Guest Review by Aaron Swartz: Chris Hayes’ The Twilight of The Elites

by Aaron Swartz on June 18, 2012

In his new book, The Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Chris Hayes manages the impossible trifecta: the book is compellingly readable, impossibly erudite, and—most stunningly of all—correct. At the end, I was left with just two quibbles: first, the book’s chapter on “pop epistemology” thoroughly explicated how elites got stuff wrong without bothering to mention the non-elites who got things right, leaving the reader with the all-too-common impression that getting it right was impossible; and second, the book never assembled its (surprisingly sophisticated) argument into a single summary. To discuss it, I feel we have to start with remedying the latter flaw:

Our nation’s institutions have crumbled, Hayes argues. From 2000–2010 (the “Fail Decade”), every major societal institution failed. Big businesses collapsed with Enron and Worldcom, their auditors failed to catch it, the Supreme Court got partisan in Bush v. Gore, our intelligence apparatus failed to catch 9/11, the media lied us into wars, the military failed to win them, professional sports was all on steroids, the church engaged in and covered up sex abuse, the government compounded disaster upon disaster in Katrina, and the banks crashed our economy. How did it all go so wrong?

Hayes pins the blame on an unlikely suspect: meritocracy. We thought we would just simply pick out the best and raise them to the top, but once they got there they inevitably used their privilege to entrench themselves and their kids (inequality is, Hayes says, “autocatalytic”). Opening up the elite to more efficient competition didn’t make things more fair, it just legitimated a more intense scramble. The result was an arms race among the elite, pushing all of them to embrace the most unscrupulous forms of cheating and fraud to secure their coveted positions. As competition takes over at the high end, personal worth resolves into exchange value, and the elite power accumulated in one sector can be traded for elite power in another: a regulator can become a bank VP, a modern TV host can use their stardom to become a bestselling author (try to imagine Edward R. Murrow using the nightly news to flog his books the way Bill O’Reilly does). This creates a unitary elite, detached from the bulk of society, yet at the same time even more insecure. You can never reach the pinnacle of the elite in this new world; even if you have the most successful TV show, are you also making blockbuster movies? bestselling books? winning Nobel Prizes? When your peers are the elite at large, you can never clearly best them.

The result is that our elites are trapped in a bubble, where the usual pointers toward accuracy (unanimity, proximity, good faith) only lead them astray. And their distance from the way the rest of the country really lives makes it impossible for them to do their jobs justly—they just don’t get the necessary feedback. The only cure is to reduce economic inequality, a view that has surprisingly support among the population (clear majorities want to close the deficit by raising taxes on the rich, which is more than can be said for any other plan). And while Hayes is not a fan of heightening the contradictions, it is possible that the next crisis will bring with it the opportunity to win this change.

This is just a skeletal summary—the book itself is filled with luscious texture to demonstrate each point and more in-depth discussion of the mechanics of each mechanism (I would call it Elster meets Gladwell if I thought that would be taken as praise). So buy the book already. Now, as I said, I think Hayes is broadly correct in his analysis. And I think his proposed solution is spot on as well—when we were fellows together at the Harvard Center for Ethics, I think we annoyed everyone else with our repeated insistence that reducing economic inequality was somehow always the appropriate solution to each of the many social ills the group identified.

But when talking to other elites about this proposal, I notice a confusion that’s worth clarifying, about the structural results of inequality, rather than the merely quantitative ones. Class hangs over the book like a haunting spectre (there’s a brief comment on p. 148 that “Mills [had] a more nuanced theory of elite power than Marx’s concept of a ruling class”) but I think it’s hard to see how the solution relates to the problem without it. After all, we started by claiming the problem is meritocracy, but somehow the solution is taxing the rich?

The clue comes in thinking clearly about the alternative to meritocracy. It’s not picking surgeons by lottery, Hayes clarifies, but then what is it? It’s about ameliorating power relationships altogether. Meritocracy says “there must be one who rules, so let it be the best”; egalitarianism responds “why must there?” It’s the power imbalance, rather than inequality itself, that’s the problem.

Imagine a sci-fi world in which productivity has reached such impressive heights that everyone can have every good they desire just from the work young kids do for fun. By twiddling the knobs on their local MakerBot, the kids produce enough food, clothing, and iPhones to satisfy everyone. So instead of working, most people spend their days doing yoga or fishing. But scarcity hasn’t completely faded away—there’s still competition for the best spots at the fishing hole. So we continue to let those be allocated by the market: the fishing hole spot is charged for and the people who really want it earn the money to pay for it by helping people with various chores.

In this sort of world, inequality doesn’t seem like much of a problem. Sure, some people get the best fishing hole spots, but that’s because they did the most chores. If you want the spot more than they do, you can do more work. But the inequality doesn’t come with power—the guy with the best fishing hole spot can’t say “fuck me or you’re fired.”

This sci-fi world may sound ridiculous, but it’s basically the one Keynes predicted we’d soon be living in:

Now it is true that the needs of human beings may seem to be insatiable. But they fall into two classes – those needs which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be, and those which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows. Needs of the second class, those which satisfy the desire for superiority, may indeed be insatiable; for the higher the general level, the higher still are they. But this is not so true of the absolute needs – a point may soon be reached, much sooner perhaps than we are all of us aware of, when these needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to devote our further energies to non-economic purposes.

[…] But, of course, it will all happen gradually, not as a catastrophe. Indeed, it has already begun. The course of affairs will simply be that there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed.

And that’s what a reduction in economic inequality could achieve. The trend in recent decades (since the fall of the Soviet Union and the ruling class’s relief that “There Is No Alternative”) has been for the people at the top to seize all the economic gains, leaving everyone else increasing insecure and dependent on their largesse. (Calling themselves “job creators”, on this view, is not so much a brag as a threat.) But with less inequality, it could be otherwise. Instead of a world in which there are a handful of big networks with the money to run television shows, everyone could afford to have their Sunday morning conversations filmed and livestreamed. Instead of only huge conglomerates having the capital and distribution to launch new product lines, everyone could make and market their own line of underwear or video games (instead of just elite Red Sox pitchers).

Even on strict efficiency grounds, this strikes me as a more alluring view than the usual meritocracy. Why put all your eggs in one basket, even if it’s the best basket? Surely you’d get better results by giving more baskets a try.

You can argue that this is exactly where technology is bringing us—popular kids on YouTube get made into huge pop sensations, right?—and the genius of Hayes’ book is to show us why this is not enough. The egaliatarian demand shouldn’t be that we need more black pop stars or female pop stars or YouTube sensation pop stars, but to question why we need elite superstars at all. I hope Hayes’ next book shows us what the world without them is like.

{ 160 comments }

1

FredR 06.18.12 at 4:13 pm

“Imagine a sci-fi world in which productivity has reached such impressive heights that everyone can have every good they desire just from the work young kids do for fun. By twiddling the knobs on their local MakerBot, the kids produce enough food, clothing, and iPhones to satisfy everyone. So instead of working, most people spend their days doing yoga or fishing. In this sort of world, inequality doesn’t seem like much of a problem.”

I think Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” usefully demonstrated how inequality would still be a major issue in such a world. If you were low-status, you would still have to live among low-status people (and have a high risk of getting robbed by Bud and his skull-gun). And high-status people would still hold all the political power. More generally, I don’t think you get away from the winner-take-all dynamics that produce social inequality and lead to most people only watching a few people’s Sunday morning conversations. After Hayes’ serious discussions of Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy, I was surprised by his somewhat pie-in-the-sky gestures towards Wikipedia and OWS.

Anyways, I thought it was interesting how similar Hayes’ book was to Murray’s (despite differences in recommended solutions) in decrying the social distance between elite and masses.

2

Maria 06.18.12 at 4:18 pm

Great review. My copy just arrived today and I’m looking forward to cracking it open.

Also, yes, Diamond Age is a good e.g. of what a radically unequal society that has nonetheless dealt with subsistence-level scarcity might look like. And it doesn’t end well for Bud, either.

3

Billikin 06.18.12 at 4:21 pm

What am I missing? Why not The Zenith of the Elites?

4

chrismealy 06.18.12 at 4:36 pm

If the elite class fails because it doesn’t understand or share the real problems people face (high unemployment, high education costs, access to health care, etc), and they don’t because they all make too much money and are at no risk of exiting the winner’s circle, then just taxing them down to size does seem like the solution. We’d have a different kind of politics if all the creeps on Wall St and tv news had to trade their limos for the bus. Let’s see how elite they are without their money.

5

ajay 06.18.12 at 4:40 pm

1: the Diamond Age is definitely _not_ set in a post-scarcity world. Yes, you have a Matter Compiler in your living room connected up to a raw material pipe, a Feed, that can print you anything you want (within reason), but it is really just an Amazon account with rapid delivery. You have to pay for the Feed – there are several references to characters being rich enough to afford great big Feeds that allow them to print stuff more quickly. IIRC you have to pay fees on top of that for the designs of anything except generic goods. While there are some goods that are doled out for free – space blankets are mentioned – most are not. You earn money by working – we see characters who are servants, actors, designers, managers, school teachers, soldiers, artists and so on.

6

David Kaib 06.18.12 at 4:46 pm

I love this piece overall, but this line in particular is a home run.

Calling themselves “job creators”, on this view, is not so much a brag as a threat.

It’s amazing how difficult it is to have this sort of argument when our dominant discourse obscures any discussion of power.

7

geo 06.18.12 at 4:55 pm

Billikin @3 has a point, which also occurred to me when I read this in the review: “Our nation’s institutions have crumbled, Hayes argues. From 2000–2010 … every major societal institution failed.” No, they’re all working perfectly well — exactly as those in charge intend them to. They’re just not working for you and me.

8

Jim Harrison 06.18.12 at 5:02 pm

In his book Oligarchy, Jeffrey Winters usefully distinguishes the oligarchy (the hyper-wealthy) from other elites whose power is based on such advantages as charisma, military power, or education. I think our current problem is not so much a plague of elites per se as the overwhelming preponderance of monied elites and the tendency of all standards of value to collapse into the single dimension of wealth, hence the slavish deference successful politicians, academics, journalists, and religious leaders show their monied masters—cable news, in particular, has become a nightly spectacle of millionaires fellating billionaires. Perhaps Hayes will change my mind, but it seems to me that the independent variable that explains the current situation is not the rise of the meritocracy but something rather simpler, the escape of wealth from social control.

9

Antonio Conselheiro 06.18.12 at 5:11 pm

In some formal way it may be a meritocracy, but (in politics and the media, at least) it’s more like an old boy network or a criminal gang, defined by loyalty and willingness to do what is asked. A lot of players are underqualified. (And with grade inflation and elite favoritism, credentials have been watered.

10

QS 06.18.12 at 5:20 pm

Following #8, I have a hard time with “elites” in combination with “meritocracy” given the “fail decade” featured 8 years of George W. Secondly, individual corporations may have collapsed but the 2000s was the third consecutive (and counting) decade wherein corporations as a whole succeeded. The only way you might say they “failed” is if you interpret their goal (success) as something other than profit-making. The 2000s (and 2012) has been a broad social calamity precisely because capital did not fail.

11

Antonio Conselheiro 06.18.12 at 5:22 pm

Also, what geo said.

The anti-political, anti-populist technocratic and legalistic approach of many Democrats contributed mightily to the problem, and that goes back to the 40s and 50s.

12

Holden Pattern 06.18.12 at 5:27 pm

Ref #10: If one assumes that at some point, there was some degree of meritocracy[*], the winners of that competition have now used the power they earned more-or-less fairly to change the rules to that there is no more competition. So even if their children are drooling half-wits (W, Paris Hilton) or just regression to the mean (Bush I, maybe the Kardashians), those children will never be brought down by their mistakes.

And if someone can get into the “elite” by birth, heroic levels of sucking-up or sheer bloody-mindedness, they will have crossed an accountability event horizon beyond which they can no longer suffer any consequences for their failures. But failures do have consequences, which the elites have arranged to fall on the rest of us.

[*] Women, people of color, poor whites all get a Harrison Bergeron style starting handicap, but as of about 50 years ago, they’re mostly allowed to compete.

13

ciaran 06.18.12 at 5:41 pm

I probably can’t express this persuasively,but it seems to me that a post-scarcity society will never occur in a capitalist economy, it won’t just arrive organically it’ill have to be made . Many of the conditions for Keynes utopia exist , but a different economic/social model is required if we are to ever get there

14

Steve LaBonne 06.18.12 at 5:48 pm

Our population is now too ignorant for this situation to be remediable, at least not without a different set of disasters. Very few people are capable of distinguishing the elites who are actually oppressing them from pointy-heads with genuine expertise who are just trying to tell them inconvenient truths. Hence the Tea Party.

I don’t have much hope for this country. Since I have a 19 year old daughter who will have to somehow make her way in it, this pains me deeply.

15

Data Tutashkhia 06.18.12 at 5:48 pm

The only cure is to reduce economic inequality

Economic inequality is a symptom. Psychopaths get up there because that’s where the money is, and they enrich themselves because they can. Maybe you can manage to tax them (too late, probably), but they’ll still be up there, looting and trying to hide the loot the best they can. How is this a cure, let alone ‘the only cure’?

16

Robert 06.18.12 at 5:53 pm

“…how elites got stuff wrong without bothering to mention the non-elites who got things right”

In the chapter on epistemology today, there is some reference to the possibility of a blogger in his mother’s basement in NJ being more more correct than the talking heads you see on TV. I did not look to see if the endnotes clarified if Hayes had some specific blogger in mind. Hayes argues that one cannot expect the average person to spend their time figuring out who to trust among non-elites. If the media during the fail decade leads to general audiences distrusting those presented as experts on mass media, people may end up believing a wide range of nonsense from whatever non-elite sources they stumble upon. (I tell people, “You cannot trust blogs. After all I have a blog.”)

Supposedly merit-based criteria can sort people into a hierarchy based on, for example, wealth or income. But the criteria cannot explain income distribution because the distance between steps cannot be explained by the criteria. We could have, for example, constantly decreasing step sizes and a much more equal distribution. I don’t find Hayes making this point, although a major point of the book is how an initial meritocracy will subvert the criteria (e.g., test prep schools available only to the children of previous winners who can afford them).

17

The Raven 06.18.12 at 5:55 pm

Seems to me that someone omitted to pick out the most ethical as well as the most skillful.

