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A New Aristocracy: Yale Law School Commencement Address (2015) [pdf] (yale.edu)
89 points by js2 28 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments

My school and work experience span working class coal power plant techs (a friend used to climb through exhaust channels) to Ivy League educated lawyers and founders.

Most people’s career trajectory will be set by the time they are in high school, so the importance of secondary school education and resources of your parents is paramount.

Also, wealth from family of origin allows risk taking, funding for law or medical degrees, which for lower income students represent a huge risk so they go to safer less lucrative fields.

I agree but I am not convinced wealth plays a big role. In France, higher education is pretty much free, and you see probably an even larger lack of social diversity than the US in the most ellitist programs (medecine, engineering, business). In the US there are always ways to finance education if you are a good student.

I think family culture, peer pressure and the school pushing you to go the hard path is by far the most important factor (for equivalent skills).

As a European from a poor-ish lower middle class background, I can tell you that even free university doesn't cut it economically.

The thing is, every year you stay at school is a year that you're a financial drain to your family and a year that you're not being an active money earner. For many, it's simply not affordable to be in their formative years until they are 22 (likely even longer if studies take more than 4 years, they in practice need a masters/phd in their field to succeed, or if they fail and have to retake some subjects).

At least in my country, the system is simply not made in a way that can support a person studying and working at the same time, for a variety of reasons (lack of part time, weekend or flexible jobs, amount of work that one has to do at home, uni schedules that don't account for job-study balance, etc).

On top of that, there's the apparently less important, but in practice enormous psychological pressure of not having an actual adult paycheck until well in your adult years.

A life where your friends that went through a fastest route to the job market are living with their SO, spending money in life experiences and traveling while you're 24 and still have to ask your parents for money to have a beer, eat at mcdonalds or go to the movies (knowing they can't afford much on top of that), or where you can't take a girl to your house because you still live with your parents... it's basically assuming that you'll have to live like a teenager until you're almost 30.

Part of the problem in countries like France is that labor laws are very rigid, especially relative to the United States, and older workers have what amounts to a stranglehold on employers. Those employers are in turn unable to afford new workers, or unwilling to take a chance on all but the most exceptional young candidates.

Whoa, you don't need to drain your parents for 100% of the costs when on university. I was never very good student because it took me long time to memorize things compared to most peers, but even lame partying me was able to get a part time side job, was able to go to work&travel programme to US during long summer break etc.

It might be hard to finance all your university expenses by yourself, but you can definitely cover a lot without any real impact on your studies. Just be more effective with your free time, which is an invaluable lesson for rest of the life on its own.

I was not talking about my current situation, mind you. I made a career as a software developer, which is one of the few professions that allow for flexible schedules and working before completing your formal education.

Europe is quite diverse, so your experience might be very different, but here part time jobs are really scarce, and as I said even if you find one it is quite likely that you won't be able to fit it with your uni schedule.

Most degrees have a schedule where theory is taught in the morning and practical classes in the evening or the other way around: For chemistry students for example that would be theoretical classes and laboratories, but an ill-conceived attempt at uniformity made it so that even for fully theoretical degrees like math you still have those "practical laboratories" where you'd basically just be going through exercises. Attendance is mandatory for everything.

> It might be hard to finance all your university expenses by yourself, but you can definitely cover a lot without any real impact on your studies. Just be more effective with your free time

While you are right that you can ease the load (summer break jobs are certainly doable), even if you're able to do that, for many people just taking care of part of the cost (or even all) isn't enough. It's not only about higher education having a cost, it's also about the cost of opportunity, since their potential income is needed at home. A year studying might be a year that the family can't afford turning the heating on in winter, or mom being unable to go to the dentist, or your sister not having new clothes. The student sees that every single day while knowing that if they just forget about uni and get a job wherever, they can start solving those problems straight away. It's clearly not the best long term decision financially, but the humane factor is crucial and hard to explain unless you've been there.

