Twilight of the Elites panel discussion at NYU
20 Cooper Square, New York, NY. Wednesday Sept. 19th
Recently Chris Hayes and three published professors came to discuss the ideas put forth in The Twilight of the Elites. The discussion that night included plenty of stories and concrete examples to shed light on the inner workings of our social, political, and economic scene. Perspectives supplied by three other speakers enriched the insights of Chris Hayes, whose book has already added to our framework of understanding. Caitlin Zaloom, nonfiction editor at Public Books, introduced the Panelists:
Todd Gitlin, author of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street (2012) and professor of Journalism at Columbia Univ.
Chris Hayes, author of Twilight of the Elites (2012) and host of Up With Chris Hayes on MSNBC.
Stephen Holmes, author of The Matador's Cape: America's Reckless Response to Terror (2007) and professor of Law at NYU.
Kim Phillips-Fein, author of Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (2009) and professor of American political, business, and labor history at NYU.
Meritocracy as a cover-story for the elite. The social distance of the elites limiting their knowledge of the larger society. The incompetence of the elite.
Chris: Let’s talk about this tape of Mitt Romney. He’s talking to a whole room of donors at a high-dollar event—a $50,000 per donor event. The median income for a house of four in this country is less than that. It’s held at a private equity fund manager’s baronial mansion in Boca Raton, Florida.
Mitt spends most of his time just flattering the idiocies of these donors, giving him advice about how he should run his campaign. The fascinating psychology of the donors who pay $50,000 a pop to attend: At one point one of the donors says “Why are you not defending success?” Of course, Mitt Romney’s entire campaign has been about defending success. The RNC’s whole dishonest, disingenuous trope about “We built that.”
The most ridiculous statement Mitt Romney makes, in a litany of ridiculous statements. . . Mitt Romney says about his own upbringing, “I didn’t inherit a thing. We earned everything we had the old fashioned way.” At a Republican debate in the spring, he is making the same points. “You know my Dad, born in Mexico, poor, didn’t get a college degree, became head of a car company. I could have stayed in Detroit, gotten pulled up into the car company, but I went off on my own.” ‘Went off on my own’ means went to Harvard Business school paid for out of money from his father. “I didn’t inherit money from my parents. What I have I earned and worked hard for.” The remarkable thing is that Romney believes this, that he did not inherit anything. That he was given no leg up. That the happenstance of his father being a former governor, then failed presidential candidate, figured not at all in his life trajectory of being a governor, and then failed presidential candidate. That this is just a cosmic coincidence, or born solely out of his propensity for concentration, discipline and hard work. That only through these qualities did he end up reinscribing almost precisely the trajectory of his father’s career. This moment at the donor party is so revealing because the ideology that underpins the institutions of American elite formation – and broadly, the political conversation we have in the country – is an ideology very well suited to create a story in which everyone who rises through these institutions, writes for themselves a narrative of their own overcoming. No matter how preposterous this is in its particulars, the son of a former governor and car company CEO turned presidential candidate, it is a requirement of the set of institutions and the general social model we have which we call meritocracy, that those who go to its heights write this story for themselves. George H.W. Bush, son of a senator, whose family was more or less running the country from the time they came over on the Mayflower, got up at his nominating convention in 1988 and said, “Lived the dream, struck out on my own, moved down to Texas” – he described this shotgun shack that they lived in.
The book that I wrote is an investigation of elite failure. Why we have such crappy elites. I mean, why is it the case that the class of people who have a disproportionate influence over society’s direction are so prone to self-dealing, corruption, dysfunction, blinkered group-thinking?
