The Future’s So Bright, But The Elites Have Stolen All The Shades, So We’ll Make Our Own

Chris Hayes from Time’s “10 Ideas For The Next 10 Years,” an essay called “The Twilight Of Elites:”

In the past decade, nearly every pillar institution in American society — whether it’s General Motors, Congress, Wall Street, Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church or the mainstream media — has revealed itself to be corrupt, incompetent or both. And at the root of these failures are the people who run these institutions, the bright and industrious minds who occupy the commanding heights of our meritocratic order. In exchange for their power, status and remuneration, they are supposed to make sure everything operates smoothly. But after a cascade of scandals and catastrophes, that implicit social contract lies in ruins, replaced by mass skepticism, contempt and disillusionment.

In the wake of the implosion of nearly all sources of American authority, this new decade will have to be about reforming our institutions to reconstitute a more reliable and democratic form of authority. Scholarly research shows a firm correlation between strong institutions, accountable élites and highly functional economies; mistrust and corruption, meanwhile, feed each other in a vicious circle. If our current crisis continues, we risk a long, ugly process of de-development: higher levels of corruption and tax evasion and an increasingly fractured public sphere, in which both public consensus and reform become all but impossible.

Such figures show that the crisis of authority extends beyond narrow ideological categories: Big Business and unions, Congress and Wall Street, organized religion and science are all viewed with skepticism. So why is it that so much of the country’s leadership in so many different walks of life performed so terribly over this decade? While no single-cause theory can explain such a wide array of institutional failures, there are some themes — in particular, the concentration of power and the erosion of transparency and accountability — that extend throughout.

[…]

The élites’ failures of the past decade should teach us that institutions of all kinds need input from below. The Federal Reserve is home to some of the finest economists and brightest minds in the country, and yet it still managed to miss an $8 trillion housing bubble and the explosion of the subprime market. If, say, the Federal Reserve Act required several seats on the board of governors to be reserved for consumer advocates — heck, even community organizers — it would have been harder to miss these twin phenomena.

If there are heartening countertrends to the past decade of élite failure, they’re the tremendous outpouring of grass-roots activism across the political spectrum and the remarkable surge in institutional innovation, much of it facilitated by the Internet. In less than a decade, Wikipedia has completely overturned the internal logic of the Enlightenment-era encyclopedia by radically democratizing the process of its creation. Farmers’ markets have blossomed as a means of challenging and subverting the industrial food-distribution cartel. Charter schools have grown for the same reason; local school systems are no longer viewed as transparent and democratic.

This, one hopes, is just the beginning. All these new institutions are inspired by a desire to democratize old, big oligarchic hierarchies and devolve power downward and outward. That’s our best hope in the decade to come. For at the end of the day, it’s the job of citizens to save élites from themselves.

Patrick Glenn at PoliGazette:

His main example of why erosion of transparency and accountability are now lowering public trust in elites – the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church – actually works against his argument. The Catholic Church has been secretive and hierarchical for going on 10+ centuries now. If anything, the Catholic Church of the 1970s – when Gallop started tracking public confidence in elite institutions – was more secretive and hierarchical than today’s version. Also, in previous eras, the former victims of childhood abuse were more reticent to share their experiences, in part because they encountered stronger social pressures from family and church members to keep quiet. Of course, the rising levels of transparency and accountability within religious institutions/communities have been a good thing, but they don’t do much for Hayes’ argument.

In his next example, Hayes’ pivots to go after another favorite target of the left: CEO pay. For the sake of argument, I’m willing to concede that rising CEO pay levels might contribute to ”concentration of power.” However, in making this shift, Hayes conveniently drops the part about transparency and accountability, I suspect because he knows that the general public has access to more information about CEO salaries and other internal corporate business matters than they did 35 years ago.

Doug J.:

But I wonder, since polling data only goes back 30 or 40 years at the most, how much this says about today’s supposed cynicism and how much it says about the gullibility of the post-war years. I don’t know what American railroad workers and dust bowl farmers really thought about early 20th century elites anymore than I know what European cathedral-builders really thought about the Catholic Church.

I also wonder if cynicism about today’s elites is caused by actual increases in elite corruption and incompetence or by technological changes that make the already existing corruption and incompetence more obvious. I’m willing to admit that today’s elites may be more nakedly careerist than the elites of yesteryear. But maybe that’s because yesteryear’s elites were more confident, that no hungry generations tread them down: Louis Mayer wasn’t worried about being bought and sold by a private equity firm, Walter Cronkite wasn’t afraid he’d be replaced by Luke Russert. For all I know, Walter Cronkite would have sucked up to the BIrchers if he’d he felt real ratings pressure.

