From Meritocracy to Aristocracy

August 29, 2016

Following World War II, the ruling classes of Europe and the United States determined their economic and social policies in ways beneficial to nearly everyone. Enhancing the well being of a majority of citizens.
In return, the electorate lent a measure of trust and deference to their governments. Such trust and respect having been earned.
Of course, the ruling class at the time was not comprised of the traditional aristocracy. Nor was everyone wealthy. But were often dedicated public servants with solid intentions. And many were consistently returned to their positions. They'd earned it.
Eventually, these strivers from humble backgrounds attended the better schools. Became lawyers. Economists. Public administrators. And scientists. Many of whom made dynamic contributions to the war effort. Which, eventually, won them prestige in peace time.
Following the war, these individuals were able to refocus their energies on solid governance. And improving the lives of constituents. They continued to win the trust of those they represented. And in the late 1950s, this class of servants was named "the meritocracy" because of the means by which they'd earned their positions, prestige and privilege.
Over time, the meritocracy gave way to an aristocracy. As specific families, schools, employers and zip codes began to dominate the political landscape.
By definition, an aristocracy cannot empathize with those over which it sits. Because the aristocracy does not experience the day-to-day problems of the electoral class. Or, what sociologists have come to call, friction. Which is the proximity by which a class of people exist aside the difficulties of daily living.
For example, when politicians decided to immigrate hundreds of Syrian refugees to Virginia, they do not relocate them to D.C., nor its tony beltway suburbs where big-hearted politicians, administrators, staff members, lobbyists and their families reside.
Instead, the immigrants are settled in Newport News. A city of 182,00 with a median income of $51,000. Well well below the state average. Especially those in D.C.
And they place them in Harrisonburg, population 53,000. The poorest city in Virginia. Let them contend with resettling, acclimating and living among the refugees.
That's friction.
The politicians in D.C. appear sensitive and forward looking in making such decisions. Winning votes and prestige for having done so. But they do not live with the consequences of their decisions. Those in Newport News and Harrisburg do.
Which begs the question, whose interests are they really pursuing?
The importance of such a question is amplified as cultural spectators note that the electorate has begun to turn against the political currents in which they've been swimming. Having for so long deferred much of its critical thinking to elite politicians, media, academics and alleged thought leaders, the electorate has suddenly awoken. Compared its economic and social progress against that of those it trusted. And realized it got the wrong end of the deal. Finding itself no better off than it was two decades ago.
Sure, the miracles of modern medical, communications, entertainment and transportation technologies provide unprecedented opportunities for all. But the lifestyle gains. The one's by which you personally benefit -- wealth, education, upward mobility -- these being the relative indicators used to gauge whether one generation's stead against the last. Such benefits have only accrued to those at the top. And like smelling salts beneath the nose of the unconscious, the electorate jolted upright. Suddenly aware of the global imbalance between them (the followers) and the elites (the leaders).
In Latin America this week, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was stripped of her office. Technically for violating budget finance laws. More acutely, she was swept up in a tide of disgust with Brazil's political class. As the once flourishing nation's economy declined. And its political classes were involved in a massive corruption scandal. Tired of getting nowhere, the electorate tossed her out.
And we've seen much of the same in Europe.
Consider June's Brexit vote. The outcome of which flew in the face of media and political expectations the world over.
Though the data remains premature, it so far suggests that Britain's decision to leave the European Union was a good one. Which provides another example of a recurring pattern. One that sees alleged experts -- e.g. economists, politicians, academics and media pundits -- forecasting dire consequences should their will not be done.
Consequences that too often proven hyperbolic, or worse.
When you find the blathering punditocracy predicting economic mayhem should the electorate not support a its viewpoint, pay attention. Because when elite media, politicians and academics take to the airwaves, they're usually pushing an agenda. As opposed to providing detached analysis.
Ever read The New York Times? Once, a great newspaper. But the Times has given up any pretense of objectivity. No detached, unemotional analysis of this election. In fact, the paper has openly stated as much. Not in the editorial section. But on the front page.
Accordingly, one must read every political article within that context. Like listening to the opinionated loud mouth at the end of the bar. Once a media outlet has dropped all pretense of objectivity, then its content ceases to be news. But an incessant diatribe of supporting arguments.
Which is the opposite of what was meant to be.
