Two Paths for Meritocracy

#29 -- Are we free at last from Michael Young's doomsday machine?

Modern social critics really shouldn't read the Michael Young's 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. Yes, it's the book that coined the word. But Young, a veteran British Labour activist, wrote it as a satirical work of fiction, told in the form of bureaucratic memos -- witty enough if you can penetrate the verbiage, but almost unreadable by today's standards. Little plot. No sex.

And it's demoralizing, because, despite its clunkiness, Young foresees practially everything. I mean everything. The hiving off of the credentialed, the inevitable SAT-selected snobbery, the rise of Trump-like populists, Herrnstein-Murray genetics, the push for a guaranteed income (UBI), even a Silicon-Valley style elite.  I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere in there Young told us the winners of next year's Grammys. As the first to describe an important new social phenomenon, he left precious little for those who would come second or third. It’s like Mary McCarthy’s famous review of Nabokov’s labyrinthine puzzle-novel, Pale Fire: She figured it all out right off the bat.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that after 60 years we’re still living within Young's universe. His "meritocracy" -- the "aristocracy of talent" — has at least these essential components:

1. Education for all.

2. Thorough testing and tracking, with those of the most ability guided to the most important jobs to achieve maximum efficiency and prosperity.

3. The distinct possibility that some of the tested chracteristics (“IQ +  effort = Merit”) are in part genetically inherited.

4. Non-intellectual labor (and, increasingly, a lot of intellectual labor--that's in there too!) rendered progressively obsolete, thanks to technology and trade.

A decline of industrial work, a hollowing out of the middle class, the despair of the 'deplorables', increasing income inequality, are all logical consequences of these principles. We can tax the rich a bit more, raise the minimum wage, provide some ameliorative welfare, but we're still basically living through the unfolding of developments described in Rise of the Meritocracy. Highly skilled people make more money (increasingly more) and choose to live with other highly skilled people. They marry each other and have highly skilled children. Those without skills fall on harder times and increasingly rely on public subsidies. We’re Coming Apart! Training and education -- the universally endorsed remedies -- don't simply fail to arrest this sorting process, they accelerate it, since not everyone can be trained for the skilled jobs that remain. The untrainable collect at the bottom, without work or hope.

We could adopt NHS terminology and call this the Michael Young Pathway. If we're not happy with the direction the country is going (and we're not) we shouldn't blame Trump. We shouldn't blame Obama. It's not their fault — just as it's not Clinton's fault or Reagan's fault or Herbert Hoover's fault or Bush v. Gore's fault. Our dilemma isn't anyone's fault. It's inherent in Young's idea. We've just been dealing with the consequences. This is comforting, in a way. Organizing harder wouldn't have helped.

If you want to have social equality -- a country where everyone is considered an equal, by themselves and others -- what Young describes is a doomsday machine. (Young himself famously didn't like it much, which is why at the end of the book the "merit”-promoting bureaucrat gets killed by a populist mob.) The more you provide "equal opportunity" for those at the bottom, the more you perfect a system in which those at the top can believe they are smarter and better (i.e. more meritorious) than those who can't or don't climb up the pyramid. After all, they had equal opportunity. What's their excuse?

Now we’re facing the end game: What to do when we no longer have enough jobs that practically anyone can do, but that pay enough to allow, if not a "middle class" life, a life as a full participant in society. ** There seem to be at least seven approaches.

1. Liberalism 4.0. That's Walter Russell Mead's term for modern liberalism, in which the implicit state of the art understanding is that if we're going to achieve maximum prosperity (including through globalism and the application of computers) then incomes are going to stay unequal, jobs will disappear and those at the bottom are going to have to be subsidized through a variety of mechanisms (universal health insurance, earned income tax credits, family credits, wage subsidies) if they're going to have enough to live decently. What used to be the working class effectively goes on the dole.

2. The DeBoer solution (recently promoted by Andrew Sullivan) which would make a clean theoretical and moral break from the idea that people should be compensated for their differential abilities and contributions. To each according to his needs ...

3, The Goodhart solution (championed decades ago by Washington Monthly journalist James Fallows) which seeks to broaden the range of merit that gets promoted, “to spread some of the reward and status hoarded by the cognitively blessed to those with aptitudes related to Hand (technical and craft) and Heart (caring and emotional intelligence).” Goodhart thinks a narrow focus on test-taking and academic achievement has become “dysfunctional.”

