If I Care About Economic Mobility, Should I Vote for MIT or… MIT?

I’m pleased that politicians from both sides of the aisle are focusing on economic mobility. In life, the deck gets stacked fairly early and connections play a big role. In an open and democratic society like the United States, it’s not so much that a person can’t get a hit; it’s that one person steps up to the plate with three balls and no strikes, and the next with no balls and two strikes. The odds that the second person ends up with a higher batting average than the first after 10 times at bat is just about nil.

One reminder of how connections and early stacking of the deck reinforce each other came in the mail a few days ago: a chance to cast my vote for the officers of the American Economic Association (AEA). I’m supposed to select five people from nine candidates. The list shows some diversity along lines now somewhat demanded by society—that is, three women and one person of color. But, seven of the nine—and all six white males—have a connection with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT (five PhDs and two faculty), so I have to vote for three MIT-connected economists at a minimum. Harvard lost its usual spot; only five of the nine have a major connection, including three with bachelor’s degrees from there. In fact, only one of the nine does not have a Harvard or MIT connection—though she has taught at Princeton, which usually gets at least token representation in this annual vote.

I know many of these candidates and have great respect for them. But I doubt that most of them believe fully in the hierarchical system from which they are now beneficiaries.

A number of years ago I had two colleagues who had done all but dissertations (ABDs) in history at the University of Virginia, ranked as one of the better schools in the country for that subject. Both were told by an adviser it wasn’t worth the trouble to write their dissertations. Jobs teaching college history and requiring a PhD, they learned, were so rare that they were already doomed: they were from too low-ranked a high-ranked university.

The financial industry has an extensive old boy (and occasionally old girl) network with the Ivy League. One of my daughters went to Princeton; though a biology major, she was recruited to join Wall Street (she didn’t accept). A former research assistant I knew got an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin when it became well-known for its rigor. Despite doing quite well, he later complained that without the Ivy League connection he couldn’t even get interviews with  Wall Street firms.

Richard Perez-Pena recently penned a piece for the New York Times detailing the lack of progress among elite colleges in enrolling low-income students (not yet a standard along which politically correct diversification levels are expected). For instance, studies out of the University of Michigan and Georgetown University find that at 82 schools rated most competitive by a Barrons profile, only 14 percent of the student population comes from the poorer half of the nation’s households.

Look at top appointees under this president and former ones. Many come from a very few colleges— particularly the ones with which the presidents are connected (Obama loves Harvard; his predecessor, Yale), or have parents who owned banks, or other crucial connections. Even in sports, which is relatively competitive, think of the quarterbacks (RGIII) or golfers (Tiger Woods) who got a start even before age 10 learning from a parent or other close contact. And do you really think that all the current Hollywood stars with famous actresses or actors as parents just came out of genetically superior material?

I could go on, and I’m sure there is not a reader among you who couldn’t expand the list. In fairness, I should add some of my own early and lucky links, such as attending St. Xavier in Louisville, KY, perhaps the top high school in the state, where my family had gone for generations.

Researchers today work long and hard at trying to figure out which policies could help create a more mobile society, one where of starting at the bottom still left decent odds of making it to the top, or where success didn’t get defined so intensely by early connections or the track on which one started. So far we haven’t been very successful, though there are clearly some government steps that can be made, such as creating more equal access to subsidies for saving. But much is still determined by how we organize ourselves socially outside of government and just what we expect from our institutions. And, in truth, a thriving society should want successful parents to teach their kids all that they can, so simplistic leveling policies can easily start to threaten both their freedom and the wider societal growth that their successful kids can generate.

Still, I think it clear that many of the ways we select and discriminate hurt our society and hinder many from achieving their potential. So do I vote for MIT, or for MIT, or not at all?

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