In 1956, C Wright Mills wrote The Power Elite and described how political, corporate and military leaders in the US made policy with little reference to the concerns of everyday citizens. Christopher Hayes updates Mills thesis in Twilight of the Elites. Hayes argues that political changes in the Sixties replaced the old WASP establishment by creating a meritocracy which opened its doors to women and minorities. Unfortunately, 3 decades of accelerating income and asset inequality have "produced a deformed social order and a set of elites that cannot help but be dysfunctional and corrupt."
The reason behind this "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss," dynamic, explains Hayes, is the Iron Law of Meritocracy (with a tip of the cap to Robert Michels). Meritocracy is designed to create inequality of outcome. Those who climb the ladder to levels based on their skills then rig the game by either pulling the ladder up after them or selectively lowering it to help their allies. Meritocracy, says Hayes, inevitably becomes oligarchy. In the United States, this has resulted since the mid-seventies in a growth in income inequality and a reduction in economic mobility. As meritocratic elites enjoy growing monetary rewards and political power, they are increasingly isolated from sanctions, competition and accountability.
This is the critical problem for Hayes. The natural inequality of outcome ordained by meritocracy widens the gap ("vertical social distance") between leaders and led. Increasingly out of touch with classes below them, elites lose knowledge and empathy. Hayes presents examples such as the reaction of Catholic bishops to reported abuses, the evacuation of New Orleans before Katrina and the length of existing American military engagements. He describes how the financial crisis developed beneath the notice of financial elites: "The increasing inequality, compartmentalization, and stratification of America in the post-meritocratic age served to seduce those at the top into an extremely dangerous, even pathological kind of complacency. The ship sprung a leak down in the lower decks (in the form of loose and predatory home loans), flooding the servant's quarters, and no one up top realized that it would bring down the whole thing."
Hayes argues that non leaders on both left and right share a "deep sense of alienation, anger and betrayal directed at elites who run the country." He points to a "national mood of exhaustion, frustration and betrayal" at the "near total failure of each pillar institution of our society." The solution, says Hayes, is to reduce inequality and, as a result, social distance of elites through higher and redistributive taxes. Over time, greater similarity in social conditions between leaders and non leaders will make the former both more responsive and more competent.
The majority of Americans, says Hayes, now feel they are ruled by a remote, elite class. However, while people on the right (Tea Party) and Left (Occupy Wall Street) are angry at these leaders, the two groups are deeply divided along partisan and ideological lines. The author suggests that another major crisis could shift coalitions to more of a class basis and that an increasingly dispossessed and newly radicalized upper middle class could lead this trans-ideological coalition.
This is a short book that makes a strong argument regarding the problems caused by the growing estrangement of elites in the United States. Hayes uniquely points out that meritocracy (previously thought to be unassailable) contains within it the seeds of oligarchy. His description of how growing inequality leads inevitably to remoteness in the ruling class seems to resonate with seemingly unresolvable existing public policy problems. He even takes a stab at showing how anger on the right and left devolves from the same conditions but is segmented into different and warring camps by elite ideology.
I give 4 stars to the book for its value in starting an important discussion. It is understandably light in proposing a solution. The author takes a stab at this but it is probably both ultimately unpredictable and above Hayes pay grade. I hesitate to penalize Hayes unduly for not knowing how to fix the world. Providing a new and unique look at the source of an important problem is in itself a lot to achieve in a few hundred pages. Maybe Tea Party activists and Occupy participants can put down their signs for a while and discuss their mutual angers and ideas using Hayes' paradigm. Any mutual solutions at which they may arrive would have the virtues of originating at the source and of possessing some political strength to press for resolution.
Full disclosure: I was already a big fan of Chris Hayes and his work before reading this book, so I had a pretty good idea that I would enjoy "Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy." If you are also a fan, then you really have no excuse for not having/reading this book.
For those who are unfamiliar with Chris Hayes: His POV is liberal, thoughtful, and incredibly well-informed. The first things I noticed about him were his wonderful way with words and how precise he is with language. He's got the best vocabulary in all of cable news-dom. I believe he has a background in philosophy, and so his writing style is academic in nature, but super readable.
