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52 of 68 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Argument with One Fatal Flaw, May 10, 2012
This review is from: Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Hardcover)
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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.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 11, 2012 7:43:57 AM PDT
Chris Hayes on Twitter re this review: "Really interesting critique of Twilight of the Elites."

Posted on Jun 7, 2012 1:36:45 PM PDT
G. Barto, thanks for this excellent insight!

Posted on Jun 20, 2012 10:28:07 AM PDT
I haven't read the book, but I am a Chris Hayes/UP fan. My comment is, "How can the reviewer say that it's an argument (I gather then entire book is rhetorically an extended argument) with a fatal flaw and still award it 4 stars? Words have meanings and consequences. "Fatal" means, among other things, "dysfunctional", "ended", and "denied sustenance". This is the stuff of 4 stars?

Posted on Jun 20, 2012 10:39:58 PM PDT
Caponsacchi says:
I think it is Aristotle to whom we owe, more than to any other person of letters, the term "fatal flaw." He uses it to explain the consequences of the tragedian's (in this case, Sophocles') words on the spectator, who experiences a "catharsis" or, in other words, a "state of suspension between pity and fear." But there's an essential prerequisite: the tragic hero with the fatal flaw must be a "worthy" elite, a respected person in a high place who moreover deserves to be there.

No one but Oedipus could have solved the riddle of the Sphinx and delivered the people of Thebes from plague. And no one but Oedipus could have been capable, due to his fatal flaw, of delivering them into even worse misery. Oedipus earns his lofty position as the "elitist of the elite" in Athens, and only because of that singular status does he, as only Tiresias can initially see, have it within him to be at once the savior and scourge of his people.

(At this point, I enter the story.) Oedipus is most heroic in our eyes when he traces the cause of the blight back to himself, thus proving himself wrong and Tiresias right. In the end, he triumphs by abdicating his place among the elite, then acting out his own punishment by removing his eyesight and banishing himself from Athens. (Were it only possible that Aristotle's solution would play out among America's elite. But that's why Oedipus simply has no peer (with the possible exception of Odysseus) among the elite in the Grecian Hall of Fame. (On the other hand, America has Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" and its modern cable TV descendant: "Undercover Boss.")
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