Friday, March 15, 2013

Move 'Em Up, Head 'Em Out

I finally finished Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, which turned out to be even less meritorious than I expected.  Hayes's ongoing misuse of the word "meritocracy" annoys me like a stone in my shoe: "institutions that create meritocratic elites" (64), "the energetic force of meritocratic competition" (75), "American political economy during the meritocratic age" (142), "several decades of failed meritocratic production" (155), "the class of meritocratic overachievers" (201), "the meritocratic era" (203), and the like.  What meritocratic era?  He can't seem to make up his mind whether meritocracy has been an aspiration, or a brief shining moment that has alas faded, or some combination of the two. 

He even quotes someone else's misdefinition:
Adam Michaelson, a former advertising executive who worked in Countrywide [Financial]'s marketing division, recalls the atmosphere of the business this way: "Countrywide fashioned itself a meritocracy, that is, whoever generated the most value or profit for the firm would be granted the greatest rewards, growth and prestige."  As happened in so many places over the past decade, the institutional definition of merit inside Countrywide became thoroughly perverse [97-8].
But the "institutional definition" didn't become "perverse," it was perverse in itself.  Those who generated value and profit for the firm weren't running it (the -cracy part of meritocracy again): the upper ranks of executive officers did that.  Those upper echelons skimmed off immense wealth for themselves from the "value and profit" their underlings generated:
Between 2001 and 2006, [cofounder Angelo] Mozilo managed to arrange for himself a staggering $470 million in in total executive compensation.  The most cynical interpretation of these actions, though also the most plausible, is that Mozilo was looting the company he'd built as fast as he could before the markets or regulators caught up with him [97].
Earlier in the book Hayes wrote, "In a meritocracy, people are judged not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character" (51).  Leaving aside the fact that we have no way of judging the content of people's character directly, before they are granted access to money and power, it seems fair to say that Mozilo showed his character all too well as he squirreled away vast amounts of money.  In the end the Securities Exchange Commission caught up with him, but he managed to avoid trial or jail by reaching a settlement in which he "agreed to pay $67.5 million in fines and accepted a lifetime ban from serving as an officer or director of any public company ... The terms of the settlement allow Mr. Mozilo to avoid acknowledging any wrongdoing.  In February 2011, the U.S. dropped its criminal investigation into the facts behind that civil settlement."

This isn't, contrary to Hayes's repeated lament, a new crisis of authority and public trust in the US.  What bothers me is that he really thinks that it's important that we believe authorities, and that they used to or even theoretically could deserve unquestioning trust.  He seems to think, for example, that the "mainstream" corporate media used to be reliable, or ought to be treated as if they were.  It "wasn't just the rise of technology that produced the explosion of the blogosphere; it was the perceived failings of the mainstream media" (118).  That word "perceived" bothers me.  It could mean that those failings became manifest and so were perceived; but in context it seems to mean that people only thought they discerned those failings.  If Hayes has ever heard of I. F. Stone, he doesn't let on.  As he concedes,
It turned out that ... someone sitting in a basement in New Jersey, using the Internet, reading from a diverse set of sources about WMD intelligence, could actually get closer to the truth than the beat reporter with the inside sources at Langley [118].
That's essentially what Stone did.  Expelled from the Washington press corps in the late 1940s, he started his own newsletter and worked by close reading of corporate media and government publications.  He didn't even need the Internet.  Access to government insiders, that consummation devoutly to be wished among most American journalists, has more to do with wanting to rub elbows with the power than with doing serious journalism.

Critical thinking makes Hayes uneasy for some reason.  He admits that authority figures have made lethal mistakes, and that professional "consensus" can be and has been completely wrong.  But he still seems to think that somewhere there's a meritocratic elite who will be right and can be trusted, if we can just find them.  That, it seems to me, is the root of the problem.  No one individual can know everything, so we have to delegate learning to other people.  But if we expect to find someone who knows everything and never errs, we're bound to be disappointed when our elites turn out to have feet of clay, and then go looking for the next true authority.  It's not necessary to be cynical about it, just realistic, but that option seems not to have occurred to Hayes.

Hayes assumes that competition selects for merit, and that is probably his biggest mistake.  In some cases it may do, where merit can be narrowly and specifically defined: as the fastest runner or the highest jumper.  But that applies only to a very small part of worthwhile human endeavor.  When merit is defined as making as much money as possible for your hedge fund, you get into trouble.  Or consider this example:
[Economist Sherwin] Rosen argued that certain technological trends had radically expanded the demand for services for those who were the best in their field: in 1950, a top basketball player could only monetize his talent with an endorsement deal that would sell sneakers to Americans; today, LeBron James is featured on billboards from Florida to Turkey to China [142-3].
I think "market" would be more accurate than "demand," but the real fault here is the assumptions that there is one indisputable "best in their field," and that no one else can "monetize his talent."  Many elite athletes have their fans, who'll buy products endorsed by their favorite stars, and those fans disagree about who is the best.  You don't have to be the top basketball player in the world to become rich, or even financially comfortable.  And again, sport is a field where excellence is relatively easy to define and detect, compared to the arts, let alone politics.  Hayes goes on:
The same goes in a whole host of domains: the best opera soprano can, with the advent of MP3s and the Internet, sell to anyone in the world with an iPod, which spells trouble for the fifth best soprano. If you can buy the best, why settle? [143]
This assumes that people seek out the best, or the world's best, singers, and that they agree who is the best.  Neither is true.  A fan may have his or her favorite diva, and argue that she's the best against the fans of rivals, but there is room (and a need) for more than one great soprano in the opera world, just as there's no reason why New York City can offer excellent educations to only 185 new students a year.  Those who aren't the top 185 still have a claim on learning, and something to contribute.

I realize that I'm probably not a typical music listener, but I don't think in terms of seeking out the best singer, or songwriter, or guitarist, or pianist, or band in the world.  I look for music or other art that gives me pleasure, or moves me emotionally, and I'm drawn by a range of artists.  Sure, there are fans who root for their band or their singer against all others -- I remember with distaste the divide between Beatles and Stones fans in the 60s, for example -- but it isn't necessary to denigrate all other singers than your personal fave.  The mindset that does so is fed by the competitive ethos of capitalism, but that's what is wrong with it.  Few of even the most fanatical fans have records by only one performer in their collections.  And none of this has much if anything to do with merit, let alone meritocracy.

Hayes structures his book around a few hot-button stories that many writers and pundits can agree are important -- the Roman Catholic abuse scandals, steroid use in baseball, corruption in business and finance and politics -- but they don't have much to do with "meritocracy."  That's not too surprising, since he doesn't have a very clear understanding of what meritocracy is or might be, and Twilight of the Elites is a frustratingly insubstantial discussion of some serious problems.