Monday, October 18, 2010

Watching the elite

The New York Times article "Scrutinizing the Wealthy, Whether They Like It or Not" is a study in how poorly we understand ourselves as a nation.

Here we have the spectacle of perhaps the nation's most elite newspaper trying to describe a conference of elite academics convened to discuss "the elite." And who are the elite? Damned if I know from the comments by the attendees.

Are they rich? It would seem so:
“When we study the poor, it’s relatively easy,” said Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia and the author of “Gang Leader for a Day” (Penguin Press, 2008). “The poor don’t have the power to say no. Elites don’t grant us interviews. They don’t let us hang out at their country clubs.”
By the way, if you were left aghast by the hubris of "The poor don't have the power to say no," you weren't the only one. It conjures images of ivory-tower academicians haughtily scrutinizing people like bacteria under a microscope.

Many of the researchers discuss income inequality and wealth concentration, further cementing the idea that the elite are the wealthy. Yet at one point, the article describes one reasearcher's finding that "top leaders" generally did not inherit money. I don't know whether the researcher or the reporter was conflating "leader" with "wealthy person," but it jibes with my experience, and probably yours, too. Wealth automatically confers some notion of leadership, or at least membership in, yes, the elite.

Yet the article notes:
Those at the conference defined the elite as people with power over others, and the debate was framed largely in economic terms. But professors at an Ivy League university are part of an elite, even if their salaries do not reflect it.
That's the reporter's opinion, entirely unsupported by quotations from the attendees, yet again, it jibes with our own experiences. The elite are not all wealthy: some of them are rich in knowledge.

(What are we to make of the Times' own readership? I daresay today's populists on the right don't hesitate to paint them -- excuse me, us: that's one group in which I can't plausibly deny membership -- as snobbish, condescending elitists, if not part of the elite themselves.)

There's a hazy sense that if you are wealthy, you know more, and if you know more, you're wealthy, or at least you have a good chance of becoming wealthy. It's an article of faith with most of us that wealth leads to power, so all three -- wealth, knowledge, and power -- are intertwined. Possessing any of these makes you elite.

It seems none of us wants to be seen as part of the elite because "they" have ruined the country. The financial elite have bankrupted us; the governmental elite have shackled us; the social elite have corrupted us; and the academic elite have bamboozled us into accepting the others' depredations. That's the conventional wisdom, anyway, and the slowly rising tide of anti-intellectualism ensures that rational arguments and evidence to the contrary won't sway some percentage of the country -- those who respond favorably to appeals to gut instincts and a sense of grievance, a sense of loss, a sense that they're confused not because the world is complex, but because "the elite" are trying to conceal their self-serving handiwork.

What's worse, I don't know that there are arguments and evidence to the contrary. Not that I buy into conspiracy theories that the Trilateral Commission is pulling the strings (and I don't know to what end they'd be doing so anyway), but it's hard to argue with the idea that the financial elite created, then wiped out, hundreds of billions of dollars of virtual wealth -- wealth the rest of us believed was real, but that the financial elite knew was not.

As I think about it, our troubles are rooted in human nature run amok. We wanted to believe that we could become wealthy by investing, and we spent as if we already had accrued that wealth. We wanted to believe we could achieve a happier, more just society by loosening old social taboos (this took place throughout the twentieth century), but forgot why those taboos had been established in the first place. We wanted to believe that government was able to shape society as we wished it to be, but lost sight of the fact that government is only as good as we are. We wanted to believe the schools could teach our children, but we stopped wanting to do our part by making our children teachable.

We took the easy way out, hoping to buy a better future on the cheap. We no longer want to invest money or sweat equity because we no longer remember how much of both it took to build this nation.

And the elite? They're the ones who are better at gaming the current, broken system.

Is the answer to vilify the elite? Of course not. It might make us feel better, but it won't accomplish anything. Like it or not, we have to understand our way out of our predicaments. And judging from this article, we have a long way to go.

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