In which I use my double license as a physicist and a science fiction fan to engage in some half-assed futurism spinning off Chris Hayes’s much-discussed book.
I don’t read a lot of political books, because I tend to find them frustrating. They’re usually surprisingly ephemeral, trying to spin Deep Meaning out of a collection of recent events that are highly dependent on short-term context. They also tend to be much better at identifying problems than suggesting plausible solutions, coming off like that famous Sidney Harris cartoon with a bunch of equations on the left side of a blackboard, a bunch more on the right, and “Then a Miracle Occurs” in between. They identify a bunch of features of the current system, a desired end state for some idyllic future society, but are really hazy about how to get from one to the other.
Lots of really smart people have talked up Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites, though, and some of the synopses I read online made it sound interesting. It certainly touches on a lot of issues of interest in higher education, making it relevant to my interests, so I picked up a copy.
The subtitle is “America After Meritocracy,” and the central argument is pretty simple: that organizing society around the ideal of meritocracy, where people accrue material rewards on the basis of some innate ability, sounds like a good idea but inevitably leads to a wildly unequal distribution of wealth and power. It works fine for a generation or so, but eventually those who achieve wealth and power in one generation begin to use their wealth and power to tilt the distribution of wealth and power in favor of their own interests, and in particular, those of their children.
This takes a lot of forms, and Hayes gives a bunch of different examples. The most relevant to discussions of higher education are “magnet” schools and the like, which started out as a way to allow lower-class students to get the benefits of elite education just by scoring well on some simple tests of ability. The massive test-prep industry that’s sprung up around these exams, however, makes it all but impossible for a student with good innate ability but few family resources to compete with students from wealthier families, who can afford extra tutoring and test prep classes and all that. As a result, elite educational institutions have become more skewed toward the children of the current elite classes.
The discussion of the basic problem and its origin is admirably clear and readable, and there are other supporting examples as well. But this is where the book gets frustrating, because while Hayes does a great job pointing out what’s wrong, I didn’t find the book very helpful in terms of suggesting an alternative.
Having built a reasonably convincing case that the way we currently organize our society is producing a problematic level of inequality, Hayes tries to talk about a way forward, but that section of the book pretty much falls flat. The most he manages is to point to the Tea Party on the political right and the Occupy movement on the political left, and argue that both of these can be seen as reactions to the current plight of the middle class– that economic mobility has dramatically decreased, which is scary to a lot of people, and that those fears manifest in the two different angry protest movements. While neither by itself is enough to force a solution to the inequality problem, he speculates that some vague future shcok to the economic system might somehow get them to align their goals. After this miracle occurs, progress!
There are a whole bunch of problems with this, starting with the way he ignores the creepy racist element that’s fairly prominent in the Tea Party movement, which is a dramatic obstacle to any reconciliation between the Tea Party and the much more diverse Occupy crowd. There’s also the problem that the sort of reorganization his book seems to suggest would be required would require a lot more sacrifice from the Tea Party in terms of the stated goals of the organization– they’re very explicitly opposed to large-scale societal redistribution of resources. And on top of those issues, there’s the lack of specificity about what kind of shock might happen to bring them together.
So, as I said, frustrating.
But I’m a card-carrying physicist, which gives me a blanket license to speculate grandly about fields outside my area of expertise. On top of that, I’m a science fiction fan, which ditto. Thus, I’m doubly entitled to a bit of half-assed futurism, and the collision between Hayes’s book, some stuff Kevin Drum keeps banging on about, and the latest Iain M. Banks Culture novel suggests a direction for such speculation.
So, as I see it, the origin of the problem Hayes describes is that being poor sucks. It sucks a whole lot. This is, fundamentally, why the elites work so hard to make sure their children don’t fall back– it’s not just an active desire for wealth and power, it’s loss aversion, which psychologists tell us is even more powerful than greed. Because being poor sucks, the elite and their children are desperately afraid of sliding backwards, and so they use all the resources at their disposal to manipulate the mechanisms of meritocracy to keep their elite status. This, in turn, has the side effect of keeping other people from being able to move up, leading to the concentration of wealth and all the problems associated with that.
How do you get around that? Well, one way to do it would be to improve the lot of those at the bottom of the ladder to the point where being poor doesn’t suck quite so much. If not getting a job that ensures a position in the societal elite didn’t mean falling backwards quite so far, then it wouldn’t be such a scary prospect. A lot of the motivation behind pushing rich kids toward elite schools is a drive to ensure them material comfort in the future. If getting or not getting into fancy private schools didn’t make such a dramatic difference in living standards, then people might not push so hard to get their kids in and keep other people’s kids out.
