There is no meritocracy: It's just the 1 percent, and the game is rigged

The game is rigged: We elected Obama to hold the 1 percent accountable. So why are they still running everything?

Published March 16, 2014 11:00AM (EDT)

    (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Salon)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Salon)

The big news after President Obama’s State of the Union address in January was that he didn’t really talk about the issues of inequality that everyone expected him to talk about. Instead, he shifted the “conversation,” as we call it, toward the subject of opportunity. He shied away from the extremely disturbing fact that when you work these days only your boss prospers, and brought us back to the infinitely less disturbing fact that sometimes poor people do get ahead despite it all. In a clever oratorical maneuver, Obama illustrated this comforting idea by referencing the success stories of both himself—“the son of a single mom”—and his arch-foe, Republican House Speaker John Boehner—“the son of a barkeep.” He spoke of building “new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” a phrase that has become a trademark for his administration.

The problem, as Obama summed it up, is that Americans have ceased to believe they can rise from the ranks. “Opportunity is who we are,” he said. “And the defining project of our generation must be to restore that promise.”

The switcheroo was subtle, but if you’ve been paying attention you couldn’t miss it: These were almost precisely the words Obama had used the month before (“The defining challenge of our time”) to describe inequality itself.

Well, the Democratic apparat heard it, and as one body did they sway and swoon. This was a move of statesmanlike genius, they said. “Opportunity” and social mobility are what Americans have always liked to hear about, they declared; “inequality” sounds like a demand for entitlements—or something much worse. “What you want to do is focus on the aspirational side of this,” said Paul Begala in a typical remark, “lifting people up, not on just complaining about a lack of fairness or inequality.”

If you’re in the right mood, you might well agree with him. In the distant past, “opportunity” used to be something of a liberal buzzword, a way of selling welfare-state inventions of every description. The reason was simple: true equality of opportunity is not possible without achieving, well, greater equality, period. If we’re really serious about opportunity—if we’re going to ensure that every poor kid has a chance in life that is the equal of every rich kid—it’s going to require a gigantic investment in public schools, in housing, in food stamps, in infrastructure, in public projects of every description. It will necessarily mean taking on the broader problem of the One Percent along the way.

But that was what the word meant long ago. It’s different today. When people talk about opportunity nowadays, they’re often not trying to refine the debate over inequality, they’re trying to negate it. The social function of mobility-talk is usually to excuse inequality, not to change it; to persuade us that the system we have now is fair and even natural—or that it can be made so with a few more charter schools or student loans or something. Because everyone has a chance at making it into the One Percent, this version of “opportunity” tells us, there’s nothing wrong with letting the One Percent hog every dish at the banquet.

The well-known libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, for example, writes in his new book "Average is Over" that we increasingly inhabit a “hyper-meritocracy” in which “top earners” take home more than ever before because, duh, they’ve got the right skills and hence they deserve to take home more than top earners ever have before. The future might look bleak for less-than-top people like you, but if you fall off the ladder of opportunity there’s only one answer: Get used to it.


But let’s put all that aside for now. Let’s assume, for a moment, that a real meritocracy would be an awesome thing to have; that giving every person a chance to run the Race to the Top is a worthy goal of government policy.

Even with those assumptions it’s not so simple. Why should Americans work to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to join the ruling class, if the great principle of that ruling class is unfairness? Why should Americans compete on the level if what we’re trying to win is admission to a fraternity of thieves?

Let me explain. A meritocracy requires more than simply making it possible for people at the bottom to climb the ladder of opportunity. It also involves chutes of accountability for those at the top. These are two sides of the same coin: the skilled must be able to rise, but grandees caught with their snouts in the trough must also come tumbling down. “We cannot have a just society that applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of the forgiveness to the powerful,” writes Chris Hayes in his sweeping meditation on meritocracy, "Twilight of the Elites." And yet: “This is the America in which we currently reside.”

Is it ever. Recall for a moment the situation in which Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009. During the preceding decade, we had endured a tech bubble and a housing bubble; our accounting industry had been suborned in all sorts of ways; our prize stock analysts had been suborned in all sorts of different ways; our leaders and foreign-policy pundits had sold us a war in Iraq using completely bogus reasoning; our investment houses specialized in cooking up poisoned investments; our ratings agencies specialized in hanging blue ribbons on them; and the executives of our financial industry specialized in helping themselves to stupendous bonuses even as they lost billions—even as they blasted holes in the economy of the world.

What Americans understood when we looked over this panorama of fraud and incompetence and self-dealing was that expert authority had been corrupted at every point where it was exposed to organized money. The meritocracy was obviously broken.

