Relative to your usual student-by-day, socialist-utopian-crusader-by-night Canadian post-secondary student, I usually fall right of centre on most financial issues, and all over the map for everything else. Because of that, people often seemed somewhat surprised that I love MSNBC contributors Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow. In addition to this cardinal sin in a world where Rush Limbaugh is supposed to a high priest, I am an absolutely devoted follower of Jon Stewart. No I am not a member of the Communist and/or Socialist Parties of Canada! I just like the intelligent claims these members of the American media put forth and how substantiated those claims are, in addition to how consistently entertaining, clever and witty their content always is. I find that I agree with them on the vast majority of social issues, and where we disagree they really make me re-examine my own beliefs. The fact that re-examining one’s own beliefs these days is seen as a sign if weakness is disturbing, and sad. It was in that light (and the free time only a teacher in July can realize) I delved into Chris Hayes’ latest offering: The Twilight of The Elites – America After Meritocracy.
Questioning Your Instincts
I didn’t want to like this book. Even though I know there is something that just feels intrinsically wrong about the weird way North American society is polarizing (much of Hayes book is in response to American trends, but I believe in many ways Canada is just a little further behind on the continuum and heading in that direction) and stratifying, I still like my core values that revolve around meritocracy being a good thing. The Twilight of the Elites opened my eyes to a few connections and realities I had glossed over before, and I highly recommend it no matter where you stand on the political spectrum. As someone who routinely deals with personal finance topics and the whole idea of money and opportunity, it was humbling to think about all the ways that my personal situation is reliant on certain institutions that may or may not have my interests in mind, and may have or may not have helped me in the past without me realizing it.
What Has Meritocratic Come To Mean?
Hayes’ premise revolves around the idea that while meritocratic principles are solid, non-questioning, all-encompassing devotion to them has led to some major underlying problems in the USA. I think many of his insights are broadly applicable here in Canada as well. Hayes believes (and convincingly illustrates his argument) that America’s institutions have progressed to the point that while they appear meritocratic on the outside, there is really only a slim minority of individuals that hold any power at all. He believes that the number of people that hold this power is getting smaller, and that their complete disconnection from the people who feel the effects of their decisions is getting more and more prominent. Hayes shows how this is happening, and illuminates how many of the traditional power spheres such as media, entertainment, financial, and political, now move in lockstep and how the major winners of the meritocracy move between these spheres so freely. Ultimately, Hayes believe this concentration of power in a class of elites is having (and will continue to have) major consequences for America.
The MSNBC contributor has some interesting insights into the way we are able to justify privilege. When we succeed we tend to minimize any help or advantages we received along the way, and prefer to think of ourselves as a character in a Horatio Alger story. By focusing on how hard we worked, we are able to convince ourselves that we completely deserve everything we get, and that we only get it because we worked harder and are smarter than our competition. Obviously this just isn’t true, and there are several advantages that many of us start out with in the supposedly “even playing field” race to the top. Hayes gives a great personal example when he gives us a case study of his old high school. Being the bright dude that he is, it isn’t a real surprise to me that Chris went to an elite public school on the East Coast. Admission is determined purely by marks on a test you take when you are eleven years old, and people involved with the school take pride in this fact believing it makes them totally meritocratic. Hayes clearly shows how rich and privileged individuals are able to train their young children to a much higher standard using expensive private tutorship and various other advantages in order to slant the playing field heavily in their favour. The school’s declining population of certain minorities, and the fact it has very little representation from many lower-income neighbourhoods in the area offer some pretty strong support.
The book then goes on to show how our worship of merit and “smartness”, as well as our blind acceptance of certain “elite” peoples’ verdicts has corrupted the vast majority of the institutions we used to hold most dear. He convincingly goes from Major League Baseball all the way to Wall Street, with a whole lot in between and shows how the pursuit of a “pure” meritocracy at the expense of everything else has led to some terrifying results. This gives a sort of big picture to a view to an issue we commonly only look at it through a very specific and focused lens.
Here are a couple of facts to chew on for you that I found interesting about the book. I wasn’t aware of these before I started reading. The top marginal tax rate under Republican President Eisenhower was 91%. Under the Conservative demi-god Richard Nixon they were still 70%. Today, that crazy community Obama wants the richest people in America to pay between 37% and 39% as he raises the top marginal rate from 35%. This is all while huge tax advantages to the investment class (the richest Americans) leave people like Warren Buffett and Mitt Romney paying average tax rates of well under 20%. Hey folks, I’m no “Pinko Commie”, but does anyone else see something a little weird here? I love low taxes, and I definitely hate the idea of a 70% tax rate on ANYONE, but is a 40% marginal tax rate on the top earners really a huge deal?
Distance Makes The Heart Grow… Less Empathetic?
Hayes’ conclusion is very interesting. He states that he believes there is substantial proof that today’s elites are completely out of touch with the vast majority of people due to “vertical and horizontal distance”. He cites a small town model of how the most elite members (such as the mayor, business owners, and lawyers) have to mix with everyone in school and at church (amongst other places) as a sort of neat ideal that we have completely thrown away on a national scale. Today elites he argues, have no connection to the vast majority of America. As a solution to this he puts forth some proposals about direct redistribution through taxes and then giving money directly to the poorest individuals. Strangely, I don’t hate this idea as much as I did before. I like the idea of some sort of direct program much better than setting up a huge government bureaucratic behemoth that will waste the vast majority of funds and be completely inefficient. One interesting proposal I have read sees the government redistributing wealth to poorer people, but instituting some sort of policy where the money that is given has to be invested within a specific plan for 7 years or so before it can be taken out. This would be fairly easy to administrate I think (far easier than EI or unemployment regulations) and would give people more “ownership” of society. It would also get them to focus on public affairs a little more. I don’t yet really know how I feel about the whole tax-and-redistribute idea as it really chafes my meritocratic principles and free market-loving ideals, but it is interesting to note.
I’d definitely recommend taking in this book for a little summer reading about some fairly extreme trends that are going on in the world today, mostly under our radar.