>even for fully theoretical degrees like math you still have those "practical laboratories" where you'd basically just be going through exercises. Attendance is mandatory for everything.

That's nuts.

In theory, in France, people from lower-class background would get government allowances while they are students, to help support them. And some school have apprenticeship system in place, where the student works part-time and is paid, including to attend school.

In Sweden every student gets stipends and guaranteed loans so you don't have to work. Universities are still very segregated.

France, as far as I know, has a two-tier university system. They have regular schools that are non-selective and then they have the grandes écoles (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grandes_%C3%A9coles). It's these that train the elite and ensure social stratification.

In France there might be another dominant selection process other than cost (e.g. attending the 'right' schools, which again might be a matter of what connections you've had, or if you can afford to live in the catchment area).

For example, I've known people who have been hired at very prestigious law firms, and told outright that they were pleased to see they attended a "very good" (i.e. elite) high school.

Meanwhile, in the USA a friend has to deal with $300k+ costs of pursuing Medicine while living in the Bay area. They are from a wealthy family though.

Attending the "right" school is a huge factor here in the UK - at least in some areas (law and politics being the most obvious examples).

Its the same in France - though those that go to ENA are an order of magnitude more competent than some one who does a PPE at Oxbridge.

I suspect the attitude in the relevant areas of the UK to your comment would be to be dreadfully amused at the idea that "competence" was a relevant factor ;-)

Sadly your right, I am sure the student we had on our team is now some one senior in the French civilservice.

ÉNA is a training college for civil servants. It’s more comparable to the Harvard Kennedy School than PPE. If HKS only admitted people who had undergraduate Firsts and two years of top decile work experience to the MPA they’d look pretty great, like ÉNA does.

That was the point the PPE is seen in Oxbridge by other students as an easy degree.

You and the other 5,000 good students are all trying to get the same $30k. It doesn't work out very egalitarian in the USA. You can be pushed hard, but if you can barely afford tuition, you can't live on campus, so you pay for parking, which you probably can't afford, or take the bus which takes about 2 hours to get across town because of large gaps in the schedules because the ridership doesn't allow for more. And then maybe you can make ends meet to be able to eat. France sounds like a dream in comparison.

> In France, higher education is pretty much free ...

Amazed to learn this, as a middle-class American with kids and a house -- my biggest expense, ten years out of school, is still student loans.

My parents had similar higher education and did not deal with this. Not trying to get into politics or anything. It is just weird.

> Also, wealth from family of origin allows risk taking, funding for law or medical degrees, which for lower income students represent a huge risk so they go to safer less lucrative fields.

Why not make an agreement with acquaintances that they fund (a part of) the tuition fees of your degree course. On the other hand you have to give them back a percentage of your gross income for the next, say, 10 years after finishing university. This should mitigate the problem a lot.

What is the likelihood that someone who requires this funding also has acquaintances with the ability to supply it?

Thank you for pointing this out. "Just get a loan from your family/friends/acquaintances" is the modern rendition of "let them eat cake."

I come from what I consider to be a comfortable middle-class background in the US (probably not what most people would consider upper-middle class), and there's no way I would have been able to raise tens of thousands of dollars a year from acquaintances to fund an elite education.

I don't think so. A large number of small loans from family/friends/acquaintances also totals a decent amount of money.

Perhaps if I canvassed all my friends and their parents and all my parent's friends I might have raised 100 loans averaging $50 each. That's quite an optimistic estimate, I think.

That gets me about 10% of the way to one year's tuition at an elite university.

I don't know what your background is, maybe you consider $1000 a small loan, or maybe like the current president of the USA you consider $1000000 a small loan.

Suffice it to say that your proposal is not at all realistic for many many many people.

That has been known as a bad arrangement since Ancient Greece given the Paradox of the Court and related satirical plays.

Lawyer jokes are ancient it seems.

Only give loans if you have sufficient trust in the person not to cheat you.

