Experts vs. Elites
We are podcasting yet again.
So, I suggested this topic as experts versus elites, an organizing concept
that I’ve been attracted to thinking about lately and organizing some themes
around it. So, the idea is that maybe in society there are sort of – or people
can be in three roles; sort of masses or ordinary people and then specialized
people of two types. Experts are known for knowing a particular set of things.
They are good at particular tasks, knowledgeable at particular topics. They
are evaluated as being knowledgeable about those topics by, typically, other
people who are also experts. We usually use experts to evaluate experts. And
they tend to have specialized methods and styles of talking, vocabulary
appropriate to their particular expertise, and this tends to sort of be more
objective, more results-oriented, and we evaluate them either by sort of their
credentials, by being tested, or their accomplishments in those particular
areas. And experts can more sort of disagree with each other and, sort of,
give arguments and get into the details and focus on, sort of, those expert
details as what determines who wins the argument. Then elites in contrast are
more leader role people, and they are just more judged on a wide range of
characteristics of being impressive and high, which can include beauty,
wealth, smarts, connections, style, taste, things like that, and they tend to
talk with other elites who come from a wide range of areas perhaps but still
talk together like elites. And their job is more – they are judged by other
elites and a wider audience for their eliteness rather than people near their
specialty areas. And they tend to need more – they focus more on social things
including, sort of, gaining the allegiance and support of other elites and
motivating and getting the support of a wider people, including experts and
masses. And so, they are less sort of technical in their talk, less precise,
often vague, often pretty high level. They talk more about values and they are
more motivating in some sense and they manage to sort of smooth over conflicts
better and get alliances working together continuing and getting people to be
on their side with them and accept their leadership. And that’s what elites do
well and they are judged on those sorts of criteria. And I might say like at a
conference, the speaker of a talk might be more an expert and the panel might
be more of a set of elites. Academics are more like experts. Public
intellectuals are more like elites. Managers are more like elites relative to
their lower-level workers who are more like experts on the particular topics
they work on. But it’s a mix. Most people in most roles have some mixture. So
as you go up in management hierarchy, you will move from expert to elite as
you move up that role and many kinds of writers will at some point show their
expertise focusing on knowing particular things and another time switch to
being more broad and general and motivating and alliance-oriented when there
would be more elite. And that’s this organizing concept and I’ve suggested
that an ideal people have society is that masses recognize elites who oversee
experts who make choices. And so for example, I came to realize that I’ve
often been trying to propose institutional innovations, ways we do things
different, and I propose those as an expert and I realized that people mostly
don’t want to hear about innovation proposals from experts. They want to hear
about them from elites because that’s more about motivation and coordination.
And so, they don’t mostly want institution advice from me unless I could fill
more of an elite role than I have. And that seems helpful to me to understand
my role in the world and the kind of changes I would have to make if I were
going to be more heard on those proposals. So that gives one kind of payoff
and I think I see other kinds of payoffs in thinking of these distinctions and
had some success in getting some other people to also see those distinctions
in particular like academics who see the distinction between just being an
academic and making academic arguments versus being more of a thought leader
who then needs to appeal to other issues and considerations and play a
So you said that elites that what people want is for elites to oversee experts
but you also said that it’s experts who evaluate other experts, so how can
elites oversee experts if they don’t have the relevant expertise?
I mean that’s often a complaint in the world.
Seems like a complain about your theory. It doesn’t make sense.
Well, I mean, experts are often complaining that elites oversee them when the
elites don’t know as much about them as particular topics. But often, elites
become elites by having been experts and so they have partial expertise in an
area so managers tend to rise up from lower levels in an organization. Thought
leaders are often once academics or once journalists or managers I mean. So in
some sense, many elites are reluctant to call themselves elites and they do
tend to prefer to label themselves as experts and this is part of their
justification for their role often is that they are also experts but then they
say they’re better than the usual experts because they also know how to manage
coalitions and wider publics and to motivate people and to pay attention to
sensitive issues and that’s why they are better suited for the role than the
other mere experts who could sit in their role.
I mean why not just think that with respect to anything that you want to do
and any job that you would perform, there are the facets of the job that
concern the subject matter and then there are the facets of it that concern
like how you manage the fact that you have to do this job with other people
and the social coordination aspect of it? And both sets of skills are probably
relevant to every job and that like most elites probably – many elites anyway
are going to have some kinds of expertise but they are also going to have some
kinds of like social skills is what I hear you’re saying with the elites have
and that if you are like very lopsided on the one or the other, you’re going
to have some trouble.
So ordinary people in their ordinary lives have and use sociable skills but
they don’t usually use them as elites and …
Why not think that? That is, like my mother-in-law has a lot of social skills
and she kind of ends up – and she is not an elite – I mean she has like a
small gardening business, very small, like her and husband, but she will often
kind of end of at the center of certain like social groupings and stuff, kind
of almost like the leader or whatever of it, due to her social skills.
