Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Problems with a Meritocracy

The book Pinched has a lot to say about the limits and problems with a society that has evolved down a path of meritocracy - where those with the most talent end up being the big winners. Here are some quotes:

"In the United States, the rise of meritocracy has typically been met with celebration, and in most respects it should be. But this recession has underscored the meritocracy's less savory characteristics. In his final book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, published posthumously in 1995, the social critic Christopher Lasch painted a dismal picture of the destination toward which meritocratic progress may lead. Precisely because modern elites believe their status is the exclusive result of their own efforts, Lasch argued, they lack their predecessors' sense of social obligation. 'Although hereditary advantages [still] play an important part in the attainment of professional or managerial status,' he wrote, 'the new [upper] class has to maintain the fiction that its power rests on intelligence alone. Hence it has little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past. It thinks of itself as a self-made elite owing its privileges exclusively to its own efforts."

Here's another pretty devastating critique of Bill Gates and others like him:

"When I listen to Gates and to other meriticratic winners reflecting on good works or good policy or their legacy, I can't help but think that Christopher Lasch was perhaps too harsh, or at least too sweeping, in his characterization of the new rich. Breaking into the elite requires neither virtue nor vile character, and the elite as a whole contains both elements in ample supply. Yet I also can't shake the sense that, among the elites who are publicly minded at all, what many care most about, in the end, is perfecting the meritocracy - ensuring that every boy and girl has the same educational and entrepreneurial chances that they did so that the cream might always rise to the top. This is an admirable and, indeed, an essential goal. Yet it seems incomplete. It isn't so much that today's elites think poorly of Americans who lack the genetic endowment of IQ required to climb the modern economy's ladder; by and large, many elites just don't think about them much at all."

I have a lot of feelings about all of this because I get caught up plenty reading a bunch of stuff written by the elites for the elites, thinking if I could only work a little bit harder, drive against the "lizard brain" a little more, I can someday be given my speech on TED :-).

The essential problem with all of this and it's the central thesis of "Pinched" is what to do with the vast number of Americans who are not by definition, the elite.

Does someone without a Stanford degree not have something significant to contribute to society? Does someone without a college degree at all not have something significant to contribute? Really, we need to find a lot more ways for a lot more people from all kinds of backgrounds to have a reliable path to the middle class.

Our society is increasingly segregating along class boundaries. The rich are getting a lot more rich. The middle class is shrinking. This is not sustainable.

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