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Scrutinizing the Elite, Whether They Like It or Not

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The rich are sitting firmly in the public cross hairs, especially as the economy continues to stumble. Reports that Wall Street bonuses will again be high, and the debate in Congress over tax increases for the wealthy, just add to the outrage.

So it was a serendipitous time for Columbia University to convene the first Elites Research Network conference last week. The conference drew in scholars focused on inequality across academic disciplines, like economics, political science, sociology and history.

In the academic world, this was remarkable. As several of the scholars acknowledged, there has traditionally been some unease in talking about the elite, let alone researching them.

“When we study the poor, it’s relatively easy,” said Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia and the author of “Gang Leader for a Day” (Penguin Press, 2008). “The poor don’t have the power to say no. Elites don’t grant us interviews. They don’t let us hang out at their country clubs.”

But Dorian Warren, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia, said the increasing concentration of wealth, moving from the top 10 percent of Americans to the top 1 percent, has made this the right time to look more closely at the group. “We have to understand what’s going on at the top,” Mr. Warren said.

The discussion quickly went beyond examining how those with more had traditionally exercised control over those with less. Many of the younger scholars said their goal was to do more than just look at tax returns and see who sat on boards. Instead, they said, they want to start looking at the relationships between the elite and the non-elite.

“If you look at the poor as a problem, you’ll be angry at elites or you’ll expect them to come up with a solution,” said Mr. Venkatesh, who took the most pragmatic line. “You have to come in accepting that there will always be poor people in society and there will always be wealthy people in society, and neither of the two reached that status by their own efforts.”

That’s not the usual description of this issue. But otherwise, you risk viewing the rich as rapacious thieves or seeing the poor as lazy freeloaders.

That said, there were other academics who hewed to an older model of power dynamics. Jeffrey Winters, associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, talked of the wealthy in America in terms of oligarchy. And he advanced an argument against what he called the “income defense industry.”

"The poor don’t have the power to say no. Elites don’t grant us interviews. They don’t let us hang out at their country clubs." -Author, Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh

The term referred to the accountants, lawyers and financial advisers employed by the wealthy — and the merely affluent — to manage their financial affairs. Mr. Winters argued that this group was hurting the non-elite by minimizing tax collection. He estimated that $70 billion was lost yearly just from offshore accounts.

There is no denying that members of the elite have a lot of money and would like to hang on to as much of it as they can. But that’s true of most people.

Olivier Godechot, a French academic on the sociology panel, presented research that quantified just how skewed the increase in wealth at the very top has become. Mr. Godechot, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, said that two professions — finance and business services — accounted for almost all of the increase in income inequality.

D. Michael Lindsay, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, said his research showed that many of the people now considered elite in America did not start out that way. He is conducting what he described as the largest study ever of top leaders in America, having talked to over 500 so far across business, nonprofits and academia.

He said he had found that a privileged upbringing did not matter as much as generally thought. Nor, he said, did many of the top leaders inherit large sums of money. While many went to top colleges and a large number attended Harvard Business School, the biggest determining factor of whether someone moved into the elite was an early career opportunity.

Being able to look beyond their specialty early — as opposed to being highly specialized their entire career and then thrust into a leadership role — distinguished great leaders more than any inherent advantage in their upbringing, he said.

“These people had a chance to be a generalist early on, as opposed to being specialists their whole career,” Mr. Lindsay said. “They had that experience in their early 30s or 40s.”

Some of the conference presenters took note that they themselves were almost entirely from Ivy League and other elite universities — only one was from a state university.

“When we send our kids to the Brookline schools, we’re not making a judgment about the Boston schools,” said Michèle Lamont, a sociology professor at Harvard University. “There are unintended consequences to our actions.”

Mr. Warren put it more bluntly: “I did not come up as a child of privilege, but I got into Yale for graduate school. I’m going to want to do the same for my kids. It’s not a malicious intent to exclude others; it’s a rational impulse to maintain the advantage.”

Those at the conference defined the elite as people with power over others, and the debate was framed largely in economic terms. But professors at an Ivy League university are part of an elite, even if their salaries do not reflect it.

Shamus Rahman Khan, a conference organizer and assistant professor of sociology at Columbia, seemed to be most at ease with the conflict. The son of a Pakistani father and Irish mother who both emigrated to the United States, he said he came from a wealthy but not elite family. His father, a successful surgeon, paid his son’s way to the St. Paul’s School, a top boarding school.

Yet when Mr. Khan arrived there in the mid-1990s, he said he lived in the “minority students dorm.” He used that experience and a later teaching stint at St. Paul’s to write a book on the nature of advantage, “Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School,” which will be published by Princeton University Press in January.

“Is it morally responsible for you to get your kids into very expensive schools if it will advantage them?” Mr. Khan said. “It’s hard not to do it. But by doing it, you’re not explicitly squirting some other kid in the eye with pepper spray. It’s more subtle.”

His concern is what the concentration of wealth means for American society in the future. He said he wondered whether the post-World War II era in America — as defined by prosperity and rising income levels — was a historical anomaly and was coming to an end.

He cited data showing that the United States now had the second-lowest level of intergenerational income mobility in the world, after England.

“If we lose this truly American thing — that you can become anything if you just work at it — then you’re really going to lose what makes America America,” he said. “It already appears that it will take a tremendous amount of time for people to bring their families out of poverty and for the wealthy to fall from the advantages they have.”

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