We know the ACT scores of all public-university students who applied to UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State during the test-waiver period

Saturday, June 8th, 2024

The University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors made admissions effectively test optional — but North Carolina public school students still take the ACT in 11th grade; it’s required by North Carolina law:

This set up an interesting natural experiment, since the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction collected these ACT scores from high schools and shared them with the UNC System. Therefore, we know the ACT scores of all public-university students who applied to UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State during the test-waiver period, regardless of whether they submitted those scores for use in the admissions process.

North Carolina ACT Scores

At both NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill, the test scores of students who chose to submit them as part of the admissions process were significantly higher than those of non-submitters.

And these discrepancies persist among admitted students. In 2022 (the year for which the best data exist), among admitted UNC-Chapel Hill freshmen, test submitters had a median ACT score of 29. Non-submitters had a median ACT score of 25. At NC State, the respective scores in the same year were 27 and 22. These are meaningful differences.

China has not cracked (yet) and the European Union is still with us (for now)

Friday, June 7th, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanThe version of Peter Zeihan’s Accidental Superpower that I (metaphorically) picked up was subtitled Ten Years On:

The trends of de­globalization, de­population, and American disinterest that were once on the horizon are now embedded firmly in the here and now.


There’s no way you kick out a 350-page book that is three-quarters forecast and you get it all dead-on. The biggest bitch is always timing. Inevitable is not a synonym for imminent.


It is undeniable that China has not cracked (yet) and the European Union is still with us (for now).


Two years after Accidental I published The Absent Superpower, a book that brought America’s shale revolution into focus both in terms of its transformation of the American industrial experience and its impact upon the broader global geopolitic. As part of Absent I predicted that the 2020s would serve as the backdrop of three major international wars. The first of these, the Ukraine War, is now in full swing. Two to go.

Like many techies, he was liberal on social issues but with a dollop of libertarian resistance to regulations and political correctness

Monday, June 3rd, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonMusk had never been very political, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon):

Like many techies, he was liberal on social issues but with a dollop of libertarian resistance to regulations and political correctness. He contributed to the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton, and he was a vocal critic of Donald Trump in the 2016 election. “He doesn’t seem to have the sort of character that reflects well on the United States,” he told CNBC.

But after Trump won, Musk became cautiously optimistic that he might govern as a renegade independent rather than a resentful right-winger. “I thought that maybe some of the crazier stuff he said during the campaign was just a performance and he would land in a more sensible place,” he says.


“Trump might be one of the world’s best bullshitters ever,” he says. “Like my dad. Bullshitting can sometimes baffle the brain. If you just think of Trump as sort of a con-man performance, then his behavior sort of makes sense.”

The trick is to begin with geography and see where it takes you

Friday, May 31st, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanPeter Zeihan opens The Accidental Superpower with a story about his destiny:

I’ve always loved maps. My mom tells a story of how when I was five I unfolded a map of my home state of Iowa and started tracing roads away from my hometown, building up to the thickest, brightest line I could find and then connecting it to the next thickest, brightest line I could find until I had traced myself off the map’s edge. When I inquired what was on the other side of the Missouri River, my mom realized that I’d be leaving Iowa someday.


Geopolitics is the study of how place impacts… everything: the clothes you wear, the food you eat, the size and serviceability of your mortgage, how long you live, how many children you have, the stability of your job, the shape and feel of your country’s political system, what sorts of war your country wages or defends itself against, and ultimately whether your culture will withstand the test of time. The balance of rivers, mountains, oceans, plains, deserts, and jungles massively influences everything about both the human condition and national success.

Of course, you shouldn’t treat geography as deterministic. The Nazis loved geopolitics, but instead of using the study of geography to shape their policies, they used it to justify their ideology. They were hardly alone. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Europeans of all stripes used the subdiscipline of geographic determinism to assert their cultural and intellectual superiority over the rest of humanity. At one point, geographers as a whole realized that such concepts were, well, hugely racist and the study of political geography in most forms — particularly in the United States — was largely abandoned.

There is definitely a baby/bathwater issue here. There are good solid reasons as to why nearly every major expansionary power of the past has been based in a temperate climate zone, and why all those that have lasted have been riverine-based. This doesn’t make the people of these zones better or smarter. It simply means they have more and more sustainable resources, fewer barriers to economic development, and economic and military systems that allow for greater reach. The trick is to begin with geography and see where it takes you; don’t start with a theory and use geography to justify it.


My personal ideology is green and internationalist and libertarian, which means I’m an idealistic pragmatist who falls asleep during long meetings. Aside from a few snarky footnotes that bravely survived the editorial gauntlet, my ideology is not represented in this book. I have solar panels on my house, but I see a global future in which coal reigns supreme. I’m an unflinching supporter of free trade and the Western alliance network, seeing the pair as ushering in the greatest peace and prosperity this world has ever known. Yet geography tells me both will be abandoned. I prefer small government, believing that an unobtrusive system generates the broadest and fastest spread of wealth and liberty. But demography tells me an ever larger slice of my income will be taken to fund a system that is ever less dynamic and accountable.

