I received an e-mail from a friend who is a Harvard graduate and an orthodox Catholic. He takes exception to R.R. Reno’s column on meritocracy, which I cited favorably today. I can’t reproduce his letter verbatim here, because he wants to protect his privacy. But I have edited it to his satisfaction, and present this version with his approval:

I wanted to write about your post “Meritocracy & the Middle Class,” which sparked a number of reactions.  I believe Rusty Reno’s article is, to be extremely charitable, vague.  And I tend to agree with you far more than many of your other readers, so I would like to think this is not coming from an automatic negative bias.

Let’s begin with the first problematic passage:

Another important reason is the meritocratic reinvention of elite America, which now includes and socializes non-whites into its once all-white ranks. Talented, ambitious young people tend to move up and out, encouraged by an inclusive elite that is eager to draw into itself those whom, two generations ago, would have been kept out of the establishment. This has decapitated most communities, depriving a great deal of Americans of their natural leaders.

Some thoughts/questions in no particular order:

1)      This has the air of plausibility at the rhetorical level, but I would love to see evidence in support of this.  Has he not seen any issue of any business or economic periodicals in recent years, all of which with some frequency lament the lack of minorities in the ranks of business, politics, academia, etc.?  From my own experience at an elite institution, I assure you that minorities are not exactly swelling the ranks of elite America.  For Reno to suggest as much is absurd to the point of hilarity.  I hate to sound mean, but it really is ridiculous.

2)      Communities are not lacking in young leaders with ability.  There are just so few opportunities, period, unless you are in the East/West coast (and then you can barely pay your bills if you’re just starting).  There are a lot of reasons one could cite for this, but I do not have time to get into that debate here.  Part of it is that there are several Boomers in leadership positions who cannot or will not retire.

To a subsequent passage, which you quote in your post:

What white middle class voters are waking up to is that their natural leaders are being co-opted by the meritocratic system as well [as minorities’ leaders]. Hillary Clinton may have lived in Arkansas for decades, but she’s a creature of elite education and Goldman Sachs. People talk about the Clinton Machine. But it’s not at all like the machines of ward bosses and patronage jobs as sidewalk inspectors. The Clinton Machine is an interlocking network of very rich donors, high-placed journalists, and political elites. It operates at Davos, not in gritty ethnic urban neighborhoods.

Some thoughts and questions arise immediately:

1)      This is a maddeningly overgeneralized characterization.  “Elite education and Goldman Sachs” seems to be just a vague, metonymic substitute for all things bad.  This is bad writing not only because it is vague but because the institutions falling under this umbrella are not as uniform as he (and perhaps his audience) suspect.  After all, no less than Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Harvard Law prof, is a perennial thorn in the side of big finance.

2)      He may disavow it if asked explicitly, but Reno is implicitly linking all people with an “elite education” to an “interlocking network of very rich donors, high-placed journalists, and political elites” operating “at Davos, not in gritty ethnic urban neighborhoods.”  However, many Ivy League graduates (all of my evidence is anecdotal here—I don’t have time to get hard numbers) did not seek the world of high business and/or policymaking  and instead went to work in gritty neighborhoods.

3)      This brings me to the more important issue: Reno offers no concrete alternatives.  I have a problem with the Ivy League (plus Stanford/MIT/Cal Tech etc.) apparatus/industrial complex because it can perpetuate the very inequities it purports to oppose, but there will always be elite institutions.  They need not be brick-and-mortar now, but there will always be mechanisms to differentiate high-quality performers from others.  The key is to make these institutions available to all and to define “high-quality” in a way that is actually accurate.  And whatever happened to the conservative praise of elite institutions as a bulwark against ever-fickle public opinion?

Another passage:

Globalization has altered the reward structures and incentives for the top ten percent of Americans, with a trickle-down effect that also influences the next ten percent. Finance is a thoroughly globalized industry. The same goes for hi-tech. The red-hot economy in the Bay Area has become independent of the rest of California. Tech executives push hard for the expansion of the H-1B visa program to bring in more foreign software engineers. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the entertainment industry makes more money through international than domestic sales. Even a middle American company like Caterpillar is thoroughly globalized.

This passage is particularly problematic.  I’ll mention a few points here:

1)      I see no problem in Silicon Valley’s tech scene’s being “independent of the rest of California” (what does that even mean anyway?!), and I find it ironic that a social conservative would find any sort of independence from liberal California anything less than a Godsend.

2)      Tech executives push for H-1B visas, yes, but a) they also push for greater tech education in American schools because American workers cannot do the work (I have experienced this firsthand), and b) they don’t have enough visas to fill talent gaps.  Perhaps this is my inner globalized technocrat talking, but the American economy would be all the better if more of its own companies could produce at full capacity.

