-right quadrant. They identify strongly with the ruling class. Placing an artificially high value on educational credentials is in the interest of the ruling class and everyone else in the lower-right quadrant. If it were not for the protection provided by credentialism and government employment, my guess is that many of those in the lower-right quadrant would have incomes no higher than those of people who are not college educated.

The challenge for the ruling class is to keep the other three quadrants from uniting in opposition to the ruling class. To try to retain support among the highly-educated who are skilled, the ruling class tries to blur the distinction between the upper-right quadrant and the lower-right quadrant. The ruling class would prefer to lump them all together into "the educated elite," or "technocrats." I fell for that one for a long time, but just recently the light bulb came on--hence the matrix.

Relative to the non-college educated, one tactic is to keep them sharply divided along ethnic lines. If people on the left side of the matrix think that their main threat comes from people of different skin color, then they will not unite against the ruling class.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (40 to date)
Nathan Smith writes:

Which quadrant do you fall into? ;)

Devin Finbarr writes:

I like this formulation a lot better than your typical anti-elite posts (perhaps because I am an engineer). The problem is not the existence of an elite ruling class. Virtually every organization that is effective, whether a football team, an orchestra, or a fortune 500 company is run by elites.

The problem is that the ruling elite is selected for ideology (professors) and skill at influencing the public (journalists, staffers, political operatives), rather than talent at running a large nation.

It should also be noted that the bottom right quadrant, the professors, are very smart. Thus the top-right, given the alternative between supporting dumb populists (Sarah Palin) or smart scholar/priests (Krugman) will choose the scholars.

Loof writes:

Good idea to stop, Arnold. You're pontificating with an absurd typology.

Go to any kindergarten class. Observe. I’m not aware of a more difficult job; yet, don’t know of any job that is more useful, nor a profession where someone has to be so skilled and so dedicated to those they serve. College education serves them well in how they prepare and how they deliver the service. When not so, teachers quickly burn out.

student writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for policy violations. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

ThomasL writes:

Anecdote time: my mother was a kindergarten teacher and won all sorts of awards for her work. She took a couple of semesters of college fifteen years before she started teaching.

The other teachers at her school(s) were constantly talking about their degrees. That didn't seem to improve their students ability to read, classroom behavior, test scores, or to win the teachers any awards of their own, but they certainly did bring them up a lot.

It takes natural talent to be a truly great teacher, but college won't give you that.

Anybody at all can be an adequate teacher as long as they know their subject and are patient with pupils.

Andrew Maier writes:

Correct me if I'm wrong, but you often like to comment on the relationship between large financial institutions and the Fed and Treasury. Those men (largely) stick together, support each other and vet each other, as you put it. However, that seems to run afoul of your new formulations, in your earnestness to describe your anti-elite sentiments fully. On the one hand, you've got elites that are smart, but cocooned and self selecting, thinking that what's good for them is good for the country, since they over-value their systemic worth. These men largely seem to be good at running financial business (they may suck at the use of financial instruments designed by geeks, but they do seem to convince people that they're worth being paid oodles of cash). On the other hand, you paint a picture of elites that are not skilled, or at least not skilled in the field relevant to their work. These people, you say, only really float by promoting the value of the credentials. If their credentials didn't matter, you claim, then they would probably be paid more on the level of manual laborers.

Maybe I'm missing something, but these two narratives seem contradictory. You've got elites who provide little value and should be earning something near what manual laborers earn, and you've got elites who cripple the nation by conflating what's good for their business with what's good for the nation. If they're so good at protecting their business that they can inlist government support, doesn't that make them probably worth the salary that stockholders pay them? And thus, they provide real, skilled services?

A counter-argument that I could see would be that it's really their credentials (country club membership, so on) that allow them to be so networked and conflate their business interests with government interests. But even in that case, it would seem that their education, being trained to think and act like a member of the financial culture should think and act, provides direct value in terms of their business.

Eric H writes:

"...are there some papers/data you would care to cite?"


"Are there some accredited experts that agree with you?"

Fat chance of that happening!

david writes:

I like Devin Finbarr's comment for the unintended implication. Kling is, of course, a teacher and a scholar.

I don't think Kling has quite caught on that many of the skilled people he describes would put him in the bottom right quadrant... perhaps the light bulb will go on now? ;)

Norman writes:

"I don't want to turn into the Paul Krugman of the right."

