About the time I was posting “One Nation, Under (Two) Law(s),” some other bright bulbs were taking on the same issue, but from different tacks:
- Sarah Hoyt noted that “revolutions are bad,” and proposes Building Under, a process that has been a hallmark of her career as an indy writer sidestepping the blatant abuses of the NY publishing houses.
- Professor Codevilla summarized what by now has become obvious to anyone paying attention to the political scene from the outside: those who do not favor activist government (20% of Democrats, 70% of Republicans, nearly all independents) have “nowhere to go” politically, as neither major party’s leadership cares to cater to this demographic. (Warning — webpage is unstable and may require a reload or two)
- Samizdata’s post “We want to rule you because you are stupid and powerless and we are wise” has an excellent money-quote from “Against Autonomy,” a book apparently written for the explicit purpose of telling the Little People to sit down and shut up.
- Megan McArdle has a discussion up, stemming from her observation of the ridiculous degree inflation required to gain even menial jobs (a college degree to be a file clerk? Really?) regarding the widespread restriction of upward mobility in a number of professions to those with high-end blue-state backgrounds and credentials. Who tend to marry… other people with the same background. What was a ladder of opportunity has devolved into a de-facto caste system where the “elite” pretend to honor achievement, but are in actuality protecting a patronage network of the country’s “commanding heights.”
McArdle dreads what she calls the Mandarization of America, where access to the good life is predicated upon getting the right educational credentials, and she’s rightly concerned about the pitfalls of such a system:
All elites are good at rationalizing their elite-ness, whether it’s meritocracy or “the divine right of kings”. The problem is the mandarin elite has some good arguments. They really are very bright and hard-working. It’s just that they’re also prone to be conformist, risk averse, obedient, and good at echoing the opinions of authority, because that is what this sort of examination system selects for….
The even greater danger is that they become more and more removed from the people they are supposed to serve. Since I moved to Washington, I have had series of extraordinary conversations with Washington journalists and policy analysts, in which I remark upon some perfectly ordinary facet of working class, or even business class life, only to have this revelation met with amazement….
In fact, I think that to some extent, the current political wars are a culture war not between social liberals and social conservatives, but between the values of the mandarin system, and the values of those who compete in the very different culture of ordinary businesses–ones outside glamor industries like tech or design.
There are a lot of people who agree with her, even if they have no idea who she is: home purchases are frequently assessed in terms of access to “good” schools, rather than for their intrinsic value (take a stroll through this lovely forum for hundreds of examples). If you don’t get into the “good school district,” so the thinking goes, your kids’ chances to get into “elite society” with its finance, consulting, and BigLaw paychecks is radically reduced. This isn’t a red-state/blue-state affair, either. Put bluntly, your average blue-state schools suck. It’s easy to get a great education in blue-state-land, as long as you’re white and upper-middle-class. Stuck in a shitty school district with no money and a union educational establishment whose explicit mission is to crush any other alternative? Not so easy.
Let’s be clear.
None of this comes as even the foggiest surprise to anybody in the real world.
But Hoyt’s “building under” idea isn’t just a political screed (much as I may agree with most of its sentiments); it’s also the country’s salvation. She’s describing something that’s already happening. Right.Now.
This is a 3d-printing pen: the evolution of a hot-glue gun towards actually making art and creating interesting structures freehand by additive manufacturing, as opposed to most crafts, which involve cutting, stitching, and punching holes in things (and thus a lot of waste). Imitators and competitors will surely come along soon, but let’s take a look at something:
- It’s an entirely new class of item for most “crafty” people, and can be used to freehand light-duty mechanical parts and tools.
- It’s gotten a lot of financial money from backers.
- Not one of whom is a TBTF Banker or high-dollar Venture Capitalist.
