Meritocracy Has Made Us Suck

Take it away, David Brooks:

Over the past half–century, a more diverse and meritocratic elite has replaced the Protestant Establishment. People are more likely to rise on the basis of grades, test scores, effort and performance.

Yet, as this meritocratic elite has taken over institutions, trust in them has plummeted. It’s not even clear that the brainy elite is doing a better job of running them than the old boys’ network.

Bring back the glory days of keeping the Jews out of the country club!

As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.

The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.

You see, things were just better when you inherited your privilege instead of working for it. When you work for it, you tend to be less confident in it, and less willing to piss all over the servants just to show that you can. You do desperate things like implode the economy and take steroids in order to play baseball. Because baseball up until now has been a hereditary business? The tits?

Baseball players get to the major leagues through merit, but then some take enhancement drugs to preserve their status. Financiers work hard to get jobs at the big banks, but then some rig the game for their own mutual benefit.

Lord knows there were no corrupt financiers until recently. In fact the real change that’s happened is we didn’t once upon a time let those guys run entirely everything on the basis of I’M THE JOB CREATING JUGGERNAUT BITCH and call anyone asking for regulation of the banking industry a screaming Commie. But hey, if we make it all about the characters of the people involved, then we can opine ponderously about the need for Better Humans and not for a system that isn’t rigged to fail.

Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.

KIDS TODAY IT IS ALL YOUR FAULT.Or it absolutely is not, if you’re living in reality.

The difference between the Hayes view and mine is a bit like the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. He wants to upend the social order. I want to keep the current social order, but I want to give it a different ethos and institutions that are more consistent with its existing ideals.

I want to keep white men on top, but I want them to talk sweetly when they’re boning the economy, instead of cat-o-nine-tail-ing it while calling its mother a whore. If only our elites were nicer, you guys, it wouldn’t be so gross when they did what they did.


11 thoughts on “Meritocracy Has Made Us Suck

  1. For Brooks, it always comes back to Those Damn Hippies.
    How he must have envied those unkempt longhairs getting all the beautiful free-spirited hippie chicks. It formed his entire worldview.

  2. Leadership code? Stewardship? Srsly? Those who refuse to learn from history are trying to doom us to repeat it.

  3. If we have a true meritocracy, then the last president didn’t inherit anything and made it into the Ivy league based on talent where he made straight As. Other presidents didn’t overwhelmingly go to ivy league schools. And they didn’t get preference on admission due to their family being alums. They didn’t get special scholarships (e.g. to get into the military academies you need your Congresscritter to recommend you. And everyone would have equal access to their congresscritters). For that matter, they went to the same public schools as everyone else and weren’t able to change school districts to get into a better school. All the way back to their mothers got the same prenatal care and the family had equal access to medical care.
    If this were true, then parts of Ayn Rand might make sense.

  4. A couple of days ago, in the context of the report on Paterno, Sandusky and the PSU bigwigs, I’d said that if I needed advice on leadership, the last people I would ask, based on personal experience, would be football coaches and retired generals.
    Now I have to amend that to add, “or David Brooks.” This man is a pompous dolt. Christ almighty on a petit-four plate, he’s an obsequious, obnoxious little twerp. 800 words to essentially say that old money deserves to run the world, and then to think that’s, somehow, profound.
    Organized crime is organized crime, even when it wears Brooks Brothers suits and button-down collars and speaks Yankee. Bush the Elder was perhaps the most patrician President we’d had in half a century, and boiling down his four years, he gave us two manufactured wars, our first so-called “white-collar” recession and the continuing use of right-wing racism to win politically, and very, very little else. The Bush family motto seems to be “public service for private gain,” since he happily started the second cold war, this time in the Middle East, and then settled in to reap the profits at places like Carlyle.
    Brooks can eat my fuckin’ shorts.

  5. Hmmm… There is actually a point somewhere lurking in Brook’s piece. We do have 100 years now of Nobel prize winning research separating us and Brook’s apparently Edwardian ideal. And yet it’s hard to make the case that elite performance today is any better than is was 100 years ago. Certainly the venality, arrogance and gross discontent between track record level of influence, is not appreciably less either, which does imply there’s a crisis in how elites are educated, groomed and advanced. I would would probably argue that the problem is that the yardstick used to measure ‘merit’ is skewed toward undesirable treats, lick cliquishness, extreme aggressiveness and a focus a type of productivity that induces intellectual myopia. But, it’s seems at least plausible that there is a general cultural aspect to it as well, that in-general those feted for for the highest offices in elite institutions, (and this is a glaring fallacy underlying brook’s argument — the unities states is, to an extent not totally unlike the times he’s referring to, governed by a hereditary elite) are not taking on those roles with the same level of circumspections, self sacrifice and self duty and responsibility that previous generations were educated in.

  6. I would argue that we are where we are because we’ve been soft on (the wrong kind of) crime. The death penalty isn’t going to keep drunks from pulling knives over a card game or junkies from knocking over a liquor store. But I can’t help thinking that the regular sight of a CEO dangling from a noose on the front steps of the New York Stock Exchange at high noon might have a salutary effect on some of our Galtian overlords.

  7. Brooks’ subtext:
    “I want to keep the current social order, but I want to continue to be able to write about how much
    I really do understand Bruce Springsteen without people guffawing in my face every time!”

  8. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
    “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

    That does it. We’re all going to have to re-read this one between now and the election.

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