Aug 28 2012

    Bookforum talks to Chris Hayes

    J. A. Myerson

    Twilight of the Elites:

    America After Meritocracy

    by Christopher Hayes


    $26.00 List Price

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    Christopher Hayes is the Nation's editor-at-large and the host of the MSNBC's weekend morning show, "Up With Chris Hayes!" In his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (which Jim Sleeper reviews in our Fall issue) Hayes outlines the mechanics of meritocracy and the corruption and fraud it breeds. This, he argues, is at the core of the institutional failures of the last decade.

    Bookforum: Twilight of the Elites starts off with this incredible litany of recent institutional failures, from Wall Street to Congress. The inequality embedded in these systems seems to really matter to you in a way that it doesn’t to many other broadcast journalists. How does your political commitment affect your work in the media?

    Chris Hayes: There’s a big difference between someone like myself covering the health care battle and someone who is a self-proclaimed “objective journalist” at a mainstream organization and has chosen the field either because they don’t have a personal stake in it, or because they simply don’t feel invested in its outcome.

    There was a point covering the health care battle when I realized that it’s just a lot more emotionally and spiritually exhausting to cover it and to care. It’s your work and you can’t escape it. It makes everything more emotionally raw. It’s weird to me when people don’t care.

    To the extent that you’re putting your finger on some sort of emotional strain in the book, it is a synthesis of the last ten years of both my private life and the nation’s public life, which have in some ways tracked in opposite directions. I do work that I love, which I feel blessed and lucky to do, and I have an amazing daughter. I’ve been excessively, outrageously fortunate, and have been moving through a system of meritocratic production that has yielded me a pretty sweet spot. At the same time, these same systems have been producing huge, bloody, awful failures. So I feel extremely conflicted and guilty about that, and implicated.

    Bookforum: How do you personally retain contact with the people who are suffering most from the phenomena you talk and write about?

    Chris Hayes: It gets harder and harder, in some ways. I want to make sure that I don’t fall out of touch. I’m extremely, obsessively aware of my own privilege.

    That’s one reason I like reporting. As a reporter, I remember thinking early on how wonderful it was to have a job where I didn’t have to say anything. I would particularly find this when I was reporting on the right, and I would go and spend time with conservatives for a piece I was doing. I didn’t have to argue with them or convince them or evangelize; I could just listen. There’s something really powerful and satisfying about that. It’s almost a guilty pleasure. You can’t really do that on TV with a conservative, because you’re broadcasting out to people, so when they say something, you have to interject. But when you’re just sitting with someone with a tape recorder or a pen, you can just listen and do with it what you will.

    Bookforum: You write about the “implacable hydraulic forces” by which social democracy expands, is steamrolled by capitalism, and then re-expands. How do we go about recalibrating corporate responsibility?

    Chris Hayes: The fact of the matter is that corporate governance is totally broken right now. When you get into the nitty-gritty of the executive compensation debate, workers and consumers are nowhere even in the picture, because in almost all cases, they don’t have the resources to organize themselves. The scandal of executive compensation is essentially that CEOs are taking from the shareholders. The system is even broken by its own terms, the terms of capitalism, because corporations do not sufficiently enforce the interests of the shareholders, who are essentially picked clean by this totally corrupt, inbred system of CEO compensation. It’s amazing that there aren’t more investor uprisings.

    Corporate governance isn’t some sort of natural law. It’s constituted legally, which means that we can think differently about how it’s constituted, how it’s chartered, and what the mechanisms of governance are. It’s an exciting area to rethink things. Creating social equality isn’t an unsolved problem, it’s not mysterious, we know how to do it. If you wanted to give me a magic wand and make me king, I could make the country more equal. Creating the political space to do it is the problem.

    Bookforum: People in their twenties really bought Obama’s line about delivering fundamental change, but it has yet to materialize. Maybe he’s just up against a system that is just too big for one person to change fundamentally. Was there a moment when Obama could have made a difference in changing basic power structures?

    Chris Hayes: My instinctive answer to that, which is both depressing and maybe exculpatory, is no. Consider the health care mandate. The cake was baked. Obama spent months articulating all the reasons he didn’t like the mandate. He’s not a dumb guy; he understood that telling people they had to buy health insurance was bad politics. But of course, he ended up proposing this three-legged stool system of guaranteed issue, community rating, and mandate, because that was what was on the table.