And from there, over to John Holbo and the philosophers.

18

SamChevre 06.18.12 at 5:57 pm

I continue to be completely unclear how lower high-end economic inequality (high-end: less space between the 90th and 99.999th percentiles) will have any impact at all on the elitization of decision-making.

For example, how are higher taxes on people earning over $1mm a year supposed to return primary operational (admission, hiring, and curriculum) control of public schools to elected school boards, from than the federal courts and the education bureaucracies?

For another example, how are higher taxes on people earning over $1mm a year supposed to affect land-use/environmental permitting to enable a new power plant/highway/rail line to be built with the amount of review required in 1960?

19

Steve LaBonne 06.18.12 at 6:02 pm

And right on cue SamChevre illustrates my point in #14.

20

shah8 06.18.12 at 6:03 pm

I’m a bit with comments eight and nine. While the books sounds nice, while I risk No True Scotsman objections, there is no actual meritocracy, or even a genuinely felt meritocracy. A meritocracy judges talent. What we have here is a post-religious society that still wants to be Calvanist, and recycling the old legacy of social darwinism to legitimate the rule of the elites, with jiggered tests and jiggered institutions. The Chinese are an old hand at this sort of non-religious elite justification, using tests that mostly sorted for who had the time and resources and proper cultural identification. The GaoKao just happened, with all of the traditional stories about how “serious” this time is.

The world is not fair, and I think the book (and if it’s not the book, but the reviewer’s fault, then the reviewer) should not be making arguments that fairness causes nonfairness. Instead, it should be describing it as corrupt with dissembling compulsions and illusions of fairness.

21

temp 06.18.12 at 6:05 pm

If every major societal institution has failed due to “meritocracy”, how is it that former fellows at the Harvard Center for Ethics have come up with the right solution? If we really don’t need elites, shouldn’t someone else have written this book first?

22

QS 06.18.12 at 6:08 pm

#18, let’s not limit our imagination. Why assume higher taxes are the only way to reduce income inequality? And yes, one might argue that an egalitarian society might more easily maintain popular control over education or greater oversight over land use. Concentrated capital certainly makes land-use policy malleable (to concentrated capital).

23

Steve LaBonne 06.18.12 at 6:09 pm

temp @21 hits the nail on the head. Defining the problem as “elitism” is a first-class ticket to the worst kind of right-wing populism which, as in past examples, will be designed to satisfy the tribal hatreds of Joe Average while giving the plutocrats free range.

24

paleologo@gmail.com 06.18.12 at 6:19 pm

“Meritocracy says “there must be one who rules, so let it be the best”; egalitarianism responds “why must there?” It’s the power imbalance, rather than inequality itself, that’s the problem.”

“Meritocracy says”? Says who? The M-W definition is below
1: a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement
2: leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria

your definition takes only a very narrow meaning of 2. and magnifies it. Where exactly is the power imbalance exerted by a surgeon? How do you ameliorate his/her power relationships?

“You can never reach the pinnacle of the elite in this new world.”

This is a testable hypothesis. Agree on a definition of “elite” (let say, a combination of status and high income) and check which percentage of the current elite is descended from the previous generation. Taking the “never” literally, the rate should be 100%. I suspect it’s much, much lower.

Regarding the elites getting “stuff” wrong: sure, almost 50% of the time, probably not unlike the non-elites. From which, their wagnerian twilight sequitur non.

So far, I’d file the review under the Not Even Wrong category. For the book the jury is still out.

25

nostalgebraist 06.18.12 at 6:24 pm

ajay @5, it’s been many years since I read The Diamond Age, so I don’t remember the actual book that well. But I do remember hearing Stephenson say in the Q&A session after a reading that one of his goals with the book was to show how a post-scarcity society would still have conflict and stratification. If (as you suggest) the society isn’t really post-scarcity, I guess that means he failed at that goal in a very basic way?

The Hayes book looks very interesting. I was wondering whether or not to read it before I read this review, and now I’m tending toward “yes.”

26

Brett 06.18.12 at 7:13 pm

I’m not really convinced we’ll reach a point where super-productivity has us sitting around doing nothing. There have been some periods where greater productivity coincided with shorter working hours (such as the first half of the twentieth century), but even that was intertwined with shorter work-week campaigns and federal rules regarding “over-time” past 40 hours a week. When given the choice, we Americans usually just turn productivity gains into an opportunity to work the same and spend more, consume more, and waste more.

27

Greg 06.18.12 at 7:19 pm

On the failure of institutions…

I remember a few years back, in the good old Bush II era when progressives were progressives, it all clicked when I read an editorial in the Wall Street Journal following the death of David Halberstam. James Bowman, the author was, and he agued that investigative, “truth-seeking” journalism is a bad thing, because there is no truth, and it is therefore the job of the journalist to stop fussing about with accuracy and fact-checking, and instead to pick a side and help that side win.

Bear in mind this is a journalist writing about journalism in the Wall Street Journal.

That’s when it clicked that the US had – at the time – an administration that didn’t believe in government, a judicial branch that didn’t believe in the rule of law, a legeslative branch that didn’t believe in legislation and a press corps that didn’t believe in journalism.

Since then we’ve run into risk managers who don’t believe in risk, bank regulators who don’t believe in regulation, central bankers who don’t believe in central banks…

I’ll be very happy to read Hayes to get a view on meritocracy’s role in all of this.

28

Mo 06.18.12 at 7:25 pm

Thanks, Steve LaBonne for so succinctly pointing out the Teabagger threat.

But I’m stumped, too, about what can be done about this without resorting the traditional faves, arson and bloodshed.

29

John Browne 06.18.12 at 7:47 pm

When some believable enfants terribles point out, with some effect, that the garments in the Oligarchs’ Clothing Store are all created from obsolescent incredulity (as I see, lately, in a recycled “Russian!” scare) and the non-elite general public actually steam-rollers a Constitutional Amendment into being (about Anything) and the return of our civil rights appears imminent (not in My lifetime, most likely)… yada-yada.
Does anyone recall “The Best & Brightest”? Chris Hedges nailed it with the point that, as a nation we don’t know who we are (and don’t really WANT to know); and require a (preferably foreign) war- or something like it- to appear to sport an Identity… at least one with which ‘elites’ may identify, in order to promulgate the apparent validity of their public actions and opinions.
@8 nails it– “..the escape of wealth from social control”. ^..^

30

Metatone 06.18.12 at 8:11 pm

It’s easy for Stafford Beer’s dictum to sound a little glib, but I do think POSIWID has some relevance to this discussion – and along with other commenters that makes me question the premise articulated.

(Purpose of the System Is What It Does.)

i.e. I’m not sure corporations have meaningfully failed on their own terms. They now occupy more of the economy than ever before on some measures.

As for No True Scottish Meritocracy, I have to say again I think there’s some relevance. I’d be more comfortable with the idea that the propaganda of meritocracy has enabled certain elites to arrogate power and justification to themselves… but I’m not sure we had that much actual meritocracy. (Not to dispute that if we had had meritocracy, it could end up the way Hayes implies, that’s a longstanding fear.)

31

Hattie 06.18.12 at 8:12 pm

What we have now is a system of poverty with stuff.

32

Barry 06.18.12 at 9:25 pm

I have not seen, and still have not seen, a review come to grips with the simple fact that We’ve Seen This Before.

We removed the checks and countervailing powers which restricted the elites, and they did as they always have under those circumstances. The elites have always been really, really good at self-justification/hiring toadies, ignoring the realities for the lower 90-odd percent, rigging the rules, etc. Remember, those members who had actual noblesse oblige were notable for that, because it was rare.

To me, it’s like we destroyed our sanitation systems, are getting a resurgence of the old epidemics, and people are saying that it’s because the doctors are not just sons of doctors/third generation Yalies and such.

33

Barry 06.18.12 at 9:27 pm

Aaron, this is not just an idle comment. The basic problem in causality which Chris’ thesis faces is the one I’ve laid out, that we have a proven alternate cause. Chris has to demonstrate that that is not the major cause (and as I’ve said above, things like entitlement and sociopathic lack of empathy are also found in non-meritocratic elites).

34

john in california 06.18.12 at 9:28 pm

I aaume what Hayes means by ‘meritocracy’ is that the most skilled rise to the top. But skilled at what? Butt kissing and back-knifing ? My engineering life was spent in silicon valley where engineering skills were rewarded with high pay but not necessarily high advancement. That often went to those who were best at appropriating others ideas or going along with ways to improve profit at the expense of product. How did Microsoft start if not with theft? And does anybody thing Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina were the best people to run companies for the benefit of anybody besides themselves?
Cris Hayes probably thinks he has his job because of some superior talent but when has he really tried to rock the boat by advocating anything radical on his tv show?
It seems very few social bodies have figured out how to handle excess wealth that didn’t lead to repression of the have-nots by the haves. At least not those with a large division of labor and, consequently, a differentiation between labor values. Social groups with more homogeneous labor and with regular surplus, like the New Guinea yam growers and northwest native Americans developed ways to spread the surplus wealth by increasing the influence and prestige of the wealth giver. At one time high income and inheritance taxes encouraged similar attitudes here but that has pretty much all gone by the board.
I think that the only solution is to limit wealth ( lack of it) to some multiple of the mean.

35

Robert 06.18.12 at 9:57 pm

I think Hayes book is good to think with. (His article on Hip Heterodoxy would get me biased on his side.)

Anyways, he has a chapter where he talks about the cult of smartness. Hayes rejects the idea that merit can be measured along one dimension.

36

John Quiggin 06.18.12 at 10:22 pm

I’ve been arguing since before my CT days that it’s impossible to sustain equality of opportunity (roughly, meritocracy) in combination with highly unequal outcomes

http://johnquiggin.com/2003/12/17/outcomes-and-opportunity/

37

Shelley 06.18.12 at 10:38 pm

As a writer, there’s not much TV I enjoy, but Chris Hayes’ Sat/Sun a.m. show on MSNBC shows some of the same virtues as this book: it’s never just the same old talking points, but a point of view in which you can actually see/feel a real person thinking.

Go Chris.

38

gordon 06.19.12 at 12:20 am

This is from C.Wright Mills’ “The Power Elite”, published in 1956:

“The men of the higher circles are not representative men; their high position is not a result of moral virtue; their fabulous success is not firmly connected with meritorious ability. Those who sit in the seats of the high and the mighty are selected and formed by the means of power, the sources of wealth, the mechanics of celebrity, which prevail in their society. They are not men selected and formed by a civil service that is linked with the world of knowledge and sensibility. They are not men shaped by nationally responsible parties that debate openly and clearly the issues this nation now so unintelligently confronts. They are not men held in responsible check by a plurality of voluntary associations which connect debating publics with the pinnacles of decision. Commanders of power unequaled in human history, they have succeeded within the American system of organized irresponsibility”.

Lots more good extracts at:
http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Book_Excerpts/HigherImmorality_PE.html

39

Antti Nannimus 06.19.12 at 12:26 am

Hi,

I’m absolutely gobsmacked by the brilliant comments in this thread. I had lost hope that almost anybody remains with a clear understanding of what a goddamn mess we’re in on this planet.

Have a nice day!
Antti

40

chris 06.19.12 at 12:36 am

For example, how are higher taxes on people earning over $1mm a year supposed to return primary operational (admission, hiring, and curriculum) control of public schools to elected school boards, from than the federal courts and the education bureaucracies?

Well, as an American, my first response would be “they’re not, the local school boards are the ones pushing creationism; centralization is a small price to pay to stop that”. But that may be a malady unique to the US.

41

Steve LaBonne 06.19.12 at 1:01 am

Well, as an American, my first response would be “they’re not, the local school boards are the ones pushing creationism; centralization is a small price to pay to stop that”. But that may be a malady unique to the US.

“In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards.” – Mark Twain

42

Polonius 06.19.12 at 1:09 am

Want to see the very explicit source document laying out the very deliberate plan for creating our ever-intensifying dystopia? Go back and read the Powell Memo: i.e., the blueprint for the dumbing down of our public discourse by think-tank deception and clap-trap, the commodification of our education, and the recapture of national cultural and political power by the industrial and financial elites through the wiping out of all the fetters put upon them during the Progressive, New Deal, and Civil Rights eras (Glass-Steagle, anyone?) and the institutions put into place during those eras to (truly) educate and enable their “inferiors.”

What Hayes describes is undoubtedly a reality; otherwise U.S. measures of social mobility wouldn’t have fallen below those of most of western Europe. But when the power elites have deliberately degraded and.commodified our education and public discourse (i.e., the basis of our general intellectual culture) as thoroughly as they have, what difference does it make what class the new members of the power elites come from, since the great bulk of them are going to be as ill-educated and brainwashed as the current members? After all, any critical and well-educated individuals who manage to slip past the vetting watch-dogs will eventually be as marginalized as those few truly progressive Democrats who are lucky enough to have a constituency independent enough of the conventional wisdom and discourse dominated by Fox, WSJ, “Fox on 15th St.,” Cato, Heritage, AEI, etc. to elect those Democrats to Congress, legislatures, etc. (As for the Prsidency, it’s hard to imagine three politicians more elite in raw intelligence than Carter, Clinton, & Obama. But critical thinkers & at least potentially independent of CW? Can you say Clinton’s Citigroup Treasury Sec. — Sr. moment there — Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Eric Holder, Arnie Duncan, etc. ad nauseum? Not exactly FDR’s Brain Trust.

Want some recent examples of this process when it comes to, say, education?

Diane Ravitch just got dumped by BROOKINGS as an UNPAID associate, obviously, — no matter what their PR BS says to the contrary — because she has lately become a fiercer and fiercer critic of the whole testing-privatization corporatist assault on public education, which she had originally supported way back when was Clinton’s Asst. Dep., of Ed. or whatever.

Next, the latest poll shows that 44 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution. I haven’t seen any research that examines the overlap of this form of science denial with denial of the scientific consensus on global warming; but I’d lay good money said overlap is substantial. And anybody who thinks that this is just an unfortunate effect of our evangelical heritage has forgotten the 2008 Republican presidential debate where the bulk of the debaters denied they believed in evolution — most of whom were then probably being just plain LSOS — and John Huntsmann’s remark that his fellow candidates in 2011-12 looked at him as though he were extremely odd when he said that he believed in the scientific consensus on GW. This whole Republican anti-science thing reminds me not just of obvious analogy — the opposition of the Church to Gallileo, Bruno, etc. — but also the Church’s previous resistance to vernacular translations of the Bible and, more generally, reading of scripture by laymen, peasants, serfs, shop-keepers, etc. Ignorance = Power (in someone else’s hands) We can’t have the plebs depending on somebody else for received wisdom or, much worse, thinking for themselves. It’s
more than a little Oreellian, even if it’s a (relatively, for now) soft Orwellian.

