Friday, 27 July 2012

The necessary arrogance of elites

Throughout history, there has been a tendency of elites – moneyed elites, intellectual elites, dynastic elites, religious elites – to regard themselves as fundamentally different from the rest of humanity. All fields of human endeavour develop elites, which are the brightest and best in those fields: so, for example, Olympic athletes are “elite” physical sportsmen and women, whose sporting prowess far exceeds the capability of ordinary mortals. But in many fields, once elites have developed they have a vested interest in maintaining themselves, whether or not they still have genuine excellence. And they create barriers to admission of people who are not “one of them” but who possess genuine ability. They use special language that is not known to ordinary people. They require particular social connections: in the most extreme form elite membership is restricted to members of the same family (dynastic elitism), but more commonly it is restricted to people who move in particular social circles (class-based elitism: the “old boys’ network”). In this last form, “who you know” defines whether or not you are part of an elite, not “what can you do”: this skews human endeavour away from developing excellence towards developing connections, and therefore further dilutes the actual ability of the elite, which forces them to become even more protective of their privilege.  They may also prevent people who are the wrong sex, the wrong colour or who lack particular physical attributes which are not actually required for excellence in that field from becoming part of the elite. All of these are ways of defending their privileges.

So far, I haven’t said anything extraordinary. Elitism is a well-understood phenomenon and one which makes a lot of people very angry. But there is a necessity to the arrogance of elites, and it is not simply self-preservation. Individual members of the elite may lack genuine ability – they may simply have gained membership through their connections. But the body of knowledge and understanding that the elite AS A WHOLE has, however divorced it may seem to be from the understanding of ordinary people, nevertheless contributes to the development of human culture. And the defences that they put in place to protect their privileges enable them to maintain and develop unpopular and even apparently worthless practices that may in the future bring real value to humanity.

This will not be obvious to many people, so I will use a musical example. In the 20th century, so-called “serious” music went down what appeared to be blind alleys. It departed from any attempt to appeal to ordinary people, and became the province of musical academics, who enjoyed it for its structural challenge rather than its appeal to human emotion. You could say that it became completely divorced from reality. Milton Babbitt, in his famous essay “Who cares if you listen?” argued that ordinary people couldn’t really be expected to understand serious music, any more than they could understand theoretical physics, and so it didn’t matter if ordinary people didn’t want to listen to it. The fact that many talented and skilled musicians didn’t really enjoy listening to it either appears to have been lost on him. He even seems rather proud of the fact that music that no-one wants to listen to is commercially dead: but despite his claim that "serious" composers were self-funding, in reality he could only reject popular appeal because state and philanthropic funding of “serious” music made commercial viability unnecessary. “Serious” musicians at this period were rent-seekers, relying on their connections with the rich and powerful to secure the funding they needed to produce music of little popular appeal or commercial value.

Perhaps the darkest of the blind alleys was the mathematical approach of the post-Schoenberg serialist school. The most famous exponent of extreme serialism, Pierre Boulez, was severely criticised by fellow composers for his “dry, ascetic” approach and eventually dropped it in favour of something slightly less rigorous. In the end, music cannot simply be a mathematical system – it must appeal to human emotions or it loses its purpose.

Meanwhile, ordinary people with ability – barred from the elite, or even rejecting it outright - were developing new forms of music. The major musical developments of the 20th century were in popular music culture, starting with jazz and blues and moving on into the rediscovery of simple theatrical music in the American musical, the creation of rock&roll in the 1950s and 60s, and the development of contemporary popular music from indigenous musical forms. Deprived of state and, often, philanthropic funding, popular music forms and develops through the free market: music that is not popular with at least a significant proportion of people does not survive. Because of this, some forms of popular music have become “tribal” in nature: they are associated with particular groups of, especially, young people for whom the music they listen to is a part of their group identity, and its quality as music is of secondary importance. Anyone watching the reality TV shows will be aware that participants often seem to inhabit particular cultural silos, and their followers are the people who self-identify with that silo: the winner may not be the person with the most musical talent, but the one whose cultural silo is the most dominant. In popular music, “survival of the fittest” is the name of the game, but “fittest” doesn’t necessarily mean musical excellence.  

