I started the session by elaborating on a paradox that emerged from the first session. We believe that our culture is fragmenting, while our elites are consolidating into a monoculture.
To illustrate fragmentation, I suggested looking at movies in terms of nominal GDP, real GDP, and real GDP per capita. Compare the market share of hit movies in the early 2000s (before streaming) to the 1960s and 1970s. In nominal terms, the gross revenues are higher for the hits of the early 2000s. But in real terms, adjusted for ticket prices, they are not. And in real per capita terms, meaning the number of tickets sold relative to the adult population at the time, hit movies from the 1960s and 1970s were much more of a collective cultural phenomenon. Later in the seminar, it was pointed out that time-shifting further fragments the audience. If people watch the same TV show but at different times, it is less of a shared experience.
To illustrate the elite drift toward a monoculture, I compared Mitt Romney to his father, George Romney. I argued that Mitt would be more comfortable in a faculty lounge than on a factory floor, while with George it would have been the other way around.
The discussion followed.
Is cultural fragmentation a bad thing? People are better matched to their interests. And are elites a big monoculture or merely a small fragment?
One trend feeding this is skill-biased technical change, which helps consolidate elites. But has this actually become credentials-biased institutional stagnation? A standardized path to success leads people to universities, and grade inflation allows mediocre students to get through universities, creating a mediocre “elite.”
Reference to Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class. Better matching also lets people who want power to connect and coordinate with one another, leading to consolidated elites.
IQ is closer to 50 percent heritable than to 100 percent heritable. So really smart parents in one generation will not produce the majority of really smart children in the next generation. In fact, legacy admissions (or admissions shaped in part by parents’ ability) will bias university cohorts toward mediocrity. This bias will be exacerbated by political bias and anti-religious bias which will keep out bright Republicans and Christians.
Does skill-biased technical change explain the disappearance of the gumshoe reporter? On the one hand, strong technical skills can produce good reporting (Nate Silver). And investigative reporting attracts little revenue relative to cost, when compared with clickbait essay writing.
We would expect that credentials bias would be overcome by people starting new institutions. This seems to be happening in journalism, where alternative outlets are displacing newspapers.
But universities are another matter. The day of our seminar, the University of Austin received a spate of publicity. I offered a very skeptical take. First, start-ups generally have a high failure rate. Second, universities are very difficult to start, because the expense is so high and the chicken-and-egg problem is severe. That is, you cannot get a good reputation until you get top-tier students and faculty, and you cannot get top-tier students and faculty until you get a great reputation. Finally, I thought that a manifesto and a big board of advisors was not the sign of a lean, aggressive start-up.
We talked about innovation as more likely to come from newer firms and people with nontraditional backgrounds, because innovation requires risk-taking and out-of-the-box thinking.
I raised the question of “why now?” referring to the Woke surge in institutions. Various answers were suggested.
Consider the death of George Floyd. In the past, this would have been an odd event that went unnoticed. But with smart phones and Internet video, it became focal.
The persistence of racial gaps has been a long-simmering issue that was brought to a boil.
Social media are great at allowing people to speak out on a problem but not helpful in developing solutions.
Gen Z is especially concerned with how they look on social media. If you have some flaw that makes you awkward in the real world, you can go on social media and affiliate with a banner cause in order to gain acceptance. Note that 1 in 6 Gen Zers identifies as LBTGQ.
Why do CEO’s and college administrators cave to Woke activists? Maybe they over-estimate the significance of Twitter. Nobody likes to be the focus of a “two-minute hate.” There is no proven template for leaders to follow in order to resist the Woke mob and survive.
If universities have lost their way, why now? Perhaps they are flooded with children of elites, and the children are not themselves so gifted. The children grow up more in a bubble than in the past. George Romney had first-hand experience with blue-collar life and hard times. Mitt did not.
Elites are making more unrealistic promises than they did in the past (end racial gaps? green energy?), so even if their performance is no worse than in the past, the gulf between promises and performance widens.
Why don’t parents hold universities more accountable for keeping their promises? Do universities promise too much? They seem to have taken on the mission of social justice. But in fact they don’t have formal mission statements, and perhaps that makes them less accountable.
Bryan Caplan points out that decades of research show that “learning transfer” (students taking what they learn in one situation and successfully applying it in a different situation) does not take place among college students.
I pointed out that I hold two views in tension. One view is the Null Hypothesis, that educational interventions make no long-term difference in outcomes, and this has long been the case. The other view is that universities have gone down hill.
Today, I would say perhaps colleges used to impart wisdom (contra Caplan and contra my Null Hypothesis). But even if that has not changed, they have fostered more activism, especially after students graduate. As a result, the ratio of activism to wisdom has shot up.