Thursday, November 17, 2011

The World's Simply Not That Just (Sorry, Ross)

Something that appears with some regularity in Ross Douthat's column is his notion that we live in a meritocracy, in which "the best and the brightest" rise to positions of power and fortune, and all the undeserving folks who don't manage to achieve that type of wealth or position should simply accept their lot - and certainly not suggest that the elite contribute even slightly more of their presumptively hard-earned wealth to the commonweal. Thus when Douthat makes statements like this,
The story of the last three decades, in other words, is not the story of a benevolent government starved of funds by selfish rich people and fanatical Republicans. It’s a story of a public sector that has consistently done less with more, and a liberalism that has often defended the interests of narrow constituencies — public-employee unions, affluent seniors, the education bureaucracy — rather than the broader middle class.
At least if my current interpretation is correct, I was a bit unfair in accusing him of engaging in a form of class warfare, as he appears to sees accumulated wealth as something that is deserved - the war is thus not between classes, as such, but between the deserving and the undeserving. If you deserved more money you would have more money, and wouldn't need to join a union or suggest that rich people should pay more taxes. Undeserving seniors get Social Security and Medicare benefits that, in Douthat's eyes, they haven't earned. Rich people aren't selfish, even if they advocate a world in which they pay no taxes, because they don't have anything that they don't deserve. One might mistake him for a Calvanist.

It seems odd that would in all sincerity refer to the people who drove our economy into the ground or who have ruined companies and bankrupted investors as "the best and the brightest", given that the phrase was popularized by David Halberstam as an ironic reference to the well-educated members of the Kennedy Administration who pursued disastrous policies. After overt reference to "Robert McNamara and the Vietnam-era whiz kids thought they had reduced war to an exact science", Douthat proclaims,
...for the last 10 years, we’ve watched this same elite lead us off a cliff — mostly by being too smart for its own good.
Only ten years? It's been known for quite some time that giants often have feet of clay.

While Douthat reminds us that "pride goeth before a fall", it seems to me that Douthat confuses hubris with intelligence. That is, some people who profess to be intelligent, appear to be intelligent (often through the advantage of intensive coaching and tutoring, the use of professional speech writers, having questions submitted to them in advance, and the like), and even take great pride in their intelligence, turn out to possess less than impressive intellects. Douthat's example of "The architects of the Iraq war thought that the American military could liberate the Middle East from the toils of history" seems, to me, to be an example of exactly that phenomenon - bursting with pride, perhaps, but few of them appear to have been particularly bright.

Douthat urges that we, or perhaps I should say the Republican Party, seek
...intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution. We still need the best and brightest, but we need them to have somehow learned humility along the way.
Perhaps, though, we don't need "the best and the brightest," assuming we could measure it, let alone whatever subset of that class of people we could deem to have progressed sufficiently down the path toward becoming philosopher kings that we could trust in their humility. Perhaps what we need are people who are genuinely interested in the welfare of our nation and it's people, who have a clear sense of right and wrong, and who will attempt to bring the best solutions to the nation's problems without resorting to prevarication and hyperpartisanship. Above average intelligence would be a plus, but you can do a lot better than most of the present lot without being a genius.

As I previously indicated, Douthat's thesis extends into the world of business and finance, and he attempts to breathe new life into the Horatio Alger myth:
For decades, the United States has been opening paths to privilege for its brightest and most determined young people, culling the best and the brightest from Illinois and Mississippi and Montana and placing them in positions of power in Manhattan and Washington. By elevating the children of farmers and janitors as well as lawyers and stockbrokers, we’ve created what seems like the most capable, hardworking, high-I.Q. elite in all of human history.
Reading that you would hardly know that upward mobility is in decline and has been for many years.

