The Crisis of the Elites

I know this is a drum I keep banging, but I think that a visceral understanding of this issue is critical to effective political action.

We are governed by morons.

I mean no disrespect to the mentally challenged, moron is a clinical term for people who (assuming they are over 18 years of age which is the cap in these calculations) function with the intellegence of children between 9 and 15.  They are perfectly capable of working under supervised conditions.

The problem is that like a pack of spoiled brats indulged in every fantastic whim and self-indulgent desire by parents who wish for nothing so much as to ignore them and evade responsibility for their disruptive, destructive, and bullying behavior, there is no effective supervision.

Just as you would not trust a 9 year old to make nutritious and wholesome dietary choices (Broccoli yuck!  Oooh, candy!) or a 15 year old behind the wheel of a 4,000 pound death machine, you can’t expect people with limited capabilities like this to behave in a co-operative and productive way without regulation and discipline.

It is our job as voters, and that of our elected representatives as our surrogates, to provide it.  If they do not, then we must replace them, otherwise we are the shirkers who are not doing our duty and fulfilling our obligations to the community.

A couple of pieces have come to my attention that explore this, and to the extent that they despair of democratic action I think they are misguided.  We have reached a tipping point, a place where a critical mass of perfectly ordinary citizens have come to realize that the disconnect between the aspirational lies we’ve been promised and the dismal results we’ve been delivered by the institutions of elitism (looking at you Ivys) are insupportable.

There are many, many more of us than there are of them and if history teaches us anything it’s that disparities this deep are always resolved, either by reform or revolution.  Now one would think that a reasonable accomodation is preferable to pitchforks and torches but remember-

Umm…  we’re not exactly dealing with the brightest bulbs on the tree here.

A Bottom-Up Solution to the Global Democracy Crisis

by Joe Firestone, New Economic Perspectives

Posted on September 21, 2014

Before the “no” vote on Scotland’s independence, The New York Times, carried a post by Neil Irwin in the Upshot making the point that the then upcoming vote “shows a global crisis of the elites.” He argues that the independence drive reflects “. . . a conviction – one not ungrounded in reality – that the British ruling class has blundered through the last couple of decades.” He also thinks that this applies to the Eurozone and the United States to varying degrees, and is “. . . a defining feature of our time.”

Irwin then updated his first post last night, expanding it and recognizing the victory of the “no” votes in the referendum. His new post did not add anything essential to his “global crisis of the elites” diagnosis, so the references and quotations below come solely from his pre-vote post. But the points made apply equally well to his update.

Prior to continuing, a few points I found significant from Neil Irwin’s pieces-

Scotland’s Independence Vote Shows a Global Crisis of the Elites

by Neil Irwin, The New York Times

SEPT. 18, 2014

When you get past the details of the Scottish independence referendum Thursday, there is a broader story underway, one that is also playing out in other advanced nations.

It is a crisis of the elites. Scotland’s push for independence is driven by a conviction – one not ungrounded in reality – that the British ruling class has blundered through the last couple of decades. The same discontent applies to varying degrees in the United States and, especially, the eurozone. It is, in many ways, a defining feature of our time.

The rise of Catalan would-be secessionists in Spain, the rise of parties of the far right in European countries as diverse as Greece and Sweden, and the Tea Party in the United States are all rooted in a sense that, having been granted vast control over the levers of power, the political elite across the advanced world have made a mess of things.

What distinguishes the current moment is that discontent with the way things have been going is so high as to test many people’s tolerance for the governing institutions as they currently exist.

It is in continental Europe that the consequences of bungling by mainstream elites are perhaps the most damaging. The decades-long march toward a united continent, led by the parties of the center-right and center-left, created a Western Europe in which there was a single currency and monetary authority but without the political, fiscal and banking union that would make it possible for imbalances between those countries to work themselves out without the benefit of currency fluctuations. When it all came to a head from 2008 to 2012, national leaders were sufficiently alarmed by the risks of budget deficits that they responded by cutting spending and raising taxes.

As such, the imbalances that built up over the years in Europe are now working themselves out through astronomical unemployment and falling wages in countries including Spain and Greece. Even the northern European economies, including Germany, are experiencing little or no growth. As Paul Krugman noted this week, while the Great Depression of the 1930s was a sharper contraction in economic activity initially, the European economy is performing worse six years after the 2008 crisis than it was at the comparable point in the 1930s.

The details of the policy mistakes are different, as are the political movements that have arisen in protest. But together they are a reminder that no matter how entrenched our government institutions may seem, they rest on a bedrock assumption: that the leaders entrusted with power will deliver the goods.

Power is not a right; it is a responsibility. The choice that the Scots are making on Thursday is about whether the men and women who rule Britain messed things up so badly that they would rather go it alone. And so the results will ripple through world capitals from Athens to Washington: People don’t think the way things are going is good enough, and voters are getting angry enough to want to do something about it.

