The New Aristocracy

The Economist has an interesting article on what it calls “the importance of intellectual capital” and how this means that “privilege has become increasingly inheritable.” In essence, the author argues that we are seeing the emergence of this new aristocracy because today’s highest paying jobs demand significant intellectual ability. Further, since clever parents produce clever children through both nature and nurture, and since these talented parents have high enough incomes to fund the post-graduate education that is required to manifest their offspring’s talent, only those born to success can access these better opportunities.

I would agree that a new aristocracy is indeed forming, but not for those reasons. The “clever parents have clever kids” effect has always been there, but what has changed is that employers are now so obsessed with credentials, the value of which is being reduced by over-supply, and those credentials now cost so much as a result of government subsidies of education. The effect is that we are creating significant barriers to entry for the best jobs, at a time when formal education is actually becoming less important rather than more.

Oh, but STEM demands years of training, you will hear. But I would disagree. Certainly, fundamental scientific research has become so specialized that a long period of study is required before you can even understand what pass as “the basics”. (We shall see no more Renaissance Men, I’m afraid, with each field being so esoteric that it takes half a lifetime to appreciate its subtleties.) But when it comes to the middle two letters of everyone’s favorite four-letter word, things are different. A good programmer, for example, becomes a great programmer by doing, not by studying the formalities of Computer Science or by learning specific technologies at college when those technologies will by definition be out-of-date before they even graduate. Sit down and code. Work on multiple systems with multiple languages. Work on bare metal. A few years of that will be far more useful to you than any Comp. Sci. degree, but that doesn’t mean it will actually help you get past a credential-obsessed HR department.

There’s another effect, too. Startup funding is often dispersed via networks of the well-connected. Harvard and Yale aren’t places to learn. They are places to meet people who can help you get on in life. Nothing new there, perhaps, but at a time where the startup seems to have acquired an almost mythical position in our economic psyche, maybe the advantages provided by such a start in life are more valuable.

So what’s the answer? Well, there’s little that can (or should) be done about Ivy League networking. But when it comes to the bigger educational issue, the solution is well known. Stop driving the credentials arms race, where everyone needs a Bachelor’s, and then, whoops, everyone needs a Master’s since everyone else already has a BA and how can one stand out when everyone holds the same piece of paper? Stop driving up the cost of education with government subsidies via non-dischargeable loans. And create a proper system of capability-based certifications rather than time-served credentials that just put money in the pockets of the educational establishment.

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