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Stagnation in the Meritocracy
June 12, 2012 9:26 PM   Subscribe

Why Elites Fail. Christopher Hayes writes in The Nation about how meritocracy and democracy become compromised by Robert Michels' Iron Law of Oligarchy.
posted by Sticherbeast (30 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
When the Panic of 1907 J.P. Morgan pledged a fair whack of his own fortune and convinced Rockefeller to drop $10 million into National City Bank along with pledging half his fortune in cleaning up any other shit that hit the fan.

Why? Because if he didn't and the whole thing collapsed he wouldn't be able to hire enough men to keep him from being lynched along with the rest of the bourgeoisie.

The same thing happening today? Not on your life.

Business has lost its ultimate moral compass. Despite how fucking terrible people like Morgan and Rockefeller were they at least understood that if they didn't at least pay lip service to the unspoken social contract they'd be facing some nasty populist vigilantism. Nowadays businesses just flip the proletariat the bird and wipe their ass with said social contract.

It was a nice experiment while it lasted. It'll be interesting to see how many decades it can keep chugging along.
posted by Talez at 10:28 PM on June 12, 2012 [16 favorites]


Talez, that's not quite fair. The Panic was...a panic. People were running around desperate to get hold of their money. We haven't had one of those recently to test. However, we have had a more quiet crisis recently, the failure of Long Term Capital Management, and with a good deal of cajoling* several bank heads were persuaded to invest in LTCM's doomed portfolio. Warren Buffet also offered to buy the entire portfolio (though his price was low) and he is on the list of rich people MetaFilter doesn't want to murder because of his remarks about tax rates.

In the recent "crisis" the prudence of small and mid-sized banks and credit unions through all the FDIC/NCUA levies was also done for more than profit motive, but again, no mob.

But yes, in general I'd put moral compasses in that category of things that were "not tried and found wanting, but found difficult and left untried."

*Except for Goldman. Their analysts used the opportunity to steal LTCM's trade data.
posted by michaelh at 11:55 PM on June 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


The word "Meritocracy" was originally coined in a skeptical context. I'm sorry that Christopher Hayes didn't mention this, it seems particularly apropos.

From the poorly written wikipedia article:

Etymology

Although the concept has existed for centuries, the term meritocracy was first coined by British politician and sociologist, Michael Young in his 1958 satirical essay, "The Rise of the Meritocracy", which pictured the United Kingdom under the rule of a government favoring intelligence and aptitude (merit) above all. [...]

The essay was based upon the tendency of the then-current governments in their striving towards intelligence to ignore shortcomings and upon the failure of education systems to correctly utilize gifted and talented members within their societies.

Young's fictional narrator explains that, on the one hand, the greatest contributor to society is not the "stolid mass" or majority, but the "creative minority" or "restless elite". On the other hand, he claims that there are casualties of progress whose influence is underestimated and that, from such stolid adherence to natural science and intelligence, arises arrogance and complacency. This problem is encapsulated in the phrase "Every selection of one is a rejection of many".

posted by tychotesla at 12:02 AM on June 13, 2012 [6 favorites]


Talez, that's not quite fair. The Panic was...a panic. People were running around desperate to get hold of their money. We haven't had one of those recently to test.

We haven't had a panic because of the Federal Reserve (lender of last restort) and FDIC (insurance of funds) making regular bank deposits and savings accounts as safe as treasuries.
posted by Talez at 12:16 AM on June 13, 2012


We haven't had a panic because of the Federal Reserve (lender of last restort) and FDIC (insurance of funds) making regular bank deposits and savings accounts as safe as treasuries.

Yes. Are you saying that a moral compass is no longer necessary, then?
posted by michaelh at 12:46 AM on June 13, 2012


Well no because there's still many more events that can cause a massive clusterfuck in the world economic system.
posted by Talez at 12:52 AM on June 13, 2012


We haven't had a panic because of the Federal Reserve (lender of last restort) and FDIC (insurance of funds) making regular bank deposits and savings accounts as safe as treasuries
We haven't had a panic because the mass media on TV, Radio, teh Internets is full of talking heads telling everyone that everything is going to be all right in the long run and that the politicians will see us through the long dark night, and that they and the bankers know best, tighten your belts, we're all in this together, blah, blah, retch.
posted by adamvasco at 1:55 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


When the Panic of 1907 J.P. Morgan pledged a fair whack of his own fortune and convinced Rockefeller to drop $10 million into National City Bank along with pledging half his fortune in cleaning up any other shit that hit the fan.

