Posts Tagged ‘Elites’

Why is modern public art so uninteresting?

September 29, 2021

Scott Alexander Suskind observed on his blog that contemporary public art is less interesting than older art, and considered a number of theories why.  Two of them seemed the most plausible to me.

One is that the older art is harder and more expensive to do than contemporary art, and contemporaries lack the genius, the money and the availability of low-paid skilled labor that made the older art possible.

The other is that in older times, the tastes of the elite and the masses were the same, and now they no longer are.  Elites no longer want to impress the masses by building something beautiful; they want to show their superior taste by creating something that they can appreciate, but the general public cannot.


Whither Tartaria? by Scott Alexander for Astral Codex Ten.

Urban Design: Why Can’t We Build Nice Neighborhoods Anymore? by Tyler Cowen for Bloomberg Opinion.  [Added 10/7/2021]

Thomas Frank on anti-Trump authoritarians

August 8, 2021

AFP via Getty Images

Thomas Frank, writing in Le Monde diplomatique, points out that the hard core Trump haters are just as authoritarian as President Trump himself.

I remember, back in the 1950s, that the conventional wisdom among college-educated liberals was that if you wanted to fight Communism, you had to understand and address the reasons why poor and down-trodden people saw Communism as an answer.

Those liberals also perceived that threats to liberty could come in many forms: not just fascism, but Communism; not just Communism, but the followers of Joe McCarthy and the Ku Klux Klan.

In the era of Donald Trump, establishment liberals lack this insight.  They do not look at the reasons why ordinary people might turn to someone like Donald Trump, and they fight dissent by trying to silence dissenters.

Here’s how Thomas Frank puts it—

….. Millions of ordinary Americans despise the well educated elite. Why?

Look at the opioid epidemic that raged through middle America in the years before 2016 — a gift of Big Pharma and the medical profession.

Look at the de-industrialization that afflicted the same geographic areas — a product of our brilliant free trade deals.

Look at the global financial crisis and the bailouts — the deeds of America’s greatest math and financial geniuses, who faced almost no consequences for their actions.

Look at the Iraq War — the toast of the foreign policy establishment.

Look at the incredible fact that American life expectancy was actually declining in the years before 2017 rather than increasing.

Trump did nothing to solve any of these problems.  But everyone knows they exist.

One side talks, lectures, scolds and instructs, and the other side — silent by definition these days — seethes with resentment.

Everyone knows this awful dynamic had a role in elevating the racist demagogue Trump to the presidency.  Everyone also knows this country is primed to explode.  [snip]


An elite that dare not call themselves elite

August 12, 2019

Natalia Dashan attended Yale University on a scholarship.  She was one of the 2 percent of Yale undergraduates whose parents are in the bottom fifth of American income earners.

She recently wrote an essay about something that struck her about some of her well-to-do classmates..

They lived and acted as if they in fact were poor.   They looked for reasons to think of themselves as oppressed.  They were in a near-constant state of rebellion.

Yale University Shield

But the rebellions were not over anybody’s material interests.  They were over whether how things were named or what someone said was appropriate—for example, whether “master” was an appropriate job title for the head of a college or whether a faculty member was out-of-line for scoffing at worries about racial stereotyping in Hallowe’en costumes.

Dashing also was struck by how quickly the faculty and administrators caved in to student protests, no matter how foolish their demands might have seemed to someone outside the academic environment and even in the absence of evidence that the protestors represented anybody but themselves.

The historic role of Yale, Harvard and other Ivy League universities has been to educate upper-class Americans to take on the responsibility of leadership—that is, for being a member of a ruling class.

Dashan concluded that the elite—defining the elite as those who grow up with the expectation that they and their children will attend Yale, Harvard or the equivalent—no longer want to assume the responsibility of leading and ruling.

So young people born to wealth and power look for ways to define themselves as oppressed, and older people, who should be their mentors, fear to appear in the role of oppressor.

The problem is that it is largely a performance—what I like to call psychodrama, but which more accurately could be called live-action role-playing.  It is tolerated because it is no threat to anybody, except the unlucky individuals who get caught in the crossfire.

Why this loss of confidence?  Dashan thinks it is fear of responsibility.  I think that is a large part of it.  But I think the more important part is a decline in belief in the values that gave confidence to earlier generations of elite Americans.