Parents hate it

Saturday, May 25th, 2024

Case Against Education by Bryan CaplanA reader of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education who recently caught Roland Fryer on EconTalk (Oct 2022 episode) suggested an unholy synthesis of Caplan and Fryer:

If we simply assert that it is desirable to have students master a subject, then it is at least valuable to know (if that is indeed what we know) that paying students directly to master material is much more effective than paying other people to offer free education to students who are completely unpaid in the near term for being compelled to encounter the material.

One could imagine an extreme synthesis of Caplan and Fryer that says the state is primarily interested only in teaching those skills you’ve called truly general purpose — literacy and numeracy — and to achieve student learning in these fields we have devised a system of payments to students that are contingent on reaching micro-milestones (e.g., what one might reasonably learn and demonstrate mastery of after spending 60 minutes on Khan Academy) in progress towards mastery of arithmetic, basic algebra, phonics, and reading comprehension. If students find it most cost-effective to earn those payments by subcontracting to tutors and educational coaches who help them reach these milestones (or even on-demand traditional in-class lectures if preferred), then we will primarily see the growth in supply of pedagogical methods which are most capital efficient relative to a desired learning outcome.

Caplan added that it would be better to pay periodically for continuing good scores to avoid mere cramming, and that led to this comment:

Our kids’ elementary school recently started doing cumulative testing throughout the year. Basically every week they have a test that goes back and tests on material covered earlier. I’d say maybe 80% new material, 20% old material, but that’s a pretty big test. Parents hate it, partly because they just hate having a significant test each weak, partly because they don’t have a way to help the kids prepare, and partly because kids are doing poorly on them.

In the parents defense, I think a lot of the tests are poorly constructed and have poor questions. (I think but do not know that they are mostly taking questions from prior state tests that students did poorly on, with no understanding of whether that’s because it’s a poorly phrased question or whether it was really a harder question intended to distinguish between top tier students.)

But the school administrators I think have been somewhat shocked by how little interest the parents have in what information their children have retained versus making sure their kids have good grades. In elementary school. Not even grades that will show up on a college application.

Again, in the parents defense, there has been grade inflation for so long it’s hard for 3rd or 4th grader that’s formerly a straight A student to understand suddenly routinely get B’s and C’s or worse on tests each week. And it’d be less frustrating if the people doing the testing understood something about constructing tests (if almost all of the class is failing because of the current material and not the past material, that’s almost certainly a reflection of the teacher and/or the test, not the children). But the parents weren’t really even interested in trying to continue tweaking the process. They were just worried about getting bad grades and the need to study for a test each week interfering with travel sports practices.

Parents want their children to do well, but not in the objective sense of learning and retaining more.

The voice of Sky is not Scarlett Johansson’s, and it was never intended to resemble hers

Tuesday, May 21st, 2024

OpenAI last week introduced its Sky voice, which sounds suspiciously like Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied AI voice in Her:

Johansson said she had been contacted by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman in September 2023 about the company hiring her to provide the voice for ChatGPT 4.0. She said she declined for “personal reasons.”

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine that my closest friends and news outlets could not tell the difference,” Johansson said. “Mr. Altman even insinuated that the similarity was intentional, tweeting a single word ‘her’ — a reference to the film in which I voiced a chat system, Samantha, who forms an intimate relationship with a human.”

Johansson called for legislation that would protect individuals from having their name, image or likeness misappropriated. “In a time when we are all grappling with deepfakes and the protection of our own likeness, our own work, our own identities, I believe these are questions that deserve absolute clarity,” she said. “I look forward to resolution in the form of transparency and the passage of appropriate legislation to help ensure that individual rights are protected.”

Asked for comment, OpenAI sent this statement from Altman: “The voice of Sky is not Scarlett Johansson’s, and it was never intended to resemble hers. We cast the voice actor behind Sky’s voice before any outreach to Ms. Johansson. Out of respect for Ms. Johansson, we have paused using Sky’s voice in our products. We are sorry to Ms. Johansson that we didn’t communicate better.”

The Johansson-soundalike ChatGPT voice was the basis of a joke on the season finale of “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, aimed at her husband, Colin Jost, co-host of Weekend Update.

