Posted by: Chris | June 5, 2013

Why Can’t Everything Be Good and Nothing Be Bad?

George Packer laments:

There are many, many things about the year 2013 that I would not want undone, and many other things about the year 1978 that I would not want back. It’s worth remembering them, as a kind of fact-check exercise, before considering whether—as so many Americans I’ve interviewed over the past few years believe—something has gone wrong.

Recent additions to American life that I would fight to hang onto: marriage equality, Lipitor, a black President, Google searches, airbags, novelistic TV shows, the opportunity for women to be as singlemindedly driven as their male colleagues, good coffee, safer cities, cleaner air, photographs of the kids on my phone, anti-bullying, Daniel Day Lewis, cheap communications, smoke-free airplanes, wheelchair parking, and I could go on…

The bottom line in all these improvements is freedom. In America, that’s half the game.

The other half is equality. Not equality of result—no successful political tendency or President in this country, not even F.D.R.’s New Deal, has promised that. As Richard Hofstadter shows in his great 1948 book, “The American Political Tradition,” the deal in this country has always been equal opportunity. That was Jefferson’s meaning when he inscribed in the annals of our civic religion the conviction that “all men are created equal.” Even a populist like Andrew Jackson demanded only “the classic bourgeois ideal, equality before the law, the restriction of government to equal protection of its citizens.” But when the results are distributed as unequally as they are at this moment, when the gap between promise and reality grows so wide, when elites can fail repeatedly and never lose their perches of privilege while ordinary people can never work their way out of debt, equal opportunity becomes a dream. We measure inequality in numbers—quintiles, average and median incomes, percentages of national wealth, unemployment statistics, economic growth rates—but the damage it is doing to our national life today defies quantification. It is killing many Americans’ belief in the democratic promise—their faith that the game is fair, that everyone has a chance. That’s where things have unquestionably deteriorated over the past generation. The game seems rigged—and if it is, following the rules is for suckers.

The short answer is that many of the things Packer celebrates are either causes or symptoms of the growing inequality he rightly bemoans.  The rewards that the past thirty or so years have granted the upper-most quintile to the exclusion of others have created a market for things like $6 coffee and Mad Men and given them the clout to push their bourgeoisie values more broadly.  That inequality itself links back to an assortment laudable trends (some of which Packer mentions), like globalization, gender equality in the workplace, the growth of the internet, and greater meritocracy in hiring and college admissions.

Take meritocracy for example.  Judging people based on their aptitudes for jobs and for college admissions, rather than based on their parents or their gender or wealth, is an unquestionably good thing.  It results in better outcomes for companies and greater productivity for the economy as a whole, which redounds to everyone’s benefit.  Plus, as beneficiaries of merit-preferences, I suspect most of the Lure feel fairly positively about them as well.

But using merit as a metric is not without negatives.  Most obviously, the qualities we find meritorious (some mixture of intelligence, creativity, and diligence) are not distributed equally or even randomly across the population, resulting in greater and more intransigent socioeconomic inequality as people sort according to these attributes.  In addition, as a number of conservatives have pointed out, the emphasis on merit leads to a narrowed and isolated worldview amongst the nation’s elite.  For instance, Megan McArdle writes:

But I think that we are looking at something even deeper than that: the Mandarinization of America.

The Chinese imperial bureaucracy was immensely powerful. Entrance was theoretically open to anyone, from any walk of society—as long as they could pass a very tough examination. The number of passes was tightly restricted to keep the bureaucracy at optimal size.

Passing the tests and becoming a “scholar official” was a ticket to a very good, very secure life. And there is something to like about a system like this … especially if you happen to be good at exams. Of course, once you gave the imperial bureaucracy a lot of power, and made entrance into said bureaucracy conditional on passing a tough exam, what you have is … a country run by people who think that being good at exams is the most important thing on earth. Sound familiar?

All elites are good at rationalizing their eliteness, whether it’s meritocracy or “the divine right of kings.” The problem is the mandarin elite has some good arguments. They really are very bright and hardworking. It’s just that they’re also prone to be conformist, risk averse, obedient, and good at echoing the opinions of authority, because that is what this sort of examination system selects for.

The even greater danger is that they become more and more removed from the people they are supposed to serve. Since I moved to Washington, I have had series of extraordinary conversations with Washington journalists and policy analysts, in which I remark upon some perfectly ordinary facet of working-class, or even business-class life, only to have this revelation met with amazement. I once had it suggested to me by a wonk of my acquaintance that I should write an article about how working-class places I’ve worked usually had one or two verbally lightning-fast guys who I envied for their ability to generate an endless series of novel and hilarious one-liners to pass the time. I said I’d take it under advisement, but what on earth would one title such an article?

