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What's Really Wrong With America's 'Best and Brightest'

When the reputation and integrity of institutions no longer matter, anything goes in the pursuit wealth and power.

What's wrong with America's best and brightest? Why do the products of today's prestigious colleges and institutions seem particularly distanced from the fates of the rest of us? Have they always been like that? If not, what has changed? These questions have been circulating recently around the topics of economic inequality and the notion of America as a meritocratic system where anyone can make it.

Chris Hayes has written a provocative new book, The Twilight of Elites, which argues that our elites increasingly fail to serve the greater good as they become more insular and unaccountable. Hayes sees the problem as a product of Robert Michels’ "Iron Law of Meritocracy," an inevitable process in which “eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic society will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility” that once recruited the genuinely talented into elite ranks.

In other words, as societal inequality increases, the top group uses its privileged position to rig the system to ensure its own continuing success. Hayes provides an example from his alma mater, Hunter College High School. You can gain admission to this prestigious New York City school only if you pass a single entrance exam. As recently as 1995, the seventh grade entering class was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. But by 2009, those figures dropped to 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic. Part of the explanation for this decrease in diversity is the fact that the majority of students are products of the relatively new test prep industry, with $90/hour private tutors geared specifically for the Hunter test. 

Hayes concludes that genuine meritocracy can only come from societies that shrink “the yawning social distance that now makes elite failure inevitable.” Our elites, he argues, are an increasingly bad lot because as inequality increases, the competition for elite status intensifies. Elites have increasingly less in common with anyone else, and they no longer serve any interests other than their own.

For David Brooks, on the other hand, our current elites have turned out badly because the meritocratic system opens the door to everyone rather than grooming the select to carry out their preordained role to advance the interests of the nation. In a column in the New York Times, Brooks claimed that what the meritocratic elite lacks is not the relative equality that once opened the doors to greater mobility, but the commitment to virtue that characterized the older establishment. He writes that “today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess....The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations.” 

For Brooks, our current elites have turned out badly because the meritocratic system that came with social progress decreased the number of people at the top who had been trained since birth to preserve institutions and think about the long-term prosperity of the country and its people.

What both fail to explore, however, are the reciprocities that come from tying elite status to the integrity of institutions. Brooks is right that promotion of the right virtues produces more accountable elites, but he does not address the role of institutional integrity in producing such virtues. He observes that “Wall Street hires on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character.” But he amazingly attributes this to “counterculture” excess rather than the fact that Enron executives could earn their fraudulent millions only by cashiering the scrupulous, or that Bain Capital’s profits come in part by making a mockery of firm loyalty to long-serving employees. Hayes, in turn, is right that greater inequality is part of the problem – billionaires find it a whole lot easier to rig the system than mere millionaires – but his principal institutional focus is the egalitarian promise of the Internet.

The military, in contrast, is one of the few institutions that continues to connect individual status with institutional integrity, perhaps because at the end of the day, when military leaders fail, soldiers die. The most  recent polls show it to be one of the most trusted institutions during a period of institutional decline. It manages to combine hierarchy with relatively more egalitarian entry than universities or corporations, though it certainly has its internal divisions and excesses. Yet, it stands out as a rare contemporary institution where an individual’s standing within the institution confers greater status than individual accomplishments.