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Publisher's Summary

A powerful and original argument that traces the roots of our present crisis of authority to an unlikely source: the meritocracy.

Over the past decade, Americans watched in bafflement and rage as one institution after another - from Wall Street to Congress, the Catholic Church to corporate America, even Major League Baseball - imploded under the weight of corruption and incompetence. In the wake of the Fail Decade, Americans have historically low levels of trust in their institutions; the social contract between ordinary citizens and elites lies in tatters.

How did we get here? With Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes offers a radically novel answer. Since the 1960s, as the meritocracy elevated a more diverse group of men and women into power, they learned to embrace the accelerating inequality that had placed them near the very top. Their ascension heightened social distance and spawned a new American elite - one more prone to failure and corruption than any that came before it.

Mixing deft political analysis, timely social commentary, and deep historical understanding, Twilight of the Elites describes how the society we have come to inhabit - utterly forgiving at the top and relentlessly punitive at the bottom - produces leaders who are out of touch with the people they have been trusted to govern. Hayes argues that the public's failure to trust the federal government, corporate America, and the media has led to a crisis of authority that threatens to engulf not just our politics but our day-to-day lives.

Upending well-worn ideological and partisan categories, Hayes entirely reorients our perspective on our times. Twilight of the Elites is the defining work of social criticism for the post-bailout age.

©2012 Christopher Hayes (P)2012 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"[L]ively and well-informed.Offering feasible proposals for change, this cogent social commentary urges us to reconstruct our institutions so we can once again trust them." ( Publishers Weekly)
"[A] forcefully written debut.... A provocative discussion of the deeper causes of our current discontent, written with verve and meriting wide interest." ( Kirkus Reviews)
"This is the Next Big Thing that we have been waiting for. Twilight of the Elites is the fully reported, detailed, true story of a 21st century America beyond the reach of authority. It's new, and true, and beautifully told - Hayes is the young left's most erudite and urgent interpreter. Brilliant book." (Rachel Maddow, host of The Rachel Maddow Show and author of Drift)

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Listen To This Immediately!

This is a PHENOMENAL book and the author does an excellent job narrating it. Twilight of the Elites will make you think. A lot. I used the "back 30 seconds" button on my app constantly to make sure I got all of many of the points he makes. It's not that they aren't well articulated, they're just full of important information. You'll likely want to listen to this one twice.

If you have the same vague feeling I did, that things aren't quite working the way they're supposed to, but you're not sure why, Hayes will explain it to you. He breaks down many of the things we take as fact about how American society works, explains the components, presents a mountain of evidence, and then blows apart the conventions that you thought were true.

This book is about explaining the system in which Americans live. It's not about trashing the left or the right. Simply explaining what we have, why we have it, and how it works. This is an important book.

14 of 14 people found this review helpful

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  • Face
  • SF Bay Area, USA
  • 12-26-12

Troubling truths

I've always been a firm believer in the concept of meritocracy; in a fair world, it is right and just that true merit, as embodied in hard work, intelligence intelligently applied, and excellence in execution, be rewarded.

The problem is, as Hayes so clearly points out, that the world is not fair. And in any civilization, even meritocracies deployed with the best of intentions wind up becoming oligarchies. Those who rise to the top eventually seek to protect their position, and generally will "pull up the ladder" behind them.

This, Hayes explains, is the root of America's current crisis. We are in an era when those who have supposedly "earned" their way into the upper echelons of our most sacred institutions are now so far removed from the rest of us, and so intent upon protecting their positions, that they are no longer capable of behaving ethically. Corruption runs rampant, and the majority of Americans now suffer a complete crisis of confidence in just about every one of these institutions.

I really struggle with this. I see Hayes' point; there is much truth to what he says. And yet.... As the daughter of a true Greatest Generation-er, I just cannot throw off my old-fashioned American idealism about fairness, hard work, and merit earning rewards. I can't reconcile myself to any artificial attempts at creating "equality of outcomes" rather than "equality of opportunity". But.... Hayes (and many other authors examining our current catastrophic state of affairs) illustrate that the very concept of "equality of opportunity" is very much in jeopardy in today's America. The game, as I think most of us in the middle class today are well aware, truly is rigged.

"Equality of opportunity" is an article of faith for me, a core belief. There should be no outright "gifts", but those who work hard, apply themselves, and make good use of the opportunities available to them should prosper. This is very much how things were in America between WWII and roughly 1980. But we now find ourselves in a time when gross abuses of power, coupled with destructive economic imbalances, truly call into question just how "equal" the opportunities are in America today.

