The aughts seem to stretch on into 2012, and they really should be called “the naughts,” Harper’s Roger Hodge quips, for [t]hey will be remembered chiefly for their wants. For my particular generation--just out of college, up to its eyeballs in debt and ambition--the naughts are the decade that will not die. “This frustrated, discontented class has spent a decade with their noses pressed against the glass,” Christopher Hayes writes in his new book, Twilight of the Elites. We wait, “watching the winners grab more and more for themselves.”
At the turn of the teens, it looks like we’ll be waiting another decade, too.
I’m starting at the end, but Hayes starts at the beginning. “America feels broken,” he begins, and lays out the sad story of the naughts--”the fail decade,” he calls it. It was a decade in which, Hodge writes, “the American Republic finally succumbed to a kind of autoimmune disorder, in which the social and political systems normally responsible for maintaining the healthy functioning of the body politic have instead turned against it with particular savagery, as if our very Constitution were an invasive foreign organism.” It was the decade in which America broke herself--and the fault for all of it, dear Brutus, was not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Our judiciary kicked off the naughts by installing George W. Bush as president, polarizing the country and shedding the high court’s apolitical veneer. Our titans of industry followed it up with the Enron scandal, in which the “smartest guys in the room” took the media, government regulators, and the market for a joyride and drove the car into ditch. The executive through a combination of neglect and sheer incompetence let New Orleans drown. The legislature--leaning on the failures of our fourth estate and our intelligence apparatus, and in a triumph of bipartisanship--voted to mire our military in (another) adventure in the Middle East. And, finally, with arrogance, greed, and stupidity, our economic elites set fire to the economy giving us this Great Recession and the taste of ash in our mouths.
Our elites, governmental and economic, made the aughts the naughts, and we rewarded them with, as often as not, reelection and bailouts. The most recent example: Jamie Dimon was hauled before congress after J.P Morgan Chase’s most recent epic fail for what should have been a grand mea culpa. Instead, members of congress, Republicans and Democrats alike (though more Republicans than Democrats), asked for his advice.
There’s little to suggest that any of this will change anytime soon. The conditions that led to the naughts are the same as the conditions we have now at the turn of the teens. “Fractal inequality,” Hayes calls it. The vast gulf between the 90 percent and 10 percent is the same as the gulf between the 10 percent and 1 percent and the 1 percent and .1 percent. We’re left with a series of perverse incentives, as everyone scrambles (generally in vain) to keep up with their economic betters. And because in the Great Meritocracy that is America, where the rich always deserve to be rich because they're better and smarter and the poor deserve to be poor because they’re not, everyone looks up for advice and guidance. The result is the kind of groupthink that led to our adventure in Iraq.
This is the trouble, Hayes’s argument goes, with American meritocracy. The cult of smartness that grows up around men like Jamie Dimon rests on this strange, circular logic. He’s smart because he’s rich and he’s rich because he’s smart. In the case of Iraq, the Serious People who managed to mire us in war for no apparent reason were Serious because they were well placed and they were well placed because they were Serious.
Hayes quotes blogger Matthew Yglesias’s explanation of why he supported the war as a senior at Harvard:
I was 21 years old and kind of a jerk. Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite … The point is that this wasn’t really a series of erroneous judgments about Iraq, it was a series of erroneous judgments about how to think about the world and who deserves to be taken seriously and under which circumstances.“This is a potent articulation of the dark emotional roots of the Cult of Smartness,” Hayes writes: “the desire to differentiate and dominate that the meritocracy encourages.”
This is Hayes’s argument in a nutshell: America’s vast, crippling inequality--and all the myriad social ills that come along with it--is a direct result of America’s unhealthy attitude toward meritocracy, namely that it’s the only way to structure a society. It will take, Hayes writes, “the necessary upheaval and social transformation” to reboot our elites, to “bring about the third Era of Equality.”
The wonderful--and terrifying--thing about democracy is that ever few years, we have the opportunity to try something completely new. We have that chance this November. For my generation--and the country as a whole--the stakes couldn’t be higher: let the naughts stretch on for another decade, or right now transform as a country.
Of course, even if we succeed electorally, our work hasn’t stopped, but as President Obama’s recent immigration decision suggests, as the successes of Occupy Wall Street in changing the narrative shows us, sustained pressure from outside can nudge the system in the right direction. Hayes concludes,
The implacable hydraulic forces that draw power to collect and pool will continue to do their work. … Eventually, decades hence, people will find themselves pining for the good old days or decrying their broken institutions once again. … Equality is never a final state, democracy never a stable equilibrium: they are processes, they are struggles.* I am indebted to Roger Hodge's excellent essay, "The Naughts" for the title of this piece.
Our task now is to recognize that that struggle is ours.
** You should really get yourself a copy of Twilight of the Elites; this sketch of an review covered only a fraction of Hayes's fascinating argument. I'm not going to link to Amazon, because you really should head down to your local, independent book store to grab a copy.