Senior: The tyranny of the credentialed

Jennifer Senior writes in the New York Times:

95 Percent of Representatives Have a Degree. Look Where That’s Got Us.

All these credentials haven’t led to better results.

Over the last few decades, Congress has diversified in important ways. It has gotten less white, less male, less straight — all positive developments. But as I was staring at one of the many recent Senate hearings, filled with the usual magisterial blustering and self-important yada yada, it dawned on me that there’s a way that Congress has moved in a wrong direction, and become quite brazenly unrepresentative.

No, it’s not that the place seethes with millionaires, though there’s that problem too.

It’s that members of Congress are credentialed out the wazoo. An astonishing number have a small kite of extra initials fluttering after their names.

According to the Congressional Research Service, more than one third of the House and more than half the Senate have law degrees. Roughly a fifth of senators and representatives have their master’s. Four senators and 21 House members have M.D.s, and an identical number in each body (four, 21) have some kind of doctoral degree, whether it’s a Ph.D., a D.Phil., an Ed.D., or a D. Min.

But perhaps most fundamentally, 95 percent of today’s House members and 100 percent of the Senate’s have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet just a bit more than one-third of Americans do.

“This means that the credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many,” writes the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel in “The Tyranny of Merit,” published this fall.

There’s an argument to be made that we should want our representatives to be a highly lettered lot. Lots of people have made it, as far back as Plato.

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between good governance and educational attainment that Sandel can discern. In the 1960s, he noted, we got the Vietnam War thanks to “the best and the brightest” — it’s been so long since the publication of David Halberstam’s book that people forget the title was morbidly ironic. In the 1990s and 2000s, the highly credentialed gave us (and here Sandel paused for a deep breath) “stagnant wages, financial deregulation, income inequality, the financial crisis of 2008, a bank bailout that did little to help ordinary people, a decaying infrastructure, and the highest incarceration rate in the world.”
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Five years ago, Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke, tried to measure whether more formal education made political leaders better at their jobs. After conducting a sweeping review of 228 countries between the years 1875 and 2004, he and his colleague Noam Lupu concluded: No. It did not. A college education did not mean less inequality, a greater G.D.P., fewer labor strikes, lower unemployment or less military conflict.

Sandel argues that the technocratic elite’s slow annexation of Congress and European parliaments — which resulted in the rather fateful decisions to outsource jobs and deregulate finance — helped enable the populist revolts now rippling through the West. “It distorted our priorities,” Sandel told me, “and made for a political class that’s too tolerant of crony capitalism and much less attentive to fundamental questions of the dignity of work.”

3 Responses

  1. *** Jennifer Senior wrote: “Over the last few decades, Congress has diversified in important ways. It has gotten less white, less male, less straight — all positive developments. But (,,,) there’s a way that Congress has moved in a wrong direction, and become quite brazenly unrepresentative.”
    *** Such a sentence seems implying that the good direction is to get a Congress mirroring perfectly the civic body.
    *** Only sortition may allow that.
    *** Few “uncredentialed” people belong to the US Congress. That seems implying they encounter specific impediments. Let’s suppose a quota related to this parameter. That will add new uncredentialed congresspersons, but we cannot be sure they will mirror the uncredentialed part of the civic body along every parameter. Actually, as these persons will be among the ablest to overcome the impediments, we may be sure they will be especially “unrepresentative” of the uncredentialed population.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes – by definition, any competitive procedure guarantees that the winners are exceptional. This is the principle of distinction.

    Like

  3. Sure, but for an under-represented category the winners will be even more exceptional.

    Liked by 1 person

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