What is the risk associated with a medical degree? It seemed to be the default path for risk averse middle class kids with science talent.

The risk of Medical and Law school is the enormous debt you take on. Those costs would have been about 4x times the value of my parents homes for example.

If for some reason you don’t make it through Med or Law school, it’s not like they forgive the debt.

They also involve the most costly resource of all - time. Time that you can’t spend supporting your parents or siblings. Most people simply don’t have the option of deferring income for 8 years and 80 hour work weeks.

During my time at Caltech, there were the premeds. They worked very, very hard, because they needed the grades to get into med school. They weren't a real happy group of students, not many envied them. I feel any money they made after all that they earned.

Many of the engineers went on to become quite wealthy from their startups.

Going to Yale law is a very low risk strategy.

My wife went to a top-tier law school here in the UK and one risk that she didn't appreciate is that a significant proportion (I think it was about 30%) of her class simply didn't manage to get a traineeship with a law firm and without that you can't qualify.

Getting a traineeship at the time (this was the 1990s) was often heavily influenced by connections and appearance!

Only if you ignore the costs of getting into Yale (and failing to get into Yale), as well as the costs of not coming out with the necessary connections and pay.

The work you need to do to get into Yale has a positive impact even if you don’t go to Yale.

There is a lot of commentary in this thread about the speech being self-congratulatory in nature, but I think the actual overall tone for it is much darker. The speaker is essentially congratulating all of the graduates for working extremely hard for their entire lives, and that, despite all that hard work, they and everyone else around them will continue to work extremely hard with no end in sight. This is especially true for any of the graduates that want to earn lots of money or that want to make big changes to the system. All-the-while the speaker says that everyone else - the 99% - have essentially already lost the rat-race, and lost it before they were born. The rich are stuck in a laborious 'gilded cage' of their own creation, and everyone else is struggling to pay rent.

I highly recommend you read the entire article. It presents a lot of very good points that are relevant with regard to the macro-structure of the new American economy.

FWIW, the issue with life experience anecdotes is that they don't control for genetic confounding. Most rich kids have both the environment their parent created for them, as well as the genes their parents gave them. So it's impossible to tell which is more important in determining the life outcomes we see.

There is a whole discipline called behavioral genetics that uses twin and adoption studies and, increasingly, genome wide association studies (GWAS) to tease these things apart. Most of these studies seem to point to most outcomes being about half genetic and half random (that is, something other than the environment created by the parents).

Children adopted by wealthy families have huge differences in success rates, so genetic differences are not that stratified. Children of the wealthy still have issues, but they are generally better able to mitigate them.

I don't have a ton of time to go digging, but a cursory search in Google and DDG didn't lead me to anything definitive. I found one study from Sweden which supported your position. But I'm wary of trusting a single study, especially because the nordic countries are kind of oddballs. Do you have any sources you like?

I think this line of thinking can take you dangerously close to the realm of eugenics and social darwinism. I recommend Taleb's take on IQ as some food for thought: https://medium.com/incerto/iq-is-largely-a-pseudoscientific-...

A) facts don’t somehow become invalidated because a subgroup of people wants to use the facts to push an agenda.

B) Taleb is the exact embodiment of the “intelligent, yet idiot” description that he so loves to level against others. He is ridiculed by pretty much every intelligence researcher and behavioral geneticist who is aware of his take on IQ. Recently I witnessed him arguing on Twitter that the Justinian plague was not the Black Death. They’re both caused by the same bacteria, yersinia pestis. Find a better intellectual hero.

...ok, Wikipedia it is:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligence_quotient#Criticis...

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bell_Curve#Criticisms

3. You can also find various comments on ideas of intellectual superiority in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.

My bottom line is that I see no reason to believe humans can diverge in terms of intelligence over the span of a few generations. Social darwinism is a ridiculous pseudo-scientific idea that gets traction only with people that think they fall on the right side of the IQ divide.

