Bobo has taken it upon himself to ‘splain to the hoi polloi “Why Our Elites Stink.” He babbles that a new book makes an argument against our meritocratic system but misses the largest failure: the elite’s loss of a self-conscious leadership code. At least this time he’s not railing about unmarried poors having sex and making babies… Prof. Krugman asks “Who’s Very Important?” He says the V.I.P. crowd has captured the modern Republican Party, which could mean a turn toward policies favoring the superrich if Republicans win in November. Here’s Bobo:
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.
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 the major leagues through merit, but 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 the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and 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 that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.
Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the 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 the 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 the rigors of leadership.
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.
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 the world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.
The difference between the 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.
Bobo, why don’t you just go play in your vast spaces for entertaining and STFU? Here’s Prof. Krugman:
“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.
Not long ago, we were told that all this wheeling and dealing was good for everyone, that it was making the economy both more efficient and more stable. Instead, it turned out that modern finance was laying the foundation for a severe economic crisis whose fallout continues to afflict millions of Americans, and that taxpayers had to bail out many of those supposedly brilliant bankers to prevent an even worse crisis. So at least some members of the top 0.01 percent are best viewed as job destroyers rather than job creators.
Did I mention that those bailed-out bankers are now overwhelmingly backing Mr. Romney, who promises to reverse the mild financial reforms introduced after the crisis?
To be sure, many and probably most of the rich do, in fact, contribute positively to the economy. However, they also receive large monetary rewards. Yet somehow $20 million-plus in annual income isn’t enough. They want to be revered, too, and given special treatment in the form of low taxes. And that is more than they deserve. After all, the “common person” also makes a positive contribution to the economy. Why single out the rich for extra praise and perks?
What about the argument that we must keep taxes on the rich low lest we remove their incentive to create wealth? The answer is that we have a lot of historical evidence, going all the way back to the 1920s, on the effects of tax increases on the rich, and none of it supports the view that the kinds of tax-rate changes for the rich currently on the table — President Obama’s proposal for a modest rise, Mr. Romney’s call for further cuts — would have any major effect on incentives. Remember when all the usual suspects claimed that the economy would crash when Bill Clinton raised taxes in 1993?
Furthermore, if you’re really concerned about the incentive effects of public policy, you should be focused not on the rich but on workers making $20,000 to $30,000 a year, who are often penalized for any gain in income because they end up losing means-tested benefits like Medicaid and food stamps. I’ll have more to say about that in another column. By the way, in 2010, the average annual wage of manicurists — “nails ladies,” in Romney-donor speak — was $21,760.
So, are the very rich V.I.P.? No, they aren’t — at least no more so than other working Americans. And the “common person” will be hurt, not helped, if we end up with government of the 0.01 percent, by the 0.01 percent, for the 0.01 percent.