Saturday, November 03, 2012

Hayes Nails It (and What he can Teach Two Other Guys)

I just now got round to Chris Hayes'  Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy, and I add my voice to the chorus: it's superb. Or at least, way better than the competition. I admit it:  I've tried a fair  number of lefty manifesto over the years, mostly in hospitable spirit. But they too often bog down in a self-indulgent mix of grandstanding, moral indignation and loose analytics.  Hayes seems to harbor the moral indignation but the grandstanding is minimal and the analysis is tight and shrewd.  Shorter Hayes: we've made a devil's bargain.  We've traded a caste system for a"meritocracy" (the word began life as an ironic slur)--a meritocracy fatally vulnerable to corruption both material and moral.  In sum, while making things in important ways better, we've also made other things far worse.  We've vastly exaggerate disparities in income.  We've imbued the nation with a sense of pervasive insecurity that engenders face-ripping competition.  And we've eradicated virtually all sense of communal responsibility in the elites.  Oh--and we find ourselves with beginnings of a new caste, hell-bent on entrenching themselves after the manner of the old.

Not all of this is tightly morticed at the joints.  Hayes never makes clear how he thinks the exaggeration of income disparities can be read as a consequence of the dismantling of caste barriers (his own evidence would seem to suggest otherwise: as he points out, an exemplar of unequal societies was the antebellum slave-holding South).  He doesn't really commit himself on the question whether a disintegration of acceptable norms must follow an increase in "merit"-based competition.   Perhaps most important, he doesn't really speculate on the more general question whether a period of congealment follows any period of dynamic change. But he doesn't really have to deal with these questions: he isn't writing  grand theory so much as he is trying to understand the society in which he lives.

One of the many great Hayes' analytical approach is that it inoculates him against the thoughtless populism that you find in so many of these left-critiques.  Nothing here suggests that "the people" are being duped by "the greedy bastards" (e.g., bankers) and once we lift the scales from "the people's" eyes, then all will be will.  No: he makes it clear that we have a social pattern far more pervasive, woven into the whole fabric of society.  One might surmise, therefore, that he also sees the problem as impossible to eradicate.  Oddly enough, nothing of the sort.  No: in setting forth his reform agenda, Hayes makes two points: one, we need to redistribute income, and two: that means far more progressive taxation--one respect, at least, in which Hayes would cheerfully roll back to the 50s.  Take away the wretched excesses of money and you restore some kind of order not just to banking and commerce, but to politics and even to baseball (his potted history of steroids in the major leagues is a little gem).

Two points, and a practical third point.  Hayes acknowledges that other people have considered the prospect of more progressive taxation--and have set it aside with a sigh, as undoable:Americans like the unequal distribution of wealth.  But this, argues Hayes, is a canard.  The evidence--he cites a bit is that Americans are far more favorably disposed to wealth redistribution than is commonly understood.

Well, good luck to him. as it stands, this "remedy" is just a couple of pages at the end of an already short book.  But it's a point that certainly deserves more consideration.  Note, though, that for the moment, at least, Hayes is making an argument that is almost entirely functional: imbalance of wealth is wrong not because it is wrong (well,  maybe that too)--but because the imbalance tends to corrode away the structure of almost everything else in the society around it.

One loose end before I leave Hayes (for tonight, at least): remember Why Nations Fail, by Acemoglu and Robnson, which I mentioned here a few weeks ago?  It's a provocative title and an enticing theme but you may recall that I was underwhelmed. A&R wound up with a bunch of anecdotes, many instructive in their own way but nothing close to the (seemingly promised) grand theory.  Maybe the problem was that they hadn't read Hayes: Hayes offer them, if not a fully-developed theory, still a shrew and insightful sketch of a theory that would have made their own work so much better. On the next one, perhaps the three of them can collaborate.

1 comment:

jcradin said...

an overarching approach to the issue of inequality as a cause of nation-state decline and failure which dovetails well with Hayes is Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order...." well worth the reading