"Twilight of the Elites" examines America's relationship with our traditional institutions of authority, and how the events of the past decade (Chris reviews these significant events for most of the first chapter, which results in most of the first chapter being kind of a bummer, but necessary for the premise of the book and you just have to slog through it) have affected the social contract between ordinary people and 'the meritocracy.'
TOTE isn't an anti-authoritarian polemic; Hayes is exploring the historic role of elites in America (no demonization of job creators, don't worry), how that role has changed/is changing, and what that might portend for our society. It isn't an ideological text, it's a critical one. And it is a refreshingly non-partisan and insightful look at structural society in America.
In "Twilight of the Elites," author Christopher Hayes describes attending the Davos World Economic Forum and feeling privileged that he was greeted and directed to a special charter bus, after deplaning - until he noticed others getting into limos to reach the same destination. But, he tells us, those in the limos may well be envying the people who travel to the conference in private jets. Few attendees, he argues, actually enjoy the event because they're obsessed with what privileges they're not getting. It's human nature to compare ourselves to those on the next higher "rung", but as Hayes points out, the current economic crisis in the US is widening the gap between the one percent and the rest even more. It's also very American to view one's success as a result of hard work and effort, not things like privilege and nepotism, regardless of class. This mindset has merits, but also Hayes documents, enormous costs for our country.
Hayes looks at scandal-ridden institutions like Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church, Enron, Wall Street, and Hunter, an elite New York school which uses a single test score to admit its student body. "In fact, one of the lessons of the decade is that intensely high-competitive, high reward meritocratic environments are prone to produce all kinds of fraud. deception, conniving and game rigging." Those who reach the top may be insulated enough to be out of touch with those below; and rewarded for moral laxness, while those who don't cheat are penalized. Lack of empathy for the less-successful may be one of the end products of a system which believes that only the best and brightest should succeed.
The book is jam-packed with examples of callousness directed at those they are responsible for, yet segregated from. Responded FEMA Head Michael Brown when told that many New Orleans residents had neither the income nor transportation to evacuate pre-Hurricane Katrina: "It is not the role of the federal government to supply five gallons of gas for every individual to put in a car and go somewhere." Even more horrifying are the cases of Catholic bishops who simply transferred priests accused of sexual abuse, to another parish, rather than remove them from their current position altogether. Victims were urged not to go public, lest they destroy their abusers' reputations.
If a third "Era of Equality" is to occur, radicalization must come from the mainstream, not just the margins, Hayes argues. Americans must start thinking more about equality of outcomes, not only opportunity. While "Twilight of the Elites" is far more concerned with dissecting problems, not providing concrete solutions, there's not a lot of models to follow. The solutions will be found on a more specific case by case basis.
on July 28, 2012
Chris Hayes's writing is beautiful. His prose is lyrically achingly accurate. His concepts are compelling, complete and superbly organized. I truly enjoyed reading this book .. .. But mostly for the appreciation of the art form. Perhaps others will find this to be enlightening new information. I found it a very well researched, detailed, articulate Description of the Problem that I am, unfortunately, already too well informed of.
I am almost embarrassed to even hint at any fault of anything that Chris does. I am an enthusiastic fan of his weekend roundtable, Up with Chris Hayes. His show is consistently the most interesting on TV. However, the lively discussions of future social developments and strategies for progressive forward movement that so interest me in the show were generally lacking in the book.
The exhaustive expose of the cult of kleptocracy that forms the bulk of the book gives way to a vague wistful glance forward in the book's final chapter. Chris, exactly how do we get from here to this better place we want to be? We want tactics, strategy, specific plans and suggestions. Where should we apply leverage? We're screwed, .. OK, we all see this .... Now What?
on May 31, 2012
The primary idea underlying "Twilight of the Elites" is simple -- America's upper class, male WASP Protestant elite, that ruled the country until the 1960s, is being replaced by a multiracial coed elite drawn from all classes and chosen by meritocratic means -- college entrance exams, job performance and other tests. Our President is half-black, was raised by grandparents and a single mother, and still went to Harvard Law School.
The author argues the new elite is not governing any better than the old elite and that this is clearly shown by the U.S. economic downturn and other societal problems. The author appears to believe that the new elite may be worse at running the country than the old elite. The author illustrates these points by citing spectacular failures: Enron, the collapse of Lehmann Brothers investment firm, the pedophilia scandals of the Catholic church, and numerous other scandals.
