Staff Reviews

Who Made Them Boss?

MSNBC host Christopher Hayes examines America's elites but misses important parts of the picture.

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Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes, Crown Publications, 281 pages.

On Memorial Day, Christopher Hayes found himself in a world of hurt. The MSNBC host and Nation editor-at-large announced on the air that he was uncomfortable describing fallen members of the military as "heroes," feeling that an overuse of the honor justified war. Conservatives immediately pounced, as did some military families who felt their loved ones were brave no matter the circumstances of their deaths. Playing his stylized role in the Kabuki dance of scandals, Hayes soon apologized.

Hayes' progressive credentials did not provide much cover for remarks that seemed to denigrate the military. Many saw him as the sort of glossy elitist who would diss our armed forces. Soldiers are heroes, and police officers are the bravest: These institutions of state control have become the focus of ritual obeisance. They serve symbolically as a working-class meritocracy, the most trusted of America's fraught institutions in a society that seems broken, beset by a crisis of authority.

But are soldiers heroes simply by dying in service, or must they meet their deaths through acts of bravery? Are those killed by friendly fire, a forgotten land mine, or a faulty helicopter heroes? Did they don that mantle upon enlistment?

This is the problem with a meritocracy in the modern age: Often one doesn't need to do much of anything to receive an exalted label. Talent blends into aristocracy, and publicity begets power. Does this system produce our success or undercut it?

In his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Hayes raises demanding questions about a nation that is both enamored with and troubled by its elites. As a tour guide to domains where elites dwell, Hayes is knowledgeable and smooth, backed by an energetic crew of seven researchers and fact checkers. Hayes may be less bipartisan than he asserts (he writes for The Nation, after all), but we should be grateful for his book's questions, if not all its answers.

Hayes is understandably ambivalent. As a television host, editor, and author, he is a member of the talented tribe. He describes his invitation to Davos, Switzerland, the highly elite annual World Economic Forum—an unattainable dream for many, even if he attended the conclave in steerage.

Ironically, the most effective argument that emerges from Twilight of the Elites runs against the grain of the book, which depends on the claim that a recognizable elite rules America, leading to inequality and institutional failure. But by revealing the numerous, cross-cutting elites, Hayes forces us to question the category itself. Is Hayes a member of that elite? Am I? Are you? It all depends.

The elite do not have membership cards or even well-recognized boundaries. There are some individuals we all recognize as belonging to a super-elite: the Al Gores, Jamie Dimons, and Oprah Winfreys of the world. But even at Davos there are circles within circles. Where does the outer ring blend into the hoi polloi? If we mistrust elites, whom do we mistrust? The uncertainty of elite membership challenges the facile Occupy Wall Street rhetoric that effectively, if dubiously, made one percenter an insult. The boundary isn't as obvious as that. Elitism is more of a hill than a ladder, one where people have differential access to levers of power and influence.

It is troubling when public status is based on factors other than ability. But is ability ever fully detached from status? In What Price Fame?, the economist Tyler Cowen argues that public stature develops from free choices. As a result, status can never be evaluated solely by the characteristics of the person judged, but only within a reputation market. While this principle is clearest with respect to the public's esteem of celebrities, universities and businesses typically rely on reputation in hiring, requiring letters of references or calling former employers. As with all markets, the outcome of a reputation market does, in principle, result from the choices of those doing the evaluation.

The creation of elites based on talent is also problematic, never entirely divorced from a status market. Libertarians recognize that life outcomes should not be uniform. Motivation and creativity count for something. But what if ability is inbred and not the outcome of effort?

Hayes recognizes both forms of evaluation, status and talent, but his concern is narrower. One might imagine that a meritocracy is desirable for society: rule by the best. Yet for Hayes the fundamental problem of a meritocracy (as for any system of status) is its effect on income distribution and social mobility. If we want a more equitable, just, and warm America, he argues, we have to moderate our wealth disparities; inequality of outcome, he says, leads to inequality of opportunity. Because the public recognizes this connection, Hayes argues, income inequality breeds political mistrust.