Negative social judgments often serve as guardrails

Friday, May 17th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonAt Yale, Rob Henderson explains (in Troubled), he had some friends in the ROTC program who weren’t from the upper class, either:

When we were kids, chain restaurants like Applebee’s and Olive Garden were considered “fine dining.” That was where people with money went out to eat. Upon meeting real rich people, we realized none of them went to such restaurants, except as a novelty. I later suggested to Nick, Esteban, and some other students that we go to the Cheesecake Factory. One guy asked, “Are we going there ironically?” I flatly said no and ordered some Buffalo Blasts.

I realized that even dietary choices reflected class differences. Yale dining halls had soda fountains that nobody used, save for the one nozzle that dispensed water. The halls also offered “spa water,” which was water flavored with cucumbers or strawberries. I’d always associated that with rich people on TV. I mentally contrasted this with my high school, where I couldn’t go more than ten minutes without seeing someone carrying a Powerade or a Pepsi. There was a striking absence of obesity among the students — many of them seemed to be preoccupied with their weight and image. I learned a term I’d never heard before: fat shaming. It was remarkable that students who seldom consumed sugary drinks and often closely adhered to nutrition and fitness regimens were also attempting to create a taboo around discussions of obesity. The unspoken oath seemed to be, “I will carefully monitor my health and fitness, but will not broadcast the importance of what I am doing, because that is fat shaming.” The people who were most vocal about what they called “body positivity,” which seemed to be a tool to inhibit discussions about the health consequences of obesity, were often very physically fit.

The luxury belief class claims that the unhappiness associated with certain behaviors and choices primarily stems from the negative social judgments they elicit, rather than the behaviors and choices themselves. But, in fact, negative social judgments often serve as guardrails to deter detrimental decisions that lead to unhappiness. In order to avoid misery, we have to admit that certain actions and choices are actually in and of themselves undesirable — single parenthood, obesity, substance abuse, crime, and so on — and not simply in need of normalization.

Indeed, it’s cruel to validate decisions that inflict harm, especially on those who had no hand in the decision — like young children.

Bloodletting is among the ingredients of political medicine

Sunday, May 12th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsAs a rule, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), the educated, professional and secularized elites were more likely to regard Napoleon as a liberating force than the Catholic peasantry, who saw the French armies as foreign atheists:

Wishing to appear as an enlightened liberator, rather than just the latest in a long line of conquerors, Napoleon held out the hope of an eventually independent, unified nation-state and thereby kindled the sparks of Italian nationalism. To that end, the day after his arrival in Milan, he declared the creation of a Lombardic Republic. It would be governed by Italian pro-French giacobini (Jacobins, or ‘patriots’) and he encouraged political clubs to mushroom throughout the region (the one in Milan soon included eight hundred lawyers and merchants). He also abolished Austrian governing institutions, reformed Pavia University, held provisional municipal elections, founded a National Guard and conferred with the leading Milanese advocate of Italian unification, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, to whom he handed over as much power as possible.


Lombardy was now a theoretically independent republic, albeit now a French protectorate, but the Veneto was still an Austrian province and Mantua was occupied by the Austrian army. Tuscany, Modena, Lucca and Parma were ruled by Austrian dukes and grand dukes; the Papal States (Bologna, Romagna, Ferrara, Umbria) were owned by the Pope; Naples and Sicily formed a single kingdom (the Two Sicilies) ruled by the Bourbon Ferdinand IV, and the Savoyard monarchy still reigned in Piedmont and Sardinia.


Over the course of the next three years, known as the triennio, Italians saw the emergence of the giacobini in a series of ‘sister-republics’ that Napoleon was to set up. He wanted to establish a new Italian political culture based on the French Revolution that would prize meritocracy, nationhood and free-thinking over privilege, city-state localism and Tridentine Catholicism.


Reforms that Napoleon imposed on the newly conquered territories included the abolition of internal tariffs, which helped to stimulate economic development, the ending of noble assemblies and other centres of feudal privilege, financial restructurings aimed at bringing down state debt, ending the restrictive guild system, imposing religious toleration, closing the ghettos and allowing Jews to live anywhere, and sometimes nationalizing Church property.


As zealous leaders of what they truly considered to be a new form of civilization — although the actual word ‘civilization’ itself had only entered the French lexicon in the 1760s and was very little used in the Napoleonic era — the French revolutionary elites genuinely believed they were advancing the welfare of Europe under French leadership.


‘All men of genius, everyone distinguished in the republic of letters, is French, whatever his nationality,’ Napoleon wrote from Milan in May 1796 to the eminent Italian astronomer Barnaba Oriani. ‘Men of learning in Milan have not enjoyed proper respect. They hid themselves in their laboratories and thought themselves lucky if … priests left them alone. All is changed today. Thought in Italy is free. Inquisition, intolerance, despots have vanished. I invite scholars to meet and propose what must be done to give science and the arts a new flowering.’


On May 23 a revolt against the French occupation in Pavia led by Catholic priests was put down harshly by Lannes, who simply shot the town council.


