2013 April 07 Sunday
Ross Douthat: How Elites Perpetuate Existing Upper Class

Harvard, Yale, Princeton. Ross Douthat takes a look at what elites in America do to perpetuate the status of their families across generations.

Every elite seeks its own perpetuation, of course, but that project is uniquely difficult in a society thatís formally democratic and egalitarian and colorblind. And itís even more difficult for an elite that prides itself on its progressive politics, its social conscience, its enlightened distance from hierarchies of blood and birth and breeding.

Thus the importance, in the modern meritocratic culture, of the unacknowledged mechanisms that preserve privilege, reward the inside game, and ensure that the advantages enjoyed in one generation can be passed safely onward to the next.

Go read the whole thing. Ross makes some excellent observations.

But, in spite of their efforts, the elites face a really big obstacle in passing along their status to their offspring: IQ regression to the mean. Sure, they can pay for private school. But that won't make the kids smarter. A 140 IQ doctor or CEO with a 115 IQ kid still has a 115 IQ kid no matter how much money he spends on the kid. Buying your less than super-bright kid a place in the Ivy costs in the millions of dollars. It probably makes more sense to just put that money in a trust for the kid.

Granted, a hugely disproportionate fraction of all ultra high net worth individuals (UHNWI) have attended a small number of colleges at some point in their education (elite biz schools being key I suspect). But the ultra high net worth individuals represent a very small fraction of all the kids who go Ivy and Stanford.

Regression to the mean will not last as an obstacle to elite propagation. The genetic variants for high IQ, drive and other attributes needed for success will be known in detail in 10 years max. The cost of DNA sequencing has fallen so far so fast that we are going to witness a flood of discoveries about gees put into passing their status along to their children. The amount of money and effort to choose ideal embryos for implantation is very small compared to all the effort the upper classes currently put into giving their kids advantages. A 10 or 15 IQ point offspring IQ boost via pre-implantation genetic testing and embryo selection will do far more than private schools, tutors, structured play, violin lessons, and Mandarin-speaking nannies.

My expectation is that the upper classes will most aggressively embrace assisted reproduction technologies that enable the making of higher performing babies. The Dunning-Kruger Effect will prevent the lower classes from realizing how much more they need to boost the IQs of their offspring. Ambitious secular smarties will jump on embryo selection. Plus, I also expect Mormons and upper class Protestants (e.g. Episcopals and Presbyterians) to have fewer moral qualms. My guess is that fewer Christian fundamentalist opposition to abortion will embrace biotech for baby making.

But stepping back to the here and now: My main reaction to elite college discussions: The vast majority of bright kids can't go Ivy League, Stanford, CalTech, MIT or the near runners-up. These IQ signals and status signals aren't available. The elite schools are irrelevant for the vast majority of bright kids. Most bright kids need another plan.

Ross's article was occasioned by Princeton alumnus Susan Patton's letter to Princeton women encouraging them to try to land a Princeton husband because the supply of quality smart men is very limited and they have lots of choices. Her letter is practical, sound advice that flies in the face of really foolish advice from the likes of Hanna Rosin that hook-up culture represents progress for women. For any woman that wants to have kids throwing away their prettiest years on hypergamous hook-ups with guys out of their league means they hit their 30s with rapidly cooking eggs, fading looks, and no longer competitive for the smart guys who they once could have gotten to marry them. I hear Shirley Manson singing Stupid Girl: "All you had you wasted"

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2013 April 07 10:26 PM 

James Bowery said at April 8, 2013 12:36 PM:


Merit has very little to do with it.

If you can't tax away the economic rent of the network effect that made Gates and Zuckerberg rich, with a commensurate reduction in taxes on economic activity, you'll be pissing in the wind.

Wolf-Dog said at April 9, 2013 8:46 PM:

The new dystopian movie Elysium will probably be very interesting. In this film the elite live in a giant space station in high orbit in the year 2154:



asdf said at April 12, 2013 6:15 AM:

Ross recently linked to Steve Sailer in one of his columns. I imagine the NYT will replace him soon.

James Bowery said at April 13, 2013 6:39 AM:

Speaking of network-effect-corrupted elites such as Zuckerberg, corrupt mid-Atlantic press and linking to Sailer:


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