It would be all too easy to conclude that the “serious” music of the 20th century was simply the death rattle of an obsolete art form. But that would be far from the truth. As serious music became ever more divorced from commercial reality, becoming the province of academics and no longer requiring mass popularity for its survival, it became more experimental. It was in serious music that the possibilities of electronics for creating different musical forms and textures were first explored, and it was also in serious music that the sounds of nature were appreciated as music in their own right and incorporated into musical creations. And it was in serious music that forgotten parts of Western musical culture were rediscovered and transformed into contemporary musical forms. Yes, many – perhaps most – of these experimental musical creations will not survive the test of time. But their value lies in the groundwork they provide for contemporary musical developments. Today we are seeing the important developments in popular music coalescing with the equally important developments in serious music to create new, vibrant, exciting and challenging music for the 21st century. Had “serious” music not been protected as it was, and enabled to flourish in its academic hothouse, it would probably have died – and we would be the poorer for it. The arrogance of the musical elite, and its connections to those with financial power, enabled this tender plant to survive the turbulence of the 20th century musical melting pot.

I would argue that the same is true in economics. In fact if anything, economics has become even more “hothouse”, and even more divorced from reality, than “serious” music. Economics has become dependent on elegant mathematical models whose relationship to the real world is questionable: it is a standing joke that in economics, if the evidence doesn’t agree with the findings of the model, you change the evidence. In some cases – notably in models of the financial system, which are the foundation of monetarist economics - the models are founded on a wrong understanding of how the world actually works. When the foundation is wrong, so is everything built upon it: but the arrogance of the economic elite makes them unwilling to accept that they may have got some things wrong, so they silence people who point this out and put up academic barriers preventing funded research into anything that questions the foundations on which they have built their models of the world.

And as with “serious” music, when economics becomes so divorced from reality that it fails adequately to explain the real world in which people live, people reject it. People rightly ask why academic economists failed either to predict or adequately explain the financial crisis, whereas heterodox economists working in the real economy – many of them untrained in formal economics – not only predicted it but correctly identified the causes. There is a real danger that the anger people feel over what they see as the failure of mainstream economics leads to rejection of mainstream economics in its entirety and, importantly, withdrawal of funding for academic economic research. This, I feel, would be a mistake.

We may not see the relevance of dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models in a world which manifestly is not in equilibrium. But that doesn’t mean that these, and other mathematical models, have nothing to contribute. The redefinition of the foundations of economics that is currently being done by heterodox economists will inevitably result in many of the models beloved of academic economists becoming obsolete: as with much of the experimental serious” music of the 20th century, they will not survive the test of time. But there will be models that remain relevant, and there will be others that appear obsolete but that will in due course be redeveloped and find new life in the new economic paradigm. If we allow them to disappear, our economic understanding in the future will be poorer.

The academic economic elite is fiercely protective of its privileges, which is a matter of some annoyance to those who understand that it is dependent on state and philanthropic support (and is therefore arguably rent-seeking). The defensiveness of academic economists is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, as I argued above, the protection they seek to maintain will ensure the survival of unpopular and even apparently worthless economic models so that they can in due course find their place in the future economic paradigm. But on the other hand, if the academic elite’s defence of its privileges extends to refusing even to admit that some of their foundations are wrong, they may find that the rich and powerful are no longer willing to support them. Yes, “serious” musicians got away with dismissing developments in popular music as unimportant, but their work did not impinge on people’s lives in the same way as economists’ work does: people can ignore music they don’t like (though they may complain about use of their taxes to fund it), but they can’t ignore wrongly-founded economic thinking when it contributes to a major financial disaster. Economists should fear the popular vote: they may not be commercially dependent on popularity themselves, but the politicians who support them are, and when funds are tight (as they are at the moment) supporting an apparently useless economic elite may be more than the popular vote is prepared to accept. Elite arrogance is necessary, but if it goes too far it can destroy the very thing it aims to preserve.


  1. There is a parallel between your academic economists and climate scientists who insist that anthropogenic global warming is responsible for climate change, even after their models have been shown to be inadequate. It seems to be a fine line between protecting what is valuable and funding what should be trashed.

    1. This post isn't about AGW. When Frances chooses to write on the subject, I'll be happy to explain why you're wrong about it.

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  3. We need a global system thats fair among nations, where central banks and TBTF, will not have insider knowledge, ESM funds and cftc/cme to control all trades on a global level.

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  6. Economics. Put in simple terms and me being a simple fellow, has suffered from state interference - the Elite. You can always break it down into an easy to understand format. The simple truth of all this is we are as good as bust but the elite use debt to delay, buy time, in the hope that a miracle will happen. I doubt it will.

    The ordinary man in the street would have their business taken from them if they cannot pay their debt. They would probably lose their house. Here lies the inequality and this is why we need to stop funding Governments and Banks.