‘As I was half way to Pavia, we met a thousand peasants at Binasco and defeated them,’ Napoleon reported to Berthier. ‘After killing one hundred of them we burned the village, setting a terrible but efficient example.’


Napoleon believed that ‘bloodletting is among the ingredients of political medicine’, but he also thought that quick and certain punishments meant that large-scale repression could largely be avoided.


‘If you make war,’ he would say to General d’Hédouville in December 1799, ‘wage it with energy and severity; it is the only means of making it shorter and consequently less deplorable for mankind.’

During the Pavia revolt, which spread over much of Lombardy, five hundred hostages from some of the richest local families were taken to France as ‘state prisoners’ to ensure good behaviour. In the country around Tortona, Napoleon destroyed all the church bells that had been used to summon the revolt, and had no hesitation in shooting any village priest caught leading peasant bands.

Educate yourself

Friday, May 10th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonPrestigious universities encourage students to nurture their grievances, Rob Henderson explains (in Troubled), giving rise to a peculiar situation in which the most advantaged are the most well-equipped to tell other advantaged people how disadvantaged they are:

To become fully acculturated into the elite requires knowing the habits, customs, and manners of the upper class. To stay up to date, you need lots of leisure time or to have the kind of job that allows you to browse Twitter. A common rebuke to those who are not fully up to date on the latest intellectual fads is “educate yourself.” This is how the affluent block mobility for people who work multiple jobs, have children to care for, and don’t have the time or means to read the latest bestseller that outlines the proper way to think about social issues.


Thus, it seems the affluent secure their positions by ensuring that only those who attend the right colleges, listen to the right podcasts, and read the right books and articles can join their inner circle.

Occasionally, I raised these critiques to fellow students or graduates of elite colleges. Sometimes they would reply by asking, “Well, aren’t you part of this group now?” implying that my appraisals of the luxury belief class were hollow because I moved within the same institutions. But they wouldn’t have listened to me back when I was a lowly enlisted service member or back when I was washing dishes for minimum wage. If you ridicule the upper class as an outsider, they’ll either ignore you or tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you ridicule them as an insider, they call you a hypocrite. Plainly, the requirements for the upper class to take you seriously (e.g., credentials, wealth, power) are also the grounds to brand you a hypocrite for making any criticism of the upper class.

It would be better to have one bad general than to have two good ones

Sunday, May 5th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew Roberts Even before the Directory had received the news of Napoleon’s victory at Lodi, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), they conceived a plan to try to force him to share the glory of the Italian campaign, as public adulation was starting to concentrate dangerously around him:

Ever since General Dumouriez’s treason in 1793, no government had wanted to accord too much power to any one general. When Napoleon requested that reinforcements of 15,000 men be taken from General Kellermann’s Army of the Alps, the Directory replied that the men could indeed be sent to Italy, but Kellermann must go with them and command of the Army of Italy would be split. Replying on May 14, four days after Lodi and the day before he captured Milan, Napoleon told Barras: ‘I will resign. Nature has given me a lot of character, along with some talents. I cannot be useful here unless I have your full confidence.’


‘I cannot serve willingly with a man who believes himself the first general of Europe, and furthermore I believe it would be better to have one bad general than to have two good ones. War, like government, is a matter of tact.’


‘Each to his own way of making war. General Kellermann has more experience and will do it better than myself; but both of us doing it together will do it extremely badly.’

Once a piece of art becomes mainstream, elites must distance themselves from it

Friday, May 3rd, 2024

Troubled by Rob Henderson Before his first year of college, Rob Henderson had never even been to a musical, he explains (in Troubled):

No one I knew from Red Bluff had ever been to one. But it seemed like everyone on campus had seen Hamilton, the acclaimed musical about the American founding father Alexander Hamilton. I looked up tickets: $400.

This was way beyond my budget. So in 2020, I was pleased to see that five years after Hamilton’s debut, it was available to view on Disney+. But suddenly, the musical was being denigrated by many of the same people who formerly enjoyed it, because it didn’t reflect the failings of American society in the eighteenth century. The creator of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, even posted on Twitter that “All the criticisms are valid.” This reveals how social class works in America.


Once a piece of art becomes mainstream, elites must distance themselves from it and redirect their attention to something new, obscure, or difficult to obtain. The affluent relentlessly search for signals that distinguish them from the masses.

A former classmate recently told me that he didn’t enjoy Hamilton but never told anyone because everyone at Yale loved it. However, once the musical became unfashionable, he suddenly became open about his dislike of it.

The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows

Friday, April 26th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonGradually, Rob Henderson developed the concept of “luxury beliefs,” he explains (in Troubled), which are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class at very little cost, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes:

Research has found that parental educational attainment is the most important objective indicator of social class. This is because, compared with parental income, parental education is a more powerful predictor of a child’s future lifestyle, tastes, and opinions. In 2021, more than 80 percent of Ivy League students had parents with college degrees.

