Writers' corner: Why the cream doesn't rise to the top


Chris Hayes
Chris Hayes



I watched a Book TV program that featured Chris Hayes speaking at a forum hosted by The Harvard Bookstore. Chris’ Twitter profile identifies him as “Host of Up w/ Chris Hayes on MSNBC,Weekends at 8am. Editor at Large at The Nation. Cubs fan.” He  has written a book about the decline of meritocracy, the belief that if a person works hard enough and does a good job he can claw his way to the top, in the United States.

If you believe that myth, Hayes says he has some swamp land in Florida you can get cheap.The cream doesn’t rise to the top anymore in America, according to Hayes.

Here is how the Atlantic summarized Hayes’ thesis in a recent article.

Despite the fact that most Americans believe our country is still The Land of Opportunity, the greatest meritocracy in the world, the United States is actually a terrible place for fortune-seekers. Chris Hayes, author of the new book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, notes that when citizens of different countries are polled about their perception of how easy it is to start off poor and work their way up to wealth, “the U.S. is near or at the top in terms of people who say ‘yes.’ And yet it is also near the bottom in terms of actual social mobility.”

In other words, as Hayes argues in his book, America isn’t truly a meritocracy. Sure, the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and equal opportunity laws have helped to remove many of the barriers to success — but people at the top tend to stay at the top, from clique to clique, and generation after generation. “Those who climb up the ladder will always find a way to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up,” Hayes writes.

The powerful are liable to game systems (like school admissions processes) designed to reward merit; they’ll also go to great lengths to maintain their bank accounts and their positions (consider, for instance, just about everyone involved in creating the subprime mortgage crisis). And despite the fact that we are all supposedly born with the same legal rights, the elite are rarely punished for their misdeeds, particularly compared to those lower down on the socioeconomic chain. “The idea that we are a meritocracy is a vast oversimplification, a self-serving and self-justifying one,” says Hayes. “If you believe that the model is that those who are smartest and hardest working end up with the most power or the most lucrative jobs, then … one conclusion to draw from that [is] that the people currently occupying those positions must be meritorious, which I think is an insidious myth.”

What can writers learn from this?

  • The cats at the top run the game.
  • The cats at the top  don’t want you to play in the game.

To be sure there a lot of ironies in this situation, many of which are not lost on Chris Hayes, as he was quick to point out during his discussion.  Here is a young man gifted with a privileged upbringing (smart,  supportive, but not moneyed parents, a good education) speaking from the stage of arguably the most elitist institution in the land about the lack of opportunity.

Like I said, he admitted he saw the irony.  He pointed out President Obama and presidential candidate Mitt Romney had also walked the halls of Harvard.  Apparently, Ann Romney once referred to the dark days in Harvard student housing when she and Mitt had to stoop so low as to sell some of Mitt’s inherited American Motors stock to keep the lights on.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that Hayes’ book is listed for sale at $12.99 on the Kindle Store, a price point reserved for books written by the the privileged few.

Don’t cry for me Argentina.

So what do writers need to do in order to climb to the top?

1. Be born rich.

2. Be born to famous parents.

3.  Be born to rich, famous parents.

4. Win several gold medals at the next Olympics (You’ll have to check the schedule.  Don’t worry, you have time.)

5.  Forget about 1-4 and figure out how to beat the bastards at their own game.


I think I’ll try number 5.  Want to join me?




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