The Twilight of the Elites

Hua Hsu already did a fantastic review of Chris Hayes’ Twightlight of the Elites for Slate so I won’t try to offer a full one myself. Let’s just say that if you like politics and big ideas, you want to buy this book. It’s a lot more intellectually ambitious than your typical pundit book and offers a really great blend of writing chops and social theory synthesis.

On to the quibbling!

One key idea here is that the success of “meritocracy” in American life has created an elite class that’s increasingly distant from the bulk of the population, yet obsessively self-congratulatory about its own intelligence. Yet man cannot govern by abstract analytical intelligence alone. A leadership cadre suffering from massive social distance from typical people is bound to fall short on empathy, judgment, and I guess what you might call all around wisdom. A common formulation along these lines that I’ve frequently used is to wonder how different monetary policy would look if the typical Federal Reserve Open Market Committee member’s social circle including large numbers of working class African-Americans and Latinos. Obviously in principle FOMC members make decisions based on the official data, your social circle doesn’t change the data, so in theory you could live in a bubble consisting of the relatively low unemployment demographic group of older college educated whites and still reach the right conclusions. But in reality things don’t work like that.

My quibble is that I think this excellent analysis of what ails us probably has less to do with what Hayes calls “fractual inequality” than Hayes thinks. The fact of fractal inequality—the tendency of 1% to pull away from the 99% as the 0.1% and the 0.01% pull even further away—is a very noteworthy aspect of American life and political economy. But I suspect that social distance derives from social class in a way that’s not that tightly linked to income. Someone like LeBron James who’s certainly rich and good at his job, but not a product of the mainstream mechanism of American meritocracy, probably suffers less from these social distance issues than does a much more modestly compensated person like Your Humble Blogger.