3)      The entertainment industry makes more money through international sales.  Um, need he be reminded that America has 5% of the world’s population?  Forget the merits or demerits of globalization: any industry with a product like film should have greater international than domestic sales.  And this is a good thing for the American economy: I suspect most any economist of any political persuasion (even the most mercantilist) will say that increasing exports is good for the American economy.

4)      The same points in 3) could apply to Caterpillar.

So maybe Reno is using all of this evidence to show that the economy is thoroughly globalized (despite the fact that there is a legitimate debate as to what this actually means and entails).  Fine, but even using globalization as an argument for why whites are so restless is itself problematic and reductive to the point of absurdity.  Elites have held all sorts of crazy opinions different from the rest of the populace—why is this time so different for whites?  That he says it is is more assertion than argument.

All of which leads us to the following segue:

This gap isn’t just economic; it’s cultural as well. Our establishment is moving toward a post-national vision of the common good, while middle America seems eager for gestures and rhetoric that promises renewed national solidarity.

To a great extent, multiculturalism and other forms of “global consciousness” serve as companions to economic globalization. They promise to teach us how to navigate cultural differences in ways that defuse conflict, promote cooperation, and thus ease the way toward a global marketplace overseen by well-trained, benevolent technocrats from the Kennedy School of Government.

This approach need not be overtly ideological. It’s enough for us to downplay our local loyalties and to adopt a spirit of detachment from our histories. This can be done with plain vanilla relativism. The point is to strip away potentially divisive commitments, allowing us to focus on universal interests we share in common—the universal human desire to get richer, be healthier, and to satisfy individual preferences. This has led to a leadership class that is technocratic in its outlook but has trouble speaking about patriotic loyalties that unify us all.

This was really bad.  Let’s explore at least some of it:

1)      “Post-national vision of the common good”:  I would be very interested in seeing his evidence of this claim.  The myth of the decline of the state has been around for decades—does anyone who has watched the American government (to say nothing of governments in Europe and Asia–let’s name behaviors in China, Japan, Germany, France, and Britain just to warm up) really believe that nationalism is going away anytime soon, whether among the elite or anywhere else?  Having lower tariffs and more commercial international exchange does not mean the state is going anywhere in practice or in elite opinion.  In my experience, the people who do discuss this sort of thing tend to be people with exposure to philosophy/political theory who have read too much Hegel/Kojeve (if they like post-national talk) or Leo Strauss (if they don’t).  I would not claim that this post-national vision does not exist among “the elite,” but I am far from convinced it is dominant.  If he has evidence to the contrary, I welcome the correction.

2)      No matter how foolishly liberal elite institutions can be, I really see little problem in navigating cultural differences to defuse the problem and promote cooperation.  Would that we had leaders who could actually do that!  All this talk of smoothing differences may sound like so much liberal claptrap to conservatives, and some of that is legitimate; however, knowing how to navigate those differences is actually really hard.  Given that many of our problems require multinational cooperation (terrorism, climate change, etc.), you can be sure I’ll happily give a full-throated defense of institutions’ trying to do this, even if some of its practitioners descend into liberal naivete.  For him to be tongue-in-cheek with it may be funny to some, but he goes too far.

Perhaps I’m simply too biased because I went to an elite institution, but I particularly dislike it  when a fellow Catholic tries to pigeonhole me and my fellow graduates.  It is particularly infuriating because I can probably guess from just how he words (and even how he spells—cf. “hi-tech” ) certain issues how little concrete experience he has with the issues he claims to be describing.  He writes like someone who has studied humanities talking about politics and economics.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but you lose credibility very quickly if you don’t have your facts in order.

I hope you will forgive what may appear immodest, but I have worked in the start-up world.  I have worked in the government world.  I have multiple friends who have done and are doing the same.  I became interested in public service because of the suffering of the poor in my home state, and that is why I came home after finishing my Masters.  I have classmates from all parts of the U.S. and around the world who returned home for similar reasons.  We’re not all a bunch of caviar-chomping Davos dilettantes.  Some of us have operated in gritty, ethnic urban neighborhoods.  One can have an elite education and still do that.

My apologies for the length—if I had had more time, I would have written fewer words and made better arguments (in short, I would say that it boils down to 1) Elite opinion, on globalization or something else, is not a convincing reason whites feel abandoned, and 2) his description of these forces at work is absurdly inaccurate anyway).

I learn so much from my readers. Mulling over this. Thoughts?