Alter: Obama Has Too Much Faith in Meritocrats

Earlier this month I did three things that didn't seem to have much to do with each other. I went on a memorable day-trip with my 87-year-old father, Jim Alter, who flew 31 harrowing combat missions over Nazi Germany. I read a scathing and funny memoir called Lost in the Meritocracy, by Walter Kirn. And I developed a little theory about a rut in the road ahead for President Obama. If you'll bear with me, I'll explain how they are connected.

My dad and several dozen other World War II veterans, many in wheelchairs, flew from Chicago to Washington on a special flight to visit the World War II Memorial. With more than 1,000 "Good War" vets dying daily, sponsoring "honor flights" is a final chance for younger generations to show some appreciation. These guys survived the Depression and beat the fascists. After dad's B-24 got shot down, there hasn't been much in the rest of his life that's fazed him. And he's got a BS detector that won't quit. It sniffed out the stupidity in the Vietnam War and the Iraq War long before the geniuses in Washington did.

Many of the smart vets who returned home after the war to run the country had already assumed enormous responsibility in their early 20s. They knew that the best-laid plans often blew up in practice. And they were wise to the idiocies of the bureaucracy. Of course, not everyone in the Greatest Generation was so great. A lot were arrogant, chest--thumping, intoxicated with more than liquor. The late David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest didn't just explain how Robert McNamara and his chart-wielding "whiz kids" got us into the Vietnam War; it was an object lesson in hubris.

Most of their children and grandchildren, now in charge, were shaped not by war but by college. To win the battle for admissions, fellowships and the other totems of success, they needed not bravery or proven leadership, but test-taking skills and a specific kind of cunning that's come to be confused with "merit."

"I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas as though they were conclusions I'd reached myself," Kirn writes. "To me, imitation and education were different words for the same thing." Moving "straight from ignorance to revisionism" in his facile analysis, Kirn realized that his own honor code was "Be Honored. Or Be Damned." Unlike his literary forebear F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kirn won't be forgiven by Prince-ton any time soon. His attack on the place is too delicious and vicious.

To their credit, the Obamas both know that while they are products of the meritocracy, the system of advancement is flawed. Michelle, whose senior thesis at Princeton explored the school's uneasy relationship with race, came to see that just because she had lower SAT scores than many of her classmates didn't mean she was any less intelligent. Barack realized that the prizes in his grasp (Supreme Court clerkship, six--figure income at a corporate law firm) weren't right for him. His own -coming-of-age memoir, less cynical than Kirn's but not entirely dissimilar, skips over his Columbia years in favor of what he calls his "real education" as a community organizer.

So why such faith in the fruit of the meritocracy? Obamaworld is loaded with the exact types Kirn excoriates, policy wonks who have experienced little in life but sound unfailingly articulate and confident about their elegant economic models—whiz kids with Wharton, instead of world war, on their résumés. One senior Obama official says he feels a bit inferior. He went to Harvard Law School, but his undergraduate degree is merely from Georgetown. The horror!

Brains help. After George W. Bush and his collection of second-raters, it's nice to have some around. And replacing an -ideology-driven White House with a data-driven one is a big improvement. But Obama's faith in data and in his ability to reach the "right" policy answer will not be enough for success. That's because every expert opinion is the product of the biases and backgrounds of the experts. If they come from the culture of Wall Street (like most of Obama's economic advisers) or the culture of health-care-policy intellectuals (like most of his health-policy advisers), they inevitably camouflage their highly fallible opinions in the guise of "the facts," just as they were trained to do in school. They will tell the president, for in-stance, that bonuses really are essential for retention or that "comparative effectiveness" health studies really can save billions of dollars, even though neither, by the account of other experts who don't happen to be in the room, is strictly true. The false humility with which they accompany their judgments won't lessen the confidence with which they express them.

Obama is smart and appropriately skeptical. He knows that he needs some people around him who, in the words of Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, have "run for sheriff." Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett help provide that real-world reality check. But the gap between what one senator described to me as "the culture of experts and the culture of common sense" will endure. To bridge it, the president will have to strap on one of those BS detectors, passed down by those who marched with his grandfather in General Patton's Army.