Kristen's Reviews > Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy

Twilight of the Elites by Christopher L. Hayes
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Apr 23, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: political
Read from June 21 to July 06, 2012

I read most of the first and last chapters last night - easy reading, but with a lot of memorable information.

Hayes, who is editor of The Nation and a friend of my hero Ezra Klein, is concerned with the worrying decline in trust in our society, specifically trust in the maligned elites who, in a meritocracy, are the folks who supposedly are the cream of the crop.

We've all heard the sneering references to the elites from the right-wing, an ironic reality since it's the right-wing who go to the mat for the elites when it comes to money.

Hayes writes about how all the institutions of our society, with the exception of the military and perhaps the police, have lost credibility with the American people - although the left still has a residual faith in government and the right still has a residual faith in corporations and business.

He writes about how in the 1950s, corporate CEOs made 25 times what entry-level workers made, and today they make 185 times what the janitor makes. He writes about how progressive the tax code was in the 1950s - with that last bit, the part over $1 million that someone made, being taxed at 90 percent. The estate tax was 50 percent in those days too.

And yet those were the bad old days of patriarchy and homophobia.

He quoted someone saying that the right wants to go home to the 1950s, while the left wants to go to work there [or be taxed there!].

So there were two great equalizations in the last 70 years: the first, that equalization of income, which just happened to coincide with a huge economic expansion (which the right likes to think was purely coincidental, despite its predictability at different times around the world); and the second, the result of the tumult of the 1960s, the overturning of old patriarchal and homophobic assumptions.

The irony, he points out, is the fact that meritocracies need levelings in order to actually work. Yes, people should be rewarded on outcome, but in order to have a level playing field, you need some redistribution. Arrgh!

He includes one of my favorite surveys (one that Chris Mooney also includes in The Republican Brain,) that asked people what would be the best society:
1) Where the top 20 percent of earners earned 20 percent of GDP;
2) Where the top 20 percent of earners earned 35 percent of GDP (leaving 65 percent to be split amongst the bottom 80 percent); or
3) Where the top 20 percent earned 80 percent of GDP (leaving 20 percent to be split amongst the bottom 80 percent).

Even most Republicans chose #2. And even most Dems had no idea that the situation in the United States is #3 - winner take most all. And, of course, #2 is the case in Denmark.

He also opens one of his chapter with this great quote: "An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics."

A quote from... Marx? Lenin? Try Plutarch.

Also a good quote from Churchill, who argued that an estate tax provided "a certain corrective against the development of a race of idle rich."
...and it was out of an ideological commitment to a kind of protomeritocratic vision of equality of opportunity that robber baron Andrew Carnegie, opponent of income and property taxes, argued for a steep and confiscatory tax on inheritance: 'As a rule, a self-made millionaire is not an extravagant man himself...But as far as sons and children, they are not so constituted. They have never known what it was to figure means to the end, to live frugal lives, or to do any useful work... And I say these men, when the time comes that they must die... I say the community fails in its duty, and our legislators fail in their duty, if they do not exact a tremendous share.'

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Mike THat was a quote from Carnegie, but yes, a great one.

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