Politics and the End of Meritocracy

A few days ago, I noticed a headline: “Frankenveggies: Monsanto Protection Act passes Senate”. The story leads off by saying:

Last week, the U.S. Senate approved HR 933, a short term funding measure designed to avoid a March 27 government shutdown. Hidden within HR 933 is section 735, the “Farmer Assurance Provision.”

Called the “Monsanto Protection Act” by critics, this section gives the USDA the power to allow the planting, harvest and sale of genetically engineered crops, even if a court rules that they were not properly approved. Short of a Presidential veto, the provision is a certain victory for genetically engineered foods.

Later, the story goes on to explain that much of the substance of this provision is already in current practice of the FDA, anyway. The difference may be in the courts’ powers: “This so-called “biotech rider” effectively strips courts of this power and allows the production and commercialization of the crop during the appeals process. “, the story goes on to say. To me, this is another example of the power of money in politics and the control that lobbyists and corporations have over the government. For instance, one reason doing your taxes online isn’t easier, quicker, and cheaper is because Intuit has spent about $11.5 million on federal lobbying in the past five years — more than Apple or Amazon. Although the lobbying spans a range of issues, Intuit’s disclosures pointedly note that the company “opposes IRS government tax preparation.”. As the middle class shrinks, jobs are sent to China, and the income inequality in the US continues to expand, why aren’t more people pissed?

Yesterday while running errands I happened to switch on the radio right in the middle of an interview with Chris Hayes. During this interview, some of what Chris had to say were exactly in line with my feelings on this topic. I’ve copied the relevant parts below. If you’re interested in the audio from the interview or the full transcript, you can get those from the NPR site

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Chris Hayes and he starts a new MSNBC show, eight o’clock, Monday and weeknights at eight. And prior to that, he hosted the early morning weekend show called “Up” on MSNBC.

So you have a book that was published just a few months ago which is called “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.” So let’s start with you explaining what meritocracy means.

HAYES: Meritocracy is the name we give to a pretty old idea that goes back to the genesis of the nation. Which is basically this idea that, you know, in America more than anywhere else, people can rise or fall based on their merit, on their abilities. That we are untethered to the feudal legacy of Europe in which birth and cast were determined who ruled. We don’t have aristocracies, instead we have this kind of wide open society in which industrious, smart, talented individuals from any walk of life can prove themselves and be funneled through a set of institutions – whether those are universities or in the private market – to get to the top of society. And so the people that are at the top of society – whether it’s in government or in business, or in academia – those are the people who deserve to be there because they have climbed this pyramid and had not been born into it. And that’s the basic idea behind meritocracy when we talk about it.

GROSS: So, you know, meritocracy was an answer to, like, a power elite. And you’re arguing that meritocracy has become an elite, but just a different kind of elite. So in what way do you think meritocracy has become an elite?

HAYES: The grand paradox here is that during the period of time in which we’ve most tightly embraced the vision of meritocracy, which is sort of I think in the wake of the ’60s Revolutions – both in civil rights and second wave feminism, and then subsequently, LGBT rights – right? In that period of time in which we’ve said look, it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight, black or white, man or woman, whatever creed, you know, you, you can gain entrance into the American elite. It is not closed off to you. It’s not just some small clique of WASPy, male Northeasterners, right? In that same period of time, the numbers bear out that social mobility – actual social mobility as measured in this country – is declining and inequality is massively accelerating. So the thing that we say we want from our social order, which is this social mobility, which is the Barack Obama’s of the world, born – you know, born to a single mom, son of an immigrant, can rise to be president of the United States, and a kid, a Dominican kid from the Bronx can be managing partner at Goldman Sachs, those things we want. We latch onto the individual examples that make us think it’s happening, but broadly, socially, we’re actually experiencing declining social mobility. We’re seeing a society that re-inscribes boundaries of race, largely through the criminal justice system. We are seeing things as basic as the predictor of the kid’s SAT scores, the best predictor of the kid’s SAT scores, is his or her parent’s income. All of the mechanisms of intergenerational determination of life’s outcomes that the meritocracy is supposed to get rid of, are getting stronger and stronger over time. And so, what we have to look in the face is that the social order is not delivering the very thing that we say it should deliver.

GROSS: One of the arguments you make is that we need to build a coalition of the radicalized upper-middle-class. What are you thinking?

HAYES: I think that the last decade of American life, which has been really rough on people, was roughest on the poorest, but also roughest on the poorest who themselves experienced this decade in great continuity with the previous decade. The folks that felt this last decade as a greater betrayal or discontinuity, I think, were people further up the socioeconomic scale, the upper-middle-class, who thought that they had done the stuff needed to be delivered the promises that they believed had been made. Whether that’s having a pension fund that you could retire in, whether that means some control or determination of your employment. And so what I think has happened is there’s a real opening for radicalization, and we’ve seen it on both sides of the political spectrum. I think we’ve seen it in the Tea Party, we’ve seen it through Occupy Wall Street. There’s a real opening for radicalization among people who are in the upper-middle-class who have it relatively well but who have experienced the dislocations and crises of this past 10-12 years as more acutely a betrayal of what they thought things were like. That there is an opening among them to join in a coalition in solidarity with people beneath them on the socioeconomic scale, who have been ground to dust by some of the same forces for a very long time.

And I think that was part of the embedded logic of this 99 percent, one percent framework that Occupy Wall Street adopted. Which was, if you’re in the 90 percent, you think your class interests are aligned with the people above you, but really, they’re aligned with the people below you. Because of the way the political economy works, is that fewer and fewer people are capturing more and more of the gains. And you may think that you’re on the inside of that circle, but actually, you’re on the outside and you should join your interests up with the person that waits tables on you, or the person that provides daycare to you or the undocumented immigrant who works on your lawn – that you can ally your interests with them to fight for a more just future because you are actually on their side and not on the side of the people above you.

GROSS: Would you put yourself in the radicalized upper-middle-class?


HAYES: I think I got radicalized before I became a member of the upper-middle-class.


GROSS: OK. Well, what radicalized you?

HAYES: This decade radicalized me. I mean, Iraq and the financial crisis radicalized me. It’s funny, I became more radical over the course of the decade because, you know, my disposition. I think people have politics and then they have personality disposition and sometimes those cut against each other in interesting ways. Like my politics are left, but my disposition as a human being is like I am kind of a go along to get along person. I tend to trust authority. I think I tend to think people in charge broadly know what they’re doing, don’t lie to you, aren’t going to start wars for no reason. And, you know, watching Iraq happen and then watching the financial crisis happen, and Katrina in the middle of that, you know, you just, you turn around and you think, wait a second, no one is on top of anything. Who the heck is in charge here? These people say that they know what they’re doing, don’t know what they’re doing. I’m not going to trust them next time they tell me they know what they’re doing.

It’s a radically unmooring feeling to recognize that people that you just figured kind of had it under control don’t have it under control and might be totally incompetent, or completely corrupt or totally self-dealing. And watching, you know, watching 4,400 Americans killed in Iraq and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians; watching 1,800 of our fellow citizens drown in the waters of Katrina; and then watching trillions of dollars of housing wealth evaporate and literally destroy the dreams and lives of millions of people who had nothing to do with creating the problem, has really made me deeply skeptical of power, and the concentration of power, and the voice that power uses and power’s assertion of expertise and knowledge, which I no longer simply, de facto, trust.

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