Don't worry, I'm pretty sure that position is already taken by Glenn Beck.

david writes:

By the way: for those who have not been following Kling's rants on credentialism - Kling isn't just blaming government-backed credentials, which is a plausible, if doubtful, libertarian narrative. This obviously would not be sufficient for his suits vs. geeks account.

Kling also asserts 'informal credentialism' on a wider scale, even in the private sector. The problems with this narrative are obvious (Kling's reply is here, for completeness; I do not find it convincing).

For those who don't get it, Kling is proposing a systemic market failure (that also affects government organizations). This particular failure has the 'advantage' of being completely unfalsifiable, for reasons Eric H described: Kling would just judge that the experts are quite ignorant" [and] unskilled credentialed people.

This is the road to irrecoverable crackpottery, really.

mulp writes:

Why do you put engineer in the box of "college educated" and "skilled"?

In my experience in computer engineering, many college educated engineers are unskilled until they've had their college miseducation wrung out of them.

Real engineering is a skill that is learned, not taught, and very few college education programs provide work complex enough to learn anything about engineering, because engineering is a team sport.

Teaching, I suspect is much the same, though a teacher is like the coach of a team.

Devin Finbarr writes:

David - Kling started his own business and successfully sold it, that puts him in the top right.

Steve writes:

Much of the ruling class is made up of lawyers. What quadrant do lawyers fall into?

Troy Camplin writes:

So long as you don't lie about how economics works, about the principles of economics, and economic law to support your prefered political party and support what the GOP does even when they are doing exactly the same thing as the DNC, I think there is little danger of you becoming the Krugman of the Right.

Robert writes:

So Arnold's theory is that anyone involved in politics is fundamentally wrong for the job - educated but unskilled. A self-sustaining network of cronies has taken over Washington. This fits with his belief (I am assuming) that limiting government should be the primary goal.

The liberal rejoinder is that our political system can work but is currently fundamentally rotten. Politicians aren't evil but they have incredibly strong incentives to engage in corrupt practices. So they become corrupt. Liberals think they can change those incentives with enough tinkering. Lawrence Lindsey wants to reform campaign finance. Capital Gains and Games doesn't quite understand why it is useful for a bank from New York to donate to a politician from Alaska.

Interestingly, Arnold also mentions there is a subset of people - the educated and skilled - who are the most competent members of society. The implication of that belief is that we could pass a law requiring politicians to be, say, experienced engineers and the governance of the country would improve. I am skeptical. Sure government would improve at first, but, all things equal, I think voter ignorance, conflicting ideology, and powerful special interests would lead to the same sad state. A form of vetting similar to what Arnold described above would occur. The socially connected engineers from the most prestigious schools most willing to sell out to donors and tell half-truths to the public would gain power.

Perhaps Arnold would then refer to Unchecked And Unbalanced and argue that the modern diffusion of knowledge vs growing power is the primary limiting factor for US government success. But how can knowledge be the constraint when many people on the right and left are equally intelligent and informed and yet have radically different opinions? Nobody thinks US farm subsidies are a good idea, for example, yet they exist. It is hard to see how lack of knowledge is the problem. Okay, that's admittedly a superficial response to a book that I haven't read, so I'll stop there.

MernaMoose writes:


Interesting idea and it has some gist to it. When I was in engineering grad school, the running (not really) joke was that if you flunked out of engineering, you could always go get a degree in education. Because anybody could do that. The things you have to do as an "education" major are just not that challenging. But a masters in education is the ticket into the modern day teacher's unions.

I think you're right, given the choice between Palin (or even Beck) and Krugman, the skilled and educated (along with no small % of the skilled but not formally educated) will go for Krugman.

But I wish you, or someone like you, actually would go become the Krugman of the Right. Because for the educated and skilled, there's little to choose from except Krugman. The Left wins -- not by merit but by default. Which is precisely how they (socialists, communists) have won, in every country I'm aware of in recent history. Sad state of affairs.

I hang around places like this because I get breaths of fresh air around here. There are intelligent, thinking people who are able to challenge and teach me at times, but they aren't screaming, bleeding liberals. Thank you econlog for that.

There's elements of truth to your theory but somehow the overall political story is still lacking. Steve already said my first thought, that most of our politicians are lawyers. Where do they fit? Educated for sure, but (I think) only occassionally do you find one that's truely skilled.

I'm a PhD engineer. I've always found it odd that medical doctors and lawyers clearly consider themselves somehow a big notch up the socio-economic scale from engineers. I've never seen evidence to persuade me that they're smarter than engineers on average, and in fact a number of lawyers are not as smart at all. But on average medical doctors, and many but not all lawyers, get paid better. That's as much ground as I've ever been willing to concede to them.

