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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.
 
 
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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 columnin 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.

When a general walks into the room, the audience sees the uniform first. Even a general as personally accomplished as Douglas MacArthur did not have power apart from his institutional role. The result effects a set of reciprocities David Brooks calls "virtue." When institutions are more important than individuals, elites are socialized into the institutions with an understanding their personal status depends on institutional prestige. West Point plebes understand from day one that their self-worth requires upholding the honor of the Army. It is not just that the Army promotes them on the basis of their loyalty to the institution; they also realize that actions which damage the institution damage them. Thus, General Petraeus, who for a time was hailed as President Bush’s “favorite general,” could loyally serve President Obama. The professional role was more critical to him than a partisan one.

Elites lose their moral authority with the destruction of the reciprocities that tie individual standing to institutional legitimacy. This destruction today comes from two principal sources: the promotion of sectarian loyalties ahead of institutional ones and the creation of a financial elite whose wealth gives them status independently of the institutions that created the wealth. 

Creating and maintaining institutional legitimacy is a tricky process, one more complicated than either Hayes or Brooks suggests. In The Ironies of Affirmative Action, for example, John Skretny noted that a central irony was that elite academic institutions led diversity efforts and did so in part because university leaders recognized that the wholesale exclusion of African Americans challenged institutional legitimacy. College presidents and law school deans further understood that their own status depended on addressing the challenge. They did so by simultaneously suspending the terms of the new meritocracy for some groups while upholding them for others. For institutions like Harvard, this meant pats on the back for reaching out to minority students and that much greater exclusivity for everyone else, both enhancing institutional prestige. 

The problem came with the next generation. The beneficiaries of affirmative action identified the legitimacy of their place at Harvard with the institution’s commitment to diversity and some accordingly internalized a further obligation to reach out to other excluded groups. Law School professor Derrick Bell, for example, left Harvard Law School over its failure to appoint an African-American woman to the faculty. In doing so, Bell acted from what Brooks would call personal honor – he stood up for a principle that tied his association with the institution to its commitment to a notion of social justice intrinsic to the reasons for his appointment to the law school. Yet, Bell’s action had no credibility with his opponents. They could just as legitimately see Bell’s actions as a call to sacrifice institutional standards in order to promote a vision of the institution that burnished Bell’s standing, but not theirs within it. In contrast, Barack Obama's selection as head of the Harvard Law Review (and even more as President) was neither a reward solely for some abstract notion of merit nor identification of the commitment to diversity with suspension of the ordinary order.  Instead, the Law Review appointment advanced institutional objectives and Obama identified his own success with his ability to credibly represent the Law Review as a whole.

The legitimacy of our political institutions is even more serious. In a recent AlterNet article on the Affordable Care Act, I argued that the rule of law suffers when justices place ideological purity over perceptions of the Court’s institutional integrity and that seemingly partisan 5-4 decisions had that effect. New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse observed that Chief Justice John Robert’s opinion upholding the act responded to the fact that “his ostensible allies were about to drive the Supreme Court over the cliff and into the abyss.” Roberts’ opinion suggests that he identified his legacy as Chief Justice with burnishing the Court’s institutional standing. As Greenhouse notes, however, movement conservatives have pilloried Roberts for his supposed disloyalty. Like the Tea Party members of Congress, they identify institutional legitimacy only with partisan ideology and judge individuals on that basis. The result both in the case of the hyper-partisan Tea Party congressional bloc and the increasingly ideological Court is a loss of public confidence. 

The transformation of the financial sector is less visible and at least equally pernicious. Illustrative of the change is the move away from partnerships to publicly traded corporations among the major investment banking firms (Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs). Under the earlier regime, partners could profit only if their firms prospered. While they could become rich, the partners could not easily cash in their ownership interests. The result was that they identified their own well-being with firm reputation – a firm that often bore the name of its partners. Today, corporate executives can use short-term profits that increase long-term risk to make a killing, and cash in leaving someone else holding the bag. This new elite identifies its personal standing with individual wealth, not corporate health.  

Mitt Romney’s standing as a retired multi-millionaire is independent of Bain Capital. And as a multi-millionaire (at least as one who is not running for president), Romney is answerable to no one. The bonds of reciprocity that tied elite status to institutional legitimacy and thus encouraged the type of virtue Brooks celebrates and the public accountability Hayes longs for have been severed.

June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is the co-author of "Red Families v. Blue Families."