Twilight of the Elites (part 3)

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Having described in some detail how meritocracies degenerate into self-serving oligarchies, Chris Hayes ends his book with a brief discussion of what might be done about it. Although his subtitle, America After Meritocracy, suggests that he wants to destroy meritocracy, he explains that he wants only to reform it. “At its most basic, the logic of ‘meritocracy’ is ironclad: putting the most qualified, best equipped people into the positions of greatest responsibility and import. It would be foolhardy to toss this principle out in its entirety.” This sounds almost like the collison of an irresistible force and an immovable object; we have both the “ironclad logic” of meritocracy in principle and the “iron law” of its corruption in practice! So what’s to be done? Resist the corruption by keeping inequality from getting out of hand:

If you don’t concern yourself at all with equality of outcomes, you will, over time, produce a system with horrendous inequality of opportunity. This is the paradox of meritocracy: It can only truly come to flower in a society that starts out with a relatively high degree of equality. So if you want meritocracy, work for equality. Because it is only in a society which values equality of actual outcomes, one that promotes the commonweal and social solidarity, that equal opportunity and earned mobility can flourish.

Hayes makes clear that he is speaking primarily of economic equality. Although he acknowledges other sources of power besides money–political office, platform (being in a position to address a large audience), social networks–he sees these as highly correlated. For example, candidates who run for office usually need to have a lot of money of their own as well as the social connections to raise it from other wealthy people. And the wealthy generally have their way: Research in political science finds that actual policy outcomes correlate highly with the desires of the wealthy and hardly at all with the desires of middle-income or poorer voters. Hayes regards the “1%” and the “governing class” as nearly the same group.

Hayes then endorses the classic liberal goal of economic redistribution through government taxing and spending. “As a general rule, the more taxation, the more redistribution; the more redistribution, the more equality.” He brings this ostensibly radical idea into the mainstream by citing surveys showing that Americans want wealth to be distributed far more evenly than it is, and that they favor raising taxes on the wealthy. He acknowledges how difficult this is to accomplish: “People and institutions who benefit most from extreme inequality have outsize power they can use to protect their gains from egalitarian incursions.” But he hopes that mobilizing the power of the majority can shift the political balance. He pins his hopes especially on a “newly radicalized upper middle class,” since their prospects for getting ahead have also been diminished by the self-serving policies that favor the 1%.

One thing that struck me about the book was how much politics and how little economics it contains. The author seems to see the world primarily as a struggle of social classes for control of the government, one class using it to consolidate their privileges and others to expand equality. That may be true, but it’s not the whole truth. America also faces a struggle to maintain and expand the wealth of the whole country. Having just read Arne Kalleberg’s Good Jobs, Bad Jobs, I’m interested in the question of how the United States is going to compete in the global economy. Will we join a race to the bottom, creating as many low-wage jobs as possible, or find a way to create better jobs for well-educated, highly trained workers? Government policies in areas like human capital development and investment in new industries may have implications both for reducing inequality and increasing national wealth and competitiveness. If so, framing the issue as redistribution for redistribution’s sake may be unnecessarily narrow and divisive. Hayes mentions the postwar era in which economic growth and increasing equality went hand in hand. Many leaders of that era realized that it was good for the economy for workers to earn enough to join the middle class. Similarly, we may all benefit if the nation develops the talents of all its citizens and the new industries to employ them. The result may be a society that is not only fairer, but more prosperous.

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