In Scotland and Beyond, a Crisis of Faith in the Global Elite

by Neil Irwin, The New York Times

SEPT. 20, 2014

There has been an implicit agreement in modern democracies: It is fine for the wealthy and powerful to enjoy private jets and outlandishly expensive homes so long as the mass of people also see steadily rising standards of living. Only the first part of that bargain has been met, and voters are expressing their frustration in ways that vary depending on the country but that have in common a sense that the established order isn’t serving them.

But there are always people who have disagreements with the direction of policy in their nation; the whole point of a state is to have an apparatus that channels disparate preferences into one sound set of policy choices. What distinguishes the current moment is that discontent with the way things are going is so high as to test many people’s tolerance for governing institutions as they now exist.

There is simple economic math behind it. Consider the United States, which has had stronger growth than Britain, Japan or Continental Europe since the financial crisis and the deep recession it spawned. The United States economy is now 6.7 percent bigger than it was at the end of 2007.

But that masks what has been a miserable last several years for most working Americans. The Census Bureau said last week that the inflation-adjusted median household income – pay for people at the exact midpoint of the income distribution – was $51,939 in 2013, up just $180 from 2012 and still 8 percent below 2007 levels.

It gets worse. The 2007 peak in real median household income was slightly below the 1999 peak. In other words, a middle-class American family is worse off financially today than it was 15 years ago.

The sense that the system isn’t working for most American workers pervades public opinion polling, including a recent New York Times/CBS News Poll. Seventy percent of respondents disapproved of congressional Republicans, but congressional Democrats fared barely better, with 61 percent disapproval. Fifty-three percent disapproved of President Obama’s handling of the economy; similar numbers disapproved of President George W. Bush at this point in his presidency.

Or, instead of polls, you can look at results, where every election seems to have the potential to be a wave election, in which one side makes major gains. The idea of overwhelmingly electing President Obama and congressional Democrats in 2008 and turning around and overwhelmingly favoring Tea Party Republicans in 2010 may not seem consistent, but it’s what you might expect in a world where the political mainstream has delivered consistently mediocre results.

Now to continue with Joe Firestone (op. cit.)

To summarize his argument, for decades now, the elites in major modern, industrial nations have committed leadership blunders and created great discontent among the citizens of their nations, to the point where their polices have contributed to damaging their economies seriously, and the rise of popular resistance embodied in extremist parties and independence movements. Elites have had vast power, but have not lived up to their responsibilities to serve the people of their nations. Discontent with their actions and results is so high that many are questioning the legitimacy of the very governing institutions that claim to serve them, and are exhibiting a greater and greater willingness to do something about these institutions and the policies that they and the elites are generating. Scotland is but one example of that, and his implication is that more examples are in the offing.

It’s significant, some might say even remarkable, that Irwin’s article appeared in The New York Times, since it is a flat out criticism of elite leadership over a number of decades and a warning to elites to improve their performance or deal with the consequences. But I think it still misses the most important question. That question is whether there is a global crisis of elites or a global crisis of democracies? I’m afraid I think that the crisis of elite leadership is only a symptom of the underlying cause of a broader global crisis of democracy.

Think about it. Irwin is describing a situation in which the elites have been failing their citizens for decades now, following neoliberal economic policies that have resulted in increasing inequality and the renewed appearance of extreme economic instability, and doing this while they continuously mislead the public about their poor performance, using the power of the money that supports them and permeates the mass media.

And the overwhelming popular discontent with both the political elites and political institutions has not yet served to generate movements that are powerful enough to dislodge them at the polls; even though the claimed signal advantage of democracy over other forms of government is the ability of people in democracies to replace political elites who won’t serve the people’s interests with leaders who will – without bloodshed and in an orderly fashion.

The failure of democratic institutions is the reason why we have elites that commit blunder after blunder, but are never replaced by more competent leaders who do respect the popular will. It’s the reason for Irwin’s global elite crisis. There would be no such crisis if badly performing elites could be easily replaced. But they can’t. Top leaders may come and go in modern nations, but slightly lower level officials, advisers, and consultants, still at the commanding heights of power, remain the same.

Deliver the government to one party or another and leadership at the top changes, but the same or people with very similar views are still called upon to staff the government or advise it. They survive government after government. They move to the non-profits. They move to the international organizations. They go into large corporations for awhile. But they are never retired from the elite circles of governance, even when it seems that they appear to be near senility.

And regardless of past failures, they keep getting appointed to serve new governments on grounds that they have valuable experience or have learned lessons from their previous bad experiences. In present day democracies, past failures provide the qualifications they need for future failures. And yesterday’s failed leader is preferred to today’s new leader with new ideas.

So, the inescapable conclusion is that there is something wrong with modern democracies: namely, that their institutions are no longer effective at performing their essential function of replacing “bad or incompetent rulers” bloodlessly, when that needs to be done.

Firestone thinks democracy needs to be re-invented.  I don’t think we are yet at that point provided we use it.  In any event as Einstein is reputed to have said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  We have 40 years of failure.  How much evidence do you need?


    • BobbyK on September 23, 2014 at 2:43 am

    Than the last six “change” elections. I still like that catch phrase.  Better green than yellow. The green party could really get some traction with a slogan like that.

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