OK. Then that wouldn’t be normally. I just mean people who don’t end up at the
center leading are also using social skills. That is, leadership is one set of
social skills but there are other social skills. I didn’t want to – I wouldn’t
want to identify leadership or eliteness with social skills in general because
other people in other roles also have to manage social interactions and have
Right. And I don’t want to say like everyone is always paying attention to her
or something. It’s almost like when she is around, things go well, so people
wanted her around. But …
So part of what I would say is, part of the role of an elite is not just to do
well in that role but to create a consensus that you are – that you do well in
that role and that people accept you as well in that role. So that’s
basically, does your mother-in-law create the perception that we should expect
her to be in charge and we will all accept her being in charge and therefore
she is effectively in charge because we create this expectation that she is
the appropriate person to be in charge? That would be more of an elite role,
in the sense of creating the expectation that we are going to coordinate. A
key problem with leadership is just when there are conflicts between different
people who want to be leaders and so a key role of leadership or eliteness is
to overcome those conflicts to allow us to coordinate on who in fact we are
going to have to lead.
Yeah. But I guess I want to say there’s a lot more that we have to coordinate
on, like the leader – like a good leader is going to make everyone feel like
they are doing the job that they are best at and they are making a really
valuable contribution in that like – it’s not just that they agree on who
leads, right? It’s that like the leader will assign – if I have a good leader,
they are going to assign me the tasks that I enjoy and that I’m good at and
that I feel like I have the role that I want to have within the larger
So we could say the same about experts, what kind of feature we most want to
have from experts, what we think – what features or behaviors would make them
most socially valuable in their role. But I’m primarily starting here with
what features they actually have and typically display and maybe understanding
that as a social equilibrium which may not be fully efficient or effective. It
may have bad side effects. But still, maybe the starting place would be we
just notice when these people who are most well-described as experts talk to
each other and interact with each other versus people we might describe as
leaders or elites talk to each other and interact with each. How does that
look different? And notice patterns in, how it looks different, and especially
when they discuss who is appropriate for those roles and what sort of features
are relevant. Those are the patterns that I’m trying to notice and explain.
Right. So like I’m just skeptical of this whole thing and like my first
expression of skepticism was just to say, “You said that experts oversee
experts but then you said that elites are overseeing experts.” And then you
are like, “Yeah, that’s why …”
I didn’t say experts oversee experts. I said experts choose; experts are the
people we go to to say, “Who is the expert?”
Right. But …
That’s different than overseeing them.
I mean if the elites oversee the experts, the elites have to think that for
instance, that the people who are the experts who are choosing the experts are
doing so correctly.
That is, elites often ask experts for advice and then make the choice about
which experts to believe when taking expert advice. So I mean we accept the
general idea that experts sort of know the most details about particular
technical things but the elites say, they need to also make judgments about
who can be trusted, which expertise is relevant in any one situation, what
other considerations need to be brought in other than your technical knowledge
and claims. The elites are the people we turn to to make those just judgments.
So look, the way that it sounds to me is, like, the first group of people when
you started to describe it, you said they were good at stuff, the experts,
they are good at these tasks and then they are also evaluated by people know
who really is good at these tasks. They are objective. They have real
accomplishments. And then the second group of people, you didn’t say they were
good at anything. You said that they were impressive, that they have a leader
role, and that they are like basically judged on being impressive and
good-looking. And then it’s not surprising when you say people don’t want to
be called elites, because it sounds like – you’re like, “Well, there are some
people who actually know stuff and then there are people who are unjustly in
charged even though they don’t really know anything and they are not really
good at anything. And it’s because those people have been keeping me down that
I haven’t been able to like make the contributions I have to take people who
don’t have any real skills but just appear to others to like have skills. And
this just doesn’t seem to me to be a good distinction among people. The fact
that people don’t want to identify as elites suggests to me that you’ve carved
the world up somehow in the wrong way.
Well, I didn’t make up the word “elites.” I mean elites is a well-established
concept that goes way back and widely used. And the word “expert” is also
widely used. So I mean upon these analyses, I can come to see the
functionality of it. That is, the things I was describing about elites are in
fact things they are good at. That is, they are good at getting ordinary
people to accept them as the people who should be making these decisions.
That’s one of their key features. And they are good at managing coalitions and
social conflicts and motivation, which includes the experts. That is, they are
good at managing the experts in terms of getting them to accept these elites
as the ones who are making choices and the ones who handle the main social
When I try – like I was trying to articulate actual skills of elites like not
just like they are good at getting – they are good at tricking people into
thinking that they should be the leader or something.
I didn’t say trick.
I know. I know you didn’t say trick. But I was like they are actually good at
like putting people the roles that they belong in so that everyone is where
they ought to be and the whole thing works. And then you said that was
idealistic or that was like how things maybe ought to be. But like when you
were describing experts, you are like, “Oh, they’re actually good at stuff.”
So often, experts are good at the wrong things. I mean I’m happy to give you
lots of criticism of experts too as I’m in worlds of experts where I think a
lot goes pretty wrong with experts. So, we often have experts judged for the
wrong abilities, the wrong skills that we evaluate them on the wrong sort of
So I think that from the fact that there’s a word “elite” it doesn’t really
follow that we should have a theory of elites. There are a lot of words – like
there’s the word problematic, which is often a word that people use to
describe a position they don’t like where they don’t want to actually have to
produce an argument. I don’t know. There’s like the phrase “white grievance,”
that’s like – the word “elite” to me is a lot like the phrase, “white
grievance.” You can say, “I didn’t come up with the phrase ‘white grievance,’
I’m just going to come up with a theory of why like white people are super
sensitive about et cetera.” And you might just be skeptical of like how you’ve
carved up the world to be like, “I want to have a theory of this,” or
capitalism. You’ve told me that you think that capitalism, you were trying to
define capitalism. It’s mostly a word that they use like as an insult for
everything that’s bad or everything that’s going wrong. And then if somebody
tried to produce a theory of capitalism that like in effect channeled all of
that resentment, you would say – you’ve somehow carved up the world wrong. And
that’s what I feel with your word “elite” and it’s marked by the fact that
people don’t want to call themselves this. Like you identify with the experts
even though – it was clear that you did in the thing that you said where the
moral of the story was this is why you haven’t been able to be as influential
because you’re not enough of an expert – an elite, I mean. So to me, all of
that is like a sign that this way of carving up the world is driven more by
resentment than by a picture of the way the world is.
