Monday, October 1, 2012

Twilight of the Elites and Banned Book Week

It's Banned Books Week, and Pete Hautman is encouraging us all to read a book that scares us. He'll be posting on his blog each day this week in honor of BBW.

Red cover of Twilight of the Elites with blue we're #1 finger hand pointing downward
I've just finished reading Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites, and I have to say, it definitely scares me. It's one of those books that spends six chapters describing the problem in loving detail, and then provides some (too short) ideas on how to approach a solution.

It is a big problem, though -- finding the root cause of our increasingly unequal society and our seemingly intractable political divide. Here are a few favorite quotes:
When people come to view all formal authority as fraudulent, good governance becomes impossible, and a vicious cycle of official misconduct and low expectations kicks in (page 23).

...intensely competitive, high-reward meritocratic environments are prone to produce all kinds of fraud, deception, conniving and game rigging (page 77).
Imagine how the Civil Rights Movement would be received were it to happen today. Fox News would work ceaselessly to convince Northern audiences that the protesters were in fact Marxists and subversives and posed a violent threat to the American way. Sleazy interviews with King's various mistresses would appear on segregationist blogs, while right-wing activists would gleefully videotape and disseminate embarrassing interviews with bewildered protesters (page 134).


More than one-third of congressional staffers turn to a career in lobbying after leaving Capitol Hill. It's clear the staffer-turned-lobbyist's value to special interests depends on the robustness of his or her network on Capitol Hill. According to an August 2010 study, when a lobbyist's former boss on Capitol Hill left office, the lobbyist's salary declined by an average of 50 percent in the six months following the departure (pages 150-151).

Progress is dependent upon a productive and dynamic tension between institutionalism and insurrectionism. Insurrectionists keep our institutions honest. Institutionalists are stewards of our collective public life. The most important social project we must undertake in the wake of the fail decade [the 2000s] is reconstructing our institutions so that we once again feel comfortable trusting them. Because without the social cohesion that trusted institutions provide, we cannot produce the level of consensus necessary to confront our greatest challenges (page 136).


There are certain institutional functions and professional roles...that we want to see insulated from crass commercial concerns.... [Now] what we're left with is a blurring of the boundaries between what Jane Jacobs described as the Guardian Syndrome on the one hand and the Commercial Syndrome on the other. According to Jacobs, the Guardian Syndrome [based on honor and loyalty] regulates the behavior of the soldier, the politician, and the policeman..., while the Commercial Syndrome [based on contracts, competition, and convenience] guides the behavior of the banker, the baker, and the businessman.

Yet our current system of fractal inequality creates the conditions in which everything is inexorably drawn into the realm of commerce. The absolute size of the payouts available to the successful politician, doctor, or regulator is so large that [they] are drawn into the orbit of improper dependencies. Nearly everyone has a price, and the higher the potential payout, the more likely that price will find you. The greater the gap between compensation among those who adhere to the Guardian code and those who adhere to the Commercial one, the more the latter will come to corrupt the former (pages 173-174).
Hayes's solution, to put it briefly: "we need to bring about a social order that combines the best things about" the economic equality of the 1950s and the social equality of the past few decades. A new social order that would shrink "the yawning social distance that now makes elite failure inevitable" (page 221).

A lot to think about.

Next I'm going to read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. I've been meaning to read it for decades, but have been scared to for some reason. Thanks to Pete, I'm going to read it now.

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