(Incidentally, someone here spoke more favorably of local school boards than of educational bureaucracies. Has that person ever worked extensively with local or state school boards? I doubt it. Most of my experience with them suggests that they are one major reason that barely half of Americans believe in “theory of evolution” but swallow so many blatantly unscientific absurdities. Most school board members I’ve had to deal with outside of large cities have been pretty strongly and openly prejudiced against real education, especially in science.)

Finally, David Sibley has a nice take on the “Chronicle” blog on the recent abrupt firing of the relatively new President of UVA by the UVA Board because she was pushing for the retention of such passé, uncommodifiable majors as classics (the RPM of Jefferson’s corpse just accelerated significantly) and German. (Say what? Maybe because they don’t want American kids learning the tongue of the new rival once-and-future masters of the universe?)

I happened about 10 years ago to have a conversation with the provost of UVA at the time. He said that UVA — not a state university, but a “state-supported” one — got even less of its operating budget from the state of Virginia than my gradschool alma mater — Penn State (yeah, I know, what’re ya gunna do) — got at the time from PA, which was then around EIGHT or NINE percent. In contrast, when I had started grad school at PSU in 1973, the state appropriation had been between 40 and 45 percent of the operating budget. And it wasn’t like there was no governmental financial aid. I spent 6 years in grad school (counting a year’s internship, during which I drew a federal stipend), my wife worked much less than half-time overall (we had two small kids), but I started my (second) career with what today would be considered trivial debt — everything else was covered by federal & state asstships &, mostly, fellowships, which was true for almost all my classmates. My wife, incidentally, had gotten a pretty decent education in the mid-’60’s at a state teachers’ college for tuition of — wait for it — $50 per semester or less than each of us made per week as lifeguards in the summers during college. Of course, although Norway and Sweden can still afford to do stuff like that AND have a system of universal health care, somehow the USA can’t (read “can essilynafford to but won’t anymore”).

What can we do about this? Think Soros would leave all his money to Current TV? (TIC — I think.)

43

js. 06.19.12 at 1:16 am

geo:

No, they’re all working perfectly well—exactly as those in charge intend them to. They’re just not working for you and me.

I’m not unsympathetic to this point, but it clearly misses something. I mean it’s not as if the bankers, etc. wanted Lehman to go down, e.g., or more generally that they wanted a giant financial collapse. And again, while Freedom! etc., wasn’t the desired goal in Iraq, neither was the giant mess they managed to create. So, yes, of course the institutions in question aren’t working for you and me, and of course those at the top are squeezing out every last drop that they can for themselves. Nevertheless, there’s a pretty clear sense in which these institutions have failed ueberhaupt.

In other words, when it comes to the “Evil or incompetent?” the question, the answer clearly suggested by the last decade is “Both!” I haven’t read the book (plan to soon), but if Hayes is giving an analysis of the incompetent side of the equation, that’s surely all to the good.

44

Jeremy 06.19.12 at 1:59 am

Those discussing The Diamond Age and the whole post-scarcity tangent would probably find Peter Frase’s essay for Jacobin, “Four Futures” interesting if anyone hasn’t seen it. He discusses different ways the future could go after labor becomes largely unnecessary, depending on whether society is or isn’t resource constrained and whether it is an egalitarian or hierarchical society. The idea of a society that has no real need for labor, isn’t constrained by resources, and still insists on arranging itself to maintain inequality is the bizarre one, which he discussed in a less developed form in his essay “Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity, and which seems to cover much of the same ground that Stephenson was developing into a specific case of in The Diamond Age.

And then he discusses Red Plenty, Kantorovich, and Cockshott in the part about an egalitarian future that’s constrained by resources. Although, it predates the CT Red Plenty discussion(s), so many people here are probably ahead of where he was in that department.

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QS 06.19.12 at 7:08 am

JS, “evil or incompetent” is answered best by “neither”. Banks are doing exactly what they are programmed to (make money for those in control of the bank) but the pressures of an open (deregulated) system force them to take risks in order to accomplish this task. Sometimes these risks don’t work out. Individual “incompetence” is much less important than recognizing the necessary outcome that markets produce winners and losers. This is much less noticeable in the quotidian economy when countless businesses fail (think restaurants). It’s much more noticeable when the concentration of capital becomes so extreme that the economy cannot cope with true market outcomes (e.g. failure).

46

Shatterface 06.19.12 at 8:37 am

Most people forget – or just don’t know – that Michael Young’s book The Rise of Meritocracy (1958) which gave us the word ‘meritocracy’ was a satire not a political manifesto.

Listening to politicians extoling the virtues of meritocracy I can’t help thinking it would not sound any more chilling if they were banging on about Engsoc: ‘Our government is rolling out a a radical new programme to pull our country out of recession. Imagine a boot kicking a face forever…’

47

Phil 06.19.12 at 8:42 am

Polonius -

also the Church’s previous resistance to vernacular translations of the Bible and, more generally, reading of scripture by laymen, peasants, serfs, shop-keepers, etc

Hmm. From Tyndale you get the Bible in the vernacular, the Church of England, the Presbyterian movement and Old Dissent, which goes underground for a while before breaking out again in Methodism, Baptism and the Great Revivals, one of which gave us the Fundamentals and hence Xtian fundamentalism, Biblical inerrancy, young-Earth creationism and all. (Fun fact: the Great Revival wasn’t all that great in Britain – although my grandparents went for it in a big way & were Plymouth Brethren for the rest of their lives – but it took hard in Northern Ireland. This is how the NI Assembly Education Committee could end up being chaired by a believer in Noah’s Flood.)

So these aren’t people who have historically believed in not reading the Bible – far from it. Admittedly, as this guy says, their attention to the Bible is fairly selective -

The Bible is about 1200 pages long. If you took the texts read in churches for almost every sermon preached, most of them are passages about going to heaven. Accounts of super natural miracles and warnings against going to hell…. And those passages are in the Bible, but you could consolidate them to about ten or twelve pages. Less than 1% of the Bible addresses the topics that seem to be the majority concern of the church. And it makes you wonder if people in church don’t ever get curious about what is written on the other 1,190 pages?.

If you cut out all the passages that address the just treatment of the poor, about compassion for the elderly, orphans, the sick and the hungry from your Bible, there would not be enough paper left to hold it together. Most of the prophetic books have preachers addressing sermons – not to congregations – but to kings and politicians, and they’re condemning them … about the excessive militarism of the government, indifference towards the poor, abusive taxation to serve the interests of the wealthy… that theme of liberation, of passionate and sacrificial concern for justice is the theme that marches through the history of the judges, prophets, apostles and saints, many of whom were assassinated, imprisoned or repeatedly fired for doing and saying the right things.

(After that he gets really critical.)

Anyway – I think it’s a very different dynamic, basically. Old-style know-nothing deference said “we don’t know anything, we just need to know our place, the Bible and the vicar say so too”; new-style populism says “we know as much as we need to know, we’re the people who really matter, the Bible and the preacher say so too”.

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Alex 06.19.12 at 8:58 am

Regarding Michael Young, I think a lot of the comments here would be improved by using “meritocracy” in the sense he used it. Chris Hayes (or Chris Hayes, Chris Chris Hayes! as Spencer Ackerman used to call him) is quite clearly informed by it.

And I do like the framing of 2000-2010 as an era of failure. I mean, think of it. Everywhere you looked some prominent politician was debasing themselves in public, as Hunter Thompson said of the 1972 Democratic Convention.

49

maidhc 06.19.12 at 10:18 am

Many people have said that the goal of the elite seems to be to return the US to the Gilded Age. I recently read a history of the US Army Corps of Engineers on the Great Lakes. A great deal of work was done at federal expense to improve harbor facilities in Buffalo, Cleveland, etc. during the second half of the 19th century. Similar to the Interstate highway system, national defense was part of the justification for spending federal money (in case of war with Britain, or more likely a trade war with Britain).

A problem was that the harbor facilities, which were federal property, would be illegally occupied by railroad companies, who would then prevent other people from using them. And on top of that, as soon as they had occupied the property, they would send out an army of lawyers to claim title. On several occasions the US Army sent in armed troops to evict the squatters at gunpoint.

Reading that, the question I had was, would the federal government today send in troops to prevent large corporations from stealing government property? Of course we are much more advanced these days; the crude maneuverings of our forebears are laughable in their simplicity.

50

PL 06.19.12 at 1:08 pm

Isn’t it a problem for Hayes argument that the elites who were at the peak of their control 2000-2010 in government and business were a bunch of boomers and pre-boomers? That is, these are people who went to college and university and worked their way up the ranks of society in the 1960s and 1970s, the decades *before* “meritocracy” really instituted itself throughout society and the educational structure from the 1980s onward. The very top leaders of the 1990s to 2000s were not products of the meritocratic system; it’s their kids who will be, who are only in their teens to 30s right now, not having held any major power so far in society.

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Bud 06.19.12 at 3:25 pm

The author is in error. The problem is not meritocracy, it is human nature. Meritocracy is perfectly fine as long as it is allowed to function uninterfered with by anyone. The problem arises when the haves decide to try to change the rules to block any upwardward mobility by the havenots. There are way too many people who can’t see someone else succeeding, even on a modest scale, without feeling that they are being robbed somehow. The problem is the same as it always was – the human failings of greed and meanness.

52

Stuart Buck 06.19.12 at 3:26 pm

Could someone say more about what Hayes thinks is the solution? The post seems to say that the “cure” is taxing the rich. Well, if the problem is that the rich have too much money and power, then that’s fine. But it seems a non sequitur to suggest that reducing the power of rich people would do anything about the problems mentioned in the post’s second paragraph (sex abuse, steroids, etc.).

53

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 06.19.12 at 3:30 pm

“And does anybody thing Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina were the best people to run companies for the benefit of anybody besides themselves?”

In fairness, Whitman took Ebay from 30 employees to 15,000 employees.

Fiorina, though, was a lot of fail for HP.

54

drs 06.19.12 at 3:34 pm

To those saying it’s not really meritocracy: I think the point is that you start with meritocracy, but then the winners pull the ladder up behind them. You see this in civil service China too. Ostensibly any one could pass the test and get a position, but the education was expensive. US used to have good public schools and cheap public colleges, now not so much.

I’m impressed the post and 50 comments happened without any mention of ‘democracy’. General egalitarianism got mentioned, but how do we get a political system that resists elite sabotage and values equality in the first place? I’ve read that the Greeks disdained elections as too undemocratic, too prone to exalting wealth and charisma; they mostly used town meetings or random selection. We’re too big for the former and mere ballot initiatives are problematic, but could use randomly selected houses in conjunction with an elected legislature, if not in replacement of it. And we could clamor for employees and tenants having a say in business or landlord decisions that affect them, even if it’s just an expectation of non-binding consultation.

Not that democracy is perfect, but what is? The question is whether high democracy is stable, and a more desirable stable point than growing plutocracy.

55

Tom Hurka 06.19.12 at 4:12 pm

Mills wrote about the “power elite” in a decade when the top marginal tax rate was around 90%. So how would taxing the rich solve the problem today? Power seems perfectly capable of surviving changes in tax policy.

56

otto 06.19.12 at 4:17 pm

Looking forward to reading the book etc, but one thought right now: European countries have a lot less income inequality, and a lot more welfare etc. But EU elites in ‘social market’ Germany and Brussels seem to be getting it wrong big time just the same, their much less compensated bankers have made profoundly foolish investment decisions, their churches covered up abuse etc etc. So I start a bit skeptical that US-style meritocracy in particular is really at the root of the problem …

57

geo 06.19.12 at 4:36 pm

JS@43: Are they incompetent? Virtually all the increase in national income over the last several decades has gone to the 1 percent. That seems like success to me.

As for Iraq, it’s one thing to say: “The US failed to bring a thriving democracy and civil liberties to Iraq” and quite another thing to say “The US failed to achieve unrestricted basing rights, oil exploitation rights, and foreign-investor rights in Iraq.” It’s important to be very clear that you’re saying the latter, not the former, or you may find yourself being agreed with by Foreign Affairs or the New Republic.

58

MJAdams 06.19.12 at 4:54 pm

It is troubling to me that the “educated” elite today have lost understanding of how humans and their societies really work by not being acquainted with the great social and political philosophers of Ancient Greece, Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment. The search for prescriptions for just and economically fair societies exist in abundance among their writings — the founders of this country wrote volumes (not in the Constitution, a best blueprint of their compromises to their perceptions of reality) but rather in their arguments (see the Federalist Papers) influenced by these ancients. And yet, we continue to try to reinvent the wheel in light only of new technology. Human nature has remained the same throughout history and I believe, sadly, that whatever technology allows us to do towards equalizing access to abundance, we will find a way to let our innate competitive — and greedy — spirits disturb any harmony technology may create.

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mattski 06.19.12 at 6:14 pm

I can’t accept the idea that it was meritocracy that got us to this point. Meritocracy is an ideal more so than a reality. And what’s not to like about the ideal? You want to get on a boat with a captain who knows wtf he/she is doing.

As far as taxing the rich not fixing everything immediately- sure, but it’s the best place to start. Right now we can’t even have a rational national (!) discussion. First we have to pump some air back into the room.

60

Steve LaBonne 06.19.12 at 6:20 pm

It is troubling to me that the “educated” elite today have lost understanding of how humans and their societies really work by not being acquainted with the great social and political philosophers of Ancient Greece, Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment.

And universities like UVA are busy getting rid of all that stuff just to make sure none of the future best and brightest accidentally come in contact with it, which might lead them to ask inconvenient questions.

61

Satan Mayo 06.19.12 at 6:22 pm

Meritocracy is an ideal more so than a reality. And what’s not to like about the ideal? You want to get on a boat with a captain who knows wtf he/she is doing.

And you want that captain to have much, much, much more money than you.