4. The Optimists’ solution, supported by Mead, among others, which holds that (4.0 Libs to the contrary) there will too be enough middle class jobs rewarded in the marketplace, even if they’re the sorts of service jobs (e.g. wedding planners, personal nutritionists and ombudspeople) that we think of today as a bit frivolous. Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith suggests jobs in “[h]ealth care and education -- things humans only feel comfortable having other humans do” — might survive. (They are 16% of the work force today.)

5. The Kafka solution -- We all work minimal "day jobs" and seek satisfaction and fulfillment through artisanal, extra-market pursuits. (Kafka worked in an insurance company to pay the rent while he wrote on his own time.) This dovetails with a proposal in Young’s original 1958 book — “education for leisure” — that’s more constructive than what I’ve heard in several recent think tank symposia.

6. The Yang solution -- same as the Kafka solution, except we get a guaranteed income (UBI) check instead of a minimal job. If you were worried in the Clinton years about AFDC subsidizing a dysfunctional "underlass" culture, you should worry about Yang.

7. My solution -- We resign ourselves to very large inequalities of income, but maintain a large public sphere where everyone is treated equally (which could be the health care sector, or some system of national service) and a common set of values that confer respect and dignity (most obviously, a work ethic — the need for everyone to do some kind of work). Mix the various income levels in either schools or communities (Hello, HUD!) and hope all this is enough for social equality.

If I'm really being honest, I have to admit that looking down this list is quite dispiriting. As long as we have an economy structured along meritocratic lines, none of the options, if appealing at all, seems very plausible, especially when it comes to feelings of equality between the smarts and the unskilled.

But what if we aren't stuck in meritocracy? Look around. Isn't it becoming obvious that Young's meritocracy is ... how to put it ... crumbling.

Take top universities. It's now not only obvious but widely accepted that you can buy a place at Harvard. (The price is reputedly around $10 million). There was a time --when I went to school, in the Nixon years -- when this would be unthinkable. Even a future aristocrat like Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. might not get into Harvard if he had insufficient "merit." (He went to Tufts.) Today, an academic mediocrity like Jared Kushner simply gets his father to write a check. Another huge chunk of university places are reserved for race preferences. The overachieving suburban dweebs familiar to college-educated Boomers are caught in a pincer movement: Kushners and "legacy" admissions at the top, affirmative action admissions at the bottom

How would we objectively identify "merit" now anyway? The SATs are on the way out. 60 percent of 4 year colleges no longer require them. (What you need this year is a "personal story," not high test scores, according to the Wall Street Journal.) If the SATs persist, there will be pressure to "race-norm," or at least supplement with an "adversity"score. (“The purposes is to get to race without using race,”) California seems about to give race preferences to half its population. Even in grad schools for physics -- physics! -- there's a move to disgregard the Graduate Record Exam (on social justice grounds). Maybe all this doesn't matter since it's not clear that college and post-graduate education will even survive as an obligatory step toward adulthood and career. By some estimates, 25 to 50% of colleges are expected to go broke soon.

What would replace college as a ticket to advancement? How about connections. The most significant (and disturbing) reason Harvard may be willing to sell places for $10 million is not that they need the money — they don’t — but that they actually want the Jared Kushners and anyone whose parents are rich enough to buy a seat, because those are the people from whom all the remaining striving overachievers will get jobs. Merit isn’t enough — they need the connections. You want in on the ground floor of a tech start up? If you try to get in merely by getting good scores in your STEM classes -- well, you'll probably lose out to a cheaper Indian H-1B hire. Sorry, sucker.

The final blow to meritocratic machine may be this: We don’t like it, and the society that's been built on top of it. At a reunion of my college a few years ago, they took a detailed poll, the results of which were summarized for my classmates as follows: "Doctors, lawyers, get a life. You're not happy.” Here we had done all that meritocracy demanded -- gotten good grades, gotten accepted into the best medical schools and law schools, obtained the precious slots that are so important they can only be performed by ‘IQ + Effort’ winners, only to learn that we hate them.

In part, of course, that's because those two particular professions have been proleterianized in recent decades: the law has been taken over by giant firms that work their associates for 2400 billable hours a year, notes Daniel Markovits (which translates into six 12-hour days every week). Doctors now answer to electronic health record software and insurance companies, under pressure not to spend too much time with their patients.