A raft of unarguable statistics shows that a few Americans are doing very well in contrast to their fellow citizens. The income gap between the uber-rich and the average worker has widened considerably in the last four decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. What Hayes terms the Era of Equality, from World War II through the 1970s, has ended.

Does inequality matter? A small sliver of Americans are gold-plated, but even welfare recipients have TV sets and cellphones. While deep poverty does exist in some corners of America, these cases are best solved through targeted intervention, rather than a massive redistribution project like the one favored by Hayes and other progressives.

Hayes argues that inequality feeds distrust, citing poll numbers indicating that Americans' opinions about their institutions have become increasingly negative since the Watergate era. He thinks the reason is clear: Institutions seem to benefit those in power, from the Supreme Court to Congress, from business to the mass media. We can see this disenchantment in the social movements that have arisen as a result of this mistrust. Hayes quotes a Tea Party activist as suggesting her movement is "an agent for angst"; the same is true of the Occupy movement.

To be sure, many institutions have recently faced scandals, just as they always have, from pious sex addicts to the Teapot Dome. But to what extent do these scandals have lasting and consequential effects? Less than might be imagined. When survey respondents say they distrust institutions, they may be giving what they take to be the expected answers, as opposed to expressing deep alienation. If we are told most Americans are mistrustful, we learn this is the normal attitude. It takes a brave citizen to express admiration for the U.S. Congress as an institution. People continue to obey institutional demands, such as paying taxes or other levies and voting rates have climbed since 1996, even while proclaimed cynicism abounds.

Public suspicion can even make institutions healthier by encouraging internal reforms aimed at combating this mistrust. Organizations from the Catholic Church to banks to legislatures have established ethics panels, which, while imperfect, are surely an improvement on the blindness of the past. While admiration of Congress has declined, blatant corruption (the hidden wads of cash of decades ago) is rare today.

Societies depend on those with talent and those with respect. The problem emerges when many of these elites are employed by the state (the Federal Reserve, the courts) or supported by state policies (business, social work, medicine). While this is not the case with entertainment, media, or religion, the elites that matter most are the ones we can't escape because they are backed by force. The problem deepens when the state increases its control of its citizens' choices, implicitly arguing that elites within a state system have more merit and more wisdom than their rivals outside it a belief seen, for example, in the president's claim that government support means more to business success that the talent of the entrepreneur. When some elites wish to control other elites for "public benefit," we should be as nervous as a mouse watching elephants waltz.

Any model that gives priority to coercive control by a few, however well-intentioned, depends on a self-congratulatory elite. This is a system that deserves to be in its twilight.

NEXT: Feds: July Hottest On Record For Continental U.S.

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  1. “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL
    BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.” – George Orwell

  2. Huh. I thought this was a review of Hayes’ book…but when I got to the end, I wasn’t sure what I was reading. Went back to the beginning and skimmed back through….nothin’.

    Hmm. I’d welcome a review of Hayes’ book. This isn’t it.

    But thanks – was at least somewhat thought provoking.

    1. You actually read all of that? Twice?

      1. No – ALL of it once, then a skim.

        I know…I got some time on my hands…

  3. Twilight of the Elites

    It’s a crime what KStew did to RPattz.

    1. When they adapt this review for film, I hope they cut out some of the middle.

      1. Think trilogy. The middle part will need some editing in the screenplay. And explosions.

  4. I’m not reading this unless it’s an article about Elite, the modeling agency. WITH PICTURES.

    1. Was that the agency on Models, Inc.?

      1. Your mentioning of a Melrose Place spinoff soap opera by Aaron Spelling is making me literally angry with rage.

        1. For some reason I read that with a Marvin the Martian voice. Aaron Spelling makes me angry! Very angry indeed!

  5. the claim that a recognizable elite rules America, leading to inequality and institutional failure.