Lawrence Gobright, chief of the Associated Press's Washington Bureau in 1856, explained the philosophy of media objectivity to Congress as follows:
My business is to communicate facts. My instructions do not allow me to make any comments upon the facts which I communicate. My dispatches are sent to papers of all manner of politics, and the editors say they are able to make their own comments upon the facts which are sent to them. I therefore confine myself to what I consider legitimate news. I do not act as a politician belonging to any school, but try to be truthful and impartial. My dispatches are merely dry matter of fact and detail.
Such is the purview of objective journalism. Though such objectivity no longer defines the profession.
What about all these economists? They appear to grasp the data? Seem to understand the big picture?
There's a reason their niche was coined "the dismal science." And it's not because these individuals claim accuracy among their strong suits.
Effective at prognosticating catalysts for inflation, deflation, productivity or various economic data points, their skills rapidly deteriorate when they begin to extrapolate from political events or social movements. Especially when history offers few analogies from which they might frame their judgments.
Even quarterly GDP growth estimates are revised each and every quarter.
As Rupert Murdoch said, "Economists were created to make weather forecasters look good."
Most notably, many of today's leading economists are in the employ of the two major political parties. Which renders any opinions as nonobjective.
Consider the dire 2010 predictions over the Fed's massive bond-buying program. Forecasts of hyperinflation, soaring commodity prices and a collapse in the dollar. None of which came to fruition.
In 2013, economists warned that the sequestration wrought by the Congressional budget battle would tip the economy back into recession. Of course, the economy grew 2.7 percent that year.
In 2015, economists predicted sovereign defaults, banking crises and financial contagion were Greece to reject the international bailout. Only, Greece did reject the bailout. And while the country continues to face uncertainty, it hasn't been bankrupted. Nor did it become the epicenter of global contagion.
What about the pundits? Those guys seem to know everything, right?
Even traditionally accurate forecasters like Nate Silver (here) missed badly while forecasting Trump's chances of winning the GOP nomination, not to mention predictions of the Brexit vote.
Recall the litany of bureaucrats forecasting economic gloom should Britain's electorate not vote wisely. Even president Obama could not resist a transatlantic trip during which he wagged an ominous finger at the Brits. Explaining the dire consequences of an exit vote.
Yet, two months following June's vote, it increasingly appears that the recession so many called for may not materialize. At least not in the near term.
Following the June 23rd vote, global stocks dropped. But only for two days. Since, they have not only recovered, but rallied to new all-time highs.
Warren Buffett's mentor, Benjamin Graham, was fond of saying, "In the short run, the market is a voting machine, but in the long run, it is a weighing machine."
By this, Graham meant to say that in the near term, the market does an effective job at tallying which contenders (companies, sectors, politicians, etc.) are most popular. But in the long run, it does a better job at discerning the most effective and competitive contestants.
As of now, the market's voting mechanism has explicitly shown that it approves of the Brexit outcome. Despite the overwhelming support of global elites for precisely the opposite. Will the market's weighing mechanism render a similar decision?
Well, August UK retail sales strengthened. Jobless claims dropped in July. Leading British home builders forecast a continuance of positive trends.
Could matters change for the worse? Of course. Even should the UK avoid recession, the economy could still prove to have been adversely affected.
Nonetheless, a message has been sent.
Voters realized that the fear-mongering tactics used to dissuade them from an exit were overblown. Such tactics usually are. And even if the British economy slips into a recession, the country remains too small to significantly impact the rest of the world. Further, the UK has its own currency. The central bank was able to trim interest rates to a historical low. And most importantly, Brexit represents a multi-year process. Not an overnight event. All constituencies have plenty of time to prepare and adjust.
No wonder the global electorate appears to be staging a popular revolt in advanced democracies worldwide. Elite politicians, wonks and media types continue telling them how to think and vote. Even as the electorate realizes that more of the status quo will accrue no real progress. Bringing their interests into direct conflict with those of the elites.
Which happens when a meritocracy devolves into an aristocracy.
So fear not the protestations of those who claim to know better. Especially when those protestations emanate down from on high. Those with the most to lose fight the hardest. Even as evidence for change becomes irrefutable.
Fiefdoms are never relinquished peacefully.
And as Shakespeare said, "The empty vessel makes the loudest sound."
If pundits continue to warn against the consequences of the electorate's self-thinking pragmatism, then individuals should take to the streets in order to defend their own rational self interest. Which can only be accomplished when they vote with both their hearts and minds.

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