Generally, when it comes to the powerful screwing over the masses, I doubt there is much new under the sun.

The book How the Other Half Lives revealed the horrible conditions 19th century immigrants lived in. It wasn’t that conditions had gotten worse, but that the new medium of photojournalism made it harder for the world to ignore. I tend to think the same thing is going on now with the internet.

Of course, Bobo would have us believe that this is bad, that “too much transparency” has made the peasants too aware of the failings of their social superiors. That’s why he’s a conservative and I’m a hippie.

Troy Camplin:

Here is where Hayes fails. He fails to recognize that each of these institutions are planned, “rationally” constructed instutitions. None of them emerged spontaneously as a part of human action, but not of human design. Each of these are designed down to the last detail — yes, even the megacorporations and banks, which are increasingly centralized, cartelized, and given increasing protection by government. They are all designed — and run — from the top-down, with little if any real feedback from the bottom-up. Thus, they are unnatural organizations, both in their organization and in their structures. The government solution to the problems it has caused is to keep doing all the things that caused the problems in the first place — just harder, faster, more. And the people may not be able to understand it in such a way as to be able to articulate what they understand to be the problem — but they do understand that more of the same thing is hardly the solution. Only the elites think it is.

Hayes’ solution is to include astroturf organizers in these institutions. But that’s more of the same. I hate to say it, but the only real solution is going to be the complete collapse of many of our institutions, so that natural ones can arise in their places. Others, such as the Federal Reserve, being purely destructive institutions, should go the way of the dodo.

I have been witnessing the destruction of many of our institutions at the very hands of the elites in charge for a while now. I’ve seen it coming because I am in the humanities, and the postmodernist elites in the humanities have been actively trying to destroy their own fields. Stanley Fish and others argue that there is no value to what they do, though Fish does observe that the humanities professors he knows are hardly the paragons of the virtues they are supposed to study. This is much like the stupidity of CEOs who fail dismally at being greedy because they follow a corrupt path that leads to their losing everything. We see the same pattern right now with the Democrats in Congress, who are determined to pass a bill that is so unpopular that Massachusetts elected a Republican Senator and there looks to be little hope the Democrats will hold onto power in either house of Congress. The Democrats are so power-hungry and certain of their superiority that they are pushing through something that is going to make them lose power. Regardless of your position on health insurance reform, you have to admit that this is bizarre behavior for elected officials. But this is what happens with constructivist elites in power.

And that is the bottom line: the elites in power in all of these failing institutions are constructivists. They believe they know enough to construct society — ignoring Hayek’s repeated proofs to the contrary. We cannot ever have enough knowledge or information to construct society — or even the major institutions of society. Those who think otherwise — which are those that have taken over our institutions — destroy everything through their ignorance of their ignorance and jnecessarily uninformed actions.

Reihan Salam from Time’s “10 Ideas For The Next 10 Years,” an essay called “The Dropout Economy:”

Middle-class kids are taught from an early age that they should work hard and finish school. Yet 3 out of 10 students dropped out of high school as recently as 2006, and less than a third of young people have finished college. Many economists attribute the sluggish wage growth in the U.S. to educational stagnation, which is one reason politicians of every stripe call for doubling or tripling the number of college graduates.

But what if the millions of so-called dropouts are onto something? As conventional high schools and colleges prepare the next generation for jobs that won’t exist, we’re on the cusp of a dropout revolution, one that will spark an era of experimentation in new ways to learn and new ways to live.

It’s important to keep in mind that behavior that seems irrational from a middle-class perspective is perfectly rational in the face of straitened circumstances. People who feel obsolete in today’s information economy will be joined by millions more in the emerging post-information economy, in which routine professional work and even some high-end services will be more cheaply performed overseas or by machines. This doesn’t mean that work will vanish. It does mean, however, that it will take a new and unfamiliar form.

Imagine a future in which millions of families live off the grid, powering their homes and vehicles with dirt-cheap portable fuel cells. As industrial agriculture sputters under the strain of the spiraling costs of water, gasoline and fertilizer, networks of farmers using sophisticated techniques that combine cutting-edge green technologies with ancient Mayan know-how build an alternative food-distribution system. Faced with the burden of financing the decades-long retirement of aging boomers, many of the young embrace a new underground economy, a largely untaxed archipelago of communes, co-ops, and kibbutzim that passively resist the power of the granny state while building their own little utopias.

