Twilight of the Elites, by Christopher Hayes

Twilight of the Elites

I’ve always liked Chris Hayes as a writer for The Nation. As far as a TV personality, I think substantively he’s one of the best, but it took him awhile to get the style down. Initially he was the polar opposite of smooth on camera; he could be really uncomfortable to watch. Over time there’s been quite an improvement.

He’s always been intelligent, nerdy, and articulate. He’s always been excited about ideas, and enjoyed thinking aloud rather than speaking in prepared sound bites. There’s always been a palpable sincerity about him, where you don’t get the impression he’s strategically choosing what he says and how he says it to further some ideology. He’s always come across as an eager beaver, which some might find endearing and others just annoying. But over time his camera-worthiness or intangibles have risen from cringe-inducing to mediocre.

He still doesn’t have anything like the charisma of a Rachel Maddow, but if anything I think he’s willing to go a little deeper and be a little more scrupulous about being intellectually honest on his show than she is on hers.

Twilight of the Elites is his first book, which I found to be a little meatier and a little more clearly organized and argued than Maddow’s first book Drift. Still, he didn’t fully win me over. Certainly I think it’s right-headed, but I wasn’t blown away.

It’s a “here’s what’s wrong with America” kind of book of social and political commentary that goes beyond blaming specific individuals or entities in order to look a little deeper at the systems, habits of behavior, assumptions, etc. that underlie our social reality in order to ascertain what has gone wrong and what can be done about it.

What needs explaining, he suggests, is how bad, how dysfunctional, how frankly crooked our “elite” has been in recent years, and what devastating consequences that has had. Rather than just assume it’s obvious how bad things are, he gives plenty of examples. And rather than limiting them to government or some narrow area of life, he picks examples from a wide, wide variety of places.

So he cites crooked businesses like Enron, a Supreme Court dishonest enough to decide Bush v Gore based on who it wanted to be president rather than the law, a Catholic Church clumsily covering up the crimes of its priests, the biggest banks and investment houses in the world bringing down the economy with their funny money bundled subprime mortgages, intelligence failures leading to 9/11, Major League Baseball’s inability or unwillingness to do anything meaningful about its steroid scandal, and on and on.

It’s like he’s really trying to show his argument rises above armchair musings by citing more and more evidence, but it still feels too anecdotal too often to me. I have this nagging suspicion that if someone had written a book about just how great things work nowadays, or had written a book in 1990 or 1950 or 1870 about how thoroughly dysfunctional things were then, it wouldn’t be hard to come up with a similar list of impressive successes or alarming failures. Things have always been mixed, and the bad stuff has always been attributable in part to the flaws of those at the top. The “good old days” that we tend to implicitly compare our imperfect present to have always been more fictitious than not.

Do we really live in special times where things have broken down in an interestingly new way? I’m not so sure, but let’s move on.

We like to think of ourselves as living in a meritocracy, he says, a system where the most qualified people rise to the top. In theory such a system is good, both because the best people deserve to be on top, and because society benefits when they are.

Yet the evidence indicates not just that as an anomaly an occasional loser falls through the cracks (or I suppose rises through the cracks) in spite of an otherwise meritocratic system, but that in general the people in our society with the most wealth, political power, authority, etc. are a surprisingly piss poor bunch. If anything we have more zeroes in the elite than if we lived in an unabashedly non-meritocratic society of aristocracy by birth, or just picked our elite by lottery for that matter. The result, again, is corruption and in some cases catastrophe.

Somehow we’ve deviated significantly from a true meritocracy, or perhaps were never very close to one. This in spite of the fact, he says, that there’s a lot about contemporary society that superficially gives the appearance of meritocracy. He sees people as constantly pressured to prove themselves, to compete, to jump through hoops to show they deserve to rise, etc.—the increased emphasis on standardized tests being one example. Society doesn’t tell us not to bother to try because our lot is largely determined by factors out of our control, but instead to do a little more, try a little harder, pass another test, to prove our merit.

That’s the message, but the problem, he contends, is that there’s very little truth to it.

