Politics & Policy

Our Incredible Shrinking Elites

Faculty Lounge: Jonathan Gruber (left) and Ben Edelman
Professors Gruber and Edelman mark the beginning of the end of progressive arrogance.

‘Schadenfreude” is probably the most accurate term to reflect how most Americans feel when watching MIT economist Jonathan Gruber grovel before Congress, tortuously trying to explain away his many comments denigrating the American voter. It also applies to the much smaller group paying attention to Harvard Business School professor Ben Edelman, caught bullying small-business owners in the Boston area.

Indeed, it would be funny in a pathetic sort of way, if it weren’t so illustrative of our incredible shrinking elites and so instructive of the mind-set that progressives have developed over the past generation or so. Once, it took a Woodrow Wilson to believe he was smarter than the Founders and knew better than “average” Americans how their constitutional system should operate. Now it takes merely a Jonathan Gruber, who won’t admit under oath to Congress that he was paid millions of dollars to distort a clear understanding of Obamacare.

Similarly, what to make of a man privileged enough to attend Harvard University as an undergraduate, graduate student, and law student, and then to obtain a lifelong teaching position in Harvard Business School, and who then uses his legal training to squeeze a few measly dollars out of a family-run Chinese restaurant (and a sushi restaurant before that). Ben Edelman went full-lawyer on a takeout place over four whole dollars; the average associate-professor salary at Harvard is more than $120,000 a year (and probably more for HBS professors). No Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., is young Mr. Edelman.

Comparatively rich and entitled: Those are the characteristics that Messrs. Gruber and Edelman share. Those, and the certitude that comes from being card-carrying members of the progressive elite. After all, how much more heady can it get for an academic than to be consulted by the president of the United States himself on health-care reform, or to be paid handsome sums of money by leading corporations such as Microsoft and the NFL for “consulting services”? Being tenured at Harvard or called into the Oval Office gives one a sense of invulnerability and a presumption that the rules don’t apply to you.

All this matters, not because these are the personal peccadillos of a few petty egomaniacs, but because these are the type of people forming the iron triangle of the government-corporate-academic elite in America today. Credentialism and pedigree (conferred often for holding the “right” opinions) get one invited into the fraternity of the socially powerful, which is a lifetime appointment, revocable only for making the type of stupid mistakes now bedeviling both Gruber and Edelman.

Which is why they both looked like deer in the headlights when caught. Who knows what actually went through Gruber’s head when he spilled the beans and displayed the contempt he and Obamacare’s crafters held for the American voter and our political process. But you can be sure he never thought twice that he would be held to account for his comments. After all, he had been the man in the room, possessed of far more knowledge than those not fortunate enough to see just how the political game was played. If he chose to open his kimono a bit, well, then that was simply his benevolent enlightenment of the not-as-fortunate academic masses whom he was addressing.

As for the precocious Mr. Edelman, it apparently took being ridiculed and excoriated on the Internet to move him to drop his threats of continued legal action and instead “reflect” on his poor behavior. Does anyone doubt that, absent the public dissemination of his e-mails, he would have pressed ahead in his quixotic attempt to receive triple “damages” for incorrectly listed prices for egg fu yung or chicken chow mein? Damages, by the way, that came to the staggering amount of $12.

No, both men saw fit to apologize only when exposed to the scrutiny of the broader public. You see, being a tenured professor means never having to say you’re sorry. Or at least it used to.

Here is the most important lesson that Professors Gruber and Edelman will ever teach: The days of elite immunity from public knowledge of their words and actions are over. The iPhone and Twitter are stripping away the thick walls that used to hide what was said and done in oak-paneled conference rooms or the hothouse of a Cambridge, Mass., apartment. This process is just beginning and will take time to gather enough steam to have an effect on our politics, but it is unstoppable.

The knowledge that nothing is private anymore may lead our great and powerful to have as little candor in private as they do in public. But it also may serve a more useful purpose, by hastening the end of the era of progressive arrogance (and that of conservative arrogance, as well). One reason for the attitude of today’s elites is that they are almost never held accountable for their opinions or utterances. Now that they know their words and acts have consequences, our privileged class might question their assumptions, think before they speak or act, and possibly develop more respect for their fellow citizens. At the least, they might learn humility. If not, then there’s more than enough bandwidth to shame them in perpetuity on the Internet.

— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review Online.

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