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Twilight of the Elites: America After…

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy

by Christopher Hayes

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America from our beginnings as a nation has always inclined toward what we now call meritocracy--the idea that talent rather than birth should be the major determinant of gets the jobs and positions that make society, business, and government run. It's an inarguable idea; no one wants their surgeon to be selected on the basis wealth and connections, or by the superficial "fairness" of a lottery. That would be foolish. And since the word was invented, and the formal tools started to develop, in the early part of the last century, the USA, more than any other major country, has fully committed to an utterly uncompromising version of meritocracy.

The result hasn't been heaven on Earth. It's been, after initial success, the ever-increasing and ever more disastrous failure of our elites and our institutions. Why? Because aggressive meritocracy, with ever-increasing emphasis on high-stakes selective testing, highly selective "best" schools, and all the rest, pitched as equality of opportunity, without any commitment to some rough equality of outcome, ultimately kills equality of opportunity--and it cripples the ability of our carefully selected meritocratic elites to actually to the excellent job we assume they will do, or ought to be doing.

Some of the reasons were obvious to me even when I was in high school. I love standardized tests. They're fun. I "test well." Those test scores got me some excellent choices in colleges.

And I knew kids just as smart as I was, in any practical sense, who froze when confronted with a standardized test. They did not "test well."

The implications of the still relatively new test prep industry were less apparent to me. My classmates and I were mostly lower middle and working class. Stuff was going on in the high schools of the leafy suburbs that we knew not of. In the decades since, it's gotten more extreme, and the notion that kids from ordinary, working class families, much less working poor families, have an equal shot at a quality or prestigious higher education is little more than a bad joke. This book was published in 2012; it's now 2019, and the latest higher ed scandal is not another round of the same old stuff, but wealthy and connected families getting their kids into the "best" schools, not with the usual institutional bribery with buildings and resources that might benefit every student, but frank bribery of coaches and sports directors. "Athletic scholarships" get privileged kids in who can't make those test scores or play those sports at an elite level or, sometimes, at all, and some less privileged kid who could is displaced.

But Hayes to a great extent looks at the highest-end consequences--a financial crisis that nearly crashed the global economy, because the relentless focus on "meritocracy" and rejection of any concern for outcomes meant the decision-makers at the top have no idea what's going on in the real economy, where most people live, work, and struggle to earn enough to pay their bills. The great gulf of social distance means bankers have no idea how lending policies affect neighborhood stability and the long-term stability of banking; political leaders have no idea how decisions about war and peace really play out either on the ground, or in the lives of the soldiers and their families. Political leaders of both major parties, mostly without military experience in the current leadership generations, are much more inclined to believe military action is a good idea than military veterans and elites who, since 2001 especially, have seen a lot of combat.

I've thought, for a long time, contrary to my generation and my overall political views, that ending the draft was a terrible mistake. It creates the "social distance" Hayes talks a lot about in this book, with most civilians knowing nothing of the reality of military life, and career military knowing very few civilians well who aren't themselves members of military families. There's a loss of mutual understanding and communication, and I think it's very dangerous in the long run.

I also remember listening to Alan Greenspan on tv, saying it was "foolish" for potential home buyers not to "take advantage of the "creative" financing inventions to buy more home than they needed or to use equity in their homes to finance other things. And I was screaming at the tv that he had no excuse to be that stupid and oblivious to how dangerous was the behavior he was recommending. But who listens to librarians about banking? No one.

Hayes gives a much calmer, more comprehensive, analytical presentation of the history, the facts, and the consequences, whereas I still have a lot of rage on the subject. Go read his book, and I'll end my comments here.