Many on the political Right would probably agree with Hayes that we have deviated from our ideal of meritocracy and that doing so has been very much to our detriment, but not surprisingly they would come up with a very different explanation of why the cream doesn’t rise to the top; they would identify a very different set of culprits that are mucking things up so that the most deserving don’t always get their due.

I would imagine people on the Right would single out affirmative action and the quest for diversity in general as an unjustified violation of meritocracy. Perhaps they would say that far from life being a constant competition, meritocratic or otherwise, our political correctness has unwisely led us to try to eliminate winning and losing from life as much as possible starting in early childhood, to where we give everybody a trophy rather than reward the best. They likely also would claim that the true measure of merit is the free market, and that liberal policies are anti-free market and hence anti-meritocracy.

Hayes doesn’t address these possible conservative rejoinders, but I’ll say just a little bit about them.

Affirmative action probably does compromise the ideal of picking the most qualified person in some cases, but at least as often it may facilitate identifying people of merit who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to prove themselves. If you assume that the proverbial playing field is already more or less level, then of course it would be both unjust and inefficient to use factors like race or sex to justify rewarding people who have done less to prove their merit over people who have done more, but that’s an obviously false assumption. The playing field in the absence of affirmative action-type policies is not level, not even close.

As far as the politically correct “let’s make sure no one’s feelings are ever hurt and make sure no one’s self-esteem ever has to suffer by always praising everyone equally and assuring them over and over that they’re perfect,” I think in some ways that’s overblown. It’s not that I don’t find that attitude typically annoying or worse, but I’m just saying I don’t think it represents at all how society is now structured, especially adult society. I think it’s more that people with that kind of philosophy hold sway over certain narrow areas of society, while most of life is as dog-eat-dog as ever. Silly instances of it tend to get a lot of publicity so people can rant against it, but in reality I don’t think it’s an attitude that’s all that prevalent.

As far as deviations from the free market constituting deviations from meritocracy, I’m unconvinced, to put it mildly, that winning in some Ayn Randian sense somehow proves the winners’ merit, or proves that society would be best off with those winners calling the shots. You could stipulate it—by simply defining merit as success as a capitalist—but in that case I’d say that’s a peculiar type of merit that is not the relevant type in determining who are the best or the most deserving people. Or you could claim as an empirical truth that merit and free market success go hand-in-hand in the world, but I don’t find that plausible based on the evidence I’ve seen.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the political Right’s worship of the free market is disgustingly hypocritical. If you go by their actions rather than their rhetoric, those on the Right—including most of the alleged libertarians of the Right—consistently favor whatever is in the best interests of those with the most power and privilege in society. When that happens to mean letting the free market play itself out, they’re in favor of that. When it happens to mean intervening in the free market, they’re in favor of that. You rarely if ever hear these folks who supposedly worship the free market rail against regulations and tax code exceptions and government contracts and such that increase the profits of the biggest of big corporations; those things are only treated as bad when they threaten those profits.

So if deviating from some pure version of the free market means violating meritocracy, then the Right is guilty of that seven days a week.

But I would also say that a lot of the factors that the Right might identify as anti-meritocratic don’t quite get to the heart of what Hayes is talking about. Take affirmative action. Even when that arguably violates meritocracy, it tends to be near the bottom or the middle. If affirmative action results in a woman or a minority getting into a certain school or being hired for a certain position or what have you, in place of someone who would have gotten that opportunity in the absence of affirmative action, it’s rarely if ever going to be a member of the elite that gets replaced. It’s not the nephew of the owner of the company who is going to miss out on a summer internship because the company hired an inner city kid through its diversity outreach program instead; it’s probably some middle class white kid with mediocre grades who was near the cutoff point anyway.

So given that Hayes is focusing mostly on how people manage to get to the very top, or fail to, I don’t think things like affirmative action programs have much relevance.

But following up on that, and returning to Hayes’s argument, if we don’t consistently find the best and the brightest making the most money and having the most authority on Wall Street, in government, in organized religion, in professional sports, etc., then who do we find at the top?

Is it mostly women and minorities? People who were shielded from failure by a politically correct philosophy that everyone deserves a trophy? People who benefited most from liberal social programs that intervene in the free market?

