Twilight of the Elites; America After Meritocracy.

Christopher Hayes, 2012


The thesis of the merit system is that those who do things better than others deserve to rise to the top, that is, they merit the top positions, in any endeavor. This idea is beyond the American Dream, which is the belief in upward social mobility through hard work. There is a sense in this idea that those at the top deserve to be at the very top and it is this sense of deserving that is under scrutiny.


The author, Christopher Hayes, uses terms like “deep disillusionment” and the “fail decade” to describe the current American social and economic reality, which he says, has not produced what it was supposed to produce. The evidence of failed leadership can be seen in the big news stories of the recent past, like the financial crisis triggered by the financial leaders responsible for the sub-prime mortgage collapse, or energy traders manipulating power grids or falsified record keeping in corporate headquarters or the scandals in corporate and popular sports like steroid use in baseball or cycling. In all cases there are individuals in top positions who make a decision to cheat. Hayes contends that they know they are cheating and have some kind of moral anxiety about it, but do it anyway.


In an effort to analyze what underlies this failure of the meritocratic system he asks how do we know who to trust? We trust the doctor when we get sick or the car mechanic when our car won’t run. Ultimately our trust is supposed to be backed by some authority like the medical college that trained the doctor or the regulations, government or private, that somehow ensure good practices will be followed in any endeavor.  The problem of failed institutional authority is that we don’t have anything to substitute for it, “we can’t fix what needs to be fixed without it,” says Hayes.


Three things underlie our willingness to put our trust in others: consensus, proximity and good faith. If everybody believes that house prices will keep on going up then it is a good idea to invest in a mortgage. But, Hayes points out, slavery was once accepted by consensus and everybody once misunderstood the structure of the solar system by consensus.


In order to know the truth says Hayes, we need to get close to it. The news media is a source of information for the masses but failed, for example, when it missed the housing bubble. Hayes calls this ‘cognitive capture’, where the journalists are too close to the story, too long and start to think like the ‘leaders’ who are manipulating the story. Good faith is the trust assumption that there isn’t a systemic effort to deceive us and in the ‘fail decade’ that good faith has been badly weakened.


The truth about Climate Change and anthropogenic Global Warming is an interesting case, explored by Hayes. Even after six official enquiries into the famous leaked emails from the East Anglia Climate Research Unit showed no evidence of incorrect science, the professional skeptics still managed to keep two-thirds of Americans unconvinced that Climate Change is real. The seed of doubt was planted deeply into the gullible citizenry.


The American meritocratic system is a system of ‘winners’ who get to recreate their ‘wins’ in an ever-repeating positive feedback loop. “Once a member of the elite has sufficiently monetized his or her power, that money an be traded for other kinds of power, which in turn can be invested and reap its own kind of rewards.” Hayes calls this ‘fractal inequality’, like the mathematical/nature phenomenon, repeating itself in an endless iteration. The forever-something-better arc of the fractal inequality idea leads the meritocratic winners to hold false beliefs about themselves. “As was said of George W. Bush, it is tempting for those born on third base to believe they’ve hit a triple.” Winners see themselves as smart.


So what is the political space for change in America? American exceptionalism (anyone can end up on top) aside, public opinion polls indicate Americans would prefer a more equal system and they see the use of a taxation scheme to reduce inequality as appropriate. The problem is the power of the elites who argue most successfully to keep the current status quo system as the norm. So, disrupt the norm, says Hayes. Social movements like Act Up (in the 1980’s and ‘90’s) and Occupy Wall Street both succeeded at capturing public attention to the issues they wanted highlighted. However, consciousness of the issues isn’t enough, so a radicalized upper-middle class is proposed. It is this stratum of American society that will be the insurrectionist class.


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