When Douthat observes that the "for the last 10 years, we’ve watched this same elite lead us off a cliff — mostly by being too smart for its own good", it's as if he cannot even conceive an alternate theory. Such as, some of the elites weren't as bright as he thinks. Such as, some of the brilliant people brought into the financial industry (e.g., physicists hired to create derivatives) were charged with to creating financial instruments that could not be understood by investors or regulators, not because they wanted to improve the economy but because it's easier to sell somebody a sow's ear if you first disguise it as a purse. That some of the people who were publicly denying a housing bubble were playing the same role as the tobacco industry executives who used to deny any connection between smoking and cancer - lying to make more money, and comfortable that even if others were harmed they, themselves, would continue to become richer. If Douthat paid more attention to the mindset of many wealthy people, and what a driving force money is in their lives, perhaps he would be less apt to confuse wealth with virtue.

I'm not sure what to make of the time frame Douthat proposes - while it is true that the dot com bubble and the housing bubble both burst during the past ten years I somehow doubt that Douthat, a self-described Republican, would argue that the Clinton Administration represented "the best and the brightest" doing things right - bright people making good decisions as a result of having "somehow learned humility along the way" - that he sees as absent from that same class of leaders starting pretty much when G.W. Bush took office.

Writing a defense of Joe Paterno, and of Catholic priests who covered up the sex abuse scandal in the church, Douthat takes a position that doesn't seem to square with his Catholicism, but does square with his idealization of the wealthy and powerful:
Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.
It's not a matter of original sin, or that we're all sinners subject to temptation. People are either good and heroic, or are mediocre to bad. Deserving or undeserving. It's only after you decide that a person is "good" or "bad" that you can determine whether his sin reflects the cutting of corners and disinterest in aspiring to virtues, or if the sin reflects the person being so blinded by his own goodness that he simply cannot see that what he is doing is wrong.

Apparently it's easier for Douthat to perceive this "too good to do anything about horrific sin" phenomenon when he's looking at those who turn a blind eye to the horrific acts of others, as opposed to those who commit the acts. So he excuses a cardinal who helped cover up child sex abuse, who "praised a French bishop for refusing to denounce an abusive priest to the civil authorities, because that cardinal had previously done good things for the poor of Colombia. He similarly excuses Joe Paterno, who, according to a biographer, "'lived a profoundly decent life' and 'improved the lives of countless people' with his efforts and example", and can therefore be presumed to be "a good man", despite allegedly covering up the abuse of children by Jerry Sandusky.1

Wait a minute, you might interject, there are lots of very bad people who live lives that outwardly appear to be "profoundly decent", who devote time, energy and money to the aid of others, earning praise and adoration, who are ultimately revealed as frauds. A biographer might have described Jerry Sandusky as having "'lived a profoundly decent life' and 'improved the lives of countless people' with his efforts and example", but for the fact that this scandal broke. The same goes for Bernard Madoff. Even when someone repeatedly covers up misconduct, including the sexual abuse of women and children, that person cannot be presumed to be a human, and thus (as Douthat's church teaches us) a sinner. Douthat would instead project an odd version of the Madonna-whore complex onto the world at large, with some of us so pure that any sin could only be the "their very goodness", and the rest of us "bad or mediocre" whose objectively identical acts reflect our moral weakness.

Douthat asks in relation to the church cover-up, "How did the man who displayed so much moral courage in Colombia become the cardinal who was so morally culpable in Rome?", but he doesn't back away from his notion that the cardinal was a good man simply trying to do right by his church:
It was precisely because Castrill√≥n had served his church heroically, I suspect, that he was so easily blinded to the reality of priestly sex abuse. It was precisely because Joe Paterno had done so much good for so long that he could do the unthinkable, and let an alleged child rapist continue to walk free in Penn State’s Happy Valley.
There appears to be a tribalistic element to Douthat's perceptions. That is, I don't believe he would look at the wealthy and powerful of nations like Syria, Saudi Arabia, Hussein's Iraq or Gadhafi's Libya and believe that the leadership represented a meritocracy who should not be asked to make a greater contribution to the less fortunate people of their nations, or whose bad acts can be excused out of a recognition of their saintly goodness. I doubt that he would extend that charity to the leaders of Greece and Italy. But when it comes to the financial industry, the Republican Party and the wealthy interests it serves, or popular football coaches, the blinders go on.