    So, in the sense of fundamental change: no. But there are a lot of things he could have done. To me, the most egregious offense was letting $50 billion in TARP mortgage modification money just sit there. They didn’t do shit with it. It was just completely, totally, absolutely indefensible. On the health care battle, there are a million different arguments you could marshal about getting the necessary sixty votes and how Democrats didn’t have Al Franken or whatever, but in certain cases it’s clear that they did what they wanted to do. So much of politics is determined by the institutional arrangements and structural prehistory that precedes anybody taking office.

    I once wrote a piece about how few American war dead there are as a result of Afghanistan and Iraq in comparison to previous engagements of this size. A huge part of this reduction is due to amazing advances in battlefield medicine, and a big part of that is getting someone to a hospital as fast as possible. The Pentagon is incredible at doing that, at undertaking these kinds of logistical operations. The result is that more people survive horrible injuries that would have killed them before.

    The story of the crisis is similar. When they say, “It could have been much worse,” it is true. That’s not bullshit. It really could have been the Great Depression; genuine mass panic and misery on a similar scale. The technocrats, the elites, did stop that. But now we have this body politic that, instead of being dead, has a horrible disfiguring wound.

    Bookforum: What are the political victories that are crucial to win by the end of the decade?

    Chris Hayes: To me, pricing carbon is everything. Whatever it took, whatever corrupt deal had to be entered into, if I were President of the United States, I would sell out any constituency to price carbon.

    Beyond that, the three big things have to do with the way power is distributed.

    There’s the campaign finance issue. I don’t know what the solution is, but we can’t go on like this. I’m very skeptical, even contemptuous, of “heighten the contradictions” leftism, because I think it usually means that marginalized and disempowered people get screwed, but I think there’s something good about Citizens United because it rips off the whole fašade. Any plutocrat can buy anyone at any point and never have to reveal that they did it. The explicitness with which we’ve entered this plutocratic era under Citizens United really can produce a useful backlash.

    I’m really taken by the ideas of Barry Lynn, who wrote a book called Cornered about the new monopoly capitalism. In it, he says that the original idea behind trust-busting was actually political, not economic. The main concern of trust-busters was not that Standard Oil was using its monopoly power to raise prices on consumers, although that was one of their concerns, but that the company would become an unbreakable political force. At a certain point, the way that we thought about anti-trust regulation shifted from political terms to economic ones, and the sole test for determining whether a monopoly was harmful came though looking at its price effect on consumers. But if you only look at that, you miss so much about why concentrated corporate power is really destructive to the republic. I think we need a revived, new twenty-first century vision of trust-busting that says, “things need to be broken up and kept smaller.” There’s a cost that comes with that in terms of efficiency, no question, but there are democratic gains to it in terms of the way power is distributed.

    The third thing would be fixing our carceral state. Michelle Alexander [author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness] is really good on this. She talks about how the problem isn’t the two million in prison; it’s the eleven million that have been marked—or, in her words, are “subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service” because of their former incarceration. That’s just such a poison pill in the well of democracy.

    Bookforum: The Egyptians lived for thirty years with Mubarak and could live with a lot of political repression, but until people were starving, they didn’t revolt. Twilight of the Elites advises readers not to wait until we’re actually starving in order to behave as though we are.

    Chris Hayes: That’s the dark genius of Bernanke-ism. He saved the system. The Federal Reserve literally did just enough to keep everybody off the streets.

    Japan had basically twenty years of no growth; they had two lost decades. I know nothing about Japan beyond what a generally well-read person knows, but my sense is that it’s a very different society than America, it’s far more homogeneous, and it’s far more ordered. The social contract in America has a deep implicit guarantee of rising prosperity. I don’t think the American social contract will brook ten years of no growth. Maybe I’m wrong. What happened previously was that first, women entered the workforce to make up for stagnant wages, then credit expanded to make up for stagnant wages. So what do we do now? It’s a really open question.

    I guess the reason I feel like an optimist is this: say what you will about capitalism, it’s a surprising system. You never know what’s around the corner, in both good and bad ways. It’s an amazingly generative way of ordering things. Amazingly destructive sometimes, too. Systems much worse than what we have right now have fallen. The question is whether this system has created this sort of oligarchic stasis that has just enough flexibility to perpetuate itself.

    No one saw the internet coming, more or less. Lord knows what the hell is around the corner from that perspective. I have this aesthetic distaste for the unsophisticated politics of techno-utopianism, and at the same time I think that the only locus of real hope is that there’s this incredible thing that people do incredible things with all the time, which is totally unpredictable and powerful. I’m very unclear about how this all shakes out. I feel very strongly that if things don’t change, there will be more crisis. But I’m a real believer in democracy.