Thursday, June 22, 2006


Meritocracy and Losers

Is a meritocracy necessarily a good thing?

Before I get keel-hauled over the gangplank, or however the metaphor works, I'll say upfront that I don't have a preferred alternative at the ready. I'm not shilling for primogeniture or the rule of capricorns. It's just that meritocracy has some consequences that I'm not sure we've thought through.

Parkinson’s law suggests that the meritocratic design is self-defeating; people will keep getting promoted for being good at their jobs until they reach a level where they aren’t good anymore, and that’s where they’ll stay. There’s some truth to this.

But there are other, less hackneyed, objections. Let’s say that we liberals purify the educational system sufficiently that nobody’s talent goes to waste for lack of tuition money. (For the record, I consider this a worthy, noble, and unfinished endeavor.) There would still be a hierarchy of talent. And the sneaky underside of meritocracy is that it suggests that those on the bottom deserve their fate.

Over the years, we’ve sort of assumed that ‘vocational’ programs will meet the needs of the folks who would otherwise spend their time filling out the left-hand side of the academic bell curve. Sometimes this works, but it’s not at all clear to me that academic skills are irrelevant for the skilled trades, or that we’d want them to be. The hosts of ‘Car Talk,’ for example, have engineering degrees from MIT, and they work(ed) as car mechanics. Those engineering backgrounds give them an ability to talk about cars with a depth of understanding you don’t always find. They’ve parlayed that ability into a sort of celebrity status.

A sociologist named Michael Young coined the term ‘meritocracy’ when he used it as the title of his dystopian novel, written in the late 1950’s. (It was set a few generations into the future.) The conceit of the novel was that all industries were organized by rigorous merit, with the result that the lower classes were horrifically exploited, since anyone in the lower classes with any ability was quickly reslotted somewhere else. The ones left over were the ones incapable of defending themselves. And nobody else defended them, since they lost fair and square. Over time, it came to resemble a caste system.

The real economy is much more diverse than this, of course, and what counts as merit in one industry will be irrelevant in another, and vice versa. (The skills of a great cruise director and the skills of a great software engineer may or may not overlap.) But the overall direction is recognizable, and kind of scary. To the extent that we combine an assumption that meritocracy is a Good Thing with economic polarization, we come up with a default cultural assumption that the rich are rich because they deserve it, and the struggling struggle because they deserve it. And if earthly wealth is really a reflection of God’s favor, then any sort of redistribution is clearly immoral. Don’t give health care to people without jobs – they don’t deserve it! Don’t penalize success!

I’m in the paradoxical position of saying this, while also believing strongly that many barriers to meritocracy – racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. – absolutely need to be defeated in its name. My college recently instituted domestic partner health benefits for employees, mostly to help us recruit the best faculty, and I think it’s great. Meritocracy beats the crap out of most other systems, at least as far as morality and productivity go.

Maybe what I’d prefer would be a little more humility mixed in. Talents are, in part, a function of luck. Good health is, in part, a function of luck – no matter how well you take care of yourself, you could get hit by a truck tomorrow. Luck can change. I’m fumbling around for the political rhetoric that combines a recognition of talent and hard work with a recognition of shared human frailty. Yes, some will be paid more than others, and I’m okay with that. The smart kid who worked his butt off to become an oncologist deserves more than the smart kid who cruised by on attitude. I’m fine with that. But there’s a limit to how low we should let the bottom be, because there but for the grace of God goes anybody. And to say that it’s deserved strikes me as immorally arrogant.

Thanks for writing this. Meritocracy is one of these things college students love to think they believe in, but don't really. When my "best" students start mocking my "worst" students or vice versa, I make them read "Harrison Bergeron" so we can talk about what the classroom would be like if everyone were forced to be equal and no one is allowed to excel, compared with the classroom as a tyranny run by the smartest and most talented, while anyone who doesn't "get it" is left by the wayside. In the former situation, I'd give everyone C's no matter what work they did, and in the latter there would end up being a couple of A's and a lot of F's.

The only people I've ever met who've tried to defend meritocracy are Republicans who happened to be born healthy and with money, go to great schools, have lots of connections, get a high-paying job, and can't imagine that their abilities and success might have something to do with luck of the draw. Oh, and Ayn Rand people.
Actually, Parkinson's Law says work expands to fill the available time. It is the Peter Principle that says we all rise to our level of incompetency.
I will start focused and then go large.