Btw, could you give some examples of researchers that treat IQ seriously and consider it has a strong genetic component?

"Twin studies of adult individuals have found a heritability of IQ between 57% and 73%[6] with the most recent studies showing heritability for IQ as high as 80%[7] and 86%.[8]. IQ goes from being weakly correlated with genetics, for children, to being strongly correlated with genetics for late teens and adults. The heritability of IQ increases with age and reaches an asymptote at 18–20 years of age and continues at that level well into adulthood. This phenomenon is known as the Wilson Effect.[9] Recent studies suggest that family and parenting characteristics are not significant contributors to variation in IQ scores;[10] however, poor prenatal environment, malnutrition and disease can have deleterious effects."

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritability_of_IQ

This is not "some researchers" who hold the opinion that IQ has a strong component, it is literally the entire field of behavioral genetics (basically the only field that seriously studies the genetic basis of human behavior and psychology).

Regarding how long it takes for significant evolution to occur: human generations have historically been about 20 years long, which makes 1000 years about 50 generations. As a point of reference, humans have created entire new breeds of domesticated animals in as short as 50 years (a similar number of generations). Darwin has several examples in The Origin of Species and a Russian scientist bred tame foxes in about the same amount of time. The speed of evolution is dependent on a lot of factors, but on its face, the idea that groups of humans facing different selection pressures would not somehow differentiate is silly (and they clearly have; that's why you can look at someone and have a pretty good idea of what part of the world their ancestors come from). But for a more concrete example of a shorter time period, the Han Chinese have been rice farmers for several thousand years, whereas African pygmies have been foragers and hunter-gatherers during that same time. Both groups would face significantly different selection pressures. Hunting and foraging skills would be essentially useless to rice farmers and a propensity toward uncontrolled violence would likely get them killed by a local ruler trying to maintain peace among his tax base. Hunter-gatherers would have no use for the ability to keep accounting records or a class of women made economically unproductive via the practice of foot binding.

Taleb is wrong though on IQ:


> Most of the document is just a rant, but he does make some quantitative claims, which is good. I investigate the veracity of these claims using real data.

> All the claims from the article that I looked at, that can be interpreted as something specific and tested in a real data set, turned out not to be correct. If Taleb hadn’t blocked everyone who disagrees with him, perhaps he would have found out about this, and not published a post with all these incorrect claims.

The genetic point could be controlled for by looking at the children of lottery winners.

maybe not. Probably lottery winners are addicted gamblers, have poor impulse control and so on.

That's exactly the point. That should mean their children won't succeed if genetics rather than money are the most important factor. If their children do succeed then money was (probably) more important.

EDIT: If 'being good with money' is an issue, for example if lottery winners don't spend their winnings on their kids, then an alternative would be to look at the successes of children who are adopted in to wealthy families.

Hmmm. yeah, good point.

If you prefer to listen the speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCfe8VrCX4E

Are my biases deceiving me, or has the Overton window on criticizing “meritocracy” shifted? A few years ago (including in 2015 when I missed this speech) I believe it would have been unthinkable in my social circles.

I’ve become convinced that meritocracy as the Yale Law elites would know it has utterly failed 99% of Americans.

Apropos of the theme, when "meritocracy" was coined it was a warning; something damaging to society that was to be avoided. At some point, the term was hijacked and pushed as a force for good (I suspect, but cannot prove, mostly by those who were benefitting from it) and now we seem to be coming back around the circle.

Meritocracies are insidious. We can see it in some societies; "this is a meritocracy" therefore rich powerful people deserve their wealth and power and the poor and powerless have only themselves to blame and deserve no help. A positive feedback cycle through the generations that leads to a stratified society of nobility and peasantry.

The original context always struck me as regressive and it is no wonder it fell flat.

While meant to criticize the tri-tracked educational system as a potential given that the dystopia was a replacement for the class system even if bad it fails to make a case for it being worse than literal nobility and connections to posh schools and old money.