Even seven years later, this is still a book you should read or listen to. Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook. ( )
  LisCarey | Mar 14, 2019 |
I really liked this book, but not for it's beginning, which read like a highly academic proposal for a research grant. Nor did I like the ending. Not for the same reason, but because it was clear the author was neither as confident in his statements, as he was in the rest of the book. However, the vast middle of the book was outstanding. Hayes introduced me to new ideas and new perspectives on the complexities of our society and our politics on which I am already fairly well read. Anyone who doesn't spend more time reading (intentionally or otherwise) about the Paris Hiltons of the world than they do the Grover Norquists, should read this book. He sees light at the end of the tunnel of America's great political divide. Light that doesn't involve violence and hatred. ( )
  larryerick | Apr 26, 2018 |
Twilight of Elites by Christopher Hayes cleverly redefines "elites" & reclaims a term long ago hijacked by right. He may be the Moyers of his generation. So stop reading your newspapers, turn off the TV & read this excellent book.

This is the best book about the "fail decade" of the 00s. It's original, lucidly written and amazingly ranges from Iraq war, steroids in baseball, Catholic pederasts, Katrina, housing bubble - all with original insights - and I've read plenty of books on most of those topics. My bookshelf titled "our Current Dark Age" lists these books, and many are first rate. This book is special however. Don't miss it.

( )
  altonmann | Jan 24, 2018 |
Put it down after second sentence:

> “AMERICA FEELS BROKEN. Over the last decade, a nation accustomed to greatness and progress has had to reconcile itself to an economy that seems to be lurching backward.”

Mistook this for a serious book.

At least it was only $1.99. ( )
  pgiltner | Oct 30, 2017 |
I was already a fan of Chris Hayes due to his work on MSNBC, so I fully expected to like this book, and I did. He is describing how the "meritocratic elite" that has run things in the US for so long is breaking down in its ability to make good decisions, and how the public at large has grown disillusioned with their ability to do so. The examples he keeps returning to include our political leaders, the Catholic Church (and its response to the sexual abuse scandal), and Wall Street in light of the banking crisis of 2007-09.

The book was written in 2012, but it holds up very well five years later, especially in light of Donald Trump's election- which is really all about the Rabble rising up and displacing the elites, first in the Republican party and then in the country as a whole.

The sad reality at the center of the book is that what we think of as purely meritocratic processes, starting with the example of the exclusive public school in New York for the gifted that Hayes attended, has become a rigged game- yes, anyone who tests high enough can go to the school, but wealthy and privileged families are the ones who can afford the test prep required to get to the top of the heap. Similar gaming occurs in every sector, and the US has consequently become a place with high inequality and low social mobility.

I totally agree with the diagnosis of the problem. I was less excited about the end- prescription for fixing this problem seems vague and unlikely. But a great read, not hard to get through. ( )
  DanTarlin | Oct 29, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307720454, Hardcover)

A powerful and original argument that traces the roots of our present crisis of authority to an unlikely source: the meritocracy.
   Over the past decade, Americans watched in bafflement and rage as one institution after another –  from Wall Street to Congress, the Catholic Church to corporate America, even Major League Baseball – imploded under the weight of corruption and incompetence. In the wake of the Fail Decade, Americans have historically low levels of trust in their institutions; the social contract between ordinary citizens and elites lies in tatters.
   How did we get here? With Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes offers a radically novel answer. Since the 1960s, as the meritocracy elevated a more diverse group of men and women into power, they learned to embrace the accelerating inequality that had placed them near the very top. Their ascension heightened social distance and spawned a new American elite--one more prone to failure and corruption than any that came before it.
   Mixing deft political analysis, timely social commentary, and deep historical understanding, Twilight of the Elites describes how the society we have come to inhabit – utterly forgiving at the top and relentlessly punitive at the bottom – produces leaders who are out of touch with the people they have been trusted to govern. Hayes argues that the public's failure to trust the federal government, corporate America, and the media has led to a crisis of authority that threatens to engulf not just our politics but our day-to-day lives.
   Upending well-worn ideological and partisan categories, Hayes entirely reorients our perspective on our times. Twilight of the Elites is the defining work of social criticism for the post-bailout age.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:17 -0400)

Analyzes scandals in high-profile institutions, from Wall Street and the Catholic Church to Major League Baseball, while evaluating how an elite American meritocracy rose throughout the past half-century before succumbing to corruption and failure.

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