Here’s What’s Wrong With The American Elite

Wall Street Pic

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I don’t want to make this a habit, and I suspect he doesn’t either, but Paul Krugman and I are once again in (very) partial agreement. We both think the American elite has intellectually and morally lost its way, and we agree that the problems our country faces today have more to do with elite breakdown than popular stupidity. 

We locate the blame somewhat differently within that elite; Krugman splits the blame between George W. Bush and the economic policy makers of the Clinton/Obama administrations. 

I think the rot goes deeper and has spread out more widely.  But the United States today — in both parties, in the corporate and business worlds, in academia and among the intelligentsia, in religion and in many other fields — does not have the strong and thoughtful leadership that we need.

That is not what the elite thinks, by and large.  To listen to many bien pensant American intellectuals and above-the-salt journalists, America faces a shocking problem today: the cluelessness, greed, arrogance and bigotry of the American public.  American elites are genuinely and sincerely convinced that the American masses don’t understand the world, don’t realise that American exceptionalism is a mental disease, want infinite government benefits while paying zero tax, and cling to their Bibles and their guns despite all the peer reviewed social science literature that demonstrates the danger and the worthlessness of both.

As the thoughtful and discerning Dan Drezner noted on his blog, the complaint isn’t all wrong.  Americans historically want generous government support for themselves and their families, and we do have a tendency to think that government exists to give us something for nothing. 

Most of us think God has some kind of plan for the United States — that the wealth and the power this country has accumulated over the centuries is intended to benefit humanity as a whole in some way.  Nobody is going to argue that the American people are walking encyclopedias of knowledge about foreign leaders, new developments in European philosophy and WTO regulations.  If world power was determined by fifth grade maths scores, the US would rank somewhere between Burkino Faso and Chad.

But by historical standards, the average American is actually ahead of his or her ancestors.  Today’s average Americans are smarter, more sophisticated, better educated, less racist and more tolerant than ever before.  Immigrants face less prejudice in the United States than ever before in our history.  Religious, ethnic and sexual minorities are more free to live their own lives more openly with less fear than ever before.  There is more respect for science and learning, more openness to the arts and more interest in the viewpoints of other countries and cultures among Americans at large than in any past generation.

The American people aren’t perfect yet and never will be — but by the standards that matter to the Establishment, this is the best prepared, most open minded and most socially liberal generation in history.  Unsatisfactory as the American people may be from the standpoints of Georgetown and Manhattan, this is as good as it gets.  Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman could only dream of the kind of sophisticated and cosmopolitan understanding that folks in Peoria have now compared to the old days.

The American people are less prejudiced, more globally aware and more willing to meet other cultures and societies halfway than ever before.  Minorities today are better protected in law and more fairly treated by the public than ever in our history.  No previous generation has been as determined to give women a fair chance in life, or to attack the foul legacy of racism.  The American people have never been as religiously tolerant as they are today, as concerned about the environment, or more willing to make sacrifices around the world to promote the peace and well being of humanity as a whole.

By contrast, we have never had an Establishment that was so ill-equipped to lead.  It is the Establishment, not the people, that is falling down on the job.

Here in the early years of the 20-first century, the American elite is a walking disaster and is in every way less capable than its predecessors.  It is less in touch with American history and culture, less personally honest, less productive, less forward looking, less effective at and less committed to child rearing, less freedom loving, less sacrificially patriotic and less entrepreneurial than predecessor generations.  Its sense of entitlement and snobbery is greater than at any time since the American Revolution; its addiction to privilege is greater than during the Gilded Age and its ability to raise its young to be productive and courageous leaders of society has largely collapsed.   (There are, of course, many honorable exceptions to generalizations this sweeping; anyone wise enough to be reading this blog can safely assume that none of these terrible things apply to you.)

Take Wall Street.  (Please!)  Our corrupt financial and corporate establishment has by and large lost its concern for the well being of the American state and the American people.  Raj Rajaratnam’s conviction on 14 counts of insider trading is only the latest of a string of scandals, blunders and crimes that demonstrate the moral vacuity of the best and the brightest in the United States.  Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone may be a little over the top for some tastes, but even if the Goldman Sachs executives he describes did nothing illegal, it is painfully clear that a great American financial institution has lost its moral compass. There is a dangerous moral vacuum at the heart of the American Financial Establishment.

