Wednesday, October 09, 2019

The Meritocracy Trap

John Staddon, professor emeritus at Duke, reviews The Meritocracy Trap over at Quillette. It's a good review, and if you want to get into a discussion about the book or the topic I recommend you read it, so you don't talk yourself out on a limb.  But if you just want to know the gist of it, I can simplify: First, David Markovitz, author of The Meritocracy Trap, mostly means academic credentialing when he uses the term meritocracy. Most of us mean something else by the term.  Insofar as academic credentialling is a poor substitute for meritocracy, Markovitz is correct - it does screw the middle-class in order to give advantages to an elite class attempting to be hereditary.  We agree.  We just think you don't know what a real meritocracy is, perhaps from being at Yale all these years.

Secondly, Markovitz thinks the standardised testing used to get children into colleges, especially elite colleges, can be gamed, and that rich people know how to do this. This is just not true. Instruction can improve scores, but remember the following number: Total SAT will go up 50-100 points from junior to senior year anyway, because of maturing brains being able to think more abstractly, see more analogies, and not get distracted by buzzwords and irrelevancies. Beyond that, instruction and supposedly gaming the system don't add much. If you want I can go into that in more detail.

Markovitz doesn't believe in natural ability and thinks it's all gaming the system.  He's just wrong. Summary Over.

Related Topic: He is bothered that the fabled 1% somehow keep having more and more advantage every year, instead of the world leveling. But that is a natural and perhaps unavoidable consequence of a world with better communication that is more interconnected.  200 years ago, a LeBron James or a Beyonce or a JK Rowling or a Century 21 might be the best in town at what they do, and even start to get a reputation in the surrounding towns, then maybe statewide. They could make a living writing, entertaining, selling. Yet in the next state, a person less talented might get just as famous and also make a living, because the extra 10% advantage than the true expert has would just be wasted. No one is going to take a daily horse-and-buggy ride of 100 miles to read a 10% better newspaper columnist.

Yet in an interconnected world - where one can be famous not only in Akron but in Ohio; not only Ohio but in America; not only America but the English-speaking world; not only the English-speaking world but the whole planet - that 10% advantage will be parlayed into fabulous wealth. Fairly automatically.  Better investors don't have to screw other almost-as-good-investors to dominate.  It will just happen.  Now, because the stakes are so high, and the margins of advantage among the very best are more like 1% instead of 10%, it is true that there is a great deal of angling, corruption, cheating, and criminality. That shuffles who is at the top.  But it doesn't change the fact that the top is going to be there, that someone is going to reap the benefits of that audience.

As we reach ever more markets, not only China but India, not only India but Africa, not only cities but towns, not only towns but villages, the 1% is going to make  even more. You can count on it. Not because they are cheating or screwing people over (some of them are, but it doesn't change things for us), but because their slight advantage can be expressed over greater population.

And if you are doing something new that actually creates wealth, then there's more to fight over, not less. Michael Jordan not only made money playing basketball, he and his people figured out that there might be money in sneakers with his name on them.  And there was. New money. He didn't take it from anyone (except, I suppose, his customers).

1 comment:

james said...

As the possible scope grows, fewer people have anything beyond a very narrow scope for their talents--especially in entertainment, where you compete not just against the 1% of today but the 1% of the last generation, recorded.

But I think Korean K-pop shows the limits of scope in entertainment. They developed their own talent in their own language, as has India and China (and Senegal and Nigeria). Western culture can be found at some level everywhere, but it isn't always dominant.