The bobos project: intellectual life
After the chapter about work in the book Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks, there is a chapter about the “intellectual life.”
Here’s an excerpt:
In most intellectual organizations, the hard work of researching, thinking, and writing is done by the people who are too young to get out of it. A two-tier system develops. There are paper people—the young intellectual climbers who read and write things—and there are front people—the already renowned intellectuals, government officials, magazine editors, university presidents, foundation heads, and politicians whose primary job is to appear in places delivering the research finding, speeches, and talking points the paper people have gathered for them. The front people go to meetings, do Nightline, speak at fundraisers, host panel discussions, and give interviews on NPR. They get credit for everything.
It seems to me that there’s value transference going on in the intellectual world just as there is in the world of business. At the typical corporation, there are a large number of employees doing grunt work in cubicles earning modest salaries. A portion of the value that they create is transferred up to the people in the C-suite who earn massive amounts of money.
The only thing that’s different in the intellectual world is the currency, which is recognition instead of dollars. There are people at the bottom doing the real work of researching and writing, the value creation, while those at the top enjoy the glory of their efforts even though they don’t do any real work. Although people at the top of the intellectual world also make decent money. For example, New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor was paid one million dollars for her book about the Obamas. (Perhaps as an actual working reporter, Jodi has less prestige than a more theoretical type of intellectual.)
Brooks didn’t have a clue about what it’s actually like to work in corporate America, but I assume what he writes about the intellectual life is accurate because that’s the world he lives in, so he should know.
Brooks also accurately explains that in the bobo world, a person’s status is a combination of how much money he makes plus how much self-actualizing he has accomplished. Some of the blog commenters think that Heather Eisenlord dropped in status when she left her job as an associate at Skadden Arps (which probably paid in the $200s) for a job as a director of the human rights program at the International Senior Lawyers Project which might pay as little as $65,000. But actually, in her mind, she might have moved up in the world because she went from working for money to working for self-actualization. In fact, it’s very difficult to get a job as the director of an international human rights program. Only the prestige of working at Skadden Arps and graduating from a Top 14 law school put her in the running for such a lofty position.
David Brooks ends the chapter with a discussion of “status-income disequilibrium.” According to Brooks, people who have high status intellectual jobs go home to shabby apartments that are all they can afford on a hundred-thousand-dollar salary and they feel great psychic pain that they have so much less than the top people in business. If you want to find out more about this theory, you don’t have to buy the book because he wrote about status-income disequilibrium a few years earlier in the Weekly Standard, and the article is on the web. The book just contains a slightly edited version of the article.
My complaint about this chapter is that it is mostly tangential to telling me about bobos, which I thought was the main purpose of the book based on the title. This is why Paul Fussell’s book on class is a much better read. All Fussell writes about is class.