The Cult of Smartness: How Meritocracy Is Failing America

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A provocative new book by Chris Hayes blames the failure of elites for our woes. But solving the problem is harder than diagnosing it.

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In an engrossing passage from Twilight of the Elites, a new book about the American meritocracy and its failures, author Chris Hayes directs our attention to an all but forgotten moment in 2009, when debate raged about who President Obama should appoint to a Supreme Court vacancy. Sonia Sotomayor was widely thought to be on his short list. But various liberal commentators, including The New Republic's Jeffrey Rosen and Harvard's Laurence Tribe, argued that she should be passed over for alternative candidates who they regarded as observably smarter. "Keep in mind the person under discussion is someone who, from humble beginnings in the Bronx, had gained entry to Princeton, graduated summa cum laude, and gone on to Yale Law, where she edited the Yale Law Journal," Hayes observed. "She had checked off every box on the to-do list of meritocratic achievement. Apparently it wasn't enough."

In his telling, that's one example of the "Cult of Smartness" that has taken hold in American life, a pathology characterized by the mistaken assumption that intelligence is an ordinal quality -- that it is possible for observers to accurately rank intelligent people in order from most  to least smart, and that the right person for a job is always the one deemed smartest. "While smartness is necessary for competent elites," Hayes retorts, "it is far from sufficient: wisdom, judgment, empathy, and ethical rigor are all as important, even if those traits are far less valued."

Throughout Twilight of the Elites, the reader is presented with similarly specific, thoughtful critiques of what's gone wrong with America's ruling class. The elites who run things, having advanced to the top of various hierarchies, are performing miserably, Hayes argues, citing failures as varied as Enron, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the Catholic Church molestation scandal, the financial crisis, and the steroid scandal in Major League Baseball. A striking quote from a man named Thomas Day is marshaled to dramatize the parade of failures that helped to inspire the book. "I'm 31, an Iraq War veteran, a Penn State graduate, a native of State College, acquaintance of Sandusky's, and a product of his Second Mile Foundation," Day wrote after Joe Paterno's firing. "And I have fully lost faith in the leadership of my parents' generation."

Aside from "The Cult of Smartness," why are present arrangements -- lets call ourselves an "aspirational meritocracy" -- failing us?

Hayes' theories are many:

  • Institutions designed to reward merit are being gamed by the privileged, who create a self-perpetuating elite. The most familiar example concerns admission to prestigious schools. Admissions tests like the SAT began as a high-minded reform. Applicants would be chosen for intellectual prowess and compete for their spot on a level playing field. Thanks to test prep, the rich get lots of time to practice on it, while even smart poor kids don't.
  • More broadly, inequality begets more inequality. "Those who climb up the ladder will always find a way to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up." Thus the astonishingly outsized gains seen at the very top of American society.
  • The intense competition inherent in meritocracy creates powerful incentives to cheat, and encourages the attitude that whatever you do in pursuit of dominance is fine as long as you profit or win. For example, at Enron traders who broke the law weren't punished if they were making money. And in Major League Baseball, everyone pretended that steroids weren't around. 
  • When elites break the rules they aren't punished like regular people. They're bailed out of trouble, or spared criminal prosecution for their lawlessness. This is actually the subject of Glenn Greenwald's latest book.
  • There is too much social distance separating the people in charge with the folks subject to their decisions. Thus Catholic bishops who sympathized more with molesting priests than their victims, Senators who send men from a class they rarely encounter to fight the wars they approve, and the disaster planners who couldn't conceive of how the timing of Hurricane Katrina at the end of the month would affect the ability of poor residents to evacuate. There is a long history of Americans complaining about the gulf separating them from their leaders, from the 'distant, unresponsive' King George to the 'out-of-touch, inside-the-Beltway' politicians of today.

Twilight of the Elites perhaps blames too many pathologies on America's relationship with meritocracy. Don't elites in most cultural systems grow distant, self-perpetuating, and unaccountable? Still, most of what Hayes laments are problematic aspects of the current ruling order.

So how to reform it?

This is the part of Twilight of the Elites that I found least satisfying. Early in the book, discussing the elite public high school he attended, Hayes lamented its practice of granting seats based solely on an admissions test. Neutral as that may at first seem, he accurately called attention to the way that it advantaged kids from exceptional elementary schools and those with access to expensive test prep courses. (Yes, some kids now take those to get into high school!) As a result, he writes, very few black or Hispanic students gain entry to the school. Hence calls for affirmative action in admissions, which was the main solution Hayes advocated.

Later in the book, having written about the ways in which inequality can make elites both self-perpetuating and less equipped to make significant decisions sure to affect the whole of society, Hayes suggests a broader remedy. "My proposed solution for correcting the excesses of our extreme version of meritocracy is quite simple: make America more equal," he writes. "If you don't concern yourself at all with equality of outcomes, you will, over time, produce a system with horrendous inequality of opportunity. This is the paradox of meritocracy: It can only truly come to flower in a society that starts out with a relatively high degree of equality. So if you want meritocracy, work for equality."

It's worth dwelling on his argument:

As inequality has grown, as its negative consequences have become harder and harder to ignore, our response has been to put more and more weight on the educational system, to look to school reform as the means of closing the "achievement gap" and of guaranteeing the increasingly illusory promise of equal opportunity. We ask the education system to expiate the sins of the rest of society and then condemn it as hopelessly broken when it doesn't prove up to the task. Because education lies on the opportunity side of the opportunity/outcome divide, it is the only place where we see sustained and genuinely bipartisan consensus on domestic policy... there is an elite consensus that education, and specifically a certain vision of education reform, can provide the equality of opportunity that is so scandalously absent at present.