Why? Because if he didn't and the whole thing collapsed he wouldn't be able to hire enough men to keep him from being lynched along with the rest of the bourgeoisie.
Well, the thing is you do see elites spend their own money to perpetuate the system, even if it's a sacrifice for themselves. It's weird, but it makes sense. They want to keep the system alive because they identify with their peers. So you have stuff like the Peterson foundation that donates tons of money for the cause of keeping taxes low for rich people (supposedly by worrying about the 'deficit' but the only reason to keep the deficit low today is to keep taxes low tomorrow)
Talez, that's not quite fair. The Panic was...a panic. People were running around desperate to get hold of their money. We haven't had one of those recently to test.
That's because we have a federal reserve, which we did not in 1907.
Yes. Are you saying that a moral compass is no longer necessary, then?
I don't even really know what this means. A moral compass can't prevent a bank run.
posted by delmoi at 2:58 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


because the mass media on TV, Radio, teh Internets is full of talking heads telling everyone that everything is going to be all right in the long run

Jesus, I wanna know where you get your media, that's the opposite of the doom-saying I see every day.
posted by smoke at 3:07 AM on June 13, 2012


This sounds a lot like the "political decay" that Francis Fukuyama wrote about in The Origins of Political Order, a book that basically blames the fall of empires on this tendency of elites to hijack the systems in which they work for their (and their childrens') benefit. I think the term "political decay" itself came from political scientist named Samuel Huntington, but I haven't read any of his work.
posted by meows at 3:28 AM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

(C'mon, say it with me...)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:32 AM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Clearly the United States is no longer a functioning meritocracy.
It is an oligarchy if there ever was one.
posted by Flood at 4:53 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


If there is a Devil at work then he rests in institutions and not in individuals. Because the beauty of institutions is that any individual can abdicate responsibility. The assumption that we're all utterly powerless, that's the Devil at work. - Thom Yorke
posted by any major dude at 5:04 AM on June 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


This doesn't really seem to be a critique of meritocracy - more a critique of false meritocracy.
posted by Miko at 5:42 AM on June 13, 2012


So you have stuff like the Peterson foundation that donates tons of money for the cause of keeping taxes low for rich people (supposedly by worrying about the 'deficit' but the only reason to keep the deficit low today is to keep taxes low tomorrow)

Come on Delmoi, you could at least check and see what the Peterson Foundation actually advocates before making such sweeping statements.
A sustainable budget deal will require both tax increases and spending cuts. … The United States has never repaired a major budget shortfall solely through spending reductions. Budget discipline has been achieved only when imposed on both sides of the ledger. … There are also equity reasons to include tax increases in a deficit-reduction plan. In particular, tax increases are the only way to ensure that high-income households share in the burden. Spending cuts simply do not have a very big impact on high-income households. If the burden is to be shared equitably, high-income households will have to face higher tax burdens.
posted by BobbyVan at 5:43 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the core problems I think is that every time you try and measure something about people, the people will learn to game it. If you reward people based on the result of that measure then they will both have a stronger incentive to game it and a greater ability to game it. Hence rich get richer phenomena.
posted by DRMacIver at 5:44 AM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think the problem I find with this (and similar) articles is that they all seem to really bemoan the fact that the "Best and brightest" manage to insulate their children from the consequences in mistakes. Isn't that the whole point of parenting, to ensure that your children succeed? Would these people /really/ be the "Best and brightest" if they allowed their children to fail?

I think I'd be interested in hearing about meritocracy that doesn't pre-assume that people failing is a good thing.
posted by corb at 5:56 AM on June 13, 2012


One of the core problems I think is that every time you try and measure something about people, the people will learn to game it.

This.

No matter what system you devise, someone will figure out a way to take advantage of it; it's human nature.

The huge, collective, willful blind-spot of so much of the American public is what stumps me. The mythical "American Dream" is such a powerful diversion that many people, literally, can't see the massive looting that's been taking place for a long time now.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:01 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was a nice experiment while it lasted. It'll be interesting to see how many decades it can keep chugging along.

