Chris Hayes: Smart Guy against the “Smart Guys”

Part of what makes the strange disorienting nature of our time is that the old institutions have been discredited but remain in power. The people who run them remain in power. There’s been the discrediting without the conceptual change, without the actual reforms on the ground, which is a bizarre interregnum to live through.

Chris Hayes with Chris Lydon at Rockefeller Center, July 9, 2012
Chris Hayes has done a 180 on Groucho Marx, who said he wouldn’t join a club that would have him as a member. Chris Hayes has rushed the media elite that he knows is sinking. He won’t save it alone, of course, but he’s a temptation or maybe a model for wary 30-somethings like himself, for people who’ve stopped listening to anyone in authority. A great deal of his book Twilight of the Elites and of our conversation is fixed on his own mixed emotions about being the “it” boy in a dubious game and a bad time — in the “fail decade,” as he calls the opening era of his adulthood. He seems to be writing and living out a warning to himself.

The cover story is that talk TV has a rising star in Chris Hayes, cast as Rachel Maddow’s kid brother, as learned and lively as she is. In a pretty sclerotic media scene full of people who got suckerered into selling the Iraq War, he’s the bright-eyed millenial kid from Brown (2001, philosophy major) and The Nation magazine who’s inspected the emperor’s new clothes and keeps talking about them. He harps on inequality as the story in 2012, plus unimaginable debt and an awful losing streak on the American scorecard. He says it all without wailing or gnashing his teeth and everybody thinks he’s a nice, cool guy. The multitudinous fans of “Up with Chris Hayes” on MSNBC are encouraged to call themselves “Uppers.”

The back story in Twilight is his judgment that the “meritocracy” that selects high-testing hard-working overachievers like him (like me in another generation) has been a big part of undoing the American Dream in the last 30 years or so. His “iron law of meritocracy” is that it becomes a smug elite that pulls up the ladder behind it, is socially isolated, prone to failure and inevitably corrupt. Not to mention that it becomes “a pathological way to live.”

This is increasingly a social set-up that’s fated to produce crisis, catastrophe, dysfunction, poor decision-making — and a lot of unhappy people. This is a model of ceaseless competition and what I call “fractal inequality,” in which there’s no top. The ladder always ascends ever upward, as if you’re in some M. C. Escher drawing that you climb rung by rung, only to see a new one come into view… It’s the way finance works, and finance dominates the American elite.

There’s a model of scarcity that’s fundamental to the conception of society as a meritocracy, which is this funnel that everything goes through. The idea is that not everybody can get into it: whether it’s schooling, jobs at the top firms, clerkships with the best judges… The model of scarcity produces anxiety and competition; and the whole way we think about where everything is headed is this model that there’s some small set of happy lives and fulfilling jobs. Whereas the social model should be: everybody’s who’s willing to work can have a fulfilling job and a happy life… That was the model of the auto workers’ treaty with Detroit. The vision was deeper than good wages. It was about who deserved a good life — and the idea that working people deserved a good life. We just don’t have that anymore. The meritocratic model is that you deserve a good life if you meet these elite criteria, if you find your way through all these funnels.

Chris Hayes with Chris Lydon at Rockefeller Center, July 9, 2012

Might Jon Stewart have smacked this guy — at least rolled his eyes — for all the hi-falutin’ stuff about the “dominant meritocratic ethos”? I wondered as I left his office: is Chris Hayes a little hung-up on himself and the vertigo of his own success? A little too smart about the cult of smartness at the top of the heap? Is he speaking truth to power, or talking his way through it? And: is it still okay to like this kid a lot for his “kind of naive earnestness”? For naming the four corners of his drive as “frustration, betrayal, disorientation and curiosity”? For his readiness to say, yes, what a “bizarre interregnum” it is we’re living through? Comments please.

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  • I hadn’t read this blog post when I played the podcast, so I was taken aback by Lydon’s epilogue, basically the third paragraph above, read aloud. Hi-falutin? Earnest? Using big words like “interregnum”? Should we also fault Hayes for his elite education? His first name? Great interview, but cut the catty backtalk.

  • Jeff Ewener

    What Hayes seems to be describing (looking at this from the outside, as I do) is the attempt of a managerially rational institution to create winners. This is what institutions do, or are supposed to do. Used to be entrepreneurs did. Now, in many areas at least, corporations have decided to give it a go, since their managers are smarter than everybody else. (The ones who really are smarter scan the horizon for entrepreneurs and, when they spot one who seems to have come up with something, zoom in to become their investors, partners and BFFs.)

    Take the analogy of Hollywood, where the job is to make hits, blockbusters, boffo box. Of course you can make money creating decent, well-crafted, moderate critical successes, build up a following, win respect — but that’s only if you consider what John Sayles earns to be “money”. The big dough is in the big hits, the movies everybody wants to see. Result? Repetitive, derivative, insider-driven formulaic tedium, where the biggest special effects are used to make palatable the latest comic book adaptation. A whole industry is slowly crawling deeper and deeper up its own rectum.