62

kdog 06.19.12 at 6:25 pm

“I would call it Elster meets Gladwell if I thought that would be taken as praise”

Ugh. Maybe for those of you who have a working understanding / acceptance of Elster, there is something in the OP that resonates, but I find myself lost in the Gladwell-ness of it all. That is, there’s a lot of neato-cool examples of stuff I can relate to, but they don’t add up to anything like a solid support of the main argument, which doesn’t hold together by itself.

63

Data Tutashkhia 06.19.12 at 6:53 pm

Yeah, that’s right. It sure is a meritocracy, in the sense that the greediest, craftiest, the most ruthless sob wins. How could it be anything else, when the reward is money and power? And it is explicitly defined as such, and it’s considered healthy. You compete to become, for example, a doctor (not to mention a captain of industry) in order to be able to make lots of money. What do you expect to happen?

64

Jack 06.19.12 at 7:59 pm

Something bugs me about the line of reasoning that meritocracy is a problem because the “winners” pull the ladder up behind them. It leaves open the notion that if we could somehow perfect meritocracy, then all would be right with the world. Yes, meritocracy is a problem, but not only when it fails to function in its pure form: I take issue with the idea that one person *deserves* a better quality of life than another just because they perform better at whatever metrics society happens to value. If that were the case, we could simply breed ever more meritorious people by selecting for intelligence and physical attributes. Not born with high intellectual aptitude? Sorry, but you’re getting the life of poverty you merit. Meritocracy is certainly not a road to happiness for a vast majority of the populace.

The idea of meritocracy is so tempting because each of us wants to believe that when we work hard, we will achieve some external success. We also want to believe that the rewards we have are ours because we in some way deserve them. This is quite seldom the case. Even those of us who were born into poverty and clawed our way out cannot attribute our success solely to our own merits. Every person has some non-merit-based help along the way, even if that help is as simple as a random fortuitous event.

So, instead of saying that meritocracy fails because it becomes corrupted, let’s say that meritocracy fails because it can never exist in the first place, and because striving toward meritocracy yields unhappiness.

65

bianca steele 06.19.12 at 8:10 pm

Another possibility (re. “it’s not really meritocracy”) is that it is indeed meritocracy. Maybe the commenters are right that “merit” is being secretly redefined as “ability to win competitions by any means possible.” Or maybe, those with merit in the ordinary sense tend to be extra-competitive. It’s not unimaginable at all. One explanation might be, those who think merit is important are less likely to see other considerations as having any weight, so there’s nothing to stop them being ruthlessly, unethically competitive. Imaginable or not, I don’t think it’s likely (seeing some other considerations as less important, because merit is more important than those, doesn’t mean no other considerations have any importance–in other words, there are not only two choices). And I don’t know whether it’s Hayes’s argument.

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mark 06.19.12 at 8:21 pm

“I think we annoyed everyone else with our repeated insistence that reducing economic inequality was somehow always the appropriate solution to each of the many social ills the group identified”

If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

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Jonas 06.19.12 at 8:35 pm

It’s not just the rise of the meritocracy that caused the Fail Decade. It was also the celebration of certitude that compounded the problem during the George W Bush era. If your elites aren’t perfect (after all none are), but you’re darn certain they are, that just makes the problem (and the incentives for misbehavior) a whole lot worse.

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Jonas 06.19.12 at 8:37 pm

It’s not just the rise of the meritocracy that caused the Fail Decade. It was also the celebration of certitude that compounded the problem during the George W Bush era. If your elites aren’t perfect (after all none are), but you’re darn certain they are, that just makes the problem (and the incentives for misbehavior) a whole lot worse.

Meritocracy is particularly vulnerable to this, because after all their rise seems so scientific. How can they be wrong?

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Bruce Wilder 06.19.12 at 8:54 pm

Data Tutashkhia@63 makes a critically important point: money rewards are allowed to dominate all else in the great tournament of elite competition, with the predictable result that much of the elite is peopled by sociopaths.

The accumulation of money, as a result of this misguided method of scorekeeping, creates its own institutional pathologies.

mattski: “Meritocracy is an ideal more so than a reality. And what’s not to like about the ideal?”

James Michener used to tell a story about an Army unit in the South Pacific where the officer-in-charge, beleiving strongly in meritocracy, worked hard to support promotion and recognition for all the soldiers under his command, whom he identified as capable and meritorious. He worked hard at it, was judicious and objective and scrupulously fair. Eventually, he was removed from command and demoted, for his efforts.

His own soldiers respected his judgments and his relentlessness, but, over time, those, who were passed over, became completely demoralized and the unit’s morale and efficiency sank and, finally broke.

Every system of promotion and recognition, which I have seen work well in practice, balances the recognition of specific, high individual achievement with recognition of loyalty, longevity, team effort and that most dubious of virtues, persistence. A system of social and cultural values, which recognizes the capability is far less scarce than opportunity, and loyalty, idealism and integrity is far more valuable, socially, than the extremes of individual achievement, is healthier than what we have going on.

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mattski 06.19.12 at 9:17 pm

A system of social and cultural values, which recognizes the capability is far less scarce than opportunity, and loyalty, idealism and integrity is far more valuable, socially, than the extremes of individual achievement, is healthier than what we have going on.

Could you clarify this, Bruce? Also, what do you take to be the lesson in Michener’s story? My take is: it takes time to build culture.

In my mind meritocracy is implied by and consistent with democracy. “Merit”–highly subjective term evidently–to me includes consideration of character.

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Ian Maitland 06.19.12 at 9:31 pm

I’ll take a look at this, but despite the hype, I admit I’m dubious.

I don’t like grand, vacuous generalizations.

For example:
“Big businesses collapsed with Enron and Worldcom [sic], their auditors failed to catch it, ” … True, but there were specific reasons why this happened how and when it did. Elites had nothing to do with it.

“the Supreme Court got partisan in Bush v. Gore,”…. What does the term “partisan” add when the court has been shamelessly political since the New Deal?

” our intelligence apparatus failed to catch 9/11,” …. Or Pearl Harbor, for that matter.

“the media lied us into wars,”… come again??

……. “How did it all go so wrong?” … Granted, a lot went wrong, but why does there have to be a sovereign explanation for all the failures?

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Paul Davis 06.19.12 at 9:47 pm

@65: conversely though, if the problems are all nails, sometimes the tool you need is a hammer.

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bianca steele 06.19.12 at 10:40 pm

I’d also like to see details about Bruce’s experience. But bringing up the military experience also seems relevant. “Meritocracy” brings up two different but related strands: the Jeffersonian ideal Alex mentioned above, which is education- and credential-based (like the big public universities staffed, I’d guess (wildly), largely by Progressives of the same sort as the people who ran settlement houses–including City College New York which educated so many of the political elite of the mid-20th century), and examples like the Army officer played by Elliott Gould in A Bridge Too Far.

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geo 06.19.12 at 11:04 pm

mattski @67: “Merit” … includes consideration of character.

Yes, that seems like the right lesson to take from Bruce’s story.

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gordon 06.20.12 at 12:18 am

Phil at 47 (quoting anonymous priest on Youtube): “The Bible is about 1200 pages long”.

My Authorised Version is 1506 pages long – including Psalms. It’s 1500 pages if you take away the dedication and a couple of title pages. Maybe he has the large-format edition, or maybe the really, really small print edition, but it would have to be pretty big or pretty microscopic to fit in an extra 300 pages’ worth of text. I wonder if I’ve got even more stuff than he has!

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gordon 06.20.12 at 12:25 am

“Meritocracy” is a very useful idea for those at the top. It implies that you are at the top because you are better than all the rest (cue Tina Turner). Revolution is therefore not only nasty and violent but also misguided, because the result could only be substituting people with less talent for those currently in charge. When the disasters into which our current meritocrats have led us are pointed out, they cheerfully reply that things would – indeed, must – have been worse if other people had been in their place because, you know, they’re meritocrats so there is nobody better…

There is a wonderful circularity about it.

77

Peter T 06.20.12 at 1:03 am

“Merit” seems to me one of those big words like “good” that are place-holders in high level argument, but only really have meaningful reference in some particular context. And even there will change as the context changes. There are lots of ways to do most complex jobs, and so no one standard for excellence. Results are tricky – they can only be judged after the performance, and they too must be set in context (is a general who lost a battle against great odds but saved the army from total destruction better or worse than one who won with overwhelming force?). Plus most results are achieved by teams, where variety of character, experience and aptitudes is valuable in itself. The manager who just keeps everything tidy is not valued until things start getting lost. Plus, who judges “merit” (and who judges and selects for the ability to judge?).

In particular defined contexts (this person is a better lecturer/mechanic/cleaner than that one) it’s fine. As a general standard it’s vacuous.

78

So Much For Subtlety 06.20.12 at 3:34 am

chris 06.19.12 at 12:36 am

Well, as an American, my first response would be “they’re not, the local school boards are the ones pushing creationism; centralization is a small price to pay to stop that”. But that may be a malady unique to the US.

Sorry but could you just run that by me one more time – you think that democracy is likely to turn out such an awful result that taking away the right of people to vote and control their own destiny is justified? And all over Creationism, a belief that has zero negative consequences for anyone but the Believer (unlike pretty much everything any Western intellectual has believed since 1919 – look at Heidegger or Sartre) and which every single student in America can believe or not with zero negative consequences to their lives or careers and debates about which every single student can access with about two second’s work any time they feel?

Fascinating.

If so, is there any subject on which you think the American electorate can be trusted?

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So Much For Subtlety 06.20.12 at 4:07 am

Polonius 06.19.12 at 1:09 am

What Hayes describes is undoubtedly a reality; otherwise U.S. measures of social mobility wouldn’t have fallen below those of most of western Europe.

America’s rate of social mobility is so low because it does not have selective education. Those Scandinavians give children an exam and then stream them. Something that Americans regard as undemocratic. So they all get the same inadequate education in massive industrial-scale schools. Which do nothing to make up for the advantage that rich children get from a well-stocked home. Meritocracy is an interesting word as it depends on what you are looking for.

But when the power elites have deliberately degraded and.commodified our education and public discourse (i.e., the basis of our general intellectual culture) as thoroughly as they have

A comment like this immediately marks itself out for an intemperate response. There is no measure by which America’s public debate has got worse. It really has not. At the moment public discourse is at an all time high in the US. There has never been a time when more, and more interesting, people have access to the national stage. What you mean is either that your particular brand of unrepresentative extremist is ignored because even in these days of niche markets no one gives a damn, or you are nostalgic for the days when everyone basically thought the same. Or perhaps both.

Next, the latest poll shows that 44 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution.

Given that there is roughly zero support for this point of view from the educated elites in the US I find this rather heartening. It means the public is stubbornly resistant to the ideological indoctrination of their TV screens, schools, Universities, major newspapers and Country Club Republicans.

This whole Republican anti-science thing reminds me not just of obvious analogy—the opposition of the Church to Gallileo, Bruno, etc.

Really? It reminds me of the Left’s intolerance to people who say that humans are not a blank slate. Admittedly the Left is backing away from that argument, but on the other hand the Republicans have never broken up a Warmist meeting with violence. Nor have they lobbied for respected scientists like E. O. Wilson to be fired. So I guess it is horses for courses. Neither side has a monopoly on the war on science.

My wife, incidentally, had gotten a pretty decent education in the mid-’60’s at a state teachers’ college for tuition of—wait for it—$50 per semester or less than each of us made per week as lifeguards in the summers during college.

Yeah but that is because America was less of a meritocracy at the time. Because when you did it, college was mainly for White males. From good class backgrounds. As you make college more available to more people, competition for places goes up. When places are in more demand because women, Blacks and working class people can apply for them, they become more expensive. At least at the good schools. So you benefited from that? What are you going to do? Ban all but White Upper Middle Class males from applying?

Of course, although Norway and Sweden can still afford to do stuff like that AND have a system of universal health care, somehow the USA can’t (read “can essilynafford to but won’t anymore”).

Partly because Norway and especially Sweden ride for free off the backs of Americans. Americans pay to develop new drugs. Sweden gets them cheaply. America defended Europe. Sweden cozied up to the Soviets.

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js. 06.20.12 at 4:07 am

QS:

JS, “evil or incompetent” is answered best by “neither”. … Sometimes these risks don’t work out. Individual “incompetence” is much less important than recognizing the necessary outcome that markets produce winners and losers.

No real disagreement here. Admittedly, the “evil or incompetent” phrasing makes it seem like I’m talking about individual intentions/competency, which wasn’t at all my point. I could put the point this way: is institution X functioning such that it’s more or less reliably achieving its institutional aims? I think if you look at the major governing institutions of our society, I think the answer is a resounding No. (My point was that the truth of this is compatible with the thought that the institutional aims in question are in fact detrimental to the social good.)

geo:

JS@43: Are they incompetent? Virtually all the increase in national income over the last several decades has gone to the 1 percent. That seems like success to me.

As for Iraq, it’s one thing to say: “The US failed to bring a thriving democracy and civil liberties to Iraq” and quite another thing to say “The US failed to achieve unrestricted basing rights, oil exploitation rights, and foreign-investor rights in Iraq.”

I get this, but it seems like a false dilemma to me. Of course the administration (and the military) didn’t, umm, give a flying fuck about democracy and civil liberties. But plausibly, the aim was (a) an easy win, (b) a client state, and (c) control of resources. They maybe, maybe got (c). Highly unlikely that they got (b), and they most certainly didn’t get (a). This seems like a failure to me.

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js. 06.20.12 at 4:11 am

Also, I’ve only read excerpts (check out the June 25th edition of The Nation, e.g.), but I’m pretty certain that Hayes is not at all arguing for “perfect meritocracies”, whatever they might be.

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So Much For Subtlety 06.20.12 at 4:14 am

gordon 06.20.12 at 12:25 am

“Meritocracy” is a very useful idea for those at the top. It implies that you are at the top because you are better than all the rest (cue Tina Turner). Revolution is therefore not only nasty and violent but also misguided, because the result could only be substituting people with less talent for those currently in charge.

I might agree with that. It has one draw back too – people who rise to the top in a meritocracy think they belong there. People who have inherited their money know they do not. Old money tends to think they need to pay some of that back by serving the public good. Which is why George H. W. Bush volunteered to fly and spent his life in public service. Why the Ford Foundation and all the other grandchildren of the Robber Barons fund Left Wing causes. New money thinks it has every right to behave as they like. Which is why Donald Trump is such an ass – and I bet is not nice to anyone lower down the social scale. And also why Soviet bureaucrats were so nasty to everyone as well.

