Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson

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Christopher Hayes's Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy opens with a Fourth Turning-like "America Feels Broken." Book Review No. 12 will suggest that Mr Hayes may be taking the first steps toward a break with the Eastern Liberal Establishment.

His opening statement surely doesn't sound like that's where he's headed.  A passage at pages 21-22 sounds like the Civil Rights Credo.

It's a story that begins during the last Crisis of Authority, the iconic, long period of social upheaval we refer to as "the sixties."  That period represented what would be the high point for economic equality in the country.  Labor unions were strong, wages steadily rising, and basic components of middle-class life -- health care, housing, and higher education -- accessible to more households than ever in the nation's history.

But the country was also grossly unequal along lines of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and controlled by a relatively small, self-contained set of white Anglo-Saxon men.  By waging a sustained assault on the establishment responsible for perpetuating the Vietnam War, patriarchy, and racial discrimination, the social movements of that era permanently transformed American society for the better.

In place of the old WASP Establishment, America embraced meritocracy, an ideal with roots that reach back to the early years of the republic.  To the old catechism of self-determination and hard work, the meritocracy added some new chapters.  By opening the doors to women and racial minorities, while also valuing youth over seniority and individual talent over the quiet virtues of the Organization Man, it incorporated the demands of the social movements of the 1960s.  But whatever the egalitarian commitments of the social movements that brought about the upheaval of the time, what emerged when the dust had settled was a model of the social order that was more open but still deeply unequal.

The meritocracy offered liberation from the unjust hierarchies of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but swapped in their place a new hierarchy based on the notion that people are deeply unequal in ability and drive.

Yes, that sounds like a defense of the destruction of The America That Worked(TM), something that is still a commonplace in the Liberal Establishment.  And the invocation of new injustices sounds a lot like traditional left thinking.  But in Twilight, social progress itself becomes the source of both social stratification and of failure-by-consensus.

The social stratification begins with the neighborhood.  A brief Arnold Kling reminiscence suffices.

The neighborhood was 100 percent white when we lived there. We moved away in the spring of 1964, and less than a year later fair housing legislation passed Congress, after which black families swarmed in.

But in all other respects, this neighborhood was integrated. Most people living there were in the bottom 30 percent, but scattered around, living in the same sort of modest, close-together detached homes as everyone else, there were a couple of well-off owners of small businesses, and there were some well-educated professionals, including my father, who taught at Washington U.

I am sure that on my street no one's parents other than mine had gone to college--probably most did not graduate high school. I can guarantee you that none of the kids I played with on my street went to college (although I am sure that there were kids on other streets in the neighborhood who did).

There are plenty of causes for residential self-segregation by income, and, primarily in the poorer quarters, by ethnicity. The consequence, though, is that the meritocracy becomes insular and self-reinforcing.  Mr Hayes notices this phenomenon for its own sake, to me most notably in passing references to a valedictory at his old high school in which a student calls out the allocation of resources that made his future success possible, while blighting the future of his neighbors that couldn't score high enough on a placement test administered to eleven year olds; also in a remark about the old White Male Establishment being somewhat more open to business and civic leaders, particularly away from the coasts, without Ivy degrees, or in some cases, university degrees at all.  Could we be seeing dawning consciousness that it matters what the land-grants and mid-majors and community colleges do?

The more telling indictment Mr Hayes raises of the meritocracy, and perhaps the way in which he will break with the Liberal Establishment, is in his analysis of institutional failure.  Turn again to pages 22-23.

It is precisely our collective embrace of inequality that has produced a cohort of socially distant, blinkerered, and self-dealing elites.  It is those same elites who have been responsible for the cascade of institutional failure that has produced the crisis of authority through which we are now living.  While each specific institutional failure -- Major League Baseball, Enron, Iraq -- was the product of a complex set of specific, sometimes contingent causes, the consistent theme that unites them all is elite malfeasance and elite corruption.

It is difficult to envision a more eloquent call for decentralization, for the substitution of distributed networks and emergent order in place of Smart People and Scientific Management.

It has long been a criticism attributed to the academic Right of identity politics that adding female or ethnic or sexually exotic Marxists or feminists to mainstream feminists really does nothing to encourage viewpoint diversity.  Mr Hayes might be suggesting that blinkered and self-dealing elites might also think the same way, and thus be equally oblivious to stuff that might go wrong.

The entire cohort of younger commentators at MSNBC is that phenomenon at work.  Whatever the ethnicity or sexuality or anatomy, the topics being discussed are interchangeable, the guest experts interchangeable, the conclusion interchangeable.  That's probably as true at Fox or any of the other business or politics channels, and there's probably little harm done and a lot of brand capital developed.

Put the same kind of intellectual homogeneity in charge in Big Finance, or National Security, or Baseball, or Higher Education, and when everybody thinks the same way, nobody is going to see what is most likely to go wrong.  Last year, a former investment manager provided an instructive metaphor for groupthink gone wrong.

Mr Hayes observes, at p. 236,"The nature of the post-meritocratic elite is that it can't help but produce failure. It is too socially distant to properly manage the institutions with which it has been entrusted." It may also be too self-reinforcing to prevent a small failure from becoming a catastrophic failure.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
Tags: current events, politics
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