Thursday, March 14, 2019

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Christopher L. Hayes (author, narrator)

Random House Audio, June 2012

America from our beginnings as a nation has always inclined toward what we now call meritocracy--the idea that talent rather than birth should be the major determinant of gets the jobs and positions that make society, business, and government run. It's an inarguable idea; no one wants their surgeon to be selected on the basis wealth and connections, or by the superficial "fairness" of a lottery. That would be foolish. And since the word was invented, and the formal tools started to develop, in the early part of the last century, the USA, more than any other major country, has fully committed to an utterly uncompromising version of meritocracy.

The result hasn't been heaven on Earth. It's been, after initial success, the ever-increasing and ever more disastrous failure of our elites and our institutions. Why? Because aggressive meritocracy, with ever-increasing emphasis on high-stakes selective testing, highly selective "best" schools, and all the rest, pitched as equality of opportunity, without any commitment to some rough equality of outcome, ultimately kills equality of opportunity--and it cripples the ability of our carefully selected meritocratic elites to actually to the excellent job we assume they will do, or ought to be doing.

Some of the reasons were obvious to me even when I was in high school. I love standardized tests. They're fun. I "test well." Those test scores got me some excellent choices in colleges.

And I knew kids just as smart as I was, in any practical sense, who froze when confronted with a standardized test. They did not "test well."

The implications of the still relatively new test prep industry were less apparent to me. My classmates and I were mostly lower middle and working class. Stuff was going on in the high schools of the leafy suburbs that we knew not of. In the decades since, it's gotten more extreme, and the notion that kids from ordinary, working class families, much less working poor families, have an equal shot at a quality or prestigious higher education is little more than a bad joke. This book was published in 2012; it's now 2019, and the latest higher ed scandal is not another round of the same old stuff, but wealthy and connected families getting their kids into the "best" schools, not with the usual institutional bribery with buildings and resources that might benefit every student, but frank bribery of coaches and sports directors. "Athletic scholarships" get privileged kids in who can't make those test scores or play those sports at an elite level or, sometimes, at all, and some less privileged kid who could is displaced.

But Hayes to a great extent looks at the highest-end consequences--a financial crisis that nearly crashed the global economy, because the relentless focus on "meritocracy" and rejection of any concern for outcomes meant the decision-makers at the top have no idea what's going on in the real economy, where most people live, work, and struggle to earn enough to pay their bills. The great gulf of social distance means bankers have no idea how lending policies affect neighborhood stability and the long-term stability of banking; political leaders have no idea how decisions about war and peace really play out either on the ground, or in the lives of the soldiers and their families. Political leaders of both major parties, mostly without military experience in the current leadership generations, are much more inclined to believe military action is a good idea than military veterans and elites who, since 2001 especially, have seen a lot of combat.

I've thought, for a long time, contrary to my generation and my overall political views, that ending the draft was a terrible mistake. It creates the "social distance" Hayes talks a lot about in this book, with most civilians knowing nothing of the reality of military life, and career military knowing very few civilians well who aren't themselves members of military families. There's a loss of mutual understanding and communication, and I think it's very dangerous in the long run.

I also remember listening to Alan Greenspan on tv, saying it was "foolish" for potential home buyers not to "take advantage of the "creative" financing inventions to buy more home than they needed or to use equity in their homes to finance other things. And I was screaming at the tv that he had no excuse to be that stupid and oblivious to how dangerous was the behavior he was recommending. But who listens to librarians about banking? No one.

Hayes gives a much calmer, more comprehensive, analytical presentation of the history, the facts, and the consequences, whereas I still have a lot of rage on the subject. Go read his book, and I'll end my comments here.

Even seven years later, this is still a book you should read or listen to. Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

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