The recent discovery of crucial errors in a highly influential economic paper by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff has attracted much attention. In the wake of the Great Recession it has come as a setback for those who have invoked the Reinhart-Rogoff thesis in support of the case for austerity. But what if, more than just an intellectual defeat, the controversy also says something about the academic environment that produced it and its connection to elite decision-makers? Reinhart and Rogoff, both distinguished economists with many rigorous empirical studies and serious policy work at the IMF under their belt, can hardly be accused of fabricating results for political purposes. But their sloppiness is a symptom of the increasingly narrow feedback base in high-level academic circles—it took a graduate student to discover that a spread-sheet column was missing in the data-set used in the paper—as well as a reminder of the disproportionately large authority that scientific and academic studies can acquire when their authors are closely connected to policy-making elites.
What, then, does this affair say about the ability of contemporary Western institutions to devise effective policy to deal with their most pressing challenges? It is difficult to give an answer to this question that is not either carelessly acquiescent or hopelessly sceptical. Few people are able to think clearly and constructively about the problems facing industrial democracies while retaining a willingness to question some of their basic tenets in searching for solutions.
But in Twilight of the Elites, Chris Hayes has done just that. Hayes has been editor-at-large at The Nation for several years, and as Americans may know, started his own current affairs talk show, Up with Chris Hayes, on MSNBC in September 2011; the success of his first show led to his promotion to prime time in April 2013 with his new show, All In. His most recent book is an impressive feat of social criticism, not least because its author is a pundit in the mainstream media. Up to this point most social critics in the English language were either on the margins of academia, like Slavoj Žižek, or intellectually strong in their books but lacking and pessimistic in concrete political analysis, like John Gray. But rarely do they emerge in serious form from the ranks of political journalism and commentary.
Hayes’ analysis is radical in its scope but pragmatic in its conclusions. He diagnoses American society with what he calls a Crisis of Authority, which in his eyes is a more fundamental problem than political turmoil or economic collapse. A Crisis of Authority eats away at core of the social order, that is, it destroys people’s trust in each other and in their leaders. The common denominator between all of the disasters that have befallen America in the last decade – the disputed 2000 presidential elections, the bankruptcy of Enron, the Iraq War, the dismal response to Hurricane Katrina, the Catholic Church sex scandal, drug abuse in Major League baseball, the financial meltdown – is that they are all cases of elite failure. Trust in politicians, bankers, CEOs, intelligence experts, disaster relief coordinators, clergymen, athletes, and even in the judiciary, is at an all-time low. There is a widespread sentiment that traditional institutions have failed the American people.
This analysis is not, in itself, very novel. In fact, this kind of message is exactly what fills the pages and airtime of media on both the left and the right, the critics of neo-liberal capitalism and the libertarian enemies of big government. But as Hayes suggests, the traditional left-right spectrum may not be the most useful analytical dimension in which to cast the responses to a crisis of authority. Instead, he identifies two broad lines of response: institutionalists, who are alarmed at the sapping away of authority and try to reconstitute it; and insurrectionists, who think that the corruption engendered by these institutions is more dangerous and welcome their imminent collapse. It is the difference between David Brooks on the one hand and Julian Assange on the other.
What makes Hayes so incisive is his insistence that the main cause of the ‘fail decade’ is a tradition that is very deeply rooted in American society and in Western countries more broadly: meritocracy. The idea that the most competent, the most intelligent, the hardest-working should run things is a central feature of civil services, but also of corporate culture and organized sports. It is the singular most important principle of the prestigious academic institutions that are set up to feed talent into national and international elite circles.
It is undeniably true that ability is unevenly distributed among the population, and that selection according to ability can increase the quality of institutions as a whole. But, Hayes argues, we have so blindly placed our trust in meritocracy that we have failed to see that it no longer fulfils the task for which it was designed. Meritocracy today perpetuates the hold on power of an exceedingly small group of very wealthy people and recruits almost no members from the lower and middle classes of American society. For a system which justifies itself by its supposed disregard for wealth, class, race or religion, this is highly problematic. Social mobility, the very essence of the American Dream, has ground to a halt. What’s more, it is becoming ever more clear that meritocracy itself is to blame for this rampant inequality
Drawing from the work of the German social theorist Robert Michels, a somewhat forgotten student of Max Weber and Werner Sombart, Hayes formulates what he calls the iron law of meritocracy: ‘eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility’. The social pay-offs to those who make it into a meritocratic elite are so big that those outside the elite are increasingly excluded from access. Amidst rising inequality the notion that a level playing field exists is rapidly becoming unrealistic. At the heart of Hayes’ argument is the realisation that we cannot think of the meritocratic system as a kind of unbiased intelligence-selecting wonder machine detached from the profoundly unequal society that it serves. Our elites are not continuously being refreshed, improved and replaced, as they should be if meritocracy is to be true to its name. Instead their members are drawn from a narrow ruling caste to whom ever larger political power, influence and wealth accrue.