When the disasters into which our current meritocrats have led us are pointed out, they cheerfully reply that things would – indeed, must – have been worse if other people had been in their place because, you know, they’re meritocrats so there is nobody better…

Whatever else you can say about America in the 20th century, things would have been worse if other people got their way. Educated Americans – mainly in opposition to the American system because it keeps them out of power – have since the 1960s supported every other alternative they can think of. Chomsky attends Hizbullah pep rallies even though as a Jew they want him dead. Those alternatives have invariably turned out not merely worse but vastly worse. Before meddling you ought to make sure the system you want is an improvement. Not merely on paper but in reality.

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So Much For Subtlety 06.20.12 at 4:20 am

js. 06.20.12 at 4:07 am

I could put the point this way: is institution X functioning such that it’s more or less reliably achieving its institutional aims? I think if you look at the major governing institutions of our society, I think the answer is a resounding No.

By any sane measure, America is a vastly rich, incredibly free and highly successful social organization. Now you can make many claims, but I would not have thought that the governing institutions were not working was one of them. Institutions matter. If you think that America is much better off than, say, Nigeria and successful institutions are not the cause, what are you left with?

Of course the administration (and the military) didn’t, umm, give a flying fuck about democracy and civil liberties. But plausibly, the aim was (a) an easy win, (b) a client state, and© control of resources. They maybe, maybe got©. Highly unlikely that they got (b), and they most certainly didn’t get (a). This seems like a failure to me.

We not only know this is not true, we know it is obviously not true – and childish to claim it – because we know the Americans went in light. They did not, as the Soviets did, prepare a civil administration, a puppet Army and a docile political police in order to establish control immediately over Iraq. The Soviets managed to hold elections within a few short months in places like the Ukraine. The Bushies did not even bother to keep an adequate military force in place to keep down the violence. Thus we can assume they did not predict any. Thus the only plausible explanation is that they genuinely thought they would be welcome. Which means they did not intend to create a puppet state or seize any natural resources. They meant every single word of what they said. And, as I said, it is childish to say otherwise.

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slim's tuna provider 06.20.12 at 4:35 am

wait, wait, the 2000s are fail decade compared to what? seeing as how every single decade before that starting from (generously…) 1790, huge percentages of the elite were always at work figuring out how to fight continent-wide and world and to colonize people and resources (so as to have more resources to fight wars!), and creating machines whose purpose, directly or indirectly, was to enable their nations to fight wars, the 2000s were the bad decade? sure, most of that elite agression was turned into money, but what did you expect? like does the author prefer the elite as a slave owner, or cold warrior, or builder of socialism in the ukraine in 1932, or defense contractor in 1962, or a functionary in the raj, or as a prussian infantry colonel, over an i-banker? for reals?

85

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.12 at 5:05 am

So Much for Subtlety #78: “And all over Creationism, a belief that has zero negative consequences for anyone but the Believer…”

Wrong both ways. Belief in Creationism rarely has negative consequences for the Believer. While such anti-science beliefs when enacted upon, such as changing the curriculum to teach arational thought as if it were biology, or the belief that global warming is not real, has negative consequences for almost everyone, to a greater or lesser degree.

#79: “Nor have they lobbied for respected scientists like E. O. Wilson to be fired.”

There was a concerted effort to discredit scientists with the phony “Climategate”, and that wasn’t the end of it.

#79 “the Left’s intolerance to people who say that humans are not a blank slate.”

Please put a link to someone, anyone at all, or perhaps quote them, saying that humans are a blank slate, and that we shouldn’t tolerate people who say otherwise.

#79: “Americans pay to develop new drugs. Sweden gets them cheaply.”

Sweden is actually a good pharmaceutical innovator and strong exporter.

#83: “they did not intend to create a puppet state”

Actually it appears that they hoped to install Chalabi, but the Ayatollah Sistani had other ideas.

This is all quite ill-informed stuff.

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js. 06.20.12 at 5:43 am

The Bushies did not even bother to keep an adequate military force in place to keep down the violence. Thus we can assume they did not predict any. Thus the only plausible explanation is that they genuinely thought they would be welcome.

And this basically proves my point. See also Hayes on the consequences of the elites becoming a self-contained, self-perpetuating group (here).

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geo 06.20.12 at 6:13 am

js @80: This seems like a failure to me.

Yes, we agree — everyone agrees — that they failed in Iraq. But not everyone agrees about what that means — ie, about what they were trying to do. I’m only suggesting that Hayes (and everyone else) acknowledge — and perhaps he does; I haven’t read the book — that they failed at nefarious purposes, not noble ones.

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geo 06.20.12 at 6:47 am

PS – … in which case, it’s the purposes we should be criticizing, not the failure.

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So Much For Subtlety 06.20.12 at 8:16 am

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.12 at 5:05 am

Wrong both ways. Belief in Creationism rarely has negative consequences for the Believer. While such anti-science beliefs when enacted upon, such as changing the curriculum to teach arational thought as if it were biology, or the belief that global warming is not real, has negative consequences for almost everyone, to a greater or lesser degree.

I might agree with you about the believers, assuming that you do not think living in ignorance of basic science is a cost. But there is no negative consequence to anyone else from them believing it. In fact the places where they do believe it tend to be the nicest parts of the US. Anyone would be lucky to have Ned Flanders as a neighbor. Global warming is either not real or so small as to be negligible. Or at least the least important environment issue we face. So far there have been no negative effects of ignoring it and quite a few from trying to do something about it.

There was a concerted effort to discredit scientists with the phony “Climategate”, and that wasn’t the end of it.

Climategate was not phony – the IPCC has backed away from most of the weirder claims like the non-existence of the Medieval Warming period – and there was no effort whatsoever to physically assault any Warmist (unlike those psychiatrists who thought homosexuality was a disease or Wilson himself or even the poor guy who said that people from Papua New Guinea thought pictures of sad Westerners were pictures of sad Westerners) much less to get any of them fired. To point out crap work is crap is not a conspiracy.

Sweden is actually a good pharmaceutical innovator and strong exporter.

Really? Do tell. Evidence please.

Actually it appears that they hoped to install Chalabi, but the Ayatollah Sistani had other ideas.

And Sistani was not executed or jailed. He got his way. As the Americans may have hoped Chalabi had the popularity to succeed, but they did not even try to install him.

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Data Tutashkhia 06.20.12 at 9:18 am

Of course they planned to install a puppet government, what else? That’s the point of this game; Saddam’s government wasn’t puppet enough.

When they hit a snag, they proceeded by splitting it along sectarian lines (standard ‘divide and conquer’ strategy), and they backed Sistani’s side. So, assassinating him would’ve been counterproductive.

And I think banking on Shia was their big mistake: since the Shia are a majority, they don’t need American patronage. You should always side with a minority. So, they won the battle (against the Sunni Triangle), but they lost the war. Now, that’s incompetence.

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prasad 06.20.12 at 9:22 am

How did the argument that meritocracies are dangerous transmute into the argument that local control of schools is bad, since they maintain and support creationism? Don’t these arguments have opposite tendencies?

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Walt 06.20.12 at 9:22 am

I see we’re receiving a transmission from Planet Sexual Harassment = Freedom. We should compare basic physical constants — it could provide an important test of the anthropic principle in cosmology.

The creationist areas of the country are superficially friendlier in casual interactions. That’s a long way from nicer, and the creationist areas are much less nicer places to live.

93

Chris Horner 06.20.12 at 10:39 am

Excellent review of what seems like a good book.

The sci fi utopia looks quite a lot like communism, as Marx (may have) imagined it.

for more on meritocracy see: http://www.chrishorner.net/the-injustices-of-merit/

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Nigel 06.20.12 at 10:45 am

“Sweden is actually a good pharmaceutical innovator and strong exporter…Evidence please”

The Astra part of Astra Zeneca is Swedish. A few years back, they had the world’s best selling drug (Losec).
They are a country of fewer than 10 million people, yet come 10th on the list of US patents.

“Sweden is an export-oriented mixed economy featuring a modern distribution system, excellent internal and external communications, and a skilled labor force…”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Sweden

In the age of Wikipedia, asking for evidence is evidence of laziness.
Particularly when you’re wrong.

95

Barry 06.20.12 at 11:20 am

Geo: “Billikin @3 has a point, which also occurred to me when I read this in the review: “Our nation’s institutions have crumbled, Hayes argues. From 2000–2010 … every major societal institution failed.” No, they’re all working perfectly well—exactly as those in charge intend them to. They’re just not working for you and me.”

In other words, Second Gilded Age.

So far, I have not seen a single thing which refutes that theory
[i.e., the elites have slipped their shackles, and are doing the same old same old.
The idea that letting ‘them’ in ruined the purity of our elites].

96

Cranky Observer 06.20.12 at 11:30 am

=== So Much For Subtlety 06.20.12 at 4:07 am
[…]
.
America’s rate of social mobility is so low because it does not have selective education. Those Scandinavians give children an exam and then stream them. Something that Americans regard as undemocratic. So they all get the same inadequate education in massive industrial-scale schools. Which do nothing to make up for the advantage that rich children get from a well-stocked home. Meritocracy is an interesting word as it depends on what you are looking for.
===

Since you apparently missed the entire suburbanization/exurbanization of US society, and are unaware that the vast majority of US public schoolchildren attend locally-controlled suburban schools (essentially all of which have separate classes for remedial/regular/honors/AP students, selected by competitive performance), why should we take anything else you say seriously?

Cranky

97

Peter Dorman 06.20.12 at 12:39 pm

I haven’t read the book and am responding only to the post and the comments.

There is something Schopenhauer-ish about the idea that the previous decade was uniquely disastrous (for the US?) and presages further decline. Yes, there were spectacular fails, but that could also be said of other decades. As someone who came of age during the Vietnam War, I can recall some earlier doozies.

Second, I agree with some of the comments that meritocracy is at least partly illusory self-justification for elites. We shouldn’t assume that successfully rising within a hierarchy reflects superior performance.

Third, I think there is a specific type of fail that characterizes the recent past, the overreliance on measurable indicators. To summarize (brutally) a longer argument, we have seen the rise of a system of thought that holds that everything that matters can be represented as information. We can manage through information. Computerization has put us on a path to unbounded gains in productivity. Anonymous hubs of information, like financial markets, are appropriate centers of control. Performance can be assessed objectively through outcome data. It’s a comprehensive world view with enough kernels of truth to be credible, but when it fails it has the tendency to fail catastrophically.

But the specific failures of the last decade have to be chalked up, like the failures (and successes) of all decades, to a confluence of factors that interacted in their own idiosyncratic way. We had a massive run of domestic inequality, disorganization and defeatism (“the struggle is the victory”) on the left, the emergence of a new international division of labor (global imbalances), a resurgence of extremist religious dogma, etc. When I think about what is new and different in this stew, more meritocratic elite selection doesn’t come to mind.

98

mattski 06.20.12 at 1:04 pm

The Bushies did not even bother to keep an adequate military force in place to keep down the violence. Thus we can assume they did not predict any. Thus the only plausible explanation is that they genuinely thought they would be welcome. Which means they did not intend to create a puppet state or seize any natural resources.

Well. I think it’s safe to say YOU can assume it. Did you allow for the possibility that, in their unparalleled incompetence, they thought that oil contracts and a friendly client state would fall into their lap?

They meant every single word of what they said. And, as I said, it is childish to say otherwise.

You seem to have some considerable expertise in “childishness”. And Subtlety!

99

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.12 at 1:08 pm

So Much for Subtlety #89 — So you get all your stuff from Fox News and chain emails? But you forgot to reassert your implication that Leftists have violently broken up meetings of anti-blank-slaters!

100

So Much For Subtlety 06.20.12 at 1:52 pm

Data Tutashkhia 06.20.12 at 9:18 am

Of course they planned to install a puppet government, what else? That’s the point of this game; Saddam’s government wasn’t puppet enough.

A neatly circular argument – the war is about my fantasy because the war is about my fantasy. What else? Exactly what they said. Democracy. Liberation.

When they hit a snag, they proceeded by splitting it along sectarian lines (standard ‘divide and conquer’ strategy), and they backed Sistani’s side. So, assassinating him would’ve been counterproductive.

I don’t even know where to begin with this. In the First Gulf War the Shia rose against the Sunni government. How do you explain pre-existing, indeed long-standing, Iraqi sectarian divides if it was all the work of the Americans a decade (in fact several centuries) later? How do you explain the sectarianism of Saddam’s government which was Sunni dominated? How do you explain the sectarianism of the rest of the Middle East – notably that other Ba’athist country, Syria? All the work of the Americans?

No doubt you will have some trite sound bite to explain that too.

You can side with the Shia without siding with Sistani. As they did with Chalabi.

And I think banking on Shia was their big mistake: since the Shia are a majority, they don’t need American patronage. You should always side with a minority. So, they won the battle (against the Sunni Triangle), but they lost the war. Now, that’s incompetence.

If that was what they were trying to do, perhaps. But given there is no evidence of it it is irrelevant. It exists in your imagination. In reality what they tried to do was create a democracy. Which they expected to work. Thus they sided with the majority of the voters. Who happened to hate them, just not all that violently by Iraqi standards.

Cranky Observer 06.20.12 at 11:30 am

Since you apparently missed the entire suburbanization/exurbanization of US society, and are unaware that the vast majority of US public schoolchildren attend locally-controlled suburban schools (essentially all of which have separate classes for remedial/regular/honors/AP students, selected by competitive performance), why should we take anything else you say seriously?

You can take what I say as you like it. I did not miss it. It is irrelevant. In so far as it is not irrelevant, it proves my point – instead of selecting by academic merit as most of Europe does, Americans select by class and wealth through property purchase. The fact that there is limited streaming is also irrelevant. It is not enough. British schools have the same lame system and decades of experience has shown it does not make up for the loss of the selective Grammars. I did not mention what they had for lunch either. Will you be bringing that dereliction to my attention too? The color of their sneakers? The existence of Glee clubs?

mattski 06.20.12 at 1:04 pm

Well. I think it’s safe to say YOU can assume it. Did you allow for the possibility that, in their unparalleled incompetence, they thought that oil contracts and a friendly client state would fall into their lap?

