Tag Archives: Arthur Brooks

Meritocracy is Stupid and Evil and Must Die

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You need three things to make it in America: talent, hard work and good luck.

What a stupid system.

Focus first on the last one, good luck: what we call “meritocracy” is actually “two-thirds meritocracy.” Odds are you’ve heard of a band or writer or artist or entrepreneur who worked hard and produced great work but failed because they were too ahead of their time, or never met the right gatekeeper, or the market tanked. This era of technological disruption probably makes the concept personal for you or someone you know; you could be the best damn factory worker in the world but if they move your job to Mexico you’re screwed through no fault of your own.

America’s pseudo-meritocracy purports to issue rewards (grades, diplomas, contacts, jobs, wages, social programs) based on conventionally accepted standards of worthiness (studiousness, obedience, affability, industriousness, cleverness, likeability). Setting aside for the moment the innate arbitrariness of those metrics, whether or not you measure up is based in large part on chance.

Any system that ranks its participants on luck is by definition unfair.

It’s hard to be studious if your home life is chaotic or violent, or you have no home at all. Whether people like you is a function of hard-wired genetically-inherited personality traits and upbringing, both the result of utter happenstance—who you get as parents.

Even ardent defenders of meritocracism concede that it only rewards the values, habits and personality traits the system wants to encourage. Arthur Brooks, president of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, wrote in the Washington Post in 2011:

“We are not a perfect opportunity society in the United States. But if we want to approach that ideal, we must define fairness as meritocracy, embrace a system that rewards merit, and work tirelessly for true equal opportunity. The system that makes this possible, of course, is free enterprise. When I work harder or longer hours in the free-enterprise system, I am generally paid more than if I work less in the same job. Investments in my education translate into market rewards. Clever ideas usually garner more rewards than bad ones, as judged not by a Politburo, but by citizens in the marketplace.” [emphases mine]

Work hard or long, Brooks argues, and you’ll probably get paid more. Be smart or clever, he says, and you’re likelier than not to do well. Problem is, probably here is a synonym for maybe. Which means, maybe not. A system whose sales pitch is “work hard and you may (or may not) do well” cannot be fair. A teacher who told his students “do ‘A’ work and you might get an ‘A’ grade” should be fired.

As game theory experiments show, unfair incentive structures are ineffective because not everyone is optimistic. In a system with winners and losers some people reach for the brass ring because they think they might get win. Pessimists do not. They weigh the cost of effort and decide not to bother for there mere chance at success. In our economy this phenomenon is evidenced by the country’s falling worker participation rate (mostly because lower-skilled male workers know they can’t earn enough at a job) and the millions of citizens who choose to collect tiny government disability checks, effectively opting out of the workforce for life rather than look for a job.

The loose connection between work/talent and reward in meritocracy is problematic enough. What about the underlying assumptions that people who are talented and work hard (assuming those metrics can be objectively defined!) deserve higher salaries and social status than the untalented and the lazy?

The Protestant work ethic will serve America poorly in this newish century. “All premodern societies believed that wealth comes from God, or the gods. It is given. Food grows,” the British theologian Jonathan Clatworthy wrote in 2014. “Capitalism overturns all this. Capitalism presupposes shortage, while at the same time creating shortage. Its fundamental beliefs come from rich people in divided societies, for whom it seems that nature does not provide enough to meet our needs.”

But the myth of scarcity is no longer credible now that productivity is so high.

Robotics, algorithms, AR/VR and all manner of automation are replacing flesh-and-blood humans. Automation will eliminate 10% of all jobs in the U.S. in 2019 alone, while adding 3% for a net loss of 7%, according to Forrester Research. The numbers are shocking: experts predict that anywhere between a third to half of all jobs in the U.S. will be eliminated by automation by 2025. If we’re smart we’ll start paying people not to work. We can easily afford to care for everyone; we simply need to prioritize people and to stop denegrating nonworkers as lazy. Otherwise we will face soaring crime and political unrest.

In any case, who’s to say that hardworking people are better than the indolent? People who work long and hard may be good for their employers’ bottom lines but they’re less engaged parents, don’t have time for civic involvement, don’t have bandwidth to be as creative or productive in other aspects of life.

What Americans call meritocracy has worked great for me. I’m white, male, able-bodied, tall and intelligent enough to get into Mensa. I grew up poor, studied and worked hard and made a career for myself that I love. The American Dream personified! But I didn’t do well because I’m a “good” person. Being born into a society’s dominant race and gender and in good health are simply a matter of luck. IQ is half genetics, half environmental stuff like nutrition, education and parenting. My mom taught and yelled and hit me into my work ethic.

Even a winner can see the system is unjust. Why should other people get paid less than me, merely because they didn’t luck into the same demographics? Because their parents didn’t bully them into working a lot? Because they don’t have a knack for drawing or playing basketball or writing code or whatever else the economy happens to be rewarding when they happen to be in the workforce?