No. What we find in wildly disproportionate numbers is that the people closest to the top are closely connected—usually as offspring—to the people who were already closest to the top. So our alleged meritocracy has collapsed into something very close to an aristocracy by birth after all.

And even where you can point to other factors that are correlated to a lesser degree with finding oneself in the elite, things like willingness to cheat, selfishness, and a total lack of ethical scruples are at least as much in evidence as the kinds of things we tend to think of as merit, like working hard, taking risks, being innovative, contributing the most to society, etc.

But really it’s mostly about your status at birth.

How has this happened? Why hasn’t our rhetorical emphasis on merit resulted in more social mobility instead of less?

The problem is the game is largely rigged. At least for the positions closest to the top, what might superficially look like a fair competition to reward merit turns out to be anything but.

Take an elite private high school, whose graduates tend to be far more successful than the general population. If you simply base admission on some astronomical five figure annual tuition, then virtually the whole student body will be kids from rich families.

OK, so let’s base it on merit instead. Let’s give everyone a fair shot. We’ll let anyone who wants into our school take a special SAT-style standardized test, and we’ll admit only those with the highest scores. We don’t care if they’re rich, poor, white, black, whatever; we just want the kids who prove their merit on the test.

What happens if you do something like this in the real world is the rich families with the most resources find ways to guarantee their kids will dominate on these tests. They can hire private tutors. They can enroll their kids in specialized classes geared to this test. They can make sure there are more books and a more intellectual environment in general in their households than in others. They can pay the bills so their kids aren’t distracted in their striving toward test success by hunger and cold and such.

Sure, the occasional genius ghetto kid will win admission, but most of the kids with the greatest “merit” will turn out to be the same kids who would have gotten in if admission had been based on who could pay the most, because this measure of merit is an extremely imperfect one that people with the relevant resources can get around.

And so it turns out are most of what Hayes sees as the incessant competitions of life where we always have to prove ourselves. They may seem to have something to do with merit, but the people with the biggest head start from birth typically have unfair advantages in these competitions or are able to bypass them entirely.

In some ways a failed pseudo-meritocracy that people think of as a meritocracy is worse than a system that’s just openly aristocratic. For one thing, in an aristocracy, you can at least hope some of the elite will feel a little guilty about their unearned status, or feel some sense of noblesse oblige. Whereas in America today, the rich are encouraged to make believe that everything they have they earned through their hard work and overall excellence. Indeed, if anything they think of themselves as embattled underdogs who had to overcome the various elements of socialism imposed on them by their envious inferiors in order to succeed.

Meanwhile the 99% are encouraged to think of themselves as losers who deserve their fate. Or really I would say that since the urge to self-justify is even stronger than the meritocratic propaganda, each is encouraged to think that while injustice (the aforementioned affirmative action, the immigrants taking all the jobs, the burdensome government regulations that kept them from starting a successful small business, whatever) has prevented them from taking their rightful place with the 1% with whom they have so much in common, all these other people in the 99% certainly do deserve their lot in life, if not worse.

That way of thinking discourages class solidarity among the 99%, because even if you feel life has been unfair, you experience it as unfair to you as an individual, not you as a member of a certain class. The last thing you want is to be lumped in with all the losers who lack ambition or just want to live off government handouts. Your stay in the 99% is temporary after all, because you’ve got the right stuff to prove your merit if you ever get the chance. And if you don’t lift yourself into the 1%, certainly your kids will.

In other words, if you swallow the meritocratic propaganda, you won’t want to improve the lot of the 99%, but to escape from the 99%.

So the question—as it always is for “here’s what’s wrong with America” books—is, what is to be done?

Hayes notes that one thing about which there tends to be near total agreement is that fostering equality of opportunity is good, but that it should never be confused with equality of outcome. Intentionally aiming for equality of outcome is a brand of egalitarianism no one advocates, though certainly some attribute it to their political enemies.