My theory: one of the root problems we libertarian types have, is that on average our type of people are not interested in careers in either education or government service. The Left takes over these (as we now see) crucial roles by default.

I've never been able to think of a solution to this problem.

MernaMoose writes:


In my experience in computer engineering, many college educated engineers are unskilled until they've had their college miseducation wrung out of them.

Huh. That hasn't been my experience at all.

College educated engineers are, immediately upon graduation, inexperienced to be sure. And it is also true that not all of them who are able to get the degree, will turn into good engineers. In fact I can often predict which of them won't -- those at the very top, and the very bottom, of the class. The 4.0 whiz kids are more likely to go on to become good researchers (which college today puts too much emphasis on vis a vis the needs of a practicing engineer). And the bottom of the class will probably go into sales because, well, that's where their capabilities land them.

But some of the 4.0 whiz kids, and the bulk of the rest (outside the bottom rungs), will go on to at least become adequate if not great engineers. They just need experience.

I know lots of people who think that all that stuff you learn in college isn't really important or necessary. I suppose it depends a lot on where you land a job after graduation, but I've spent most of my career (as an engineer) in automotive and aerospace. I can assure you, in these industries you need everything you learn in college plus a whole lot of experience, to really be good. Sometimes I think we need even more classes than we get in college.

But it's not rational to fault the universities for not imparting work experience, when that isn't their purpose. Engineering is not for those seeking the quick and easy career path. You must have a minimum level of ability, then you must be willing to go through the college mill, and then you will need a lot of experience that can only be gotten on the job.

We could go off on a tangent about engineering education and there are things I have heart burn with. But to say that students need to "unlearn" what they got in college is entirely inaccurate. And I'm a project lead who is often involved in staffing, and at times hiring decisions. I've mentored quite a few new hires in my time, so I'm not disconnected from this little matter we're discussing here.

MernaMoose writes:


but, all things equal, I think voter ignorance, conflicting ideology, and powerful special interests would lead to the same sad state.

So long as we have a democracy, I'd have to agree with you on this point.

My theory is that we might be better off making our politicians appointed, something along the lines of jury duty. Get rid of elections which are sure to corrupt the politicians, sooner or later.

I suspect my jury duty theory might improve things, but there's almost certainly ways that the system will end up corrupted anyway.

The design of good, long-lived institutions to rule ourselves by, is perhaps the hardest engineering problem that Man has ever attempted. We've improved over the ages, but we've still got a whole heck of a lot to figure out. We do not yet know how to rule ourselves well.

MernaMoose writes:


btw, as an engineer let me be the first to say that if engineers ruled the world, it would likely get better in some ways and worse in others. I've worked in companies ruled by engineers. We're capable of being both as human, and inhuman, as any other bunching of people you could pick out of society at large.

Wilmot of Rochester writes:


Primary and secondary educators require patience and dedication, but when it comes to things like adequate arithmetic skills or other traits that make up different intelligences, teachers need none of it.

Just like every profession, they're good at a certain thing, but not another. I would take issue with Arnold about calling it "unskilled" work not because I disagree that teachers do not usually possess the capacities to build something like a computer, but because I don't think those are the only things that make up a skill in the first place.

Santtu writes:

Hysterical comment section is funny.

Also, I agree with Arnold's basic points.

Troy Camplin writes:

The last comment you make makes me think immediately of Langston Hughes' "Open Letter to the South," though you in effect turn Hughes' Marxist poem on its head. Of course, I think it is you who is absolutely correct. It would be nice to see a corrected version, though it could certainly keep some lines, such as this:

Let us become instead, you and I,
One single hand
That can united rise
To smash the old dead dogmas of the past-
To kill the lies of color
That keep the rich enthroned
And drive us to the time-clock and the plow
Helpless, stupid, scattered, and alone-as now-
Race against race,
Because one is black,
Another white of face.

HUghes is right that there are people who like to keep the races separated to keep power -- he was just wrong about it being the capitalists. It's those in government who keep those divisions going. My wife, who is otherwise conservative, is annoyed at the GOP for their too-often anti-Hispanic rhetoric; but she also sees that the Left in this coutnry engage in divisive politics to maintain their power as well. In that case, she's annoyed too many of her fellow Hispanics cannot see that.

Paul Turner writes:

Educated but unskilled, sounds like economists, quants and bankers would fit right into that fourth quadrant.