So surely, we can agree that in organizations there are in fact management
hierarchies and there are people at the high end and the people at the low
We can agree that …
People at the low end need not be experts.
We can agree that there are academics and public intellectuals who have
different styles and roles in the world. These are the categories that I’m
mapping here. So – and you offered substitute phrases that seem reasonably
close in terms of people who are handling social issues versus other issues.
So I don’t know that this word “elite” has to be an obstacle to our having a
conversation here because we have a bunch of similar substitute concepts we
can be talking about.
I guess my thought was that I do think that there are somehow concepts in the
vicinity but I don’t know that they are going to group people. So I think that
About roles. So I was describing experts and elites as a role. Any one person
in any one role might be more or less expert or elite and as they switch
roles, they could be switching these things with less. It’s not a dichotomy at
all. It’s more of a continuum and it can be a continuum that varies with your
Yeah. But like – so like a way that I would be much comfortable drawing this
distinction is if we were comparing two people at the same level of status. So
in this book that we are both reading, Moral Mazes, which is a kind of
discussion of the sociology of corporate management, there’s a chapter where
they talk about management consultants and being brought in. And there’s a
comparison between the management consultant person and the actual manager who
works in the corporation. And the author describes the management consultant
as like the expert. They come in and they have expertise. By contrast with the
manager who has to project a certain kind of front to be like a leader in the
organization and also to be led by their higher manager. That is, I think
leaders tend to also be led. That’s another fact about leaders as they are –
they tend to be implicated in hierarchies. They are also the same people who
are led. So leaders are also good at being led generally. And so there is
being incorporated into a hierarchy of leading and being led on the one hand
and then there is having this kind of objective detached scientific knowledge,
that is the management consultant. That’s what they purport to have whether
they actually have it or not, right? And that’s a good place to look at
experts versus let’s say, I would say leaders or something. So if you want to
look at ...
Let’s look there then. So I mean, as described, these management consultants
do have to do a lot of what I would call elite work in the sense that they
have to figure out – they need to project an objective view. That is, their
value is from the perception, the wide shared perception that they will give
an objective analysis and it will be an expert analysis. But they are also
very aware that random expert analyses will be rejected by their clients and
so they need to find an expert analysis that will be congenial to their
clients, these managers, i.e. give them the answers they want to hear, at
least not conflict with them, but also seem to be neutral and objective. So I
would say these management consultants are intrinsically having to deal with
these more social issues in that mode but yes, the product they are selling is
this perception of the expert, which is, helps us understand what is the
expert in this view. That is, ordinary people in the organization looking up
will see the manager then they will see the management consultant and they
will those as, and I would call it elite versus experts. When they look at the
manager, they will think, “This person is just trying to manage their various
social issues and alliances to motivate people and to win their various games
and I need to pick a stance, so who I’m supporting and who I’m with with
respect to these managers, but I can’t necessarily trust them very much to
give me objective, neutral, accurate assessments of things. But these
management consultants, I am to trust them more to actually tell me the truth
about some more technical situation and give me a more expert-generated
analysis of it according to some expert standards where experts would evaluate
each other according to those standards and they would be using technical
terms and technical concepts and standard methods that would be appropriate to
that area. And those would be the kind of things I would be expecting to get
out of management consultants as experts. And management consultants therefore
need to accommodate that demand in the sense that even though they are going
to compromise that with respect to the politics of the organization they are
dealing with, they need to give enough of it to keep their brand going.
Right. So here are some things that I would observe about these two people. So
first of all, they both have to be impressive. They both have high status so
they both get respect. So that cuts across the two. So elites are not – like
if we take these two characters, that is, unless you happen to choose a low
status expert and a high status elite, the distinction of high and low status
cuts across the distinction.
But you designed this example exactly.
That’s why I designed the example.
OK. But it’s not going to tell us more generally about expert and elites. It’s
going to tell us about this comparison. In this comparison, they have the same
Fair enough. OK. That’s why I chose this comparison because I think you’ve
introduced an extraneous element. And then I think you’re right that what you
would – you would trust the expert in certain ways. But I also think you
wouldn’t trust them in certain ways. That is, the expert is likely to come in
there and say a bunch of stuff and step on a bunch of people’s feet and just
screw up the whole operation. And you might not trust them to advise anything
about what you’re going to do because they don’t understand the delicate
politics of all of these interactions, right? And you might at a certain point
look to your manager, the experts, like, “Here’s what you guys should all do.”
