On Hayes’s “Twilight of the Elites”

Posted on March 14, 2010 by


Chris Hayes’ article in Time, “Twilight of the Elitesl is a fascinating argument that we are seeing a collapse of elite competence across the board. Two money quotes from his piece are

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.

In addition,

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.

When I first began studying emergent systems in society, and how their role had dramatically increased in the modern world, I allowed myself to hope that we had inadvertently developed a means to re-juvenate decrepit social orders that otherwise would gradually sink into stagnation and collapse – the story of much human history. Old elites could no longer control access, and younger blood and insights could replace them easily. I think the events of the past few decades suggest I may have been far too optimistic.

I have noticed that top level management simply never fails personally, no matter how inept their performance. Top level media ‘personalities’ never are called on the carpet no matter how dishonest their performance, unless it is by Jon Stewart.  The ‘experts’ responsible for the Iraq war still have their jobs and access to the media. Politicians immediately move from holding office to high paying lobbying positions with companies they once sat on committees that exercised oversight over them. Only political idiots would argue this does not lead to bribery. High ranking public officials who break the law in a flagrant manner are never punished, or even investigated.

At the same time the people who proved right on Iraq are not rewarded. The people who were proven right on issues of economic regulation or media reporting do not reap the benefits of their competence. Religious organizations such as the Catholic Church seem never to stop covering up for the misdeeds of their clergy, no matter how expensive it becomes or how disillusioning to their laity.

Organizations that do not learn either disappear or try and so control their environment as to perpetuate themselves long after their natural lives – but at the cost of degrading the larger systems of which they are parts. I think we are seeing the latter on a society-wide scale.

A emergence focused perspective help us better understand the causes and the direction a possible remedy must take. Briefly, organizations exist within emergent processes that both make them possible and threaten their long-term existence. Thus organizations, if they are able, will seek to insulate themselves from these processes, or bring them under its control as much as they are able. We see this in businesses in the market, political parties in democracies, and even schools of thought in science. It is ubiquitous.

In addition, organizations often begin with good leadership building a organization to implement its vision. But over time leadership is replaced, and in general, leaders who are innovators are shoved aside by leaders who are masters at organizational politics. These two skills need not be in different people, but they often are. Once an organization is controlled by the latter, seeking a safe environment, it’s long term future is downhill unless it is blessed with unexpected reforms. The old adage that first rate people hire first rate people whereas second rate people never do is the core reason, I think.

Who could possibly argue with a straight face that America’s business elite are far sighted and competent innovators bringing new products and services to us? In the newer fields such as computers, yes. In the older ones, like banking and automobiles, no.

Who could possibly argue with a straight face that the media is doing its job serving as watchdog when more time is spent covering Eric Massa’s misbehavior than the debate over another year’s appropriations for Afghanistan?

And as for politics, I hope I do not need to give examples.

Even in science, perhaps the most meritocratic of emergent orders, the average age of grant recipients has been trending upwards whereas the most innovative discoveries are often associated with the young. This may be simply because creative scientists are staying active in research for longer times.  But it may also indicate a gradual ossification of the peer review process.

Hayes says there is no single cause for the problems he describes. I think a single cause may explain much of it. He observed that concentration of power, declining transparency and declining accountability are common themes. All three are consistent with increasingly successful attempts by organizational leadership to protect themselves from emergent processes. I wonder whether a better understanding of the tensions between organizations and the orders within which they exist might lead to a better grasp of this problem, a problem mostly ignored by free market advocates concerning business, egalitarian and especially managerial liberals concerning politics. When we see that these issues are ubiquitous perhaps the dots will be connected.

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