When I read Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, I was struck by how different the Harvard he attended was from the Harvard of today.

The goal of Harvard University in the 1870s was not only to provide an intellectual education, but to shape students’ character based on ideals of patriotism, Protestantism and manliness.

Young men were expected to participate in footfall and other contact sports to toughen them up, but also to teach ideals of sportsmanship—doing your best, but obeying the rules and not whining if you lose.  Attendance at morning prayers at Appleton Chapel was compulsory.

It is true that these ideals excluded a lot of people—Catholics, Jews, freethinkers and women, not to mention un-athletic men.  I would have felt this morality very restrictive if I had lived then.  Evidently many others over the years felt the same.

The unanswered question was:  What do you put in the place of these ideals?  Young people need to believe in something.


Elites focus on what they themselves want

April 12, 2016

Elites of both parties focus on the things they want for themselvesRepublicans offer tax cuts and deregulation, as if everyone in America were going to become an entrepreneur.  Democrats offer free college tuition and paid maternity leave, as if these things were a great benefit to people who don’t have the ability, preparation or inclination to sit through four years of college, and … can’t find a decent job from which to take their leave.

Source: Megan McArdle – Bloomberg View

Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist

The illusions of meritocracy

July 30, 2012

Christopher Hayes in his widely-discussed new book, TWILIGHT OF THE ELITES: America After Meritocracy, tries to connect three important things—increasing concentration of American wealth and power, diminishing opportunity for average Americans to rise into the elite, and the manifest and growing irresponsibility of people in elite positions.

What ties these three things together, Hayes wrote, is the notion of meritocracy—that people get into elite positions solely because of their superior ability and effort, and they therefore owe nothing to anyone else.

The problem, as I see it, is not with the concept of rewarding merit.  Thomas Jefferson believed that the hereditary aristocracy of his time should be replaced by a “natural aristocracy” based on individual ability.  His idea of the natural aristocracy was that it is good for society as a whole if important positions are held by people best qualified to hold them.  Officerships in the British Army in the 18th century could be purchased by wealthy aristocrats; Jefferson’s idea was that you will have a better army if promotion is based on meritorious service.

What we have now is the idea that society should sort people into winners and losers, that both winners and losers by definition deserve what they get, and that the only consideration is that the contest be fair.  You can’t have a good society on that basis.

An army couldn’t function if the officers believed that they were winners, the enlisted ranks were losers and nobody owed anything to anyone else.  Officers are paid more because they exercise more responsibility, not because the enlisted ranks deserve to be punished for lacking the ability to become officers.

Of course the military is not and should not be a model for a free-enterprise economy, but the principle still holds true that competition should serve the good of the whole.  In a well-functioning free enterprise system, entrepreneurs compete to determine which can best serve the needs and wants of the public, and the one who does best reaps the greatest reward.  The trouble with the winners-and-losers model is that merit is measured solely by who accumulates the most money—whether the means are beneficial to society, irrelevant to society or harmful.  The evil of the Hunger Games was not so much that the competition was unfair (although it was); it was that young people had to be subjected to this competition in the first place.

Hayes pointed out that people in elite positions, no matter how many advantages they have, manage to convince themselves that they did it all by themselves.  Gov. Ann Richardson of Texas said of the first President Bush that he was born on third base, and thought he had hit a triple.  Christopher Hayes thinks that is true of the elite generally.  His book describes ways in which members of the economic and social elite tilt the system in their favor and that of their children.  College admissions based on educational testing was supposed to provide a level playing field, but now there are many consultants who, for a fee, can teach you how to score higher on a test than your knowledge warrants.  The playing field becomes increasingly tilted, but the winners retain their sense of entitlement.

Inequality in the United States has become what Hayes called “fractal.”  Americans in the upper 10 percent income bracket get about half the national income, but the top 1 percent get half of everything the top 10 percent get; the top 1/10th of 1 percent get half of everything the top 1 percent get; and so on with the top 1/100th of 1 percent, which is a few hundred people.  This makes income inequality is an issue for almost everybody, no matter what bracket they’re in.  Hayes is encouraged by this.  I’m not so sure myself.  I think it is perfectly possible to resent those above you on the income scale while fearing those below you.

