Book: Twilight of the Elites

This book is both interesting, and depressing.

Interesting, of course, in the way just about anything Chris Hayes decides to talk about is worth reading. What actually motivated me to give the book a read is that Chris Hayes has been a frequent guest on the Rachel Maddow show, and he’s always interesting there. I know he’s also got his own MSNBC show now, though I’ve never seen it since he doesn’t do a podcast of it and I’m too lazy to invest a lot of time in watching clips on the website. But that meant when he had a book coming out, I decided to grab it and see what he had to say.

Actually, what I picked up was the audiobook, which is unabridged and read by Chris Hayes himself. I have no regrets about this.

The man thrust of the book is that meritocracy, which is lionized as an idea in America, just doesn’t work. The concept sounds nice – who doesn’t like the idea of people who have more ability rising to the top and being in charge – but in practice rapidly devolves into an oligarchy. Most of the book is devoted to developing the argument and providing examples.

One major point is that we are obsessed with equality of opportunity, and assume that if there is equality of opportunity – bootstraps for everyone! – then equality of outcome will follow. But since there’s no even minimal equality of outcome (eg: people are destitute) then equality of opportunity is quickly lost.

This is definitely a point I can buy. After hearing about and seeing what happens to kids in low income schools, I feel comfortable that whoever claims we have equality of opportunity today are kidding themselves.

Another point Hayes makes very well is the problem of social distance. As opportunities and outcomes become more unequal, the social distance between those making the decisions and those affected most by them increases to the point of complete divorce. The douchebags that crashed the economy for the most part didn’t get their lives ruined the way poor schmoes who have been on unemployment for endless months have. Most everyone in congress is a millionaire, while the people they supposedly represent are not. Very few veterans are in congress these days – and we haven’t had a veteran as a president for quite some time – but they’re the ones that decide to send people who have no real connection to their lives to war.

Which, as an aside, is a point Rachel Maddow goes over in her book Drift, which I also recommend. (I have the audiobook of that one too, and it’s really good, read by Rachel.)

What makes the book depressing – you know, aside from the unending litany of American social failure – is Hayes’ proposed solution. He thinks it lies in the upper middle class, who have been radicalized. Maybe I’m just not hanging out with the right people, but I’m really not seeing it. By and large, middle class, let alone upper middle class, American still seem to be under the mistaken impression that the wealth gap isn’t as awful as it really is. How many people freaked the hell out about letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthiest because they had the utterly crazy impression it would somehow affect them? Also, considering that part of Hayes’ solution seems to be convincing the elite that they really need to let other people drive the boat on occasion… yeah, I don’t think I can be that optimistic about that.

But trust me, I’d love to be proved wrong.

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