Meritocracy is a toxic fiction that props up the fundamental evil of capitalism: the assumption that anyone deserves more anything than anyone else. Meritocracy must die.

(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Conservatism with a Heart? It’s Called Socialism

American conservatives are staring down the barrel of a future that looks increasingly bleak for them due to two major demographic shifts: the country is becoming more ethnically diverse, and younger voters – Generation Xers, Millennials, and presumably whoever comes next – are left cold or even repelled by the Republican Party’s Christian evangelical base and “social issues,” i.e. its obsession over who everyone has sex with. Anticipating their imminent irrelevance, some on the right say it’s time to reboot conservatism by bringing it more in line with the increasingly tolerant tone of most Americans on social issues, and by addressing their economic concerns.

One rightist getting attention these days is Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank. He’s out pimping a new book, “The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America,” which “shares his insights as to how conservatives can reach skeptical voters, smash stereotypes about conservatives and recast the political playing field,” according to The Washington Post.

It’s an interesting read. So are Brooks’ interviews to promote it. But the reason it’s interesting probably wouldn’t please him; what makes the current “conservative reform movement” worth knowing about is that it reaches the very heights of the human capacity for self-delusion.

At its core, conservatism is an ideology dedicated to the status quo. As such, it reflexively resists suggestions that the system is less than perfect, that things could be better, that the leadership caste isn’t deserving, or that there is inherent unfairness or injustice in the current state of affairs. The main thing about conservatism is, it doesn’t have a heart. To conservatives, and I know many of them, fail succeed ought to blame themselves – too lazy, too dumb – rather than structural impediments like racism or endemic poverty.

Parenthetically, the one point even my smartest conservative friends and acquaintances can’t refute is inheritance – how can capitalism be fair if Donald Trump starts his life worth millions, and you were an abandoned crack baby?

Conservatives trying to make their message more palatable to the country furious about the depredations of the top 1%, who have stolen 99% of national income in recent years, are faced with a set of options, none of which are likely to get them where they want to be, beloved by the electorate.

They can continue to defend big business and its prerogatives, and spin that policy with their traditional “a rising tide lifts all boats” meme. The problem there is, no one believes in trickle-down anymore.

Alternatively, they can embrace a new set of priorities and policies, which put ordinary American workers first. No more NAFTAs, no outsourcing, higher wages, protect the ability to unionize. But then, you’re not really conservative anymore. Even worse, you’ve abandoned your base of support, big business, in order to court a new constituency that will never trust you as much as liberals and progressives.

Boiled down to its essentials, the argument of would-be conservative reformers like Brooks is that it sure would be swell if capitalism could be made fairer. But the thing about capitalism is that unfairness isn’t an unfortunate side effect of this particular economic system. It’s a core feature.

Capitalism without unfairness and built-in inequality isn’t capitalism; it’s socialism. You don’t have to be Karl Marx to have been able to personally observe the tendency of power and money to aggregate into fewer and fewer hands over time, what we call monopolization, and to leverage those advantages in order to gather an even greater share.

Brooks tries to obscure this in an interview with the Dianne Rehm show on NPR. “About 2% of the American public considers income inequality, per se, to be the biggest economic problem that we have in America,” Brooks said. “Everybody believes, including President Obama because we have discussed this, believes that opportunity inequality is a real crisis. So what I would recommend to Democratic office holders and aspirants to higher offices that they pivot from their emphasis on income inequality, which is about a 2% issue, to an opportunity inequality, which is about 100% issue and then we can have a realistic competition of ideas between right and left on how to increase opportunity and mobility in America.”

On this point, I think most people can agree with Brooks: the core of the problem is a lack of class mobility. At this point in US history, it’s harder for someone born poor to get ahead and break into the middle class or upper class than it is in Europe, a continent that many of our grandparents and great-great-grandparents fled due to lack of opportunity.

So how do conservative reformers propose to give the chance to get ahead to everyone?

Brooks: “And the answer is not just the redistribution of income, although that has to happen, such that we can have goods and services for the poor. The answer is for — to find better policies so people can earn their success through education reform, through serious cultural conversations about the predicates of success.”

I give Brooks credit: he admits that “redistribution of income…has to happen.” That is for damn sure.

Education reform? No, that’s never going to do it. Nor will right-wingers agree to the federalization of education that would be necessary to ensure that a kid in Compton went to a school as good as one in Bel Air.

Cultural conversations? Don’t make me laugh.

Redistribution of income. And wealth. That’s the ticket to solving income inequality. When the time comes, however, I’m going to trust my local Communists – who have been pushing for and thinking about it forever – a hell of a lot more than the reform conservatives who think Ronald Reagan, who trashed the social safety net, was some kind of hero.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the book “Snowden,” the biography of the NSA whistleblower, to be published August 18th. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

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