We Americans historically have believed that inequality is all right so long as there is a rough equality of opportunity.  The problem with this, as Hayes pointed out, is that great inequality in wealth and income generates inequality of opportunity.  We Americans think we have more opportunity to rise than Europeans with their welfare states, but statistics indicate that it is harder for us to rise out of the social class in which we’re born than it is for them.

Hayes thinks income inequality would be less if taxes were higher (total U.S. taxes from all sources are about 26 percent of GDP, he reported, down from about 30 percent in 2000) and if there were more public services, such as libraries and parks, that are open to all on a equal basis.

Twilight of the Elites has a chapter to what Hayes calls the “social distance” between the elites.  Jacob Riis, writing at the turn of the previous century, remarked that “half the world doesn’t know how the other half lives.”  Right now the upper 1 percent are so insulated they have no idea how 90 percent of the fellow Americans live.  As a minor example, I read how Senator Richard Russell, a powerful leader in the 1950s and 1960s, loved baseball and would go to games and sit in the bleachers; nowadays somebody in his position would watch from a skybox provided by some lobbyist.   Military service once brought men from all classes of society together.  Now the upper crust shun military service.

I think that’s why the police can be so savage in clamping down on Occupy Wall Street and other protest groups.  The upper crust hate and fear having their space invaded by the rabble.  Hayes thinks things might be different if “social distance” were less.

The root of the problem, as I see it, is a moral and philosophical one—the false idea that whatever provides the highest financial return is best for society, and therefore the impersonal workings of the free market can be a substitute for individual ethics.  The case for a competitive free market is that it is more efficient and less oppressive than central economic planning.  It can never be a substitute for standards of ethics and professionalism.  Today the most trusted institution in American society is the armed forces.  The professionalism and code of honor of the military meritocracy is not measured by mere money.

If any form of society that is likely to exist, some people are going to have more wealth and power than other people.  That would be true even if there were less inequality than there is now.  The problem is when there is a lack of accountability—when members of the elite do not feel accountable to any internal or external standard for the way in which they exercise their power, and we the people do have have or use the means to hold them accountable.

Click on Why Elites Fail for an excerpt from Christopher Hayes’ book, which gives the essence of his argument in his own words.

Click on The Age of Illusion: an Interview with Chris Hayes for an interview of Hayes for Jacobin magazine.

Click on The Cult of Smartness: How Meritocracy Is Failing America for a critical review of the book by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

Click on Trickle-Down Distress: How America’s Broken Meritocracy Drives Our Nation’s Anxiety Epidemic for an excellent article by Maura Kelly in The Atlantic about the harmfulness of believing that life is fair and that what you get is what you deserve.


How elitism masquerades as meritocracy

June 22, 2012

Christopher Hayes, author of Twilight of the Elites (which I haven’t read),  wrote an article in The Nation about how systems supposedly based on merit are subverted to benefit the privileged.

Chris Hayes

Hayes was a student at the elite Hunter College High School in New York City, where admission is based on scores on a three-hour test.  In the 1990s, when Hayes attended, admission really was based on merit.  The student body was 12 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic and a large percentage the children of immigrants.

But with the rise of the test preparation industry, Manhattan’s elite sent their children cram schools charging thousands of dollars to teach how to game entrance exams.  Some consultants charged up to $90 an hour for one-on-one instruction on test-taking.  As a result of the ability of wealthy parents to game the system, Hunter High’s student body now is only 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic.  What happened with Hunter High is not unique, or even usual.  It is a typical example of how the privileged game the system.

Test preparation schools are contrary to the whole purpose of education.  They teach students how to pass tests without having learned anything.  They get the credential, but not necessarily the knowledge that the credential supposedly represents.

Yet I imagine the students who pass the tests through these methods think they have succeeded solely through their own individual effort and brilliance.   And because they think that, they think they have no obligation to anyone else.

Click on Why Elites Fail to read the whole article.

Click on The Age of Illusion to read an interview with Chris Hayes in Jacobin magazine.

Click on An Elite Like Any Other? Meritocracy in America for a review of Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites by Mike Konczal in Dissent magazine [added 6/24/12]