July 13, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Charles P. Pierce:
Moral Hazard, the Irish setter owned for photo-op purposes by New York Times columnist David Brooks, loves to watch the dog show from Westminster every year. He watches them with a professional’s eye when the TV in the kitchen pantry of the Young Fogies Club is tuned to the annual broadcast. Dogs are just so damned good at… being dogs. He likes the way they walk, the way they carry their heads, the little strut that even the smallest of them do to impress the judges. He watches them, licking his balls in deep concentration, and he appreciates their performance, the way a small-time actor would appreciate a great Hamlet. But he doesn’t fancy himself to be one of them. He doesn’t judge them. Moral Hazard’s not like that. But he is a working dog, and he’s proud of that.
Moral Hazard prides himself as being just one of the dogs, no different from mutts who range through the alley next door, and no different from the Afghans and the bulldogs he sees being walked down 57th Street on those bright afternoons when he sits out front, keeping company with Manny, the Filipino doorman. Elitism is not something that comes naturally to dogs, Moral Hazard decided long ago. We’re all just sitting there licking our balls the same way. Elitism only comes into play when humans interact with dogs. Funny how that works out, Moral Hazard muses.
He was out front with Manny this morning when the newspapers were delivered. One of them blew off the stack and landed in front of him. Oh, Christ, Moral Hazard sighed. Master’s writing about the problems with his fellow Americans again. He nosed the paper open and dropped his chin down the gutter between the two pages, so it wouldn’t blow down 57th Street. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a burly Chow, impeccably groomed, eyeing a hydrant with fond anticipation. Show dog, Moral Hazard decided, and in his heart, he wished the Chow well. Maybe he’ll win at Westminster, Moral Hazard thought. I can tell other dogs that I know a champion. Even saw him piss on a hydrant one fine morning. Yeah, thought Moral Hazard, that’d be cool.
Through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Protestant Establishment sat atop the American power structure. A relatively small network of white Protestant men dominated the universities, the world of finance, the local country clubs and even high government service.
And a couple of million Asians remain dead as a result. But, please, do go on.
Over the past half-century, a more diverse and meritocratic elite has replaced the Protestant Establishment. People are more likely to rise on the basis of grades, test scores, effort and performance.
I, personally, have had at least three members of the Rockefeller family ask me to buy an apple from atop the steam grates outside the Boston Public Library in the past month.
Yet, as this meritocratic elite has taken over institutions, trust in them has plummeted. It’s not even clear that the brainy elite is doing a better job of running them than the old boys’ network. Would we say that Wall Street is working better now than it did 60 years ago? Or government? The system is more just, but the outcomes are mixed. The meritocracy has not fulfilled its promise.
Actually, Wall Street is working exactly the same as it worked 80 years ago, when the Protestant Establishment ran the country into a Depression, and the way it worked in 1873, when the Protestant Establishment ran the country into a panic in which unemployment hit 14 percent, and the way it worked in 1837, when the Protestant Establishment ran the country into a panic in which bank failures in New York alone cost the country $100 million. There were also panics in 1911, 1907, 1901, 1896, 1893, 1890, 1884, 1873, 1857,1825, 1819, 1796, and 1792. Hidden cabals of Zoroastrians were not involved in any of these. The argument is that injustice might provide better outcomes? Thanks, no.
Christopher Hayes of MSNBC and The Nation believes that the problem is inherent in the nature of meritocracies. In his book, “Twilight of the Elites,” he argues that meritocratic elites may rise on the basis of grades, effort and merit, but, to preserve their status, they become corrupt. They create wildly unequal societies, and then they rig things so that few can climb the ladders behind them. Meritocracy leads to oligarchy.
‘Twas always thus. For details, please see: XVI, Louis The. Chris Hayes is very smart. Read his book.
It’s a challenging argument but wrong. I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families. They spend enormous amounts of money and time on enrichment. They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room.
Of course, you would. That’s your answer to every question. The waitress asks you how you want your eggs in the morning, you say, “I don’t care, as long as they come from organized families.” And, I might add, if you’re taking part in your conference calls from “the waiting room” while little Muffy groans through her ballet lessons, it means you have a fcking job. And I’d like an offer of proof on that sentence about how Muffy and Trey’s parents “work harder than people down the income scale” for the same reason I’d like an offer of proof that Brooks is not a complete dick, since only a complete dick would describe driving your kids to their extracurriculars as “work.”
The corruption that has now crept into the world of finance and the other professions is not endemic to meritocracy but to the specific culture of our meritocracy. The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites. Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.
Brooks is correct here. The one thing I noticed about the leaders of Morgan, and Goldman, and the rest of the Wall Street brigands was their counterculture cred, and the fact that absolutely none of them were possessed of the notion that they were the elite, and that the rest of us were merely pawns in their games. I swear if I have to listen to the Europe ’72 album with Lloyd Blankfein again, or see Jamie Dimon in that tie-dyed T-shirt, I am simply going to scream. They were not corrupted by an arrogance “endemic” to meritocracy. They were not corrupted by, you know, greed. They learned how to be thieves by listening to Sgt. Pepper backwards? They thought it said, “Paul Is A Dead Man. Miss him. Miss him.” What it really said was, “Credit Default Swaps. Do them. Do them.”
As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.
And then, dammit, you fell for Maureen, the downstairs maid, and the Catholics climbed into your family tree, and, before you know it, your grandchildren were getting fat and rich on exotic derivatives. See also: 1911, 1907, etc., The Panics Of.
The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.
And they numbered approximately 12 at any one time. We also note for the record that Brooks (again) lets slip his regret that he wasn’t around when Mitt Romney held the faggoty kid down and cut his hair. Brooks is apparently a bully who lacks ambition and discipline. Maybe his parents didn’t get him to his piano lessons promptly enough, those slackers.
Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.
Aaaaannnnnnnd, the mushrooms kick in. “Most” of Wall Street’s problems are the same problems that occur every time the country decides to deregulate the financial system and allow the wolverines to run riot in the meat lockers. The people running things see a great deal of money to be made in swindling the rest of us and they follow their natural predatory instincts and do just that, regardless of what happens to the country as a result. This is true no matter if the wolverines are named Winthrop Ames Cabot VI or Bob Diamond. The Seven Deadly Sins were not put together by the Holy Roman Church as a response to what went on at Woodstock.
If you read the e-mails from the Libor scandal you get the same sensation you get from reading the e-mails in so many recent scandals: these people are brats; they have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.
No, those people are thieves, and they would have been thieves if they lived in 1929 or in 1911, 1907, etc… If they sold used cars, they’d have turned back odometers. If they sold aluminum siding, it would fall off your house the first time it rained. Because the primary vehicle for that “larger social role” — namely, the self-governing republic of the United States — has been steadily and mercilessly devalued by three decades of conservative rhetoric in which people like Brooks engaged, and by three decades of conservative policies that people like Brooks championed, there’s no countervailing force to make those institutions behave. Brooks just hopes they’ll find it in their hearts to do so. Yeah, right. It wasn’t the hippies who pronounced that greed was good.
The difference between the Hayes view and mine is a bit like the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. He wants to upend the social order. I want to keep the current social order, but I want to give it a different ethos and institutions that are more consistent with its existing ideals.
Oh, Lord, Brooks is dressing in his Edmund Burke starter kit again. Chris Hayes is Robespierre! Tune in every weekend for his MSNBC show, Up With The Tumbrels. Read his book, though. Aux armes, citoyens!
(Photo Illustration by DonkeyHotey for The Politics Blog, Based on Images from AP & Getty)