You know what’s a good example of this? When I was an undergraduate here at
the University of Chicago, there was – and this happens I think at every
department. There is like an external review committee so like a bunch of
professors will come in from the outside, like a bunch of philosophers. So
this also happened when I was a faculty member but I don’t remember it as
well. Somehow, I was very struck by this as an undergraduate that we were
being assessed. And they met with the undergraduate and people were
complaining to them essentially like undergraduates and graduates were
complaining to these outside professors and then they are going to make a
report, right? So they were serving as kind of experts relative to the
departmental administration who was ruling the department. And so on the one
hand, you could trust them and you could say, “Oh, they are going to tell us
things about our own department that we otherwise wouldn’t find out.” And on
the other hand, you might say, “These people are totally clueless and they
would be useless as a guide to what we should actually do because they have no
like on the ground understanding of how to get things done.” So both of those
seem true and they seem trustworthy in one way and untrustworthy in another
way. And so, both of those groups, but the manager and the expert, there are
ways in which you should trust them and there are ways in which you shouldn’t
trust them. And so like your description of it which is like you can trust the
About their technical things.
Exactly. But you didn’t say you can trust the manager in certain – it’s what I
need is that you presented it asymmetrically. You haven’t presented what the
manager is in fact good that you trust them.
But I did say that the manager knows the organizational politics better, knows
the motivational issues better, knows the organizational constraints better
and so their recommendations can be more trusted to deal with those things
Right. So it could be that if you actually wanted to get something done, you
should listen to the manager.
So let’s take another example from the book of the accountant. OK? So the
accountant is an expert but accounting is an issue that managers are heavily
It’s not incidental to their performance. Accounting is quite central to the
manager of a for-profit organization. They are heavily involved and
knowledgeable, as presented in the book, about lots of details about the
accounting. OK? They in fact, typically know more than any other accountant
they talk to about the accounting of the firm. That was presented that way. In
terms of knowing the specifics of costs and units and sources of revenue and
sinks of revenue, et cetera, they just know more than anybody in the
organization about all those numbers. Right? Nevertheless, there is this role
of the accountant as an expert and the key distinctive feature of the
accountant as expert is, they are expected to and perhaps even trusted to
apply a set of expert norms and procedures and standards to accounting. They
are not just knowledgeable about the numbers, they are expected to do
accounting with the numbers according to expert standards of how accounting is
supposed to be done, which is not something you can trust the CEO to do
because the CEO, given their discretion, will lie about the numbers as
necessary to make themselves look good to investors to increase their stock
options. So that, here, it’s about, we often need and want managers to be
constrained by needing to please and sufficiently satisfy experts who will be
making judgments about expert issues. So I mean another related thing in the
book is also about what they called “milking” a plant. Basically, how much
maintenance needs to be done? And the manager knows a lot about the
maintenance but they typically will want to just minimize maintenance to make
their numbers to look good. And experts are often needed to be called in to
say, “No, this thing really needs to be repaired now. There will be hell to
pay later if we don’t.” And that’s an expertise. And the organization needs at
some level experts to be trusted to be able to speak in their expert mode
using expert criteria and evaluation to make those expert judgments about
those key things that managers can’t be trusted to.
OK. But the book gives two examples, one of an accountant and one of – so the
accountant named Brady, who is like very conscientious and he brings up the
fact that there is like accounting irregularities that go all the way up to
the CEO and everyone in the company is just outraged by this. And he is not
being team player, right? And he is doing this out of a sense of moral
sensibility of like he is a true accountant and there is like the – the book
itself I think doesn’t take a judgment or tries to – the readers are inclined
to be on the side of Brady. But it’s like one thing that’s clear is that the
experts within a firm that are hired by the firm are supposed to be play ball
a bit. That is, they are not supposed to totally be detached experts. They are
supposed to have some of the skills so as to integrate with the management
structure. And Brady perhaps insufficiently has those skills and perhaps if he
had more of them, it could have been like – he could have orchestrated his
intervention better. And there’s a similar thing about the other – the fixing
the – Oh, god, whatever, the crane or something. And like it seems to me that
it’s not quite true to say that these accountants are supposed to be like
independent contractors who fully operate in accordance with the tools of
their trade and are in no way susceptible to the pressures of management. They
are supposed to be a little bit susceptible but not too much. And so like
here’s a thought that I was just having. What if we imagine experts and elites
as two ideal points on a spectrum where there is such a person as the pure
expert? That is, the pure expert who needs zero social skills, who does not
need to integrate with other people or to position themselves in a hierarchy
at all, that is the mathematician. OK? So the abstract mathematician who does
not want to create any social policies and he doesn’t care about anyone else.
He just wants to do his math proofs. Just leave me alone, right? So that guy
is an expert and the only thing he is beholding to is the standard of his
field or something. And now at the other extreme, there’s going to be like the
pure elite person, which might be someone in politics or something. I actually
don’t know who should be that figure. Right? But in the real world actually,
most people have to live lives in which they are both embedded in hierarchies
and thus, they are in charge of some people and other people are in charge of
them. That’s true for me example. And also, there are some things that they
know how to do. They have some expertise. And so, people have to have both of
these faculties. But nonetheless, your particular job might emphasize the one
more than the other. We might say even if it does, even if Brady’s job a
little bit more emphasizes his expertise, it could be the case that he fails a
bit in respect of his integration into the hierarchy because that’s also part
of his job.