Paul Fussell — the social critic and author of Class — wrote that manners, tastes, opinions, and conversational style are just as important for upper-class membership as money or credentials, and that to fulfill these requirements, you have to be immersed in affluence from birth. Likewise, the twentieth-century French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu stated that a “triadic structure” of schooling, language, and taste was necessary to be accepted among the upper class. Bourdieu described the mastery of this triad as “ease.” When you grow up in a social class, you come to embody it. You represent its tastes and values so deeply that you exhibit “ease” within it.


Consistent with this, in 2021 the Pew Research Center found that among households headed by a college graduate, the median wealth of those who have a parent with at least a bachelor’s degree was nearly $100,000 greater than those who don’t have college-educated parents. This bonus of being a “continuing-generation” (as opposed to a “first-generation”) college graduate has been termed the “parent premium.”


For example, a former classmate at Yale told me “monogamy is kind of outdated” and not good for society. I asked her what her background is and if she planned to marry. She said she came from an affluent family, was raised by both of her parents, and that, yes, she personally intended to have a monogamous marriage—but quickly added that marriage shouldn’t have to be for everyone.


Some would, for instance, tell me about the admiration they had for the military, or how trade schools were just as respectable as college, or how college was not necessary to be successful. But when I asked them if they would encourage their own children to enlist or become a plumber or an electrician rather than apply to college, they would demur or change the subject.

Later, I would connect my observations to stories I read about tech tycoons, another affluent group, who encourage people to use addictive devices, while simultaneously enforcing rigid rules at home about technology use. For example, Steve Jobs prohibited his children from using iPads. Parents in Silicon Valley reportedly tell their nannies to closely monitor how much their children use their smartphones. Chip and Joanna Gaines are well-known home improvement TV personalities who have their own television network. They don’t allow their children to watch TV and don’t own a television. Don’t get high on your own supply, I guess.


The affluent have decoupled social status from goods and reattached it to beliefs.

Human beings become more preoccupied with social status once our physical needs are met. In fact, research has revealed that sociometric status (respect and admiration from peers) is more important for well-being than socioeconomic status. Furthermore, studies have shown that negative social judgment is associated with a spike in cortisol (a hormone linked to stress) that is three times higher than in nonsocial stressful situations. We feel pressure to build and maintain social status, and fear losing it.

It seems reasonable to think that the most downtrodden might be most interested in obtaining status and money. But this is not the case.


The French sociologist Émile Durkheim understood this when he wrote, “The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs.”


A psychology study in 2020 revealed that “Upper-class individuals cared more about status and valued it more highly than working-class individuals.… Furthermore, compared with lower-status individuals, high-status individuals were more likely to engage in behavior aimed at protecting or enhancing their status.”


You might think that, for example, rich students at elite universities would be happy because their parents are in the top 1 percent of income earners, and that statistically they will soon join their parents in this elite guild. But remember, they’re surrounded by other members of the 1 percent. For many elite college students, their social circle consists of baby millionaires, which often instills a sense of insecurity and an anxiety to preserve and maintain their positions against such rarefied competitors.

Thorstein Veblen’s famous “leisure class” has evolved into the “luxury belief class.” Veblen, an economist and sociologist, made his observations about social class in the late nineteenth century. He compiled his observations in his classic 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. A key idea is that because we can’t be certain of the financial standing of other people, a good way to size up their means is to see whether they can afford to waste money on goods and leisure. This explains why status symbols are so often difficult to obtain and costly to purchase. In Veblen’s day, people exhibited their status with delicate and restrictive clothing like tuxedos, top hats, and evening gowns, or by partaking in time-consuming activities like golf or beagling. Such goods and leisurely activities could only be purchased or performed by those who did not live the life of a manual laborer and could spend time learning something with no practical utility. Veblen even goes so far as to say, “The chief use of servants is the evidence they afford of the master’s ability to pay.” For Veblen, even butlers were status symbols.


As NYU professor Scott Galloway said in an interview in 2020, “The strongest brand in the world is not Apple or Mercedes-Benz or Coca-Cola. The strongest brands are MIT, Oxford, and Stanford. Academics and administrators at the top universities have decided over the last thirty years that we’re no longer public servants; we’re luxury goods.”


Your typical working-class American could not tell you what heteronormative or cisgender means. But if you visit an elite college, you’ll find plenty of affluent people who will eagerly explain them to you. When someone uses the phrase cultural appropriation, what they are really saying is, “I was educated at a top college.” Consider the Veblen quote, “Refined tastes, manners, habits of life are a useful evidence of gentility, because good breeding requires time, application and expense, and can therefore not be compassed by those whose time and energy are taken up with work.” Only the affluent can afford to learn strange vocabulary, because ordinary people have real problems to worry about.