    As with all complaints of this color, Hayes is saying that elites should rule America, but his kind of elites. Not the icky libertarian free-market kind, he wants more of the Hahvud/New Republic kind.

    No thanks Mr. Hayes, we are currently under the rule of your wanted to brain trust and they are an unmitigated disaster.

    1. Boom. Exactly.

  6. The problem is that we’re ruled by an elite class, not a meritocratic one. They are not the same thing. You are an elite by virtue of birth, education, fame. You are a meritocrat by virtue of what you are able to do that others value.

    Sean Penn is a commie prick and I haven’t the slightest idea where he went to school. But he’s a very good actor, and thus will tend to get my money when his flicks are in the theaters. He deserves to be a leader in Tinseltown. The highly-educated, connected pricks at Goldman-Sachs, on the other hand, should be living in cardboard boxes right now, but aren’t. Meritocracy was trampled under rule by elites here, and we are all suffering for it.

    1. Was Milk any good? I loved him in Mystic River, and so I can’t believe he was able to top that performance.

      1. Milk was OK. Unfortunately, it was (of course) politically tinged, but was totally watchable.

        He’s actually a pretty good director; The Pledge is quite haunting and I recommend it.

        1. He was up against Mickey Rourke (for The Wrestler) that year, so if he didn’t actually deserve the award, that’s a crime because Rourke was brilliant.

          1. I forgot about that, in that case I think Rourke was robbed, that was one of the greatest performances you’ll ever see in a movie.

            1. To win an Oscar you have to make a movie that appeals to movie critics. And that means winning the douchy middle aged white guy vote. A movie about professional wrestling is not going to do that.

              And was Marissa Tomai getting her kit off in that movie the most pleasant surprise in film or what? I remember seeing that movie and then seeing Tormai take her clothes off and going “wow, I never thought that would happen”.

              1. I used to be a huge pro wrestling fan. I still watch it every now and then just to see what’s going on. A few months ago a friend and I went to a WWE show. While we were around back of the arena some of the guys were just pulling into the arena parking lot and I asked my friend “which one of these guys has the giant painkiller addiction and lives in his car?”

          2. I stand behind my idea for a 25 year waiting period before awarding Academy Awards.

            The best movies/performances stand the test of time.

          3. If Rourk had been playing a gay wrestler fighting to overcome bigotry in the ultimate “man’s man”* sport he probably would have won.

            *I never quite got how putting on a pair of tights and rolling around on a mat with another dude is supposed to be manly, but whatevs.

        2. The other problem with Milk was the the real Milk was not a very nice guy. And he was a lot more promiscuous, complex and interesting than the film made him. What pissed me off about the movie was they took what should have been a bit of a political tragedy and made it into a period drama with Milk as a charactature of the NPR family values gay man. And that would have been fine except that it made him a lot more boring than he really was.

        3. I just didn’t like the way they portrayed Dan White. While he may have been a prick in real life, not everyone who is against gay politics is a closet case which is how Brolin played him, it was a lazy way to make him more hated.

        4. Into the Wild . Great film, directed by Penn. And the soundtrack by Eddie Vedder was top notch.

      2. The movie was overall okay, but certainly Penn’s performance was worthy of the Oscar he got for it.

      3. I didn’t catch Milk, but Mystic River and Dead Man Walking were excellent.

        I have no idea of Christian Bale’s education, but I’m checking out the last Batman movie this weekend.

        1. Bale is pretty good. But he also has that third world savior complex that Penn has. Maybe it’s a necessity for such brilliant careers.

        2. I hated that movie. John Lee Willie was a fucking monster. He did not deserve to have his name made famous and put on the silver screen.

          1. So was the character DeNiro played in Goodfellas. Nice people make for bad movies.

            1. Willie was even worse. And Goodfellas showed him to be a monster who got what he deserved. Love or hate Goodfellas, it didn’t portray Jimmy Burk as a nice guy or a victim of circumstances. Dead Man Walking in contrast tried to make Willie look like some poor kid caught up in the system.

