New Inquiry’s Drive; Twilight of the Bureaucratic Elite

By Mike Konczal |

The New Inquiry is running a subscription drive for their $2/month pdf magazine and for keeping the site running and free. Given that their project is very different than this blog, I’m not sure how to recommend them. So here are some of my favorite 2012 items from them, which should give you a sense of whether or not you’d enjoy subscribing yourself.

Given that the project emphasizes younger voices outside institutions currently circling their wagons, a lot of their writing is more interesting and closer to the issues at hand than what you’d normally read. Atossa Abrahamian’s piece on Going Lebron and Malcolm Harris’ review of Julia Leigh’s film Sleeping Beauty are two of the more interesting pieces on youth unemployment I’ve read, particularly since they approach it from a much different angle than the normal stories. David Noriega’s piece on serving as a Civilian Complaint Review Board investigator for the NYPD is again another way of understanding NYPD abuses outside the regular critique of abuses. I found Kate Redburn’s piece on the GLBTQ case against hate crimes laws convincing and well-argued. Molly Knefel’s piece reflecting on teaching and her brother’s arrest was a fascinating look into dealing with the realities of policing and privilege. Freddie DeBoer’s review of Twilight of the Elites was an aggressive, left-wing review unlikely to be seen at other venues. This excerpt (and interview) from Kate Zambreno’s Heroines on the role of madness, gender and genius is brilliant. And Lili Loofbourow’s review of the movie Brave was the best read of it I’ve seen.

There’s a blogging sabermetrics element to the site, either publishing writers who are up-and-coming, giving talented people in other fields a space to write with good editing, or providing a more prominent home for some of the Internet’s better bloggers. Aaron Bady, who had the best take on the Mike Daisey flap, found a new home for his zunguzungu blog there, as did other blogs I enjoy like those of Rob Horning and Austerity Kitchen. If you find this or other articles by them interesting, and are looking for new places to read, consider subscribing.


While going through those New Inquiry articles, I re-read Freddie DeBoer’s review of Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites. One of the challenges of the book is that Hayes doesn’t actually want to tear down the meritocracy period or wage war against all institutions — there’s no “and good riddance” subtitle. I noticed that this is a postiive tension in my review of the book for Dissent, because it allows the book to come up with a model of how the meritocratic elite function in society and ways in which it fails, pointing to possible better ways.

But why the ambivalence? Freddie argues that mainstream liberals can’t cope with the implications. They are used to proposing “a moderate, capitalism-sustaining set of policy proposals” because, either professionally or ideologically, “alternatives to capitalism are beyond the realms of acceptable discussion.”

Maybe. Post-Dworkin, there’s been a lot of energy in fleshing out a liberal project that is, to use the jargon, “ambition-sensitive and endowment-insensitive,” so I don’t think it is a complete blindspot. The book argues, following Robert Michels’ arguments in Political Parties, that some level of stratification and power is inevitable to any sufficiently large and important enterprise. The important part is to have that stratification best embody democratic principles, particularly by resisting ossification, and keep the project as a search for and a process of democracy.

But I think the book gives a very clear and specific reason I haven’t seen emphasized on why it thinks a meritocratic elite is necessary – we need it to combat global warming. From Twilight:

Certain political issues do not require elite mediation…that doesn’t hold for global warming, which I would argue is the single most pressing challenge our civilization faces…Here, we need elites and experts to tell us it’s happening and that we have to take steps to prevent it. Implementing corrective policy on the scale necessary requires, as a precondition, a robust and widely shared level of pubic trust that climate scientists and the political leaders who favor a carbon policy are telling us the truth. But the crisis of authority makes that impossible…

Progress is dependent upon a productive and dynamic tension between institutionalism and insurrectionism. Insurrectionists keep our institutions honest. Institutionalists are stewards of our collective public life…without the social cohesion that trusted institutions provide, we cannot produce the level of consensus necessary to confront our greatest challenges. I believe the most important of these is climate change.

Without functioning institutions, trustworthy because some ideal of merit is guiding credentials and access, we can’t tackle global warming. We can’t trust the scientists to diagnosis the problem, or the bureaucrats to carry out the policy solutions.

Abstracting away from the specifics of the book, I wonder how much a meritocratic elite is necessary for social democratic liberalism generally. If you are going to have a bureaucratic system determining access and pricing of health insurance, projecting the costs of old age pensions, determining what kinds of activities count as market-making for financial regulations, figuring out the costs of pollution, etc., you’ll need some way of ensuring that this system is accountable and competent.

But, and here I think the book misses the opportunity to discuss this, does that require a meritocracy as we understand it? How does the need for good government policy carried out well square with, or contrast against, the winner-take-all form of meritocracy, where everything is collapsable into a combination of wealth and IQ? Competence, accountability, a spirit of public service, and dependability are missing from our elite, though they are values that are, or should be, prized in a bureaucracy.

I think I’m going to have to spend some time in 2013 coming up with a better working theory of the bureaucracy, especially how we want it to be. What features does it take from our meritocracy and, more importantly, in what ways can it serve as a corrective? Several people noted to me that the ethos of public service is one of the things missing from the paper I just wrote on the general case for public options, as a public service ethic is exactly what you don’t get from private provisioning. What should I be reading?


Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.