The book is very well-written, almost like a series of short stories, but I didn't give the book five stars for two reasons.
First, the author doesn't really look into the histories of past elites that governed America in any depth. America was mostly governed during its first few decades by Founding Fathers who were slave-holding aristocrats, for example, and then by "robber baron" capitalists after the Civil War.
Second, the author shows that the new elite may be mismanaging its power and not as easy to join as it likes to think. If we agree with the author, the next question is: so what are the solutions? Well, the author has not come up with many solutions.
The well-written book ends in a weak manner. The author believes that the meritocratic elite will govern better if they are brought closer to the rest of us by increasing their taxes. That is one strategy, but it would take a lot of taxes to make them as economically troubled as the rest of us.
The author also advocates -- if I understand him correctly -- that "leaderless" groups -- he also calls them "insurrectionist" groups -- like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street -- form alliances to challenge the built-in legal and social barriers that protect the meritocratic elite from the consequences of blunders.
I believe such cross-ideological alliances will happen only when hell freezes over.
The author has asked good questions and now needs to think up some good answers.
on June 27, 2012
Being a small businessman, a veteran, and a Republican, I was a bit skeptical of the MSNBC commentator who ran into some trouble on Memorial Day talking about the military (to his credit, he later apologized). However, if you approach Hayes' book with an open mind, there are excellent discussions on why America is in such a sorry state at the moment. You can appreciate the arguments made in this book whether you are liberal, conservative, libertarian, or otherwise.
The fact that there are elites in business, government, and the media is not new to the country or any other, but Hayes takes a controversial stance of saying that the way society has rewarded intelligence and promoted those "go-getters" to elite position is creating a dangerous stratification in society. He goes into detail about the failure of many once-respected organizations: everything from Major League Baseball's abuse of steroids to Wall Street pushing subprime loans. The conventional wisdom seems to be that when things go wrong at trusted institutions, it's due to gross incompetence (cf. Michael Brown at FEMA). However, Hayes argues that due to the meritocracy insisting on a winner-take-all type competition, our standards for human decency and empathy have completely degraded. This is the common theme running through the cases he examines. He highlights the problems we face quite well and offers a completely new outlook on our current paradigm. I look forward to his future books.
I am only going to give Hayes' book 4-stars, since I felt the solutions proposed were weak. He suggests raising taxes as a means to achieve equality. Why are liberals always so eager to raise taxes? I'm a bit disappointed that he didn't suggest ways to improve ethics at some of America's elite institutions (which Hayes is part of) to prevent future and impending calamities.
My other gripe with the book is that there are no footnotes in the Kindle version. The footnote section in the back hyperlinks to the correct place in the body text, but there is no way to determine what exactly it is referencing, since they are no superscripted numbers by the actual text. Hayes' publisher (Random House) is charging an arm and a leg for the Kindle version and they should give the readers a quality, properly-designed product. Perhaps Mr. Hayes will take a crack at explaining why the Big 6 publishing houses have failed as meritocratic institutions in his next book.
on November 8, 2012
Christopher Hayes Book, like many before it, tries to define who our rulers are and what makes them so bad. Like those before him, he cites the harmful impact of IQ testing on shaping the nature of our leadership. Like many dangerous ideas, it was at Harvard, almost 100 years ago, where its president James Conant, and a few advisors developed the well intentioned plan to supplement their enrollment of aristocratic boys of inherited wealth and Brahmin connections with a more diverse and select group of truly "bright" kids--kids that seemingly deserved access to a superior education.
Hayes outlines how ever since IQ and SAT testing became the prime measure of a person's ability, the emphasis on this quality has grown and produced a "heirarchy of merit" that predicts a person's capability as being in direct proportion to their intelligence. "We have come to believe that "smartness is rankable and that the heirarchy of intelligence, like the heirarchy of wealth, never plateaus." Hayes objects to this view, arguing that it has resulted in a corrupt, arrogant, and out of touch leadership in most important institutions. He correctly suggests that intelligence is not a single quality but must be tempered by "wisdom, judgment, empathy, and ethical rigor."
