Part 1—A pair of improbable stories: David Brooks seems to agree with Chris Hayes on the general shape of the problem. On July 13, this was the headline on Brooks’ column:
“Why Our Elites Stink”
As Brooks started his column, he described the landscape of Hayes’ new book, “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.” David Brooks seems to agree with Hayes on the general shape of the problem:
BROOKS (7/13/12): Through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Protestant Establishment sat atop the American power structure. A relatively small network of white Protestant men dominated the universities, the world of finance, the local country clubs and even high government service.It’s Brooks who says that our elites “stink;” Hayes’ language is more genteel. But the fellows seem to agree on the basic shape of the problem:
Over the past half century, a more diverse and meritocratic elite has replaced the Protestant Establishment. People are more likely to rise on the basis of grades, test scores, effort and performance.
Yet, as this meritocratic elite has taken over institutions, trust in them has plummeted. It's not even clear that the brainy elite is doing a better job of running them than the old boys' network. Would we say that Wall Street is working better now than it did 60 years ago? Or government? The system is more just, but the outcomes are mixed. The meritocracy has not fulfilled its promise.
The WASP establishment has been replaced by a more diverse elite—by elites which have been selected on merit. But these new elites have performed quite poorly.
After the recent “fail decade” (Hayes’ term), our system lies in shambles.
If all honesty, our elites were already failing before the recent “fail decade.” But Brooks and Hayes seem to agree on the basic outline of this problem.
That said, what has caused this disastrous state of affairs? In Brooks’ column about Hayes’ book, two unlikely stories appear.
Why do our elites stink? As he continues, Brooks summarizes Hayes’ explanation. In our view, this is a reasonably faithful account of the story Hayes tells:
BROOKS (continuing directly): Christopher Hayes of MSNBC and The Nation believes that the problem is inherent in the nature of meritocracies. In his book, ''Twilight of the Elites,'' he argues that meritocratic elites may rise on the basis of grades, effort and merit, but, to preserve their status, they become corrupt. They create wildly unequal societies, and then they rig things so that few can climb the ladders behind them. Meritocracy leads to oligarchy.Hayes is certainly right about the problem. Without any question, our modern elites have “become corrupt” in all sorts of ways, massively rigging various systems.
Hayes points to his own elite training ground, Hunter College High School in New York City. You have to ace an entrance exam to get in, but affluent parents send their kids to rigorous test prep centers and now few poor black and Latino students can get in.
Baseball players get to the major leagues through merit, but then some take enhancement drugs to preserve their status. Financiers work hard to get jobs at the big banks, but then some rig the game for their own mutual benefit.
Far from being the fairest of all systems, he concludes, the meritocracy promotes gigantic inequality and is fundamentally dysfunctional. No wonder institutional failure has been the leitmotif of our age.
In the process, they have helped produce “gigantic inequality.” And in obvious ways, these elites have become corrupt in order to preserve (or enhance) their own very high status.
In his book, Hayes burns a large amount of time describing the way this process worked among baseball players in the steroid era (which of course predated the decade of fail). This relatively minor problem gets a lot of play in Hayes’ book.
Baseball players don’t matter that much. But financiers really have “rigged the game” in ways which are undermining our system. And by the way:
Journalistic elites have tended to stare at this rolling misconduct as if it defies description.
Hayes is right—these new (meritocratic) elites have become extremely corrupt. But does his explanation make sense? Does meritocracy lead to oligarchy? Does meritocracy, in itself, promote gigantic inequality? Is it fundamentally dysfunctional?
We’d call that an unlikely story—or perhaps a euphemistic tale. It’s hard to know why we should blame our current state of affairs on meritocracy itself. In our view, this argument simply isn’t convincing. It isn’t convincing in Brooks’ column, or in Hayes’ actual book (although it's built on academic jargon and may strike readers as smart).
Hayes is quite earnest on this point. But it seems to us that this is one of the weakest parts of his exposition.
Hayes describes a gruesome state of affairs, though the problem he describes isn’t real hard to spot. But if meritocracy itself didn’t cause this problem, what the Joe Hill did?
Hayes’ answer strikes us as a bit of a dodge. Brooks’ answer is worse:
BROOKS (continuing directly): It's a challenging argument but wrong.Just so you’ll know, Brooks is crafting an irony in that last sentence. Even though the old WASP elites had some very bad values, they did possess a “self-conscious leadership ethos”—“a stewardship mentality.”
The corruption that has now crept into the world of finance and the other professions is not endemic to meritocracy but to the specific culture of our meritocracy. The problem is that today's meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.
Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.
As a result, today's elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys' network did possess.
By inference, Hayes seems to agree with this general point; he says our fail decade was crafted by our newer elites. At any rate, Brooks’ analysis continues. According to Brooks, this is the actual reason why our new elites stink:
“Today's elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code,” he says. “The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous)...Most of their problems can be traced to this.”
A large amount of truth is floating around in that analysis. There’s little doubt that our financial Masters of the Universe lack a sense of restraint. There’s little doubt that they lack a traditional moral code.
But Brooks’ analysis seems to be built on a large euphemism. Do our modern elites really stink “because they can’t admit to themselves that they are elites?” That strange claim is where Brooks begins—and surely, that anodyne claim will make little sense to any serious person.
There must be something Brooks isn’t quite saying. But then, we often got the same feeling reading Hayes’ book, a point we’ll explore all week.
Again, Hayes and Brooks seem to agree on several points. They seem to agree that the old WASP elites did perform better in certain respects. They plainly agree that something is wrong with our new, meritocratic elites.
That said, we think the gentlemen seem to agree in one other key respect: Neither fellow wants to be frank about the soul of our modern elites.
In our view, euphemism runs wild at several key points in Hayes’ new book. Here’s one iron law of discussing elites:
Elites aren’t allowed to tell the truth when they’re discussing elites.
Tomorrow: Oh please! “Social distance!”