The particular cases examined in Twilight of the Elites give a sense of just how pervasive the meritocratic ethos is, and how pervasive too the failure is that its fanatical pursuit has brought along. Take for example Enron, the energy giant that was heralded as one of the most innovative firms at the start of the twenty-first century. Its management cultivated a climate of intense competition among its employees, overtly sanctioning rule-breaking when it led to more market share and higher profits. What brought the company down was the recklessness that came along with this culture of achievement and success at all costs. Competition and iconoclasm may break down established barriers and spawn new ideas, but in the case of Enron it also stimulated a multi-billion dollar accounting fraud. When the company finally sued for bankruptcy in December 2001, some $65 billion in stock market value had vanished into thin air.
Even more troubling is the steroids abuse in Major League baseball, which came to light in 2009. There have been some illuminating exposés of systemic cheating in organized sports before – notably in cycling – but few have connected this with broader societal attitudes toward competition, not to mention rising rewards due to the growing influence of commercial interests in such ostensibly non-political spheres. The higher the rewards, the larger is the allure to not play by the rules. When dealing with dope-using athletes, as with deceiving bankers and corrupt politicians, there is always the temptation to blame the individuals concerned, and to frame their guilt in terms of individual responsibility. But it is in his search for structural causes for these failings that Hayes shows himself to be a real social critic. ‘The story of Major League Baseball isn’t about any one person’s misconduct, but the story of a systemic breakdown that created institution-wide incentives for fraud and a total failure of accountability. It is, in other words, the story of Enron, the story of the housing bubble and the crash, the story of much of the decade as a whole.’
Hayes is also strong in developing his critique of meritocracy to the realms of information. The decline in the credibility of traditional news outlets has ushered in ‘an informational interregnum’, in which citizens have access to more information than every before, but lack the means to select the appropriate information, much less determine its accuracy. Most of the methods we use to evaluate how reliable information is have themselves been undermined by institutional failures. For example, proximity to a source used to be an indicator of quality. Nonetheless, thousands of business and financial journalists failed to pick up on the subprime mortgage bubble whose bursting set off the Great Recession. The wisdom of political consensus—the idea that when a bipartisan course of action is agreed upon it must always be the best possible one—was shattered by the blunder in Iraq. Even the assumption of good faith in the basic benevolence of most important institutions (something like Max Weber’s concept of traditional authority) has been heavily weakened by the continuously emerging cases of sexual abuse emanating from the Catholic Church worldwide.
From a social and economic point of view the development of the West after World War Two is usually seen as proceeding in two phases: the first from 1945 to the mid-1970s, in which almost three decades of high GDP growth produced hitherto unseen increases in social mobility and income equality, all under the aegis of welfare states composed largely of traditional and patriarchal institutions; and the second stage, which lasts to this day, in which these patriarchal institutions were dismantled as women, ethnic minorities and gays received more rights and social barriers based on class and race broke down, even as income inequality rose steeply in every single advanced economy. Looking back over the last half century, it seems almost like there is a trade-off between (actual) economic and (formal) social equality in which a society can securely have one only at the expense of the other.
But the historical record is not destiny; there is nothing that precludes us from having both kinds of equality, as long as we realise that we cannot hope to have equality of opportunity for any length of time without also attending to equality of outcome. A very fragile balance will have to be struck and vociferously maintained. As Hayes rightly points out, the educational system has thus far done most of the heavy lifting in industrialised societies, compensating for ever more inequality in outcome by providing some degree of equal opportunity; but with budget cuts affecting government spending on education in most of these countries, the means that schools and universities have to lift those coming from the bottom to the top are growing smaller by the day. A substantial and sustained reinforcement of educational resources as well as a comprehensive reform of taxation regimes are obvious ways to start addressing these issues.
This is not as utopian as it might seem. The video about wealth inequality in America that went viral earlier this year painted a shocking picture. But what few people picked up on was that the research by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely which documented the popular misperception of how severe the inequality is also showed that ‘all demographic groups—even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy—desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo’. That popular opinion is not the main obstacle to a new balance between equality of opportunity and outcome adds to the credibility of Hayes’ claim that degenerated institutions rather than popular ignorance are the main problem.