Meritocracy advocates (mostly Reps. but not all, white bear) feel assured that good works-cum-intentions will be rewarded. This helps motivation a lot. [I wonder if religious it not a greater indicator of adherence than political party] Why else do something good if it is not going to be rewarded? Goodness as its own reward? How quaint.

So, the idea of a rewarding (read "just" or "fair") world is terribly appealing. Even going the other way…that evil will be punished and injustice addressed. It is to appealing that I would advocate that everyone work toward it.

That is not to say, though, that the world is, de facto, ordered this way. Pluck, luck and who you know (what were you thinking I was going to say?) play, at times, far greater parts in your play than your ability. Sure, ability, talent and hard work helps, but there are plenty of talented, hard working poor and sick.

Going specific: university education is founded, grounding and established on the notion of the best and brightest being assembled. "Go to University X because we know more. You will get more for your tuition dollars." Sometimes they are right. Often, though the "brightest" don't teach well, or the best teachers aren't as cutting edge as they could be.

So, it seems, over the evolution of Higher Ed the way to attract the hardiest stable of profs is to wave the carrot of tenure, encouraging participation in a steeple course of requirements that, once completed, ensures healthy pastures (insert appropriate "stud" activities if you wish) unto death.

Does this result in the "best" educational structure? Education is an experience as much as a commodity, so the market analogy (or Darwinian approach) may not serve the best. So, why keep the tenure model? Why not piece-work (adjunct) the whole structure?

If you are arguing that this approach is foolish or irrational or something else, consider that the average institution (even the better brands) have increased their use of adjuncts (some call them one or two year contracts) exponentially in the last 30 years.

Just some thoughts.
Actually, I think I started large and went local. Sorry. :)
AstroProf -- somehow, it seems fitting that I'd bungle a point about incompetence. Good catch.

PPP -- I'm not sure I follow your train of thought. Tenured academia is the antithesis of a meritocracy, in my view, since in a true meritocracy incumbents would have to defend their status against newcomers. People with tenure don't, so they're free to achieve or not as they see fit.
Mmm. DD, I think you may be overestimating the role that the educational system has in success, overall.

I'm a big Car Talk fan myself--to the extent that I know WHY Dougie Berman is referred to as "the Subway Fugitive". However, I disagree with the analysis. The Magliozzi brothers don't have a syndicated talk show and column because they use their engineering education. They are decent mechanics (according to the mechanics I know), but not amazingly good ones.

What they ARE doing is combining some knowledge with substantial showmanship. You'll probably learn something listening to their show, but you will also laugh yourself sick, get into a good-natured argument over one of the answers, and wait for the new additions to the staff credits at the end. These boys didn't learn all that at MIT, to be sure.

Now sure, a fancy name on your college diploma does help in life (anyone else see the front page of the New York Times this morning?), and you'll probably walk out of college knowing more than you did when you went in. But there is so much more to success or failure than that.

Plus, outside of the fairly rigid and hierarchical world of academia, an absolute "top" and "bottom" are much harder to discern. There are just too many people, and too many social groups.

Grab a dozen people. Who's on top: the character actor, the guy who owns three automotive dealerships, the pregnant woman, the Baptist seminarian, or the trumpet player? Can't tell without more data....could be any of them.
As I recall, this was presented as a book called "The Peter Principal" in the 70's. I do think that in many businesses and schools people are permitted to continue working even when they are no longer effective. I know teachers that fit this description. They end up teaching Health or Drivers Ed because they have no real cause to be let go other than lack of drive. I have had professors like this in college that are teaching and have tenure and simply sleepwalk through the class. In business it's the same, there's always one person whose been there since the company began.Nobody really knows what they do, but since they know the history of the company and where the skeletons are buried, they linger on. People like to think business operate like the movie "Office Space", but they really don't by and large. There's a lot of wasted time in a day. And if someone comes in with the attitude of getting something done, THEY are the outcast. Did you get that memo?
Let's apply this to faculty - I have worked in two institutions: one that does not have merit pay, and one that does. They both, to certain extent, create bad work enviornments.