The chief purpose of luxury beliefs is to indicate the believer’s social class and education. When an affluent person expresses support for defunding the police, drug legalization, open borders, looting, or permissive sexual norms, or uses terms like white privilege, they are engaging in a status display. They are trying to tell you, “I am a member of the upper class.”

Focusing on “representation” rather than helping the downtrodden is another luxury belief. Many of the protesters on campus urged for more individuals from historically mistreated groups to be represented among students and faculty, among elite internships and occupations, and in influential positions in society at large. I thought of this as “trickle-down meritocracy.” The idea seemed to be that the best way to help struggling communities is to pluck representatives out and put them into positions of power. As long as the ruling class has a few members from these communities, then somehow the advantages they accrue will “trickle down” to their communities. Thus far, there doesn’t seem to be evidence that this works.


Upon completing their education, most of these graduates do not return to their old neighborhoods. Instead, they relocate to a handful of cities where they live alongside their highly educated peers, eroding the bonds of solidarity they had with those they left behind.


White privilege is the luxury belief that took me the longest to understand, because I grew up around a lot of poor white people. Affluent white college graduates seem to be the most enthusiastic about the idea of white privilege, yet they are the least likely to incur any costs for promoting that belief. Rather, they raise their social standing by talking about their privilege. In other words, upper-class white people gain status by talking about their high status. When policies are implemented to combat white privilege, it won’t be Yale graduates who are harmed. Poor white people will bear the brunt.

The upper class promotes abolishing the police or decriminalizing drugs or white privilege because it advances their social standing, not least because they know that the adoption of those policies will cost them less than others. The logic is akin to conspicuous consumption: if you’re a student who has a large subsidy from your parents and I do not, you can afford to waste $900 and I can’t, so wearing a Canada Goose jacket is a good way of advertising your superior wealth and status. Proposing policies that will cost you as a member of the upper class less than they would cost me serves the same function. Advocating for sexual promiscuity, drug experimentation, or abolishing the police are good ways of advertising your membership of the elite because, thanks to your wealth and social connections, they will cost you less than me.

Reflecting on my experiences with alcohol, if all drugs had been legal and easily accessible when I was fifteen, you wouldn’t be reading this book. My birth mom was able to get drugs, and it had a detrimental effect on both of our lives. That’s something people don’t think about: drugs don’t just affect the user, they affect helpless children, too. All my foster siblings’ parents were addicts, or had a mental health condition, often triggered by drug use. But the luxury belief class doesn’t think about that because such consequences seldom interrupt their lives. And even if they did, they are in a far better position to withstand such difficulties. A well-heeled student at an elite university can experiment with cocaine and will, in all likelihood, be fine. A kid from a dysfunctional home with absentee parents will often take that first hit of meth to self-destruction. This is perhaps why a 2019 survey found that less than half of Americans without a college degree want to legalize drugs, but more than 60 percent of Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher are in favor of drug legalization.


Similarly, a 2020 survey found that the richest Americans showed the strongest support for defunding the police, while the poorest Americans reported the lowest support. Throughout the remainder of that year and into 2021, murder rates throughout the US soared as a result of defunding policies, officers retiring early or quitting, and police departments struggling to recruit new members after the luxury belief class cultivated an environment of loathing toward law enforcement.

The luxury belief class appears to sympathize more with criminals than their victims. It’s true that most criminals come from poor backgrounds. But it’s also true that their victims are mostly poor. And the perpetrators tend to be young men, and their targets are often poor women or the elderly. Moreover, because there are many times more victims than there are criminals, to not stop criminals is to victimize the poor.


The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows.

Consider that compared to Americans who earn more than $75,000 a year, the poorest Americans are seven times more likely to be victims of robbery, seven times more likely to be victims of aggravated assault, and twenty times more likely to be victims of sexual assault.


Unfortunately, like fashion trends that debut on the runway and make it into JCPenney three years later, the luxury beliefs of the upper class often trickle down and are adopted by people lower on the food chain, which means many of these beliefs end up causing social harm. Take polyamory, which involves open relationships where people have multiple partners at the same time. A student at a top university once explained to me that when he set the radius on his dating apps to five miles, about half of the women, mostly other students, said they were “polyamorous” in their bios. Then, when he extended the radius to fifteen miles to include the rest of the city and its outskirts, about half of the women were single mothers. Polyamory is the latest expression of sexual freedom championed by the affluent.


