Sunday, February 21, 2010

On Elites

Comments on "The Power Elites"

By John Taylor; 2010 Feb 21, Mulk 15, 166 BE

Lately my attention was drawn to a commentary in the New York Times called "The Power Elite," by David Brooks ( He points out that the elites of today are more diverse in many ways than the male, Ivy League, clubbish elites of a century ago, yet they are not trusted, as their predecessors were. The new elites are also more far talented and qualified, yet "it is not even clear that we are better led." This is something that I have noticed. The higher levels of government, the press and business are all stuffed with PhD's doing just what their training prepared them to do.

Yet, clearly, Brooks is being diplomatic.

It is fair to say, considering ongoing tragedies like allowing billions of poor and sick to languish without hope, and potential disasters like nuclear proliferation and runaway climate change, that we have never been led more poorly in history. Yet, nobody can accuse those at the helm of this train-wreck-in-slow-motion of crass ignorance. Instead, we are all victims of what Jane Jacobs called credentialism, a blind acceptance that high credentials (that is, years of official schooling) suffice to solve a problem or guarantee that a job will get done, or make leaders of men, or confer flexibility or creativity on an elite. As Brooks says, again very diplomatically,

"First, the meritocracy is based on an overly narrow definition of talent. Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years, we have seen very smart people make mistakes because they did not understand the context in which they were operating."

Although parts of Brook's analysis are brilliant, he is obviously himself a member of the elite. He makes the same slips they do, including assuming that leadership is a matter of avoiding mistakes. Leadership demands far more than that, it calls for wisdom. We need to keep the best of the old while making big, structural changes; we need to establish peace, heal divisions and reverse climate chaos. We must get a world perspective, a longer perspective. But, as Brooks points out, not only space but time is a problem for these elites,

"... time horizons have shrunk. If you were an old blue blood, you traced your lineage back centuries, and there was a decent chance that you would hand your company down to members of your clan. That subtly encouraged long-term thinking."

In other words, the old elites did not just have personal qualifications, they had familial credentials too. The family is the basis of society because it links past with present and future generations. We have ejected the family from power in favour of schooling and naked personal talent. And now we are finding out that we may not have got the best of the bargain. In choosing leaders it might be a good idea to consider family as well as grades and personal achievement. What would be wrong with making it democratic by voting for entire families? This is an idea I have been exploring in my book-in-progress, "People Without Borders."

But then Brooks makes a jaw-dropping point about transparency, the part of justice that fights corruption.

"... society is too transparent. Since Watergate, we have tried to make government as open as possible. ... government should sometimes be shrouded for the same reason that middle-aged people should be clothed. ... the more government has become transparent, the less people are inclined to trust it."

This is the sort of whopper that makes me immediately run to a news search engine to find out Noam Chomsky's latest insights into the situation. What slathering hypocrisy on hypocrisy infuses the power elites in the world's most corrupt nation! Suffice to say, I do not think that too much transparency is the problem, though lack of trust, fractiousness and contention certainly are.

Yet, even if we concede that the processes of power are more transparent now -- and in certain ways they no doubt are -- surely this point about clothes on older bodies is a sign that we need more familial governance. A united family is very good at covering over the flaws and foibles of its members while assuring that they all pull on the oars in the same direction. But this is not just true on the high levels of the power elites, it needs to be the case most of all in the home, the locality, the neighbourhood and that of city hall.

To use just one example from technology, clearly we need solar panels on every house. As it is now, PV panels are too expensive for families to put on their roof. Yet some neighbourhoods have got together to pool their funds, purchasing power and credit in order to assure that everybody in the area who wants one on their roof can have one. This is the sort of thing that would be very easy to accomplish if we elected entire families instead of individuals, and if we gave back some of the power that families traditionally had in both economics and politics.


No comments: