347 of 361 people found the following review helpful
The Limits of Merit,
This review is from: Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Program (What's this?)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.
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Showing 1-10 of 21 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 24, 2012 9:03:38 AM PDT
Concise, clear, intriguing and very well written. Thanks!
Posted on Jun 11, 2012 9:40:04 PM PDT
W. Prince says:
I think the idea that the members of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street can discuss the Hayes' paradigm, assumes that the members of the Tea Party actually believe in rational, intellectual discussions. In fact, they are anti-education and anti-intellectual. Believe me, I have talked to numerous members of the tea party and, despite their high school education, at best, and my University graduate degree and teaching credentials, all they will do is argue with you, regardless of the facts. For example, government employment went up under every Republican President for the past 50 years when necessary to combat recessions. Like Nixon said, they understood,"were all Keynesians now." Not the Tea Party. Frankly, I think Paul Ryan and the tea party republicans in Congress behavior can be characterized as treason. They openly deny, that compromise is necessary to a democratic government process. They purposefully block all legislation that would stimulate the economy and put people back to work, because it might help Obama. Every real real Republican that fails to stand up against this new tea party terrorism is no better than they are. Shame on all of them. Scoundrels of the worst kind.
In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2012 11:05:43 AM PDT
Posted on Jul 14, 2012 1:29:18 PM PDT
Adam B. Ritchie Jr. says:
I was delighted to see Hayes step forward with an original idea. The meritocracy is just another hierarchy with a focus on elite academics, which accounts for its free pass as the way to be. It's like communism in a sense, requiring a ruling elite to enforce party discipline and a totalitarian state. I have experienced meritocracy first hand. Ph.D's from the top ten don''t associate with Ph.D.'s from the top twenty, If you want to see its result, enjoy those "physics" programs involving "elegant universes" and the "fabric of space" conducted by people who have never seen the inside of a physics laboratory and whose most recent reference to an experiment may be to Galileo 1691 observations.
Posted on Jul 15, 2012 8:39:29 PM PDT
[Deleted by Amazon on Jul 15, 2012 10:26:06 PM PDT]
In reply to an earlier post on Jul 17, 2012 6:47:43 AM PDT
J. Nelson says:
SUMMARY: Concerning the irrationality of thought and the non-reality of the world seen in people on the right: keep going down until you find the human decency most of us have in common.
I have created and corresponded with the ca. 200 surviving members of my (southern state) high school Class of 1960. The emails are infrequent (somebody dies). For whatever reason, I sent out a few "political" ones (Heads Up: Fukushima is in meltdown. Heads Up: Tahrir Square. Heads Up: Troy Davis). I sometimes got the abuse you did. I vowed publicly that everyone and every thought was welcome and, above all, we would lose no one from this list. Only 6 of 200 addresses are now flagged for no politics or just no follow-on comments. Corresponding with the abusive ones was very time consuming, but one looks for things to praise. A man who is not just a pilot, but a Navy fighter pilot, and a man whose two sons then follow him -- that man obviously has a great family and you can share his pride. Somehow "1960" has made a community and can talk.
The problem is that America itself has lost its sense of community. Another way to say this is that patriotism has died. As Hayes says, our elites live in a different world. We (the other 99%) will have to rebuild the sense of who we all are as Americans; rebuild the, well, patriotism and pride that our dysfunctional political process and self-protecting elites have destroyed. To do that, keep going down to what each person wants, cares about. In family and grandchildren, in sacrifices to help family or a neighbor, in the stories you can sometimes draw out, you will find a bedrock of common decency to build on. A curse on the bastards who have turned us against each other.
Posted on Jul 18, 2012 8:19:16 AM PDT
Ben Franklin says:
Ginger Man, you show a naivete insinuating the moral equivalency of the right and left, this dichotomy, this relative morality, and giving equal value, regardless of the truth of the matter, is what allows the corruption to propagate in the first place. I am not suggesting dictatorship by either side, but clearly, the neoconservatives of the last 30 years have real moral issues (regarding their being blatantly immoral) that they cover up with the crucifix and the flag - there is no "equal time" here.
We are the 99% - there is no balance with the 1%
In reply to an earlier post on Jul 18, 2012 9:55:03 AM PDT
The Ginger Man says:
I actually come down pretty firmly on one side on most issues. But I do try to write reviews that start from an assumption of the rough moral equivalency of both sides. If we can't draw the reasonable people from left and right into a discussion, the 99% (or some portion thereof) will never be able to realize their common ground.
I think the most important obstacle to achieving progress is the level of polarization between right and left combined with the virtually equal numerical strength of each camp. To move forward, each side has to assume that the other side is within a range of reasonableness and morality which would allow compromise to occur. There are, of course, extremists in each camp who are either making money by exploiting these differences or are ideologically incapable of testing their own assumptions. These people on both the left and right will go on generating noise. If those remaining can't reach common ground, however, we will continue to be in a stalemate situation with differences sharpening.
Tip O'Neill compromised to reach agreement with Reagan. At some point, the Boehners, McConnells, Reids and Pelosis need to change their goal from helping to capture the White House to cooperating in governing the country. (And, yes, I think the former 2 have been far guiltier of this than the latter 2. But I have to leave room to assume that folks on the right believe exactly the opposite.)
If the battle was between 99% and 1% as you suggest, it would resolve itself quickly. The 99%, however, is pretty evenly (and emotionally) divided between left and right rather than differentiated politically from the 1%. You could argue that this is false consciousness but it is unlikely to change quickly enough for necessary decisions to be made. (I think that this division has has either been the dominating force or the sub-text of politics in the US since Nixon's Southern Strategy, appeal to law and order and manufacture of the politics of resentment which helped him carry the 1968 election.) Even if the left (or right) is less corrupt or more correct in assessment/prescription than the other side, it cannot govern effectively without the cooperation of its political counterpart, some assumption of good will on the part of its rival and a belief that compromise is not equal to moral appeasement.
In reply to an earlier post on Jul 18, 2012 11:03:30 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 18, 2012 11:09:48 AM PDT
Ben Franklin says:
there is no left and right - there is those who are correct and those who are not. Those who still cling to the right wing beliefs of the neo-conservative revolution, that is, the republicans, are wrong. These people will never "lose" they will become less and less in number.
They will perish. Maybe we need more pain of the neoconservatives type before most of these people will "see the light" as it were. Whatever will be, will be.
There are extremists in both camps but the right wing is practically composed of extremists, whereas the relative few "extremists" on the left are morally superior to the moderately left. On the right you have the opposite.
There is no comparison to the reagan era, except that special interests were just as manipulating of the state to be a nanny for the 1% power brokers, and their interests over that of the country's. The difference today is, people on the left are aware of the corporate oligarchy and it's desire to dominate government. People on the right (including the extremists) are totally FUNDED by the corporate oligarchy.
I have not read the book yet.
In reply to an earlier post on Aug 6, 2012 2:34:32 PM PDT
"(to) rebuild the... patriotism ... (let each person do) what each person wants, cares about. In family and grandchildren, in sacrifices to help family or a neighbor, in the stories you can sometimes draw out, you will find a bedrock of common decency to build on. A curse on the bastards who have turned us against each other."
I like that you didn't mention voting as an answer. The answer isn't to be found in politics. Right now the government is the problem, not the solution.