Most personal to me is the luxury belief that family is unimportant or that children are equally likely to thrive in all family structures. In 1960, the percentage of American children living with both biological parents was identical for affluent and working-class families — 95 percent. By 2005, 85 percent of affluent families were still intact, but for working-class families the figure had plummeted to 30 percent. The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam at a 2017 Senate hearing stated, “Rich kids and poor kids now grow up in separate Americas.… Growing up with two parents is now unusual in the working class, while two-parent families are normal and becoming more common among the upper middle class.” Affluent people, particularly in the 1960s, championed sexual freedom. Loose sexual norms caught on for the rest of society. The upper class, though, still had intact families. Generally speaking, they experimented in college and then settled down later. The families of the lower classes fell apart.


In 2006, more than half of American adults without a college degree believed it was “very important” that couples with children should be married. Fast-forward to 2020, and this number has plummeted to 31 percent. Among college graduates, only 25 percent think couples should be married before having kids. Their actions, though, contradict their luxury beliefs: the vast majority of American college graduates who have children are married. Despite their behavior suggesting otherwise, affluent people are the most likely to say marriage is unimportant. Gradually, their message has spread.

I’ve also heard graduates of top universities say marriage is “just a piece of paper.” People shouldn’t have to prove their commitment to their spouse with a document, they tell me. I have never heard them ridicule a college degree as “just a piece of paper.” Many affluent people belittle marriage, but not college, because they view a degree as critical for their social positions.

Words like trauma meant something different for them.

Friday, April 19th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonRob Henderson arrived at Yale nervous about the possibility of being intellectually limited compared with his peers on campus, he explains (in Troubled), because of his impoverished background and poor grades in high school, but his concerns evaporated:

Words like trauma meant something different for them.

At a party, a young woman told me about her family and how they’d always expected her to get into a top college.

“My mom was super strict growing up,” she explained. “Classic Asian mom, I’m sure you know what I mean.”

“Well, my mom is Korean,” I said. “But my family life wasn’t really like that.”

“Ah!” she exclaimed. “So, you didn’t have a traumatic childhood.”


At Yale, more students come from families in the top 1 percent of income than from the bottom 60 percent, and here they were ensconced in one of the richest universities in the world, claiming that they were in danger. Broadcasting personal feelings of emotional precarity and supposed powerlessness was part of the campus culture. Conspicuously lamenting systemic disadvantage seemed to serve as both a signal and reinforcer of membership in this rarefied group of future elites.

Many students would routinely claim that systemic forces were working against them, yet they seemed pleased to demonstrate how special they were for rising above those impediments. This spawned a potent blend of victimhood and superiority.


I’d thought that by entering such a place, we were being given a privilege as well as a duty to improve the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves. Instead, many students seemed to be exploiting whatever commonalities they had with historically mistreated groups in order to serve their own personal, social, and professional interests.


A twenty-year-old at an expensive college is viewed as not much more than a kid. A twenty-year-old in the military is trusted to carry a weapon, repair multimillion-dollar equipment, and make life-and-death decisions.


I remember speaking with a fellow first-gen student at Yale who told me he was against legacy admissions—the practice whereby elite universities give an advantage to applicants with parents or family members who are graduates.

Intrigued, I replied to this student, “You had a harder upbringing than most students here, but you just got into law school, and will probably be very successful in your career. If you have kids and they apply to Yale, should they be favored for admission?”

“Yes,” he replied. “But I worked really hard to give them that opportunity.”


I watched students claim that investment banks were emblematic of capitalist oppression, and then discovered that they’d attended recruitment sessions for Goldman Sachs. Gradually, I came to believe that many of these students were broadcasting the belief that such firms were evil in order to undercut their rivals.


But they didn’t see themselves this way. They viewed themselves as morally righteous and were surprisingly myopic about the virtuous image they held of themselves.


Another time, I was on a social media page where Ivy League students and graduates shared stories about their schools. Someone had posted a story about Yeonmi Park, a North Korean refugee who had graduated from Columbia University. Park described her alarm about how the monolithic culture at her Ivy League school reminded her of her home country. The top-rated comment, the one with the most “like” and “love” reactions: “She should have stayed in North Korea.” They couldn’t bear the criticism and posted endless mean-spirited comments mocking Park, with some saying she should “go back to Pyongyang.”

Ordinarily, the people who visited this webpage would have considered the statement that a refugee should have stayed where she came from to be reprehensible (and it is). But in this instance it was lauded because Park’s comments undermined these people’s view of themselves as morally righteous.


I was also mystified at how my peers kept up with the latest news headlines. More than once, someone would ask me what I thought about some trending event covered in the media. When I replied that I hadn’t heard of the event, people would look at me as if I were an alien. In the same way that you don’t notice how entrenched you are in your specific culture or nationality until you travel to another country, you also don’t notice your social class until you enter another one. I had never learned to keep up with the news.

Growing up, Mom and Shelly subscribed to our local paper, Red Bluff’s Daily News, but they never discussed political or social issues at the dinner table.


