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Last Murray post

Too lazy to dig up the link right now, but this is my last comment on Charles Murray's third WSJ essay on his recent series on education.

I caught a whiff of something in his last essay, that of the obligation of the elite to everybody else.

I thought this concept of noblesse oblige is a good one, which American society seems to have lost in our change from a British class system to our current "meritocracy". (I note that Spiderman has organized its core around "With great power comes great responsibility", which is this principle).

Once upon a time, it was noted that the aristocrats of land got their position by pure luck: i.e., they were born to the right families. In societies without a concept of reincarnation and karma, it was noted that no particular virtue devolved on being aristocrats, and so they should be charitable to their fellow man as it was only a chance gift of God that elevated them to that position. It also didn't hurt that Jesus told the parable of the talents, though that speaks more to everyone having an obligation to living up to the gifts given; however, it can be read into it that more is expected of those who are given more. Everybody could tell that there wasn't anything particularly special about the aristocrats in terms of saintliness.

One can talk about the morality of the situation, which can be disputed. As I indicated above, you can believe in a system where people really do deserve their position due to behavior in a previous life (the explanation behind the Hindu caste system). Here's something more powerful: self-interest. Consider the fate of the French aristocracy v. the British one in the 18th - 19th centuries. It would be nice to lay the blame for the behavior of the French aristos on Louis XIV, but I think he was merely intensifying what was already there: a total disregard for the lower classes. There was no recognition for human dignity and there was an abuse of the rule of law. In England, on the other hand, it was recognized that while there was a distinct heirarchy of social classes, each had its own dignity. Of course there were charitable French aristos and some horrid British ones, but I'm talking about social norms here.

And it really wasn't the treatment of those on the utmost lower rungs that caused the biggest problems anyway: it was the treatment of the "middle" classes. The French Revolution, like the American one, was fueled by the discontent of up-and-comers who felt aggrieved that their position wasn't properly respected by the "upper" classes. The Americans were peeved that they weren't allowed to participate in Parliament at all -- I think many would have been happier if they weren't a colony any more but part of the United Kingdom. They looked to Ireland as to what they had to fear as a subject population, but Scotland had been rather prosperous since making the UK the UK. No one even bothered to consult with them when it was decision-making time -- decisions were imposed on them by King and Parliament and ocean away, without any of their say. In the case of France, the Third Estate (hoi polloi) vastly outnumbered the First (aristos) and Second (clergy), but each group had the same power. What really chafed the Third Estate though was the tax system: the aristos managed to get out of it, while the small businessman (such as it was) bore the brunt of the country's taxation. It did not help that the image was of a king wasting this money on lavish living and pointless wars while people were starving in Paris.

Indeed, both revolutions, American and French, can be seen initially as a taxpayers revolt which spread into other motivations.

In any case, the bottomline is that it is in the interest of whoever is on top to feel obligations to the rest of society.... so as to keep their place, if nothing else.

But many don't see it that way. Now when people do well, and they consider it their own hard work that got them there -- so why should they have a duty to anybody else? These people forget, though, that work alone was not enough -- they needed to have the good luck of having certain skills, education, or opportunities. Michael Jordan worked hard to become the great basketball player he was, no doubt -- but plenty of others worked just as hard, if not harder, and could not achieve the same results.

So those who are in the current elite, what then are their obligations?

This one is tough. Because I believe, from a Catholic perspective, this is a matter of prudential judgment.

Murray put a throwaway line in his piece that annoyed me, a line about there being too many lawyers and not enough people taking science training. I'm not sure that's true, and it's making a judgment about: the number of people "needed" in particular fields and whether said people should be in these fields. I just don't think Murray knows enough to make this judgment. It reminds me of all the people who thought I should be a math professor; most of the people making this estimation were in academia themselves, so really didn't have enough experience with other careers to make this judgment. Secondly, I definitely got the vibe of "Math needs chicks!" Well, I'm under no obligation to make your sex ratios balance out.

There are plenty of people majoring in science and engineering who hate it, but do it under certain familial expectations. There are those who go to law school under similar circumstances. But there are those who go that route truly desiring it or finding out it is for them.

