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The Elites Are Slipping

July 26, 1987

The following is excerpted from an evening dialogue, "Lessons from the Fall and Rise of Nations," held last month at the Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars in Washington. The comments are by James H. Billington, director of the center.

I think the American people as a whole are much stronger, more resilient, and more capable of fresh creative effort than the leadership they're getting. And by that I don't mean just political leadership: I mean opinion-forming, value-setting leadership. I mean all our elites.

Americans are a very ingenious people. If you go to places where ingenuity can be measured, there's as much activity as there ever was. What's more, this nation has the values that everyone else wants. Our kind of functioning democracy, our ability to deal with ethnic, religious, ideological plurality--if you read the cultural signals from a lot of countries, this is what they are all groping for. This is what they would like to achieve. It's our market that everybody wants into.

But we're not being very well led. There has been an erosion of values within our opinion-making, norm-setting culture. Just take the leading universities. Nobody from these institutions serves in the armed forces any more. Nobody from these universities physically works in the productive side of the economy, actually making things. And look at our corporate leaders. I believe they're paid much higher than their German or Japanese counterparts. They're way overpaid, even though they under-produce. This reflects a kind of moral decision that goes very deep in the way we choose to allocate rewards in our society. No wonder we don't look to the long term.

So I feel that the objective assets that still exist in this country, including the moral ones of the people, are very substantial and that they have been under-mobilized by the elite culture, by people who seem more interested in paper wealth than real productivity, hire a mercenary army to defend them, and occasionally work themselves up over largely symbolic political issues, while neglecting the real needs of their own nation.

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