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Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes

Publication Date: June 12, 2012

My wife and I were both born in 1969. Here is a short list of debacles, missteps, and failures that we've witnessed in our time on the planet:  stagflation, the energy crisis (gas lines), the tech bubble, the 2nd Iraq war, the housing bubble, and the great recession (and you can add to this list).  Another way we could describe the past 40 or so years, if feeling negative, could be: rising inequality, stagnant real wages, rapid increases in health care and education costs, growth in structural unemployment/underemployment, and political polarization and ineffectiveness in the face of these challenges.

Christopher Hayes, editor-at-large for the Nation, thinks that many of the problems listed above can be traced back to the failures of elite decision making.   These are problems that could have been avoided, or at least mitigated, if those in charge of the political and financial levers had demonstrated a modicum of clear thinking and firm leadership.   Perhaps the 2003 Iraq invasion and failure of post-occupation planning is the most obvious elite failure, but in retrospect those policies that pumped up the housing bubble (lax regulation and non-existent oversight of sub-prime loans) constitute a clear example of elite malfeasance.  

Why have elites failed the rest of us to such a degree? How could the experts not see and warn us about the military and financial disasters that seem so obvious in retrospect?   And what does the "twilight of the elites" mean to the elite education institutions that produced so many of our failed leaders and clueless experts?

Hayes' diagnosis is that rising inequality hurts not only those shut out of economic growth, but causes those at the top to lose touch with reality.  The author is enamored with the idea of "social distance", basically the idea that powerful people are so cloistered from everyday realities that they have no opportunities for basic reality checks.  

The world of academia is not spared from the dangers of a disconnected elite.  Superstar faculty can command huge consulting fees from industries and lobby groups, fees that may serve as disincentives for critical research.   Highly paid faculty consultants, as well as well-compensated academic administrators and investment officers, become part of the system - and therefore incapable of producing clear-eyed and forceful critiques.   

Nor can higher education be the solution for growing inequality, as increasingly equality of opportunity is not translating into equality of outcomes. 

Our elite institutions may be more meritocratic than at any previous time, but the playing field has become so tilted towards the very smart and the very wealthy that anyone lacking either of these qualifications is largely shut out.  According to Hayes, the only way to lessen inequality are policies explicitly designed to do so, such as raising taxes on the wealthy.   A level higher ed admissions playing field is not truly equal if only some groups (the very smart and the very rich) can spend many years on the practice field (tutors, excellent public schools) before the game begins.

I found the Twilight of the Elites to be well-written and smart, but less than persuasive.   It seems to me that the problems we face now, such as rising health care and education costs, call more for better ideas and better leaders and less for income redistribution.   And I tend to think that while our U.S. education system is not perfect, it is from our higher ed system that we have the best chance of producing new ideas and more effective leaders.   In short, I think the answer is more public investment in higher ed, and more flexibility within higher ed to evolve with new ways of thinking.

Nor do I think that changing the tax code will provide immunity for tomorrow's problems, or be the solution for fixing the challenges that we now face.   Yes, I think we have room to bring more equity and fairness into who pays what taxes, but this is only part of a much wider agenda. 

Our campus leaders have no ability to impact the tax code, but they can do a great deal to move our institutions of higher learning into the leadership positions that we will need to navigate our time of rapidly accelerating change and large societal challenges.

Or maybe I'm just too embedded in (and advantaged by) the elite system to grasp that I'm part of the problem rather than part of the solution?

What are you reading?

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