Christopher Hayes

Christopher Hayes, author, "Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy." (Crown, 2012). (Sarah Shatz / March 12, 2011)

Chris Hayes, an editor at large of The Nation and host of the talk show bearing his name on MSNBC, was raised in a working-class neighborhood but attended some of the most exclusive schools on the planet.

"I grew up in the Bronx," says the affable, 33-year-old anchor of "Up With Chris Hayes." "My mother was the daughter of an Italian deli owner. But I'm also hugely a product of the meritocracy, and for that reason I have my own affection for it."

Both experiences provided fodder for his much-discussed first book, "Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy."

The third chapter deals with the author's background as a student at New York's prestigious Hunter College High School, which has a 6.6 percent admission rate.

Hayes argues that institutions such as his alma mater, which strive to reward the best and brightest, end up enshrining the very class privilege they're designed to defeat. And he further maintains that society's misguided devotion to the meritocratic ideal has resulted in the failure of the nation's flagship institutions, from banks to baseball.

"In reality, our meritocracy has failed not because it's too meritocratic," Hayes writes, "but because in practice, it isn't very meritocratic at all."

The author, who is scheduled to appear Jan. 16 for a reading at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, recently chatted about his theories.

First things first: In light of your observations, what do you think about the deal that averted the fiscal cliff?

Not surprisingly, I think it fits perfectly with my thesis about the distance between the elites and ordinary folk. It's amazing that the greatest areas of concern for the broad mass of people weren't reflected by the political discourse.

A small set of elites in Washington is much more obsessed with the deficit than is the rest of the country. All that Congress talked about was the deficit. And yet the decision to let the payroll tax cut expire wasn't even debated.

Don't get me wrong — I think there are reasons to let the tax cut expire. But what struck me was how uncontroversial that decision was when the result will be smaller paychecks for 77 percent of the population.

One of your central arguments is that meritocracies inevitably become rigged to protect the interests of the ruling class. For instance, you argue that admission to elite academies such as Hunter is granted disproportionately to students who can afford expensive test preparation courses.

In our society, we have an almost religious belief in this idea of a level playing field, and it's become toxic.

There are two kinds of equality: the equality of opportunity and the equality of outcomes. In this country, we concentrate on equalizing opportunities and don't do much to redistribute wealth and make sure that outcomes also are equal. They do that much more in other countries.

But, during this long period of time in which we've had a meritocratic society, we've seen huge declines in social mobility. For instance, the best way to predict kids' SAT scores is to look at their parents' incomes. The hydraulics of power guarantee that those on top of society will find ways to pull up the ladder behind them.

You raise the specter that if the gap between the haves and have-nots gets much wider, the U.S. could turn away from democracy and toward totalitarianism. Do you think that's a realistic possibility?

Is it likely in the near term? No.

But in the past, societies in decline have had a tendency to produce authoritarian systems, and it's something to be absolutely, vigilantly guarded against. You don't want to have a society where the military, by a wide margin, is our most trusted institution, and Congress is the least trusted — as recent surveys have shown.

That would leave the founders, as a man, absolutely chilled.

Another of your premises is that the elites who are running things are incompetent. But isn't the larger issue that the problems they are tasked with addressing — such as fixing the economy or the educational system — are incredibly complex and difficult to repair?