"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Privilege And Excellence–Good For America

Alexander Hamilton argued with Thomas Jefferson about the nature of the American democracy.  Jefferson was more generous in his appraisal of the new citizens of the Republic and wanted to ensure full representation and active engagement of all.  Hamilton was less sanguine about the ability of the masses to decide the future of the country.

It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.

The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government. Can a democratic assembly, who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily to pursue the public good?

Alexander Hamilton

The debate resulted in compromise – lower and upper houses – but Hamilton was never convinced that the House of Representatives, made up of uneducated, unsophisticated people, would never have the intellectual experience, breadth of vision, and rational skills to be able to rule beyond their own parochial interests.

Jefferson was far more idealistic and felt that the will of the majority was greater than any individual will, and that regardless of the insufficiencies of any one member of Congress, collective decisions would always be right.

Thomas Jefferson

Many consider this era the most fractious and divisive of any in American history; but of course only a cursory look at the past shows – as Hamilton saw – that any congregation of ‘ordinary’ citizens would always be riven by dispute and characterized by venal and self-serving decisions.  In other words we are no worse off than we ever were.

Hamilton would have been appalled at the degree to which democracy has fallen into the hands of the masses.  Not only has the political process fallen into the hands of an unenlightened and gullible electorate, but the very institutions that serve to create an upper class are being criticized.  The elite universities of the Ivy League, for example, are being challenged for their exclusivity and are being pressured to become more ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’.  Until now they have held the line, arguing that they always have and always will admit only the most intelligent, talented, and gifted students.  Race, gender, and ethnicity must take a back seat to rationality, intellectual discipline, mental rigor, enterprise, and creativity.

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Under the administration of educators who subscribe to this doctrine of ‘inclusivity’, public schools have favored the least talented children.  It is the schools’ duty, they say, to raise the level of performance and attainment of those without advantage; not to promote the interest of those already benefitting from good genes, parental guidance, and wealth.

As a result, those children with talent and ambition are deterred and marginalized.  Bored by the lowest-common-denominator instruction, and forced to participate in ‘cooperative learning’ rather than accelerate at their own individual pace, these students either transfer to private schools or if their parents to not have the means, continue to languish in public schools.

Politicians are no longer chosen for their intellect and sophistication; but for their down-home simplicity.  Even those with a premier education like George W. Bush (Yale, Harvard) hide their credentials to be as honestly rough-hewn and unpretentious as their constituents in Middle America. Public speeches are simple and direct with no more oratory or literary quality than Fun with Dick and Jane.

Dick and Jane

There is increasing hostility towards ‘The One Percent’, those individuals who hold a disproportionate amount of wealth.  There is something inherently wrong in both the size of their personal fortunes and the disparity between their personal worth and those in lower percentiles.  There is a Puritanical vengeance in this criticism.  Liberal critics like Paul Stiglitz and Paul Krugman still portray the wealthy as men who have made their fortunes on the backs of the poor, modern-day Robber Barons who have raped, pillaged, and destroyed the homeland of good, honest Americans in their rise to the top. These critics are Biblical in their fiery hostility.  The wealthy are innately greedy, venal, and insensitive to the needs of those less fortunate. 

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.  The days of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie are over.  For better or worse government has assumed the role of democratic overseer; and over the last century has broken up trusts, imposed restrictive laws and taxes, and done everything in its power to rein in what it considers the excesses of the wealthy. They point to the capture and punishment of Bernie Madoff, the Enron executives, Goldman Sachs, and the Seven Dwarves of Big Tobacco as prizes in their war against privileged excess.

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Most of the ‘One Percent’ have earned their money.  Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, and Steve Jobs are far from the capitalist predators of the early Twentieth Century. They are innovators – talented, ambitious men who have understood the nature of the American entrepreneurial economy.

The most virulent hostility is reserved for Wall Street, for ordinary Americans feel that the buying and selling of money is somehow immoral.  Investment bankers are not producing or growing anything but simply rearranging the capitalist furniture.  They buy Wexler Industries, gut it, fire the employees, and restructure it as subsidiary of General Foods which, after Wexler has outlived its usefulness, will let it languish, deduct its depreciation, and watch it die.  Wall Street traders buy and sell currency, stocks, and futures.  They speculate with other people’s money.  They operate in an amoral and spiritually arid world.

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This populist criticism is nothing but romantic idealism. The activities of investment bankers and Wall Street traders are what finance the American economy.  Pensions and retirement accounts are in their hands.  Loans to finance start-ups or to expand growing enterprises come from them.  Houses and cars are bought thanks to them.  Nearly every economic transaction in America has either started with or been supported by Wall Street money.

The vitriol does not stop with the professional activities of the One Percent, but their personal lifestyles.  Middle America smirks at their multi-million dollar mansions, yachts, Ferraris, summers in Rimini and winters on the slopes of Gstaad.  There is an immorality in the spending of money as well as the acquisition of it.

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The country – and the world – needs more talented, ambitious, and supremely intelligent men like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

“Amidst the oceans of enforced mediocrity in the bland, deflavorized culture of managed-by-committee corporate behemoths,” the entrepreneur Perry Metzger posted on his Google+ page, Mr. Jobs “showed that the real path to excellence was excellence — that you could do great things by, who would have imagined, being smart and having excellent taste and not ever settling for second best.” (David Streitfeld, NYT 6.12.11)

Image result for images steve jobs

As much as Bill Gates has turned his attention to the needs of the poor, he never flinched from his pursuit of capitalist greatness. He understood that he – because of his brains, upbringing, education, and natural talent – had revolutionized the American economy; and he knew that to preserve his vision and protect his legacy he would have to be ruthlessly competitive.  The growth of his fortune was commensurate with the growth of a unique capitalist enterprise.

The comment about Jobs is telling.  America must indeed be characterized as a nation adrift in an ocean of enforced mediocrity. Excellence has been devalued. The dumbing down of America seems to have no limits. Primary school children are given trophies for failure.  High schools students are moved along as long as they are not disruptive or anti-social.  Colleges and universities take any graduate with cash, loans, or federal grants.  Everyone has the right to a college education, progressives say.  It is a validation of America’s democratic, egalitarian principles; a display of American exceptionalism.  As a result young people who never should have set foot in a quadrangle are in hock for years, chattel to an exploitive system and to an irrational, idealistic dream.

Graduates of Yale and Harvard are not privileged because of entitlement, but because of native intelligence, engaged parents, and a superior secondary school education.  Thanks to large endowments, any student who has the qualifications is admitted regardless of ability to pay.  These schools are not elite, artificially privileged institutions, but meritocracies.

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Those men and women who are the CEOs of major corporations, executives in smaller enterprises, administrators of universities, top scientists and engineers, biographers and historians belong at the top; and many more would be there if the culture of excellence replaced the culture of inclusivity.

A culture of excellence is the proper environment for everyone, not just the highly talented. Instead of being praised for everything, children should be praised only if they perform well in those disciplines which are required for social and economic success – mental acuity and discipline, reason and logic, interpretation and analysis.  Schools should provide an unequivocal moral basis for right action and should rigorously discipline those students who persist in dysfunctional, anti-social behavior.  The pursuit of intellectual, academic, moral, and social excellence should be the goal; and the goal of America should be to increase the ranks of the privileged

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