So it sounds like you’re now agreeing with me because that’s what I was
saying. That is, there is a continuum between relative expertise and eliteness
and every role falls in the middle on that continuum based on the relative
emphasis of these two extremes. And that’s the fact about the world. Now, I
think Jackall, the author of this book, Moral Mazes that we’ve been referring
to along the way here, he is pretending to present these things neutrally but
I think it’s pretty obvious which way he wants the reader to go and he
successfully gets the reader to go that way. But he is basically critiquing or
complaining literally that the actual mix of roles that say, the account or
the repair judgment people have is slanted too much toward the organizational
considerations relative to the expert considerations. And that’s his complaint
about this world. We are tempted to agree with him the way he presents it, but
I, in the purpose of this conversation, I don’t want to presume that in
general. I’m not trying to make a moral complaint here in this general
analysis. I’m trying to understand the nature of the world and that there are
these different roles and that they have different considerations, and to try
to see how that plays out.
So it’s really interesting because Jackall says in his introduction, he gives
a little speech that you just gave which is, “I am not trying to make any kind
of complaint and I’m not introducing any moral considerations and I’m not in
any one side.” And you’re like, “Yeah, but it’s like pretty clear what’s going
on,” which is that he actually is complaining. And I’m just doing the same
thing to you. I’m like – you’re like, “Look! I’m objective here.” And I’m
like, “No, what you’re actually doing is complaining.”
Make your speech but still, let’s get into the subject. OK? You could declare
that you think I’m biased in one way and you’ve made your declaration. But
still, let’s analyze.
No, but that’s what I think the interesting thing is. That is, like you might
say, “Look, at the end of the day, the interesting and important thing is that
he comes down on one side.” And I actually don’t – I think that’s less obvious
about Jackall than about you. I think it’s really not so clear that he is
coming down on a side. I think it’s really not so clear that he is
complaining. I do think one sympathizes with Brady when reading that story but
that’s different from saying, “I’m sure that the ...”
Let me bring up two other relevant comparisons. One is, the general
disapproval of middle men, right? So we often see the fundamentals of a
society or economy as like the person who works the factory floor or digs in
the mine on the one end. And on the other end – or maybe the truck driver who
moves in between. On the other end, the consumer who takes it off the shelves
and do something. And we see everything else as parasites. All the rest of
social structure that isn’t sort of the ground things happening at each end as
superfluous and those are often called middle men and they are often
disapproved. And many proposals have gotten traction by saying, “Let’s get rid
of the middle men because they are just a parasitic waste.” But the economist
tends to think that’s wrong. That is, the rest of the structure is there for a
reason and if you throw it away, things will be much worse. And another
observation is that when you tell people about social conformity pressures or
the fact that people pay a lot of attention of what other people think, most
people’s first reaction is to declare that they don’t – they are not
susceptible to conformity pressures and they don’t care what other people
think. And there’s a strong stance that many people – most people want to take
which is just, “I know other people may care about conformity pressures and
they may care what other people think, but I don’t. And there’s just a general
disapproval of in a sense social processes and social pressure relative to
sort of ground activities. And I think that helps us understand the sort of
disapproval of elites and their functions as the sort of behaviors and
functions that we generally just like to pretend aren’t needed, shouldn’t
exist, parasitic, over the rest. But on reflection I have to say, well, no,
organizing large groups of people is hard and expensive and resources need to
go to it and there are a lot of things can go wrong and yes, you need people
in those roles, assigned to those tasks and that’s very valuable and if these
are the people who are best at that then yay for having them and having them
do that job. Now again, I could have critiques about how they do and maybe
their incentives are a bit off but I also have those critiques about experts.
Expert incentives are really quite off sometimes. So I’m not sure one of them
is actually more broken than the other.
So can I say a thought? This is a very friendly thought to you, just to vary
it up a bit, that was striking me. That is, a way in which – I’m almost ready
to say there are two groups, the people who know stuff and the people who
don’t know stuff. In reading this book, Moral Mazes, the thing that you are
struck by is that there are all these decisions that have to be made like the
decision as to whether or not to repair a piece of equipment or something.
There’s some kind of loom or something and it breaks three times every day and
you could just fix it each time or you could repair it or you could buy a new
one. And the managers are the people who have to make that decision. And like
it’s actually just really hard to know what to do and that there’s going to be
many of these decisions where nobody really has the relevant level of
knowledge of this is what you should do. Even if you call them a loom expert,
an economist, and et cetera, they tell you a bunch of considerations. They
would be like, “Here are some considerations and here are some more
considerations and here are some more considerations.” Right? And you can call
in a business expert to talk to you about how the thing works and they would
all just give you a bunch of considerations and then you would be like, “But
what should I do?” And they are like, “I can’t tell you that.” And there’s one
guy left at the end of the story, he is like, “What should I do?” That guy is
the manager. And that there are just people in the world who have to make
decisions when we don’t know what to do, and we need there to be such people
and they are going to be the people who don’t know stuff. That is, by
definition, they have to not – they have to be OK not knowing what to do and
then just still deciding what to do. And the experts live in this comfortable
land where they get to know stuff and they don’t have to really make any
important decisions that is based on the stuff that they know. They just got
to – they get to raise considerations all the time. They get to raise like
prima facie considerations that don’t add up to all things considered
judgments. And that maybe you are right that there is this role that we have
precisely for people who are ignorant and then need to do stuff and then we
all need to get behind that and respect it even though there’s no particular
reason to do so.