A few answers to the question in the book. One is about the mechanisms of elite formation which collectively we call the meritocracy. The ethos of the meritocracy is shared across the political parties, At both conventions, every single speech was a testament to the American dream of up-by-your-bootstraps social mobility. From Marco Rubio to Michelle Obama. Everybody got up to that podium and told the story of how, singularly in America, their forefathers were able to climb the rungs of the social ladder and through hard work and perseverance and gumption, succeed. This is the story we tell ourselves. A very old story. De Tocqueville talks about it in Democracy in America. The contemporary version of the meritocracy is that we say we will not bar entrance to the elite based on features of people such as their creed, their geographic background, their racial origin, their ethnicity, their gender, their sexual orientation, all those contingent features are washed aside. Instead, people from all those different categories compete on the mythical level playing field, and if we can just break the teachers’ unions, everyone will have a fair fight on this level playing field of equality of opportunity. Then, through a kind of like NCAAA tournament process where they battle each other and they get funneled up and then the people who have made it through the whole thing are the best and the brightest. This is the central myth of American life. This process of elite formation. And it’s broken. It’s a fiction. We had during the same period of time that we had this thing that we call meritocracy this tragic irony – that the meritocracy produced a figure, Barack Obama, who is the ultimate testament to everything that’s amazing about this system. There’s a conservative argument against meritocracy which you will hear from David Brooks which says “It was better when just the old white dudes could throw down in a room and just figure that shit out. That’s not what I’m arguing. Only under meritocracy could a man with Barack Obama’s skin color become president of the United States—a great testament to the virtues of the system. And yet at the same time that this man puts his hand on the bible to swear an oath of office, he inherits a nation that is just collapsing around him in the destruction wrought by the institutions helmed by his fellow meritocrats who f***ed it all up.
The other part of that video [Romney speaking to a donor meeting in Boca Raton] that reinforces the key argument in the book is that the questions from these donors – these are extremely successful, very well compensated people – people who are used to other people nodding their heads gravely when they say things – are so stupid. They’re the dumbest questions. They are ignorant of the basics of the polling of the race, of the focus groups, of the data, of even the most obvious political judgments about how you win this race. They are basically saying, “Just get a copy of The Fountainhead and go out there and read it to people and you will win the race.” And poor Mitt Romney has to sit up there and grimace and smile and say “that probably won’t work. That’s not what our data shows us.” The reason this is so germane to the thesis of the book, is this. As American society gets more elitist, as it fetishizes this process of tournament-style competition, winning, that produces the people that helm these institutions, it produces a worse caliber of elites. It necessarily is the case that the more removed you are, the more socially distant you are from the lived reality of the mass of citizens, the more cognitively blinkered you will be. The last people you would want to go to for political advice are people that can afford $50,000 a pop. And yet it is those people drowning poor Mitt Romney in their deluge of idiotic advice, who will make the major decisions about politics, about finance, about the major institutions that control our life. It’s those same people asking those dumb questions in the room that have this disproportionate influence over society’s direction. That is a recipe for continued crisis, for continued catastrophe.
Increasingly unequal society, elites working only for themselves. We need to correct the process toward more social equality, less disparity between the elites and the rest of us, a return to a society with a sense of community. A society that’s less obsessed with wealth, status, and position.
Kim Phillips-Fein: Thanks to Chris for writing such a provocative book. For me the most important contribution of this book, in addition to its funny depictions of the elite and of the competitive process and the sense of status and anxiety about status that afflicts people in even the most powerful and exclusive circles, your case that meritocracy, the development of talent and ideas, and the idea that the most talented people can come to exercise the greatest decision-making power, that this really flourishes best when there is more social equality. That excessively rewarding the most talented creates a situation in which the incentives to corruption and exclusivity are so great that meritocracy itself ceases to function.
That said, there are things unique about the current moment. The valorization of the individual, of selfishness, the sense that self-interest is the same as social interest, and that the elite doesn’t need to do anything to hold itself accountable to the society that produces it. There is something unusual about the level of individualism and the inability to conceive of even an elite collective self-interest that seems to characterize the elite that we have today. They especially celebrate the pursuit of material wealth as a social good in and of itself.
The book expresses a certain tension about whether the contemporary elite is really created by meritocratic processes, or whether the idea and celebration of meritocracy comes about after the fact to justify that elite. Is the problem really that an increasingly unequal society is drawn to this fantasy of meritocracy, and the corresponding idea of competition as a good unto itself, to justify and explain its own inequality - even if that inequality comes about for unmeritocratic reasons. The intentionally competitive nature of our society and the role of the dream of meritocracy today, seems not just about the elite, but the removal of social safety nets and other kinds of social solidarity. It’s not just the outsized rewards for being at the top, but the penalties that come, the anxiety of what happens if you fall to the bottom. The penalties for failure seem so great, and the need to find a way to succeed on your own – it’s not irrational that people feel that way. There isn’t that much out there to help them. So individualism becomes all that much more valorized.