    This is not to deny that there are incredibly talented people in Hollywood. Or in football. Or in the recording industry. But it’s almost as if they are the effect, not the cause. The institutions themselves flail and fail.

    Or for heaven’s sake, look at the finance industry, a place where the elites of the elites have been cutting one another’s throat to get into for a generation.

    Now Hayes seems to be saying that this same model has been applied to social reproduction. (And I wouldn’t be surprised, since the same people with same beliefs and assumptions are in charge.) To education, in particular, but to all its trimmings as well. He deserves great credit for this observation, which explains a great deal of the systemic failure (not only that of education), not only that of the US, but of the western world — its inability to respond to global warming, for instance, choosing instead to keep fighting wars over oil, because we always have, even while the stuff is destroying us.

    Creating excellence seems to be a fool’s errand. We end up creating excellent varieties of mediocrity — brilliantly executed stupidity. And as Hayes points out, wonderfully, when everyone fails, no one fails. Hence, … the Grammies.

    So here’s a formula that Christopher Lydon might like: We should not try to create excellence. We should maximize participation, and let excellence emerge as it will.
    An excellent show — almost certainly because that’s not what you’re trying to create! Rather, you examine what fascinates you, and the excellence emerges.

  • Kento

    One reason young people on the left shy away from calling themselves “radical” is that, even if they have radical ideals, know that they would be feeling far less despair with modest gains. “What we want shouldn’t have to be radical. What we would settle for shouldn’t have to be radical.”

    Obama and the meritocracy: When saying what the tragic irony of Obama being the ultimate expression of the meritocracy was, I expected it to be that the process of the meritocracy made it so that he was less distinguishable from anybody else who would have to go a shorter distance to achieve power. That the process of successfully navigating the meritocracy made him less remarkable, less fit for the role he would fill.

  • Peter

    Chris Hayes is too clever by half. Woody Allen would have a field day with his propensity to over-intellectualize everything and the narcissistic pleasure he takes in holding his own argument up to the light to better admire its finely wrought complexity.

    That said, his heart is in the right place and one can only hope he remembers his own advice to his fellow elites, that they escape the group think that dominates their insular circles.

  • Sid

    Do talents (Nora Efron) come out of nowhere or is there a significant degree of luck? We know people win lotteries; life is like that as well.

  • Is Chris Hayes the musician Darren Hayes’ brother? They look alike.

  • Kathy

    I wish Christopher Lydon had asked Chris Hayes if there was any reason the guy who collects his garbage shouldn’t be paid as much as a TV show host. Without Hayes my life would go on pretty much as before, but without my county’s garbage collectors life would be hell. Of course people game the system when the rewards for “excellence” mean the difference between a secure, expansive life and a stressed, scrimping life. Couldn’t we just give all those excellent people our deepest respect, and the tools they need to realize their talents instead of a monopoly on the good life?

    I like Christopher Hayes and I’m glad he’s on TV, but he’s a little like a nice rich kid who suddenly discovers there are poor people in the world. By comparison, A.S. Neill’s ideas still look radical.

  • nother

    “Merit (Sanskrit puṇya, Pāli puñña) is a concept in Buddhism. It is that which accumulates as a result of good deeds, acts or thoughts and that carries over to later in life or to a person’s next life. Such merit contributes to a person’s growth towards liberation.”

    I think Jon Stewart would like this guy just fine. I didn’t know about Hayes until now but I think he’s on to something important here. I work in Harvard Square and I interact with the “elite” every day. I’m perpetually fascinated by the sense of entitlement and by the insular desperation I sense to be in that group. I like Hayes’s metaphor about those guys pulling up the ladder. All of which has me thinking about the massive debate happening right now between Steve Pinker and E.O. Wilson concerning group selection vs. kin selection. I think the elite have carved themselves out a substantial group and their plan is to protect their like at all costs. Maybe it’s not the 99% vs. 1%, maybe it’s closer to 85% and 1% with the remaining 14% conniving and striving for the top. Yet as Hayes says, “there’s no top.” “You keep climbing each rung only to see another come into view.” Great conversation.

  • I have to say something quick before things get going around here. It’s the AM. But I probably need to entertain more ideas from others on this interview, so I hope there can be more exchange here on same in the future.

    Who is Neill, Kathy?

    Chris, you have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to hear something like this. Social criticism AFAICS is a wasteland save for you and this guy! At least yall IMO are on the edge of the best “analysis.” For instance, who else has a stream that’ll work with XP that is/are saying anything? Doesn’t matter to me if Hayes sounds too nerdy or too earnest. I didn’t do jack with these truthes (which DID come my way too).

    I got as far as when Hayes brought up the “scarcity model.” Then I knew I had to take some time to thank you guys, and give some preliminary reflections. We have to have truth at this moment, cause it sure as heck is the twilight of something.

