Why Our Elites Stink

David Brooks, undoubtedly a member of “an” elite set of people in the New York/Washington media/politics world, if not what the Alex Jones crowd usually and ungrammatically call “the” elite, describes the failings of a meritocracy in the New York Times:

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.

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…

[continues in the New York Times]

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  • Anarchy Pony

    This guy is a fucking joke.

  • Jin The Ninja

    a meritocratic system also believes that education can amend inequality or conversely that ‘we’ are all equal within the system. ‘we’ also know this not to be true: sex, race and class.

    • Anarchy Pony

      Plus, the Peter principle.

      • Jin The Ninja

        hierarchy= sh*t. there is no more eloquent way to put it.

  • Tchoutoye

    Symptoms of psychopathy are all too easily mistaken for leadership qualities, thus the meritocratic system allows psychopaths of the non-violent type to rise to the top.

    • Anarchy Pony

      Leadership qualities within the capitalist economic system. When your highest values are domination, exploitation and the profit they deliver, then most certainly those people that seek domination and exploitation over those around them are going to be elevated to positions of “leadership”.

  • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

    He does make a single worthy point…in the midst of excessively glad handling the sociopathic racist power crazed egotists of yesteryear.

    Our modern elites DO NOT possess any perspective on their own mortality, do not possess self restraint or a sense of stewardship, and do not conduct themselves like temporary guardians…but rather more like Roman Emperors (and I don’t mean Marcus Aurelius…I mean Claudius).

    In the absence of that discipline and classical education we have forged a new kind of elite with no connection, no loyalty to anything (good or bad notwithstanding) except the acquisition of loot in the short term.

    So even if I disagree about the supposed merits of our ancestors…I absolutely agree about the nature of the deficits of our current elites.

    • Jin The Ninja

      lately i’ve been reading the stoics, so i can absolutely recommend what you are saying. 

      • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

        Aurelius and the stoics do make good reading :-) I refer to old Marcus as “Rome’s Buddha”

        • Jin The Ninja

          ‘someone’ may have this tattoo : ‘in sapientis quoque animo etiam cum uulnus sanatum est cicatrix manet. from seneca the younger’s ‘de ira.’ 

    • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

      to my knowledge
      China, through Confucius
      is the only culture to find a means to preserve society and culture
      through the comings and goings of the elites
      even Mao couldn’t make a dent in it
      and he really tried hard

      there is an old Chinese saying
      “Kingdoms come and go, but family is forever.”

    • Liam_McGonagle

      Claudius?  I think more like Commodus.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodus

  • Anarchy Pony
  • Adam’s Shadow

    Disinfo linking to a David Brooks article.  What. The. Fuck.

  • http://twitter.com/johnmichaeleden John Eden

    You knew it was bound to happen.  You knew, in your gut, that once David Brooks readTwilight of the Elites (Twilight), he’d have some fundamental quibble with Christopher Hayes’ latest.  (Brooks’ piece is here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/13/opinion/brooks-why-our-elites-stink.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120713.) 
     
    In Why our Elites Stink, Brooks argues that our elites are failing to live up to a “self-conscious leadership code” that a now vanquished vanguard once had.  Before we get to whether such a code even makes sense (I think it does, but not in Brooks’ sense), consider Brooks’ general critique of Twilight:
     
    It’s a challenging argument but wrong. I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families. They spend enormous amounts of money and time on enrichment. They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room.
     
    To invoke Seth Meyers from Saturday Night Live, really?  I can see why this complaint might play well with a certain demographic.  After all, successful Americans, especially members of the upper-middle class, do spend an inordinate amount of time shuttling their kids to piano lessons, ensuring that their children gain entry into the best high schools and colleges, and generally putting in serious hours at work.  They also spend a lot of time ensuring that their own work product exceeds the prevailing standards of their respective fields.  They are killing it, I can assure you.  These folks are sweating blood everyday to ensure that they don’t lose their place in our economic biosphere, a system that perhaps has less in common with a biological environment – where ecological balance is at least possible – and more with an oil-soaked incline that very much prefers culling over cultivating.    
     
    What Brooks does not realize is that the elites Hayes has in mind are not the folks killing themselves to excel as line-contributors at management consulting firms, law firms, and technology companies.  Hayes is talking about people who, through a mix of talent, political maneuvering and luck are able to ascend to the top of the mountain and defend it against those (i.e., the line-contributors) who desperately need access to capital and the other resources (political connections, e.g.) to climb further up the mountain.  Yes, I am saying that Brooks’ has conflated (deliberately?) upper-middle class strivers with the real elite.  And for that reason alone, his direct assault against Twilight fails. 
     
    But what of Brooks’ positive argument, the idea that elites today are sorely lacking a code of honor?  Consider Brooks’ own words:
     
    The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service. Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.
     
