Author Topic: Book Review: Twilight of the Elites  (Read 1388 times)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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Book Review: Twilight of the Elites
« on: June 29, 2012, 08:40:11 pm »

Book Review: Twilight of the Elites
Posted on June 29, 2012 by MagicLoveHose

Twilight of the Elites is a very, very good book.

The book, which took Hayes two years and a great deal of extensive research to assemble, is nothing less than the Grand Unified Theory of Institutional Rot. Social dynamics and how they shape behaviour is a hobbyhorse of mine – I’m fascinated by systems and have been ever since my time in programming. So how to spot and prevent when a system goes wrong is of keen interest to me. There has been a lot written in the past ten years about institutional failure that lead to Iraq, to Katrina, to the financial crisis… to broad swaths of smart people doing unbelievably stupid things. But no one I’ve read has hit the nail on the head as sharply as Chris Hayes does in this book, as he describes the roots of the Fail Decade, a time period I’d personally use a different ‘F’ word to describe.

That reminds me, I need to schedule a prostate exam.

Hayes takes a telescopic view of the problem, studying it from a macro level, rather than focusing on corruption in any one corner of America’s elite institutions. Instead, what Hayes delves into is the formation of institutional culture and how it goes wrong. He draws examples from as wide as the test prep industry, Wall Street’s hedge funds, the Catholic Church, Ivy League schools and of course, the government. There is a particular fascinating section on steroid-corruption in Major League Baseball that proves to be one of the most informative when it comes to how corruption in a culture spreads. Hayes takes us step by step through a series of perfectly logical decisions that end with steroid abuse rampant in baseball and its reputation in tatters – all because a simple change in incentives flipped the game theory of cheating upside-down.

Hayes writes about elite circles that have the motivation to remain closed – can’t let new ideas in, since they differ from the old ones – and the means to force the closure, ensuring that new elites don’t shake things up. How the test prep industry ensures that what is supposed to be the great equalizer – the SAT exam – now favors those who can pay for their kids to be a little “equaler.” How bishops, due to talking with priests constantly, had greater empathy for them than with the victims of church molestation. How counterfeit coinage resulted in counterfeit money being the only money in circulation, since what are you going to dispose of – the money you know is counterfeit or the money you know is good? How oversights in the evacuation of New Orleans caused the crisis amongst the poor simply because those doing the planning didn’t know that many poor people.

Not even Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, proves immune to the lure of institutional protectivism – there is a telling aside in the book about how Assange’s views on complete and total informational transparency shifted to “WikiLeaks has a right to protect its own secrets,” suggesting that not even a free information radical is immune to this temptation. (Between this and the revelation he had a hand in the Climategate nontroversy, Assange does not come off well in this book. Then again, neither do his targets.)

“I know all of this,” you might say – and I confess, each of these individual pieces is not necessarily news. But Hayes’ true genius is tying all of this together – social and game theory, institutional paralysis and distance, self-selecting biases and reductions in social mobility. His critique of America’s elite is that the meritocracy favors just enough positive traits – intelligence and drive, for example – to get us to overlook other important traits such as empathy, morality and a sense of one’s own good fortune. That these traits are in short supply, that the elite that are in charge of our institutions are concerned more with perpetuating the system that led to their good fortune than asking if the system is serving its original purpose. That the frame of authoritarian versus libertarian is just as important a lens as left versus right – though Hayes wisely replaces these loaded terms with “institutionalist” and “insurrectionist.”

If the book has a flaw, it’s that I’m not convinced by the case Hayes lays out in the final chapter. To his credit, he does an admirable job of tackling the Chapter Ten problem of presenting a problem yet not having a solution – he has a solution and there are a lot of good ideas. Many poor people and people of color joked that middle class whites at Occupy Wall Street shouldn’t be so surprised to find themselves at the mercy of pepper spray, but if both sides are suffering in the modern economy, both sides could stand to join forces instead of sneering at each other.

Where Hayes loses me is in pointing out the potential gains with an alliance between Occupy and the Tea Party – yes, there are individual sections where there is crossover, such as Alan Grayson and Ron Paul teaming up to increase transparency in the Federal Reserve, but those exceptions are exactly that. I don’t see any potential for a broad-based consensus between the two movements, and striving for one on the left will alienate a lot of people of color who have otherwise been staunch allies. In an interview in the book, one of the founders of Occupy describes his disdain for left/right paradigms, framing the debate purely as insurrectionist versus institutionalist. Just as it’s wrong to ignore the y-axis of the famous political spectrum graph, it’s wrong to ignore the x-axis as well – left versus right does matter. One extreme wants to repair our institutions and the other wants to end them. The fact that they have both correctly diagnosed a problem doesn’t mean their solutions are broadly compatible.

That out of the way, Twilight of the Elites comes highly recommended. Many of the problems we face are being solved and social progress is being made, but Hayes is concentrating on those problems that seem to be stubbornly refusing to budge. Many books do, but most concern themselves with what has gone wrong – Hayes lays out a very effective case for HOW things have gone wrong, and to my thinking that’s a far more important question to ask.

Offline The Griot

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Re: Book Review: Twilight of the Elites
« Reply #1 on: July 17, 2012, 04:38:26 am »
Sounds very interesting. I'll have to add it to my list.
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Offline Curtis Metcalf

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Re: Book Review: Twilight of the Elites
« Reply #2 on: September 17, 2012, 07:06:58 am »
I'm reading it now because I saw this review here on HEF.
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