Thus, Hayes' thesis mirrors that of Michael Young's "The Rise of the Meritocracy," published in the 1950's, that outlined how, when a society institutes mass educational sorting based on IQ tests, and superior school grades, a ruling class will emerge that has distinctly high IQ's. And if they absorb the left-wing views that prevail in the universities, then, once in power, they will resemble the arrogant "ruling class" that dominated Soviet Russia, as described in Milovan Djilas's "The New Class," also published in the 1950's.
The problem common to all these books is that "Intelligence" is not well defined. A useful definition can be found in Nicholas Lemann's "The Big Test," where he describes three categories of successful individuals-- the "Mandarins," whose high test scores get them into the best schools and the best jobs--mostly in finance, think-tanks, and NGO's, and that therefore have the most influence in shaping modern institutions and cultural beliefs; the "Lifers," who lack the high IQ but through persistence and discipline work their way up into important managerial positions, and the "talents" who are the innovative and creative individuals who by-pass the ordinary and create businesses of their own. Theodore Dalrymple's "The Mandarins and the Masses" argues a similar point, and condemns the abstract and hedonistic ideas of western intellectuals and the other mandarins at the top. Both argue that the lifers and talents play a more positive role for the country than do the mandarins, and that by bringing an overly abstract theoretical approach to leadership positions, we have lost the practical common sense that built the country during its formative first 300 years. Hayes book echoes these earlier studies.
This book is praiseworthy for how it describes the recent failed decade in America where the common people had to endure numerous failures in leadership. Published in 2012, the failures of the recent past include an indictment of Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton. For an editor of The Nation he surprisingly skewers Obama's continuation of a corrupt and out of touch meritocracy that has embraced the accelerating inequality that has placed them at the top, and describes the current scene as one more prone to failure and corruption than any that came before.
He criticizes the Obama white House staff for its concentration of Wall Street insiders: Rahm Emmanuel, Bill Daley, Jack Lew, Larry Summers, not to mention Tim Geithner, are all alumni of Citibank, Goldman Sachs, and other major hedge fund and banking institutions. And the inference is that it is these appointees that are the true 1% elites that control the country. While Congress has on occasion independent honest individuals, the real power lies in the "inner rings of the onion;" those with access to the top regulatory and administrative posts in government. "The 1 percent and the nation's governing class are more or less one and the same." And this has been true in the Clinton and Obama administrations as well as the GW Bush presidency. It is crony capitalism and infects the Democratic regimes as much as the Republican. Treasury Secretary Geithner running the Treasury Department is like the fox guarding the chicken coop!
For solutions, Hayes' book is less praiseworthy. He does correctly favor policies that "dramatically reduce" the power of the current elite. But he does not make any specific recommendation of how that should be accomplished. His main thrust is that we must restore "equality" because the gap between the richest and poorest has grown larger than ever. He points out that it isn't just the bottom half but those in the top 50-99% that have been hurt by this destructive elite. The upper middle class "finds itself increasingly dispossessed," seeing the corruption at the top, and the disdain of those inside the beltway. "We are all the 99% now," he writes, with everyone now sharing "a sense that some small, corrupt core of elites can launch an idiotic war, or bail out the banks, or mandate health insurance . . and there's not a damn thing they can do about it." The obvious solution, not mentioned in this book, is to keep the bankers and Wall Street out of controlling positions in government!
The author's apparent solution is for higher taxes and redistribution to reduce income inequality. Like most on the Left he measures equality by results, not fairness of opportunity. The main deficiency is that he shows no awareness of how to maintain a level playing field so that there is an equality of opportunity. And little attention is devoted to the enormous deficit spending that continues unabated under both political parties in their zeal to win the voter support of an ever more demanding populace. It has been said that a people get the government they deserve. More and more people are ignoring the corruption at the top as long as the hand-outs continue. Hayes solution of handing-out more goodies to "create" equality will only exacerbate the problem. The corrupt leadership, which Hayes so clearly exposes, will always stay miles ahead of the 99% beneath them!
on August 8, 2012
Chis Hayes clearly and convincingly explains how the elite has failed America and the reason for this failure. What ensues is a deep exploration into the psychology of a 1%er starting from the advantages received at a young age such as test prep classes that give children of the elite a solid advantage over their potentially smarter counterparts and prohibitively costly early education that solidifies their advantage for life. These children are made to realize they are special and different and their isolation from the lower and middle classes begins. This book explains the deeply competitive nature that causes inferiority complexes in our elite once they've managed to extricate themselves from the other 99% leading to brooding, self-pitying millionaires who are unbalanced and unsure of themselves. The psychological profile of the 1% explains part of the reasons for the failings of the elite, the social distance caused by such vast wealth explains the rest. As the elite get more and more removed from the middle class, the temptation to leverage their success in the form of buying the allegiance of political leaders, placing roadblocks on the potential success of the 99%, and selectively empowering people with similar ideals, sympathizers, and allies becomes too great to resist.
