Our Decadent Aristocracy

What do the college admissions scandal, Paul Manafort’s lame sentences, and the Boeing 737 Max have in common? They all show us that the U.S. is being run by a decadent, corrupt, incompetent, and inbred aristocracy. Government of the people? Ha.

As of this morning the Boeing 737 Max has been grounded nearly everywhere on the planet except in the United States. [Update: As I was writing this, Trump announced he is grounding the planes, overriding the opinion of his FAA acting director. He was probably catching a lot of grief about the planes.] You will not be surprised to learn that the acting director of the FAA — acting because Donald Trump hasn’t bothered to appoint anyone permanent — is a one-time American Airlines executive who spent a large part of his career as a representative/lobbyist for airline industry associations. I’m sure he will keep the Boeing 737 Max planes in the air until one of them drops out of the sky on his head. This guy’s boss, Elaine Chao of Transportation, could overrule him. But we’re talking about Mrs. Mitch McConnell here.

McConnell married former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao in 1993. Normally a wedding isn’t a big moneymaker, but when his mother-in-law died in 2008, he and Chao received a monetary gift between $5 million and $25 million, according to PolitiFact. Chao is the daughter of a wealthy Chinese shipping company founder.

The plane itself seems to be the result of Boeing executives — part of the corporate aristocracy — overruling engineers. See Jeff Wise, “Where did Boeing Go Wrong?” in Slate.

And then there’s Paul Manafort, a man who spent years running illegal scams involving tax and real estate fraud, not to mention his work for a blood-soaked Ukranian despot, but who lived an otherwise blameless life.  As Charles Pierce said, “Robbing Oleg to pay Ivan is a nice way to get some polonium in your Cheerios, and it takes a special kind of crook to turn someone like Oleg Deripaska into a wronged plaintiff, but otherwise blameless Paul Manafort managed to do it.”

I’ve written before about the way white collar crime just gets winked at in the U.S. “According to the FBI, the annual cost of street crime is $15 billion compared to nearly $1 trillion for white-collar crime,” it says here. One wonders why it isn’t taken more seriously (she said, sarcastically).

The college admission scandal, at least, ought to make people think twice about badmouthing affirmative action. It ought to, but it won’t.

One of the unintentionally hilarious aspects of the college admission scandal is that the federal prosecutors themselves drew a line between bribing a soccer coach to get a child admitted and the time-honored practice of bribing the entire bleeping university — say, with a new building — to ensure that Junior gets a place in the next freshman class. Charles Kushner spent $2.5 million getting his drearily unexceptional son Jared into Harvard, for example. This was a few years before Dad served 14 months for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering. But now the dimwit son is in charge of U.S. foreign policy! So heartwarming.

Frank Bruni wrote,

The wrinkle here is that the schemes were actually criminal and will apparently be prosecuted, and for once the colleges’ administrators were in the dark about them. But they’re versions of routine favor-trading and favoritism that have long corrupted the admissions process, leeching merit from the equation.

It may be legal to pledge $2.5 million to Harvard just as your son is applying — which is what Jared Kushner’s father did for him — and illegal to bribe a coach to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars,but how much of a difference is there, really? Both elevate money over accomplishment. Both are ways of cutting in line.  …

… What a message it sends to the children: You’re not good enough to do this on your own. You needn’t be. Your parents and your counselors know the rules, and when and how to break them. Just sit back and let entitlement run its course.

And then the children so admitted become our captains of industry and heads of government, because the truth is that these days good grades, ability, smarts and talent get you nowhere in America. Success comes from privilege, money, and connections.

See also Farhad Manjoo:

The real news in the college-bribery scheme isn’t that the ultrarich have discovered a fast track to the Ivy League. Instead, the true story here concerns the petite charms of the slightly less bougie. Rather than the perfidies of billionaires and hundred-millionaires, the charges illustrate the anxieties afflicting people who are just below society’s tippy-top rung.

Dig into the parents charged and you find they are the mere mini-titans of tech, finance, law and entertainment, mostly falling into a class that the billionaire Peter Thiel once described with pained sympathy as “single-digit millionaires.

And while the billionaires are crushing society on a grand scale, the single-digit millionaires are striving to crush it small. Beyond what the bribery scheme says about the integrity of the American education system, the charges tell a story about the democratization of graft — or what you might more aptly call the Uberization of it.

Some news articles have talked about the cutthroat nature of college admission, but what they are really talking about is getting slacker teens with average or less grades into prestigious schools. A high school grad with reasonably good grades can always get into some college, somewhere. But the education isn’t the point, is it?

And someday these little hothouse flowers will get all kinds of opportunities that the merely bright and hard-working will be denied, and our ruling class will get dumber and dumber.

The Hapsburgs, who got dumber and uglier over time, once dominated Europe.