MONDAY, JULY 23, 2012

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.

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.
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:

The WASP establishment has been replaced by a more diverse elite—by elites which have been selected on merit.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 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.
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.

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.


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.
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.”

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!”


  1. Oh jeez, is it so difficult?


    If you look back in the Middle Ages, the Church rigged the system for indulgences.

    Royalty rigged the system for passing out property.

    The robber barons in the 1800's rigged public tenders and land allotments and everything else.

    The banking class of 1900-1929 rigged the financial system in a most unfortunate way, turning the cash cow of WWI into the inferno of the Depression.

    During the war, the armaments class rigged the system to become greatly wealthy.

    Post-war, the ruling class turned handouts, subsidies and industrial planning into America's Greatest Generation into a rigged production house built as a little noticed WASP pyramid scheme.

    Blame it on monarchy, capitalism, socialism, meritocracy, cronyism - funny, they all seem to rig the system. Curious, eh? But we'll just focus on people who seemed to earn their way and blame it all on them - where left and right unite, where east & west merge. It's all those kids who study too hard!!!

  2. Coincidentally, Power Line, a conservative blog, has an entry that addresses today's elites:

    Obama perfectly fits the personal profile of the Culture Machine that runs so much of the American elite nowadays.

    The Machine is run by PORGIs, who are just like Obama: post-religious, globalist, intellectuals or at least intellectualizers (who talk and act like intellectuals even if they don’t quite qualify themselves). And his being black, with an African father, an African name (icing on the cake) and a childhood spent in a Muslim nation (the cherry on top!) makes him beyond perfect–makes him nearly divine.

    1. Thanks for quoting this right wing kook stuff

    2. Yep, the path to the White House was wide and flat for any man with an African father, an African name, and a childhood spent in a Muslim nation.

      Exactly the kind of candidate America has always elected.

    3. "Post-religious"? Obama is a Christian. And what the heck does that even mean? Clearly, when it comes to stupidity, some conservative blogs know no bounds.

    4. You can find "globalist" as a code word for rich Jews who stand accused in the book "The Fourth Reich" of basically being responsible for everything evil in the modern world, and Social Security too. Written by a Libertarian Party member, speaking of elites.

    5. Religion just doesn't seem particularly important to Mr. Obama. E.g., he said he had paid no attention to sermons at the church he had attended for 20 years. I know of no examples of his Christian religion having affected his life. Compare that with George Bush who credits his religion with helping him give up drinking. Or, Mitt Romney, who is obviously affected by his religion.

      I don't mean this as a criticism of Obama; I'm post religious myself. But, there is a clear difference between Obama vs. people like Bush, Romney, and Joe Lieberman.

  3. If people tell you that you are the smartest person in the room, you soon begin to believe it. You, and your opinions, become infallible. All you need are more people who will continue to tell you that you have the correct path and the world depends on you. Thus the beauracracy enlarges and the decisions become stranger. This has been true for a long time. Rome had an emense beauracracy. More recently just look at Robert McNamara, and those who gave us Viet Name, Irag, and Afghanistan. People who believe themselves to be geniuses never admit to being wrong. The general public merely repesents the serfs who came with the Manor House.

  4. In the 1950’s John Kenneth Galbraith noted that corporations were becoming fewer and larger, with a concomitant increase in control of the markets, and an increase in oligopolistic power.

    Galbraith indicated that these tendencies could be offset by the "countervailing power" of trade unions, citizens groups, and government regulators.

    The corporate strategy was to break the power of labor unions. This has been accomplished. Unions no longer have the huge voting blocs they once had. They no longer have the financial resources they once had.

    Corporate power won the recent battle in Wisconsin, and didn’t even have to commit their reserves.
    Citizen activists and labor unions were simply overwhelmed and overrun by a massive offensive.

    One big contributing factor to the activist’s loss is that corporate wealth has created a fake countervailing citizen activist group, the Tea Party.

    Lobbyists have undermined government regulators in a two-pronged attack.
    First, by creating a huge network of lobbyists to essentially bribe politicians to deregulate industry and financial markets, and second by offering to pay the brightest and best of our freshly minted whiz-kids up to five times as much as the government agencies pay.

    The Tea Party has been successful in eliminating politicians that still felt some concern for the future of their country and its citizens.

    Long ago, corporations took the simplest yardstick available to measure their own performance; Profit.

    By making profit maximization the sacred goal of business, they have created a plutocracy that emphasizes wealth over duty and responsibility to customers, suppliers, and fellow citizens.

    Emphasizing profit has spurred the smart money to get in, make a profit quickly, and get out before anyone catches on.

    Instead of financial markets lending money on a 20 or 30-year investment, they strive to make a killing overnight.

    We have let the wealthy frame virtue in the terms that Ayn Rand proposed decades ago.

    We are no longer a producing economy, we are a service economy, and we a rapidly becoming a ‘servant’s’ economy.

    Until we realize, as Bill Moyers noted in his "Take Back America" speech,
    "That income inequality is not a sign of freedom-of-opportunity at work, because if it persists and grows, then unless you believe that some people are naturally born to ride and some to wear saddles, it's a sign that opportunity is less than equal."

    As Pat Buchanan should have said, "Wake up and smell the leather!"

  5. I'm not sure how Brooks determined that 'today's meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.’ A survey? A Meyers Briggs test? All this assumes that today's elites are in fact meritorcats. And they all see themselves the same way. Hayes's book sounds like more sociology than any sort rigorous historical analysis.