And like all elites, they believe that they not only rule because they can, but because they should. Even many quite left-wing folks do not fundamentally question the idea that the world should be run by highly verbal people who test well and turn their work in on time. They may think that machine operators should have more power and money in the workplace, and salesmen and accountants should have less. But if they think there’s anything wrong with the balance of power in the system we all live under, it is that clever mandarins do not have enough power to bend that system to their will. For the good of everyone else, of course. Not that they spend much time with everyone else, but they have excellent imaginations.

In a similar vein, James Poulos remarks:

For the wonk in the hipster glasses, there’s nothing literary about politics, and people who babble poetically about policy are basically idiots. Washington isn’t a place where self-respecting professionals go to transform either the system or themselves. It’s a place where everyone goes to transact.

It’s hard not to recall, if you’re sufficiently literary, Alexis de Tocqueville’s own recollection about China. “I remember reading a Chinese novel,” he wrote, “in which the hero, after many vicissitudes, finally touches the heart of his mistress by doing well on an examination.” This is not precisely the world of the wonk in the hipster glasses, but is close enough to freak me out, and it’s getting closer all the time.

There are two other even greater greater dangers. One, they become closer and closer to the people they aren’t supposed to serve—those not just with lots of authority but with tons of power. Two, and worst of all, they become more and more removed from their own human possibilities. Our ‘meritocratic’ system for producing political writers heavily favors people either without any significant life experience or without any hesitancy to segregate whatever life experience they have from their writing. In the wonkocracy, your human being is little more than a wisp of poetry, something that might be nice to whisper about tipsily over a plate of sea urchin foam, but something no professional would try to make room for in their work on policy. Everything is what you—and we—know. Nothing is who you or we could be. Knowledge is transacted, and nobody is transformed.

That epically narrows the possibilities for political writing—and political writers. Then it does so again, as out-of-power and out-of-fashion conservatives who angrily react to the situation descend into anti-literary, anti-wonktastic anti-journalism. Conservatives ridicule the wonks in the hipster glasses; the wonks in the hipster glasses ridicule the conservatives; the American reader seeks solace in sideboob.

Interestingly, criticisms of meritocracy on the left tend to resemble their counterparts’ response to Soviet communism from a half century ago, that there is nothing wrong with the idea, just the execution.  For instance, Chris Hayes, the newly minted MSNBC anchor, argues, leaning on the “iron law of oligarchy” promulgated by a German anarchist (who later joined up with Mussolini),  that meritocracy has been perverted by the power relationships involved.  Here is Hayes’s summary from the Nation:

Michels’s grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy was inevitable. For any kind of institution with a democratic base to consolidate the legitimacy it needs to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. The rank and file will not have the time, energy, wherewithal or inclination to participate in the many, often minute decisions necessary to keep the institution functioning. In fact, effectiveness, Michels argues convincingly, requires that these tasks be delegated to a small group of people with enough power to make decisions of consequence for the entire membership. Over time, this bureaucracy becomes a kind of permanent, full-time cadre of leadership. “Without wishing it,” Michels says, there grows up a great “gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.” The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process. “Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective, will soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control.”

All this flows inexorably from the nature of organization itself, Michels concludes, and he calls it “The Iron Law of Oligarchy”: “It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.”

But this ideal, appealing as it may be, runs up against the reality of what I’ll call the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up. In other words: “Who says meritocracy says oligarchy.”

Hayes’ marquee example is the changing demographics of his old high school, Hunter College, in NYC:

But social mobility, by most counts, is on the decline. How can that be true in a functioning meritocracy? 
The mechanisms of mobility and of equal opportunity are inevitably subverted by unequal power and wealth. We want to make a neat division between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, but in practice, we can’t. I use my high school, Hunter College in New York City, as an example. It’s a public school, free, open to students from all five boroughs, but it’s highly selective. When I went there, in the 1990s, you took one test to get in, in sixth grade. If you scored high enough you got in, if not, not. And if you were the mayor’s kid and you didn’t score high enough, you didn’t get in. That’s the kind of democratizing promise of the meritocracy.

But that was then …
Right. What’s happened over time is you’ve seen a decline in black and Latino students in the school — who were always underrepresented, but are even more so now — at the same time as there’s been this growth of a test prep industry. Parents are paying thousands of dollars for cram schools to prepare their kids for the test, and now the majority of kids getting in are products of the test-prep regime. So the test prep industry has been this perfect parable: You have this scarce resource — a spot at an elite school — and people with money in a very unequal city have a clear advantage over those who don’t.