    Idea wise, Hayes is right. Meritocracy doesn’t deliver what everyone thought it would, and there are big problems. Smart humans have always thought they could tweek things and there would be more equality in outcomes. Maybe karma won’t allow same, owing to what we did prior or just owing to how it facilitates “growth” in general. But who knows anything about this? More important, to me the “scarcity model” is best elucidated by Rene Girard’s ideas. Don’t have time to discuss this now, but I would definitely like to read if others think similarly (who are wise enough to listen to the streams of this show, which Tidewater Virginia has seen fit to eliminate it ITS wisdom).

    Fix wise, I don’t know what Hayes said at the end yet cause I haven’t gotten there. The less plutocratic brands of capitalistic society are bad enough. The WTO versions are worse. But now we have financialization (and “tech”). We are twice removed from the only plausible alternative! Of course, for me there ARE better ways to go. But how can Americans come to favor any kind of gearing down (or gearing back) when they walk into any store (or through any store) and hear that clear channel prolefeed…or Koch bros TV malarkie? Get Stephen J Rose on Chris, and ask him to re-do his circular flow chart (of the econ). The rest of his stuff since to me couldn’t possibly mean as much. Even when a half decent version of the US econ is not that sustainable…voters have no idea of how in theory the moderately unsustainable versions can work BEST. Trying to go back and see things as they were before the hay days of K St would not be seeing things at their best, and it WOULD be like reading chapters backwards in a book (to make sense out of the last whacked out econ arrangement…that was still better than what we have now). But it may be the only way folks can LEARN anything about economics these days owing to…some kind of amnesia or some flim flam era we’ve moved into where the context of everything falls apart if it isn’t linked to the most recent Youtube images. Anyway, fix-wise…just a small suggestion. Again, sorry my time is limited and I must rush through my reactions.

    PS Using caps, cause I think I remember the html for italics here, but wasn’t quite sure and was in a hurry.

  • Bob Yeats

    Hi Folks!

    Thanks for this interview! Of course, being someone who doesn’t shell out the money for cable, I had no idea who this guy is. Great interview! I think C.L. is right to be a little skeptical of Hayes’s glib pronouncements. If we had a true meritocracy, everyone would start at the same place. Even Barack Obama never attended public schools in the US. Hayes strikes me as someone born on third base and thinks he hit a home run. He makes some good points though and it makes for a lively and thought provoking discussion. .

  • Marty

    What Chris Hayes describes is similar to what Andrew Bacevich spoke of with our dear host a few years back, namely a growing class division (in Bacevich’s example, it was a military caste firewalled from the rest of American society).

    Then, every half century or so, we have our “Year Zero” complete with mountains of eyeglasses. These “schisms” seem to be unsettlingly self-correcting alas.

  • I really liked this discussion. One thing I would take issue with is Hayes’ assertion at the end that it is conservatives these days who are more hostile to institutions. I think that depends on what institutions one is talking about. The right is hostile to government institutions and we on the left are hostile to corporate influence, if not aspects of them as a legal entity. Occupy is all about reducing corporate influence and has had success based on the coherence and simplicity of their message. They are also against the institution of lobbying, of banks too big to fail, etc.

    The right generally comes off as more coherent and “on message” than the left because they fall in line behind their leaders. On the left, we are our own thinkers and that diversity is evident. Certainly this is a distinction to be prized, as has been previously discussed on the podcast. I think we have to stop looking to locate the failures of the left in such simplistic arguments and rather applaud the left for facing the world as it is, with all its complexity and diversity.

  • Potter

    I have yet to read all the comments here but this interview is a very interesting conversation- which means for me good push-back, back and forth, kernels of truth emerging, good points. But also I found it a little obscure or not clear at times.
    We are a poorer society because of those we exclude in one way or another,look down upon, or make difficult to be heard, and make difficult to lead a happy fulfilling life ( cause to spend their lives struggling inordinately). I believe, if I believe anything at all, that we all have validity, each a piece of the grand eternal puzzle, unfathomable. So the meritocracy, though maybe necessary if it were ideally constructed, is also artificial and can ( and does) lead us off on unfortunate paths. For instance, Obama is just another guy basically. And I think he wants to be one, wants to be relieved of this burden put upon himself by himself and others even though he also at the same time is drawn to it. Same for Oprah. Both amazing examples.

    Hayes also makes it clear that the political realm and it’s elites seem to be a parallel world.

    Finally I am perfectly fine with this country’s elites being content to have this country be more ordinary. I wish for that.

    Thank you.

  • Brian

    A premise here seems to be that elite such schools like the ones Chris attended are looking for a “natural aristocracy” to groom for leadership and to manage the sheep. But wouldn’t such schools say that they are just trying make sure that their doors are open to anyone who can hack it, no matter where they’re from? Having attended Chris’s alma mater Brown after public high school in Texas, I tend to think, and be glad, that it’s the latter. Does that framing make a difference?

    And although it felt a little unfair only to bring it up after the guy had left the room (or vice versa), yes, something very personal about Hayes’ arguments, and one does wonder how much of this is him wrestling with what seems like a guilty conscience for getting into Hunter, Brown, and then making however much one makes as a television host. (I’d rather not know the number.) Not all, let’s say, but not none.

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