This argument has its merits. But it would be more compelling if our present bout of instability didn’t seem to owe so much to the sort of meritocratic vices that Kirn’s memoir throws into relief. I’m thinking here of the confidence that with ambition and brainpower comes the ability to master contingency, and the chauvinism that favors the fashions of the present over the wisdom of the past. Above all, I’m thinking of the peculiar mix of entitlement and cutthroat competitiveness that makes everything—your SAT score, your college GPA, your salary, your bonus—into one more way of keeping score.
What successful meritocrats tend to have in common, Kirn suggests, is “a talent for some things, a knack for many things, and a genius for one thing: running up the count.” When you consider the way the current American leadership class has acquitted itself—whether on Wall Street or in Washington—you don’t have to look very hard to see these qualities at work. Maybe Abe Lincoln or Ben Franklin wouldn’t have done better. But it’s hard to see how they could have done much worse.