Glenn Reynolds on What a Course on the Occupy Movement Might Teach

Trendy supply meets trendy demand in the form of university courses offering to explain the Occupy movement. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Glenn Reynolds offers some suggestions on items to include in the course syllabus; he generously quotes me, from a post several months back here at Volokh, “The Fragmenting of the New Class Elites.”  My point in that post was to observe that the Occupy movement was in large part about elite intra-class struggle, between an upper tier elite that was (and is) doing pretty well, and a lower tier elite that faces serious pressures and downward mobility.  (If you’d like a way in to the theory of the New Class, this mid-1990s review essay of mine on lawyers and the New Class is a place to start.)

Glenn’s piece points toward something that needs much more study and discussion, and impact on policy: the linkage between the crisis in higher education and its business model, on the one hand, and elite formation and reproduction, on the other.  That includes the tendencies reinforced by that selection process – not all of which are obvious, but which have large consequences for the way in which our current elites operate.  One of the less obvious is the selection bias and long-run training of upper tier students and their parents toward risk aversion.  Strange as one might find it, I would put risk aversion as the primary behavior distinguishing today’s elites – in the college placement process, the university, the migration of top tier students to Wall Street jobs where they make good money but risk OPM, the assortative mating market that is quite possibly (as I remarked tongue in cheek at Valentine’s ) the raison d’être of the physical elite university, the intense reward of strategic behavior that is aimed less at maximizing gains than minimizing possible losses … today’s elites are well schooled in strategic behavior, but that strategic behavior is mostly about avoiding any error, and to the extent that our elites take risks, it is only with other people’s futures.

The system of high school college placement and higher education itself induces fantastic risk aversion, and that is accelerating, in large part on account of grade inflation that leave students in high school (applying to college) and in the university compressed against a top grade – in which there is mostly room to fall and fail.  When the median grade in the liberal arts is an A-, you mostly have only to go down and given the cost of the credential and its consequences – well in excess of any educational value in the liberal arts – you will act in the most risk averse, strategic way and take only classes in which you already know you will do at least that well.  The analogue of risk aversion in higher education in real life is downward mobility.  As the Occupy movement demonstrates, downward mobility is a serious prospect.

I will try to explain more of this in later posts; I’m torn between topics, and have some serious deadlines looming in other things.  But I will say that Glenn’s op-ed points to one of the most pressing intellectual and moral issues of American society today, at the nexus of elite formation and higher education.  Risk aversion must seem like an odd characteristic to single out as crucial to understanding the American New Class, but I think it is on the short list of crucial features of elite reproduction.

All of this is very difficult for our elites to take up reflectively, for obvious reasons – conflicts of class interest, as well as in difficulty in confronting one’s own risk aversion as a social pathology, given how much success it has brought you.  But, even more importantly, the master intellectual method that currently predominates in elite training and formation, economics, is remarkably ill-equipped even to see the issue, because its assumptions make it very difficult to see the “social” as an irreducible analytic category, rather than simply congeries of individuals.  Until there is a recovery of social theory – and the conflict tradition in social theory in particular – and a greater willingness to see the discipline of economics within a centuries’ long trajectory of intellectual history, we will not have the tools by which to analyze the New Class in America.

(Note to the Hoover Institution.  This is a near-perfect subject for you to take up, because it sits at the point of serious intellectual and academic work rather than day to day politics, and it has impacts that will reverberate across society and generations.  Why not convene a discussion group to discuss the topic over the next couple of years?  Fred Siegel, Russell Berman, Mary Ann Glendon, Peter Berkowitz, Dave Brady, Frank Fukuyama, Tod Lindberg, Andrew Ferguson, Megan McArdle, Walter Russell Mead, Charles Lane, Martha Minow, Josh Cohen, Zygmunt Bauman, Glenn Reynolds, Niall Ferguson, me, et al. – notice how many of them are already at Stanford?)

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