The school without merit pay created a system where everyone was "pretty good" at what they did and "outstanding" was something you did for reasons beyond pay/advancement (I published and served on committees in order to create opportunities that I ultimatly had to leave the school to take). So there was a distinct class of folks at this school, usually the harder working faculty, who felt "under-paid" (relative term, of course).

My current school is just the opposite - you get paid according to what you publish or how big the grants you bring in are (good teaching is only a small part of the merit pay consideration, far below scholarship and fund raising); this creates some dis-insentives (sp?) to teaching and committee work, but the university seems fine with it. The real problem is the mystery - merit pay is handed out by a central committee cloaked in secrecy and so no one knows how or why you receive merit increases (and, contrary to belief, administrators get no merit increases and far lower raises than faculty).

It's not a binary (meritocracy or not); the best system, in my mind, would use both. Somehow...
The first place I would go for an answer to this concern is the philosopher John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. Here's a cheat sheet. It may not be totally satisfying, but it's an interesting start.
I may be outing myself as an idiot here, but fwiw...

When my stepdaughter was little, she told her dad, "Since everybody needs food, I think food should be free so everyone gets enough even if they are poor." Pause. "Except things like ice cream because you don't really need ice cream."

I tend to agree somewhat with that five-year old view of the world. I wish we could figure a way to give everyone some basic necessities and then let the luxuries be up to hard work..and not *worry* so much that someone might be "abusing the public dollar" if they in fact have zero get-up-n-go. "Don't work, don't eat" was necessary in the early days of this country, but it's just not so anymore. We have TOO damn much of just about everything.

One professor I read about does something in his class when his students start scoffing about poor people "deserving" to be poor. He puts a trash can at the front of the room and asks for two volunteers, promising each of them five points on the next test if they can throw a paper ball into the trash can. For real, he gives them the five points. He then lets one person stand right next to the can, and then he sends the other across the room. Clearly, this is wildly unfair, but he points out that they both have the same chance to get five points! Just make a basket! Students quickly see that "access" is critical.
Actually, the Peter Principle is not that "all of us" rise to our level of incompetence--Peter wrote specifically with reference to business management. Businesses use a structure that, at its best, promotes managers based on their performance, right up until the point they screw up because they have reached their level of incompetence. This is clearly not the same structure as academia, into which a significant percentage enter already at their level of incompetence, moving upward the organization regardless.

C. Northcote Parkinson, on the other hand, developed many laws, many of them from first-hand observation of academics in committee. For instance, he argues that the optimum size of a committe is 7 members, although 9 are allowed if 2 are non-voting. His law of Inverse Triviality states that the amount of time a committee spends discussing an agenda item is inversely proportional to the importance (or expense) of that item.

I think, too, that too much is being subsumed here under the notion of meritocracy. Far from starting with John Rawls, debate over the nature and hence value of meritocracy begins in the 5th century BC (at least) with Confucius, and is a recurrent theme in all bureaucracies. Judging from the failure of all bureaucracies to ever implement complete meritocracy, I don't think we are in any danger of making the poor poorer by promoting based on competence.

I also think that what DD identifies as the "arrogance" of meritocracy is much closer to Weber's notion of Calvinist grace as applied by Protestant capitalists than it is to practices of promotion by merit. This notion that there is a moral positivity attached to the ability to accomplish (good) things by no means undercuts ideas of promotion based upon social status, but it is not necessary to operate a meritocracy.
There are several constructions of meritocracy understood, all of which do imply some sort of inequality. Indeed, in its purest sense, meritocracy is a system in which those who deserve to climb the cursus honorum will, to whatever level they earn. At that point, they must continue to earn that position, lest someone new supercede them, making them redundant. In many ways, the academy operates under this ideal, but not promotion & tenure. Not at all.

There are those who argue that meritocracy is a social precedence taken by those who (feel that they) deserve it. Yet even this construction of meritocracy will revert to the above construction in time.

Any meritocracy cannot be fully realized without considering the issues of access. A true meritocracy implies that all start, more or less, equally. This of course is far from reality. As DD points out, this is a serious issue that rests untreated at the core of American society.

Yet, for those of us who teach university students, how many of us have ever given an A to a middle class student or an F to a working class student? Or vice versa? Did each student earn his grade? Or do we give everyone A's or F's or C's in order to make it egalitarian? (The answer to this changes from one academic culture to another; there are some majors with unbelievably high percentages of 4.0s.)