Altogether Hayes’ book, which upon publication last year immediately made it onto the New York Times bestseller list, has received relatively little attention in Europe. I think this is a pity, because there is much that the European public can learn from his conclusions. It is naïve and irresponsible to suppose that Europe would somehow be immune to the failures of meritocracy that plague the United States because it lacks an equivalent to the American Dream. Although competitive pressures in many countries may be lower than across the Atlantic, Europe has seen the same opening up of traditional institutions to a new ‘aristocracy of talent’ in recent decades. We can add to this a litany of failures and scandals that outstrips the American record. The institutions affected include the civil service (think of the decade-long budgeting fraud that led to the downgrading in 2010 of Greek government debt and the subsequent societal meltdown of that country), the media (the 2011 British phone hacking scandal), organized sports (the organized betting in European football matches), the financial sector (the manipulation of the Libor interest rate by American and European banks), and even the European Union itself, expressed in the continued worries about the future of the Eurozone.
What matters here is not so much who is or is not to blame, but the fact that all of the aforementioned recent failures are systemic in nature. They are abuses of power that take place in an institutional landscape in which the playing field has become dangerously uneven. Hayes’ analysis can be fruitfully extended to Europe considering that a meritocratic turn similar to America’s took place here in the late 1970s, after the providential paternalism of the three post-war decades was broken and a new generation entered power. Considering the vestiges of constitutional monarchy and state enterprises that remain in many countries, the rise of European meritocracy has proceeded more unevenly, particularly in former Communist countries, where it has been prone to fall prey to oligarchic tendencies. But this is not to suggest that institutions that have resisted democratisation and do not have entry criteria of ability and productivity are somehow preferable. We should avoid thinking that simply because unrestrained meritocracy creates new forms of inequality, we will have to fall back on older forms of inequality: aristocracy, oligarchy or party elites.
In fact, the exact opposite is true. The only mitigating factors that hold out a slight prospect of success for European meritocracy are social equality and social mobility. In 2012 the World Bank reported that the Gini coefficient (a number between 0 and 1, with 0 representing perfectly equal income distribution and 1 being the state in which all income goes to one person) of all EU countries hovered around 0.35, with that of the US at 0.38. Note, however, that the EU average is born by a population of about 500 million people spread over 27 countries, ranging from Luxembourg (with a GDP per capita of over $70,000) to Romania (GDP per capita around $10,000). The income distributions of these countries do not overlap at all, which means that the poorest 10% of Luxembourgers are vastly richer than the richest 10% of Romanians. Consider, then, the magnitude of the fact that even with these stark national differences, the United States is across the board still more unequal than Europe.
When it comes to social mobility, a 2010 OECD report concluded that in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Germany, but also in Australia and Canada and even in Spain, intergenerational social mobility (measured by how many individuals remain in the some wage band as their father) was higher than in the US. Moreover, the report found that ‘intergenerational social mobility tends to be lower in more unequal societies’. This supports Hayes’ argument that the spread of wealth in a society has important effects on mobility, the engine of meritocracy. Insofar as Europe has retained some degree of social mobility and has avoided absolutely rampant inequality, it has a chance of sustaining a meritocratic system. But if current trends towards increasing inequality persist (the UK currently leads the way), then the writing is on the wall.
Many national leaders claim, quite opportunistically, that the EU is to blame for their institutional problems. The European Union faces many issues, and it needs to adapt institutionally if it is to survive. The resentment towards the American government from the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street has its European equivalent in the Eurosceptic populist parties on both right and left that have arisen in recent years. Anti-EU parties criticise the Eurocrats in Brussels as another discredited elite. Their failure is not so much that they are corrupt, but that they are out of touch and impose unjustifiable burdens on national populations. These anti-elite attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic bear a lot of similarity to each other. Hayes claims that as meritocracy degenerates, its shrinking recruitment pool becomes more blinkered and thus less able to respond to popular needs. What this means is that European elites are only as good as the national elites that produce them.
At first glance, there is some reason to be mildly optimistic. For example, the backgrounds of the leading European administrators span the full range of social classes from top to bottom. For example, the European Commission’s president, José Manuel Barroso, was prime minister of Portugal before he came into office in November 2004. Yet he was the son of an accountant and a schoolteacher, and underwent a period of youthful radicalism leading an underground Maoist party in his student years. Nonetheless, Barroso was able to use the meritocratic machinery that developed in Portugal after 1974, when four decades of dictatorship came to an end. He graduated top of his class in law at the University of Lisbon and pursued a doctorate in political science at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Because the Portuguese government needed all the talent it could lay its hands on, he made a rapid career in parliament and in the foreign ministry. Barroso himself admits that, ‘it was not so much because of my exceptional merit … a new leadership was needed, so that’s why many of us came to politics so young and sometimes to very important positions’. At age 36, he became foreign minister and over the years, has ended up firmly on the center-right.