Although Hayes doesn't have a better system than the meritocracy, he offers simple but profound advice: be as concerned with equity of opportunity, as the equality of outcomes. The simple-minded will dismiss the book immediately as Marxist, and wrongfully so. Chis Hayes seeks a reboot to earlier times in American history where America was more United and Equal. Others seeking answers to the fail-decade will be rewarded with thoughtful analysis and discussion of America's problems, and potential.
This book is a must-read for anybody who's interested in public policy. Well researched. Will be enjoyed by conservatives, liberals and independents. I didn't agree with all his conclusions but it really made me think. The statistics and details on America's declining social mobility are worth the price of the book.
It does seem to go long; after the first 2/3, the last 1/3 doesn't add much. But the first half of the book is a brilliant contribution to understanding the current state of classes and trends of class division in the U.S.
on May 10, 2012
In Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes tells the story of how America became a meritocracy and why that might not be such a good thing. The biggest problem, he argues, is that unlike other forms of privilege, because meritocracy is based on merit - or at least some measure that tries to determine merit - the elite that it creates not only consider themselves to be better than the common man but also to have objective proof of it. However the system for determining merit can be gamed: Wealthy people can hire tutors for their kids; poor people can't. Connected people can find out how to navigate into the right circumstances for the next opportunity. Ordinary folks find themselves unaware that there was even an informal process they should have been involved in. As a result, we have seen the emergence of an elite that spans across the worlds of business and government but is out of touch with how the average person lives, even as the same elite seeks to solve problems for us without understanding what our problems actually are or that one of the biggest ones is that things are continually rearranged in a way that makes sense to them.
Hayes is at his strongest when he explains how the meritocracy emerged and how such a system is not only subject to being gamed but also creates incentives to do things that advance individuals within the system while ignoring that the system is out of whack (so athletes take steroids because they have to in order to compete with other athletes taking steroids, Congresspeople get involved in campaign finance situations they shouldn't because they have to raise as much money as the other guy, Enron excecs cut corners because their department has to be as profitable as another department that is cutting corners).
There is, however, one critical weakness in Hayes' book: While Hayes can plainly see what has gone wrong with the meritocratic elite, he wants such an elite to exist. Specifically, he wants such an elite to exist because without a powerful elite, he doesn't think we'll be able to build and hold the social consensus necessary to make the sacrifices necessary to stop global warming. Now, the problem is not global warming, per se: It would be just as bad if he wanted a business elite to step up to the plate so that we'd all appreciate free markets again. The problem, rather, is that as clear-eyed about the dangers of elite overreach in almost every area of our lives, he has his one spot where he thinks we don't trust them enough and need to give them even more power. Unfortunately, while a lot of people distrust a lot of elite institutions, almost all of us have a weak spot for one elite institution or another. With his own reticence to question climate science and his own conviction that one institution ought be given a pass because it's too critical for us to turn our backs on, he gives the script for likewise backing the Fed, the welfare system, the stock market or whatever else it is that the one group of elites you trust in controls. And even as he shows where the meritocratic elite has gone wrong and why, he also shows how the elites, by careful cultivation of people who still believe in one thing, can be drawn along to prop up the elite system a little longer.
Christopher Hayes has written an excellent expose of how a lot of things have gone wrong in America and how some of the meritocratic elite involved didn't even mean to do any harm, they were just living in a system whose incentives have gone topsy-turvy. But he also demonstrates how we are willing to giving elites a pass and sustain their power provided it's in an area we think it is too important to question. For that reason, this is worth reading first for the superb argumentation when Hayes it at his best, but also as a cautionary tale that we, too, may have blind spots that need addressing if we truly want to make things better, not just complain about things as they are.