What you need, in other words, is something closer to Banks’s Culture– a society where work is not the sole basis of wealth. Where people have pretty comfortable lives regardless of how they choose to spend their time. People can pursue greater wealth and power if they want to, but you don’t need to chase after wealth in order to live well. In such a society, the children of the rich wouldn’t face such a dramatic fall if they don’t get into the right schools and the right jobs. This would reduce the need to lock up access to elite educational opportunities, and thus open more room for the children of people who aren’t already wealthy, some of whom will make better use of those opportunities.
(What does this matter, if an elite background is no longer needed to ensure a good life? Well, in this sort of world, you would be able to do more to sort people into the kinds of jobs they are best suited to,by talent and inclination. In our current world, for example, there are probably a lot of poor kids who could be great scientists or engineers who never get the chance because they’re closed out of the necessary resources.)
The problem with this is that our current system of material rewards is very much centered around work. And as much as liberals mocked Romney’s 47% comments, there’s an element of them that resonates very powerfully with a lot of people: financial rewards are earned through work, and we have a tendency to resent those who we think have attained wealth in undeserving ways, whether they are the imaginary welfare queens that the Tea Party crowd rail against, or the vapid and inexplicable celebrities (various Kardashians, the idiot children of the extremely wealthy, etc.) that the left loves to hate. This poses a major psychological obstacle to any kind of program to distribute resources more equally. Hayes is right that some sort of shock would be required to overcome this.
So what kind of shock would it take? Well, that’s where Kevin Drum comes in, specifically his recurring posts about the rise of the machines (of which that’s only the most recent example). As he notes, there’s some evidence to suggest that automation and computerization play a role in the increase in inequality– as technology makes it easier to do certain tasks, we require fewer people to do them, which means some of the people who used to get good jobs doing those tasks end up losing their jobs. This has a double effect on inequality, because it dumps the newly unemployed down toward poverty (which we have established really sucks), and puts the money that they used to be paid into the pockets of the already wealthy people who used to employ them. In theory, this money could come back around in the form of more consumption of more goods leading to different jobs for those losing their original work, but in practice, you can only own so many cars and boats and houses, and the rate at which positions are lost seems to be greater than the rate at which alternative jobs are created.
So, why hasn’t this produced a huge crisis yet? Mostly because the automation effect hasn’t really touched the sorts of careers that the political and economic elite are drawn from– lawyers and doctors and financiers. Manufacturing stuff doesn’t require as many people as it used to, but making laws, healing the sick, and constructing reckless investment vehicles to destroy the world economy are still very labor-intensive activities, requiring the active input of highly educated and well paid professionals.
Sooner or later, though, computers are going to get good enough to start to bite into the elite professions. We might be seeing a bit of it in law already– there have been numerous articles recently bemoaning the terrible job market for new law school grads. This might be an early effect of technology making it easier to do more lawyer-stuff with fewer lawyers, thus reducing the market for them. You also hear a lot of scary stories about algorithmic financial trading, and there are people working on expert systems that could make medical diagnoses easier, reducing the need for so many doctors.
The legal and medical professions retain a bit of a guild structure– you need to pass the bar to practice law, you need certification to be a doctor– which will allow them to hold out a bit longer than the manufacturing professions could. For a while, it will be possible to make rules saying that only a human lawyer or human doctor can do certain things. In the end, though, even those industries are subject to the same economic logic– if there’s a cheaper way to get the same results, somebody will eventually use it, and doctors and lawyers will start finding themselves cut out of work, with the associated loss of economic status.
Somewhere in there, then, is where we’ll be forced to find a way to decouple material comfort from work, because sooner or later there won’t be enough jobs requiring human input to ensure the children of the current economic elite jobs that will continue to provide them elite status. When that starts to squeeze the people who have the money and make the laws, something will have to give. When that happens, either it will be complete apocalyptic chaos, or people will be surprised at how quickly we switch from talking about moochers and welfare queens to talking about ensuring the basic economic dignity of all citizens. I’m an optimist at heart, so I’m going to say that we’ll become the Culture, rather than falling down into some Mad Max hellscape– that suddenly, it will become not only acceptable but essential to provide everybody with a reasonable standard of living, regardless of whether they work or not.
So, there you go: my grand vision of how we get from our current society to a future utopia. If you want to invite me to give a TED talk about this, send me an email; we can work something out.