To urge that we consider equality of outcomes, however, is heresy, and for no small reason. There are ample historical examples of societies ideologically committed to equality of outcomes that resulted in a small, corrupt, and morally bankrupt ruling class and widespread penury and immiseration. Taken to its absolute extreme, a commitment to equality of outcomes is summed up by the Maoist adage, "The tall stalk gets cut down." Clearly I'm not saying we should do whatever it takes to ensure perfect equality of outcomes. But as a democratic society we should care much, much more than we currently do about them. We can't continue to tell ourselves that all is well as long as we're working for "equality of opportunity."

What Hayes finally counsels is raising taxes on the rich, redistributing more to the poor, increasing the estate tax, and reversing the tax trends of the last several decades wherein the rich game the system. "The tax system, the most straightforward means of restraining inequality, has been subverted, so as to become a tool for maintaining and expanding it," he writes. Intriguingly, he suggests the tax code might be made more progressive if outsized gains at the very top inspire the upper middle class to revolt against the elites who are pulling away from them:

The challenge, and it is not a small one, is directing the frustration, anger, and alienation we all feel into building a trans-ideological coalition that can actually dislodge the power of the post-meritocratic elite. One that marshals insurrectionist sentiment without succumbing to nihilism and manic, paranoid distrust. One that avoids the dark seduction of everything-is-broken-ism. One that leverages the deep skepticism of elites into a proactive, constructive vision of a moral, equitable and connected social order.

The most obvious obstacle to building a potent coalition of the radicalized upper middle class is the deep partisan and ideological division that runs between conservatives and liberals.

His idea is to create a virtuous cycle. Affirmative action and progressive taxation increase equality. The elite is thus less able to self-perpetuate, and better able to govern due to decreased social distance.

Rather than delve into the merits of affirmative action and taxation, I'll only say this: Even if Hayes gets his way on both, those reforms are woefully inadequate and weirdly obtuse solutions to the pathologies described elsewhere in his book, and seem to me like strange focuses for reform. If our admissions tests are designed to be meritocratic but are being gamed through test prep, if schools in poor neighborhoods leave the majority of their students behind, if there is a persistent achievement gap with blacks and Hispanics stuck in the losing position, better to address those problems themselves than to mitigate their effects for a handful with affirmative action at elite institutions. Focusing on the symptoms sometimes makes the disease that much easier to ignore.

Similarly, if rich Americans are gaming the system to illegitimately increase their wealth, if they are pulling up the ladder so that they can never be replaced as elites, if they are too socially distant from the people over whose lives they wield great influence, and if they aren't even punished like regular people when they break the rules, surely there are urgent policy changes needed that are a lot more targeted to reforming the elite than 'raise their taxes and spread the wealth.'

Better to eliminate ill-gotten gains than to redistribute them.

Hayes may be right that a revolt of the upper-middle-class is the most realistic path to reining in elite excesses. He isn't the first to be intrigued by the idea of cooperation between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. So why not embrace and emphasize reforms that either address elite excesses more directly or have a better chance of having some cross-ideological appeal? Some of the ideas that follow fit those criteria. Others are longtime hobbyhorses that would go some way toward mitigating some of the elite pathologies that Hayes' adeptly identifies.

With that end in mind, I present them for debate, the doable right beside the implausible thought experiments:

  • Write simpler regulations. Complexity advantages the people at the top, who are always best positioned to exploit its vagaries. As Kevin Drum once put it, "Dumb, blunt rules are the only kind that can work in the playpen of modern finance. We simply don't understand the world well enough to pretend that we can regulate things in minute detail, and we sure as hell don't have regulators who are either smart enough or can move fast enough to stay ahead of the rocket scientists trying to outwit them. That's not just impossible in practice, it's pretty much impossible even in theory. It's just plain impossible. But dumb-as-rocks rules about capital requirements and trading limits and collateral requirements and term structures? Yeah, that can work."
  • End the War on Drugs, the most extreme example of rich and poor being punished differently for the same behavior.
  • One way elites "pull up the ladder" is through credentialism. So how about doing away with the many unnecessary professional licensing laws that disproportionately hurt the economic prospects of the poor?
  • Tax test prep courses, and use the proceeds to subsidize test prep for anyone eligible for free school lunch.
  • Move the Supreme Court to Omaha, Nebraska, or Salt Lake City, Utah, or Portland, Oregon. And transition to an e-Congress, so that House members spend more time in their districts, being required to cast votes from among the people they represent. One way to decrease the social distance between elites and citizens is to better disperse the elites among the people.
  • Stop subsidizing college tuition. Instead, take the total sum spent on that enterprise and divide it equally each year among all graduating high school seniors, who can use it for more education, trade school, or more professional development as they see fit.
  • Stop subsidizing mortgages.
  • Privately funded media does a great job covering rich people culture. Why should NPR do the same? Publicly radio and television ought to be given a mandate to cover, serve and seek programming feedback from the lower reaches of American earners and the long term unemployed.

That is by no means an exhaustive list, but it's enough for now.

The American meritocracy and its ruling elites are always controversial and inspire great conversation, for we all experience them differently. I'd love to publish a collection of thoughtful reader letters on the subject, so if you're inclined, shoot me your own considered thoughts and experiences. If there are enough goods stories and insights I'll assemble a post that collects the best.

My email address is at the top of the page.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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