      4. I really liked Milk although it wasn’t as amazing as the critics and Academy indicated. And yes, he was very good in Mystic River.

      5. I think he peaked at Spicoli.

    2. I agree. We have an entire education system set up to reward a certain kind of person. You don’t get into an elite school unless you manage to have perfect or nearly perfect grades. The kind of person who does that is not necessarily the smartest person or even the kind of person you want running an organization. They are people are have mastered the art of telling teachers what they want to hear.

      And worse still, they are people who have been told all of their lives they deserve to go to the top because they worked harder than everyone else. Our old elites used to be Protestants and thought all of their success attributable to God. They lived in fear of eternal judgment and for living eternity knowing they got all of their rewards in this life. Not our current elites. They rule and they know they deserve it.

      These two trends produce people who completely lack humility or the capability for independent thought. Create an entire organization of people who both know they are the smartest person in the room and are constitutionally incapable of telling anyone above them anything but what that person wants to hear, and you end up with Goldman Sachs.

      1. Sounds a lot like the Soviet nomenklatura.

    3. The highly-educated, connected pricks at Goldman-Sachs, on the other hand

      So an actor can have skill but an investor/banker cannot?

      And how does being a good actor mean you would be good at running a town? Shouldn’t someone who is good at running a town run the town?

      What are you even talking about?

      It is like you set off with an interesting thesis then gave the worse possible real world examples imaginable.

      1. Okay, I coulda done better with my examples. The point remains. Goldman-Sachs made shitty investments and was rescued by their former CEO, Hank Paulson, when they should have been allowed to go under. They fucked up, but didn’t pay the price.

        1. At risk of being flamed as a Goldman stooge, that’s not quite the way I remember it. Of any of the massive financial institutions (GS, MS, BAC, Citi, JPM, Wachovia, Lehman, AIG, WFC), Goldman was either the second (after JPM) or third (after JPM and WFC) farthest from the problem. And they had lined up a round of financing (10% preferreds) from Buffett before bailouts were launched. The thing is, even the banks that were okay had to take bailut money (I believe BBT had to) precisely to prevent investors from knowing which banks were otherwise screwed. So, ultimately, neither of us can really prove our case.

      2. I think his point was that Sean Penn has earned his fortune by being a good actor, while the people at Goldman Sachs should have lost everything, but were instead bailed out by the government.

        I don’t think he was saying that Penn should actually rule “Tinseltown” but that he deserves to be one of the top paid actors there.

        1. The point isn’t a matter of ruling, but of whether one has earned one’s pay.

      3. The only skills left in commercial or investment banking since 2008 are the skill to get the state to seize your competitors and shut them down and the skill to get the state to print or borrower money to shuffle to your counterparties to make sure they pay you.

        I don’t consider those skills to be very indicative of merit.

        If it’s true that the world financial system would have fallen in 2008 without massive state intervention, then it follows that the guys at Goldman should be living in cardboard boxes, and aren’t. And hey, maybe some of us here on this board would be right there in the alleyways besides them – but that doesn’t change the fact that the position of our financial elites is now tainted, for the foreseeable future, and can’t be called “merit” any longer.

        It sucks, and it eventually degenerates into the Proudhonistic fallacy, but I don’t see a way out of the logic box right now.

        1. Pretty much. I lost all respect for Mrs. Sudderman during the fall of 2008. Her whining for a TARP bailout was epic. You see not everyone was responsible. And people were going to lose everything they owned if it didn’t happen.

          Her justifications for TARP were absolutely repulsive. They really boiled down to “no one from a top business school should ever be poor”.

          1. Pretty much every third article she writes these days is “no one from a top business school should ever be poor” or some variation. I’m still pissed I paid $20 to renew my subscription for 2 years. The Atlantic is in full campaign mode right now.