The public schools are a great example. Chris writes in the book about Hunter and the problem with the reliance on tests—the SATs, the gifted-and-talented programs in the city’s public schools—the way that an industry of test preparation has come about to help people prepare for these tests, and therefore they have become less purely meritocratic. What drives that is not just the desire of an elite to protect its privilege, but the sense that public schools are crumbling, and they aren’t providing an actual education, and at the same time a sense of the overwhelming importance of education, that nothing else will help you maintain a secure position, let alone advance in the world in any way. And so the shrinking of the state and the attack on different kinds of collective institutions don’t lead to calls for expansion of government, but instead a deepening sense that everybody is in it for themselves; there’s no real point in solidarity, that that is something for losers. So what is the narrative? How do these ideas come to exercise the hold that they do?
And finally the book calls up for me the question of whether meritocracy really is the right ideal to have in this territory. Do we want meritocracy, with the idea that the world can be separated into the best and brightest and then the rest of us? Or do we want, and do we want to advocate, some kind of community where all people can develop their talents, and we think of people possessing a range of talents and abilities in different ways, in different measure, but all deserving of some kind of work and dignity. You point out in the book the pervasiveness of these dreams, the difficulty of challenging central tenets. These tenets we want to take them on—it’s worth challenging them a bit. A society that’s less obsessed with wealth, status, and position, let alone one in which there is such an omnipresent sense of the devastation of failure and the unbelievable, fantastic benefits of possible success. The sense of separateness in the world, the importance in the world of winners and losers will come to be much less pressing. There are a variety of American dreams. One is of individual wealth. There is another vision invoked at different points, wealth without exploitation. You can have a community in which everybody possesses a certain kind of prosperity. The book points in that direction. I would be interested in your experiences talking about it, and whether you see, are these values of meritocracy so deeply held that there’s no point in taking them on in conversation, or do those values manifest in different ways.
We have forgotten about equality. Control over the knowledge elites: we need them, the scientists, engineers, and economists, to revolt from the power elites and align with the majorities.
Todd Gitlin: I’d like to add my voice to the chorale of congratulations to Chris for having written a wonderfully trenchant, provocative, and necessary book. When the charge of elitism became the common coin of American public life, this was a catastrophe. Equality was no longer of interest. Objections were leveled at elitism but not at inequality.
When I was in graduate school I read those elite theorists whom you site. It’s quite interesting. Most of them were fascists. At least they ended up there. Their protest against elites was not in the name of equality. So that’s my first point: the replacement of the discourse of equality with the discourse of elitism.
Secondly, something interesting and important occurred in the last generation. The plutocracy succeeded in peeling away the knowledge elites and putting them to use. This was not a seamless process, a smoothly lubricated effort. If you go back to the robber baron or plutocratic discourse of the late 1960s and early 1970s, you will see a moment of crisis for them, because the movements of the 60s and in particular the upheaval on the campuses told important members of the plutocratic class that they had lost the loyalty of their children. This alarmed them, and they were not stupid people. Thus it happened that the great study of student attitudes was published in that magazine of sociological impeccability, Fortune. They commissioned Daniel Yankelovitch, a very good pollster, and published in early 1969 a study of what was going on on the campus. What was wrong was that 42% of college students polled were convinced that the reason to be in school was to develop a philosophy of life, not to advance to the next rung of the economic ladder. Alarms went off. Very important people, capitalist intellectuals, decided that they needed to correct this situation. They needed a restart. They had squandered their ideological advantage. All these kids who were supposed to be processed at the universities, who were going to be the engineers and the servants of power, turned out to have other ideas about what they wanted to do with their lives.
For those of you who are want to see whether I’m making this up, I recommend two texts: William Simon, who was Secretary of the Treasury under both President Nixon and President Ford, wrote a book called A Time for Truth. It makes an argument that the young intellectual class has to be reprocessed. The other is the memo written by Lewis Powell in 1971, who was later appointed by Nixon to the Supreme Court, with a similar analysis. What happened then was that the plutocracy got serious about managing the professionals. Many things followed: many foundation activities, many magazines founded, many public television maneuvers. And the re-gearing of the professions that would be most useful to the plutocracy.
In particular I’m thinking of a discipline whose name starts with E and it’s neither elitism nor equality - economics. It has come to pass that even after the collapse of the global economy, which was in pursuit of the idea that markets are self-regulating, that some of the most fervent practitioners of that crackpot view are unreconstructed. John Cassidy of the New Yorker went to Chicago to interview some of these people and some of them were troubled by the fact that, as Alan Greenspan put it, there was a flaw in the model. But some weren’t. Some were blithely tinkering with their model. There have not yet to my knowledge been any truth and reconciliation commissions on campuses, coping with the depredation, intellectual disgrace, of not only the economics profession but the business schools.