Other leaders of the European Union, like the Polish President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek, come from prominent and well-established political families. Still others, like the President of the European Council, the Belgian Herman van Rompuy, come from the middle class. And the foreign representative of the EU, Catherine Ashton, is a prime example of meritocratic advancement: coming from a Lancashire working class family of coal miners, she was the first in her family to attend university. To some extent, such stories should alleviate some of the distrust felt towards the EU: in their background, Eurocrats aren’t any more or less elitist than politicians and bureaucrats from any of the 27 member states. But if social mobility—and therefore, meritocracy—is in decline across the continent, then we have no less reason to worry that the quality of European leadership may be deteriorating.
There is an added dimension to the European debate. The European Union has always been a technocratic body, in keeping with the pragmatism of its institutional godfather, Jean Monnet. An arch-bureaucrat, he regarded parliamentary politics as a diversion from the more important job of administration. His legacy is a mixed blessing. Like any bureaucracy, the organs of the EU employ many civil servants who are not elected, and this means it lacks democratic legitimacy. Moreover, bureaucratic responsiveness to pressing issues decreases rapidly with distance. The institutions based in Brussels may be conveniently located between Paris, Berlin and London, but the EU has made little headway against corruption, rural underdevelopment, organized crime and mismanagement of resources in member states like Bulgaria and Romania that are far away from its institutional centres. More meritocracy is unlikely to help here; what is needed is more direct assistance and better local government.
There may at least be one benefit in the long run, however. The dominance of technocratic methods in the European Commission means that EU policy, even after it has been watered down by political considerations, is still driven by a core of scientific findings and empirical research. In dealing with issues such as climate change, this gives Europe an advantage over the United States, where the very existence of climate change is itself still a highly contested political issue. And so far the non-democratic nature of most of the Brussels elite has largely insulated it from the excessively undue influence of campaign financing and corporate bribes. Instead, lobbying takes the form of national interest groups. Chief among these is the French agricultural lobby, which has a disproportionate hold over Commission expenditures in the form of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). However, even though it is not directly elected, the European bureaucracy still feels the effect of democracy: abolishing the CAP, though financially sound and internationally fair, would trigger a populist backlash against the French government which would make it much more difficult to negotiate with on any other European issue. In this respect the institutional obstacles to elite reform on both sides of the Atlantic remain equally formidable.
The intellectual shadow which looms over Twilight of the Elites is that of Christopher Lasch (1932-1994), one of the most interesting American intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century and one of that era’s most profound and disturbing social critics. Like Hayes, Lasch was not afraid to think his arguments through to their logical conclusion. The difference between the two is that Lasch arrived at much more pessimistic conclusions: in his view the social structure of modern industrial civilisation produced psychological disorders of a kind that would not be easily addressed without throwing away all the advantages that this civilisation had brought—a dismal conclusion Lasch reached in his book The Revolt of the Elites.
Hayes pays some homage to this title but he ultimately does not share Lasch’s gloomy outlook, and sees the democratic system as the best, and ultimately the only, arrangement capable of solving the problems that it has itself created. His plea for a reorientation of public debate is a big challenge, but it is based on ideas that are broadly appealing and pragmatically shaped. For example, one need not strive to eliminate inequality as such and thereby take away freedom and diversity as long as one insists that all inequalities ought to be justifiable in relation to their contribution to the common good. The Rawlsian difference principle is not a terribly radical idea, coming as it did from the well-considered judgment of a deeply liberal philosophy professor at Harvard—one of the academic institutions whose contributions to knowledge ultimately have societal value only insofar as they can be disseminated to a student body that is as socio-economically diverse as possible.
Hayes pins his hopes for reform on what he calls the ‘newly radicalised upper middle class’: the group of young professionals and college graduates who now face a future in which they will be less well off than their parents, who have played by all the rules but are dismayed by the shrinking elite of plutocrats who have gamed the system and are using their hold on power to rig institutional arrangements in their favour and to the detriment of the rest. This group represents the high-water mark of meritocratic advancement, and for that reason it is acutely aware of how much it stands to lose. How far-reaching the change this group ultimately achieves remains to be seen, but we can agree with Hayes that it is very likely that the radical middle- and upper middle classes will be at the centre of any successful attempt at reform. Sufficiently disappointed with elite failure to look for new possibilities, but able and educated enough to engage with and influence these elites, they are now the creative element in Western democracies that can navigate between the dangerous extremes of apathy and anarchy.