Rome kept chugging along for five hundred years after the Republic collapsed (and even longer in the Eastern Empire). Fun things we can look forward to:

(1) Conquest of the known world necessary to keep the Empire supplied with slaves, but leaves the military stretched too thin to defend the homeland
(2) Succession of leaders now determined by private citizens raising armies and marching on Washington D.C.
(3) Incessant tribal invasions from Canada
(4) President Romney relocates Capitol to a fortress in a swamp (it's safer!). Canadians ignore swamp fortress; sack D.C.

In two thousand years, they'll say "The Americans... they built some good roads."
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:21 AM on June 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


Rome kept chugging along for five hundred years after the Republic collapsed (and even longer in the Eastern Empire). Fun things we can look forward to: [...]

You forgot about irradiated marshes covering every scrap of land and an eternal stalemate with the Vikings and the Celts.
posted by AugieAugustus at 6:28 AM on June 13, 2012 [21 favorites]


One of the names raised in the article is David Addington, counsel and then chief of staff to Dick Cheney. The article suggests that he is a rather disagreeable character, e.g. :

“The boy seemed terribly, terribly bright,” Addington’s high school history teacher told Mayer. “He was scornful of anyone who said anything that was naïve, or less than bright. His sneers were almost palpable.”... Pentagon lawyer Richard Schiffrin described Addington’s posture in a meeting just after 9/11 to Mayer this way: “He’d sit, listen, and then say, ‘No, that’s not right.’… He didn’t recognize the wisdom of the other lawyers. He was always right. He didn’t listen. He knew the answers.”

You can see him here in front of the House Judiciary, being questioned about the Bush administrations torture policy. I thought it might be interesting for people to see him in action and decide for themselves whether or not the description of his character in the article seemed true.
posted by lucien_reeve at 6:56 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


qxntpqbbbqxl:
"In two thousand years, they'll say "The Americans... they built some good roads.""
"Except Bancroft St. in Toledo. Christ, what did they use for pavement, silly putty?"
posted by charred husk at 8:30 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


We haven't had a panic...

What is shadow banking?
Money Market Funds and Systemic Risk
Remaining Risks in the Tri-Party Repo Market [1,2,3]
posted by kliuless at 8:33 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the core problems I think is that every time you try and measure something about people, the people will learn to game it

Congratulations you just described the central problem with economic modeling
posted by AndrewKemendo at 9:34 AM on June 13, 2012


They'll be using asphalt as fuel by then, all the while killing the indigent in worship of the new messiah, Ronald McReagan, a strange mixture of smiling clown and insincere grandpa.
posted by feloniousmonk at 9:38 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure why what we recently experienced doesn't count as the closest thing to a panic (safety-rigging in place as it sort of was) in our lifetimes. I don't think I ever understood the word, except as a quaint historicism, until 2008.

That said, tychotesla made an excellent point, and of course it's quite natural the the US, more than the UK, would take up the word unironically. As always, we are blind to our own blind spots.
posted by dhartung at 10:11 AM on June 13, 2012


I don't even really know what this means. A moral compass can't prevent a bank run.

Just a bit of a fun at the idea that the presence or absence of the Fed and FDIC is relevant. I never expressed any surprise at the lack of bank runs and I mentioned FDIC levies which are basically runs at an institutional level without the pitchforks.
posted by michaelh at 10:36 AM on June 13, 2012


One of the core problems I think is that every time you try and measure something about people, the people will learn to game it

Well, this is why you try to build systems that can recover well from being gamed. You accept the probability of failure in some degree, and design the system to recover from it. That's how biological organisms work, it's how ecologies work.

We don't have very many good examples of designed human systems that work that way, but most functioning cultures that exist over time work this way to a greater or lesser extent. To the extent that they depend on elites, they'll be vulnerable to increasing corruption among the elites, or to an obsession by the populace with becoming a member of the elite, and then of course there's the gaming of their dreams and expectations on the part of the elites (see 'American Dream', above).
posted by lodurr at 5:40 AM on June 14, 2012


History is a graveyard of aristocraciesVilfredo Pareto
posted by ob1quixote at 8:11 AM on June 14, 2012


Guest Review by Aaron Swartz: Chris Hayes’ The Twilight of The Elites Crooked Timber, 18 June 2012
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:47 PM on June 20, 2012


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