Amidst a series of recent scandals that have rocked the global banking system, journalist Chris Hayes joins Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow! to discuss his new book, "Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy." The book examines how Wall Street and other major institutions, from Congress to the Catholic Church to Major League Baseball, have been crippled by corruption and incompetence. Hayes is host of the MSNBC weekend show, "Up with Chris Hayes," and is editor-at-large of The Nation magazine. "One of the most insidious aspects of the current distribution of resources in this country and the current inequality we have isn’t just that it’s bad for people on the bottom of the social pyramid but that it makes people at the top worse," Hayes says. "It conditions them to be incompetent and corrupt."
AMY GOODMAN: A scathing new U.S. Senate report faults the global bank HSBC for money laundering. The 335-page report released Monday said a "pervasively polluted" culture at HSBC allowed the bank to act as financier to clients seeking to route shadowy funds from across the world. Clients included drug cartels in Mexico, banks in Saudi Arabia with ties to al-Qaeda, Iranians who wanted to circumvent U.S. sanctions.
The report on HSBC is the latest in a series of recent scandals that have rocked the global banking system. The British bank Barclays recently admitted its traders tried to manipulate a crucial global interest rate. Meanwhile, JPMorgan Chase has disclosed it lost nearly $6 billion in risky bets—far more than originally projected.
Well, we’re spending the rest of the hour today with the author of a new book that examines how Wall Street and other major institutions, from Congress to the Catholic Church to Major League Baseball, have been crippled by corruption and incompetence. The book is called Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. It’s written by Chris Hayes. Chris is host of the TV show Up with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and editor-at-large of The Nation magazine.
Chris, welcome to Democracy Now!
CHRIS HAYES: It’s such a great pleasure to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s a really interesting book. What do you mean by "Twilight of the Elites" and meritocracy?
CHRIS HAYES: Twilight of the Elites, we had a little book party, and then it was in this somewhat swanky, you know, hotel bar, and there were these folks there from finance who were looking at it kind of. "What is up with this thing?" They saw the book cover. And he said, you know, "I thought you guys," meaning like us, like, you know, lefties, Occupy Wall Street sympathetic folk—he’s like, "I thought you guys thought we weren’t in twilight." I was like, "Well, it’s an aspirational title."
Twilight of the Elites means that what we have seen in this last decade is this cascade, almost uninterrupted cascade, of institutional failure and, specifically, elite failure. And I think what it—what the system is telling us, what these failures are telling us, is that the current social model and the current mechanisms of elite formation, the extreme levels of inequality we have, are producing an elite that cannot but help but fail, that one of the most insidious aspects of the current distribution of resources in this country and the current inequality we have isn’t just that it’s bad for people on the bottom of the social pyramid but that it makes people at the top worse. It conditions them to be incompetent and corrupt. And so, I think that’s one of the main arguments of the book, is that what we’re seeing in elite failure is produced by the system that produces those elites.
"Meritocracy" is a really fascinating word. It’s coined by a British left-wing social critic named Michael Young in the 1950s. And he writes a book called The Rise of the Meritocracy. This book is kind of in the vein of 1984 or Brave New World. It’s a dystopic work of social criticism about the future, in which he writes about a Britain in the future that manages to use intelligence testing and productivity testing inside firms to select out for the people who were the smartest and the hardest-working and have them run everything. Michael Young says in the book, tongue in cheek, "You know, we realize democracy can be no more than an aspiration, that we can’t have rule by the people, but rule by the cleverest people." Later in his life, Young was horrified to find that this word, "meritocracy," which he had intended as satire, had been adopted as an actual social model. In 2001, he writes in an op-ed in The Guardian, while Tony Blair is campaigning for New Labour on a vision of meritocracy, he’s saying, "No, no, no, no, no! I didn’t mean this as a model; I meant it as a critique and what an awful vision it would be of a society that didn’t take our egalitarian commitment seriously, that didn’t take democracy seriously, and instead decided to outsource the important decisions to people that were selected out for their brains or their other features."