Joshua Macy writes:

It occurs to me that if you were such a lower-right quadrant elite, one of the things you could do to shore up your position is encourage as many people as possible through subsidy and requirements for credentials on as many jobs as you could manage to encourage people to move from the left half to the right even if that's not where their interests and talents lie or necessary for their jobs. You could be pretty confident that the bulk of those would land in the lower right.

I'm agnostic about whether that's really what's going on. On the one hand, there does seem to be a lot of college and graduate work that's pure credentialism. On the other hand, lawyers are pretty clearly in the upper right, and it's hard for me not to see them as part of the ruling elite, maybe even the top dogs. They're certainly the most common profession in Congress.

Joshua Macy writes:

Oops, that got submitted in mid-edit. Strike the second to encourage people. Ah well.

Arthur_500 writes:

As I am currently working part-time as a teacher I have to smile as I agree with you. Remember the old addage, "Those who can, do; those who can't teach."

As deep throat famously said, "Follow the Money." Where did all that moeny go first? Public employees, teachers, municipal and State employees, Unions. We take taxpayer money and pay off those of our constituents.

I'm not bitter becvause I have guns and religion. I'm bitter because no one ever cuts me the big fat checks unless I earn them.

hanmeng writes:

I see little evidence of a conscious political effort to lump those who are highly educated but lacking in useful skills together with those who are highly educated and actually useful skills, even if that's the way of society in general and the academy in particular.

However, I agree that teachers are rarely trained to teach effectively. Moreover, I know from personal experience that when teaching at the college level at least, we're not pushed to find ways of improving learning outcomes. Instead, we're rewarded on the basis of student evaluations (which basically comes down to how much the students like us), and research, which may or may not have much classroom relevance.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Perhaps it is time to observe some of the studies of Douglas North, et al.; and, to make some comparisons to the "ideas" expressed here about a "Ruling Class."

We might begin with whether what is evolving in our sets of Western social orders is a dominant coalition, rather than a ruling class. Maybe there is not much distinction; but, if there is any, it is worth noting if opposition to the effects of either is an objective.

If there is such a coalition in the U S, is it one comprised of a "Political Class" and an "Academic Class" ? How are the interests of the members of the coalition bound; how do they diverge? Which members of one class are more dependent on members of the other, and for what?

To have a useful analysis of those matters, we would need to delve into the compositions of each and learn how memberships are determined.
We have seen a bit of cross-over from the Academic into the Political, but less in the other direction. We have also seen a sort of fracture in the Academic with the "Think Tank" type of funding arising to offset capture by the Political of funding through state institutions and forms of grants.

There does appear to be some advantage being sought by the Political Class to foment "Government by Expertise." In which case the Political Class selects the experts creating one line of dependency; while at the same time being dependent on the Academic Class (which is no longer homogenous) for the sources of that expertise - and, hence, for the ability to "make policy," administer, and to govern.

To examine these matters in terms of an "educated" polity, may tend to confuse academic processing(simply moving through the systems)with actually learning through the processes.

None of this is new, nor limited to forms of representative governments. Quite possibly the reactions to all this will be somewhat different and will occur at different rates than in the past, resulting ultimately in changes in the make-up of any dominant coalition; a fragmentation of the coalition; or the rise of new coalitions reducing dominance.

mark writes:

I guess I have a fondness for the lower left hand quandrant which is where I am at and probably where I belong. The problem I have with the whole right side of your matrix is their desire to create complex rigid systems. I make little distinction between the engineer who spends millions of dollars redesigning processes and then leaves for a new company(sorta Tommy Franks' school) before they can help the left side of the matrix hammer out all the flaws in their new plan. I am sure engineers learn alot in school but I just wish they were more aware of what people actually do before they start improving on it.

MernaMoose writes:

mark, you make me smile.

I started life out as a front line mechanic. When I was 19 years old, engineers were handing me blue prints for things that I knew before I started building them, would never work. That in fact was a major part of my motivation to go become an engineer. Because too many engineers were idiots and I really thought that was wrong.

Sad truth is, now that I'm an engineer I end up having to work on things that are beyond the experiences I had as a technician. I'm afraid I do the same thing. But I have a reputation as being the one who's out there canvassing the people on the front lines about what does/doesn't make sense.

This is one thing engineers are not taught and should be -- there are limits to their knowledge and experience, and they need inputs from other people in the whole chain of production.

Of course we could say that very same thing about politicians, yes?