OK, then what about businessmen? Julius Krein has written about the investment bankers and executives in high tech -- i.e. where all the hot elite graduates wanted to go once they realized they didn't have to go to law school or med school. They're not happy either, apparently:

Wall Street banks and investment firms were exciting places to work, populated by original and fascinating characters. The corporate world was in the midst of needed reorganization; new business models were being created; and Silicon Valley was just getting started.

Today, however, most of these workplaces are thoroughly rou­tinized. Slogans about “changing the world” have long since morphed into PowerPoint slides on “widening the moat.

And this from Silicon Valley:

The company I now work for started as a parking app. . . . We were growing sustainably as the result of having a superior product based on a great understanding of consumer needs.

But sustainable growth isn’t what VCs (or the execs that they install in the firms they have stakes in) are looking for. So we pivoted.

Without going into too much detail, we are now exclusively focused on getting acquired by a big tech firm. Meetings with low-level product managers at a few of the world’s largest com­panies dictate every decision about which projects we pursue. We’re no longer building a company. We’re not even building a product. We’re building a feature that we hope will end up getting included in an app owned by a mega-corporation.

When I talk to my friends and peers at other tech startups, they tell me that it’s pretty much the same story at their compa­nies.

The phrase “rat race" (invoked by Sullivan) figures prominently in attempts to describe the unhappiness of the meritocratic elite. Maybe they'd endure a rat race for a larger purpose -- winning the Cold War, going to the moon, beating cancer. But getting acquired by Google? (See Douthat, The Decadent Society)

If the winners don't like the meritocracy, and the losers for sure don't like the meritocracy, who will defend it? How does it survive? Maybe it doesn't. That's how.

I can't predict what the consequences of leaving the Michael Young Pathway are. I'm not Michael Young. But I suspect that it would have a ... well, a liberating effect, once it sunk in that you really don't have to organize your whole society around getting the best academic achievers into the most important jobs in order to maximize growth and progress.  More rooted, "inefficient" enterprises could suddenly become fashionable.  Not enough jobs for less-skilled autoworkers due to foreign competition? Protect those industries enough until there are enough jobs. Introduce newer technology that will put whole swaths out of work? Maybe. We can make a political decision, like the Amish, to introduce it slowly -- or introduce certain pieces and not others.  Everyone who works could make a basic living, even if it's at jobs that don't really have to exist.  Communities could be populated by workers at various points on the income ladder but visibly part of the same economy.

How would corporations cope with the scarcity of elite "go anywhere" degrees? By hiring and firing as they saw fit, through connections or tests, as long as they didn't discriminate along the forbidden race/sex/etc. lines. “Adversity” points? Why not? Hire only townfolk? Virtuous! Hire dissolute relatives? Go for it. (But no cheating by importing lower-wage workers from abroad.) Noone who wound up making less than others could assume they'd been found wanting after being given a fair shot, because the system would not be fair. It would be blatantly, transparently random, meaning it would be harder to translate economic success or failure into feelings of fundamental worth. Social equality becomes a viable proposition once again.

Without degrees to flaunt, young workers would have to make their way up the ladder by learning and demonstrating specific skills, including non-intellectual skills. The Goodhart/Fallows broadening of what’s valued would happen naturally.

And the whole "rat race" ethic of 72 hour work-weeks and cutthroat kindergarten might simply become untenable. Nobody's going to put out 100% in the rat race if the race is random or rigged! Life for today's unhappy meritocrats may calm down.

A rise in localism would prompt legitimate complaints from some, like Kevin “They need the U-Haul” Williamson. Smart kids who grow up in Texas or Montana today often get sucked up into Harvard and put on a fast escalator to the center of national power. Would they instead get stuck in Texas or Montana? They might. We'll have slightly smarter leaders in Texas and dumber people at the Council on Foreign Relations waiting for their State Deparment appointments.

The downside of all this, most obviously, is a decrease in GDP. That's a problem if you think the #1 job of the U.S. is to stand toe to toe with China and maintain our "number one spot on the global stage." It's a problem if you think the only way to give Americans purpose is to use our economic might to, say, colonize outer space. (That’s not crazy!)  If that’s true, attempting to preserve Young's dystopia could be the only path to national success. Just don't expect to enjoy the ride.


** In Young’s book this was predicted to happen in the 1980s. A little early.