We have had financial scandals before and we have had waves of corporate crime.  We have had pirates and robber barons.  But we have never seen a collapse of ordinary morality in the corporate suites on the scale of the last 20 years.  We have never seen naked money grubbing among our politicians akin to the way some recent figures in both parties have cashed in.  Human nature hasn’t changed, but a kind of moral grade inflation has set in and key segments of the American Establishment are increasingly accepting the unacceptable as OK.  Investment banks betray their clients; robo-signers essentially forge mortgage documents day after day and month after month; insider traders are lionized.   Free markets actually require a certain basic level of honesty to work; if we can’t be more honest than this neither our markets nor we ourselves will remain free for very long.

Many problems troubling America today are rooted in the poor performance of our elite educational institutions, the moral and social collapse of our ‘best’ families and the culture of narcissism and entitlement that has transformed the American elite into a flabby minded, strategically inept and morally confused parody of itself.  Probably the best depiction of our elite in popular culture is the petulantly narcissistic Prince Charming in Shrek 2; our educational institutions are like the Fairy Godmother, weaving shoddy, cheap, feel-good illusions into a gossamer tissue of flattering lies.

Because the idea of an elite makes Americans nervous, and because American culture likes to blur class and power realities rather than highlight them, we don’t have much of a national conversation about the state of our elite and about how to improve it.  That’s a mistake — and it is one of the reasons our elites are performing so poorly.  The United States actually needs a healthy and far-sighted elite, and that means we need to look at the subject head on.  I’ll be posting on this subject from time to time over the next few months; here are some initial, and not particularly Paul Krugman-like thoughts on what I think has gone wrong.

Guild Mindset

I’ve posted in the past about the power of the learned guilds in our society: lawyers, doctors, university professors, journalists (marginally) and other professionals.  These are the institutions in which much of the American elite makes its living.  That’s a problem, because the most important problems America faces today involve the need to break up these guilds and drastically reshape the professions.  This isn’t something our elite wants to think about — and it doesn’t want the rest of us thinking about it, either.  The system works fine for them, so what’s to reform?  Rather than leading the country into the Promised Land, the elites want to keep us in Egypt.

Progressive Myopia

Some of the problem is intellectual.  For almost a century now, American intellectual culture has been dominated by the values and legacy of the progressive movement.  Science and technology would guide impartial experts and civil servants to create a better and better society.  For most of the American elite today, progress means ‘progressive’; the way to make the world better is through more nanny state government programs administered by more, and more highly qualified, lifetime civil servants. Anybody who doubts this is a reactionary and an ignoramus.  This isn’t just a rational conviction with much of our elite; it is a bone deep instinct.  Unfortunately, the progressive tradition no longer has the answers we need, but our leadership class by and large cannot think in any other terms.

The old ideas don’t work anymore, but the elite hates the thought of change.

Blind Faith in Meritocracy

Past generations of the American elite were always a little bit nervous about their situation; it is morally difficult for an elite based on birth, ethnicity or wealth to justify itself in a country with the universalist, democratic values of the United States.  The tendency of American life is always to erode the power and prestige of elites; populism is the direction in which America likes to travel.  Past generations of elites were conflicted about their status and struggled against a sense that it was somehow un-American to set yourself up as better than other people.

The increasingly meritocratic elite of today has no such qualms.  The average Harvard Business School and Yale Law School graduate today feels that privilege has been earned.  Didn’t he or she score higher on the LSATs than anyone else?  Didn’t he or she previously pass the rigorous scrutiny of the undergraduate admissions process in a free and fair process to get into a top college?  Haven’t they been certified as the best of the best by impartial experts?

A guilty elite may be healthier for society than a self-righteous one.  Teddy Roosevelt and his cousins Eleanor and Franklin worked as hard as they did in part because they felt their privilege was unearned.  They were also a little bit afraid; nobody wants to end up in the tumbrils on the way to the guillotine like the French aristocracy.  Best look after the people before things get out of hand.

I don’t make this point because I want to go back to the days when a tightly knit WASP Establishment ran the country; I merely observe that some important things have been lost in what, on the whole, is a very beneficial transition.  We need to think about recovering what was lost even as we hold onto the gains we have made.

