Monday, August 21, 2017

That's not to say that sleeping around can't be a plus

Over the past few years I have gotten in the habit of making a quick (or, to be honest, often not-so-quick) visit to Wikipedia when I read something that seems curious and I've spotted some common threads. For example, when a US representative makes a particularly clueless reactionary remark, I will give you excellent odds that he or she comes from a white flight district. I have found this to be the best predictor of far right extremism for politicians at the municipal or district level. Growing up in such a neighborhood is also strongly correlated with journalists and pundits holding these views.

Another curious phenomenon that I think I may have largely explained via Wikipedia is the mysterious rise of young, highly successful incompetents. You know what I'm talking about. You see someone with no apparent ability or qualifications who has raced up the career ladder, or has just been handed a huge check to start a company with a dubious business plan or has landed a high profile gig at a big-name publication. These are incredibly competitive fields and yet some manage to race past countless peers who are smarter, more talented, and better qualified.

The standard joke response is "who did that person sleep with?" but a little digging online provides a better explanation, or at least a highly suspicious pattern. If you look up the bio of a bizarrely successful incompetent, you will notice that the overwhelming majority come from an elite university and, in a truly remarkable number of cases, a ridiculously selective and expensive prep school. Wealth and family connections often figure prominently as well, but they are not as essential. Spending a decade or so in the company of the rich and powerful seems to be sufficient.

Just to be clear, I'm not making a blanket statement about the intellect or abilities of people who come from these schools. There are a lot of smart, capable preppies with degrees from Harvard out there. What I am saying is that the connections and prestige that comes with this kind of education provides enormous advantages, advantages so large that they often swamp the qualifications we like to think determine success.

With that in mind, the following raises disturbing implications:

"Access to colleges varies greatly by parent income," writes Raj Chetty of Stanford University and four co-authors. "Children whose parents are in the top 1% of the income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile." 


  1. Mark:

    I have a horrible feeling that the story you tell will not make it into the next books of David Brooks or Malcolm Gladwell.

    1. Andrew,

      Don't be so sure. In part two, I explain how the prep school kids spend 10,000 hours learning how to properly order lunch in upscale Italian delis in Manhattan.