On campus, it wasn’t necessarily important to know about the concrete details of a newsworthy event. Rather, it was more critical to know what to think about the event by reading the opinions of others.


Interestingly, working-class Americans are more likely to read local news, while the wealthy and highly educated favor national and global news.

He read biographies of commanders who had fought there and had the courage to admit his ignorance when he didn’t know something

Sunday, April 14th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsThe Directory gave Napoleon the best wedding present he could ever have hoped for, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), command of the Army of Italy:

In the nine days between receiving the appointment and leaving for his headquarters in Nice on March 11, Napoleon asked for every book, map and atlas on Italy that the war ministry could provide. He read biographies of commanders who had fought there and had the courage to admit his ignorance when he didn’t know something. ‘I happened to be at the office of the General Staff in the rue Neuve des Capucines when General Bonaparte came in,’ recalled a fellow officer years later:

I can still see the little hat, surmounted by a pickup plume, his coat cut anyhow, and a sword which, in truth, did not seem the sort of weapon to make anyone’s fortune. Flinging his hat on a large table in the middle of the room, he went up to an old general named Krieg, a man with a wonderful knowledge of detail and the author of a very good soldiers’ manual. He made him take a seat beside him at the table, and began questioning him, pen in hand, about a host of facts connected with the service and discipline. Some of his questions showed such a complete ignorance of the most ordinary things that several of my comrades smiled. I was myself struck by the number of his questions, their order and their rapidity, no less than the way by which the answers were caught up, and often found to resolve into other questions which he deduced in consequence from them. But what struck me still more was the sight of a commander-in-chief perfectly indifferent about showing his subordinates how completely ignorant he was of various points of a business which the youngest of them was supposed to know perfectly, and this raised him a thousand cubits in my opinion.


When someone made the rather otiose point that he was very young, at twenty-six, to command an army, Napoleon replied: ‘I shall be old when I return.’

No one ever managed so brilliantly without it

Sunday, April 7th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon’s (first) wife Josephine was born in Martinique on June 23, 1763, Andrew Roberts notes (in Napoleon: A Life), although in later life she claimed that it was 1767:

She arrived in Paris in 1780 aged seventeen, so poorly educated that her first husband — a cousin to whom she had been engaged at fifteen, the General Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais — couldn’t hide his contempt for her lack of education.

Josephine had blackened stubs for teeth, thought to be the result of chewing Martiniquais cane sugar as a child, but she learned to smile without showing them.58 ‘Had she only possessed teeth,’ wrote Laure d’Abrantès, who was to become Madame Mère’s lady-in-waiting, ‘she would certainly have outvied nearly all the ladies of the Consular Court.’ Although Beauharnais had been an abusive husband — once kidnapping their three-year-old son Eugène from the convent in which Josephine had taken refuge from his beatings — she nonetheless courageously tried to save him from the guillotine after his arrest in 1794.


Her husband was executed just four days before Robespierre’s fall, and had Robespierre survived any longer Josephine would probably have followed him.


On leaving prison she had an affair with General Lazare Hoche, who refused to leave his wife for her but whom she would have liked to marry, even up to the day she reluctantly married Napoleon. Another lover was Paul Barras, but that didn’t last much longer than the summer of 1795.


It is a well-known historical phenomenon for a sexually permissive period to follow one of prolonged bloodletting: the ‘Roaring Twenties’ after the Great War and the licentiousness of Ancient Roman society after the Civil Wars are but two examples. Josephine’s decision to take powerful lovers after the Terror was, like so much else in her life, à la mode (though she wasn’t as promiscuous as her friend Thérésa Tallien, who was nicknamed ‘Government Property’ because so many ministers had slept with her). Whatever ‘zigzags’ were, Josephine had performed them for others besides her first husband, Hoche and Barras; her éducation amoureuse was far more advanced than her near-virginal second husband’s.

Josephine took the opportunity of the post-Vendémiaire arms confiscations to send her fourteen-year-old son Eugène de Beauharnais to Napoleon’s headquarters to ask whether his father’s sword could be retained by the family for sentimental reasons. Napoleon took this for the social opening that it plainly was, and within weeks he had fallen genuinely and deeply in love with her; his infatuation only grew until their marriage five months later.

At first she wasn’t attracted to his slightly yellow complexion, lank hair and unkempt look, nor presumably to his scabies, and she certainly wasn’t in love with him, but then she herself was beginning to get wrinkles, her looks were fading and she was in debt.


Asked whether Josephine had intelligence, Talleyrand is said to have replied: ‘No one ever managed so brilliantly without it.’ For his part, Napoleon valued her political connections, her social status as a vicomtesse who was also acceptable to revolutionaries, and the way she compensated for his lack of savoir-faire and social graces.