It falls utterly flat like calling Oliver Cromwell the first military dictator in England while ignoring the kings.

Self perpetuating in negative ways is certainly a problem (there is a vast difference between being ahead because your family taught you and being aheas because competing with you is illegal) but it needs to be taken in the context of the now. What is the alternative is the real question of importance.

I have noticed the reverse actually. In 1999 we had tens of thousands of people in the streets regularly against the WTO, against the IMF, against the World Bank.

Working class folks, environmentalists, labor leaders, anarchists and socialists, even fairly mainstream Dems were criticizing that a pure free trade model was letting capital gain too much power at the expense of people (especially as people are locked behind borders largely), locking developing countries into unsustainable and brutal debt and austerity programs, and resulting in inequality ramping up.

These days, it would be nearly unthinkable to have that many people in the streets at a WTO meeting (never-mind that they shifted the meetings to far away authoritarian countries).

Granted, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren do sound more critical of unfettered capitalism and the idea that capitalism is a meritocracy than Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did (and so does Trump, in his own way), but they haven't been elected yet.

I noticed a stream of it back in the 00s and probable 90s with the tech boom.

It seemed timed at least partially a result of the old order being upset at their heritage not being the gatekeeper it once was.

The Ivy Leagues have a long history of pssudomeritocracy in the form of moving goalposts to favor the legacies whenever an upstart group gains "too much" of a share. It is reminiscent of the Jewish quotas of old and they were indeed targetted

I think the speech agrees with you, more or less.

Meritocracy can't help but be hated by most people, because they will be the losers. It also forces you to confront the fact that you might not actually be part of the best fraction, and that can be horribly scarring to the psyche of those who feel entitled to unearned rewards.

I made same observation. Also, it became more easy to argue that world is not actually meritocracy.

This was a really inspiring speech. The entire speech is very valuable to read, but to give a TLDR: the new aristocracy is defined as the elite that gains their wealth through their labour rather than their assets. It's new because 50 years ago, the elite was more based on capital than their own work. It points out that you can exploit your capital without damage to yourself, but you can't exploit your own capacity to work as then you use yourself up, but that's precisely the trend as work amount expectations for elite lawyers have doubled in recent decades. The consequence of this situation is pointed out this way:

> To live in this way is, quite literally, to use oneself up. Such a life proceeds under a pervasive shadow: at its worst, it squanders the capacity to set and pursue authentically embraced, intrinsically valued, goals; even at its best, this life invites deep alienation.

With alienation they probably mean something like not seeing your parents, friends, family, etc for years. The proposed solution to this dilemma is then presented in the key paragraph:

> The new aristocracy promotes human flourishing for no one: certainly not for the excluded rest; nor even for the ensnared rich. We are trained to think of economic inequality as presenting a zero sum game: to suppose that redistribution to benefit the bottom must burden the top. But this is not such a case: reforms that democratize training and talent would benefit everybody. Such democratic reforms would restore the bulk of Americans to full participation in an economic and social order from which they have been, for several decades now, increasingly excluded. And democratic reforms invite the elite—you all—to accept an almost costless diminution in wealth and status in exchange for a massive, precious increase in leisure and liberty, a reclaiming of your authentic selves.

The speech also points out that most people who achieve meritocratically do so because they have access to enormous amounts of resources, since birth. In essence the rich used to just hand their wealth to their children (and most still do that too), but now some actually dedicate part of their wealth to training their children to excel in a process that is often nothing more than a dog and pony show.

I found the link on archive: https://web.archive.org/web/20191023044540/https://law.yale....

If one is to feel good about meritocracy, it is that the ambitious, talented and hardworking have the greatest chance of changing the system for everyone's shared benefit.

If only there was evidence to support that assertion.

The opposite of that is the stereotypical Soviet style, shoemaker working as a mason, carpenter working as the prime minister. There's a room in between for something sane, but anything sane will also be discriminatory with respect to skills.

