How Inbred Elites Are Tearing America Apart
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– from those who at least appear to have risen on the merits of intelligence.
Yes. Because we a) have a myth we tell ourselves about how right they are for their jobs, and so we feel a greater sense of betrayal, because we’ve all constructed a national myth that’s like – of course these are the people who should be running things. And second of all, democracy, when it’s functioning, and democratic institutions, when they’re functioning, have beneficial cognitive effects, which is that they’re ways of aggregating information. And when you get very removed from that, and things become very inside baseball, inside games, people are going to make bad decisions.
So that’s a big part of it. People are embedded in these institutions, they are blinkered in these ways that means they’re making decisions outside the bounds of democratic accountability. Which can lead to corruption – like, moral transgression – but also, at the least, incompetence, because they’re literally not seeing the whole problem.
That’s the theme of a show like “The Wire,” which is essentially entirely about how all institutions rot from the inside — whether it’s egoism, whether it’s careerism, whether it’s just complete rank incompetence. That kind of institutional rot seems to me one of the most important stories of the day – the problems facing us are so serious and so large, and yet we seem completely unequipped to deal with them forthrightly and seriously – whether in Congress, in the media, in academia.
I think it’s hard to make these objective comparisons of different periods of institutional dysfunction, but the one thing you can do is at least look at polling data from the 1970s that gives you a subjective sense. The polling reflects an American populace that is more distrustful of their institutions than they have been since the polling began — and the polling began in the wake of Watergate! At a total nadir of public trust. So I think there is a level at which it is quite novel, at least in recent memory. I think, if you read the social criticism of the 1930s, there was something similar that happened there. The Great Crash did produce a kind of pervasive sense of betrayal and disillusionment society-wide in the ’30s, and that’s something that the writing today picks up on. It’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons, but I think in recent memory, I think the answer is a pretty resounding no.
So if these institutions are run by the smartest people, who rose through a meritocracy because they are so bright, how do they hollow out into such rank incompetence?
Well, there’s two answers. One is that the selection method – it’s not the case, that they’re the smartest people. The selection method says that it’s doing that, but the hydraulics of privilege mean that actually we’re creating an enclosed world of inbred elites, despite all our claims about the equality of opportunity and people of all races, creeds, backgrounds …
You’re suggesting the American dream and the American democracy is a big lie we’re being fed!
Yes, exactly! (laughs) So there’s that. But there’s also – I talk about the cult of smartness in the book, but intelligence is a really slippery concept, and it’s a lot harder to pin down than it first looks. The cult of smartness is this very seductive but very misleading sense that smartness is an ordinal quality, like height, that could be perceived immediately and you can definitively rank people, that it’s a clear perception that can be made when it’s just not.