Ummm, no. I am sure they thought they would get a friendly client state and I am sure that they thought that American companies would win contracts on a level playing field. Or even one that was pro-American just a tad. But that is my point – they thought they would get this through liberation. The fact that they went in light proves it. Nor have you even begun to suggest a reason why anyone should think otherwise. 100 percent of the evidence points to this conclusion. What do you have?

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.12 at 1:08 pm

So you get all your stuff from Fox News and chain emails? But you forgot to reassert your implication that Leftists have violently broken up meetings of anti-blank-slaters!

It is not an implication, it is a statement of fact. Which no one in their right mind denies. If you feel like denying it, please do so. Can I take your reliance on a rather lame ad hominem as proof you have nothing substantive to say?

101

Alex 06.20.12 at 2:02 pm

on the other hand the Republicans have never broken up a Warmist meeting with violence

I don’t know what “warmists” are – moderate hotties? – but here’s a prominent climate-change denier engaging in public incitement: I didn’t need to go back more than a month.

102

Harold 06.20.12 at 2:49 pm

Um, # 79: “America’s rate of social mobility is so low because it does not have selective education. Those Scandinavians give children an exam and then stream them. Something that Americans regard as undemocratic.”

Please check your facts. Scandinavians regard streaming as highly undemocratic, as indeed it is.

According to wikipedia, in Sweden: “Between ages 6/7 and 15/16, children attend compulsory comprehensive school (grundskola), divided in three stages.” Comprehensive = “not streamed” or “open to all”.

Like higher ed in the USA, secondary school, beginning at 15 or 16, is not mandatory in Sweden (no more in Finland.) As I understand it, all Swedes, (apparently) get the same mandatory, democratic, unstreamed education, as in Finland. Entrance to secondary and Tertiary (as in the US) ed., is by exam. Except that in contrast to the USA, in democratic Scandinavia, tertiary university tuition and board are completely state subsidized.

103

Data Tutashkhia 06.20.12 at 3:13 pm

Subtlety, it’s my fantasy like gravitation is my fantasy. States don’t invade states to ‘liberate’ them, they invade to pursue their own interests. And installing a puppet government is the most obvious way (these days, anyway) to do it. As for “Exactly what they said”, that’s just silly, because every invading state says this. If you take it at the face value, then you must take every invading state’s proclamation the same way, but I’m sure you’ll find it problematic.

104

So Much For Subtlety 06.20.12 at 3:36 pm

Alex 06.20.12 at 2:02 pm

I don’t know what “warmists” are – moderate hotties? – but here’s a prominent climate-change denier engaging in public incitement: I didn’t need to go back more than a month.

You know, I have been around the internet for some time and you would think I would know better by now. But really the blatant dishonesty of your comment really shocks me. Judith Curry does not call for violence. She does not commit a single act of violence. Thus your comparison is flatly out wrong. What is more she does not “engage in public incitement”. Not even close. Some moron makes a comment on a blog. She mocks him. Big freakin’ deal.

curryja | May 24, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
Well Tucci78 is regarded as high entertainment by many of the regulars here. Not so much accepting his sentiments, as being entertained by his presentation of them.

That is not an endorsement. That is a clear distancing herself from someone she has not banned yet but who is clearly regarded as a nut case. There is simply no way that an honest reading of what she said can produce what you claim for it.

Harold 06.20.12 at 2:49 pm

Please check your facts. Scandinavians regard streaming as highly undemocratic, as indeed it is.

That must be why so many of them do it then. In fact that will be why all of them used to do it and many of them still do. For instance, which country does this refer to:

After their nine-year basic education in a comprehensive school, students at the age of 16 may choose to continue their secondary education in either an academic track (lukio) or a vocational track (ammattikoulu), both of which usually take three years.

Or this:

Prior to 1994 there were three branches of upper secondary schooling: “General” (language, history etc.), “mercantile” (accounting etc.) and “vocational” (electronics, carpentry etc.) studies. The high school reform of 1994 (Reform 94) merged these branches into a single system.

According to wikipedia, in Sweden: “Between ages 6/7 and 15/16, children attend compulsory comprehensive school (grundskola), divided in three stages.” Comprehensive = “not streamed” or “open to all”.

Sure. Dating back all the way to 1994 I dimly remember. Before which they had gymnasium. Well they still do, but they call all schools by that name now. Here’s a simple prediction – those Scandinavian countries that abolished streaming in the 1990s will soon experience a drop in social mobility. What are the chances you think?

As I understand it, all Swedes, (apparently) get the same mandatory, democratic, unstreamed education, as in Finland. Entrance to secondary and Tertiary (as in the US) ed., is by exam. Except that in contrast to the USA, in democratic Scandinavia, tertiary university tuition and board are completely state subsidized.

Finland still streams. At least for the last three years. Entrance to University in the US is not really determined by exams. That is why students have to lie so much in their entrance essays – and why rich parents can use their influence to get their little ones internships and provide volunteer opportunities building stuff in the Third World that, like, taught them so much about their humanity. It is not relevant, but I don’t think most of Scandinavia uses exams to enter secondary school either – although the system is still competitive and based on previous marks. And I am surprised to hear that people use exams for high school entry in the US as well. At least for public schools. You mean if I want to go down Podunk State High just down the road I have to prove anything other than I am a warm body of the appropriate age who happens to live in the area?

105

Josh G. 06.20.12 at 3:40 pm

DNFTT. I think I have a pretty good idea who “So Much For Subtlety” actually is, though I’m not yet 100% sure.

106

So Much For Subtlety 06.20.12 at 3:43 pm

Data Tutashkhia 06.20.12 at 3:13 pm

Subtlety, it’s my fantasy like gravitation is my fantasy. States don’t invade states to ‘liberate’ them, they invade to pursue their own interests. And installing a puppet government is the most obvious way (these days, anyway) to do it. As for “Exactly what they said”, that’s just silly, because every invading state says this. If you take it at the face value, then you must take every invading state’s proclamation the same way, but I’m sure you’ll find it problematic.

You are stating as a fact what you need to prove. For instance Tanzania invaded Uganda to overthrow Idi Amin. They did. In the Liberation War. Then they left. Explain to me Tanzania’s interest.

Not every invading state says this. And we have so few invading states for good reason. Of course you have to take every invading state’s proclamations at face value. Until they prove otherwise. America did not. This discussion should have ended long before this point.

107

Bruce Wilder 06.20.12 at 4:12 pm

Subtlety: “America did not.”

America did not what? Is there a predicate?

I’m having a hard time following your argument. Maybe it is too subtle ;-)

First of all, did America ever proclaim its intention in invading Iraq? I seem to recall some lies about weapons of mass destruction. Was there something else? Something noble, that I missed?

Speaking personally, I’ve never seen an interpretation of the Bush Administration’s intention in invading Iraq, which was entirely satisfactory, with regard to supporting evidence. The incompetence involved, to me, obscures most of the usual lines of argument, whereby we prove “true” intention by reference to the match between means and ends and consequences. You seem to think that the incompetence is exculpatory, while I think the incompetence was, itself, the major sin, enveloping all — intention, execution and style, results, costs and consequences. They were so thoroughly incompetent from the get-go, that we cannot reliably identify a coherent strategic intention, even in retrospect — they simply never figured out why they were invading Iraq, and everything else followed, including the epic incompetence of the Occupation and failed Reconstruction. Incompetence in an enterprise of such vast and lethal scope is, or ought to be, considered criminal, literally a war crime, compounded by the usual corruption and abuse of power. You seem to think it qualification for sainthood. I find this line of argument confusing.

108

Barry 06.20.12 at 4:16 pm

js @43:

“In other words, when it comes to the “Evil or incompetent?” the question, the answer clearly suggested by the last decade is “Both!” I haven’t read the book (plan to soon), but if Hayes is giving an analysis of the incompetent side of the equation, that’s surely all to the good.”

It also fits with the hypothesis of ‘Second Gilded Age’. Remember, back then they trashed the system as well.

109

Barry 06.20.12 at 4:18 pm

So Much for Subtlety @ 99:

“But that is my point – they thought they would get this through liberation. The fact that they went in light proves it. Nor have you even begun to suggest a reason why anyone should think otherwise. 100 percent of the evidence points to this conclusion. What do you have?”

Remember, the goal was to do Iraq on the cheap, because Iraq was supposed to be the first ‘battle’ of a campaign to remake the entire Middle East (and anywhere else deemed necessary).

Also, the administration wanted the American people to believe this. If they had mobilized the entire National Guard/Reserves and started prepping them and the entire Active Army for a 2-3 year deployment to Iraq, people would have balked.

110

Lee A. Arnold 06.20.12 at 4:36 pm

Too Much for Subtlety #99: “It is not an implication, it is a statement of fact.”

Then please by all means, give a LINK to the “fact” that left-wingers have violently attacked people for being anti-blank slaters, or that left-wingers even care. I asked for this in #85.

111

Natilo Paennim 06.20.12 at 5:09 pm

Not having read the work in question, I’m a little confused. What alternative to the current state of affairs is being proposed? A return to the Bubble 90s and Clintonian neoliberalism? Some kind of early-1960s postwar consensus paradise, except without the racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. etc.? If elites are harmful, what’s the remedy? Just taxing them more? Lucy Parsons already explained that this won’t work.

There’s a reason that good-hearted liberal people are all depressed and ineffectual nowadays: capitalism doesn’t work. Not for “getting the goods” for the vast majority of people, at least. The global north has managed to eke out a few decades of massive over-consumption based on exporting murder, theft and fraud to the colonies. Only now it turns out that middle-class white people were just another colony themselves.

There is a way out of this morass: Ally yourselves with the workers, the queers, the blacks, the foreigners. Don’t let the twin evils of nationalism and religion cloud your minds. Refuse to stand idly by while that cop shoots that kid. Bust up a neo-Nazi conclave. Plant an illegal garden. Organize your neighbors to squat abandoned buildings or foreclosed homes and kick slumlords out of your area. Kill your TV. Abandon your car. Form a workers’ solidarity club. Make connections with like-minded people and ostracize your reactionary relatives.

None of this stuff is mysterious. There’s a huge body of literature about how and why to do it. You’ve tried voting, it didn’t work. Try fucking shit up instead, the system deserves it.

112

Harold 06.20.12 at 5:24 pm

‘Too much’, you blame the defects of American education on its supposed lack of streaming. You wrote (#79): “America’s rate of social mobility is so low because it does not have selective education. Those Scandinavians give children an exam and then stream them.”

Then you write (lamely) that “Finland still streams” in the last three years. The last three years (high school or vocational school, the equivalents of our community colleges) are not compulsory in Finland. People take the entrance exams voluntarily. (I believe they make re-take them if they fail, but am not sure). Education from the ages of seven to sixteen, which is compulsory, is not “selective” in Scandinavia, at least in Finland and Sweden (according to wikipedia). The idea of making people compete for a spot in compulsory education is cruel and perverse. Though this is the very thing that people are trying to introduce in our cities.

Your shifting arguments show you are not serious.

113

mattski 06.20.12 at 7:33 pm

SMFS,

At 83 you said, “Which means [Bush & Co] did not intend to create a puppet state or seize any natural resources.”

At 99 you said, “I am sure they thought they would get a friendly client state and I am sure that they thought that American companies would win contracts on a level playing field. Or even one that was pro-American just a tad.”

The fact that Saddam was unfriendly to the US and selling his oil to Russia and other states rather than to us might have sharpened the Bush/Cheney interest in installing a friendly regime, no? link.

So, big surprise, you’re all wet.

114

Falstaff 06.20.12 at 10:18 pm

“…every major societal institution failed. Big businesses… auditors …Supreme Court … intelligence apparatus … media …military….professional sports …church… government … banks .”

Given the author and Hayes both camped at Harvard for a time the disastrously smug and insufferable Academy is not allowed allowed a pass on that list because it was getting a bit long. Pointing at everyone else but would be, um, elitist.

115

Barry 06.20.12 at 11:33 pm

The biggest problem with Chris’ thesis is the implied corrective actions.

If Chris is correct, then we could right things by kicking racial/ethnic minorities out of access to power, wealth and influence. We could ban women from the professions. We could require $50K fees for admission to the bar. We could restore the Ivy League to a place where first-generation students were rare (and always from nouveau riche families). [I imagine that the people in charge of the Ivy League wouldn’t mind]

Does anybody think that this would help us?

116

bob mcmanus 06.21.12 at 1:10 am

Hey! I just had an original and interesting insight.

How bouts we restrict the franchise, the right to vote in any election, to those without a college degree? Or low-wealth, or low-income?

Certainly the elites will not stop trying to obtain skills and credentials, but their power and political influence will be limited to the ways they can influence and persuade the non-elites. And their education, wealth, skills, and arrogance should mean they would have no fear of the idiocracy. They would think they could manage it. They might be wrong. And competition would be intense, and to the benefit of the underclasses

Won’t happen, but I can dream.

(Psssst: Romney? $1000. I’m cheap. Aw hell $100. A case of beer?)

117

Harold 06.21.12 at 1:53 am

Rather than doling out disproportionate and scarce “rewards” to those with/or without “merit”, the more sane approach is to concentrate on raising the level for everyone. See 93 above.

118

js. 06.21.12 at 4:26 am

The biggest problem with Chris’ thesis is the implied corrective actions.

If Chris is correct, then we could right things by kicking racial/ethnic minorities out of access to power, wealth and influence. We could ban women from the professions.

I guess I’ve no idea why you think this. Like I’ve said, I haven’t read the book yet. But I have read excerpts and I’ve read lots of articles by Hayes, mostly in The Nation. So I’ve some sense of where he’s coming from, and this is clearly, clearly, not what he’s advocating. The whole point is that the idea of meritocracy is seductive precisely because it’s not about birth, hereditary rank, etc. But it still fails. I mean, you wouldn’t want to conclude from Marx’s critique of capitalism that he favored a return to feudalism, right?

119

js. 06.21.12 at 4:27 am

Sorry, italics fail. They should end after “fails”.

120

JW Mason 06.21.12 at 5:28 am

I think it’s a mistake to regard post-scarcity as a subject for science fiction. The rich countries today are already post-scarcity as far as technology is concerned, and have been for some time.

It seems clear to me that we could organize production with today’s technology so that no one had to do demeaning, dangerous, or excessively tedious work — or too much work of any kind — and still produce enough stuff to provide all the wellbeing that stuff is able to provide. At which point, eliminating the remaining need for labor would be not just unnecessary but a step backwards, since useful work is, after all, a major source of fulfillment.