As a political centrist, I find this beyond troubling. I see examples in today's middle and lower classes of individuals making poor life choices and suffering for them, but I also see individuals working hard, playing by all the rules, making sound life choices.... and still suffering. Likewise, in our elite classes, one can see individuals rightfully succeeding through their own hard work and merit, but one can also see people who are ignorant, lazy, unprincipled, and undeserving succeeding and enjoying outsized benefits way beyond their deserts.

How can any of this be institutionally balanced?

Given my own distrust of institutions (just as Hayes describes it!), I have little faith in any institution's ability to right the ship. But we are SO out of balance that I do believe something catastrophic will be needed to restore something approaching "normalcy" to our current economic and social state.

Those from the Right side of the political spectrum will undoubtedly despise Hayes' book. Those on the Left will praise it. Those of us in the middle will be sorely troubled by it--- I certainly am.

Aside from the content (and my own personal discomfort with its hard leftist bent), I found Hayes to be rather an annoying narrator. His delivery is cilpped and fast, and just a tad on the arrogant and self-satisfied side. It wasn't bad at first, but eventually came to grate on me. I frequently found myself rewinding passages in order to listen to them more carefully a second time, as he so often raced through some complex narratives.

Still, it's a worthy read or listen, if for nothing else than to make one think. It's no secret that America today is way out of whack on the equality scale and suffering some massive problems on the economic and social fronts. Hayes' particular analysis adds an interesting perspective to the debate on what ails us. Definitely troubling, but when grappling with complex issues, it is better to allow oneself to be troubled by difficult ideas than to remain comfortably unchallenged in one's beliefs.

18 of 21 people found this review helpful

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It's me

Any additional comments?

When the author writes about how everyone, even the most privileged, now has a story about how they "pulled themselves up by their bootstraps", I realized he was talking about me. I had bought into this whole sick culture, and I realized that I was the one born on third base who bragged like I had hit a triple. Yeah, I worked like hell to get where I am today, but a lot of people worked just as hard or harder, and the reason I succeeded was mostly luck. I think this book taught me a little humility, and that is a really good thing.

If you are listening to audiobooks on your smartphone while tapping away on your ultrabook drinking a mochafrappuccino at Starbucks, then he's talking to you. If you think you're a brilliant entrepreneur because you wrote an iphone app that lets you share fart sounds with your 1,000 closest friends, then he's talking to you as well. What was it that Tyler said? Oh yeah, "you are not a beautiful or unique snowflake". That is what this book said to me.

32 of 38 people found this review helpful

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  • Grant
  • NANTUCKET, MA, United States
  • 03-10-13

Good stuff.

A lot of good information about inequality and how we got to our current unsustainable economic state. The insights here are also covered just as well in other books by Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz and Michael Sandel. Still, this kind of information cannot be conveyed too often or in too many formats.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Audiohound
  • Silver Spring, MD, United States
  • 07-21-12

Very Meritorius

This was a book I felt affirmed for myself a growing sense of "Question Authority" and "Free Yourself from Fear of Your Own Ideas." Christopher Hayes quickly reads through his own book about the "Fail Decade" (2000-2010) with the failure of intelligence with regard to 9/11, the press's failure in the run up to the Iraq War, Katrina, Enron, scandal in the Catholic Church, steroids in baseball, and the 2008 Financial Crisis. He describes how the Meritocratic Order has ended up creating an unequal game where those who achieve elite status rig the game to keep themselves there, get those who they want there, and make sure no one is held accountable for failure. He also charts its hypercompetitiveness and incentivized culture that encourage moral corrosion and narcissism.

Consider reading this book if you feel significant distrust of our systems or general unease about the current order. I feel I see the impact of the order around me. Anyone seen the child of a former employee get the intern job that makes it just that much easier to parlay into a real job? Ever read a memo or been to a meeting where it seemed like leadership could talk the talk, but not necessarily walk the walk, yet spent time celebrating its own accomplishments? Anger you to see a smart, highly educated banker who allowed derivative trading that bankrupted his company and resulted in a bailout NOT lose his job (and possibly not lose a bonus either)? That's not to say these children, leaders, or some bankers don't have merit. But rather do you feel you are part of a society that REALLY operates with equal opportunity resulting perfectly in equal outcomes? This book really made me think.

Hayes does offer a description of a solution, but he is a bit short on real world examples and applications of his idea for change. Still, this book was an eye opener. It freed me up to think and act a bit more on my own. Also articulately written with great diction.

9 of 11 people found this review helpful

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great tutorial on causes of inequality in US

What made the experience of listening to Twilight of the Elites the most enjoyable?