But Hayes is skeptical that focusing solely, directly, on equality of opportunity is what’s called for. He doesn’t say much about how we might tinker with things to bring that about, presumably because he doesn’t think we can. For instance, we’re never going to come up with some new and improved SAT test that somehow befuddles all attempts of rich folks to buy their kids an advantage when they take it.

He says that what those who focus on equality of opportunity usually do is direct their attention to education as the potential great leveler that is the least controversial thing to try to equalize, but that that hasn’t been successful at all in creating a society where people rise and fall based on merit.

I agree that rhetorically Republicans and Democrats sing the praises of improving education for all, so everyone has a fair shot at success, but I disagree we’ve actually done all that much as far as using the educational system to provide equal opportunity. Still largely unchallenged is the notion that public schools should primarily be funded locally, in spite of the huge discrepancy in available resources from one locality to the next. Also, the rich can still buy their way out of the system entirely by paying to send their kids to private schools. Yes, there are “voucher” policies in some places to try to make those private schools more accessible to poorer families, but that’s been more about finding a backdoor way to use government money to fund religion and religious schools than improving education for the poor. And in general I don’t see any consensus to throw unlimited money at schools to foster equality of opportunity the way we throw unlimited money at the military.

But anyway, rather than limiting our policy options to those that futilely pursue equality of opportunity directly, Hayes has two suggestions.

One is to bring back the progressive tax code. The top brackets could and should be paying considerably more than they do now, and the estate tax—which is almost gone entirely—should be restored.

His idea here is that if you want to prevent the vast inequality of resources we now have in this country from making equality of opportunity and the meritocracy cruel jokes, there is no trick, no closed loophole that’s going to do that. People with greater resources are always going to find a way to use them to give their kids a head start toward the 1%. So what you have to do is equalize those resources.

Well, not literally equalize, but at least make them slightly less unequal than they are now.

The Right will whine about how this is “punishing success,” but even if we concede the highly dubious claim that the rich have earned their advantages, surely their kids have not. Their kids aren’t being deprived of something they’ve earned through their own merit just because you slightly lessen the size of the fortune they inherit.

He makes the point that part of why cheating one’s way to the top in various forms is so rampant is that the stakes are so high. If there was less of an enormous difference between the outcomes for the winners and the losers, there would be less incentive to behave abominably to ensure you win.

I’m a bit dubious about this last point. It sounds like the mirror image of the claim from the Right that if you don’t allow maximum inequality, then those with the most to offer society won’t have any incentive to bother.

I think psychologically people adjust to whatever constitutes winning and losing. If you make it so winners only get three hundred times as much wealth as losers instead of five hundred times as much, I doubt there will be much if any difference in how hard people strive in good ways, or how willing people are to cheat, to get ahead.

The second thing Hayes would like to see is more of this much ballyhooed “personal responsibility” for those at the top. We live, he notes, in a society where things are maximally forgiving once you have made it into (or more likely were born into) the 1%, and maximally punitive for everyone else. No matter how moronic or crooked the head honchos on Wall Street turn out to be (or the Enron folks or any other corporate bigwigs), they aren’t hauled off to prison, and they mostly don’t even suffer financially. The worst CEOs get paid a fortune to leave. The grossest failures and malfeasance don’t typically come with much in the way of untoward consequences, if you’re in the elite.

Unfortunately, the Right will also scream bloody murder at any attempt to change this, since punishing failure is just as objectionable as punishing success when it’s the Right’s paymasters whose ox is being gored. So both this and the notion of a more progressive income tax and restored estate tax will strike many as politically hopeless.

But Hayes points out that they’re actually very popular ideas. They’re not nearly as popular as they would be in the absence of the propaganda that says we live in a meritocracy where the 99% deserve their lot, but they’re popular nevertheless. (Popular with the general public that is, not with those who sign the campaign contribution checks, and we know which of those matters more, so he’s probably guilty of a little wishful thinking here in urging that his ideas are politically realistic.)

There’s a lot more to Twilight of the Elites that I haven’t even touched on. As I say, I think Hayes’s analysis is more accurate than not, and I find his policy suggestions agreeable, so I give the book a clear thumbs up, but I’m not going to say I found it original and convincing in all its particulars.

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