So if there was a room of people discussing the crane repair situation or
whatever, I think they would all think they know a lot of relevant things. And
in fact, everybody around the table would be willing to be the person who made
the final decision if you handed it to them. But we can’t give them all the
final decision. The organization has to give it to somebody and it has given
it to the manager. And that’s their role is to be the person who makes the
final decision even if they don’t know everything but of course, the rest of
them don’t know everything either but they all know a lot. But the manager in
the role of being the person who makes the final decision, it’s a package of a
bunch of final decisions they all make together. And then the reason why they
make those package of decisions together is that the kind of expertise they
are going to specialize in compared to the other people is the kind of
expertise that’s relevant for making a pack of decisions all together. That
that’s sort of classic concept of what a manager is. But we might say, “Well,
what is it that we want from somebody to be in that role? What kind of
features do we expect of them? How do we choose them? And how do they tend to
act different and talk?” And that would be what I would mean by elites is that
package of differences.
I mean you said something a minute ago about how everybody would want to make
that decision or like everybody would be willing to but that seems far from
obvious to me. That is, I think – I’ve been in many, many situations where
people are like, “I don’t want to be the one who make the decision.” You make
the decision, now you have a responsibility. And if it goes wrong, people are
going to blame you. And not everyone has the kind of character, the kind of
personality, and the set of skills to handle it when the decision goes wrong.
In fact, as Jackall shows, even the people we choose as managers really
struggle with that. But that’s really hard and I’m not sure people tend to
want to have the final word. They might want to be like the advisor to the
person who has the final word.
So they want to be the person who makes a recommendation and then that choice
is made but they don’t necessarily want all the other things that go along
with being the person known as the final decision maker.
So experts often give their recommended and they are happier if the
recommendation is taken.
But they stay in that expert role. So Jackall goes on at quite lengths talking
about how when managers are sitting around the table discussing decisions,
most of them don’t want to take a position for fear that later on, that
position will look bad. And so, they are trying very hard to discuss it and
say relevant things without actually taking a position.
And often, a manager will like try to pass it up to a higher manager and say,
“What do you think about this?” And they will throw it back down and say, “I
don’t want to make this decision. You make it.”
Exactly. And that’s not just because they are expert – because they are
elites. Experts will be having exactly the same. Nobody wants to make
decisions. People don’t want to make decisions.
They don’t mind it but they don’t want the responsibility. They don’t want
people coming back ...
That’s what it is to make.
... “You are the one who made this decision. It’s all on you now.”
Yes. But it is to be the one who makes the decision is to have the
I mean that’s actually quite complicated as Jackall discusses. That is,
Jackall discusses one of the main successful management strategies is to be in
an organization for only a short time, make short term decisions that benefit
the organization than short term. Revert it to long term but then leave
quickly and then not be around for the fallout for your bad long term
And so apparently, they are not tracking who was responsible for a decision in
the past. They are just looking at who is in the role now and blaming them
when things go wrong there even if they weren’t actually responsible for what
happened there in terms of the decision.
Yeah. I take that. I take the kind of keep the ground moving under your feet
or whatever the principle that Jackall discusses about being a manager like
never stay in one place too long, just to be like to be a testament to how
incredibly hard their jobs are. That is, they have to make these decisions
that are basically unmakeable and it’s so hard. But like they have to mitigate
the effects that in a way they are not – they find all these ways to not make
the decision. So, one way to not make it is try to pass it up to somebody
else, to try to like pretend that it was the decision of the group. But
another way to make it, is like as soon as you make it, go run off somewhere
else. And so, if you think, “Uh, well, the people who is training is
fundamentally in being experts would somehow be able to do this.” It’s like
the people who are good at being elites can hardly do it. It’s almost no one
can hardly do this thing. It’s so incredibly difficult to make a decision when
you don’t know what to do. And by make a decision, what I mean is to be held
responsible for it. That is, to be the one to whom that decision is
attributed. And the fact that they have to run away to another job is just a
sign that you kind of almost can’t do it.
So let me try to transition to this other place where I claim the elite versus
expert distinction is relevant and you can dispute that now, which is the
distinction between say, academics and public intellectuals. So now in this
context, public intellectuals do tend to make more policy recommendation,
right? And academics often say, “I know this about the academic field. Let me
tell you this expertise but I can’t speak to the larger what choices should be
made by policy because that’s not my area of expertise.” So academics are
often trying hard to limit the scope of their claims. They are often holding
them to academic standards in terms of method and terminology and precision
and being vetted and judged by other academics close to them in the field.
Whereas in contrast, public intellectuals take on a much wider range of
topics, each one varies much more broadly, and they do tend to pick
recommendations. They are often recommending what policy should be followed
and then they are speaking in a somewhat different language. Now, public
intellectuals are often quite willing to make recommendations. So it’s less of
that sort of escaping it. Whereas, the experts are less – often less willing
to make broader recommendations. They are only willing to speak to their very
particular thing. But I still think we see a lot of systematic differences
here where because the public intellectuals are making recommendations and
they are also trying to manage larger political and other coalitions and to
motivate the reader and their audience to care and to act, they are just
speaking in different ways. And that seems to me also an example of this
distinction, the public intellectuals more needs to get larger groups of
people to go along with what they say, they need to motivate people, and they
need to connect with a wider audiences so they have to be judged by wider
audiences, and they basically also just have to be more impressive. They have
to have better style, grace, taste, and contacts, credentials, celebrity
features. They are more held to those different standards. Whereas, the
academic is typically just held to the standard of are you an expert in this
field and are you applying the standards of your field to this thing you are
saying? And are you not going outside of what your sort of experts feel
confident to say.