Well organized, many faceted and clearly presented lecture on
the history and quite recent development of a smaller and smaller
group of rich Americans running away with a huge percentage of American
wealth. Meanwhile, the effort to climb to a middle class standard of living or
to remain in this middle class is becoming far more difficult to realize. One
reviewer mentioned that Hayes should have hired a professional reader. I
felt he did a perfectly fine job of articulating his findings and holding my
interest. Mary K

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Eckhart
  • Verona, NJ, United States
  • 07-03-12


What made the experience of listening to Twilight of the Elites the most enjoyable?

Chris Hayes, the author, does a phenomenal job presenting the subject matter with the right amount of intensity.

What was one of the most memorable moments of Twilight of the Elites?

The book was memorable from start to finish. Chris' ability to analyze diverse topics from the Baseball steroids scandal to the Subprime Crisis is singularly versatile. And his ability to connect seemingly unrelated issues gives this piece of non-fiction a flow usually only found in fiction.

Which character – as performed by Christopher Hayes – was your favorite?

The Andrew Carnegie line in the final chapter (lol).

What’s the most interesting tidbit you’ve picked up from this book?

There are probably too many key observations to list, but the concepts of the Iron Law of Oligarchy and the effects of excess Social Distance are the key takeaways in my mind.

Any additional comments?

With this book, Chris Hayes has cemented himself as one of the most important critical thinkers of the current period. Given how well his TV show is received, this should come as know surprise. But his writing proves that he can not only select interesting topics for discussion, but can write about them in an impeccable manner as well.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Stacey
  • AUSTIN, TX, United States
  • 06-28-12

Excellent read.

Would you listen to Twilight of the Elites again? Why?

Yes I will listen to this again. Examines the flaws in institutions, and provides hope for solutions. The author compares everything from political parties, to Enron, to the Catholic church, to baseball, finding the common threads of successes and failures.

What was the most compelling aspect of this narrative?

The discussion of narrowing the gap in social distance between people in order to create a better understanding and lead to better decision was insightful, yet rings true in a familiar way. You find yourself thinking that, "Of course, if people in power could really experience how other people lived, they could make better and more compassionate decisions."

9 of 12 people found this review helpful

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Rather strange definition of "elite"

If you could sum up Twilight of the Elites in three words, what would they be?

good; limited scope.

Any additional comments?

I rather think he missed the mark wildly in a few places.

I think he managed to lay out quite a few of the problems in our current brand of "meritocracy" for instance, but attacking meritocracy in all its forms doesn't seem to be the answer. For after all, why shouldn't we want merit to have some influence on who is involved in government? It hardly seems like randomly choosing citizens to fill roles they aren't interested in or trained for, as the Greeks did, is more effective or less prone to corruption. Perhaps what we need to reconsider, though, is how we define merit. Being rich would seem to be a poor standard of merit, and yet the reason it's possible to conflate meritocracy and plutocracy as he does is precisely because that is how capitalists are expected to judge merit. Perhaps we would do just as well to maintain what he admits is a widespread belief in meritocracy, but work to change our perception of what makes someone meritorious.

I also found it interesting that one of the major "elite" groups that he ignored almost entirely was academia. Oh, he mentioned them in so far as he name-dropped Noam Chomsky, and in passing, the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, but otherwise, he had nothing especially positive or negative to say about it. Indeed, even the graduates of elite universities he mentioned only those that ended up on Wall Street, and not those who eschewed money in favor of less destructive pursuits like teaching (which are also considerably less well-paying). Academia would have been an interesting example in his litany of elites. While it certainly hasn't been entirely immune from scandal (look at all the papers that have been retracted from journals recently), academics have been attacked as elites, but as an institution have generally weathered the criticism far better than other types of elites in fact, if not in public opinion on the right. And the decentralized nature of science compares relatively favorably with the decentralized movements of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street which he sought to highlight. (Though whether the Tea Party is as decentralized as it claims to be should probably have gotten more attention.) And the value of getting more academics like Elizabeth Warren involved in politics was also completely overlooked: the very types of people who had presciently warned about the immanent collapse of the market before it happened.

