A cozy and lucrative place: America's star system

The top of American life has become a very cozy and lucrative place, where the social capital of who you are and who you know brings unimaginable returns. If you’re an international rock star, you can get a piece of the deal when Facebook has its I.P.O. If you’re a global columnist, you can monetize your influence across the speaker’s circuit and through paid TV gigs. If you’re the chairman of a tech giant, you can get Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to blurb the book you sort of wrote. At the highest altitude, the distinction between entertainers, inventors, business moguls, athletes, academics, and government officials breaks down, making it all the harder to object when an ex-President simply acts like everyone else at his level of fame and influence. After all, the star system, with wildly unequal rewards for relatively small differences in talent, holds in virtually every area of American society. If a bright light from these worlds acted like Truman today, he’d be considered a sucker.

If it isn’t fair to ask stars to refuse the money, it is fair to ask exactly what they do to earn it. One problem with the star system (aside from its appearance of corruption and conflict of interest, and its demoralizing effect on adjunct professors, journeymen power forwards, mid-level executives, freelance journalists, and career bureaucrats) is the pervasive mediocrity and corner-cutting that it encourages: the utter banality of corporate speeches written by staff, the abuse of researchers and ghostwriters by big-name authors, the ease with which a star athlete transitions into a business franchise or a commentary gig, the lack of face time with the prof that awaits CUNY students who register for “Are We on the Threshold of the North American Decade?,” a course whose instructor needed three Harvard grad students just to help him put together the syllabus. Nothing spells the end of real achievement like becoming a brand.