    I understand in doing so an awful amount of hurt will be incurred by many, but in the longer term we would be able to build from a lower base, until such time as we get the next bubble. Capitalism bubbles are driven by greed of the populace and an inert ineffective elite.

  7. Frances, Simon Wren-Lewis made a similar point here:

    And Bill Mitchell, and Australian economist who runs the “Billy blog” site, has made some disparaging remarks about the output of his fellow academic economists.

  8. Elites rarely if ever serve any real purpose in wider society: open access for talent or meritocracy does much better at fulfilling our needs. Serious or academic music can still have a dialogue with entertaining music: Bad economics has divorced itself from reality by pretending t be a "hard" science- all particle physics equations but no reality.
    Economics is a creature not just of fashion but now of Government. The esoteric & the remote have become to dominate research both because of University ranking systems (need for researchers to find unresearched areas ) & Government money (precludes economists arguing for liberal laissez faire model & government intervention as counter productive). Economics is the ultimate rent seeking academic profession now incapable of seeing or telling the truth to power. Dissenters have no career & certainly no chance of a professorship, making systematic ignorance self perpetuating.
    No academic discipline has the same influence on lives: bad economics kills more than bad medicine but does so more subtly and at distance enough to escape immediate notice.
    Nothing demonstrates the utter futility of the econometrics(to which economics has been reduced)& modern economics as the utter un-preparedness for this recession/crisis or the daft mercantile "solutions" proposed. If econometrics was the hard science it pretends to be it would make verifiable predictions: instead it has been the Austrians who made the verifiable prediction in as much as they can be said to do so.
    The models, the graphs, the very notion of "equilibrium" are an intellectual nonsense, a fiat currency, valuable only as long as a belief in Keynesianism could be upheld. The rich & powerful are however, the Government & Government needs Keynes to justify intervention.The challenge for economics is to free itself from being the intellectual arm of interventionist government- hardly easy when two of the most cited economists are merely political shills.

  9. Vanity lead economists and bankers to invent a "Nobel" prise in economic "Science"; when there is no such thing in the will of Nobel. When the "Science" of economics produces the same reliability as Physics has since Newton it will deserve a prize but not before. If honest but observant people not trained in economic theory can see disaster coming but economists cannot then the whole subject is a joke.

  10. IMHO Vanity was never a part of it, it's about providing an air of respectability to 99% of the population.

    In effect they believe they are entrusting the state of the economy to some philanthropic genius.

    Funnily enough the Nobel prize for economics was created by the worlds oldest central bank (can't think of any conflict of interest there)

    In a world of fiat currency, it's all about perception.

  11. Thank you very Interesting! Another part of the puzzle found.

    In short: Twelve Tone Music is not Jazz!

    1. No, nothing like it. Totally different theoretical and cultural roots. Though avant-garde jazz can include twelve-tone techniques - which is an example of what I mean by fusion of "serious" music with "popular" music.

  12. Frances, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that there's a self-perpetuating elite of academic economists which has imposed a consensus economic analysis based on unrealistic abstractions. I think that's profoundly wrong. A fair criticism of economics would be quite the opposite - that there's no academic consensus, as is illustrated by your decrying monetarism while one of your commentators prefers to blame Keynesianism and laud the Austrian school.

    There was however a pretty strong consensus before the banking crisis that there was a bubble in the US housing market - Robert Shiller, who is surely a mainstream academic economist, was warning about it in 2005. Bush declined to do anything about it, perhaps because economists did not agree what, if anything, should be done.

    1. Not really, Paul. The "serious" music of the 20th century was very far from being a consensus: I merely used serialism as an example. What it did, however, was elevate itself as an academic discipline and place itself beyond the comprehension of ordinary people. That, I think, I can legitimately criticise freshwater economics, at least, for doing too. And I can also criticise economics for at times allowing models to trump reality - I'm afraid there does seem to be evidence for this.

      However, you - like almost everyone who has read this post - seem to have missed my central point, which is that separation of academic disciplines from popular culture is not necessarily a bad thing, even if what those disciplines produce seems at times to lack relevance or even be simply wrong. Allowing commercial popularity alone to determine what music lives or dies gives us the music of the X-Factor. Allowing the comprehension of ordinary people alone to determine economics gives us the economics of the Daily Mail. Both music and economics are greatly enriched by the integration of the intellectual and experimental work of a protected "elite" into mainstream culture. It is in the nature of that work that much of it will not survive in its original form, and we should not dismiss it as useless on those grounds: on the contrary, we should nurture and protect it, not by perpetuating barriers to entry and intellectual snobbery, but by appreciating that developments in both music and economics stem both from intellectual elites and popular (commercial) sources, and both are worthy of respect and support.