So I would like – the kind of comparison that I would want to draw just to –
is like so there is that accountant who works in the firm and then if we
imagine, I actually have no idea how accounting works, but imagine an
accountant who doesn’t work inside of a firm, he is like his own – he just
does his accounting somehow and then other people buy his services. I don’t
know how. OK. But he is not integrated into a firm. That’s the important part.
Let’s call that guy the private ...
An accounting auditor could come into the firm from the outside and apply the
general auditing standards to the accounts that he sees within that firm.
OK. So let’s say he does that. OK. So the public intellectual is more like
Brady, the guy who is employed as an accountant within the firm and he is less
like the outside accountant. And so, yeah, that person is going to more make
recommendations but they are going to like – I would say public intellectuals
share with Brady this sense that, “Sure! I’ll make recommendations. But at the
end of the day, I don’t to be held responsible for anything.” That is, they
are not really the person – they are going to evade – like making a
recommendation is something some guy could do at a meeting and he wants to
throw out a recommendation. That’s fine. People are comfortable doing that.
But that’s not the same thing as saying they are really willing to hold the
responsibility and take the blame, which as we said, even managers aren’t
really going to do.
Good. OK. So let’s in this case think of in each case three people to show
that we could have two extremes and a middle. So in the case of accounting, we
can have the CEO, say on one end and then we can have a low-level accountant
in the accounting organization. And then Brady might be sort of a manager of
accountants, sort of the lead person who is more in charge of sort of
interfacing with management. And then we could also think of the public
intellectual as an intermediate person between say, the politician or agency
head who actually makes the decision. And the academic at the other end who is
just collecting the expertise and making expert comments. And the public
intellectual sits between those and has to compromise between those extreme
considerations and roles, just like the head of accounting at the firm isn’t
just an accountant. They are manager of accountants and they are practiced and
experienced with dealing with management about accounting.
Right. Right. And so your thought is that to be a public intellectual is to
have moved a bit in the direction of being an advisor.
Because you are more talking to them, you are more the people they read
directly as opposed to indirectly and you are more than taking into account
the kind of considerations they care about.
Right. So that would be like you, by contrast with many other academics.
Right. Exactly. Or at least the role I aspire to, which I may not successfully
inhabit, but yeah.
Well, I think people read you. I think policy people read you.
Some do. Right. Sure.
More than the median academic.
Right. So I mean the guy below Brady, say wants to be Brady but he is not at
And he is watching Brady and trying to learn, “How could I be Brady?”
Right. And the way to be Brady is to take more into account – well, I mean
Brady is kind of a bad example of this because he has got a little too much
integrity in a way.
But the way to be Brady is to take more into account like how to fit oneself
into a hierarchy. So it seems like if we go back to your – the moral of your
story, if what you want is to be more of an elite, the thing to do is to
behave more like an elite and to take elite considerations more into account.
That is, to think more about what it would be fit yourself into a hierarchy
rather than just making true claims about the way things are.
And for a public intellectual, it might be less about fitting yourself into a
hierarchy and more about fitting yourself into the larger world of elites
That is the hierarchy.
Well, but in politics let’s say, more this larger world of people – there’s
politics and there’s the public, and then there are agency heads and – if you
say – think about say, an elite collection at Davos, which happened in the
last or week or so, elites come together ...
I’m not sure what that is. It’s conference of ...
Yes. It’s a conference in Switzerland that happens every year with very
prestigious elite people including CEOs and heads of state, et cetera.
And they are like giving talks.
Right. Exactly. And you can see some of them online. And this is well-known as
one of the premier gatherings of elites in the world every year. But they
aren’t coming and giving orders to each other. It’s not organized as a
But managers very often don’t give orders – this one of the things Jackall
brings out that’s striking. They avoid giving orders actually.
The orders are disguised. So these elites may be giving orders to one another
in disguise like managers.
OK. But still, there is a distinction between having a clear line of authority
and just having a community where people are talking and sort of forming a
consensus as a community. So I do think this is just a fundamental – basically
humans for a million years or at least many hundreds of thousands, humans
lived in small forager bands where nobody could officially give orders or was
in charge but they had a sense of status and consensus and they made decisions
on the basis of that but they did a lot of talking first. And I think just a
lot of human organizations are like that. That is, even if there’s some
official hierarchy of who is allowed to give orders, there’s just a lot of
conversation and a creation of consensus including about relative status that
influences a lot of things. And I think the world of elites do that at Davos
and other events too. That is, rather than having decided who is the highest
leader in the world, they talk a lot and they have some sense of who is how
high and then they get a sense of what their consensus is and then they act on
that consensus. And that happens a lot even inside of organizations although
the top person has a much more direct clear influence over that perceived
Right. It might just be that with the CEO, there’s just more of a – it’s more
of just everyone is sort of OK with the fact that the CEO is the CEO and with
recognizing that. So the hierarchy inside of a firm is less covered over than
the hierarchy out in the wild. But there still are hierarchies and there is
consensus formation in the firm as well of everybody getting on the same page
about something and figuring out what it is that we can all get on the same
page about. And so, it’s still the same moral of the story, which is that the
guy who wants to be Brady has to start acting more like Brady and less like an
So if we think about say, the world of public intellectuals, every week or so,
there’s a new topic that everybody is talking about, say, and most of them are
write a column about that and then there will be created some perception of
what most of them are saying. And they do typically form a consensus about
what they think at least on each side of the political spectrum. And that
perception of a consensus matters a lot for what the world does, even though
we couldn’t necessarily say who is the top pundit on the left say, that would
be hard judgment. And so we don’t – and they don’t like just give orders
directly or able to, so it’s more about a community with relative status and
consensus. But most academic professors say, are not very influential in that.
