Lewis Lapham: Mike was still having trouble with the different meanings of the word class. Despite having gone to Yale, he suffered the pangs of social inadequacy. He associated the word class with New England ancestors, very old money, and the characters in a tale told by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But, he was willing to correct his examination paper.
Mike: Have the old families, I mean the WASPs, really disappeared, or are they just keeping their heads down?
Mike: How do you think that wealth, power is structured anymore?
Samuel Peabody: Well in my case, our case, wealth was rather dissipated by the time it got to my father, who was a clergyman. Groton was, as you know, founded by my grandfather. Much of the leadership of the country, especially in the 30s, were Groton graduates. I don't see that happening today. Isn't it interesting? Where does the leadership come from today? For my money, we're wandering. Where are we going? I don't know. Thinking about it I thought that after the Marshall Plan this country was at its peak. This was the finest moment. After that we've been going bump, bump, bump.
Lewis Lapham: If the country's wealth no longer rests in the exclusive hands of the Protestant social establishment, where then does one look for America's Class A stock? It occurred to me that Mike would profit from a meeting with a well-connected hedge fund manager.
Jack: But I'm still troubled by you calling it a ruling class. I mean, this is America, it's a democracy. People get where they're going based on merit.
Lewis Lapham: All ruling classes are based on merit, Jack. The principle was as true of Nazi Germany as it was of Louis XIV's France. The question is, how do you define merit? Of what does merit consist?
Mike: Right, because in the old monarchies, merit was born in the blood. The question is, where is it born in America?
On our "manufactured" elite:
Mike: I think I'm beginning to understand. The ruling class is still mostly male and mostly white; but outside of those few restrictions, just about anybody can make the grade.
Lewis Lapham: Americans are an inventive people, Mike. We manufacture our ruling elites, what we like to call the meritocracy, in the same way that we build SUVs or 747s. The members come and go, in power for a season or a generation, then replaced by new technology, fresh money.
Or, to plagiarize myself: If we're speaking of Davos types -- high-level politicians and bureaucrats, and upper management of large companies -- these people are predominantly drawn from middle/working class backgrounds. For the most part, they circulate into and out of this elite during their lifetimes. These types are frequently contemptible for sure, but blame the (as it happens, highly-democratized) system that trained and selected them for that, not "upper-class whites", which present international elites for the most part aren't.
Besides intelligence (which probably pretty much every elite in history has been selected on to one degree or another), present elites are selected for rootlessness, conformity, low fertility, etc.
So it's clear where I'm coming from: there will always be hierarchy and there will always be social mobility. But some forms of social organization will be better and some will be worse. The particular "meritocratic" system of selecting elites that grew up after WWII has been a disaster for America's ethnic core. Blame of "WASPs" or the "upper class" typically is misplaced.
Goodhart's Law: ' When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure'. Universities optimise for grades instead of knowledge. Politicians seek popularity, not the public good. Tomatoes are bred into heavy, flavorless sacks of water. Soviet Nail factories, when instructed to produce a certain number of nails per month, produced tiny, useless nails. Science is no different.Description of the documentary:
The American Ruling Class is one of the most unusual films to be made in America in recent years -- both in terms of form and content. The form is a "dramatic-documentary-musical" and the content is our country's most taboo topic: class, power and privilege in our nominally democratic republic.
At bottom the film is a morality tale, the story of two Yale students (played by Harvard men) who seek their opportunities upon graduation. As the renowned essayist, author and longtime Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham conducts them through the corridors of power: Pentagon press briefings, the World Economic Forum, philanthropic foundations, Washington law firms, corporations, banks, the Council on Foreign Relations, and New York society dinners--our two representative graduates "one rich and the other not so rich" must struggle with their responsibilities in "a world collaterally damaged by the magic of money and the miracles of science." The real-life luminaries they meet on their journey become characters in a story about power, its responsibilities and abuses.
All the while "the Mighty Wurlitzer" plays on, a reference to the massive propaganda apparatus invented by the CIA's Frank Wisner, here used to signify the nocturnal philosophy of acquisition and imperial hubris which continually calls to the young men, the siren song of careerist myopia that was bred into their bones at school.
As we watch these two young men wend their way through what is only a slight fictionalization of their actual lives and choices, as we meet former Secretaries of State and Defense, directors of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations, the publisher of The New York Times, Kurt Vonnegut, Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Robert Altman and a host of others, we have to ask along with Mr. Lapham: "To what end the genius of the Wall Street banks and the force of the Pentagon's colossal weapons? Where does America discover the wisdom to play with its wonderful toys?" The possible answers move beyond the empty distinction of party affiliation and into the heart of American Oligarchy itself. By film's end, the young men must decide: Should they seek to rule the world, or to save it?
Appearing on the screen are a range of leaders and commentators from across the political spectrum, among them: the late Robert B. Altman, James A. Baker III, Bill Bradley, Harold Brown, Hodding Carter III, William T. Coleman, Jr., Walter Cronkite, Barbara Ehrenreich, Vartan Gregorian, Doug Henwood, Mike Medavoy, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., John Perkins, (a.k.a., the economic hit-man) Samuel Peabody, Pete Seeger, Lawrence H. Summers, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., William Howard Taft IV, the late Kurt Vonnegut and Howard Zinn.