It seems that David Brooks has read Christopher Hayes' new book, "Twilight Of The Elites." Or, at the very least, skimmed it. This is problematic, as Hayes' book may as well be titled, "Twilight Of The Mountain Of Horsecrap Piled High And Deep By Many New York Times Columnists." As you might expect, Brooks' reaction to the parts of Hayes' book that he read is somewhat ... well, let's say "fraught."
Brooks is seemingly in agreement with Hayes, up to a point, saying that "trust" in elites "has plummeted," and that it's no longer "clear that the brainy elite is doing a better job of running them than the old boys' network." By "old boys' network," he refers to "the Protestant Establishment," that -- if you've read Brooks' "Bobos in Paradise" -- Brooks recalls as the dominant power elite of America's adolescence. That Establishment's decline in stature can be traced to the moment that they had to start competing against other groups of white people from different families for space in The New York Times wedding announcements. (There's also a lot to be said, apparently, for the wider availability of artisanal cheese and granite kitchen counters.)
Hayes, as Brooks notes, takes great pains to demonstrate that the newer elite has allowed the larger sense of societal equality to get stupendously out of whack -- with baseball players literally juicing their performance and high-class New Yorkers crowding out smart kids from the city's edge neighborhoods for access to elite schools, owing to the fact that they're better able to purchase the needed test-prep professional services to get ahead.
Brooks says that Hayes makes a "challenging argument" but it's "wrong."
I'd say today's meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families. They spend enormous amounts of money and time on enrichment. They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room.
Based upon my own experience as someone who once worked "down the income scale" and who now writes pithy jokes about politics for substantially more money than I ever did razing and remodeling apartment buildings with my bare hands, I'd say that this is a challenging argument, but wrong.
Here's a pro-tip. If you are chilling outside your kid's piano lesson and taking a conference call, you aren't "working long hours." You aren't even working. I've been on thousands of conference calls. They are not "work." If your job involves a lot of conference calls, then congratulations, you are a winner in the game of life. Who is actually working the "longer hours" in the scenario Brooks describes? The person teaching his dumb kid how to play the piano.
But Brooks plunks on, mansplaining that the real problem is that today's elites are all screwing up the world because they "cannot admit to themselves that they are elites." Brooks writes: "Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else."
Uhm, okay? I'll just point out that Brooks is sort of implicating himself, here. Let's recall that a few weeks ago, Brooks wrote these words: "They say you've never really seen a Bruce Springsteen concert until you've seen one in Europe, so some friends and I threw financial sanity to the winds and went to follow him around Spain and France."
But I digress. Today Brooks writes:
As a result, today's elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys' network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.
Ha, I think that one thing "the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys' network" can appreciate is that the "spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicles" of Groton are substantially easier to endure than the "spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicles" of, say, tenement buildings. Now we've sort of come full circle to Hayes' original point -- that striving, smart kids from Co-Op City aren't able to seize the same preparatory advantages as the kids who are currently getting all the open slots at Hunter College High School. (Though, the spartan rooms at Co-Op City are positively Groton-esque to a smart, striving kid residing in the spartan rooms available at the corner of Park and Nostrand Avenues in Brooklyn.)
Naturally, Brooks' conclusion indicates that he hasn't done a particularly close reading of Hayes' book:
The difference between the Hayes view and mine is a bit like the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. He wants to upend the social order. I want to keep the current social order, but I want to give it a different ethos and institutions that are more consistent with its existing ideals.
Brooks is, of course, free to disagree with Hayes, but he's not free to attribute arguments to Hayes that Hayes is not actually making. From Chapter 7 of Hayes' book (emphasis mine):
At its most basic, the logic of "meritocracy" is ironclad: putting the most qualified, best equipped people into the positions of greatest responsibility and import. It would be foolhardy to toss this principle out in its entirety. You certainly wouldn't want surgeons' licences to be handed out via lottery, or to have major cabinet members selected through reality TV-style voting. Anyone who's ever worked in an organization of any kind has seen first hand that there are sometimes vast differences between individuals in ability, work ethic, and efficiency. An institution that pays no heed to these differences will almost certainly fare poorly.
But my central contention is that our near-religious fidelity to the meritocratic model comes with huge costs. We overestimate the advantages of meritocracy and underappreciate its costs because we don't think hard enough about the consequences of the inequality it produces.
One of those consequences, of course, is ending up with the thesis that while the "the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys' network" of old had their faults (you know: all the racism, sexism, anti-Semitism) they nevertheless totally had "leadership" figured out!
Maybe Brooks just needed to be "ambitious and disciplined" and "work longer hours" and actually read all of Hayes' book. So many conference calls, so little time, I guess.
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