The Intellectual Bubble

I recently discovered The Smart Set, an online magazine published by Drexel’s Pennoni Honors College. I was particularly drawn to Michael Lind’s column, Off Center. In fact, Lind wrote the most popular article in the magazine, a phenomenal piece called “Intellectuals Are Freaks.” He argues that intellectuals are an anomaly in the social fabric. I aim to substantiate his claims with data in this post.

Lind claims that, “for generations, populists of various kinds have argued that intellectuals are unworldly individuals out of touch with the experiences and values of most of their fellow citizens.” This is true. Intellectuals are so far removed from the lives of the average person that populists and intellectuals could reasonably belong to different countries. The data bears this out.

According to US Census data published in March, only 33% of Americans (or about ~106 million people) have college degrees. Only 12% (~38.7 million) have advanced degrees. The pool from which knowledge workers can be drawn is a small one. It’s demographically smaller when you consider that graduating students from families earning over $116,000 per year (the top quarter of US families by wealth) represented more than half of all the degrees awarded in 2014. The wealthy have disproportionate access to the life of the mind.

Beyond wealth, Lind explains that intellectuals tend to congregate in cities. Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats, says that wealthy city-dwellers are going global. “You are seeing the emergence of an international class … [and the ironic evolution of Marx’s] notion that borders wouldn’t matter, that we would have commonality of interests around the world.” The wealthy intellectual class has found that cities are largely interchangeable and that they have more in common with others of their class internationally than with other classes from their homelands. Cities present a wealth of opportunity not available in other regions. Lind remarks that “the average American lives about 18 miles from his or her mother. Like college education, geographic mobility in the service of personal career ambitions is common only within a highly atypical social and economic elite.”

Education Heatmap of the US
The larger the bubble, the more degree-holders there are. Note the concentration of bubbles in metro areas.

So we see data supporting the fact that intellectuals are vastly outnumbered by nonintellectuals. They have different geographic and socioeconomic circumstances. Intellectuals are also socially deviant, in a sense. They postpone marriage, sometimes forever. They may trade income for a bohemian lifestyle. They move huge distances to further their careers. This, in the larger context of society, is odd behavior, as Lind notes:

The fact that we members of the intellectual professions are quite atypical of the societies in which we live tends to distort our judgment, when we forget that we belong to a tiny and rather bizarre minority. This is not a problem with the hard sciences. But in the social sciences, intellectuals — be they professors, pundits, or policy wonks — tend to be both biased and unaware of their own bias [emphasis mine].

The intellectual class is even stranger when considered in the context of the world rather than just the US. Only 6.7% of people in the world have college degrees. 0.205% of people have doctorates. Based on these numbers, we might reasonably state that under 3% of people have advanced degrees of any kind. Intellectuals are practically as rare today as they were historically. Certainly a comparatively huge number of people are literate and have basic education today, but given population growth, the percent of true intellectuals in the past (medieval monks, ancient Chinese mandarins, Greco-Roman tutors, Enlightenment philosophers, etc.) may well be the same as (or similar to) today.

More interestingly, we see that the perspectives of these global intellectuals are completely skewed. More and more, people are shying away from the guidance of experts. This is happening because the incentives the experts face are completely different from the incentives that nonintellectuals face. As these incentives become more divergent, elites will continually fail to achieve the promises they make to nonintellectuals. The book Twilight of the Elites examines elite failure in more detail.

Coincidentally, higher education leads to a lack of understanding: surrounded by like-minded, wealthy, cosmopolitan thinkers, technocrats reinforce their own worldviews while losing any perspective on the lives of other folks. It’s practically impossible for elites to imagine staying within 20 miles of their birthplace. It’s difficult to imagine living in a town with ~50 buildings and a few hundred people.

Ultimately, intellectuals are a strange breed. Lind notes that it might help if knowledge workers, “as a condition of career advancement, had to spend a year or two working in a shopping mall, hotel, hospital, or warehouse. Our out-of-touch intelligentsia might learn some lessons that cannot be obtained from books and seminars alone.”

I don’t know if Lind’s solution is the correct one, but something needs to change. Meritocracy seems broken, income inequality is a runaway train, and elite authority is losing credibility among wide swathes of the populace. It may be that, in our knowledge economy, nonintellectuals face a sort of Marxist alienation: they are not only alienated from their work-product, but also information itself. Knowledge is like the carrot in front of the cart. It hangs there persistently, just out of reach. If this is the case, it seems that populist rejections of technocracy will only become more common.

Originally published at Thought Distiller.

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