Who are the elite, and why elite overproduction is not a problem

Who are the elite? What are elite-level jobs and college degrees?

I think the key criteria are:

-Visibility and influence on policy and or discourse

-High pay, but also playing an important role at large, highly-visible companies, with opportunities for promotion

-Connections, networking

So being a doctor or a specialist, despite the good pay, is not an elite profession, because it’s not like a doctor plays an important role at a large company, unlike a Goldman Sachs trader or a Google engineer. Most doctors either work at hospitals or go into independent practice. That’s why podcasts have so many nutritionists, doctors, and chiropractors as guests and why every doctor has a podcast now, because those professions involve a lot of hustling and self-promotion if you don’t work at a hospital.

Resorting to self-promotion is generally antithetical to being elite and frowned upon. Elites are thought to be identified at a relatively early age for their brilliance and shuttled to top schools and promoted to high positions in the private sector or government without having to seek approval or recognition, because the path is paved for them. Thanks to their credentials and endorsements (such as letters of recommendation, placing well in academic competitions, and top standardized test scores), it’s not like they struggle at finding good jobs after college or getting into a good graduate school.

There are obvious exceptions such as Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew, and Dr. Oz, as well as Dr. Fauci, who have a lot of visibility and influence, but that has more to do with exposure from TV and civil service, not the profession itself. Some doctors attain fame by publishing important research, notably John P. A. Ioannidis who published an influential paper in 2005 and other papers in 2020 regarding Covid, but this is distinct from practicing medicine at a hospital.

Google employees have enough influence to get the media’s attention, such as Google engineer Blake Lemoine announcing that Google’s LaMDA artificial intelligence was ‘sentient’, which made worldwide headlines (and later resulted in the engineer being put on paid leave). Same for Apple and Facebook. Globally as of 2021 Google employs just 27,169 software engineers, compared to 1,018,776 licensed physicians in the US alone. Former FAANG software engineers typically have a lot of opportunities after quitting, either at other tech companies, non-profits, or at startups, which you don’t commonly see with with other professions.

Even working as an Uber driver or an Amazon fulfillment worker has more visibility than the typical low-paying job, which is why stories about poor Amazon warehouse worker conditions keep making headlines but poor Chipotle working conditions get much less coverage (even though Chipotle and Amazon are both rated the same for job satisfaction according to indeed.com).

Being journalist or an editor of a large publication is a highly visible profession even if the pay is not that good. However by building name recognition journalists can transition to starting their own platforms, such as on Substack, while still retaining their influence. This can be quite lucrative, some recent examples being Matt Yglesias and Matt Taibbi, both of whom make a solid 6-figures publishing on Substack, which is way more than the usual pay for a political columnist or journalist, plus they have complete editorial control and ownership of the platform.

Lawyers make a lot of money, but also potentially have a lot of visibly in high-profile, high-stakes cases.

Regarding connections, graduating from or even just attending an Ivy League school, as well as top schools like Cal Tech, Stanford, Harvey Mudd, or MIT, opens the doors to many opportunities outside of college, some notable examples being Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel.

Elite-tier majors include journalism, political science, finance, sociology, economics, philosophy, law, STEM (but not biology). This does not mean that everyone who majors in such subjects is elite or aspires to be elite, but those are the professions the elite tend to be drawn from.

Despite the popularity of Freud, Jung, Sam Harris, and maybe Oliver Sacks, neurology and psychology are not elite. Same for biology. Anything that involves too much data gathering or empiricism is not elite. Elites instead tend to focus more on abstractions or intangibles (e.g., data, numbers, hypotheticals, algorithms, etc.) than with people or things, hence why pure math, computer science, or theoretical physics are possibly elite (and why being a doctor or a nurse is not elite). It’s also why CRT is so popular among political and academic elites, because it’s hard to define, so it confers a sort of in-group exclusivity. Or devising policy as opposed to governing, which is more hands-on.

Neither is accounting, business, history, or physiology. Some MBAs do attain elite status by working at a big company or a hedge fund, but the MBA market is so saturated due to its popularity, and most funds would rather hire quants who have extensive math or computer science backgrounds for the highest-paying of positions.

However, the most popular 4-year degrees are awarded in non-elite subjects such as communications, psychology, engineering, nursing, or criminal justice.

This is possible evidence against the popular theory of elite overproduction, as originated by Peter Turchin, because most people who graduate from college do not aspire to highly visible, prestigious roles in society. The majority instead major in ‘actionable’ subjects in which there is career demand and good pay and not too intellectually demanding, but not much visibility or room for promotion either. Although computer science and finance are possibly elite, they have good career prospects, so it’s unlikely there is a surplus/overproduction.

Also, elite overproduction suggests that the system is not in equilibrium, so market forces should correct this either in the form of lower wages and or fewer jobs. However, this does not seem to be the case. Companies evidently are deriving enough value from these college grads that the unemployment rate is 50% lower for college grads compared to high school grads and the wage premium keeps widening, but also large companies are generating record profits too.

However, status-seeking behavior can explain the trend of the left, particularly in journalism and on social media, becoming more extreme. But it’s not so much as an overproduction problem as it is a status shortage or an attention shortage. If more extreme voices are awarded more attention and a bigger megaphone, it logically follows people will become more extreme.

As for the epidemic of unemployable humanities majors that threatens to destabilize society, the humanities have never been that popular despite all the media hype/attention they get. In 2020 just 7 percent master’s degrees were awarded in the humanities, a historic low. But Foucault-reading Starbucks baristas notwithstanding, even humanities grads have better career prospects and lower rates of unemployment compared to high school grads.

Being ‘the best nurse in the world,’ ‘the best accountant in the world,’ or ‘the best teacher in the world’ does not lead to the sort of accolades or acclaim like writing a viral article for The Atlantic, being the best hedge fund manager in the world, or working on something attention-grabbing like self-driving cars or ‘user recommendation algorithms’. Nurses only became newsworthy because of Covid, and now no one talks about nurses or ‘essential workers’ anymore.

1 comment

  1. Turchin limits himself to elites and non elites (peasants). Your professional class of lawyer/doctors need to go into one of those categories to make an apple to apple comparison. Clearly doctors and lawyers are not peasants and belong in the elite class. They are essentially minor elites such as knights. No one would ever mistake a knight for the king, but no one would mistake a knight for a peasant either. Likewise no one mistakes a doctor for a billionaire, but no one mistakes a doctor for a chipotle worker either. If doctors and lawyers belong in the elite categories, than the elite class is expanding exactly as Turchin predicted.

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