Public revulsion against this incredible state of affairs is what delivered Barack Obama to the presidency, and we rightfully expected him to address the problem. His resounding failure to do so outweighs all his noble statements about studying hard and climbing ladders of opportunity.

The distressing fact is that Obama had perhaps the greatest chance of any president in recent years to smash the barriers that keep the talented from climbing the ladder, and he chose to do nothing. The sledgehammer was in the president’s hands, the nation was cheering for him to start pounding—and he walked away from the job.

Oh, he is ready to hold kids and teachers accountable, all right—to make sure they all take some Big Test and are sorted accordingly. There have been a few other bright spots as well. The people he has put in charge of the EPA and the Labor Department no longer try to subvert their own agencies, as they did in the Bush years. He appointed the capable Janet Yellen to run the Fed. And: He meted out a satisfying ass-kicking to upper-class twit Mitt Romney.

The other side of the ledger? Well. Obama continued virtually unchanged the Bush Administration’s bailout of the banks that were—let us never forget—the culprits in running up the housing bubble and vectoring its toxins into the economic flesh of the world. He declined to put obviously failed banks into receivership, as the standard practice has always been, and he didn’t remove incompetent bank management in any numbers, as was common with bank bailouts during the Roosevelt Administration. On the contrary, his officials seemed to forget how to negotiate when negotiating might turn out to be costly to bankers. They twisted themselves into pretzels to avoid wielding their ownership stakes in the various financial companies they rescued. In one infamous instance Obama’s team did the exact opposite of accountability, making sure that bonuses went out as scheduled to the AIG division responsible for the instruments that wrecked the company, thus rewarding the fuckups. After that they fanned out to the talk shows to insist on the sanctity of contract—a inviolability they find it easy to violate when it is autoworkers or homeowners on the other side of the table.

There was a mysterious inability to get “excessive pay” under control at bailed-out banks, and so few prosecutions of the banksters who did all this to us that Obama’s Justice Department made George W. Bush’s Justice Department look like an Everest of moral virtue. In a 2012 speech, the head of Obama’s Criminal Division even announced in a public speech that he was sometimes persuaded when banks and corporations asked him not to prosecute because that might cause the company in question to fail and thus hurt the economy—a courtesy that American prosecutors extend to no other group of professionals and that, by its nature, makes a joke of the idea of equality before the law. Obama can hand out full college scholarships to every single toddler deemed worthy, and he will never recover the faith in fair play that one speech destroyed.

It goes on to this day, even as the Wall Street bonuses mount to ever more dizzying heights. In a report issued last month, a Senate subcommittee tried to persuade the Justice Department to get off its ass and take action against American clients of certain Swiss banks, nearly six years after newspapers first reported that those banks had helped those ultra-wealthy clients to evade taxes. But it seems the Justice Department is just not that into the idea of getting tough with banks. Here is the first sentence of a story in  Friday’s New York Times:

Four years after President Obama promised to crack down on mortgage fraud, his administration has quietly made the crime its lowest priority and has closed hundreds of cases after little or no investigation, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog said on Thursday.

And that’s the age of Obama: The standardized tests are for real, but the stress tests are often for show. Accountability for thee, but not for me.


In a 1984 book on the problem of inequality, the journalist Thomas Edsall wrote that one of the Democratic Party’s historical contributions to equality was its practice of promoting members of outsider groups to positions of political authority. He meant this as a description of the distant past and, indeed, I don’t know of any other commentator on the subject who mentions the practice at all. It is completely forgotten.

Well, it is worth thinking about again. Not because Democrats should revive the politicized hiring practices of one hundred years ago, but as a way of assessing Barack Obama’s record as a champion of opportunity. If the president truly believes that careers should be open to talent—the central idea of meritocracy—then surely he has always taken pains to apply that philosophy when choosing his own team. Surely he sought out the very best people for the momentous job at hand.

I confess here that believing Obama would act in this way was one of my reasons for supporting him back in 2008—the hope that this thoughtful and talented man would bring a completely new crowd to D.C. and break the grip of the Clinton-era centrists on the Democratic Party. After all, they were the ones who deregulated the banks in the first place—who did everything they could to get NAFTA passed, to cheer for the New Economy, to “reinvent government,” and so many other noxious things. Surely, with the world prostrate and gasping after a dose of their medicine, they would not simply be invited back to write another prescription.

I will also confess that Obama’s subsequent failure to follow these meritocratic rules astonished me in a way that we cynical types don’t like to be astonished. When Obama won, I figured it was opportunity time—let’s see who climbs the ladder. Instead, he brought Clinton Administration Treasury Secretary Larry Summers back as his chief economic adviser. Clinton enforcer Rahm Emanuel became Obama’s Chief of Staff. Timothy Geithner, architect of the disastrous AIG bailout, became the new Treasury Secretary. Clinton veteran Jack Lew eventually succeeded him. Gene Sperling came back too, to run the National Economic Council.