Give this thing a quiver of extrusion options (line, fan, block), and an ability to vary the rate at which feedstock enters the system, and this thing goes from “really awesome tinker’s gadget” to “honey, I’m going to get a ladder and print ourselves some new siding — there’s a spot that looks like it needs a patch.” Give it the ability to produced sintered metal from powder….and it’s Brave New World, Baby. We’ve already got the bulky, standalone model — any Joe with a computer and some patience can, for instance, learn TinkerCAD and design their own ceramic-ware. Or their own historical replicas. Wanna design something? Why go to a major design house, when you can model something in your pajamas and then take it to i.materialise? Or Shapeways? Or ponoko? Or sculpteo? Or, do it on a random Thursday evening in your garage, with your own 3d printer.
Kickstarter and its peers are revolutionizing small startups. You don’t need to talk to somebody in the NY Publishing scene (who wouldn’t get it anyway. Contrary to their protestations, the Big 5 put out a lot of crap, too). You just have to convince enough of your peers that your idea (for a new gadget, book, comic, living-history-exhibit, what-have-you) is worthwhile and that you can deliver on it. It upholds the libertarian dream of making awesome things happen without coercion.
This is important. Those of us who are neurologically and ideologically disposed to live in The Hive and to do what they’re told don’t need to do anything but follow the dictates of their gradually-declining ruling caste — they can jockey for position inside it and thus influence its direction. Those of the other ilk keep looking for options — they’re the Outsiders who historically gravitated towards frontier (we here at the Eyeball Factory think the massive emigration during colonial times does much to support the later concepts of Turner’s Thesis), vote with our feet (or in Thiel’s case, with their hedge funds and ships). Well, there’s something else going on, and those of us who “think freedom” need to think seriously about the innovation frontier.
And so, at the end of the day, I’m not much worried about cultural gatekeepers and how the cognoscenti attempt to “capture the culture.” That may concern social conservatives who see themselves fighting a retrograde battle against immigration, gay marriage, etcetera, but those aren’t Happycrow hotbuttons except insofar as we’d like our gay friends to be able to marry and adopt and give blood (!!), and we’re happy to compete for as many productive people as are willing to come here.
In the end, we’re not worried about the Mandarins’ power, and certainly not worried about their culture. BigLaw? What thinking person right now would want to go into an industry in decline? Software and paralegals are going to be doing 90% of what full-bore lawyers do now, and while there will always be a need for fullbore lawyers, it’s not a growth industry. Finance and consulting? Lots of money; terrible lifestyle. The smart ones make their bank and get out; what’s left is charitably-described as “ethically challenged.”
Culture? What culture? In short, to paraphrase Nadia C’s classic, “Mandarins, your culture is boring as fuck.” TV is a wasteland. Hollywood is, famously, out of ideas: us nerds and our video games make more money than your unethical and tawdy industry.
Literature? Don’t flatter yourself. It’s a wasteland, mostly populated by predictable victim-narrative-porn, and speaking of porn, the deliberate attempt to paint trashy romance novels as “literature.” C.f. E.L. James, who actually thinks 50 Shades of Grey operates on the same literary plane as, get this, Tolkien. Dude, my grandmother had trashier but better-written stuff all over the basement bookshelves where polite company couldn’t see them. They were on separate shelves from the Reader’s Digest novels and proto-feminist romances like Doctor Merry’s Husband, let alone the actual good stuff like King Solomon’s Mines and Balzac’s Works. What my grandmother was doing with Balzac I have no idea, but at least she knew the difference! Unfortunately for the Big Five publishing houses, even this smash hit didn’t really come from them: it was repurposed fan-fic which got picked up by a Blue-World-connected author.
In the end, I think Ms. McArdle can relax — Mandarins only survive when they can stifle innovation. And, thank God Amazon.com, thank God Kickstarter, thank God Makerverse, that train has left the station. The Powers That Be can still jack with the currency and otherwise screw up the economy, but that’s about the only “commanding height” left worth talking about as long as you’re not doing something that gets you on the national-security radar.
In terms of determining the future, they’re not elites — they’re the last bastion of a “gatekeeper culture” trying desperately to convince themselves that the world hasn’t outgrown them.