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.

13 thoughts on “Our Decadent Aristocracy

  1. It's legal to bribe an institution because the money goes to the benefit of powerful administrators. But heaven forbid a coach or test proctor should get in on the graft without a hefty cut for their bosses.

  2. Boeing went from being “The Lazy B” flush with many pork projects via Reagan’s buddy the corrupt Henry Jackson, to a full blown crony-nepotistic culture, companywide, which trickled down from the top.  Well known was that good employees weren’t going anywhere unless they “were inside”.

    Some executive history.  Boeing punished Phil Condit for going double budget on his 777 where he was the PM, by promoting him to CEO.  His president Ron Woodard publicly proclaimed a desire to replace the bloated management structure with something more streamlined, rewards based, and less crony-nepotistic, and was promply scapegoated and fired by Condit.  An office skirt chasing scandal (among others) eventually caused Condit to resign and be replace by Harry Stonecypher.  Not to be outdone Mr. Stonecypher gained a reputation himself as quite the office skirt chaser and wound up resigning.  There’s a lot more but I don’t wanna bore anybody.

    At roughly that time the company was in the business of outsourcing thousands of design and manufacturing jobs and related proprietary technologies, not to mention union busting and tax evasion. They were basically a Conservatives Model Company, where if you’re employed at below executive level, then fuck you.

    If it wasn’t for the FAA, Boeing planes would be dropping out of the skies like sparrows.  Here’s a guy who got fired for doing his Boeing job, but made the fatal mistake of having integrity:  https://www.thelastboeinginspector.com/

    Obviously the root problem pretty much lies with corporate libertarianism.  If things like crony-lobbying, rentier economies, massive job and national technology loss, and incompetent CEOs…


    …are the result, then again, fuck you.

  3. Ian Welsh had a memorable essay a few years ago, The intolerance of Genius:

    One of the reasons, today, that we have such mediocre progress on important issues, is the unwillingness to put up with geniuses who don’t have “soft skills”, aka. who don’t play well with others…

    True genius, and I’ve known a few, is alienating. Geniuses perceive the world in a different way than other people do, and as a result they have trouble interacting with other people. One acquaintance told me that it takes him six months to tool down from high level work to the point where he can talk to bright normals and have them understand him. Genius is also about obsession…

    In the old days, geniuses were tolerated, even coddled. If it was necessary for GE to hire a secretary to act as interface between a genius and the rest of the world, that was done. Geniuses were surrounded with other geniuses, their eccentricities tolerated, and allowed to run. Today it’s “if you don’t play well with others, even if you can do things they can’t, you’re out.”

    This is the symptom of a society that doesn’t really care about progress. We live in a courtier’s society, where ability is secondary to social skills, where who you know and who you blow (as the cynical saying at one of my ex-employers ran) is far more important than how good a job you do, because your job isn’t to actually solve problems or get things done, it’s to manage your superiors and get along with your peers.

    One might say “it has ever been thus”, but this is only partially true. The brilliant mavericks were far more tolerated in the war era and cold war period, because they were needed. The possibility of losing a war, or of there even being a war which was an actual risk to the western powers, kept us honest.

    Now those people are sidelined. Socially skilled mediocrities fail to the top, our society shudders from crisis to crisis, out actual scientific and technological process has slowed to a crawl, and deployment of what technological progress we do have is slow and uneven and often happens faster in other nations.

    …not only do we not tolerate geniuses any more, we largely don’t even cultivate genius. The people who go to the “best” colleges in the US these days are not geniuses, not in any creative sense. They are exactly chosen to be conformists who have done exactly what they were supposed to do for their entire lives. They are courtiers in training, the senior servants to the oligarchy….

    And this, this is another reason why the future does not happen, and when it does happen, it mostly does not happen in the US any more.

  4. I could springboard off this:

    And while the billionaires are crushing society on a grand scale, the single-digit millionaires are striving to crush it small. 

    I remember hearing that bundlers – people who put together 100,000 in donations, and such – were feeling crapped on by W, because they were no longer all that big of a deal in a world with billionaires writing million dollar checks to super PACs.