When it comes to making sure that there is enough in the way of scientific expertise, I think it suffices to have a solid educational objectives such as existed at NCSSM: we were required to have one year of physics, biology, and chemistry =each=. And math every semester. There were also humanities requirements. Many of my classmates went on to major in non-math and science subjects, but that was fine by me. I don't see it as a waste, and I think up through high school, education needs to be as broad as possible.

In any case, to get real results, you need not only the scientists and engineers who come up with ideas, but also the people who can make it happen. As an example, I did a bunch of modeling for TIAA-CREF's lifecycle mutual funds to test out different situations. Looked great. But these things would never have become reality without lawyers, asset managers, marketers, accountants, and the managers and execs who organized us lower level types to get it all done.

So this is my idea of obligation one: have respect for other people and appreciation for what they do and who they are.

My second obligation idea is to use one's talents in an ethical way. What constitutes ethics is definitely a matter of judgment, but the upshot is not to abuse one's talents and/or power in dealing with other people. This is why the classic anti-noblesse oblige move "Don't you know who I am?!?!" is so off-putting. There are certain social norms, like cutting in line at the DMV, where VIP status is not seen to be reason enough to let someone break the norm. Some people, thinking they're the second coming of the First Estate (and forgetting where the First Estate ended up), exercise their elite status in unseemly ways. Do not push it in other people's faces. Be gracious.

The third obligation I can think of is to actually use your talents as appropriate. Again, this is situational, and crops up in many guises and in many different levels of effort. Some I can think of off the top of my head: my lj-friends, some of whom I know only through livejournal, often ask for info or advice on various topics (I do it, too). This is spreading around knowledge and wisdom. I go to the Actuarial Outpost all the time, and people post questions about exams, technical problems, regulatory questions, etc. - and people answer these questions for each other. This is a community of give-and-take. This is a way to improve outcomes for all.

Sometimes the transfer is much more one-sided: I've gotten emails from people asking questions about becoming actuaries, or about recommendations for books to learn about =blah subject=. I used to volunteer for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, reading math textbooks (and sometimes physics and computer science.)

I'm not just talking about free efforts, either. I' m also talking about the workplace. One should bring one's talents to bear to the extent they are appropriate (and don't detract from your primary job function.) The actuaries at TIAA-CREF are well-known as nit-pickers on =everything= (it's that "attention to detail" aspect), and whenever we come across errors, whether numerical or otherwise, we shoot off emails to get it fixed. We could say "That's not our job", and if it took hours of revision to shoot off an email, or there were hundreds of emails to shoot off, there would be a point. But taking a "that's not my job" attitude, when it would require very little effort on your side and make a positive impact for someone else is the basis of common courtesy. It's not my job to hold the elevator open for people, it's not my job to pick up something someone else has dropped. This is the least of charity.

All the obligations I referred about above apply to all people, but because the elite can have a greater effect, and because they are least likely to suffer immediate bad consequences for not living up to them, they are the most in need of specific education on these points. In my own opinion, this education should be given to all, not because I'm anti-elitist, but because I'm sensible enough to realize we have no clue who the next elite will be. The current elite does not come just from those with a lot of schooling or with geeky tendencies, no matter how much the Revenge of the Nerds fan would wish it so, and the current elite does not come only from those from well-to-do families, no matter the talk of "Two Americas". And, of course, not everyone who is in the elite at some point remains there.

But it would be well to require more of those who have already been given much; this is why I never minded the community service and work service requirements at NCSSM. I didn't particularly want to do them, but I knew the state was sinking a lot of money into me, and it was only fair I would give back to the state in some concrete way (especially as I no longer live there.... but worry not, many of the optional retirement plans for NC higher ed are handled by TIAA-CREF, so I'm having an impact on them in an indirect way.)

In any case, that's all I have to say about this for now. I find it interesting that in all the blog posts I read about Murray's series, I didn't see any comments on the concept of the obligations of the elite. I saw lots of objections to the IQ argument (which I knew would happen) or the concepts of what should be convered in education (liberal arts, vo-tech, get rid of "college for everybody"). Anyway, I thought it interesting that no blogs I read wanted to touch the concept of social obligation. That said, I doubt I'm the only one who has written about this.
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