High-level managerial people are well-trained. They provide the needed advice as well as an ideological gloss. Chris underscores how complicated society is. You need a lot of skilled people to make things work. I didn’t understand this until a few years ago when I was teaching undergraduates at Columbia. Some very smart students who were majors in physics and mathematics and engineering were going to work for, to name one in particular, Goldman Sachs. You need very competent people to design these crazy derivatives.
Two things follow from this. First, the alliance of the knowers with the majorities is necessary to human survival. Today’s Times has a piece about the melting of the Arctic ice and the new imperial race for resources in what we call no longer call the dark continent, it’s the liquid continent. This might as well be a tale out of Conrad [author of Heart of Darkness]. They can’t do that. They can’t drill for oil and gas; they can’t manage the further despoiling of the earth, and the uninhabitability thereof, without a lot of technical expertise. By the same token, the revolt of the scientists against Exxon Mobile is a very important resource. So this gives me pause at the blanket charge toward the meritocracy that it has gone over to the enemy. Because if it stays there, we’re sunk. Not just the arctic. So my point is that the revolt of the [knowledge] elites is the necessary sequel to the twilight of the elites. And this is up to people at institutions like this. [NYU]
Meritocracy, social distance, the politics of egalitarian reform, and Obama.
Stephen Holmes: In the book is seen a kind of paradox. Chris argues that pure meritocracy doesn’t exist, but has very bad effects. “It doesn’t exist” in the sense that the distribution of wealth and status in the world does not correspond purely to the personal effort or talent of anyone. You can see that in the dedication of Chris’s book to his parents, who taught him how to think. This is not a trivial point. Our debate about equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome is confused by the failure to recognize what a utopian idea equality of opportunity would be. It would imply that your parents had no input into your life, and you will have none into the life of your daughter. That’s obviously not going to happen, not desirable.
It is important for Democrats to have this in mind. We should recognize the inequalities produced by the differential input of families into their children, and that we as a society need to compensate for those unavoidable, inescapable inequalities of starting point. We can do that by schooling, by health care for children. We can’t talk about who deserves health care when we are talking about children. This kind of thing in the Democratic program has to be compensatory. It’s not going to obliterate these different inputs. Even athletes, when you think the most meritocratic part of our society is athletics, where minorities do very well, but there the ones who are selected have things in their personal past that prepare them. There is no level playing field.
[meritocracy] doesn’t exist in itself. Chris uses the example of test prep for exams to show you that even a pure merit exam doesn’t identify personal virtue that’s independent of a leg up which you get from your parents.
How can we get that fixed? Part of the impetus for the book is that we have stopped believing in governments. Everyone sees how crappy they are; we don’t believe the system is fair. As Todd was saying, often the meritocrats are the tools of the rich, the ones who are being used, are being bought, are the scientists, the technicians, and the lawyers and the law schools. The law, as you know, is a big system to help the rich people keep their money? They are the tools, but they are not in the top tier of being compensated. They are instruments. And the question is whose side are they on.
People feel cheated. People feel that the game is rigged. There’s another calculation—allocating rewards and benefits. Should we reward talent? effort? Rewards allocated to those who make a contribution to society, which is another way of allocating resources, is another option. This is the way our system works; this isn’t what we seek.
Another point you make in the book is about this hyper-competitive scramble up the infinite status ladder, which psychologically, you say, kills the sensitivity / empathy whole. Because you’re so focused on getting above that guy ahead of you, you create this developmentally disabled elite that has no psychological ability to empathize.
That’s not the whole story either. The question of how elites are recruited in a meritocratic context, family connections whatever they are, versus how they act when they are in the elite, these are different questions. Because the incentives that surround you when you’re there make you just want to stay in there no matter how you got in.
This leads me to think of the oddness of a lot of the analogies. The book is full of fascinating analogies between the massive security elite that took us into the war in Iraq and the financial elite that almost destroyed the world economy. These are ruling and wealthy elites. And then there are other kinds of elites like the bishops who hid the pedophile priests and the whole story about the Catholic Church. The bishop’s story is very pertinent here. These are stories about social distance. The elite is completely detached, disconnected.
