Friday, July 1, 2016

Loss of Confidence in Western Leadership

Fascinating diagnosis of modern Western crises of confidence in our ruling/"elite" class here.

Another run down of symptoms and possible solutions here. Excerpts (links in the original):
Aside from "The Cult of Smartness," why are present arrangements -- let's call ourselves an "aspirational meritocracy" -- failing us?

Hayes' theories are many:

  • Institutions designed to reward merit are being gamed by the privileged, who create a self-perpetuating elite. The most familiar example concerns admission to prestigious schools. Admissions tests like the SAT began as a high-minded reform. Applicants would be chosen for intellectual prowess and compete for their spot on a level playing field. Thanks to test prep, the rich get lots of time to practice on it, while even smart poor kids don't.
  • More broadly, inequality begets more inequality. "Those who climb up the ladder will always find a way to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up." Thus the astonishingly outsized gains seen at the very top of American society.
  • The intense competition inherent in meritocracy creates powerful incentives to cheat, and encourages the attitude that whatever you do in pursuit of dominance is fine as long as you profit or win. For example, at Enron traders who broke the law weren't punished if they were making money. And in Major League Baseball, everyone pretended that steroids weren't around.
  • When elites break the rules they aren't punished like regular people. They're bailed out of trouble, or spared criminal prosecution for their lawlessness. This is actually the subject of Glenn Greenwald's latest book.
  • There is too much social distance separating the people in charge with the folks subject to their decisions. Thus Catholic bishops who sympathized more with molesting priests than their victims, Senators who send men from a class they rarely encounter to fight the wars they approve, and the disaster planners who couldn't conceive of how the timing of Hurricane Katrina at the end of the month would affect the ability of poor residents to evacuate. There is a long history of Americans complaining about the gulf separating them from their leaders, from the 'distant, unresponsive' King George to the 'out-of-touch, inside-the-Beltway' politicians of today.
.. why not embrace and emphasize reforms that either address elite excesses more directly or have a better chance of having some cross-ideological appeal? Some of the ideas that follow fit those criteria. Others are longtime hobbyhorses that would go some way toward mitigating some of the elite pathologies that Hayes' adeptly identifies.

With that end in mind, I present them for debate, the doable right beside the implausible thought experiments:

Write simpler regulations. Complexity advantages the people at the top, who are always best positioned to exploit its vagaries. As Kevin Drum once put it, "Dumb, blunt rules are the only kind that can work in the playpen of modern finance. We simply don't understand the world well enough to pretend that we can regulate things in minute detail, and we sure as hell don't have regulators who are either smart enough or can move fast enough to stay ahead of the rocket scientists trying to outwit them. That's not just impossible in practice, it's pretty much impossible even in theory. It's just plain impossible. But dumb-as-rocks rules about capital requirements and trading limits and collateral requirements and term structures? Yeah, that can work."

End the War on Drugs, the most extreme example of rich and poor being punished differently for the same behavior.

One way elites "pull up the ladder" is through credentialism. So how about doing away with the many unnecessary professional licensing laws that disproportionately hurt the economic prospects of the poor?

Tax test prep courses, and use the proceeds to subsidize test prep for anyone eligible for free school lunch.

Move the Supreme Court to Omaha, Nebraska, or Salt Lake City, Utah, or Portland, Oregon. And transition to an e-Congress, so that House members spend more time in their districts, being required to cast votes from among the people they represent. One way to decrease the social distance between elites and citizens is to better disperse the elites among the people.

Stop subsidizing college tuition. Instead, take the total sum spent on that enterprise and divide it equally each year among all graduating high school seniors, who can use it for more education, trade school, or more professional development as they see fit.

Stop subsidizing mortgages.

Privately funded media does a great job covering rich people culture. Why should NPR do the same? Publicly radio and television ought to be given a mandate to cover, serve and seek programming feedback from the lower reaches of American earners and the long term unemployed.

That is by no means an exhaustive list, but it's enough for now. ..."

And one more:
... The Nixon pardon, and the way it was sold to the country, became the template for justifying elite immunity. Nowadays, with only rare exceptions, each time top members of the nation’s political class are caught committing a crime, the same reasons are hauled out to get them off the hook. Prosecuting public officials mires us in a “divisive” past when we should be looking forward. It is wrong to “criminalize policy disputes”— meaning crimes committed with the use of political power. Political elites who commit crimes in carrying out their duties are “well-intentioned” and so do not deserve to be treated as if they were common criminals; moreover, politicians who are forced out of office and have their reputations damaged already “suffer enough.” To prosecute them would only engender a cycle of retribution. Political harmony thus trumps the need to enforce the rule of law.


That dynamic expresses the underlying motive of the political and media classes’ general defense of elite immunity: by protecting the lawbreaking license for other powerful individuals, they strengthen a custom of which they might avail themselves if they too break the law and get caught. It is class-based, self- interested advocacy. That is why belief in this prerogative and the devotion to protecting it transcend political ideology, partisan affiliation, the supposed wall between political and media figures, and every other pretense of division within elite classes. It is in the interest of every member of the privileged political and financial class, regardless of role or position, to maintain the vitality of this immunity. And what we have seen over the last decade is the inevitable by-product of elite immunity: pervasive, limitless elite corruption and criminality. ..


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