|Title, Subtitle:||“Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy“|
|Publication:||Broadway, 292 pages, 7 chapters, indexed|
“Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy” (2012), by MSNBC host and “Nation” editor Christopher Hayes, purports to take on inequality not so much by appealing to usual arguments about race and class and social stratification (books by Putnam and Murray already considered) but by what the libertarian right takes to be the moral justification for whatever inequality we have to live with: meritocracy. (Yup, there is a bit of Wagner’s Ring cycle in the title.)
I’ve followed this track in my own writing: You need ego, and reward for work to spur innovation. But you have then to deal with the inequality that follows or else you eventually get more instability (as is the argument of my DADT III book). In fact, I have plenty of legacy (2004) links on it: Here is the oldest sidebar, and here is a mathematical argument.
From my perspective, the basic flaw in over-dependence on meritocracy is the idea that every “successful” person has benefited from the sacrifices of others, that he or she probably is at best minimally aware of. The end result is corruption, of what Hayes calls the “Iron Law of Meritocracy” which inevitably causes it to self-destruct. When I was in the Army (1969), the way one buddy put this was “The Ocelot has clay feet”.
Hayes analyzes many historical examples of where merit let us down. The most chilling was the progressive coverup by the Catholic Church of sexually abusive of supposedly celibate (and abstinent) priests, “passing the trash”. The same thing used to go on with bad teachers in public school systems Another interesting example is the PED steroid scandal in Major League Baseball, especially in the 1990s, compounded by the embarrassing strike in August 1994. (Washington didn’t have a team then.)
Then he gets into “process pieces” with even more widespread consequences. One of these is how the nation was goaded by supposed “experts” into believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and started the war in Iraq in 2003, leaving the mess that opened the door for ISIS today (after his book was published). Hayes twice mentions the now repealed “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, once in conjunction with ROTC and with the separation of the sacrifices of the military from the lives of ordinary Americans in a post-conscription world, which makes going to war easier for some politicians. Another big “process” was the way the subprime mortgage and over-securitization scandal on Wall Street developed, leading to the collapse of 2008, followed by the Bush-Obama bailouts of the banks. The mortgage mess is, I think, a great example of “The Cheating Culture”, born of extreme capitalism, as explained prospectively (or predicted) in David Callahan’s 2004 book.
The rule of “experts” seems to work reasonably well in some areas – medicine, space science, astrophysics. But not in policy. I think one reason is that the areas where “merit” has failed have a lot to do with action and getting results through others, where in the sciences (and in coding) individual brilliance and determination have a lot more effect. Why was Alan Turning so successful? True, he had unusual integrity, but he could be unusually focused on solving a specific problem he had taken on. That holds for people like Jack Andraka, Taylor Wilson. Sometimes it holds in the arts. But not in the world where so much hucksterism is necessary to make a living.
Indeed, Hayes acknowledges the importance of democratized, “amateur” speech, most visible in modern social media, as playing an important check on the established press and on those with built-in political agendas, often partisan.
Values based on meritocracy connect to upward affiliation (especially among gay males), the idea that you inherit something by being connected to “better” people. But then comes the philosophical conundrum: what’s the use of recognition and accomplishment if you don’t “care” about the people who use what you produced?
Indeed, when Hayes talks about the “Cult of Smartness” as failing the public, he seems to be taking moral aim at the idea of hiding behind the idea of being “better than other people” as a reason for smugness and social insularity. (But it’s easier to really innovate if you work alone and are really smart enough — and have the integrity.) But it’s interesting that his Chapter 3 is titled “Moral Hazards” – created by other people.
Hayes talks about social distance (more than just propinquity) as one reason policy “experts” don’t help the disadvantaged. He gives striking examples – the biggest being the huge death toll of those left behind in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (leading to the Superdome fiasco in which Oprah Winfrey said she almost vomited). But that’s something that has to get personal (“Mission in Belize” material) to be meaningful. Indeed, Hayes notes that lower income people typically have more personal empathy and capability for mutual “back watching” than those with more to lose. That brings to mind Putnam’s call for more mentoring.
In the last chapter Hayes’s policy proposals get rather general, concerning raising tax rates on the rich, to be more like they were in the post War years. Hayes presents an interesting paradox: the “Great Compression” after WWII led to a relatively prosperous middle class – but unfortunately it excluded many whom we see as suspect classes – most of all concerning race, and then gender issues. Civil rights and then the “sexual revolution” and modern ideas about equality have indeed comported with meritocracy (so we can have an African American and now probably a female president), but have been accompanied by greater class divisions and with fewer people controlling more wealth – as well as a failure of the “ruling elite” to make its expertise transparent. He also talks about the overly generous inheritance tax rules – but (as the Left preaches), when money is inherited, it isn’t “earned”. Remember how one of the Apprentice contestant “hires” (Bill Rancic) one time talked about “generational wealth” after Trump’s show?
(Posted: Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 at 5:30 PM EDT)