Elitism in the Senate

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As Benjamin Friedman laid out in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth; a tolerant, accepting society is predicated on running the growth treadmill. Simply being prosperous is not enough — people need to feel that conditions will steadily improve over time, or else populism, xenophobia, and other measures of intolerance go up.

So as we enter the a “New Normal” phase where the steady economic growth and low unemployment of the Great Moderation can no longer be sustainably maintained, there will be substantial political upheaval as well.

One manifestation of this is the strongly anti-elitist attitude espoused by anti-establishment political candidates, among others. Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) and Sonia Sotomayor (Princeton, Yale Law), for instance, have been attacked for holding Ivy League credentials.

Whatever one thinks of anti-elitist attacks (here is someone against them, for instance); it seems worthwhile to point out that the anti-elitists are onto something. Top College attendance remains a path to influence and wealth.

A recent post of mine pointed out that this is very much the case for income. A new paper by Lauren Cohen and Christopher Malloy (both teaching, of course, at Harvard) shows that this is the case for political power in the Senate as well.

Harvard, in particular, comes off as superstar — close to ten percent of Senators in the period covered (101-110th Congress) had a degree from a certain school in Boston. This is again consistent with the income data, and suggests that Harvard graduates collect certain “rents” that are not properly accounted for in most economic models. In certain areas, I think education is better modeled as a fixed quantity like “land” rather than a dynamic agent of production such as “capital,” and ought to be taxed accordingly.

Of course, there is the fact that politically minded individuals may be more likely to go to Harvard; or else hail from families that benefit both from legacy Admissions as well as name recognition in political races (I’m looking at you, Rodney Freilinghuysen, whose family has been in politics since 1817) . So it may be tougher to figure out causality here.

Still, what we can do is figure out the impact of the political effects of elite University dominance. The paper goes on to analyze the role of the social networks generated by College attendance on legislative behavior. Somewhat predictably, they find that politicians who attended the same school are more likely to vote with each other.

Aside from the direct role of elites entering the Senate directly, wealthy Ivy League graduates influence the system indirectly. There is some evidence that the American system works on a principle of one-dollar-one-vote, which will of course disproportionately benefit elite University graduates. That, too, has political consequences. As the author of that link (Harvard phD, teaching post at UChicago) points out:

However, the growth of the rich’s income relative to the mean in the US exceeded the growth of rich’s income relative to the mean in Europe. According to the one dollar, one vote theory of the welfare state, the faster growth of the rich’s income in the US allowed the rich to increase its political influence and tilt policy closer to its most preferred redistribution which involves a smaller welfare state. [emphasis added]

It seems that colleges are at the hub of this. Wages for the richest are rising in part due to the fact that Colleges act to restrict entry at the best Colleges. In turn, that allows their graduates to earn more, influence the political system to clamp down demands for redistribution, and instead give back to schools to get their own children a chance at the good life. I don’t want to push this story too much, but it strikes me as reasonable. If this is how the system works now, we might as well move to a system where one dollar buys you one vote, and at least get some public revenue from this.

All in all, the US Senate comes off resembling the Roman Senate to an extent — both are/were headed by elites who are broadly unrepresentative of the “people”, who hold large financial interests spanning the known world, have interlocking connections with other elite groups, are  successful at intergenerational wealth transfer, and live in a highly unequal society. There is even some evidence that Congressmen use their inside information to beat the stock market. Arguably, one of the biggest differences is that Roman Senators were far more involved in military service.

Americans aren’t stupid. They recognize this. They’re just far less willing to put up with it when times are bad for everyone, and don’t look as though they’re getting better soon. I’d guess that the Harvard share of Senators is about to go down. I’m with Tyler Cowen — American political economy is built like a shark and cannot function without continued growth.


  1. I agree that there are large rents earned by college graduates, but I don’t think there’s a simple direction in which elite college grads have different interests than the average person. Certainly the rich do not necessarily want a small welfare state: Obama won both the college-educated and super-rich vote.

    I’m sure that there must be *some* ways in which elites have a common interest that differs from the people, but I’m not sure what that is – maybe free trade and free immigration, which disproportionately benefit the top of the income distribution, and loosening social norms about marriage and law enforcement, where the rich are largely unscathed by the adverse effects. But the existence of an academics vs. business status competition means that the elite is split on many basic economic issues.

  2. Cephalic,

    Check this out; the rich are much more likely to vote R than D:


    Not that I would reduce this just to partisanship. The rising pool of professions in the Democratic party has dramatically changed their appetite for redistribution — extending tax cuts for almost all Americans, for instance.

  3. Nowhere is elitism more entrenched than within academe. The institutions from which you graduate have an inordinate influence on an academic career path.

    This is especially important to keep in mind before going to grad school, because a State U. Ph.D. does not hold up well against Ivy League Ph.D.’s on the ultra-competitive job market:


  4. Curious. I did the same experiment with the 111th congress and concluded that there was not enough evidence to confirm the elite-school=power thesis. Adding additional congresses seems confirm it, however.

    Re- Rich voting patterns:

    In America there are rich and super rich. Says the WSJ:

    The main reason for all this class envy at the top is that inequality among the rich is now at its highest level in recent history. The economic distance between mere millionaires and the richest billionaires has more than doubled over the past decade. While the average income for the top 1% of income earners grew about 57% between 1990 and 2004, it grew by more than 80% for the richest one-tenth of one percent.

    It is sobering to think that one quarter percent of the American population holds more than a tenth of its annual income.

    It makes one wonder how they vote.

  5. Interesting to see that the customary H-Y-P triumvirate is really just H-Y.

  6. Peter: Princeton is lower because it does not have a law school. If you restricted attention to just undergraduate degrees, I bet that you would see the usual H-Y-P.

  7. Harvard’s dominance is probably attributable to the size of its law school, which is far larger than any other comparatively elite law school. More generally, I wonder how this data looks if you break out undergraduate and postgraduate programs. I suspect that the production of elites in undergrad has significantly different dynamics from the analogous process in postgrad.

  8. David-

    I am not so sure. There is only one Princeton grad to be found in the entire 111th congress (see the link in my earlier comment); if you take away Hardvard Law you still have 4 or so alumni.

  9. Well growing up in the inner city cost me 380 points on my SAT. How do I know this? When I took my GRE it increased over two standard deviations. And of course with low SAT scores my choice was limited. Vouchers for all kids in America.

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