            1. My dislike of his wife often clouds my view of Sudderman, which is not good. I used to really like her when she did asymetric information. But once she went to the Atlantic, the mask really slipped.

            2. I read an Atlantic article yesterday that was posted in RealClearPolitics. It was by a Philip Howard, about the need to blow up Warrrrrshington DC and start over – attempting “reform” of the govt culture wouldn’t work.

              I was amazed – I thought it was pretty good.

              Otherwise, the last time a found anything readable in the “Atlantic” was….um…..hmm…a long time ago.

              1. Howard is a brilliant guy. You have to love the title Government is a deviant subculture.

      4. So an actor can have skill but an investor/banker cannot?

        Sure, but actors that continually star in losing films eventually wind up doing something else. Bankers that continually lose money for their firms – not so much.

  7. There’s a fine line between blind adoration and disdain for those serving in America’s Armed Forces. Well, maybe not an all that fine line. Anyway, Hayes needed to learn to not only pick his battles wisely, but to better choose the timing of them as well. He deserved scorn for not knowing that.

    1. As I explained to my friends in the military; We will call you Heros and thank you for your service and dump endless amounts of the nation’s treasure into the military-industrial complex to make you totally kickass — but in ten years you’ll be waiting half a day for someone to empty your bedpan in a decrepid VA hospital or homeless and we won’t give a fuck. Generally, they already understand that’s the deal.

  8. Off topic but important: What the fuck is up with Randy Travis???

    FTA: Sources tell NBC 5 that prior to the crash, a call was placed to 911 by a store clerk who reported Travis had walked into a convenience store naked to buy cigarettes. The clerk said there were words exchanged and that Travis left without making a purchase.

    If only Garth Brooks had been in the car…

    1. Got a DUI after I passed out naked on the side of the road after buying some cigarettes. Maybe he is auditioning to be the next David Allen Coe?

      1. There’s only one way to become David Allan Coe, and that’s to murder the old David Allan Coe in prison after he tries to rape you.

      2. Sounds like a good start to his next song.

    2. Someone has to drink all the liquor now that George Jones has slowed down.

      1. It’s been a good year for the Wild Roses.

      1. God DAMNIT! SHIT!!

  9. Off topic but important: What the fuck is up with Randy Travis???

    FTA: Sources tell NBC 5 that prior to the crash, a call was placed to 911 by a store clerk who reported Travis had walked into a convenience store naked to buy cigarettes. The clerk said there were words exchanged and that Travis left without making a purchase.

    If only Garth Brooks had been in the car…

    1. We get it, it’s important.

    2. Garth is too busy banging Trisha Yearwood.

      1. Trish is taking one for the team, keeping Garth from making any more albums.

  10. How could Chris Hayes pass up the opportunity to call his book Elitend?mmerung? What a waste.

    1. That would have been epic.

    2. He’d didn’t want to look like an egghead. He’s just a Regular Joe.

    3. Throw in a few bulemic Manhattanite Wall Street trophy wives in Viking helmets, and you got a show I’ll but tickets to.

  11. The problem with the system here and now is that it basically rewards you for your whole life for doing well from ages 8-17. Maybe, maybe you do really well from 17-21 and get into an elite grad school. After that, there’s no meritocratic sorting. While there are some excellent producers who come out of these top places, all you have to do is graduate (a la John Kerry or GWB) to get somewhere. But it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. All the Goldman-Sachs guys are from Harvard and Yale, so why would they hire a smart kid from Ok State, even if he’s the smartest quants guy on the planet? That would make it worse, not better.

    1. The fact that many elites went to Harvard and Yale (or whatever) does not mean that attending such a school guarantees your success. I know a basket weaver, a plumber and a wierdo musician who went to Harvard grad schools.

      1. How many of them chose to do that rather than what they went to school for? All of them?

    2. Because it’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know. You meet the people you’re supposed to know to get ahead nationwide at Hah-vud and Yale, not at Land Grant U.

