#29 -- Are we free at last from Michael Young's doomsday machine?
I think what is missed here is that this meritocracy is, largely, an organic organization of society. Skills and proficiency have always been valued and government, from inception, has worked to facilitate such, or regulated it depending on your point of view. Meritocracy wasn't some grand design, but a result of letting the people decide who and how to reward those who make their lives better in a world where better is entirely subjective. The issue arises when large groups of people are not capable (or allowed!) to provide services and products to make other people's lives better. When you attempt to solve this problem you run smack into the fact that people GENERALLY like how things are, and they especially like the freedom and choice that have led us to this road. So, those on the outs complain- but there will always be those on the outs and they will always complain. It IS worth noting, however, that those on the outs today have lives that are objectively easier to live than those who were part of the in group 200 years ago.
The non-meritocracy might look a lot worse - something like Banfield's "Backward Society". Here is how Foer described it in an article on Jared Kushner. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/08/how-jared-kushner-became-trumps-most-dangerous-enabler/615169/
Banfield immersed himself in the life of an isolated white-stone town in southern Italy. He wanted to understand why it remained so mired in poverty.
Banfield theorized that one of the town’s seeming sources of strength was actually its essential malady: devotion to family. Villagers were fixated on maximizing advantages for their own clans. Nepotism was the moral code, and it bred an atmosphere of distrust, envy, and lawlessness. His subjects’ single-minded fixation on family rendered them incapable of conceptualizing the common good. Banfield coined a term to extrapolate what he observed: amoral familism.
The "non-meritocracy" that you are describing might not just entail a relatively small drop in GDP, it might be killing the goose that laid the golden eggs and we really would not like a world where we can't afford things like decent food, health care and housing that people have in other rich countries because of how backward we would become.
Meritocracies *always* crumble. Historically, aristocracies have always constructed elaborate systems of social signals, rather than merit-based criteria, to distinguish themselves from commoners, for a simple reason: such signals are far easier to pass on to descendants reliably than the kinds of traits--intelligence, talent, discipline, diligence--that would allow those children to attain elite status based on merit alone. Consider accent, for instance--long at the core of the British class system's social sorting process. The most worthless wastrel can be taught a posh accent simply by being raised among others speaking in it, while only a few talented mimics are capable of overcoming a childhood steeped in lower-class argot.
Americans, as it happens, aren't nearly as attuned as the British to the subtleties of speech--most Americans can't pinpoint a countryman's place of birth more precisely than, say, "South" or "not South", let alone his social status, by listening to his accent. So members of the American elite instead instill class markers in their children based on domains they're more deeply immersed in: pop culture and politics. Of course, America's upper-middle class *thinks* of itself as meritocratic--college-educated, industrious, talented and ambitious. And that was largely true of the high achievers of the postwar and baby-boom generations, most of whom climbed the ladder of success on their own merits. But much of today's upper-middle class is third- or fourth-generation, and regression to the mean is an awfully hard trend to combat, even with the best schools and neighborhoods. And that's why this aristocracy, like the ones before it, is finding itself forced to fall back on cultural signals--the stuff college admissions officers look for--rather than merit-based traits, as its class markers.
The flipside of this truth is that meritocracies, if maintained, actually provide plenty of social mobility--in both directions--because meritorious traits end up far more randomly distributed across the population, over generations, than our current fake-meritocratic aristocracy would like people to believe. And socially mobile meritocracies provide more Kausian social equality than aristocracies, because the next-generation elite could include anyone's child. So there's no need to solve the "problem" of replacing meritocracy with something more equalizing--on the contrary, the real solution is to protect meritocracy from being demolished and supplanted by a new gentry, comprised of the descendants of the last generations' meritocrats.
The article suggests that Kushner had the chops to make it at Harvard no matter how he got in. Graduated with honors. Maybe this means that the metrics and tests that Harvard uses don't really tell you that much after all. Or it means that getting through Harvard isn't really that big a deal. Either way.......doesn't really look good for Harvard.
Great read, but spoiled by a really large error of arithmetic. Kaus writes that 2400 billable hours per year adds up to six 12-hour days per week, or 72 hours per week. But multiply that by 50 weeks per year and you get 3600 hours per year. 2400 hours would be the equivalent of six 8-hour days, not six 12-hour days. A pretty big difference.
I agree with spencer here. Its not meritocracy itself thats the problem. Actually, countries and societies that have it engrained are far better places to live than those in which tribality, aristocracy and nepotism decide your social status. The fact that we're run by a couple of tech giants is a much more practical issue to tackle. Of course wokey race uni places and corruption at the top are as well. But also, approachable problems.