    With regard to American history and the notion of taking something back, I recommend Lewis Lapham's recent essay on historical ignorence. Link is here: (subscription might be needed). Short version: for only two brief periods in American history have 'things' (vague, I know) been less rigged in favor of the rich.

    That said, the above mentioned Moyer's book looks of interest.

  6. I guess I'm thankful for any day around here not given to triangulated Romney rationaleze, but this is hokum to try the brain of the most well intentioned lizard. Best beware the whole "elitist" concept coming from any quarter, it is the hobgoblin of reverse snobbery.

  7. Very interesting, this underlying set of assumptions/beliefs that bob somerby discerns is shared by Hayes and Brooks. If Mr. Somerby will forgive me, I would compare a similar set of underlying assumptions and beliefs that Frank Rich discerns among the many purveyors of "American decline":

    Like Blake Elder, I wonder where Brooks gets the notion that today's meritocratic elites can't admit to themselves that they are elite. The obnoxious Dimon's of this world seem to have no trouble admitting their elite status to themselves or trumpeting it to others. Of more interest are the many people in finance, business, law, medicine, and other professions who are not Galtian egomaniacs and who have been educated in "top" colleges and universities, where they were constantly assured that they are among "the best and the brightest" -- and where they were also constantly reminded that, thanks to the advantages conferred on them by their talents, efforts, and good fortune (e.g. the good fortune of having attended alma mater), they owe it to the world to make that world a better place for others. Brooks completely overlooks the prominence of this rhetoric, sincerely delivered and (in my experience) sincerely received by most students preparing to enter the meritocratic workplace.

    Not only do most elites recognize their status as elites; many do use their elite status to try to make the world a better place for others, either in the work they choose or in various philanthropic ways. But, what's crucially missing, I think: sufficient serious analysis by those people, even when they are still students, of the systems in which they'll actually be working and living as adults: the corporatist hegemony that gravymeister outlines. Their ignorance is helped along by the historical amnesia so characteristic of Americans but for which highly educated people should have no excuse.

    1. I am not sure they are taught to make the world a better place. About 13 years ago, for example, I attended a play at a Catholic high school. I noticed that in the program, all of the kids wrote that their goal was "to be the best". In this one example at least, even in a Catholic school, service was not being taught, but the goal was rather "get to the top".

      Also, I cannot say about Harvard-type places, but when I taught at state Universities some 20 years ago, the students generally disliked my exhortations to make the world a better place. They saw my job as giving them what they needed to make the green. For most of them, their value was $$$$$, and they had also seemed to have learned that "nobody can say that my values are wrong, because every value is just as good as any other."

      As for "highly educated people". There was no history course required for my degrees, either one of them. But then again, maybe as a graduate of state universities, I don't count as "highly educated."

  8. At first I thought Brooks was stretching into column length that Buckley quote about preferring to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. Buckley never said anything more populist, mainly because he was no populist.

    But a deeper reading (like, all the way to the end) reveals Brooks's true complaint to be that our new conquerors are either unaware that they've conquered or, having conquered, are reluctant to rule.

    My complaint is with the use of technocratic words like "oligarchy" and confusingly empty phrases like "language of morality."

    I bet it would clear things up to say instead that our new "aristocracy" has yet to develop its sense of "noblesse oblige," unless of course they've already determined their "oblige" to be one of "benign neglect."

    1. Noblesse Oblige disappeared in the Dark Ages.
      The Aristocracy stopped viewing their serfs as the sources of their wealth, but more as sheep to be shorn and slaughtered.
      So have the aristocracy in America evolved.
      I don't maintain that all rich are evil and overwhelmed with greed.
      What I am saying is that there is a massively financed movement in the United States to create a uniquely American feudal aristocracy.
      Money won't countervail this. The change must be one of reordering our social values.
      Of course, it doesn't help that conservatives consider anything approaching this to be the beginning of communism, and even liberals quail at the prospect of being branded as socialists.

      The greatest weakness the progressives had is they lack a history of literally removing heads.

      The aristocracy of America simply aren't afraid of the people.

    2. "Money won't countervail this. The change must be one of reordering our social values." Yes. But how to promote this reordering, short of severing heads (which severing it would be nice to avoid -- and prudent, since there's no guarantee that a history of head-removal will in fact prove salutory)? The shortchanging and exploitation of all that wonderful youthful desire to do right (the young with their mix of earnestness and joy -- and anxiety) sadden me. Colleges and universities have become, if largely unwittingly, all too complicit with the corporatists in hijacking the hopes and energy of the young, I hope not irremediably. (Note to bob somerby: concern about the uses of standardized testing can have its roots in the concerns I express here rather than indifference to poor minority kids in places like Baltimore.)

    3. Changing social values is a monumental task.
      I am not an expert in such things; it can be done, but it takes decades.

      A necessary step is to stop equating wealth with virtue.

  9. (And yes, I realize that Brooks himself is Jewish.)

  10. whenyouridealoneyouridewithhitlerJuly 24, 2012 at 12:03 AM

    brooks, like a certain 'media critic' initials bs, is a sophist. read at your own risk.

  11. the mvp of right wing sophistry: the implied false premise.

    most so-called elites are well compensated but still only servants, servants of money. he who pays the piper calls the tune.

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