Here’s an important program: We should begin the Earther movement, which is going to demand that Romney prove that he was actually born on the planet earth. So that is detached elite. This is the dark side of this system – an elite that is totally detached, doesn’t have any experience, is clueless. Neocons and, by the way, the liberal interventionists, also have never met a grunt in their lives – people who are dying. The bankers never met someone who took a subprime mortgage; they don’t know what it’s like. There’s no feedback. Bishops don’t sympathize with their parishioners.
The deeper question I have – do earlier models of egalitarian revolution, can they help us think about this kind of elite which has a different structure? It’s not so much oppressive, it’s not exploiting in the sense of needing low-wage labor (well, in China we have it). It’s more elitist spoliation and indifference than elite oppression and exploitation. The techniques it uses: tax evasion, dumping pollutants that poison children into rivers, springing upon these foreclosed houses and enrich yourself overnight, so you’re taking advantage of people. That’s not Marxist, its wage labor. My older son’s friends went to NYU all making huge amounts of money, and these investment bankers, they’re just gambling. They’re not exploiting people, they’re buying and selling. They’re fabulously wealthy. And they have their banquets. A new kind of leadership – banquets in a fortress. Without any connections of . . . What’s characteristic of this new elite is the complete loss of connective tissue between the elite and the rest of society. And this makes it harder to have leverage on them. It’s not just they aren’t aware of positive feedback, but we have no leverage against them.
A system in which, in democratic terms, the voters have some chance of controlling politicians requires that the mass of the public have some extra democratic and political leverage on the elite. These have had historically two forms. One is you need soldiers – you need mass armies. If you have a volunteer army with high-tech weapons you no longer need anything more. You’re no longer going to care so much about if you’re educated. The second form of leverage are workers. But this is blunted if the elites can ship all your jobs to China and India. They no longer care if their workers are educated. They no longer care if their workers are taught, so they can save money on teachers, as if teachers were to be disposed of like garbage. In the extreme case, and we have some of this, you don’t need even domestic demand, consumption, because multi-nationals sell to the world. So our leverage on the elites is weakening.
We don’t feel represented. We feel that no matter who we vote for, we get governed by Goldman Sachs. When you can’t vote your interests, you start voting your passions. The whole anti-Obama thing: there is a core of the Republican Party, a wing of the Republican Party, that wants as its main passion to try to freeze democracy. They hold a mythology that they can prevent America from becoming a mixed-race nation, which it already is. Obama represents that terrible fate which they want somehow to avoid. Probably because the democratic system doesn’t really work for these persons. Given this kind of problem, which is a realization they don’t seem to belong to society, how does that change your political proposal at the end of the book talking about coalitions of various kinds, radicalizing the middle class, all the things which are pretty admirable, but I’m not sure that they are proportionate to the challenge.
Obama ran as an insurrectionist. For me, the most disturbing thing about his administration is the immunity and impunity he has given to these men. Particularly, since I have studied national security, the Iraq War, and the torture and the destruction of evidence. Basically, no one is being held accountable. The financial crisis, this elite that almost destroyed the world. How can they . . . and no one is being punished at all. And Obama represents that. It’s the fact that the system doesn’t even allow him. You would think that . . . We need the president at least to say “We’ve not going to create such a moral hazard that these guys are going to be back.” But they’re back! The neocons will come back if Romney wins. They are the same people who did these terrible things. And the bankers are doing the same things that got the economy into trouble.
Chris Hayes responds to points raised by the three other panelists. He compares the effort to maintain democracy against overbearing elites to the story of Sisyphus.
Chris: All right, let me select one main thing to respond to. The question, Kim [Phillips-Fein] asked about history is an important one. Elites are always dysfunctional. The process of the accumulation of power tends toward dysfunction. But the ideologies that justify that accretion of power and the kinds of dysfunction that it produces differ from era to era. The sort of gray company-man, interlocking board, of the power elite as described by C. Wright Mills is very different from the kind of elite we have now. We have seen the financialization of the American economy in recent times.
It fluctuates. We have gone through periods in which there has been tremendous concentration of power and tremendously powerful elites that have then had that power dispersed. Any kind of democratic, egalitarian project is always going to be like the Myth of Sisyphus, because democracy is not a natural or stable equilibrium. The stable equilibrium is a small number of people wielding a lot of power. If a time machine were to randomly transport me into some time and place, I bet I would see a small number of people have a disproportionate amount of power. So the egalitarian project, the democratic project, is always a kind of uphill project. It’s a project of pushing the rock up the hill and seeing it roll back down again.
