Book Review: Twilight of the Elites:America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes

Twilight of the Elites is the most radical book I’ve read in recent years. It explains how our meritocratic system, when taken to its logical conclusion, undermines and destroys the very meritocracy it seeks to create.
“America feels broken. Over the last decade, a nation accustomed to greatness has had to reconcile itself to an economy that seems to be lurching backward. From 1999 to 2010, median income in real dollars fell by 7%. more Americans are downwardly mobile than at any time in recent memory.”
“The iron law of meritocracy: “Eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility.” Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible.
This, Hayes asserts, is exactly what has happened in America. All of the economic gains made in the past thirty years have gone to the wealthiest top ten percent of Americans. The middle class has stagnated and the lowest forty percent have actually become poorer.
To illustrate his point about meritocracy eventually defeating its own purpose, Hayes cites Hunter College High School in Manhattan. To get into this fine school, students take an exam in sixth grade. Admission is based strictly upon the results of this exam. A perfect meritocratic system, right? Not quite correct. Over the years Hunter has become more and more unrepresentative of the population of New York City, to the point where the student body is divided nearly equally between Whites and Asians with almost no Blacks or Hispanics. It turns out that a whole industry of test preparation has arisen where parents who can afford it have their children tutored in order to do well on the test. Children whose parents cannot afford this tutoring rarely succeed. In other words the playing field is markedly tilted. This is what has happened in America as a whole. The laissez faire meritocracy has resulted in a profoundly tilted playing field.
“We confront a fundamental inequality of accountability. We can have a just society whose guiding ethos is accountability and punishment, where both black kids dealing weed in Harlem and investment bankers peddling fraudulent securities on Wall Street are forced to pay for their crimes, or we can have a just society whose guiding ethos is forgiveness and second chances, one in which both Wall Street banks and foreclosed households are bailed out, in which both insider traders and street felons are allowed to rejoin polite society with full privileges of citizenship intact. But we cannot have a just society that applies the principal of accountability to the powerless and the principal of forgiveness to the powerful. this is the America in which we currently reside.”
Hayes compares our society to more egalitarian industrialized societies: The higher the taxes in a given society the less inequality. Taxation is the primary method for redistribution and as a general rule the more taxation the more redistribution, and the more redistribution the more equality.” “The U.S. collects a smaller share of national income than every other industrial democracy. In recent years that rate has been dropping. In the year 2000 it was 29.5%, in 2010 it was 24.8%
Hayes believes that for the sake of posterity we cannot continue to allow this trend to extreme inequality to continue. “Our post-meritocratic inequality is the defining feature of the social contract to which we are all a party. Ant the terms of that contract must be renegotiated on a society-wide level. There is no withdrawing from this reality, no side-stepping it. The most fundamental institutions, our educational system, the federal government, the national security state and Wall Street must be confronted and reformed directly. Power must be distributed against the tooth, nail and knife opposition of those who wield it most closely, and those who benefit from it most exorbitantly.”

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