He brings Hunter up in the Nation article as well:

But the problem with my alma mater is that over time, the mechanisms of meritocracy have broken down. In 1995, when I was a student at Hunter, the student body was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. Not coincidentally, there was no test-prep industry for the Hunter entrance exam. That’s no longer the case. Now, so-called cram schools like Elite Academy in Queens can charge thousands of dollars for after-school and weekend courses where sixth graders memorize vocabulary words and learn advanced math. Meanwhile, in the wealthier precincts of Manhattan, parents can hire $90-an-hour private tutors for one-on-one sessions with their children.

By 2009, Hunter’s demographics were radically different—just 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, according to the New York Times. With the rise of a sophisticated and expensive test-preparation industry, the means of selecting entrants to Hunter has grown less independent of the social and economic hierarchies in New York at large. The pyramid of merit has come to mirror the pyramid of wealth and cultural capital.

Of course, Hayes’s story is on the whole misleading, plus inaccurate in parts as well.  He elides that the enrollment of rich white students has fallen roughly commensurate with the decline in black and Hispanic students, all three of which have fallen to the exclusion of Asian students, many of which are recent immigrants and not entrenched elites distorting the system for their kids benefit.  Further, the test prep argument, by far the hollowest of those used by left-wing test skeptics, has no purchase here, because African-American and Hispanic students use test preparation at high rates than do white students.  Plus, as someone with quite a bit of experience in the test prep market, I can assure Hayes that there is little correlation between money spent and the outcome on test day.

But I think the larger contrast between Hayes’ response and that of the conservatives is more important.  Hayes observes many of the same phenomena as the conservatives (meritocracy producing greater income inequality and an insular elite) but cannot allow that a salutary arrangement like meritocracy can be anything but a universal good.  Thus, something must be corrupting meritocracy, something we can fix and by so doing reroute the march of progress back onto the path to a perpetual Elysium.  The same occurs with the other drivers of income inequality I cited above; their proponents cannot acknowledge the truth to Taft’s observation that “substantial progress toward better things can rarely be taken without developing new evils requiring new remedies.”  I suspect our old friend Raymond Geuss has something to say about this.



  1. Hayes vs. “the conservatives” shouldn’t be taken as representative of liberals vs. the conservatives. Everyone here knows this, but luck egalitarians (and Ben Bernanke) both think that “meritocracy” is a misnomer for a system that selects people for the best careers based on their intelligence, creativity and diligence, because it’s just a matter of luck that they have those traits in the first place. For luck egalitarians, meritocracy is only justifiable if it yields good consequences such as those that Chris claims for it (greater economic productivity*) while making the poorest better off than they would be without those good consequences. So the question luck egalitarians would ask when looking at growing inequality is not how do we restore meritocracy so that it is once again the panacea principle of social organization, but how do we supplement an inherently fallen meritocracy with other measures designed to make the worst off’s lives go better. (The answer may be that we don’t, although I’d think, given that the costs of comparative inequality are supposed to be felt particularly keenly, that is unlikely.)

    * Is there any good evidence for this or is it just supposed to be obvious? Here area couple of reasons why meritocracy might not, net, contribute to greater economic productivity: (1) most even high paying and consequential jobs don’t require all that much intelligence, creativity, and diligence to do sufficiently well that doing it better would result in economic gains; (2) drawing a firm’s labor pool from people of the same background and social upbringing makes communication within the firm easier (reducing transaction costs) and reduces agency costs [as people all share similar values and affinities], which should increase productivity.

  2. Bernanke: “The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.”

  3. I have no idea if meritocracy has any demonstrated impacts like I suggested it does. My suspicion is that it is one of those things economists assume must be true because it makes so much sense but is quite difficult to prove. That said, (2) could be an argument in favor of meritocracy as well.

    As for your larger point, that seems roughly right. Hayes is the only prominent writer on the left who I have encountered that finds fault with meritocracy and I felt his attitudes viz. its perfectibility were revealing in light of Packer’s lament.

  4. – “I have no idea if meritocracy has any demonstrated impacts like I suggested it does” is an interesting take on “Judging people based on their aptitudes for jobs and for college admissions, rather than based on their parents or their gender or wealth, is an unquestionably good thing. It results in better outcomes for companies and greater productivity for the economy as a whole, which redounds to everyone’s benefit.”

    – There is no doubt a possible meritocracy that could give rise to a thick enough community that agency and transaction costs would be reduced, but I don’t it’s anything like what we have. Because, among other reasons, we don’t sort people meritocratically early enough, race, geography, and socioeconomic class have a far greater bearing on attitudinal (if not aptitudinal) developments.

    – Hayes is the only prominent writer on the left you have encountered who finds fault with meritocracy! What about Rawls + all of his epigones.

  5. I should have conditioned that as “political writer.”

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