I think this point that you made, Todd [Gitlin], about professionals and climate scientists is really important. At one point in the early drafts of the book I had a long disposition, as Vanessa [Mobley, editor of Twilight of the Elites at Crown Publishing] will attest to, trying to distinguish between elites and experts. I think those are two distinct categories that get run together. Part of the project in the chapter where I talk about Who is the Elite is trying to untangle the two. You don’t want to end up with the climate scientist and Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon in the same category.
I once did a podcast with a science reporter. He was trying to advocate to me that science is meritocracy working well. He made the case that science embodies the best of meritocracy; it’s producing important knowledge every day.
Two sets of rules — stop and frisk for the poorer residents of New York, immunity for the authors of the financial meltdown.
This question about Obama. First of all, the point about accountability is a crucial one. People say things like “The game is rigged” precisely because they don’t feel there is appropriate accountability. They feel like there are two sets of rules. The “two sets of rules” and “the game is rigged” are incredibly common phrases. Ubiquitous in American political discourse on the left and the right. It has been appropriated by the political parties. Joe Biden and Mitt Romney will both say it. “The game is rigged”. They are talking about different things. When Mitt Romney says it he’s talking about Solyndra; when Joe Biden says it he’s talking about hedge fund CEO’s who take the carried interest rate on their taxes. But the general thrust is the idea that there really are two set of rules in America. And one of the things that eats away at the moral fabric of the society is the obvious existence of these two sets of rules. It’s harder to deny every day. We put more people in prison per capita than any industrialized society except China. Depending on whether you trust their statistics or not. There are seventeen-year-old kids walking around neighborhoods not far from here as we speak who are going to get stopped and frisked and have a dime bag and end up in the system –and be tagged with a misdemeanor the first time, but then they are going to miss a court date, and then there is going to be a warrant out for them, and then they are going to have a felony, and then they are a felon. And then good luck getting a job. And the gears of that system just grind through in America. It’s been created like there is no analogue to it in any democratic society anywhere in the world, that is processing this number of citizens all the time, bringing to bear the grim machinery of accountability. And then at the same time, there is complete carte blanche immunity for the worst malefactors. We’ve had more baseball players brought before grand juries for lying about steroids – not even for the steroid use – than we’ve had major bankers brought before grand juries because of the largest destruction of wealth in history. This is broken.
On the last point that you talked about, how much is this [meritocracy] an ideology that has produced a certain set of circumstances, and how much is the ideology an ex post facto rationalization of the conditions? I think it began as one and ended up as another. We now have a situation in which we cling to the model all the more tightly, which is the potency of Barack Obama as both an individual and as a metaphor. The more social mobility declines, and it’s declining every study you look, the more we have to tell ourselves stories about social mobility. The less society looks like a meritocracy, the stronger the appeal of it as an innocent mythology.
Here the moderator opens it up for questions from the audience.
Audience member: It seems to me that the problem is a little broader, a little bigger. It’s not just the elites we need to look at, it’s all of us. There’s a relationship between what the elites can get away with and what we allow them to get away with. You can point to in the first Bush presidency when we had that first S&L crisis, and there were certain expectations that journalists and everyone would press the government to do something about it. That seems to be missing this time. And it’s missing in terms of our values. Capitalism creates a set of values that drive our culture, and to some degree that culture is about profit without morals.
Chris: I think this is an important point about expectations, the relationship between elites and non-elites. We have this tortured, contested, and internally contradictory set of attitudes toward elites. Since I have a cable news show I fall into the category of elite, so I am implicating myself. On one hand, there is a lot of frustration, anger, and populist anti-elitist sentiment, both on the left and the right. It has been used more by the right in this cartoonish way, that the elite are people who drink white wine, listen to NPR, have a seditious taste in cheese and beverages. Yet at the same time we feel on the hook to them, in the same way we are to our car mechanic. Like, you go to the car mechanic, and, if you’re like me, who grew up in the Bronx, learned to drive at twenty, had no life-long connection with the inner workings of an automobile, you go to the auto mechanic and you say “It’s making noises. There’s a warning light on. I don’t know.” And then they say, “It’s nothing. I fixed it. It’s free.” —or—“That’s going to be $1000.” That’s what Wall Street tells us they’re doing for us. Wall Street says “We’re the car mechanics. You want to drive, don’t you? We’re the car mechanics for the whole economy, and we’re telling you the bill." The bill is $800 billion for TARP. And people feel simultaneously a feeling of anger and resentment, and also “I don’t know. Maybe they’re . . . I guess they’re right. I don’t know. What the hell is a derivative? I have no idea.” Those two sit uncomfortably next to each other. In the wake of the financial crisis, we’ve seen a concerted, effective effort to elicit from people that mechanic feeling. That feeling of “I don’t know how all this works. Maybe you can fix it.”