      Fun fact: Chris Hayes is a Brown grad with a degree in philosophy.

      1. Except that is not true. The are more CEOs from state schools than the Ivys. The only fields the Ivyes still dominate are law and unsurprisingly journalism.

        1. It was a general comment, John and it is still applicable. The CEO of the city’s biggest plastics company, the CEO of the local bakery chain, and the CEO of Goldman-Sachs are all different classes of beast. But it remains that a piece of paper from the Ivies or even the non-Ivy top tiers (MIT, Northwestern, Stanford), will provide more access than the same piece of paper from Land Grant U.

          1. Not really. If you don’t have connections when you go there, you don’t really leave with that many. Someone like Mitt Romney would have had plenty of connections no matter what school he went to. But just because you go to the same school, doesn’t mean you will get the same connections Romney does. The children of the elite become elite because they are the children of the elite. They just happen to go to the same school.

            1. I went to an elite university, with zero connections going in. I picked up a few connections going out, but mostly self-made types who moved up thanks to ability and effort, not the children of the elite. Now most of them have great resumes and are looking for work.

          2. And the CEO statistic is of fortune 500. The Iveys are to education what GM was to auto making in about 1975. They aint what they used to be.

        2. You might want to include government in that list, John. And that is what is truly scary.

  12. Chris Hayes, bootlicking toady.

  13. Since I don’t want to wait for the PM links to post this, I’d like to show you all how trolling is done. Watch out for the credit to DONDERRRRRROOOOOOO.

    1. I watched it with no sound. Is David Carlson some sort of Neo-Confederate Nazi Warmonger?

    2. Jesus fucking Christ! That’s awesome….ly scary. Wow! Cool.

      1. This is what party apparatchiks ACUTALLY BELIEVE!!!

    3. Holy. Shit.

    4. I am blocked. What is it?

      1. Basically, “If Ron Paul had his way slavery would still be legal and the 19th Amendment wouldn’t have passed. Oh, and RP said vile things about MLK’s sex life. So don’t vote for his ‘disciple’ in the MN senate race.”

        1. Donderoo once was Paul’s overseer. So he would know.

      2. The best campaign ad ever. If you vote for my opponent, Ron Paul is going to incinerate the Jews.

    5. Isn’t that T o n y’s typical post?

    6. Holy Shit!

  14. I used to really like her when she did asymetric information.

    I have thought McArdle was a dimwit since the very first time I followed a link to one of her “analyses”.

    What do I win?

    1. A lifetime subscription to The Atlantic!

    2. A cookie. Yeah, she is a dimwit and living proof that you don’t have to be bright to get into Wharton. I can’t figure out how she did it or who she blew to get into a top business school.

      Yeah, I was stupid. Guilty as charged.

  15. If you vote for my opponent, Ron Paul is going to incinerate the Jews.

    Promise?

  16. Most of the OWS/Income Inequality stuff of recent years focuses on the inequality of the top 1/2/5% vs. the rest. I would be curious to see what sort of trends in there are in inequality for the 4th quintile vs the 2nd quintile. I have this feeling that the differences in the inequality of today vs. 100 or 50 years ago is less pronounced at the extreme top and extreme bottom than it is for the upper middle class and the working class.

  17. As a tour guide to domains where elites dwell…

    So Hayes hangs out at Reason dot com? (adjusts monocle)

  18. Sounds like one helluva plan to me dude. Wow.

    http://www.Gettin-Private.tk

  19. What Hayes terms the Era of Equality, from World War II through the 1970s, has ended.

    So progressives now think that the era of the organization man, banal conformity, Jim Crow, and repressive gender roles is now the “era of equality”.

    What a fucking moron.

  20. HR

  21. If Hayes really hates elites… why does he vote to put them in office?

    1. This tack of his is just to preempt any attacks on him, being that he is about as “1%” as a human can be.

      He really loves elites, he just wants to have this as a disclaimer, and also to explain why we need socialism.

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