The Great Revaluation

There is an intellectual and a moral problem that undermines the ability of the American elite to perform one of the necessary functions of a leadership class: to draw on the country’s traditional values for the vision and the confidence to move into the future.  During the 1960s and 1970s, many of the most hallowed assumptions of American life were challenged.  Especially when it came to race and to gender relations, two of the deepest and most complex elements in the makeup of traditional American society, the 1960s and 1970s witnessed wholesale and radical change.

I am not, repeat not, saying this was a bad thing.  Having grown up under Jim Crow, and having seen the University of North Carolina deny my mother a chance for an advanced degree because it refused to admit married women into certain professional programs, I have no nostalgia for Tara.  Count me in with the carpetbaggers, scalawags and civil rights activists; I’m marching with Martin, not sulking with Scarlett.

But it has given the United States a complicated and kinky relationship to our national past.  The racist, Indian-killing, woman-oppressing America of the past was not a perfect society, but it was the source of the values that enabled us to grow.  Disentangling the good from the bad and finding a way for society to connect ever more deeply with the good in our roots without resuscitating old evils is one of the essential skills national leaders need.  A country like ours, needing both to reject and to embrace the past in complex and subtle ways, is a hard country to lead.  Unfortunately, our leadership class — impatient with the “bitter clingers” — sometimes doesn’t even seem to be trying.

The leadership class of a country like ours needs to exemplify and to teach smart patriotism: a deep love of country that expresses itself in a concern for the well being of our fellow Americans, a sense of personal dignity and economic restraint, a willingness to set the example of sacrifice for the common good.  Progressive taxation is a poor substitute for the kind of progressive patriotism that we need.

Too many American intellectuals today spend their time mocking popular expressions of American exceptionalism and other forms of patriotic thought without working to create and promote a richer vision of the country, a deeper and wiser patriotism that connects with the sentiments of ordinary Americans and raises them to a wider and more magnanimous plane.  It is worth going back to read some of Daniel Webster’s great patriotic orations like the Second Reply to Haynes or the speech of March 7, 1850 to ask how in today’s circumstances we can articulate a vision of our union that can equally inspire its defence and its reform.

A leadership class is responsible for, among other things, giving a voice to the feelings of the nation and doing so in a way that enables the nation to advance and to change.  Most of the American establishment today is too ignorant of and too squeamish about the history and language of American patriotism to do that job.  In the worst case, significant chunks of the elite have convinced themselves that patriotism is in itself a bad and a dangerous thing, and have set about to smother it under blankets of politically correct disdain.

This will not end well.

The Evaporation of Religion

The religion gap between the elite and the rest of the country is a big part of the problem — and in more ways than one.  I can’t help but notice that the abandonment of serious religion by most of the American elite has coincided with a massive collapse in both the public and private morality of the American establishment.  Kids who weren’t raised in church or synagogue or mosque, who were taught that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were simplistic categories in a complex moral world of shades of grey, who were told that their highest moral duty was to be true to their inner passions, who were the first generation in American history to be raised in a Scripture-free educational medium, turn into self-indulgent, corner-cutting, self-centered adults.

What a surprise!  We raised a generation of bright kids without a foundation in religion, and they’ve grown up and gone to Wall Street.  We never told them that the virtuous life was both necessary and hard, that character was something that had to be built step by step from youth, that moral weakness was both contemptible and natural: and we are shocked, shocked! when, placed in proximity to large sums of loose cash, they grab all they can.

Religion is no guarantee of righteousness; Elmer Gantry is not the only sticky-fingered preacher in the history of the world.  But at least in western history when the culture and habits of mind of an entire social milieu have lost touch with their cultural foundations in ethical monotheism, trouble is usually on the way.  The estrangement from religion is also an estrangement from the ideas and cultural values that bind society into a workable whole.
The French aristocrats laughed at the manners and the morals of the common people and ridiculed the faith that lit the darkness and softened the harsh conditions of ordinary lives.  Enlightened and cosmopolitan, the establishment mocked the attachment of the ignorant peasants to the king.  The well educated, well connected elites accepted no limits on their ability to convert their social privilege into personal wealth; they accepted no limits on the gratification of their physical desires — flaunting their romantic affairs in the same spirit in which they feasted at Versailles while the gaunt peasants starved.  They used and abused to the fullest all the privileges that came with their status while mocking and rejecting any sense of duty and obligation.

It was fun while it lasted.

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.