Douthat does not argue that sins committed "in the name of a higher good" are not sins. He instead argues that "No higher cause can trump" the obligation to serve natural Justice, "'what each of us owes the other in an unconditional debt'" and that "not even a lifetime of heroism can make up for leaving a single child alone, abandoned to evil, weeping in the dark". That conclusion seems irreconcilable with Douthat's assertion that some people are so good and godly that they can be excused from moral judgment for doing exactly that, on a colossal scale, engaging in cover-ups that they had to have known would cause many additional children to suffer. While Douthat sees this as the result of a cognitive distortion ("they somehow persuaded themselves that protecting their institution's various good works mattered more than justice"; they are "led into temptation... by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind" and "in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away"), for those who fall within his preferred tribes he cannot perceive the possibility that their motivations could be impure. He does not recognize that the patterns he describes - earlier lies or thefts or adulteries [that] make the next one that much easier to contemplate - are exactly those he claims would identify his idols as "bad or mediocre people".

Something Douthat does not appear to consider, at least with the context of his preferred tribes, is that some very bad people (and some who have no moral compass) work very hard to create a facade of being good and charitable, as the facade facilitates their gaining wealth, power and authority. There is no shortage of narcissists and psychopaths in our nation's board rooms, and some of them are extremely charming people. Douthat implicitly recognizes that the guy who creates a charity to help children in order to gain access to them for sexual purposes is a bad person. But what about the guy who creates a charity, not because he cares about its good works but because it will help his public image, because he knows he will be praised for his "good work", or because it will help him trick people into believing in his inherent goodness even as he schemes to deprive them of their money?

Douthat admits that among the good people of the Catholic Church there are "bishops in love with their own prerogatives, priests for whom the ministry was about self-aggrandizement rather than service", but how do you distinguish them from the others? Absent a scandal, from the outside it can be difficult to distinguish a charismatic psychopath, driven by lust for wealth, control of others, power and praise, from a true altruist who has risen to a position of authority, and scandals don't always come. But as scandals go, if covering up the sexual abuse of children isn't a sufficient test of who is good and who is mediocre, what is?

Douthat should consider that theodicy not only makes us ask why bad things happen to good people, but why good things happen to bad people. Particularly in terms of the distribution of wealth and power, the world is nowhere near as just as he assumes.
1. To me, the cover-up of scandals by powerful institutions exemplifies how "earlier lies... make the next one that much easier to contemplate", and even make the next lie necessary. Once you choose the path of the cover-up, you not only have to continue to conceal the original scandal, you have to conceal the cover-up. Also, institutions that cover up one atrocity rarely have covered up only that one - often it's their success in covering up nine out of ten such scandals, or ninety-nine out of a hundred, that inspires them to believe that they again engineer a successful cover-up. A cover-up, revealed, can do great harm to an institution, usually greater than that which would have resulted from initial full disclosure, but that harm may be less than what would occur were all of the scandals revealed to the public as they occurred.


  1. We can't afford that type of naivete, under which Madoffs, Sanduskys and Abramoffs are presumed to be good and beneficent until they are caught committing crimes. Most people know that.

    Ross should follow Abramoff's attempt to rehabilitate himself, or reflect back on Nixon's. Were they good people, bad people, bad people trying to look better after getting caught, good people who made serious mistakes and then attempted to atone, bad people making a genuine attempt to rehabilitate themselves... or, if you assume that psychopathy was not part of the equation, ordinary, flawed people who succumbed to temptation?

  2. 1. "One might mistake him for a Calvinist . . .” - I want that on a t-shirt; great line.

    2. At the risk of going slightly off-topic, I wonder how Douthat squares his concept of the "meritocracy" with the institutional welfare that has become the norm for our society.

    3. Setting aside the more mundane issues of tax and subsidy, I still cannot consider the hubris (greed, evil, selfishness, narcissism?) necessary to accept a multi-billion dollar bailout from the Federal Government (given to protect the citizenry from the consequences of the catastrophic failure of the industry) and then to turn around and use millions of those dollars to pay senior leaders performance bonuses without becoming furious . . .


  3. Douthat does not strike me as having thought deeply about this issue; I expect that he would rationalize corporate welfare on the notion that it's simply the government giving money back to those who earned and deserved it.

    Banks are people too.


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