“The 1 percent and the nation’s governing class are more or less one and the same. If you are a member of the governing elite and aren’t a millionaire, you’re doing something wrong.”
In those two sentences, MSNBC host Chris Hayes sums his case for what’s at the root of America’s problems, and why our country needs radical changes to avoid a society crash. John Edwards, the failed and now widely disdained presidential candidate, had it right: we have two Americas: the elites, and the rest of us.
In “Twilight of the Elites” (just released in paperback), Hayes defines in detail how longstanding relationships between the rulers and the masses have been irreparably damaged. To fix the problems we must first understand them. We know we don’t trust big business, big government, labor unions, academic elites and even scientists. We live in a society where perhaps the most trusted “authority” is something that has no identifiable hierarchical structure: Wikipedia, the encyclopedia where we are all editors.
It wasn’t always thus. Well into the 1960s there was a consensus of trust around leaders and institutions. Walter Cronkite, regularly called the most trusted man in America, commanded an audience of 20-million people which is more than what the three network anchors attract cumulatively today. The New York Times is no longer the “newspaper of record.” There are simply too many other sources for any institution to dominate.
We widely distrust our most important institutions. Congress’ current 10% approval rating may be the lowest in the history of democratic government. Political gabbers regularly lament President Obama’s 50-50 approval ratings yet, in today’s hyper partisan environment, that makes him the most trusted active political leader in the nation.
Hayes offers his theories on why everything seems to have fallen apart. It starts, and ends, with inequality not just in incomes, but in power, prestige, access and opportunity.
“Though it’s obviously a far cry from the antebellum South, extreme inequality … makes elites less accountable, more prone to corruption and self-dealing, more status-obsessed and less empathic, more blinkered and removed from informational feedback crucial to effective decision-making. For this reason, extreme inequality produces elites who are less competent and more corrupt than those in a more egalitarian social order would. This is the fundamental paradoxical outcome that several decades of failed meritocratic production has revealed. As American society grows more elitist, it produces a worse caliber of elites.”
The condemnation carries special weight because Hayes readily concedes he is a part of the elite. He had a scholarship to a special public school in New York City reserved exclusively for the city’s very brightest young students (usually the children of the mostly white elite establishment), holds a B.A. in philosophy from Brown, a bastion of the Ivy League and, of course, has his own nightly national megaphone on MSNBC. (He even acts a little elitist, using his full name “Christopher Hayes” as author rather than than the moniker he uses day-to-day on MSNBC.)
Part of the challenge Hayes chronicles was celebrated 40 years ago in David Halberstam’s brilliant history of the Viet Nam era, “The Best and the Brightest.” Halberstam documented then how the brilliant foreign policy team assembled by John Kennedy could have screwed up so badly.
In the four decades since, Hayes writes, we have taken as an article of faith the concept of meritocracy as a refinement of democracy, applied it to the fundamentals of our society, and that has made things much, much worse.
Hayes calls our obsession “near-religious fidelity” that comes “with huge costs. We overestimate the advantages of meritocracy and underappreciate its costs, because we don’t think hard enough about the consequences of the inequality it produces.”
The bulk of the book lays out the case for the failure of meritocracy in Congress, business, finance, entertainment, the media and just about every other institution that matters. His litany is both compelling and distressing.
Hayes concludes that the answer lies in leveling the playing field, ending the massive disparities in money and everything else that favor the elites. He posits that egalitarianism benefits the entire society far more than a system which excessively rewards and reinforces success.
“Between 1947 and 1979 real family income grew for everyone but it grew the most for the poorest 20 percent of the population. Compare that to the period from 1979 to 2009, when real family income declined for those in the lowest income quintile, while increasing annually by 1.2 percent for those in the top quintile. During the Great Compression income gains were relatively evenly distributed, while in the three decades after 1979, the top 10 percent captured all of the income gains, while incomes for the bottom 90 percent declined.”
The key to leveling the playing field, Hayes says, is a two-word phrase that sends shivers up the spines of the Koch brothers: “income redistribution.”
He points to Brazil which has the world’s fastest growing economy. Brazil, he writes, “shows that with a political leadership committed to reducing inequality, it is possible to produce high levels of growth while simultaneously shrinking the gap between rich and poor, even as inequality expands across the globe.”
America, with the taxes rates far lower than nearly every other industrialized nation in the world, needs to raise taxes to close the gaps. But rather than addressing the problem, we are making it worse with a tax system that “has grown less redistributive, further amplifying inequality rather than mitigating it.”
“Twilight of the Elites” provides a solid foundation for a debate we must have. You’ll probably want a Prozac (or several glasses of good wine) while reading it to allay becoming totally depressed, but it is time well spent.
In combination with his MSNBC colleague Rachel Maddow’s amazing treatise on war policy, “Drift,” we have available to us the intellectual and philosophical context in which to wage the debate. We have to understand the roots of our crisis before we can confront it. Hayes has done that for us.
Buy it at your local bookstore ($16 before discounts). “Twilight of the Elites” is also available through Amazon.com and the iTunes store as an ebook or audio book.