Ross Douhat and Jeff Maximos had the following remarks on the peculiar kind of meritocracy at work at both the Ivies and Wall Street, a new model of leader combines great intellect with a great sense of entitlement, and a very meager sense of civilizational responsibility.
I don’t often plug my first book, Privilege, but I think it’s worth mentioning here because when you read about how the American leadership class acquitted itself at Citibank, or on Wall Street in general, I think you can see the dark side of meritocracy at work – the same dark side that shadows an instititution like Harvard, where a job in investment banking became, for a time, the summum bonum of meritocratic life. The mistakes that our elites made, and that led us to this pass, have their roots in flaws common to all elites, in all times and places – hubris, arrogance, insulation from the costs of their decisions, and so forth. But they also have their roots in flaws that I think are somewhat more particular to this elite, and this time and place. Flaws like an overweening faith in technology’s capacity to master contingency, a widespread assumption that the future doesn’t have much to learn from the past, and above all a peculiar combination of smartest-guys-in-the-room entitlement (don’t worry, we deserve to be moving millions of dollars around on the basis of totally speculative models, because we got really high SAT scores) and ferocious, grasping competitiveness (because making ten million dollars isn’t enough if somebody else from your Ivy League class is making more!). It’s a combination, at its worst, that marries the kind of vaulting, religion-of-success ambitions (and attendant status anxieties) that you’d expect from a self-made man to the obnoxious entitlement you’d expect from a to-the-manor-born elite – without the sense of proportion and limits, of the possibility of tragedy and the inevitability of human fallibility, that a real self-made man would presumably gain from starting life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder (as opposed to the upper-middle class, where most meritocrats starts) … and without, as well, the sense of history, duty, self-restraint, noblesse oblige and so forth that the old aristocrats were supposed to aspire to.
Bereft of a sense of tragedy and their own finitude, and possessed of no intuition that they ought to impose upon themselves the discipline of self-limitation, both for the good of our common society and for the good of their souls, and eschewing obligations to their ‘inferiors’, most of our meritocrats embody the vices of the nouveau riches and the ancien regime without any of the counterbalancing virtues. They have been the worst of both worlds, sort of like liberaltarians celebrating the most loathsome excesses of the culture while hymning the most calamitous excesses of creative destruction.
I think both of these observations are useful. I realized in criticizing Bush’s crony capitalism coupled with my later suggestion that Wall Street would do well to return to the WASPy values of understatedness, modesty, and a strongly developed sense of noblesse oblige that there is a tension if not an outright contradiction between these two ideas. After all, the kind of technocratic efficiency by which talent from all races, countries, and parts of the globe is channeled to a handful of institutions is quite unlike the era of the “Gentleman’s ‘”C” and the Country Club. There is a difference, though. At the realm of law and policy, things should be neutral and this was an important Anglo-American ideal that the Rockefellers, Morgans, and other so-called Robber Barons embraced, even as they cultivated themselves into a kind of self-conscious American aristocracy in the late 19th Century. The American elite did not enshrine itself with legal privileges, government largesse, and the kind of “free for all” that elites in Latin America induldged. The self-respect of the American WASP elite depended in part upon its accessibility to outsiders who conformed to the elite’s standards. Self-limitation and ostracism coupled with neutral rules defined the mainstream of American business culture well into the 1970s–think of the “IBM Uniform”–but this culture also demanded some regard for community, loyalty, patriotism, and civilizational leadership almost entirely absent on the Wall Street. Ross Perot spent some of his enormous sums of wealth in the early 1980s to find and rescue POWs in Southeast Asia. It’s hard to imagine this kind of eccentric and selfless act from anyone on today’s Wall Street, let alone something more mundane like joining the Kiwanis or coaching a soccer team.
Bush straddles the new meritocracy and the old elite. He is after all a Harvard MBA, but he stands in sharp contrast to his father. Like his father, he’s not particularly ideological. But unlike his father, he has little sense of propriety, as evidenced by crude self-interested acts like threatening vetos over an oil sheikdom’s right to run a U.S. port, his indifference to the working class’s vulnerability to immigration, or his excessive concern for loyalty. In the latter sense, he is a unlike the new Wall Street elite, who instead embrace a set of facially neutral rules that happen to benefit “guys like them.” In this model, the more layered requirements of the old WASP elite are replaced solely with the sheepskins. They believe the group in general–smart, Ivy educated, upper middle class in taste, not particularly brave or admirable–is entitled to rule the world, even though this would not necessarily be so for any particular individual among them. The idea that that group owed anything to the broader society or to God, however, is completely missing, and this is what seems to seperate them from the Henry Fords and John D. Rockefellers of yesteryear.
So Bush is a defective representative of traditional WASP values, holding on to his family’s power in a world where that class is in retreat–evidenced most dramatically by the rise of the out-of-nowhere Obama–without the counterbalancing effect of other stable, multigenerationally wealthy families that could, once upon a time, constrain even a President.
This new kind of elite built on a peculiar and very recent type of speculative activity will likely have a tough time justifying its power and wealth as the wheels come off. During the long Bull Market of 1982 to the present, one could reasonably conclude that the various financial players were allocating capital intelligently and responsibly through the miracle of markets, even though the details of any one instrument were arcane. After you learn about $60T in CDS obligations and monoline wrapped crap debt turning into AAA paper, it is all kind of hard to swallow. And the huge bonuses don’t make it any easier. The resentment and rage of the middle classes is building up. They feel, as they have felt at other times in history, that the basic contract has been broken to benefit the few at the expense of the many. If too many of these folks disappear and sink too soon, this is a recipe for political radicalism. As in the case of the ancien regime itself, decades of placidity can mask the potential for violent, sudden change. If it’s not Obama, it may be some other extreme on the flip side of his reign.