Five years later, I am now quite convinced that it doesn’t matter what the needs of the moment are; the personnel in this town will always be the same. Change the subject to inequality, or to poverty, even, and still—thanks to the magic of D.C.—the same crowd of former bankers and arch deregulators will emerge as the go-to guys. You’ll get Larry Summers, again! Robert Rubin—one more time! Hell, you could even announce an initiative on getting new people and new ideas into the federal government and when the music stopped it would turn out to be their protégés sitting in the distinguished chairs.

Another thing about this cozy crew: Many of them have worked in the banking sector for long enough to make them intimate members of the nation’s topmost class. Chris Hayes mentions this charming aspect of the Obama bunch in a memorable passage of "Twilight of the Elites":

"Consider the routine staffing changes in the Obama administration as it reached the midway point of its first term. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel left his position to run for mayor of Chicago. Emanuel got his start as a fund-raiser for Mayor Daley, moved to the Clinton White House, where he lasted nearly the entire eight years, eventually becoming a senior adviser to the President. After serving in the Clinton administration, at the age of thirty-nine he left to become an investment banker, spending two and a half years at Wasserstein Perella, where he amassed a fortune of more than $18 million. He then ran for Congress, became White House Chief of Staff, and left to run successfully for mayor of Chicago.

“To replace the multimillionaire Rahm Emanuel, the multimillionaire president Barack Obama . . . named multimillionaire William Daley, the brother of the mayor that Emanuel was hoping to replace. Daley’s resume included stints as commerce secretary in the Clinton administration and as campaign manager for Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, but at the time he was named chief of staff, he was Midwest chairman at JPMorgan Chase, making $8.7 million a year. . . . When Bill Daley later left his post as chief of staff in January 2012, he was replaced by Jack Lew, who spent four years at Citigroup and received a bonus of $950,000 in 2009, even after it was disclosed that his division made high-stakes bets on the housing market.”

What makes this infuriating is that Barack Obama seemed to have different ideas once. He was going to “Close the Revolving Door on Former and Future Employers,” declared his 2008 campaign website, Change-dot-gov. (It also promised—be still, my grinding teeth—to “Protect Whistleblowers.”)

It is even more infuriating to realize that the correct answers to the test have been available to Professor Obama all along. Back in September of 2008, when the financial crisis was gathering speed, I was writing a column for the Wall Street Journal; in my efforts to comprehend the disaster, I learned that the nation’s foremost authority on the type of fraud that had wrecked the economy was a former S&L regulator named Bill Black. I went on to ask Bill Black’s opinion probably dozens of times; as the years passed and the crisis deepened, Bill Black went on to be quoted by just about everyone and to become probably the most famous former S&L regulator in the world. His doctrine of “control fraud” is today familiar to anyone trying to understand what went wrong in 2008.

Another group that sought out my friend Bill Black during the crisis year was the Obama campaign. For them he narrated a twelve-minute campaign video, describing at length the involvement of Republican candidate John McCain in the Keating Five scandal, and faulting McCain for choosing a zealous deregulator as his chief economic adviser—“he’s picked the worst possible source of advice.” (You can watch the video here.)

When Obama won the presidency, I assumed that Bill Black would soon be moving to Washington to usher prominent bankers through their perp walks. That’s what opportunity and meritocracy meant, after all. You bring in the guy who understands the problem.

Of course it never happened. His phone never rang. There was no ladder of opportunity for him or anyone like him, precisely because they represented accountability. And Barack Obama, champion of meritocracy, went on instead to pick the second-worst-possible source of advice.

When I ask Bill Black now what these last few years tell us about fairness and meritocracy, he refers me to Gresham’s law. “If you gain a competitive advantage by cheating,” he says, “then you won’t get a meritocracy, you’ll get a system where cheaters prosper and bad ethics drive good ethics out of the market.” Is that what kept him out of Washington, I ask? Yes, in part. It’s “the international race to the bottom, which the administration has largely adopted. ‘We can’t crack down [on the banks, the administration thinks,] they’ll all move to the City of London. We need to have the JOBS bill,’ a godsend to fraudsters, ‘because too many IPOs are being done in China instead of the United States.’ ”

“People like me were moved out long ago,” Black concludes. To a government “trying to signal continuity and friendliness to the banks,” his presence would have been, he supposes, more than a little discordant.

So our generation gets to rediscover that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill.” Because politics happeneth to them all. Or to the poor and the unconnected, anyway.

By Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

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