Sociology of elites

Just now reading Shamus Khan's review essay, "The Sociology of Elites," and it's great. Highly recommended. Khan's focus is the American elite, and, more specifically, how, and why, it has changed character in the period of the last thirty to forty years, and what this means for a sociology of elites, in general. In summary: 

First, present economic shocks notwithstanding, today’s elite are wealthier than any elite we have seen since before World War II (Atkinson & Piketty 2007). Second, increasingly elites are engaged in the finance sector. Looking at the Forbes 400, one can see that in 1982 finance was the primary source of wealth of only 9% of the world’s richest. In con- trast, by 2007 those working in finance made up 27.3% of the Forbes list. This superelite is also more international than 30 years ago, and it is increasingly likely that such superelites are self-made (Bernstein & Swan 2007). Such trends from a rather tiny sample of the Forbes 400 are in evidence among the broader elite: There has been a decline in dynastic wealth since the 1970s and a rise of self-made elites (Edlund & Kopczuk 2009), and elites are less likely to own capital and increasingly likely to rely upon earnings for their incomes (Piketty & Saez 2003). In brief, members of today’s elite are less likely to have inherited their wealth than those a generation ago (though this is relative), more likely to work in finance, more likely to rely upon earnings than ownership of capital, more global, and more diverse geographically and racially (Domhoff & Zweigenhaft 1999). 

The whole piece is here.

Social mobility and institutional support

I'm reading lots of stuff these days on social mobility in India to do with my book project on rich-poor interactions at private golf clubs. It's really only in the last ten to fifteen years that much ground has been made on this question of social mobility, and that's because only until recently has there been much in the way of massive surveys yielding multi-generational data. Something I came across a while back but which I'm returning to now is Anirudh Krishna's study of changing--and often not changing--prospects for those living in fourteen Bangalore slums.

Tracking these communities over time, Krishna finds that social mobility for most is a matter of luck, which makes sense: in a society such as India where the investment in education, health care, and other basic social provisions is abysmal, poor people are left to survive on their own. He pays special attention to how illnesses within families can be especially devastating. An important paragraph, near the end, reads:    

Illnesses, accidents, hospitalisations, deaths, and marriages are the adverse events that have mattered most within these slums. Compared with households whose economic conditions improved or remained the same, such adverse events occurred more frequently among households whose economic status has deteriorated. Average expenditures on health care were substantially higher among house- holds who suffered reversals of fortune. On average, a slum household spent Rs.13,415 on health care over the 10-year period preceding the survey. But 10-year medical expenses were 65 per cent higher among households who experienced downward movements (Rs.22,180). The incidence of regular medical outlays on account of chronic ailments is also higher among these households. Astonishingly, medical expenses were also higher among the poorest compared to the richest slum households (Rs.17,450 v. Rs.14,770). 

Families fortunate enough to avoid major illnesses can get by, investing money in other things, like education, most importantly. Those not so fortunate suffer, and suffer for generations, according to Krishna.

Read the whole thing here

In Search of poor "smart" kids

From an article by Robin J. Hayes, in the Atlantic Monthly, on why Ivy League schools struggle at promoting economic diversity on campus:  

Like most elite universities, Yale has a very specific view of what that means: high GPAs in “demanding” high schools and extraordinary character-defining extra-curricular activities. By the time I applied to Yale, I had been groomed as a scholarship student in majority-affluent feeder schools to succeed in conditions that guaranteed healthy GPAs. My attentive teachers in small classes delivered a curriculum that emphasized critical thinking skills, leadership capacity, and participation in mainstream institutions. Athletics and creative activities, studying in well-resourced libraries, and sessions with a seasoned well-connected college counselor were all required of me. Unsurprisingly, these nurturing environments allowed me to gain the credentials elite universities require. By society and the job market, I continue to be seen as a “high-achiever” in essence because I was never set up to fail.