    In a world where $250,000 a year is called "middle class" with numerous articles saying "see, once they earn equity in their mortgage, maximize their 401(k), put their children through private school, pay their living expenses, and so forth, they're stuck with a BMW or a Caddy, rather than a *nice* car! How can you call that *rich*?" those folks getting shut out could be a good thing. 

    If those poor, sorry basta… uh, people realized that they *were*, in fact, now peons, that could be a game changer. And the Republicans aren't smart enough to notice it happening. (Some Republicans – geez, I'm surprised Inhofe can notice "the need to use the *bathroom*" is happening.)

  5. Pingback: Poor Paul Manafort, he gets blamed for everything he does | The Confluence

  6. Good thing we have lots of trust (dripping with sarcasm) in our companies and our government.  That way we can board planes with security.  I liked it better when they gave you a couple of tiny bottles of security on a complementary basis after you survived take-off.  I guess this problem cannot be dealt with this way, as no one manages to survive the take-off.  Now we just have to build better and safer planes.  Of course if we get that done, who is going to believe that we did, when we , with our newfound national credibility deficit disorder, get this job done? 

    From one of the links Bill included in his comment:

    With FAA oversight as incompetent as noted above, getting the serious issues reported to them by whistleblowers fixed through the FAA investigative processes is largely impossible. When the FAA lets the "fox" (Boeing management) watch the hen house instead of the FAA, and then only asks the "fox" how the chickens are doing when reports come in that the chickens have all been eaten, you have the situation noted here, where Boeing Quality System corruptions as noted above are pretty much unrepairable.  

    So corruption in quality control of an unrepairable nature should result in business increases at the airport bars.  Remember, you can buy a security booster if you survive the take-off.  Oh the wonders of unbridled capitalism.  It is all great except for the hangovers.   

  7. I'm reminded of a Supreme Court nominee who fairly dripped with the aristocratic brand snarling at members of Congress who were never his social equal and had the temerity to question his conduct in an attempted rape. 

  8. … 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.

    I REALLY don't want to sound like I'm making excuses for the people who do that, but at least when you buy the university a library other people get to use it. What these cheats did was purchase the "objective" criteria (test scores, extracurriculars) that will allow their large adult children to turn around someday and say "HEY — I got into Yale Stanford etc. on MERIT!" as they cast the deciding Supreme Court vote that kills affirmative action forever.

    A high school grad with reasonably good grades can always get into some college, somewhere. But the education isn’t the point, is it?

    That's the thing. I've read the charging documents, and I don't know about grades, but a lot of these kids did just fine on the SATs and ACTs that they took themselves. They would have gotten in somewhere, just not Stanford or Yale. And that was unacceptable to their parents, who in most cases didn't even tell their kids what they were doing.

  9. OT, sort of? Trump's is calling for armed conflict! Bikers for Trump, dirty cops, active military? This a new low even for this fuckstick! Anyway I'm not a biker, don't much care for the few I know but I'm sure they aint all bad. Here's a great song by a great obscure band about being a biker! Fuck Trump!


  10. All of this is America's version of the inbreeding. 

    Not Kings, or Queens, or Dukes, and their royal families arranging marriages .  But corporate kings, queens, and dukes, arranging their children's future's by getting them into schools where, fuck the education, they can build connections with scions with the families of other "royal" corporate "masters of the universe."

    The original form of royal inbreeding eventually took down empires.

    The American version of the inbreeding of families and connections prevents new blood from entering the masters of the universe hierarchy.

    The fate will be the same as the royal version of inbreeding.

    And the result will be that if we don't eliminate this pronto, we'll be the next empire to fall.

  11. A high school grad with reasonably good grades can always get into some college, somewhere. But the education isn’t the point, is it?

    The kids aren't stupid. They know in this society of ossified economic mobility, signaling the right pedigree and credentials count far more than intellect and talent. You don't even make it to the interviews for the plum jobs without HarvStanPrinceYale on the sheepskin.

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