I also took strong exception to his attacks on intelligence. It's certainly true that we tend to see intelligence in the way he described financial elites, as an ever escalating hierarchy that has no upper limit. The analogy fails, however, on a couple of regards. For one thing, it's a ladder that is almost impossible to climb. One might improve one's performance on an exam from not quite making it to making it past some threshold, but one is not ever going to magically climb from an IQ of 100 to an IQ of 160 not matter how much studying you do. Financially, that kind of movement is possible,even if unlikely (and rather less likely than most people seem to think). So striving to climb that hierarchy is futile to a certain extent. And intellect is hardly the same as achievement. One can use or not use native intellect, work hard or not, but not really ever become a genius if you weren't born one. Nor does this particularly matter how one measures IQ or which kind of intelligence one measures. His analogy with height also falls short. Height is a useful comparison with intelligence in that it falls along a bell curve (again, however one measures it), and that it is determined both with some genetic components, and some environmental components, but no one disputes the existence of beauty just because it can't be measured precisely, or because more than one factor goes into calculating it (symmetry, general health, etc.) Beauty is real, and so is intelligence. But just as being beautiful doesn't make us more competent or a better human being (even though our brains sometimes act like it does), neither does intelligence necessarily. Intelligence coupled with a Randian worldview is certainly destructive, but then, Isaac Newton and Thomas Jefferson aren't famous for being of average intellect. Do people do anything to deserve high intelligence? No, of course not, but then neither did LeBron James do anything to deserve being born with preternatural sports abilities either. Somehow we manage not to begrudge him encouragement and support, but we do the intellectually gifted? The gifted are a double-edged sword of course. In the wrong hands they can do a great amount of damage, but applied to science and technology, they can also take us to the Moon. Intelligence and fostering it is not the problem, at least in principle. Furthermore, smarter doesn't necessarily mean better even in intellectual pursuits. It has been noted by researchers looking at affirmative action on college admissions and graduation rates, that as long as students meet some minimum threshold of intellect, outcomes do not necessarily improve with better test scores and similar things can be said of a number of fields that have rather high thresholds for intelligence, even physics and math. Do you think someone with an IQ of 170 will necessarily do better than someone with an IQ of 160? If you do, you'd be wrong. Because above the minimum threshold, other factors become paramount. So the attacks on Sotomayor's intelligence were probably misguided at best, but also probably rooted in other factors which he noticeably doesn't mention.

He also seems to rather circle around this notion of equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome. Part of the issue here is what is considered opportunity and what is considered outcome. The right would have you believe that as long as they put no legal barriers in the way, all the rest is outcome, and here I certainly disagree. Getting into a good school would certainly seem to me to be part of the opportunity, not the outcome, so applying egalitarian principles at this level seems reasonable to me. The grades one gets once admitted would seem to be more the outcome here. Similarly for hiring practices would be opportunity, while job performance would be outcome. Opportunity doesn't merely stop at the court room door or the voting booth. The author's attacks on intelligence are sometimes rooted in his egalitarian principles, but how does it help us as a society to squander such intellectual assets by insisting our gifted kids should only get the same education as our most average ones? Having lived through that experience myself, the six years I thought about killing myself directly related to the boredom I experienced in school served no greater purpose than to waste my ability and damage my mental health. We should be helping every person reach their maximum potential in whatever they are good at. The author's experience of going to an elite school, indeed, puts him in a position to suffer a bit from some of his own criticisms of the financial elite in this regard: he simply doesn't understand what the alternative he's proposing really means. And what's worse, it seems to me that the radical egalitarianism he advocates is at its core anti-intellectual, and doesn't really address the specific problems that need to be addressed.

This is, of course, the flip-side to democracy. The part of democracy that our elite founders so worried about. That's why we aren't a pure democracy. There are lessons to be learned here, but radical and pure ideologies are too simplistic to work in the real world. Mixed strategies are more complicated, but as our founders realized in the mixed strategy they employed for our government, they are far more durable, flexible and stable than unmixed ones. If money is the problem (and I certain agree that it is both politically and in the financial markets), then address that problem directly. If the incentive structure is screwed up (as the emphasis on publishing created the retraction scandal in the sciences), then correct that. But casting the net so wide that it takes out good institutions along with the bad will ultimately do more harm than good.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Misty
  • Las Vegas, NV, United States
  • 09-02-12

Essential Reading

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes, and I have. Chris Hayes has an extraordinary mind, both capturing the underlying unease Americans feel for their elite institutions and pinpointing why.

Who was your favorite character and why?

There were no characters, per se, but actual events. My favorites involved the victims of the Catholic Church's pedophilia scandals and the discussions about elite charter schools.
The Catholic Church stories were fascinating for the illustration of putting the bishops above the flock. The charter schools discussion was brilliant for shooting down the myth that anyone gets in by merit alone these days; the well-off will always find ways to ensure their offspring have early advantages in "earning" good test scores, while the poor and under-served are left to pray for natural brilliance and good timing.

Any additional comments?

Listen to this book. I've listened twice. The depth is more than I can elucidate in this review, and it is essential for understanding the unease our society finds itself in.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful