Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review Club: Twilight of the Elites

Twilight of the Elites
by Christopher Hayes
Crown Publishing, 2012
Adult Non-fiction

Hayes examines why "America feels broken" and comes to the conclusion that our meritocracy has failed us. We are in a new "crisis of authority".

The last such crisis occurred in the 1960's when the whiz kids of the WASP elite led us into disaster in Vietnam. The Civil Rights struggle triumphed at the same time, which led to the formation of a new meritocratic elite, chosen from the "best and brightest" of the nation, including women and minorities. This led to the election of Barack Obama, the country's first African-American president. But by then we were nearing the end of a decade of elite failure. Hayes writes:

The central tragic irony of the presidency of Barack Obama is that his election marked the crowning achievement of the post-1960s meritocracy, just at the moment that the system was imploding on itself.

Hayes walks us through each elite failure of the "Fail Decade" from the intelligence debacles that led the Iraq War, the engineering failures that led to the busting of the levees around New Orleans, and finally to the banking crisis that created the worst financial slump since the 1930s. He includes the pedophile priest scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in some detail. None of it makes for a pretty picture.

But why has so little changed? For instance, why are there so few bankers in jail? The problem is that at some point elites become self-perpetuating and self-protective, dysfunctional and corrupt. They become so sure of their own merit, they cannot accept responsibility for their own failures.

The rise of the meritocracy, and the rise in compensation to those at the top, has led to an astounding gap of inequality between the "best" and the rest. This is the big downside of the system. Equality of opportunity isn't enough, esp. when it doesn't really exist in some areas of the country. That isn't to say we necessarily want equality of outcome, but the more prosperity is shared by everyone, the better we do as a nation and as a society. Education alone cannot solve the problems, esp. since schools are not funded equally.

So how to fix the mess we're in?

There are two approaches, according to Hayes:

- the institutionalists, like President Obama, want to fix the system - a tweak here, a tweak there

- the insurrectionists, like economist Paul Krugman and the Occupy Movement, think the system is irrevocably broken and needs to be changed radically.

I lean more to the insurrectionist point of view myself. (I am still royally pissed that the banks got away with massive mortgage fraud.) In any case I agree with Hayes's conclusion that "the answer lies in a newly radicalized middle class" that insists on finding ways to level the playing field.

Whether, or when, that will happen remains to be seen. Either way, it's going to be a bumpy ride for most of us.

Twilight of the Elites is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book, and I recommend it highly.

About the author:
Christopher Hayes is Editor at Large of The Nation and host of Up w/ Chris Hayes on MSNBC (Sat 7-9am and Sun 8-10am.)

As always, click on the graphic below for more book reviews. My thanks to Barrie Summi for organizing our monthly book club.


P.S. Dear FCC, I bought the ebook from Amazon and read it on my iPad.

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@Barrie Summy