If history is “one damned thing after another,” the short history of 21st-Century America looks like one damned gigantic clusterfuck. First, and worst, national security and intelligence failures enabled the 9/11 terrorist attack, the largest mass murder on the continent in the nation’s history. Then came Enron, a colossal fraud and the largest corporate bankruptcy ever. Next we had the pointless and devastating Iraq war, the biggest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam. At mid-decade, we watched a major American city, New Orleans, drown on national television, killing a thousand people. A few years later, the housing bubble popped, wiping out trillions of dollars of wealth and precipitating the largest financial crisis in 70 years and the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. Unbelievably, very few people have been held to account for this catalogue of scandal and disaster – not in Washington, not on Wall Street, not, for the most part, in America’s corporate boardrooms.
All of which – and more – has left a banged-up and bewildered American people down on the nation’s bedrock institutions, sour on the future, and asking: What the hell happened!?
In an excellent new book, Twilight of the Elites, journalist Chris Hayes argues that what happened is this: Our ruling class failed us. Behind the seemingly haphazard pile-up of recent calamities he sees a pattern: In each case, a cadre of Very Important People succumbed to some combination of blinkered groupthink, deception, self-dealing, fraud, smugness, and self-delusion. And in virtually every case, they escaped accountability. Or, as Hayes puts it: “All the smart people fucked up, and no one seems willing to take responsibility.”
But why did the smart people fuck up, again and again? Because, Hayes argues, America’s mechanism for sorting the gifted and talented from the rest of us – what we proudly call our meritocracy – has broken down, to the point where it “isn’t very meritocratic at all.” And the consequence is that we’re “led” by a grasping, status-obsessed elite class that’s increasingly socially and economically distant and prone to rigging the game for its own benefit, the public good be damned.
Hayes, who hosts his own show on MSNBC, Up with Chris Hayes, and is editor at large at The Nation, sat down the other day with RollingStone.com to talk about how America’s meritocracy stalled out and its elites went bad, and where we go from here.
The book describes how the promise of American meritocracy has been betrayed. Remind us what that promise entails.
It’s basically the vision of the American Dream, of social mobility — that everyone, regardless of their family name, gender, creed, or geographical origin will compete on an even playing field, and then there’ll be this intense funneling process that gets us down to the most talented and the brightest, who will helm our institutions and comprise the governing elite or the 1%, although those two things are increasingly the same thing.
But social mobility, by most counts, is on the decline. How can that be true in a functioning meritocracy?
The mechanisms of mobility and of equal opportunity are inevitably subverted by unequal power and wealth. We want to make a neat division between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, but in practice, we can’t. I use my high school, Hunter College in New York City, as an example. It’s a public school, free, open to students from all five boroughs, but it’s highly selective. When I went there, in the 1990s, you took one test to get in, in sixth grade. If you scored high enough you got in, if not, not. And if you were the mayor’s kid and you didn’t score high enough, you didn’t get in. That’s the kind of democratizing promise of the meritocracy.
But that was then …
Right. What’s happened over time is you’ve seen a decline in black and Latino students in the school — who were always underrepresented, but are even more so now — at the same time as there’s been this growth of a test prep industry. Parents are paying thousands of dollars for cram schools to prepare their kids for the test, and now the majority of kids getting in are products of the test-prep regime. So the test prep industry has been this perfect parable: You have this scarce resource — a spot at an elite school — and people with money in a very unequal city have a clear advantage over those who don’t.
You say this process produces distinctive “psychopathologies” in the people who go through it. What’s an example?
The pathology of ceaseless competition is inculcated early and creates this kind of constant status obsession upwards. You’re habituated early on to think of life as winning a set of competitions toward some small set of scarce resources. You have to jump through these hoops, make your way, show everyone, by the amount of money you make and the status you’ve acquired, that you belong there. That’s very different from the idea, say, of noblesse oblige — which is not to be nostalgic for the previous ruling establishment, which was also morally bankrupt in all sorts of ways — but it’s a very different vision: You are bred to rule, and you must rule with grace and wisdom.
How does this explain corruption and cheating at the top?
What’s insidious about meritocracy is that it countenances and tells a story that justifies the extreme inequality. Which is why you see these extreme payouts at the top. And those extreme payouts create tremendous corrupting influences. And the reason that I talk about Major League Baseball in the book and connect it to Enron and Wall Street is that if you have this vision of an institutional arrangement with huge rewards for performance, it’s trickier than it looks to design a system that doesn’t also have big rewards for cheating. And right now, the size of the payouts at the top are so big that you get a lot of cheating.
The idea of being held accountable for bad behavior or poor performance would seem pretty essential to meritocracy, right? But that’s not really how it works.
There’s two different ways you can think about meritocracy. One is this idea of finding the natural aristocrats, and that’s an extremely dangerous one; it’s almost like a Calvinist vision, of people that are the elect, the saved. That idea underlies a lot of the problem here. Another one is just the idea of constant assessment, like in, say, professional sports. It’s not like, you are great and you’ll be great forever; it’s, no, as soon as Derek Jeter has a crappy few months, he’s getting killed in the New York press, and people are saying he shouldn’t get a new contract. That’s a very different model than the one that locates some central feature of somebody that makes them the best decision maker. There’s confusion between the two models: We like to think we have the latter, but we actually have the former.
And the flip side of this lack of accountability up top is an excess of accountability for everybody else.
Right. We’re relentlessly punitive at the bottom and unimaginably forgiving at the top. We put more people in prison per capita than any other nation in the world. Our labor market operates under conditions of “at-will” employment, largely, which means if you come in one day and call your boss “dude,” and he doesn’t like it, you’re fired. And at the top, corporate compensation has become totally detached from performance. Nowhere should there be a more meritocratic reward structure than with CEOs: Do a crappy job, there should be accountability; do a good job, get rewarded. Instead, the game is totally rigged. CEOs all sit on each others’ compensation committees. It makes people feel that it’s not on the level, that some people have a special deal. It’s the opposite of meritocracy.
Toward the end of the book, you write that “if you want meritocracy, work for equality” — because inequality of wealth is at the root of inequality of power and opportunity. How different would American society look if we did that?
The underlying premise in all of this is the idea that there’s this scarce, small set of good jobs and fulfilling lives to be had, and everyone is going to compete for those. One alternative is a vision of society where everyone who’s willing to work can have a good job and a fulfilling life, which is what it should be. That’s a far superior social model. And it’s also in stark contrast to the one we have now.