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'Twilight of the Elites' Excerpt

'Twilight of the Elites' Excerpt

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Published by Patt Morrison

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Published by: Patt Morrison on Jun 20, 2012
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06/20/2012

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An excerpt from
Twilight of the Elites
by Christopher Hayes
 
One Percent Pathologies
 Nearly all of the commentary on America’s growing inequality focuses on the ways in whichskewed distribution of income and wealth is bad for those on the bottom of the pyramid: theway it leads to stagnating wages and competition for scarce positional goods; the way italienates the middle and working classes and the poor. But we largely ignore the effect of extreme inequality that is, in the long run, the most destructive: the way it makes those at thetop of the social pyramid worse. Desmond Tutu, the heroic archbishop who helped lead thetriumphant battle against South African apartheid, made a similar observation about the effectsof the apartheid system on the white ruling class. “[E]ven the supporters of apartheid werevictims of the vicious system which they implemented and which they supported soenthusiastically,” he wrote in his book 
 No Future Without Forgiveness.
“In the process of dehumanizing another, in inflicting untold harm and suffering, inexorably the perpetrator wasbeing dehumanized as well.”What Tutu was referring to was the moral and spiritual damage that extreme inequalitywrought on even those who presided over and dominated the apartheid system. But there areactual cognitive, organizational, and social costs to such systems as well. The slave economyof the antebellum South conferred massive material gains on a very small number of extremely wealthy white plantation owners. But it also severely stunted the development of the region.With a steady supply of low-cost human labor, there was no incentive to invent andindustrialize, so that by the time of the Civil War the North was far richer than the South,though the South contained far more of the nation’s richest men. The kind of inequality intwenty-first-century America is a far, far cry from slavery or apartheid, of course. The lowestrungs are nowhere near as degraded and immiserated as those of previous eras.
 
 
But extreme inequality of the particular kind that we have produces its ownparticular kind of elite pathology: it makes elites less accountable, more prone to corruptionand self- dealing, more status-obsessed and less empathic, more blinkered and removedfrom informational feedback crucial to effective decision making. For this reason, extremeinequality produces elites that are less competent and more corrupt than a more egalitariansocial order would. This is the fundamental paradoxical outcome that several decades of failed meritocratic production have revealed: As American society grows more elitist, itproduces a lesser caliber of elites.The kind of inequality that is at the core of the problem is what we might call“fractal inequality.” Fractals are nifty shapes rendered by computers based on recursivemathematical formulas that exhibit the characteristics of self-similarity. They have apsychedelic look and are often characterized by a series of spirals of tentacle-like cornices. If you look closely at a fractal and zoom in on one of those tentacles, you’ll see that it too featuresa set of smaller, identical tentacles, arranged in the exact same way as the larger ones fromwhich it shoots. Zoom in again, and the pattern repeats. You could, theoretically, zoom ininfinitely and keep seeing the same images over and over, each tentacle sprouting smalleridentical copies, and on and on.Fractal inequality functions the same way, with the same vast inequality reinscribingitself at every level of analysis. If you look at the broad income distribution of income gainsyou’ll see the distance between the bottom 90 percent and top 10 percent is similar to thedistance between the top 10 percent and the top 1 percent, which is similar to the gapbetween the top 1 percent and the top .1 percent.You can think of it as one of those nesting Russian matryoshka dolls, or as a strange,surreal M. C. Escher–like tower, the top of which recedes ever upward the higher you climb.Such a distributional structure reliably induces a dizzying vertigo among those ambitious
 
 
souls who aim to scale it. The successful overachiever can only enjoy the perks of hisrelatively exalted status long enough to realize that there’s an entire world of heretoforeunseen perks, power, and status that’s suddenly come within view and yet remains out of reach.I caught a glimpse of this in 2010 when I attended the Davos World EconomicForum, the annual gathering of the global ruling class that takes place each January inSwitzerland. When you arrive at the Zurich airport, your first instinct is to feel a bit of satisfaction that you are one of the select few chosen to hobnob with the most powerfulpeople on Earth. Airport signs welcome and direct you to a special booth where exceedinglypolite staff give you a ticket for a free shuttle bus that will drive you the two hours to thesmall ski-resort town in the Alps.But you can’t help but notice that other guests, the ones who landed on the sameplane, but who were sitting in first class, are being greeted by an army of attractive red-coated escorts who help them with their bags before whisking them off in gleaming black Mercedes S-Class sedans for the two-hour drive.Suddenly your perspective shifts. At first you had viewed yourself as special anddistinct from all those poor saps who would never be allowed into the inner sanctum of globalpower that is the World Economic Forum. But now you realize that, in the context of Davosattendees, you are a member of the unwashed masses, crammed into a bus like so much coachchattel.And while you’re having this realization those same special VIPs whom you’vequickly come to envy are enjoying their ride inside their plush, leather confines. But later thatnight they will find out over cocktails that those who are the true insiders don’t fly oncommercial flights into Zurich; they take private jets and then transfer to helicopters, whichmake the trip from Zurich in about thirty minutes and feature breathtaking views of the Alps.This constant envy is the dominant experience of the Davos conference, an obsessive

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