Ive been incredibly lucky one time in my life (the right people knew me and thought i was the right guy for a well paying job with great future prospects) and i think remembering this when dealing with those a bit lower on the social ladder helps me being a better human being. This is where real societal progress can be made. Be magnanimous to others.
I was jolted by the remarks on Jared Kushner. I believe he has performed exceptionally well as a legislative and diplomatic negotiator. I think his Middle East peace structure is a work of near genius. I also think this article overlooks the world of productive business. You definitely need your connections for rent seeking on Wall Street but The My Pillow Guy definitely shows there are other routes to success.
Great piece! Nice to see you put down in one place many of the ideas you have been referring to in your discussions with Bob Wright.
Interesting piece. However I'm surprised it's about meritocracy; which we don't really have. For the most part we have a system rigged/controlled by a small percentage of the population that got their wealth/power from a wide range of inheritance, hard work and vision, etc. As others have pointed out, hierarchy is in our nature (in all of nature actually). What differentiates us from other animals is that we construct complex rules that favor those at the top; regardless of merit.
Jared Kushner may be a mediocrity, but by accounts he is the primary engineer of the Abraham accords.
If so he should be the one getting the Nobel Peace Prize.
There are thousands of idiot scions out there you could have mentioned that would have better supported your case. If I were you I would suggest trying to figure out why I used an example that directly undermined the point of my article instead of someone like Chelsea Clinton or Hunter Biden or the entire Romney village who would all have been great examples.
The core principal here is who you allow to direct and apply capital. The United States is a break from the river of history in that the 1% control capital rather than the 0000.1%. This is a result of freedom.
This is the difference between central planning and decentralized planning.
Our system works when it does because everyone is free to apply their time, effort, and money wherever they want.
Everything you are talking about making it "better" is when our system does not work. There are all sorts of people who think they have a better way and want to tell other people to do it that way. They have no other skill than to tell other people what to do and they really want to do that.
Your focus on access to education is quaint and outdated. Our Universities deliver a rather poor product in general anyway and that system needs to be scrubbed. You can get better from Youtube and not funnel money from poor young and increasingly minority kids to rich overwhelmingly white administrators and professors.
"Everyone who works could make a basic living, even if it's at jobs that don't really have to exist." We already have plenty of those.
Good read. One thing to consider that keeps getting discounted is that craftsmanship is different from intellectual talent. You don't have to be genetically gifted or a genius to build a good deck or become an electrician. All you need is time and effort (something the bottom class has more of) and one can become wealthy. Many would say quicker than the college/elite route (and with a happier life). Elites pay through the nose for a good contractor, handyman, poolboy, gardner, dog trainer, etc.
Nice piece (no less nice because its a summary of what you have been talking about for years!).
A few alternatives ideas:
-- What you are really talking about is status competition between individuals. That is arguably a universal phenomenon, that the meritocracy did not solve, but neither do any of the proposed solutions because status is an ordinal concept. As people become more equal in material ways, they look to other methods of distinction to demonstrate status, e.g. ability to entertain or looks. The the problem of unequal status reasserts itself because its part of human nature. At least the meritocracy keeps us well fed and entertained even if it doesn't solve all the problems inherent in human nature.
-- Material differences in living standards are actually declining despite some of the top people accumulating great wealth. For example, is there really that much functional difference between silestone and formica counters or between a Carolla and a Tesla. No. Likewise much wealth is not consumed but invested where it benefits everyone but the owner, perhaps someday it will be consumed, but likely by many heirs and then it won't be wealth any more. Similarly, no one actually goes without pretty good healthcare in America if they want it. The material prerequisites for social equality are already there if there was some other way to make people value it.
-- Why isn't there a way to develop an ethos of mutual respect (something like social equality) even independent of one's wealth or income? The anti-racists have been able to achieve that why not focus on thinking of a way to bring that same sort of power to honoring people no matter their material status. Not suggesting this is easy, but it seems like the crux of the issue and focusing on it might generate some good ideas (some of which might work).
-- The Andrew Yang world is one in which people don't have jobs because robots do all our work. That doesn't seem likely, but I don't put it beyond the realm of possibility that with more material abundance one's material well-being gets largely displaced by other indicia of status, e.g. being good looking, being entertaining, having a lot of social media followers. If that happens all the solutions you suggest become worthless and we'll regret not focusing more purely on nurturing mutual respect regardless of status.
There is an answer and it is quite a simple one, fully described in my The Seventh Millennium: A Look at Life's Possibilities in the New Age Before Us. The answer is part-time jobs in the country. See here for details:
Bottom line, we don't want a country where only college trained symbolic analysts can raise a family in their own home. (A later, more a political analysis, is Alvin Gouldner's The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class.) Was 1945-90 an unrepeatable anomaly?