But as someone who actively tries, I can also tell you from the school of hard knocks -- getting the information that you really need, is just not easy. Many people on the "front lines" are simply not able (or are intimidated and therefore unwilling? I wish it were not so) to tell me the stuff I need to know.

One thing that's always impressed me about working inside large corporations, is that the transmission of the right information to the right people is a perpetually gigantic problem. It is no different in politics, even if you have politicians who want to try and do what's right (though in a democracy the incentives do not really push them in that direction).

Loof writes:

It takes natural talent to be a truly great teacher, but college won't give you that.
Anybody at all can be an adequate teacher as long as they know their subject and are patient with pupils.

Perhaps it takes natural talent to be a truly great teacher. College may not give you that, but it might help: especially in preparing lessons, teaching methods and testing results. As such, merely adequate teachers can become good and perhaps good teachers with natural talent great. Many university professors could use some edification about Education to improve their teaching skills and move from being inadequate or merely adequate teachers to become good if not great teachers.

Mark Bahner writes:

"Go to any kindergarten class. Observe. I’m not aware of a more difficult job; yet, don’t know of any job that is more useful,..."

That's interesting. I'm not aware of any literature that shows that pre-school confers any lasting benefit. So it would be very surprising to me that kindergarten does.

It would be interesting to see any study that tries to establish what the most important grade (K to 12...or K to 16) is.

Matt writes:

[Comments removed pending confirmation of email address and for policy violations. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

Paul writes:

I like this analogy very much. I always felt that too much time and money is spent on formal education, when on the job training would be more appropiate. I.E. Teachers could be taught by other teachers. (Not to pick on teachers only)I think it is our exclusionary laws that prevent this from happening. Think of the man-power that is waisted when a teacher could learn in a class room as an assistent while also contributing. I am suprised that carpenters don't need a 4 year degree. There are a lot of skills needed there too. I think part of the problem is that the entry level wages are too high for some professions excluding the on-job training.

Ryan Vann writes:

Hard to find the idea that public school teachers are somehow elites, unless we are talking professors (who are still primarily mid tier power grubbers). Most public school teachers can barely accomplish a wage strike, let alone accomplish political ends.

Douglass Holmes writes:

I can't resist this observation. We had two presidents who were engineers: Herbert Hoover and Jimmie Carter.

Loof writes:

Mark Bahner quotes me:
"Go to any kindergarten class. Observe. I’m not aware of a more difficult job; yet, don’t know of any job that is more useful,..."
And replies:
That’s interesting. I'm not aware of any literature that shows that pre-school confers any lasting benefit. So it would be very surprising to me that kindergarten does.
It would be interesting to see any study that tries to establish what the most important grade (K to 12...or K to 16) is.

Ok. The emphasis on learning social skills for early children education may not be the norm in America anymore, so I’ll withdraw my statement of going to “any kindergarten” there. And I’ll qualify “useful” with should be – but still am not aware of a more difficult job. Anyone know why?

Anyway, I think the literature boils down to revealing that learning pencil and paper skills in early childhood education confer no lasting benefit. And this sort of skills teaching, an especially strong movement in America, may not only have no benefit, teaching technical skills could do harm: turning children off learning earlier than normal.

In my experience and research, the most important grades comprise 10 to 12 year olds, since at that age there is big reversal in attitude towards learning. Ten year olds are still relatively wide-eyed and positive about learning; by 12, students can become quite negative and turned off learning.

While having no “skill” in psychology, psychologists in England asked me to study this problem to see if I could up with a practical solution. I developed a plan then partnered with a psychologist to do action research in three classrooms over one school year.

Briefly, I integrated two psychological typologies from two different schools of thought: Individual Psychology’s Attitude Types and Analytical Psychology’s Mental Functions. I then rooted them metaphorically with Empedocles’ Elements. The simple system was taught to the teachers involved in the project and with their skills (learned in teacher training) developed a program appropriate for their students. The pilot project was assessed a success, but never became part of the curriculum, though the system is still used in teaching psychologists.

mdb writes:

Unless you change opinions in sync with the party of the president, you need not worry about becoming the Krugman of the right.

neimoller writes:

I don't want to turn into the Paul Krugman of the right.

Do you plan to have massively influential research in multiple areas and win a Nobel any time soon?

Mark Bahner writes:

"We had two presidents who were engineers: Herbert Hoover and Jimmie Carter."

If Jimmy Carter was an engineer, then I was a president of the United States. (Which I guess would make me the second engineer who was a U.S. president.)

Mark Bahner (engineer)

Jimmy Carter was no engineer

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top