    There is some “truthiness” here.  It is true that if you read about the Libor scandal, you will get the sense that a bunch of immature brats are now playing skipper atop large vessels that they do not quite comprehend. 
     
    Yet it is also apparent that Brooks does not understand the preconditions to creating and maintaining a self-conscious code of stewardship and honor.  That code is only possible where a number of preconditions have obtained.  First, wealth and earning disparities between capital and labor have to be reasonable, a point that Hayes repeatedly makes inTwilight. 
     
    Second, such a code is possible only where the word “merit” does not mean something like “best able to enrich Zeus and his favored demigods.”  Brooks in fact touches on this, but only obliquely.  He observes that “Wall Street firms . . . now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character.”  Presumably Brooks would agree that experience makes someone truly more meritorious in the world of banking, since experience would inculcate a broad sense of social responsibility. 
     
    I don’t know if this is true of executives in the banking world; it’s quite possible that senior bankers are just as prone to take huge risks as their younger counterparts, given the willingness of Congress to wash away billion-dollar gaffes through bail outs.  Nonetheless, I would generally agree with Brooks that experience and character are characteristics relevant to a recruiting or hiring decision.  But I digress.  The point here is that merit must actually be something genuine and (wherever and whenever possible) immune from manipulation.  Where such an immunity is impossible, merit must be something that ordinary people can fight to have reinstated, followed or respected within the key institutions that structure and reproduce society over time.   
     
    Defining genuineness is not easy.  It doesn’t mean gauged by standardized tests, which are suspect as tools of exigency and manipulation (see the history of military recruiting, which I think of as the sordid incubator of modern standardized tests).  Ensuring that merit is a “genuine” concept is simply a way of saying that this word should not become co-opted by an existing regime to justify its own immoral conduct. Put another, perhaps stronger, way: Merit must be defined independently of what happens to be beneficial for the existing elite. Is that hard to do?  Absolutely.  Should we strive to attain this lofty goal?  Without a doubt. 
     
    The third precondition is related to the second:  There must be mechanisms and institutions in place to prevent Zeus, as well as his favored demigods, from (1) controlling the very definition of “merit” – though controlling access to key institutions and capital and (2) living a distant life, a life immune to the fears, concerns, and hopes of those who do not live at the top.  In Hayes’ parlance, we need to dismantle the “autocatalytic” infrastructure that allows elites to rig the game in their favor.  We need less, not more, social distance.    
     
    In a nutshell, then, Brooks’ positive diagnosis fails because he hasn’t done any rigorous thinking about the core problem.  Hayes is right:  It’s not just that the people in power don’t happen to have a code of honor, it’s that our most important economic and political institutions are architected to reward only those people who are willing to forever flush that code of honor from their psyches.  That dear friends, is, unfortunately, today’s price of admission to Mount Olympus.  

    • kowalityjesus

      did anyone ever tell you that this was a REALLY good response! Thank you!

  • discusthrower

    lab rats, cocaine experiment…

  • Jesus Borg

    My dead Grandparents were WASPs and they actually did show a lot of restraint, discipline and lack of ostentation. They patronized the arts and were very liberal. They totally had the protestant work ethic.

    The puritans were good people. That is where UUers come from . That’s what they evolved into Unitarian Universalists, also mainline Episcopalians, Presbyterians all the liberal Protestant denominations.

  • Jesus Borg

    “English Traits” by Ralph Waldo Emerson would be a good book to read for more on this perspective.

  • Jesus Borg

    True Elites are not ambitious at all but are  relaxed in demeanor  like Lions. Check out pictures of Prescott Bush and his mannerisms. Like pictures of him basically patting US presidents on the head.

    You can see these regal qualities being watered down over the generations until you gut to dubya.

  • ddearborn

    Hmmmm

    As usual leave it to the Times to print flat out lies in pathetic attempts to appease the working class

    Quotes like this one would be funny if the implications and the gravity of the lie were not so terrifying
    ” People are more likely to rise on the basis of grades, test scores, effort and performance.” The truth is is often the case is the exact opposite. The “elite” today are where they for the most part for all the wrong reasons and none of those quoted above. The truth is the number one reason that one is an elite is accident of birth. And as a group the so called elites are well known for many things but effort and performance are not among them. Grades and test scores are the result of bypassing the public school system in favor of very expensive very private schools. Schools with class sizes that are often 1/4 of the public schools. And while is generally agreed that Wasps ran the country until the 70’s. It is now conceded by those that will admit it that it is zionist Jews that are pushing the buttons these days. And a very large percentage of the elite in total are Jewish. As far as diversity goes the elite are far less diverse than ever. And the wealth in this country has not be more concentrated in nearly 100 years.

    The big difference is that in its hay day the Elite Wasps were part of a group that made up at least 1/3 of the population. Today the zionists are part of a group that at most makes up 3% of the population.

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