It's not a small thing that elite colleges now want to diversify their student bodies, especially when you consider the history of these institutions. The bottom line is that few individuals arrive at an elite college without having at least some exposure to elite-like education. This is precisely Hayes's point. The poor have little to no opportunities in this regard, and that's why places like Yale--and Grinnell College, too, I should say--find their economic diversity efforts hamstrung. Seems to me that raising this issue would lead to more honest conversations about diversity, more generally, in higher education and beyond. 

(h/t Anya Vanecek)

A moral side to Wall Street?

And they say Wall Street bankers have no morals. Sam Polk, former hedge-fund trader, in today's New York Times:  

I’d always looked enviously at the people who earned more than I did; now, for the first time, I was embarrassed for them, and for me. I made in a single year more than my mom made her whole life. I knew that wasn’t fair; that wasn’t right. Yes, I was sharp, good with numbers. I had marketable talents. But in the end I didn’t really do anything. I was a derivatives trader, and it occurred to me the world would hardly change at all if credit derivatives ceased to exist. Not so nurse practitioners. What had seemed normal now seemed deeply distorted.

I had recently finished Taylor Branch’s three-volume series on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, and the image of the Freedom Riders stepping out of their bus into an infuriated mob had seared itself into my mind. I’d told myself that if I’d been alive in the ‘60s, I would have been on that bus.

But I was lying to myself. There were plenty of injustices out there — rampant poverty, swelling prison populations, a sexual-assault epidemic, an obesity crisis. Not only was I not helping to fix any problems in the world, but I was profiting from them. During the market crash in 2008, I’d made a ton of money by shorting the derivatives of risky companies. As the world crumbled, I profited. I’d seen the crash coming, but instead of trying to help the people it would hurt the most — people who didn’t have a million dollars in the bank — I’d made money off it. I don’t like who you’ve become, my girlfriend had said years earlier. She was right then, and she was still right. Only now, I didn’t like who I’d become either.

I'm not that surprised at Polk's ethical turn. One curious thing about the crash of 2007-2008 is just how many of those involved knew that something was amiss and ultimately destructive, as much for them as for society as a whole, and yet went about their business all the same. 

Debating culture

Vivek Chibber's book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital has been out for a while now, and receiving all sorts of attention, not all of it positive. Chief among the criticisms is that Chibber's analysis is too heavily loaded in favor of rational choice theory. Bruce Robbins over at N+1 is only the latest to level this charge. Check out Chibber's response published online at Jacobin Magazine.

On the question of culture, I find this passage particularly illuminating: 

So what is the view that I endorse? Do I reduce agents to asocial automatons? What I actually say in the book is three things. First, that people are largely shaped by their cultures, but that culture does not go “all the way down.” There are some needs that exist and endure independently of culture, and chief among these is the need to attend to one’s physical well-being. Second, that people are typically cognizant of this need and it therefore generates interests that influence political and social interaction. And third, that it is the universality of this need that explains the universality of resistance to exploitation — since the latter typically undermines the former. Note that I don’t simply assert this argument — I show that the actual historiography of the Subalterns themselves validates this proposition, even though they deny it (with the exception of Guha, who never denies it).

None of this entails a commitment to rational choice theory. All I am offering is one route to what was once called materialism, and those are two very different animals. I do not imply, indeed I explicitly deny, that people are welfare-maximizers. Nor do I suggest that people are selfish or competitive individualists — the two implications most commonly associated with rational choice and which are rightly rejected by others. What I do say is that people have a healthy appreciation of situations in which they are being oppressed or exploited, that this appreciation holds steady across cultures, and that it generates reasons for action. This is why what we typically see is what James Scott called “everyday forms of resistance.”

This is not controversial in the least, and yet it's amazing to see how many critics get tripped up on this point. 

The blog is dead. Long live the blog.

So, I'm trying this again. You know, a blog. This time around, I'll keep things simple. One, maybe two posts a week, I'm thinking. Also, short posts. Things I'm reading, liking, etc. A repository, if you will. What to expect: posts on current and developing research interests, including social mobility, or lack thereof, in India and the evolving discourse on ethics in business schools and financial institutions post-2008. Stay tuned.