That is a learned helplessness that has been inculcated. I’ve been struck by the fact that if you go back and look at populist manifestos in the late nineteenth century that were being distributed in Nebraska and Kansas among farmer coops, is how technical and literate they are. Because the project was one of popular education, precisely because this kind of hoarded expertise was wielded by the powers-that-be in the same way in 1883 as it was wielded in 2008. As it is wielded now. One of the ways to counteract that is an aggressive project of public education. People need to be able to say “No, you’re wrong. You screwed it up and I understand what the banks do.” Because until you get to that point, you know, if I could fix my own car and the mechanic told me the bill was $1000, then I could tell him “No, dude.” But as long as I am ignorant, as long as there are processes that happen in secret that I need someone else to fix for me, I don’t have any leverage over it. So that is part of it. Part of it is an expectation of accountability, but part of it also is the level of public education or information that demystifies this intentionally obscured set of processes.
Same audience member, following up: But I think there is also a set of values part of it. When I was first coming into the workforce as an engineer, the corporations would say “We never lay off engineers.” They held that as a value but these values have gone.
Chris: Good point. I think Kim [Phillips-Fein] could probably talk to that. The norms are different. Like, Mitt Romney operates under a very different normative framework for the owners of capital than his Dad did. Who produces the norm of “We’re not going to lay off engineers” versus the norm of “We’re going to leverage to the hilt, scrap every job we can, take away our consultant fees, and walk away while you get disposed in bankruptcy.” No question the norms have changed.
audience member: [inaudible, about the video of Romney with his donors] I guess if the tax rate were different right now there wouldn’t be so many gullible or idiotic millionaires with the scratch to go to that dinner-talk nonsense of Romney. That made me think about Reagan too. When I was in high school he ran on the slogan “the government is the problem.” You think about how that has been embraced as a mantra by the right. It’s a deeply cynical and undermining proposition. There have been waves of damage in American government caused by that proposition. People always say “I want my government back.” I want my government back to before the time when people had the gall to run for office and say that our government, which was once the pride of nations, is the problem. Or “tax and spend” is the problem. Excuse me, but isn’t that the way government works? What is the alternative to tax and spend? Borrow and spend? Or another one— “Starve the beast.” All these right-wing propositions I find destructive. And I think they get a pass so often when calling for smaller government. Like the government needs to be smaller.
Chris: I have conflicted ideas about the question of the size of government. Let me take a quick excursion to say this – the alternative to meritocracy as an ethos is democracy. It’s easy to lose sight of what a radical idea democracy is because it has become so attenuated and outsourced. The idea is that we all decide about the big stuff. The people you ride the train home with from work, the people who are at your workplace, who don’t take their old lunches out of the refrigerator and it drives you crazy, the people who are serving you a drink at the bar, the people next to you at the bar, and the people that own the bar. That we’re all going to get together and decide, is a crazy notion – a radical, amazing idea. Kim [Phillips-Fein]’s book is really good on this, and I would recommend it to you. There’s a strong anti-democratic impulse on the American right that goes back a long time. We have seen it flower recently. There’s this old country club joke that David Frum talked about, making the rounds – democracy is two lions and a lamb voting on what’s for dinner. Reagan would talk about how eventually any democracy collapses because the people vote themselves more benefits than they can pay for, because that’s rational. Because in the logic of democracy is the logic of numbers, the takers begin to outnumber the makers. Then the way they deal with it is to debase the currency. Then you get inflation and democracy collapses. Frum talks about this Reagan quote.
So, I’ve thought a lot about this anti-government thing. My first response is, I hate being in the position, on the left, of having to defend government— a bizarre position in the history of both the American left and the global left. For much of the history of the United States and people who consider themselves on the left globally, they were not defending the government. I hate being put in a position by these attacks on government to defend government. Government is fine but it is just a means to an end – the end is democracy. That, to me, is the thing that needs defending and that is actually what is being attacked, subliminally and subtextually, in the attacks on government. The thing that needs defending is democracy. We need to reacquaint ourselves with what a radical formulation it is that we collectively decide major issues. That we do not outsource them. That we do not just have some small group of people who have lots of money who decide.
