Why Our Elites Stink

Through most of 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 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 the brainy elite is doing a better job of running them than the old boys’ network. Would we say Wall Street is working better now than it did 60 years ago? Or government? The system is more just, but the outcomes are mixed. Meritocracy has not fulfilled its promise. (source: David Brooks – NYTimes – 13/07/2012)

Christopher Hayes of MSNBC and The Nation believes the problem is inherent in the nature of meritocracies. In his book, “Twilight of the Elites”, he argues 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 major leagues through merit, 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. 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 income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons, then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room. Phenomena like the test-prep industry are just the icing on the cake, giving some upper-middle-class applicants a slight edge over other upper-middle-class applicants. The real advantages are much deeper and more honest. 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 today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves they are elites. Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in 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 self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for rigors of leadership. The best of 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, 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. If you read the e-mails from the Libor scandal you get the same sensation you get from reading the e-mails in so many recent scandals: these people are brats; they have no sense that they are guardians for an institution world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role. The difference between Hayes view and mine is a bit like the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. He wants to upend the social order. I want to keep the current social order, but I want to give it a different ethos and institutions that are more consistent with its existing ideals. 

Acerca de ignaciocovelo
Consultor Internacional

2 Responses to Why Our Elites Stink

  1. “Is there a V.I.P. entrance? We are V.I.P.” That remark, by a donor waiting to get in to one of Mitt Romney’s recent fund-raisers in the Hamptons, pretty much sums up the attitude of America’s wealthy elite. Mr. Romney’s base — never mind the top 1 percent, we’re talking about the top 0.01 percent or higher — is composed of very self-important people. Specifically, these are people who believe that they are, as another Romney donor put it, “the engine of the economy”; they should be cherished, and the taxes they pay, which are already at an 80-year low, should be cut even further. Unfortunately, said yet another donor, the “common person” — for example, the “nails ladies” — just doesn’t get it. O.K., it’s easy to mock these people, but the joke’s really on us. For the “we are V.I.P.” crowd has fully captured the modern Republican Party, to such an extent that leading Republicans consider Mr. Romney’s apparent use of multimillion-dollar offshore accounts to dodge federal taxes not just acceptable but praiseworthy: “It’s really American to avoid paying taxes, legally,” declared Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. And there is, of course, a good chance that Republicans will control both Congress and the White House next year. If that happens, we’ll see a sharp turn toward economic policies based on the proposition that we need to be especially solicitous toward the superrich — I’m sorry, I mean the “job creators.” So it’s important to understand why that’s wrong. The first thing you need to know is that America wasn’t always like this. When John F. Kennedy was elected president, the top 0.01 percent was only about a quarter as rich compared with the typical family as it is now — and members of that class paid much higher taxes than they do today. Yet somehow we managed to have a dynamic, innovative economy that was the envy of the world. The superrich may imagine that their wealth makes the world go round, but history says otherwise. To this historical observation we should add another note: quite a few of today’s superrich, Mr. Romney included, make or made their money in the financial sector, buying and selling assets rather than building businesses in the old-fashioned sense. Indeed, the soaring share of the wealthy in national income went hand in hand with the explosive growth of Wall Street (…..)


  2. Professor Uziel Nogueira says: Prof Krugman is preaching to the converted and the non converted. The NYT crowd –Republican and Democrat – is a small, well educated elite. Their vote is already a done deal. The BIG challenge is how to win the hearts and minds of millions of 99% voters. After all, the US is the only developed country in the world in which voters can be convinced to vote against their own interest. Mitt Romney has a good shot at the presidency, regardless of V.I.P entrances in fund raising and Swiss bank account.



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