I’m most impressed with the June 25 issue. Comments that linger: In “Obama’s Kill List”: This is “a prescription for endless war that will sap our moral core and put in jeopardy our most cherished freedoms at home.” In “Why Elites Fail,” Christopher Hayes, quoting a hedge-fund analyst: “America does what Wall Street tells it to do.” In “A Politics for the 99 Percent,” by Robert Borosage and Katrina vanden Heuvel: “Wall Street gets bailed out and the rich get lower tax rates, while the 99 percent get unemployment and cuts in education, government services, retirement security and affordable healthcare.”
Outstanding issue. Thanks.
Our Worst and Brightest
Staten Island, N.Y.
Christopher Hayes, in “Why Elites Fail” [June 25], reports that Lehman Brothers vice president Robert Hopkins says that Wall Streeters are “the smartest people in the world.” Hayes goes on to argue that “without qualities like wisdom, judgment, empathy and ethical rigor, extreme intelligence can be extremely destructive.” Well, duh! But without such attributes, so can average intelligence, or even less than average intelligence, if it is within reach of the levers of power. Need anyone be reminded of George W. Bush? Or Ronald Reagan? Wall Street insiders base such statements on a blinkered ignorance of fields outside the financial casino—ahem, profession—and on a crude equation of earnings with ability.
ERIC B. LIPPS
I enjoyed Christopher Hayes’s exploration of the flawed concept of meritocracy but was disappointed that he did not question its application to education more vigorously. To me, it is immoral and remarkably silly that access to the best possible education should be restricted like the number of seats in musical chairs when it ought rather to be, like home, “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
The denizens of Wall Street may seriously believe they are the smartest people in the world, but they all too obviously are not. Slick, yes, very, but not even smart enough to notice that their endless grasping leaves them always wanting. We cannot allow public discourse to be shaped by such mental defectives. The future of the Republic, and the development of a creative, humane economy, call for the cultivation and application of much broader and higher intelligence.
KATHARINE W. RYLAARSDAM
OK, Mr. Hayes: Why do elites fail? It seems to me elites are succeeding very well in their narrow world of hedge funds, derivatives, manipulation of the masses, and grabbing taxpayer money, government contracts and middle-class wealth. Progressives must accept class warfare as a given. We must divide and conquer the rich to deliver the democratically essential middle class from further damage and oppression. To refuse to fight class warfare is to lose democracy and prosperity, perhaps forever. We can’t expect the wealthy to destroy themselves without a push from us.
GERI A. MELLGREN-KERWIN
Christopher Hayes accurately pegs our current elite, Wall Street’s masters of the universe, as perhaps the most obnoxious the nation has known, but he overconcentrates on Michels’s “iron law of oligarchy” and ignores several other relevant theories:
Lipset and others have found more of a “rubber law of oligarchy”: the rank-and-file periodically challenge their elites, and the elites in turn get flexible.
Pareto argued the “circulation of elites”: they eventually lose their status and numbers and are pushed aside by counterelites.
Galton noticed a “regression to the mean”: children of very bright parents tend to approach the mean in intellectual abilities.
My theory of the high-IQ moron sees types like David Addington, Cheney’s architect of the Iraq War (preceded by McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara), as so in love with their own brilliance that they reject common-sense doubts and plunge their countries or companies into untenable positions that ultimately collapse. They sound highly rational and out-argue their opponents, but they get tripped up by reality.
The problem is not that our moneyed elite will perpetuate themselves through their progeny. Some may retain family fortunes (“trustafarians”) but have little influence. Many will be downwardly mobile in the old pattern of “shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations.” The real problem is that when the current elite go, they may take the US economy down with them.
MICHAEL G. ROSKIN
Deer Isle, Me.
Having recently read Christopher Lasch’s classic The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, I read Christopher Hayes’s piece on elites with particular interest. My wife and I recently retired to an island in Maine populated for the most part by hard-working, straightforward people. So it is especially disturbing to be reminded yet again of the degradations inflicted on American society by its most privileged members. It is a profound irony that societal maladies similar to those experienced under authoritarian regimes could be the result of a supposed commitment to meritocracy.
Lasch lamented the loss of value placed on the good citizenship of ordinary people. Almost twenty years later, Hayes wonders that the so-called smartest among us could be so ethically challenged. I commend you and Hayes for putting a spotlight on this profound concern. In the end, I suppose, the answer lies in the awareness of our citizenry. The recent Occupy movement provides some limited solace.
I thank Christopher Hayes for revealing the identity of the man behind the “war on terror,” indefinite detention, state-sponsored torture, denial of habeas corpus and rejection of the Geneva Conventions: David Addington, “Cheney’s Cheney.” Hayes gives us insight into the cult of smartness and its great blind spot, ethics. Intelligence without morality. As the American empire casts aside any concern for what is decent and humane, it is hurtling our civilization toward a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions.
What is the solution? A big one is community involvement and investment. Compassionate capitalism. If you don’t have money, invest your time and energy in volunteering at your community garden or homeless shelter. Do the things that still make America great: sharing, giving, helping, volunteering. This country does have a noble and generous heart, even if some of our leaders have lost their way.
New York City
Related to our heat wave and with a bow to Calvin Trillin:
Let the temperatures soar
It’s never a bore
I take my Nation
To the cooling station.