My review of Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites

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So Chris Hayes has my dream job. He’s an editor at large to a very popular weekly publication, The Nation. Frequent guest and host of Rachel Maddow’s night time show. He now has his own two hour morning weekend show on MSNBC and has just published his first book Twilight of the Elites. So at just 33, Hayes has a great list of accomplishments.

Twilight of the Elites is an analysis of why “over the last decade, a nation accustomed to greatness and progress has had to reconcile itself to an economy that seems to be lurching backward.” Instead of an account that focuses blame on Democrats or Republicans, Hayes deems the last decade the “fail decade” and provides a cogent and eloquent account of how and why our elites have failed us. We’ve entered a crisis of authority in which people no longer trust elite institutions, and in some cases even suspect that the elite are conspiring against them. In short, Hayes says that the collapse of Enron, September 11th, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Katrina, the burst of the housing bubble, the Great Recession, and the moral corruption seen in sports and the church have forced Americans to wonder “just who our elites working for.”

Hayes raises many rousing topics and points in his book in his attempt to explain the American status quo, but three components of his analysis really stuck out to me. They are his connection of improper dependence, Gresham’s Law, and fractal inequality to persistent failure.

One of the biggest problems in our democratic process is the vast amount of money spent by the wealthy to sway and influence elections. In a democratic realm post-Citizens United, affluent members of our society can spend unprecedented amounts of money seeking to have the candidate of their choice elected. In order for other candidates to keep up with the candidate being supported by grand donations, they must too seek out support from the rich. This creates a cycle in which our politicians are being forced to court the rich in an attempt to keep the playing field level and stay in the game. One issue that lies in this scenario is that upper class constitutes a small segment when separated from the rest of society, and it is not fair or proper that candidates seeking election must cater to a small segment of the society. Hayes says “Nearly every single legislator will insist… that he or she has never changed a vote in exchange for a donation. But rather than a complete dependence on the voters, Congress also now has a dependence on check-writers is, from the perspective of the Constitution, an improper one. It pulls Congress away from it true purpose, which is to turn the conflicting, complicated wishes of the people into laws with which they can govern themselves.” Funding elections has become very expensive, and the amount it takes to run a campaign is not congruent with the amount of money that is available from most individual citizens. Therefore the voiced desires of the citizenry are muted by the contributions from the wealthy, creating a scenario in which our government is representative of the upper class. Due to our political structure, some will argue that politicians will still be held accountable to the people at the voting booth, but elections are now much more than votes. A modern election is comprised of campaigns that must gather as many resources as possible to blanket the airwaves, and pay for the multiple expenses it takes to get your name and message out.

The next topic brought forth by Hayes that I’d like to focus on is his connection of Gresham’s Law to our economic woes. This law is best illustrated alongside the sub-prime mortgage fiasco that lined the pockets of unscrupulous bankers and put many home buyers under water. Bankers granted willing buyers with mortgages that the bank knew the buyer could not afford at unsustainable rates. The mortgages started at an affordable rate, but began to accelerate upward to an amount these buyers could no longer afford. In the beginning, these loans and rates put certain bankers ahead of the competition, but the recklessness of the corrupt capsized the market taking out legitimate business and families with it. Hayes explains, “As fraudulent loans entered the market-place, Gresham’s law kicked in with violent force: Those willing to hand out faulty loans and engage in appraisal fraud were able to bag the fees and commissions, while those who wouldn’t play ball found themselves with a shrinking pool of customers.” Our free market was overrun by illegitimate and defective business practices that created distrust of institutions, sank our economy, and disenfranchised consumers.

The final topic is want to focus on is fractal inequality, because it struck me as extremely relevant to our politics. Fractal inequality is how Mitt Romney can claim to have struggled through school living in a basement apartment with his wife Ann. Before I get started here is Hayes description of a fractal: “Fractals are nifty shapes rendered by computers based on recursive mathematical formulas that exhibit the characteristics of self-similarity. They have a psychedelic look and are often characterized by a series of spirals of tentacle looking cornices. If you look closely at a fractal and zoom in on one of those tentacles, you’ll see that it, too, features a set of smaller identical tentacles, arranged in the exact same way as the larger ones off of which it shoots. Zoom in again and the pattern repeats… and on and on.”

So what fractal inequality suggests is that an individual sees themselves as the initial fractal, and only compares themselves to the fractals which are seen when one zooms in. An individual who is fairly well off may not say, “Well I’m doing better than 95% of society,” but instead may say “I’m struggling to have what he has.” Although wealthy, the individuals perceives his situation as average, and believes he can achieve better, and is not successful until he does so. If an individual thinks they are doing well, she realizes that someone else is better off, and that she is “a member of the unwashed masses,” who the person being envied pays no attention to. This perception of oneself embodies a dangerous mentality, in which an individual may cheat the system if possible to gain a better rank in society. That could mean supporting a candidate who will pursue your interest over the interest of others, or selling substandard goods at one’s expense to further your goals.

Hayes subtly highlights the ugliness of human nature without being too vulgar. He explains that the unchecked appetite of those who have power in our society brought about a financial crisis in which many of those not responsible for the mess felt the effects. He warns that this unchecked path is unsustainable, and will lead to collapse moving forward. It has become too easy in our time for an influential member of society to put their interest ahead of everyone else’s.  Using the past decade as a referendum, it’s apparent that our nation is heading in the wrong direction, and something must change to properly address our most pressing issues before they become too mired in wealth, bureaucracy and selfishness.

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