We are witnessing a widespread crisis of faith in our progressive guardians of the last 30 years. These are the blue-chip, university-certified elite, employed by universities, government, and big-money private foundations and financial-services companies. The best recent examples are sorts like Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Larry Summers, Peter Orszag, Robert Rubin, Steven Chu, and Timothy Geithner. Politicians like John Kerry, John Edwards, and Al Gore all share certain common characteristics of this Western technocracy: proper legal or academic credentials, ample service in elected or appointed government office, unabashed progressive politics, and a free pass to enjoy ample personal wealth without any perceived contradiction with their loud share-the-wealth egalitarian politics.
The house of a John Kerry, the plane of an Al Gore, or, in the European case, the suits of a Dominique Strauss-Kahn are no different from those of the CEOs and entrepreneurs who were as privately courted as they were publicly chastised. These elites were mostly immune from charges of hypocrisy or character flaws, by virtue of their background and their well-meaning liberalism.
The financial meltdown here and in Europe revealed symptoms of the technocracy’s waning. On this side of the Atlantic, Geithner, Orszag, Summers, Austan Goolsbee, Paul Krugman, and Christina Romer apparently assumed that some academic cachet, an award bestowed by like kind, or a long-ago-granted degree should give them credibility to advocate what the tire-store owner, family dentist, or apple farmer knew from hard experience simply could not be done — borrow or print money on the theory that insular experts, without much experience in the world beyond the academy or the New York–Washington financial and government corridor, could best direct it to productive purposes.
But now they have either left government or are no longer much listened to — and some less-well-certified accountant will be left with the task of finding ways to pay back $16 trillion. Abroad, at some point, German clerks and mechanics are going to have to work a year or two past retirement age to pay for those in Greece or Italy who chose to stop working a decade before retirement age — despite all the sophisticated technocratic babble that such arithmetic is reductive and simplistic.
In the devolution from global warming to climate change to climate chaos — and who knows what comes next? — a small group of self-assured professors, politicians, and well-compensated lobbyists hawked unproven theories as fact — as if they were clerics from the Dark Ages who felt their robes exempted them from needing to read or think about their religious texts. Finally, even Ivy League and Oxbridge degrees and peer-reviewed journal articles could not mask the cooked research, the fraudulent grants, and the Elmer Gantry–like proselytizing about everything from tree rings and polar-bear populations to glaciers and the Sierra snowpack. A minor though iconic figure was the truther and community activist Van Jones, the president’s “green czar,” who lacked a record of academic excellence, scientific expertise, or sober and judicious study, assuming instead that a prestigious diploma and government title, a certain edgy and glib disdain for the masses, and media acclaim could permit him to gain lucre and influence by promoting as fact the still unproven.
Higher education is no longer affordable for many families, and does not guarantee well-rounded, well-educated graduates. A university debt bubble, in Fannie and Freddie fashion — together with the rise of no-frills private online certificate-granting institutions — is undermining traditional higher education. The symptoms are unmistakable: tuition spiraling far ahead of inflation; elite faculty excused from teaching to publish esoteric articles in little-read journals; legions of poorly compensated part-time instructors and graduate-student assistants subsidizing the privileged class; political orthodoxy as an unspoken requisite for membership in the club. An administrator is deemed successful largely for promoting “diversity” — rarely on the basis of whether costs stabilized, graduation rates increased, the need for remediation declined, or post-graduation jobs were assured on his watch. This warped system, which grew out of the bountiful 1960s, is now a vestigial organ, an odd-looking thing without an easily definable purpose. When will the bubble burst? If the four-year university cannot ensure its graduates that they will necessarily have a better-paying job and know more than the products of an upfront credentialing factory, why incur the $200,000 cost and put up with the political indoctrination?