by Lewis Marshall, PhD candidate in Chemical Engineering
But America is a nation of faith.
In Twilight of the Elites, Chris Hayes (of Up With fame) explains that America has faith, more than anything else, in systems of meritocracy: systems in which people gain power, not due to birthright or personal connection, or appearance, but because of their skills. Are you good at your job? If so, you should be promoted. And if you stop working, if you stop improving, if you fall behind, someone hungrier and sharper and more skilled should take your place. We have built this idea into our educational system, our economic system, and our government. In American mythology, meritocracy is both salvation and moral obligation.
So when Twilight opens with the line, “America feels broken,” it’s disheartening. Hayes recounts the disappointments of the last dozen years: Enron, the Iraq war, the housing bubble, the great recession, pedophiles sheltered in the Catholic church and at Penn State, the failed response to hurricane Katrina. Has meritocracy failed? Have we failed to live up to our ideal?
Twilight of the Elites doesn’t address the day-to-day politicking that led to these failures. Instead, Hayes creates a theory to encompass the whole broken decade: The Iron Law of Meritocracy. “[E]ventually, the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible.” We are not experiencing an abrogation of the meritocratic system; we are experiencing its logical conclusion.
The book is engaging, and the thesis is attractive, I think especially to an engineer. The system is broken because the design is broken. If we fix the design, we can fix the system. In a way, it’s impersonal.
Chapter five, “Winners”, makes it more personal. “A legacy student at an Ivy League university,” Hayes writes, “certainly doesn’t feel as if she has coasted in on her father’s coattails. She feels instead that she’s killed herself for four years at her prestigious high school to earn her grades, her internships, and her postgraduate opportunities. […] We are cursed with an overclass convinced it is composed of scrappy underdogs.”
Stanford is one of the high churches of American meritocracy. Students are here to learn to take their place in the highest circles of law, politics, industry, and academia. We are here to become the American elite.
I think it is tempting to respond that the entire system of authority is corrupt, and that we should not participate in it. Perhaps we should abdicate, quietly work outside of government and academia, never think of ourselves as elites. But a discredited or absent class of experts is perhaps as dangerous as a class of elites with unchecked power. Hayes uses global warming as an example of the need for credible specialists. “No one is equipped to perceive the steady increase of average global temperature over several decades. Here we need elites and experts to tell us [that global warming] is happening.”
Twilight of the Elites is not a call for the end of meritocracy wholesale. In part, it’s a plea for competent, accountable, grounded experts. We should pay attention, and learn a few of the lessons that Hayes offers.
1. Recognize the dangers of fractal inequality.
For me, the most vivid section of Twilight was the description of the Inner Ring. Hayes quotes a speech by C.S. Lewis about the desire to be inside of a social ring instead of outside. “Perhaps you discovered that within the ring there was a Ring yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great [..] Ring.” The point, of course, is that the drive to be accepted never stops, it simply moves on to tighter and tighter circles.
Still, there are some systems of organization that cultivate this drive more than others. Hayes calls these systems of fractal inequality. No matter how high you get in a hierarchy, there you still see people stratospheres ahead of and above you. What would you do to get into these even more exclusive clubs? Hayes credits in large part the hyper-competitive environment on Wall Street with the spread of corruption. When the difference between being the best and being second-rate is millions of dollars per year, there’s a lot of incentive to cheat.
When we create reward systems for our fields, in academia, in government, we should keep this lesson in mind. Highly disparate rewards encourage cutting corners. A culture with highly skewed rewards produced Enron, and Inside Job exposed the expensive side contracts that made some academic economists write questionably favorable reports. We should examine our incentive structures before they lead to a major scandal for Stanford.
2. Avoid living in enclaves.
Another danger that Hayes brings up is social distance between the elites and the rest of society. He points to hurricane Katrina: New Orleans’ government ordered an evacuation of the city. They were fundamentally unable to grasp that many poor residents didn’t have the means to comply. They couldn’t understand because they didn’t live among the poor.
The Bay Area’s most striking sign and creator of social distance between the elite and the average citizen is the system of pseudo-public transportation crafted by the Silicon Valley tech companies. Facebook, Google, eBay, Yahoo, Apple, and EA each each maintain a private bus fleet that transports workers from the city to the company campus. Certainly these routes are a benefit to employees and a legitimate use of company resources. But their existence takes these employees out of the public transit systems of the bay area, off of Caltrain and BART. If these employees, some of the most well-off in the bay area, were in the public system, they would advocate for improvements. Instead, we have a divergence; corporate communism for the few, stagnant public transportation for the rest.
3. Hook activists into the network.
Hayes points to networks as one of three sources from which elites draw power. Hook into the network of powerful people, and you have the ability to shape their perception. Stanford is a network of elites, but they can also be a network of activists. Maintaining connections to activist leaders is a mechanism to ground the actions of elites in the experiences of the people.
Honestly, I really want you all to read Twilight of the Elites. It’s not that long; 240 pages excluding endnotes, and the typography is surprisingly large. The Law library has a copy, so go pick it up. The twilight of meritocracy is a problem for no one more than us.
Lewis Marshall is a Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering. He is the former president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics @ Stanford.