  13. I'd say it's trivial that academic disciplines should not be constrained by the understanding of ordinary people: the ordinary person has no grasp of calculus, for example.

    The question I struggle with is what academic endeavours should be funded by the state. The composition of chess problems? No, obviously not. The composition of obscure music? I can't see how that's different. The composition of popular music? No, if it's popular it shouldn't need state support.

    I think I'd confine state funding to studies with some possibility, perhaps remote, of eventually bestowing general benefits. Pure mathematics yes, classical literature reluctantly no. Economics, certainly: I think the problem is not so much that economists are incapable of understanding economies as that politicians are uninterested in thinking about how the policies they themselves favour might go wrong.

    1. But those are your personal definitions of "general benefits". You see no general benefit from promoting and supporting experimentation and excellence in artistic fields. But others, including me, will disagree with you. Why should your opinions trump ours? This is the main problem with state funding of minority interests - how to decide which should be funded and which should not. Which is why "who you know" (and how good you are at lobbying them) can be more important than "what you do".

  14. Firstly, it's always good to read some intelligent thoughts so thank you for your blog. I disagree with much of what you are saying and think your argument is flawed but I consider it a good thing that you share your thoughts with people in order to stimulate opinion.

    The main issue I have is that you seem to use "elitism" and elite (i.e. advanced/good/the best etc) knowledge interchangeably, I think it's important to distinguish between them at all times.

    In these economically troubled times, our system of governance (including economics) has broken down for an increasing number of people and certainly for the most vulnerable in society. It's fair to say (and there are studies that corroborate this although I am not linking them at this time, sorry!) that the more towards the "elite" people become, the less they empathise with those below them in the social structure.

    The fact that the elite might occasionally produce good ideas does not justify the fact that the majority of what they do is biased towards separating themselves and perpetuating their own position that is quite obviously becoming more divorced from reality. They may originally set out to make the world better but eventually, cognitive biases (combined with some of the powerful just not caring about those they should be serving) will mean that the elite are afraid to stop being elite and will enact policies based on fear.

    Elitists by their very nature exclude outsiders and new ideas, especially those that may result in giving up their power. They usually become stagnant and fresh ideas would give them a healthy challenge and if someone should create an incredible theory that could add to the greater good it would likely be dismissed if it did not perpetuate the elite position.

    "But the body of knowledge and understanding that the elite AS A WHOLE… nevertheless contributes to the development of human culture." I think you're wrong here in respect of this being a good thing for the development of human culture. A stagnant elite does not represent the knowledge of the field as a whole. Ideas mostly borne out of elitism encourage bad/fracturing/fearful developments within human culture.

    Seems I've reached the character limit of 4096 but I have less the 4000 so I'll have to create a 2nd post, sorry...

  15. Continued from above...

    "But there will be [economic] models that remain relevant, and there will be others that appear obsolete but that will in due course be redeveloped and find new life in the new economic paradigm. If we allow them to disappear, our economic understanding in the future will be poorer." I agree but elitism does not contribute anything directly good to this, indirectly we can learn from their mistakes. I'm not arguing that economic models cannot be learned from, of course they can and I agree with you in that respect but I believe you are confusing "elitism" with elite knowledge within economics field. The current elite do not necessarily represent the best economists, otherwise the world would be a better place.

    "On the one hand, as I argued above, the protection they seek to maintain will ensure the survival of unpopular and even apparently worthless economic models so that they can in due course find their place in the future economic paradigm." All you've shown here is the thrust of the problem with elitism: bad ideas for the majority continue to be used by elites.

    "Elite arrogance is necessary, but if it goes too far it can destroy the very thing it aims to preserve. " Fostering a healthy relationship between the elite power structure and the people it serves is necessary in order to ensue that stagnant ideas are challenged and beneficial ideas that come from the bottom are listened to and enacted, especially if that means that elitism has to stand aside.