As for the book, I haven’t read it (would like to, but there are so many books…), but I tend to share Peter Dorman’s criticisms (@97) of the thesis as presented here.

121

John Quiggin 06.21.12 at 5:43 am

SMFS seems to be an all-purpose troll. Do Not Feed

122

John Quiggin 06.21.12 at 5:55 am

Like JWM, I haven’t read the book, though I plan to, so I’ll repeat a few thoughts which may be familiar. As I mentioned very recently, it’s a logical necessity that, when inequality is growing rapidly from a relatively egalitarian starting point, it can’t be derived primarily from inheritance.

So, if we define “meritocracy” as a system in which people achieve their position primarily through their own endeavors, rather than through being born into a particular position, and say that the greater are the rewards for success and punishments for failure, the more meritocratic is the system, then the US at present is highly meritocratic.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see that the meritocracy is already breaking down at many levels, from the Presidency (recent dynastic presidents or aspirants include Bush, Gore, H Clinton, Romney) to the elite universities, where an every narrower section of the population gets access to the qualifications needed to compete for the top jobs.

123

JW Mason 06.21.12 at 6:33 am

I should add that I used to read Hayes stuff in the Nation and it was really very good. Not many people go from that to hosting their own tv show on a major channel in just a few years, but he really seems to have earned it. He seems, perhaps ironically, to be an example of what people imagine by meritocracy.

124

bob mcmanus 06.21.12 at 6:54 am

122.2 is the problem, not a solution in that attempting to abstract an individual from their personal history, society and social conditions, etc that abstraction as an operative normative principal universally applied in some Rawlsian system of blind justice can only also ignore in fairness the privilege and factor endowments of Romneys and Bushes.

“primarily through their own endeavors, rather than through being born into a particular position”

Doesn’t happen never happens cannot happen. We are born and develop socially embedded, and the successes and failures are socially determined, whether it is the poor reaching the top over adversity or the privileged reproducing their privilege. If it looks like the social system rewards endeavor through agency, we are simply not looking closely enough, or choosing to ignore which kinds of activity or character are socially rewarded in a noticeable way, usually monetarily or with fame or power in liberal capitalism.

The milkwoman with a thousand friends and a loving family, capable in her job over decades in the same town doesn’t get the money and the books and documentaries and awards, but that is not to say she is not rewarded for her endeavors and is definitely a success.

Sure you will all nod and say salt of the earth and the really valuable human, and yet still try to maximize and equalize Ivy league degrees and six-figure salaries.

Wilder approached it at 69 above. Liberal capitalism and economics hasn’t a clue what real merit is.

125

bob mcmanus 06.21.12 at 7:05 am

He seems, perhaps ironically, to be an example of what people imagine by meritocracy.

I am not impressed by Chris Hayes. I don’t know enough. Should I be impressed by a smart bestseller, a tv shoe?

Tougher question: Should I be impressed by Aung San Suu Kyi? Is it a kind of nihilism to be suspicious and skeptical of celebrity and extraordinary achievement and heroism, not so much as any slight or devaluation of her, but as merely a way to critique a slippage of my own values away from empathy for the ordinary courage and persistance of those who just survive and maintain?

I like the construction worker who lives across the street, and the guys pouring concrete on my street. Hard workers, always smiling.

126

John Holbo 06.21.12 at 7:54 am

“I like the construction worker who lives across the street, and the guys pouring concrete on my street. Hard workers, always smiling.”

David Brooks has kidnapped Bob McManus and is holding him hostage until his demands are met!

127

Robert 06.21.12 at 9:34 am

Many of the criticisms of the book’s thesis are in the book, at least somewhat.

For example, Peter Dorman writes, “…meritocracy is at least partly illusory self-justification for elites. We shouldn’t assume that successfully rising within a hierarchy reflects superior performance.” And further, “I think there is a specific type of fail that characterizes the recent past, the overreliance on measurable indicators. “

Hayes talks about a school where the only criteria is a test that anybody can take, how that admissions policy ends up reproducing the (un-meritocratic) race and class divisions of the school’s setting, and leading to some who have succeeded by this supposedly meritocratic selection process wrongly thinking they deserve their success.

In another chapter, he talks about how so many on Wall Street and in hedge funds thinking that there is some unidimensional measure of smartness that they excel at.

I’m not sure how well Hayes talks about why the last decade is a specific case of fail, different than other decades. He does talk about broad trends in, say, income distribution in the post-war Golden Age and afterwards, as well as how the 1960s opened up the WASP elites to a more, supposedly meritocratic, influx from women, ethnic minorities, etc.

But the fact that I can find so many of these criticisms addressed or echoed in the book, at some level, does point out a weakness. It is hard to organize what it says into a specific thesis.

128

Barry 06.21.12 at 12:35 pm

js: “I guess I’ve no idea why you think this. Like I’ve said, I haven’t read the book yet. But I have read excerpts and I’ve read lots of articles by Hayes, mostly in The Nation. So I’ve some sense of where he’s coming from, and this is clearly, clearly, not what he’s advocating. The whole point is that the idea of meritocracy is seductive precisely because it’s not about birth, hereditary rank, etc. But it still fails. I mean, you wouldn’t want to conclude from Marx’s critique of capitalism that he favored a return to feudalism, right?”

We (USA) live in a system which the elites were freed to pillage and burn, and despite what John Quiggin said, we are both low on the social mobility scale and dropping.

Now, why in the name of all that’s sacred would Chris think that meritocracy is the problem?

IMHO, this is like those people who survey the current scene, and decide that the most important priority is to destroy Social Security, and to hand the money over to the looters who run the plutocracy. Something is seriously wrong with the way that they think.

129

Alex 06.21.12 at 12:37 pm

Hayes talks about a school where the only criteria is a test that anybody can take, how that admissions policy ends up reproducing the (un-meritocratic) race and class divisions of the school’s setting, and leading to some who have succeeded by this supposedly meritocratic selection process wrongly thinking they deserve their success.

>> this is Young’s meritocracy.

130

mattski 06.21.12 at 3:32 pm

Peter Dorman concluded this way,

When I think about what is new and different in this stew, more meritocratic elite selection doesn’t come to mind.

Saying essentially, I wouldn’t blame meritocracy per se, which seems right to me. As I said earlier meritocracy is an ideal. In the real world there are lots and lots contaminates creeping in, undermining that ideal. That is not the fault of the ideal. I think that is an important point.

So, two people who’s comments I find consistently valuable: Barry, I think js is right that there is little reason to think Hayes is pointing in the direction you suggest. And js, I don’t think your “and it still fails” holds up.

And bob mcmanus proves conclusively that the left end of the political spectrum tapers off in low comedy.

131

bianca steele 06.21.12 at 3:39 pm

Alex,
Having skimmed the article in the Nation and read the comments by people who’ve read the book, I wonder if the difference actually is between a basically unchangeable system that corrals the smartest into training programs where they’ll exercise their intelligence and skills, and a system where everything’s up for grabs and where education is one long exam at the end of which the winners are enabled to compete to have the system implement their ideas. I think Young was talking about the former. The latter seems a bit like libertarianism of a sort (right-wing but socially liberal libertarianism, say what some might call neoliberalism), as contrasted with the reformist progressivism or left-liberalism presumably associated with the former (on the assumption, I guess, that the educational system and the bureaucracy are themselves basically progressive).

132

bianca steele 06.21.12 at 3:46 pm

No one’s discussed the ship’s captain metaphor recently. The race toward inequality would make a good analogy with the ship’s captain if everyone in the ship said things like, “Don’t challenge the captain (or his nephew) for that cushy, well-paid job–he’s in charge and it’s important to respect his authority!” I don’t know to what extent that’s actually happening, or whether it just sounds plausible. But it doesn’t actually fit well with the argument about meritocracy especially if competition is supposed to be important for the latter.

133

kdog 06.21.12 at 4:23 pm

I agree with Robert @127 when he says it’s hard to discern just what the thesis is, exactly.
Suppose you’re apt to believe, as am I, that we have too much of a plutocracy these days. IOW, that money is dictating too much to public policy, the press, and public opinion. It sure seems, as least casually, that this is the case. The biggest / most recent example of this has been the financial meltdown that well-informed (and unpaid-for) people know was caused by big financial players behaving badly, and which has had miserable and widespread consequences around the world. Further, big money seems to be a major cause of the crappy public policies that have prolonged the misery. I’m sure you could write a whole book about this issue (see, e.g., 13 Bankers by Johnson and Kwak) and it would be greatly informative.
BTW, it seems intuitive that this phenomenon is associated with huge increase in income dispersion we’ve seen in the last decade at the very top of the distribution. I’m talking about 99-90 spreads and 99.9-99 spreads. It seems like quite a stretch to also implicate, substantially, the 90-10 and 90-50 spread expansions we saw in the age of Reagan.
In this light, a book criticizing the elites, and claiming they are in twilight, sounds appealing. But who are the elites? The moneyed people taking over the system (then where is the twilight?) or the old-style elites of the establishment who have allowed themselves to be bought out (hmm . . . maybe)? The second part of the title tells us: it’s the fault of “meritocracy.”
Well, what is this meritocracy we are suffering from? From what I can glean from the OP and the comments (I too have not read the book), “meritocracy” means whatever you want it to be. Or maybe, it has many faces, and one of these is the plutocracy discussed above, to the extent that money is often equated with merit. In fact, one of the big prescriptions offered at the end is that we need to compress the income distribution somehow. Presumably this would include stripping down the power of the big players. I already have a problem with this formulation, though. The problem with the plutocracy, as I see it, is not that they or someone else thinks they are legitimately deserving of their wealth – it’s that their dollars, qua dollars, can buy out the system in the name of self-interest.
But apparently, to Hayes, there’s something more pervasive about the issue. The OP says that even trying to put the most qualified people into influential positions is bad, because people at the top are inevitably corrupt. Presumably, the only way to avoid this problem is to not allow anyone to have much influence (it can’t be, for example, to determine influence through some other means). Compressing the wealth distribution might (again) be a way to make progress here. But note: we are not talking about meritocracy any more (are we?). We are talking about power in general, and the notion that society should be organized more collectively. Also, we are not talking about the last decade vs. any other decade. We have ventured headlong into the realm of science fiction. Is that where we wanted to be? And if so, why the constant mention of “meritocracy”?
As a reader, once you give up on meritocracy as a theme (although it’s hard to believe Hayes wants us to do so), you can make progress in understanding the vast scope of the book, which apparently explains everything that ails us. Priests abuse kids (BTW what does this plausibly have to do with the last decade as opposed to any other?) not because they are seen to merit it, but because they have undue power. Enron and Worldcom defrauded thousands not because they wanted to rise through a meritocratic system, but because a few executives had too much power (in the form of information). The media has gone to hell because powerful people have forced it to be so, not because media elites are “insecure” because someone else has more gold stars, or “trapped” into being inaccurate (WTF?). Baseball players use steroids because, oh wait, that *is* because of meritocracy, in the form of keeping score at games. In a better world, they would just go to the stadium and have fun. Or no, it’s because of some people (umpires? owners?) having power over others. . . Oh, I think I’ve lost the thesis again.
You know, maybe this idea of having one theme explain everything is a lousy idea. Maybe it’s better to go back to looking at the elites and trying to figure out why they suck. It’s the money, right?

134

JW Mason 06.21.12 at 4:41 pm

meritocracy is an ideal. In the real world there are lots and lots contaminates creeping in, undermining that ideal.

Actually, I think Hayes’ critique of this idea (as relayed by Swartz) is very important. Meritocracy is *not* ideal. It is not ok that most people lead lives of insecurity and drudgery while a few people enjoy privilege and plenty, regardless of how those few are selected. The ideal is democracy (or perhaps no -cracy at all.)

The critique I understood Peter Dorman to be making is that it is not clear that the elite justifying its status on the grounds it deserves it, is anything new.

135

bianca steele 06.21.12 at 4:49 pm

JW Mason:
You’re just replicating the exclusive focus on the top 0.01%. Maybe there is a confusion between “meritocracy” as “who gets into the top 0.01%” and “why are the auditors not doing their job?” The auditors at Enron and Worldcom weren’t in the top 0.01%, and if we’re asking why they didn’t do their jobs properly, we have to pay attention to the people in the middle, not just the CEO and the lady who can’t even afford a cell phone. And meritocracy has a lot to do with what they will do on the job.

It sometimes seem like commenters here are more interested in finding new metaphors for “really rich people suck” than in anything else

136

JW Mason 06.21.12 at 4:51 pm

it’s a logical necessity that, when inequality is growing rapidly from a relatively egalitarian starting point, it can’t be derived primarily from inheritance.

I don’t think it’s true that this is a logical necessity.

How much an individual’s position in some rank ordering depends on their parent’s position, and how much that rank ordering influences life chances, are in principle wholly independent.

Consider the former USSR. For the sake of argument, let’s say that pre-1989 it was highly egalitarian, much more than today. (I think this is true.) Let’s also say that rich younger Russians today are overwhelmingly the children of people who occupied the top of the old Soviet hierarchy. (I don’t know how true this is, but let’s say.) Then that would be a case of a large increase in inequality, with inequality based mainly on inheritance.

137

JW Mason 06.21.12 at 4:53 pm

Maybe there is a confusion between “meritocracy” as “who gets into the top 0.01%” and “why are the auditors not doing their job?”

I hypothesize that I am not confused, and that there might be some connection between between those two questions…

138

JW Mason 06.21.12 at 4:56 pm

I think, actually, it’s you, Bianca, who are confused about the argument. The argument is that is that top 0.01% and their elite servants *really do* score better on the objective standards that are supposed to allocate their positions. Nobody is getting a job just by being someone’s nephew. But this does not prevent either an increasing inheritance of status, or the people on top from fucking everything up.

139

kdog 06.21.12 at 5:20 pm

JWM @138: But this does not prevent either an increasing inheritance of status, or the people on top from fucking everything up.

So is it that, while “meritocracy” hasn’t caused the problems, it hasn’t solved them either?

BTW, what objective standard justifies, e.g., Jamie Dimon’s influence and wealth?

