Meritocratic Missteps- Part 2 – RantAWeek
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Meritocratic Missteps- Part 2

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Posted by mjdudak on May 1, 2013 at 6:56 pm

Following suit of Tyler Miksanek, in this multi-part article, Matthew Dudak discusses another American ideal: meritocracy and how it ultimately hurts America as well. This is part 2 of 3. 

When the idealistic and pragmatic arguments for meritocracy fail, proponents of meritocracy resort to a much more flawed argument, which is essentially “Got anything better? No? Meritocracy it is!” Ross Douthat- a man who shares Brooks’ burden of being a conservative New York Times writer- also in a guest article in The Atlantic, discusses meritocracy and comes to the conclusion that meritocracy, in the end, incites in the people of meritocratic institutions a kind of unrivaled work ethic. But along the way, Douthat admits many flaws of meritocracy (which we will get to later). Douthat’s biggest problem though is accepting the status quo. Douthat epitomizes the final argument for meritocracy which is essentially that it may be broken, but it is the best we have.

First, the flaws with the idyllic view of meritocracy. The fundamental problem with this argument is similar to the debate over communism. Many would agree that communism is a pretty good system (if you are a fan of equity) in theory, but has always failed to come to fruition and ultimately ends up creating despots like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Ironically, flip to the (almost completely) opposite end of the spectrum, with meritocracy, and you essentially end with the same result. Meritocracy seems like a really good idea- it objectively rewards those who deserve it and leaves those who do not in the dust. But in practice it plays out more like this: one generation into the meritocracy, those who deserve success achieve it, those who do not, do not. Fast forward to the next generation, and those who hail from families of success are able to have access to greater resources which would allow them to be objectively better than those who do not, meaning that success is now dependent partially on objective skill or talent and partially on objective access to resources. Still objective, but other factors besides skill and talent begin to seep in. Fast forward to 2012, and you are left with a society where the top 1% of income receivers hold 20% of the total income and the Gini coefficient has increased by about .1 in the past 30 years, leaving only China, South Africa, and Brazil the only economies in the OECD with a worse coefficient. (The Gini coefficient is a concise way of summarizing income inequality. 0 is perfect equality, 1 is total inequality, .4 is very high.) This future generation of 2012 is the America we currently live in. Income inequality is just one result of a centuries-long experiment in meritocracy. Over the past 300 years, the United States has started as a fairly equal meritocracy and has since diverged. Essentially, those at the top of the meritocratic ladder have cut the rungs from beneath them. In turn, the meritocracy has become increasingly entrenched and what should be a vehicle for social mobility has taken away much social mobility. The problem is not a lack of equal opportunity, it is a lack of equity of tools: tools which are required for those opportunities.Take the massive test-prep industry which has evolved around the meritocratic bastion that is standardized testing. With Kaplan, Princeton Review, private tutors and classes offered through school districts, the SAT and ACT have no longer become matters of intelligence, they have become matters of preparation. The ACT and SAT are simply testing how well you have been fed and have absorbed the standard set of information tested. Everyone has the opportunity to get a 36 or a 2400, but only those with money and a good school have the tools to do so. The problem with the appeal of meritocracy to our ideal opinions of how the world should work is that in focusing too much on how the world should work, we ignore how it does work, ignoring the entrenchment which meritocracy causes.

Then, the problems with meritocracy as a tangible bringer of “good.”  The fundamental flaw in this argument is taking too narrow of an approach; this argument looks only at the good which meritocracy causes. True, meritocracy certainly incites work ethic and drive in the wheels of the meritocratic cog, but this is not all it incites. In Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Chris Hayes discusses events which transpired in the early days of Enron, before it became the Enron everyone knows. Enron’s vice president of internal auditing, David Woytek, stumbled upon patterns which suggested less than sound trading practices. The trading division from which these shaky patterns were emanating presented a story about putting money into personal accounts to balance profits over two years. Woytek took this information to the CEO, Ken Lay, who promptly acted upon this information, which was presented in tandem with bank records pointing to clearly shaky practices. His action: a firm scolding. Nothing more. Hayes goes on to make a connection between the reaction to the practices and performance of this trading division. Since the trading division was fairly successful, Lay was willing to simply look the other way. This kind of behavior was rampant throughout Enron. Hayes states that “whatever you did in pursuit of ‘dominance’ was fine so long as you won,” (Hayes, 74). Hayes goes through lists of other examples where similar, less than ethical, action was taken because of an atmosphere of hypercompetitiveness, ranging from professional baseball to the DC public school system to Countrywide Financial. In all of these cases, the drive and competition which David Brooks praises as creating character ultimately led to the demise of character, as ethics were thrown to the wayside. Hayes clearly demonstrates that the hypercompetitive atmosphere created by meritocracy effectively destroys the ethics of many people as they are willing to get ahead and not stop at any cost.

In the next part, we will discuss the final flaws in meritocracy before determining how to solve these problems.

“For Richer, for Poorer.” The Economist. N.p., 13 Oct. 2012. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.

 Hayes, Christopher. Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy. New York: Crown, 2012. Print.

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