The book has already been ably summarized by Aaron Swartz over at Crooked Timber (worth reading the whole thing):
Our nation’s institutions have crumbled, Hayes argues. From 2000–2010 (the “Fail Decade”), every major societal institution failed…
Hayes pins the blame on an unlikely suspect: meritocracy. We thought we would just simply pick out the best and raise them to the top, but once they got there they inevitably used their privilege to entrench themselves and their kids (inequality is, Hayes says, “autocatalytic”). Opening up the elite to more efficient competition didn’t make things more fair, it just legitimated a more intense scramble. The result was an arms race among the elite, pushing all of them to embrace the most unscrupulous forms of cheating and fraud to secure their coveted positions. As competition takes over at the high end, personal worth resolves into exchange value, and the elite power accumulated in one sector can be traded for elite power in another: a regulator can become a bank VP, a modern TV host can use their stardom to become a bestselling author (try to imagine Edward R. Murrow using the nightly news to flog his books the way Bill O’Reilly does). This creates a unitary elite, detached from the bulk of society, yet at the same time even more insecure. You can never reach the pinnacle of the elite in this new world; even if you have the most successful TV show, are you also making blockbuster movies? bestselling books? winning Nobel Prizes? When your peers are the elite at large, you can never clearly best them.
The result is that our elites are trapped in a bubble, where the usual pointers toward accuracy (unanimity, proximity, good faith) only lead them astray. And their distance from the way the rest of the country really lives makes it impossible for them to do their jobs justly—they just don’t get the necessary feedback. The only cure is to reduce economic inequality, a view that has surprising support among the population (clear majorities want to close the deficit by raising taxes on the rich, which is more than can be said for any other plan). And while Hayes is not a fan of heightening the contradictions, it is possible that the next crisis will bring with it the opportunity to win this change.
My favorite points:
Meritocracy and Equality of Opportunity do not deserve the moral weight we give them:
Hayes draws on Robert Michel's iron law of oligarchy as an inspiration for his theory as to why meritocracy fails:
"The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up. In other words: 'Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy.'" p. 57.
In comments, people often say that the American system is not genuinely meritocratic. I put as much weight on that as those that say the Soviet Union wasn't really communist.
Meritocracy gives the education system an impossible task:
Freddie DeBoer further develops the interaction of meritocracy and education (note that I disagree with his conclusion in the piece on the grounds of practicality and desirability):
Because our system now depends on the idea that children are universally capable of being educated to certain necessary levels to benefit our economy. Globalization and neoliberalism — the basic economic consensus of policy elites — destroyed working-class jobs and incomes and sparked a furious attack on labor’s ability to unionize and collectively bargain for better conditions. Yet the neoliberal policy apparatus still needs a mechanism to improve wages for those at the bottom, in part to improve their living conditions and in part because the economy requires them to be consumers as well as producers. Having cut the legs out from underneath the traditional mechanisms of social mobility for uneducated Americans, the necessary step becomes plain: educate all of them. Questions about whether everyone can be educated to the necessary level cannot be countenanced, to say nothing of whether this system breeds zero-sum competition for limited “skilled” jobs.
Our vexed arguments about education reform stem from our refusal to acknowledge that we are constrained by reality, regardless of the needs of our economic system.
Matt Yglesias regularly notes the incongruity of teachers arguing that students' socioeconomic traits are the main factors determining their success. However, that is not primarily an argument that teachers don't matter; it is just an explanation as to why even good teachers cannot boost up their students sufficiently that education can get the median wage going again. Good teachers might be a jet engine lifting up students, but that doesn't mean they have the power to get them into orbit. This does not mean that money spent getting better teachers is wasted. I believe the marginal returns on education to be quite high; it just means that even valuable education reforms won't do for workers what strong unions once managed. I do think that DeBoer overstates the "zero-sum" nature of competition for skilled jobs. There are a fair number of skills still in fairly great demand that may not be able to replace the unskilled work of yesteryear, but are still at a point where adding a worker increases the demand for other workers. However, there are also fields like law, where the education system at large is rooking people into accumulating great debt for often dubious job prospects. I think that situation has persisted as long as it has because LSAT-ing your way to success is entirely in line with the myths of meritocracy.
Look for fraud, not bubbles:
Eager to avoid repeating their mistakes, many pundits constantly ponder whether this or that is the next bubble. Chris Hayes shows that why this is mistaken. The problem with the housing boom wasn't excessive enthusiasm, it was widespread fraud. The basis of the problem has been understood for centuries:
Thomas Gresham: "In this wild, unregulated monetary world, you had two different type of coins floating in circulation: "good" money, which was pure and properly weighted, and "bad" money, which was debased and did not contain the amount of it purported to contain. In such a situation people got pretty good at identifying what was good money and what was bad; what they'd do was use bad money for exchange while having the good money. Eventually bad money became the only money in circulation… fraudulent actors drive out the honest if fraudulent actors receive no sanction for their action." p. 92-93
Hayes also notes this pattern in the steroid scandal in Enron, Major League Baseball and cheating under Michelle Rhee's education reforms in Washington D.C. (He contrasts that with Chicago where Steven Levitt was hired to monitor for cheating and managed to prevent widespread scandals.) Hayes cites William Black's description of these cases as "Criminogenic environments" where corruption became endemic. To me, the connection to bubbles is obvious, as providing an easy path to success feeds on itself and in business or financial sectors may redirect resources from legitimate enterprises.
The term Fractal Inequality:
It's a lovely term that updates what Lewis Carroll called the inner ring phenomenon. Status competition is like an onion: as you manage to break into one layer there's always another inner ring. What's changed in my view is globalization: elites now compare themselves to others at events like the World Economic Forum at Davos, not just those in the same town, state, or even country.
The book left me with three questions:
How important was globalization to this phenomenon? I think there is a cosmopolitan global elite in a way there really wasn't in prior eras. But even if I'm right, how big of a driver of inequality is this phenomenon? Similarly, what's the relationship between trade and inequality, and can trade deals be fashioned such that all the gains don't accrue to the top?
Do civil service barriers help? In the think tank where I work, the difficulty of corporate-government cooperation and of hiring government workers from the outside is regularly decried. This may lead to you correctly pegging most think tank as meritocratic (note: I'm speaking for myself here as always on this blog). But this leaves me curious: to what extent do civil service rules actually manage to put a break on the emergence of a meritocratic elite? Or have they been made obsolete by a churn of employees departing for better-paying corporate work and an increased reliance on contractors?
How does our present situation compare to pre-WWII history? I'd take meritocracy, with all its faults, over aristocracy in a heartbeat, although I suppose there's something to be said for competing sets of elites. Hayes does note that the meritocracy manages greater diversity than older forms of elite governance, but I'd be interested in a bit more history which might reveal to what extent the vaunted American 1950s were a postwar aberration or a phenomenon that had been replicated in other times and places.