Audience member: When you talk about that kid from Harlem, it seems like a very slim chance that he’s going to become a CEO of Morgan Chase some day. That’s more imaginable than Jamie Diamond’s [here Chris cuts in to complete the sentence]: kid ending up at Riker’s.
Chris: One easy policy fix whould be to end the war on drugs. That would work on the other side of the ledger. [helping upward mobility]
Audience member: Obama represents this pinnacle achievement of meritocracy. While on the right, he is painted as the antithesis of that, and also celebrated as a product of meritocracy as a justification of their ideas about public [inaudible]
Chris: There are two stories I could tell that are mutually exclusive. They can’t both be true. One story goes “We elected Obama; racism no longer exists. Why don’t you all just shut up.” The other story, really common on the right, has to do with this “not being vetted”. The crypto-racist idea that he is essentially an affirmative action candidate. That he is essentially the product of white guilt, and he has skated by, and people don’t know the real Obama is this really this preposterous buffoon who needs a teleprompter. That idea has a real hold on people. I encounter it in my email, in my inbox, in my twitter feed; people really do think that. A certain segment of the population really is convinced that somehow he tricked everyone.
Audience member:Expertise is a matter of certainty, whereas democracy is necessarily a matter of uncertainty.
Chris: We could use the uncertanty of lotteries. For instance I think things would be vastly improved if you had some threshold cut-off for elite colleges or for my alma mater, Hunter College, and then you took a lottery to pick students. When we talk about competition for scarce goods, which is what the meritocratic rat race is all about, like I have to get my kid into the pre-K in New York City, there’s a lot to be said for lotteries. I think it would be a fairer way of treating that scarcity. We recoil at the thought of a lottery precisely because it’s random. But so is the distribution of privilege.
Audience member: You spoke in the beginning about how we have stupid people who can buy the ear of politicians. But surely there are smart rich kids. Is there a way to shift the trust back to smart rich people?
Chris: The question is, if we are going to have this elite, can we empower the genuinely smart ones? The benevolent ones? I talk in the book about a cult of smartness in meritocratic environments. The idea that this person is smarter than that person. Smartness is a far-messier concept than we like to think it is. Everyone who has ever interfaced with Larry Summers says the guy is brilliant. But he was still pushing the piece of legislation that deregulated the commodities markets, that produced the crisis. The deregulation of the derivatives markets and the creation of these massive over-the-counter markets. To me there are limitations to even the most brilliant elites. David Addington is another example. Chief Counsel for Vice President Cheney, chief legal architect of both the torture regime and the legal regime of extra-judicial detention that was created under the Bush administration. Again everyone who has met with him says, totally brilliant. So there is no way to escape these disasters by empowering the right folks.
Todd Gitlin: I think media are very important in the impoverishing, the emptying-out of the concept of intelligence. The reluctance to say that some people are full of shit, whatever their credentials. Ted Koeppel’s insistence that Henry Kissinger was always Dr. Kissinger. That he always has something smart to say. I’m thinking about one of the worst moments in the recent history of political media: during the 2000 elections. There were many bad moments that year, but the one I remember particularly was a moment in one of the debates when Al Gore lamely tried to pin on George Bush (Andover, Yale, Harvard) his distortion about a Patient’s Bill of Rights. Poor Al Gore thought he had mastered the situation by demanding of George Bush where he stood on something called the Dingell-Norwood Bill. That was a serious question, ineptly put. Bush went on and basically lied about the position he had taken on a patient bill of rights law in Texas and nobody called him on it. Came Sunday, I turned on the Cokie Roberts / Sam Donaldson / George Will show. They discussed this moment. And what they did was they made mirth over the Dingell-Norwood Bill. They thought that was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. They didn’t think they were obliged to tell people the Bush was lying and that Gore, in his inept way, was actually making a good point. They were reluctant to say that this guy is full of shit. There are many intelligences. I dare say that George Bush’s version of intelligence was of a low order. And yet it was considered somehow elitist to point this out. This is a disgrace. Maybe there are some improvements now. There is such grotesque mendacity in political life that it’s now kind of half-kosher to say, “You know what? Paul Ryan speaks falsely.”
Chris: I think there’s progress in that. I think Rick Perry just couldn’t survive.