The Elites Cling to Their Jobs

After the job numbers on Friday showed that we continue to tread water on job creation, Chris Hayes tweeted,

Dirty secret about the jobs crisis: A lot of the policy elite in both parties don’t think there’s much to be done.

I asked him whether that was because of political reasons–that they couldn’t pass anything through Congress–or because of ideological ones, because “they think this is structural or there’s no possible room for maneuver.” He responded,

not political reasons. a lot of people buy the structural story and Reinhart-Rogoff post crisis account

(Here’s a Paul Krugman post on Reinhart-Rogoff for background and a critique.)

Though he did retweet Dan Froomkin’s point that “Policymakers have tons of ways to create jobs, many just aren’t possible w/o crushing GOP obstruction.” “Oy. Time to get a new set of elites,” I said the guy who had written the book on such matters.

Twilight of the Elites

I’ve been meaning to post on Hayes’ Twilight of the Elite since I read it months and months ago. I agree with Freddie DeBoer that the book feels kluged together. Unlike DeBoer, I thought Hayes’ description of the many failures of the elite its best part: the Catholic Church pedophile scandal, the Katrina response, our failed and permanent wars, the financial crisis. Hayes’ indictment of the elite is a concise proof that our elites really aren’t worthy of their name.

The rest of the book maps out both what Hayes understands our current elite to be, the reasons for its failures–which Hayes argues is the decline of the educational meritocracy put in place last century, and a proposal to reverse that trend and so, Hayes hopes, to return our elite what he sees as its proper function.

It’s in his conception of the elite where I disagree with Hayes. First, he assumes our elite is primarily based on intelligence.

Of all the status obsessions that pre-occupy our elites, none is quite so prominent as the obsession with smartness. Intelligence is the core value of the meritocracy, one which stretches back to the earliest years of standardized testing, when the modern-day SAT descended from early IQ tests. To call a member of the elite “brilliant” is to pay that person the highest compliment.

In his critique of Hayes, DeBoer unpacks several of the problems why we shouldn’t use intelligence as a measure of meritocracy generally (and I’ll follow up on this in a later post).

Educational outcomes are dictated by a vast number of factors uncontrollable by students, parents, or educators, and the lines are never as bright as “took a test prep class/didn’t.” If it’s anything like the SAT and most other standardized tests, the Hunter exam is undermined by sociocultural factors that condition our metrics for intelligence.

At its most basic, the logic of “meritocracy” is ironclad: putting the most qualified, best equipped people into the positions of the greatest responsibility and import.

DeBoer’s talking about why shouldn’t use education. But I’m not even sure we do, except as a stand-in for a kind of cultural indoctrination (which is sort of what DeBoer is saying).

Our elites aren’t so smart

Among the symptoms of the failure of the elite Hayes offers, after all, are steroids in baseball, the Sandusky scandal, and the financial crisis. The importance of athletic failures should make it clear that book-smart people aren’t our only elites. And while many of the people responsible for the financial crisis came through elite schools (though I can attest that even weak students at those elite schools got great offers from the bankster industry, because they were culturally appropriate, which was more important than academic success), a lot didn’t.

Indeed, I’d like to suggest that the consummate elite–the guy wielding more power in our society than anyone else–is Sheldon Adelson. He’s a working class CCNY dropout who succeeded by making massive bets and also by using all means–with lots of dollar signs attached–to influence elites around the world. Any conception of the elite that doesn’t account for the way Sheldon Adelson can single-handedly play one of the most significant roles in the so-called democracy of two countries is a misunderstanding of what traits our society values. The smart people? They’re just the servants of the ballsy gamblers who rode a string of luck and ruthlessness to power.

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