Once in the classroom, it is a meritocracy. Getting to the classroom is not. Two separate issues.

One big assumption in most meritocracy arguments is equal-opportunity. Yet as one of the first members of The Quiet Generation (ie. post-Boom), I know that opportunity depends not only on ability, but also on having positions open.

In my current profession, I was told when hired that I would be extremely unlikely to get a promotion, because by the time positions opened up I would be considered too old. They were right. The Boomers are finally returing, but those further up the food chain are now promoting younger people into middle-management, skipping my generation.
If all the world had health care
And plenty of food and drink
And all the -cies were error free
What would we have to think?
Putting aside the Peter Principle issues, the main thing to remember is that meritocracies require access, and access requires general empowerment -- so any meritocracy exists at the sufferance of the unpromoted. They have to get something out of the process, or the entire system collapses.
Consider the alternative. OTOH, you just have to look at the current government of the United States.

There are longer winded, caveated answers, but that will do for a start.
I believe that meritocracy in the contemporary sense has its origins as a conceptual weapon used by the rising European middle class against an aristocratic and theocratic oligarchy that sought to restrict access to political power and high social status. Later, that middle class was itself notoriously reluctant to concede that persons of still lower status might conceivably possess 'merit'.

As a lever to pry open a closed society, 'meritocracy' worked well enough for the bourgeoisie. Once the new middle class, through its professions, had risen to domination, it sought in its turn to limit access to the new sources of power and status, and 'meritocracy' simply became a justification after the fact of the new status quo - almost exactly the opposite function to that which it performed originally.

Reference to 'meritocracy' is the contemporary equivalent of appeal to 'the divine right of kings'. Its definition revolves around the definition of 'merit', which itself is a moving target, and assumes that no other factors - parentage, gender, ethnicity, persistence and plain old luck - play a part in success.

I agree with Dean Dad that even our very imperfect 'meritocracy' is better than the alternatives. It was this sense that it was a fairer basis for a just society than aristocratic nepotism that made the concept politically powerful in the first place. It remains a worthy aspiration. I just think that we shouldn't kid ourselves about far the process has actually gone, or ignore the ways in which such concepts as 'meritocracy' (and 'freedom of choice', for that matter) can be used rhetorically as political tools to further the interests of particular groups.
Theodora's paper-tossing metaphor illustrates a fundamental problem in many arguments for improved access (or more equal outcomes, which may be the real issue.) It works if your mind-set is one of the governor standing in the schoolhouse door, such that some paper-tossers never get to develop the confidence that comes from making easy tosses before moving to the more difficult tosses.

It is less effective when cast in the light of proposals I've encountered to improve access in other ways. To wit: Why is paper-tossing a valuable skill at all? Wasn't the height of the basket or the size of the opening a construction agreed upon by people successful at paper-tossing in order to perpetuate their hierarchy of paper-tossing? Is the basket, or the wad of paper, or keeping track even necessary? (Some of those arguments have made their way onto "Confessions ...," consider the posts about abolishing the language and math requirements.)

But the end result is anything but equitable to people granted access in the form of less challenging tasks. My fear is that the positional arms races among well-to-do parents to get their kids into the 100 colleges claiming to be in the top twenty, whether those kids want to go there or not, reflects their perception that much of higher education, whether in the community colleges or the compass states or many of the privates and the state flagships fosters access and retention by removing the basket.
Access: "George W. Bush was born standing on third base, and he thinks he hit a triple."

Sorry, but I can't remember the source.
You cocksuckers need to realize that you've got 3 fingers pointing back at you, motherfuckers.
We have nothing to fear from real meritocracy ever occurring, because essential merit is subjective; ascribed merit is subject to fallacies of perception; and human nature, in aggregate, is to disregard merit and choose based on relationships or self-interest.

If it were possible, perhaps one could imagine a meritocracy where the meritorious contribution were considered an honor above and beyond just doing the minimum to earn existence -- such that it did not then imply that the unmeritorious don't deserve to exist. But again, this presupposes a much more rigorous people than I have ever observed, and in any case, we "benefit" already from all the assumptions of your dystopian meritocracy even as we fail at correctly ascribing merit.
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