It seems to me that this pileup against meritocracy is primarily about personal rewards, and not about utility to society.

As against the the unambitious, talentless and lazy having the greatest chance of changing the system for everyone's shared benefit.

Maybe in an ideal world. In reality however the world is hardly meritocratic.

Markovits came to my attention when he was a guest on Ezra Klein's show:


He's also now published a book, The Meritocracy Trap:


I think that was the best speech I have ever read.

Graduating from Yale Law sounds like it's for suckers. Let the elites have their crazy working hours and stressful hoop jumping--I'm not envious.

Their cohort effectively sets the vision for American legislation and justice. You may not be interested in them, but they're interested in you.

This. These folks are helping to shape new laws that set precedent for every other case. For example: the wealthiest now pay historically low tax rates [1][2]

[1] https://twitter.com/DLeonhardt/status/1181004566088814594

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/06/opinion/incom...

Do they really set the vision, though? Did they start the #MeToo movement and bring down Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men? Are they leading the push for transgender acceptance? Are they the reason why reparations and universal healthcare are now mainstream policy proposals in the Democrat party?

It certainly makes sense for the wealthy, elite lawyers of a society to set the course of policy. But I'm not sure what the empirical evidence from 2019 America says. I think a lot of these Yale graduates end up becoming cogs in the existing system without actually changing it, and I think other forces might be equally as or more impactful in terms of shaping political currents.

I mean, go look at the professors leading these policy pushes, the journalists writing about metoo, and the policy wonks pushing for healthcare or trans changes. You're going to see a lot of JDs from top schools -- a lot of Yale. You won't see any self-taught coders or mathematicians from CalTech, you know?

Setting the vision for American legislation and so-called "justice" is hardly something to be envious of, or to be proud of if you know anything about legislation or the "justice" system.

I'm sure this harsh burn has them all reeling. I'd imagine they are quitting their jobs as I speak.

Get off your high horse.

In the age of big data, the gig economy, and oligrachs dominating the US economy and political sphere--you're next.

You should read The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits: https://www.themeritocracytrap.com/

The author is actually a Yale Law Professor, and the book came out about a month ago.

The author delivered this speech!

I hope that poster saw that, lol.

And yet we routinely see people here arguing in defence of 80- to 100-hour work weeks at startups. This kind of mind-sickness is not the sole domain of the elite legal profession.

Or a notably 4/9 minority at the Supreme Court. The majority of course went to Harvard.


I can totally see where your comment is coming from. That speech was carefully and deliberately written and targeted and pandering to its audience, the meritocratic elite. Each sentence phrased /just so/, like the historical reference compressed into an adjective because /this/ audience is expected to know and unpack the context in real time ("Stakahnovite hours", how pithy, how self-congratulatory, and yet at the same time it is clearly intended to convey negativity by association with communism).

I can't agree that it was just a self congratulatory speech. You have to speak to your audience. Some degree of pandering is expected and necessary. And, the final message was still very clear: here are the problems, you folks are supposed to be the best and the brightest, work towards finding the solution.

Whatever else, you have to admit that's one damn well written speech.

Sounds very posh to me. Giving top government position to people like that will not lead to any good.

There was a dead comment in this thread that I can't respond to now. It came from legitimate grievances but embodied what I think is a dangerous and now popular sentiment.

It seemed to have been mocking the language of the speech when there really isn't anything objectively wrong with the speech. The speech was in a high register but I thought it was very concise. The parody in the comment on the other hand seems to try to immitate religious language, and didn't attack the speech but the speakers and their values. It's as if the commenter perceives the academic register used in the speech as marking its contents unworthy of engaging with, the ivory tower ramblings of the elites as nonsensical and contemptible as religious rhetoric. This sort of contempt for everything associated with the upper class leads to the kind of cultural destruction we saw in Communist revolutions.

Hate the elite all you want but the culture they embody is also your culture; don't cut off your nose to spite your face.

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