Right? That is a world of elites, I would call it, who have more elite
standards about how they talk to each other and the considerations they bring
and the styles for which they bring to their presentations. And that’s the
distinction I was wanting to call attention to.
Right. And what I would say is like, “No, it’s – I mean relative – I would
agree with you that relative to the academic that sits by themselves in their
office, the mathematician or something, they more think about questions of how
to get along with other people.” So that I agree with. But most people in the
world have to think about both of these sets of questions. That is, the
mathematician is a weird character. And so like the thing of like passing
fads, like even inside of a family, there’s going to be passing fads of what
we are talking about this week. And this comes up in the book because there is
like these different fads of whatever, like one week productivity is the watch
word or something and then they have like these programs and these special
things for like creating corporate culture and then like that will just pass
and then we will just the new thing, which is like how they are going to
become more productive or create corporate culture in some – I can’t remember
the details of it. But there are these sort of like – even management books
that come in and that like – uh, it’s like how people are with their health,
right? So it’s like, “Oh, I’m not going to eat any carbs or I’m going to
starve for half the day or I’m going to – whatever.” People are faddish, let’s
say. And those fads show up at every part of life and people organize around
them and that’s part of what it is to be social. And so these public
intellectuals are being more social than the mathematician who sits in their
office. That seems true. But this doesn’t mean they don’t – they also have to
have expertise. That is, they are not at the other extreme. They have chosen
to develop some of the skills that would allow them – that would allow the guy
who wanted to be Brady to be more like Brady.
So Jackall, in the book, he often talks about how various kinds of habits and
styles change as you go up the management hierarchy. That is, they are just
consistent trends. That is, credit flows up, detail flows down. People at
higher levels pay more attention to some issues that people at lower levels
don’t. There’s a continuum. And I’m trying to talk in terms of continuum, in
terms of elites versus experts. I’m not trying to make it a dichotomous
Right. I get that. But I think you distort something by drawing attention away
from the fact that these public intellectuals that you are talking about are
experts. It’s essential that they are experts and they are very expert
relative to a lot of the culture and they function as experts and a lot of the
respect they have is because of the expertise that they have. So you’re right
that relative to the mathematician, they are more like elites. But relative to
maybe most people, they are like experts.
And as we move up the management hierarchy, their expertise changes from say,
knowing about accounting or manufacturing to knowing more generally about the
organization and its many considerations. Right? And similarly, public
intellectuals tend to know less about any particular academic or area of
study. They tend to draw on a much wider range of areas and they less follow
sort of the methods or standards of particular academic areas than they more
appeal to sort of more general principles of reasoning. Those are part of the
distinctive pattern here to notice.
Well, that seem – we should stop in a minute because we are over an hour. But
that – it seems to me that shifting areas of expertise is not the same thing
as moving from expert to elite, right? That is, the elites are not a kind of
expert on your view.
I would say the elites are expert in the broadest issues in the sense of
basically politics and motivation and making compromises and knowing what all
different interests are and how they could be accommodated and where the
divisions are and who is fighting who. Those are the things they know best.
But like you are not being relative to your expertise in those issues.
It’s relevant to getting people to accept you as leader and that someone to
So just like public intellectuals, public intellectuals often just have a
distinctive style and they just are good writers and they are just able to
make you listen and like them. And that’s a powerful skill that is selected
for in being in that role. That makes it relevant for that role. The expertise
of being a good stylist is in fact relevant for being a public intellectual.
Right. But that just seems to be quite different from knowing about a more
general subject matter than as you were saying, there’s knowing how particular
– like there’s knowing how the loom works and then there’s knowing how the
company works. Right?
You don’t get more abstract in your subject matter as you get more taller and
good-looking and impressive.
No. But they are just – they are correlated. That is, I’m identifying the
correlates of experts versus elites and I’m trying to understand...
But that thing is not a correlate of having more abstract knowledge.
People higher in management hierarchies are better looking. Davos stages are
Right. I can well believe that. But ...
But that’s the thing to explain, to understand, why is that correlation there?
And this is a way to understand that.
Right. But being good-looking is not a form of expertise even if it gets you
more people listening to you.
I’m happy to accept that statement but I mean, my point is just to try to see
these patterns in the world and have an explanation for them. And so, people
who are more elite are more impressive in many ways and they also have a
different set of things they know better.
Right. I was just saying, those are two different categories.
Well, there are two different things to say about them but they are
correlated. That is, those things tend to go together. And there is a way to
OK. We should stop there.
I don’t think we can immediately come to an agreement.
Thanks for talking.