140

bianca steele 06.21.12 at 5:23 pm

JW,
If the question is why did things 2000-2010 fail, I assume there were people involved who were at most in the top 25%. If your assumption is that everything is controlled by the elite to an extent that the rest of the top 25% doesn’t matter (presumably they can be the boss’s nephew or whoever), then sure, discussing the elite makes sense. Maybe it’s also interesting why we’ve shifted the definition of elite from, say, 2% to 0.01%. I don’t see how meritocracy makes a difference. But sure, if your assumption is that the job at hand is to cut the topmost among the elite down to size, and (because most people assume we’re in a meritocracy) the best way to do that is to say meritocracy is bad, fine.

If you want to argue, however, something like that the auditors didn’t catch Enron because elites don’t want audits to happen and thus accountants are trained not to do audits properly, you really do have to discuss accountants in more detail than “elite servants.”

141

kdog 06.21.12 at 5:32 pm

Newt Gingrich told ABC news the other day, “In the end, he (Romney) had, I think, sixteen billionaires and we had one.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/print/2012/06/why-mitt-romney-won-according-to-newt-gingrich/258674/

Meantime, I’m interested in knowing what objective measure explains why, say casino magnate Shel Adelman has so much influence. Or look at any number of senate races (say Nebraska), where one or two oddball rich guys is dictating the election. “Meritocracy” is to blame?

142

JW Mason 06.21.12 at 5:32 pm

while “meritocracy” hasn’t caused the problems, it hasn’t solved them either?

More than that, it has obscured the real issues, by putting the focus on who occupies the top spots, rather than on the existence of a few top spots in the first place.

BTW, what objective standard justifies, e.g., Jamie Dimon’s influence and wealth?

I bet he did great on his SATs.

143

kdog 06.21.12 at 5:49 pm

JWM @142

I’d be willing to bet that the average influence and wealth of those who did *better* than Dimon on the SATs is a miniscule fraction of his.

The idea of “meritocracy” as an obscuring agent has some validity. But as an explanation of what ails our society it seems pretty weak.

IMHO, the (principal) reason why we see senators fawning all over Dimon on TV isn’t because they are in awe of his SATs or native worth – it’s because he can buy and sell their positions.

A great majority of people support higher taxes on the wealthy, but the Congress seems to think otherwise.

144

bob mcmanus 06.21.12 at 7:27 pm

You’re just replicating the exclusive focus on the top 0.01%

Well, yeah. I have the book now, though have to read it, but if Hayes is saying that the problem with our “meritocracy” is the tendency to overpower a tiny elite, I would be surprised and disappointed. It would like be saying the problem with capitalism is that there are too many billionaires.

Ooops.

It sometimes seem like commenters here are more interested in finding new metaphors for “really rich people suck” than in anything else

Capitalism as a structuring system or ruling idea or ideology does not include just the top 1%, it determines the beliefs and behavior of everybody

Meritocracy as a social system is only an interesting social problem (if it is about only the top 1% we have a different ideological problem) if you understand that it also justifies the gap between someone making $30k a year and someone making $50k a year. And that justification for difference in the bottom quintile is used to justify the differences at the very top.

Now to understand how a non-meritocracy might work, one can look for instance at the (even if only partly theoretical and ideal, and currently disappearing) lifetime employment system in Japan, where raises were universal and equal according to positions in the hierarchy and company performance (IOW janitor and CEO each got 2%), and promotions and bonuses were based strictly on seniority.

And bob mcmanus proves conclusively that the left end of the political spectrum tapers off in low comedy.

Okay. As whatever kind of Marxist, I try not to focus on meanie capitalists like Jamie Dimon, but on Capital, Labour, and what is happening at the bottom of the income scale. Enlightenment among the chattering self-congratulatory classes will not bring the revolution, not some kind of partial understanding by the worker that a tweaked and reformed meritocracy will give them their just desserts. Just work harder and study more, proles, and move up the income ladder as long as we tax the billionaires will always perpetuate the plutocracy.

It’s when the workers understand That it is not their fault, nor is it the fault of the Capitalists, not is there any real meritocracy at all at any income level, not can there be, that we will change from “To each according to their ability” to “To each according to their need”

145

bob mcmanus 06.21.12 at 7:32 pm

And to be honest, after spending last night with Harvey juggling the liberal utopias of Nussbaum, Ulrich Beck, Iris Marion Young, Sen and a dozen others…all those sand castles dissolving in the slightest breeze…

Sometimes I do feel like bringing back the political strategies and discourse of Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Tzara.

146

kdog 06.21.12 at 7:48 pm

Bob McM: I agree that the book (as I understand it) would have made more sense. Still totally unrealistic IMHO, and not particularly more relevant to the last decade than to any other decade, but just at least it would have been easier to make sense of.

147

kdog 06.21.12 at 7:50 pm

Oops – previous comment’s first sentence should have ended in “if it presented the argument you do.”

148

lt 06.21.12 at 8:38 pm

I haven’t read the book either but from hearing Hayes talk about it on his show and from the excellent interview with him over at the Jacobin, it seems that whether he’s saying “we don’t actually have a meritocracy” or “we have a meritocracy” is bad depends on how you’re defining things. Especially in the financial and corporate world, “merit” is defined as cleverness, and, the elites are very good at making their children clever. Really truly clever: it’s not an illusion. But not necessarily wise, empathetic, etc. Older elites had different values be they chivalric or what have you and trained their children in those, and, lo and behold, you had “gentlemen” who earned their rank by virtue of their gentleman-ness. The ideology of meritocracy makes us think that an elite of Zuckerbergs is less harmful than an elite of Winklevii, but there’s no reason this is necessarily so.

Point being, the elite always define the terms of the game. On those terms, they can always claim a basis for winning. The point is to throw away the terms – or, better, to say that maybe, just maybe, this thing isn’t actually a game.

149

Data Tutashkhia 06.21.12 at 8:53 pm

Bob M: It’s when the workers understand That it is not their fault, nor is it the fault of the Capitalists, not is there any real meritocracy at all at any income level, not can there be…

I got the impression that in the 60s-70s they came close to understanding it.

This, for example, was a good film: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Assassination_of_Richard_Nixon . If it really reflects the zeitgeist, then it seems that a lot of them did understand. But then – puff – it all disappeared, and almost all of them turned into zombies. How did it happen, do you have an explanation?

150

mattski 06.21.12 at 9:55 pm

Meritocracy is not ideal. It is not ok that most people lead lives of insecurity and drudgery while a few people enjoy privilege and plenty, regardless of how those few are selected. The ideal is democracy (or perhaps no -cracy at all.)

Confusion about terms here, and I apologize for being in the category of “haven’t read the book.” Minus your first sentence I agree with your statement. I was using the term in the sense of, We want the people who excel at a given task to have gainful employment performing such tasks.

In my mind the question of compensation is somewhat different. “Let the market decide” how much you are paid, to me, is not a characteristic of meritocracy so much as a characteristic of laissez faire.

But it’s always necessary to be realistic in our expectations. Things don’t always work out like we planned (Randy Newman!) Take the story Bruce attributed to Michener above. Sometimes–often–a person with superior skills AND character is passed over for promotion. To my mind this sort of problem is more cultural than say, institutional. Every so often a person of excellent character gets appointed to a high position and is able to do a lot of good by appointing or promoting other good people. That is what we should be striving for.

151

mattski 06.21.12 at 10:14 pm

Enlightenment among the chattering self-congratulatory classes will not bring the revolution

What is this revolution you speak of kemosabe? And speaking of original and interesting ideas, why not fashion yourself a nifty sandwich sign, throw it over your shoulders and find a busy street corner in some weighty city? Here’s your copy:

Hey! How bouts we restrict the franchise, the right to vote in any election, to those without a college degree? Or low-wealth, or low-income.

152

bob mcmanus 06.21.12 at 11:04 pm

150.3:so often a person of excellent character

I herewith declare you an Honorary Eminent Victorian

151: Mine own liberal utopia. You’ve had your chance

About time the achievers and disinterested enlightened judges of “excellent character” served for a while instead of ruling.

Hey you know what egalitarianism really means? It isn’t a matter of different or better calibrated scales or systems of differentiation between people.

It means you don’t judge, measure, or rank people on any scale of social worth.

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Bruce Wilder 06.21.12 at 11:45 pm

I would acknowledge that hierarchical domination in the organization of some economic activity (e.g. factory production) can yield substantial benefits in terms of higher productivity. But, that’s not the same as endorsing competition for social status. Just as important, hierarchy and domination in organization of some activity does not preclude the necessity for negotiation and conflict between opposed interests, either among elite factions, or between the elite and the masses.

The implicit legitimizing of social domination and hierarchy in the very concept of “meritocracy” — the idea that the best and brightest should and do rule — runs counter to the basic idea of democracy, of the inherent worth in the common man, and the capability in the common man en masse for self-rule.

And, it is not clear to me that one would necessarily want the best and the brightest engaged in selection tournaments, concentrated at the controlling heights of society. Having some of the best and brightest scattered in positions at the lower ranks and roles may be what enables a society to function and prosper.

First of all, the common man has a perfect right to self-esteem as well as self-rule and democratic participation. But, beyond that, the society needs highly capable people at the lower ranks of the organizational hierarchy, to maintain productive conflict. Domination, which is too thorough, quickly become scelerotic. And, I think Elwood P Dowd would make a far better CEO for many large companies, than the greedy sociopaths, we place into those positions. The society would be healthier, if some of the wizards of Wall Street were replaced by harmless clerks with a high school diploma and Algebra II, and the wizards were working, instead, for a school as a teacher, or a union as a shop steward.

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gordon 06.22.12 at 12:10 am

It’s remarks (at 148) about “gentleman-ness” and Mattski’s remarks (at 150) about people with superior skills and character remind me of C. Wright Mills’ statement which I quoted (with link to source) at 38. His point, I think revolves around what might be called the multidimensionality of “merit”. There are really a very large number of dimensions on which merit might be measured, ability to get rich in our current society being but one. Here is another quote from the same source which makes the point clearly:

“Whenever the standards of the moneyed life prevail, the man with money, no matter how he got it, will eventually be respected. A million dollars, it is said, covers a multitude of sins. It is not only that men want money; it is that their very standards are pecuniary. In a society in which the money-maker has had no serious rival for repute and honor, the word ‘practical’ comes to mean useful for private gain, and ‘common sense,’ the sense to get ahead financially. The pursuit of the moneyed life is the commanding value, in relation to which the influence of other values has declined, so men easily become morally ruthless in the pursuit of easy money and fast estate-building”.

If, then, “gentleman-ness” and “character” have no monetary value, they will be dropped from the definition of “merit”. Mills is talking about the consequences of this. His viewpoint seems to me to have a lot in common with the way a greenie might talk about externalities. Of course, externalities weren’t much of an issue in Mills’ day.

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Harold 06.22.12 at 4:09 am

From an Amazon review of Karen Ho’s “Liquidated, an ethnography of Wall Street”:
In an interview (individual names are changed, the institutions’ kept) with a “Robert Hopkins, a vice president of mergers and acquisitions at Lehman Brothers,” the pitch is: “`We are talking about the smartest people in the world. We are! They are the smartest people in the world. If you (the average investor or the average corporation) don’t know anything, why wouldn’t you invest with the smartest people in the world? They must know what they are doing.'”(Page 40.) Now where do you find the smartest people in the world? Arguably, but conventionally, the answer would be mostly at Harvard, Princeton and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Why not MIT, and Stanford, and what’s the matter with Yale? Well, maybe it isn’t quite all about smartness. In fact, it’s about cultural projection too: clothes, confidence, aggressiveness contained within good manners, body image…in brief, it’s smartness well-packaged, because salesmanship for financial products, deals and mergers, scanning the horizon for new customers, depends on wide business networking and social interaction with corporate America, and beyond…as we will see shortly. So sorry MIT, Ho tells us (“too nerdy”), Yale (“too liberal”) and Stanford (“too far” – from Wall Street, that is)…

Two things jolted me about this smartness motif and the recruiting process at Princeton and Harvard. One is the astounding numbers of undergraduates that want to ascend into this celestial orbit; at Princeton, from 37% of the class of 2001 up to 40% of the class of 2005 & 2006 “entered financial services,” with similar numbers for Harvard. How could that be done? The answer is not pretty: Wall Street’s presence “dominates campus life: recruiters visit the university virtually every week, even on weekends…the recruiting process saturates almost every aspect of campus life from the very first day of the academic year.”(Page 45.) Ho presents us with a two page spread of “Goldman Sachs Recruitment Schedule at Harvard University, 2000-2001,” and I count 30 or so events, multiples in every month from September through February. It’s so Wall Street saturated at these schools that Ho says “a glance at the campus publications…demonstrates what amounts to a communal obsession…” (Page 53.)

It was in the light of Ho’s illumination that I read with great interest Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust’s September 6, 2009 NY Times Op-Ed, “The University’s Crisis of Purpose.” It’s a retrospective and lamentation at the same time, in the wake of the Great Financial Crisis, and what universities had become, unable to “expose the patterns of risk and denial” contained in that “bubble of false prosperity and excessive materialism…”

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mattski 06.22.12 at 10:55 am

It means you don’t judge, measure, or rank people on any scale of social worth.

Living your creed is overrated, eh bob?

Harold, that is a vivid reminder how ill our culture is. I have the idea, which could be wrong, that the reason Obama doesn’t criticize more our national religion of worshipping money is he’s afraid of kicking up a shitstorm…

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Harold 06.22.12 at 6:12 pm

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JW Mason 06.22.12 at 10:52 pm

No discussion of meritocracy would be complete without a mention of this profile of the Brant Brothers. Hey everybody, rich people are “ubermenschen” — it says so right there in the Times.

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kdog 06.23.12 at 8:57 am

Harold @155: Interesting stuff. I am reminded of this http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/1994-05-13/

I recall in my youth that many colleges (including Princeton et al) said they were looking for “well-rounded” people, which essentially meant you had to play sports and music and fill up your list of extra-curriculars with a panoply of activities to gain admission. I don’t know if that’s still the case, but that seemed reasonable at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that this isn’t the way to get the best intellectual minds. But maybe it’s the best way to develop “leaders” of the corporate sort? Or salesfolk to the upper classes?

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bianca steele 06.24.12 at 5:47 pm

JW, did you post that before or after the Times put up its Style section profile of Chris Hayes (right under the one Martin Amis, in the print edition)? Because one was about to say something snarky about that section of the paper, but now one can’t (and there’s the article in Section 1 about how 40% of 20-25 yos in Manhattan live with their parents, all 40% of them of course being in the top 0.01%).

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