    In summary, elites do not need you to defend them, they currently hold the dominant position. What they (and we ALL) need is your challenge and criticism of their orthadox viewpoint, particularly where the system benefits a select few but not the majority of people.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this, sorry it was SO DAMN LONG

    1. You have considerably misunderstood what I was saying. I do not defend elitism, but I also do not wish to see the ideas that the "elite" in all fields hold and develop as a body of knowledge disappear: nor do I want to see all experimental work reduced to "do people like it/do people agree with it/does it make money" as an immediate measure of success. We need to have a view to the long term: ideas, models, developments that seem divorced from reality now nonetheless enrich the growth of culture in the future, even though the major developments may, as you say, come from the bottom.

      Like many, you associate elitism with political power. I did not do so: elites may only have power within their own field, and rely on their ability to influence those who wield political power.

      You also assume that elite knowledge is stagnant. I don't think that's necessarily the case, and nor do I think that ideas that come from outside the elite are necessarily fresh and good. When you look back with the hindsight of history, you find that development eventually fuses ideas from both outside and within elites. We saw that with the music of the Renaissance, which rejected the extreme polyphony of pre-Renaissance "elite" (mainly church) music: polyphony was preserved by the church elites, which enabled it to be rediscovered as an art form and incorporated within the music of later periods. Had the elite not protected their music, it would have been lost to us, and we would be the poorer for it: but at the time it was seen as elitist, stagnant and out of touch with real life.

    2. I think we probably agree more than perhaps we give each other credit for, I did actually write far too much and deleted swathes of text before I realised I could cut it in to two parts (especially the areas where I agree with you). Too late by then though.

      There's a few points I'll make, some in agreement with you and some not:

      - Separation of an elite may not be a bad thing but it likely will in my opinion. It is essential for an elite to have a healthy relationship with those not in the elite as they are all the same body of an organism. I'll elaborate a little more below.

      - I believe that in order for a specific field to grow and change, new ideas need to be allowed to interact with established ones. This may mean conflict or harmonisation, it may improve both or one may become weaker or perhaps some other outcome but without ideas being challenged they will become stagnant and outdated, life will move on and create new pressures to bear.

      - I acknowledge that elitism will usually represent the best ideas and is not stagnant by definition, this is definitely true. However, elitism in any field means a hierarchy exists and, whether political or musical, human nature dictates that this means power and the responsibility that comes with it, which is abused far too often in life. If an elite is too arrogant in this structure then it will seek to maintain itself by barring entry wherever possible. On a positive level it may be forced to constantly be creative and experiment to maintain itself through ability instead, on this point we agree. The arrogance that you refer to I believe needs to be checked rather than embraced as it may prevent new and unestablished growths of "better" ideas.

      - You cited the musical elite giving birth to experimentation with sound. The theremin, which had a huge impact in electronic music, was not designed as a musical instrument and was did not originate from serious music, although it came from another academic elite and was initially embraced by serious musicians, it was shortly developed and embraced by popular culture. The fact is that music has a relatively healthy structure between the elite and non-elite as anyone can challenge orthodox knowledge in practical terms by putting their ideas in to action.

      - I believe a commenter above pointed out the flaw in comparing something like music with economics, i.e. the musical elite cannot force people to accept their music as anyone can create music and challenge established elite ideas with positive results. They can certainly try and narrow the field if that was their agenda but music is something intrinsic to our being on a spiritual level, although you do not need me to tell you that. Economics certainly has the pure theory and creativity behind it in a similar way to music but individuals would struggle to put a new economic system in to action without the sanction of the elite.

      Of course, the elite in any field is a positive thing as it represents the best but once that elite becomes self serving then the field it represents will begin to whither. The relationship between the elite and the non-elite is far more important than the elite themselves creating new ideas in my opinion, all kinds of people have brilliant and creative ideas.

      Anyway, I cut out much of the pleasantries of my original post which is not a good thing to do so I will say thanks for writing this blog and sharing your thoughts, I enjoy reading it and think it's great that you create discussions and challenge people.

  16. Tom,

    Essentially, that tension between the need to protect the body of work held by the elite, and the need to admit new ideas from outside the elite, is the point of this post. It is all too easy to damn elitism and seek to eliminate it completely: equally, elites seek to dismiss and suppress innovation from outside their ranks, in order to maintain their privilege. In other words, there is competition between elites and non-elites which is healthy when it results in creative fusion of ideas from both sides - as it is doing in music.

    I agree totally that the problem is far more acute in economics and the potential consequences far more serious. The warning I gave to the economic elite is that their attempts to dismiss or suppress heterodox thinking may actually be dangerous to them. Elites are only sustainable if people are willing to sustain them. In the end the elite depends on the non-elite for its survival. It has to demonstrate that it is worth keeping.