This transformation will be not so much political as antipolitical. The decision to turn away from broken and brittle institutions, like conventional schools and conventional jobs, will represent a turn toward what military theorist John Robb calls “resilient communities,” which aspire to self-sufficiency and independence. The left will return to its roots as the champion of mutual aid, cooperative living and what you might call “broadband socialism,” in which local governments take on the task of building high-tech infrastructure owned by the entire community. Assuming today’s libertarian revival endures, it’s easy to imagine the right defending the prerogatives of state and local governments and also of private citizens — including the weird ones. This new individualism on the left and the right will begin in the spirit of cynicism and distrust that we see now, the sense that we as a society are incapable of solving pressing problems. It will evolve into a new confidence that citizens working in common can change their lives and in doing so can change the world around them.

We see this individualism in the rise of “freeganism” and in the small but growing handful of “cage-free families” who’ve abandoned their suburban idylls for life on the open road. We also see it in the rising number of high school seniors who take a gap year before college. While the higher-education industry continues to agitate for college for all, many young adults are stubbornly resistant, perhaps because they recognize that for a lot of them, college is an overpriced status marker and little else. In the wake of the downturn, household formation has slowed down. More than one-third of workers under 35 live with their parents.

My friend Reihan Salam has a new article in Time magazine called “The Dropout Economy.”  It’s in a section on the top ideas for the next decade.  He must be feeling the motion underway too.  The driving need to be a social/cultural/tribal entrepreneur that makes something new out of the broken old system.

Karisha Prescott:

First, I love how it went over lots of topics I am interested, seamlessly. From the failure of the education system, the overpricing and irrelevance of college to green energy topics, co-ops and underground economies and currencies.

I especially liked the terms “Hacktavist” and “Freeganism” which are delightful meshes of awesome words. I didn’t really like the cartoon shown above the article, but you can’t be too picky. The article itself was a delight.

And I am looking forward to seeing it come to fruition, the depictions of the direction of America in our floundering economic situation. Talking about homeschooling, community bartering /currencies and self-sufficiency being on a fast rise makes me worry less about a ‘fat, lazy america’ that is constantly in the news.

Am I excited that the drop out rate for high school kids being 3 out of 10? No, I would like people to know how to do math and spell correctly. But I also know that when you put a person in a certain field or trade where that information is required, it is usually picked up fairly quickly. If not from a desire to learn than just from a constant exposure to it.

I have to remind myself that putting as many people through extensive educational systems as possible to increase intelligence, efficiency and community contribution is a fairly new concept. And could be, in itself, inefficient.

A nation of ‘children’ that once began working at ten or twelve are now in school, hopefully learning, until their mid twenties and then deciding a career. It looks like our society is regressing in that respect, but I don’t know if that is neccessarily a bad thing.

Jeff at Turning Points:

I subscribe to a feed from Off-Grid, a source of information for people who are into self-sufficiency, gardening, building their own homes, photovoltaics, solar energy, and related topics. The most recent issue to land in my in-box featured a link to a Time Magazine article by Reihan Salam, entitled The Dropout Economy. I read the article and was fascinated with the man’s thinking. But I was distressed to read, at the end of the article, that he was a blogger for the New Republic and a columnist for Forbes.com, both hotbeds of conservatism. Since I had a hard time reconciling my views of the New Republic and Forbes with what I had just read, I decided to do some digging. I checked out The New America Foundation, of which Mr. Salam is a fellow, on SourceWatch and didn’t see any red flags that would indicate that that organization had any patience with Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin, so I continued my research. After I watched an interview of Mr. Salam on Big Think, I was hooked because he seemed to embody a whole new definition of conservatism, one that I can agree with. In that interview, he says that what he would like to conserve about America is its ability to be creative in devising solutions to problems. To learn more about his ideas, read his essays at The Daily Beast.

Read the piece that Time Magazine published and see if he doesn’t intrigue you also. If you are, click on the link to Big Think and watch or read that interview, too. Interesting ideas, indeed. A friend of mine said, upon reading the The Dropout Economy, that the homeschool movement has been predicting this for over 30 years. News to me, but then, the older I get, the less I know….

Hayes and Salam talking about these articles and ideas at Bloggingheads

William Brafford at The League:

Chris Hayes and Reihan Salam had a Bloggingheads discussion the other day about their latest articles in Time. Both wrote short essays about an “important trend”: Hayes diagnoses a collapse of authority in our meritocracy and Salam imagines how people will live as our distributive infrastructure starts collapsing. What’s interesting is that the two visions dovetail pretty well, and it’s worth checking out the Bloggingheads video to see that both writers recognize this. They think we’ll see new low-to-the-ground grassroots institutions appearing to replace our beleaguered national systems. And you know what? The most interesting places I’ve lived are towns where life is already starting to look like what Hayes and Salam describe. Also, we get a nice summary slogan for Reihanism: “Keep America Weird.”

Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene

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