Meritocratic Missteps- Part 3 – RantAWeek
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Meritocratic Missteps- Part 3

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Posted by mjdudak on May 5, 2013 at 12:00 am

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 3 of 3. 

The final argument made for meritocracy is that it is all we have. The problem with this argument is the contentment with the system that proponents of it seem to possess. As civilized beings, it is our natural tendency to develop institutions, and rightfully so, they hold the potential to much greater power than an individual. However, often, when institutions begin to fail us, we simply keep trudging along, trusting the kinks will eventually be worked out. Chris Hayes defines the issue of meritocracy, not as one of right versus left, though it often comes off that way, but rather as institutionalist versus insurrectionist. Douthat and Brooks both fall into the former category while Hayes self-identifies as the latter. Institutionalists believe that the capacity for greater change lies within the bounds of an institution, while insurrectionists believe that in order for beneficial change to occur, we must revise our institutions in order to create this change (Hayes, 17-23). When examining just how broken our system of meritocracy is, it almost seems inevitable to lean towards insurrectionism. But beyond that, the fact that institutionalists have largely failed at creating any real change to meritocracy and have in fact accelerated its demise lends itself as enough reason to turn to insurrectionism. Look no further than the almost universally agreed upon failure of George W. Bush, certainly an institutionalist, to fix meritocracy: No Child Left Behind. By staying within the bounds of the preexisting institutions, Bush tried to give students more equal chances but created another institution which has grown to be hated by education professionals across the nation. Insurrectionism exists on both sides of the political spectrum, perhaps the best examples are the Tea Party on the right and Occupy Wall Street on the left. Both present images of a broken America which can only be fixed by a sweeping overhaul of our current institutions. Since we are focusing on meritocracy, we shall focus on the kind of insurrectionism that leads itself to change the meritocratic system. The fact of the matter is that meritocracy is clearly broken on all levels, from the smallest businesses up to the United States government, however since it is hard to proscribe changes in the private sector until they have a massive enough screw-up (a la Enron) to merit government intervention. For this reason, we will focus on changes which can apply nationally.

The first, arguably most important, step to fixing our broken institutions starts with the first institution most people encounter: education. The biggest problem is the disparity between the amount of money those at the top spend on their children’s education versus the amount those at the bottom spend. This does not necessarily guarantee higher achievement, it merely guarantees more graceful failure. Should a child who comes from very little not do well enough on their ACT to get a considerable scholarship anywhere, they simply do not go to college and thus fail altogether at higher education. But should a child whose parents are loaded not do well enough for a considerable scholarship, they end up going to college on their parents’ dime, it just is a school that is not Harvard. The second child was not guaranteed a higher ACT, and thus not guaranteed Harvard, or higher achievement, they were simply guaranteed a safety net to prevent them from failure. Charter schools are beginning to take a stab at this problem. But they still rely too heavily on either meritocracy or random chance. While guaranteeing students are given an equal chance in primary or secondary education is near impossible, giving them a more equitable chance at post-secondary education is possible. By focusing admissions testing on intelligence testing and not standardized testing, test preparation becomes a dead art and colleges are able to see the students they really want, not simply the students who can prepare. Additionally, we are living in an era of often ineffective affirmative action. Affirmative action schemes should be decided more on the basis of wealth than gender or race (Social Mobility in America). Education must the starting place. With a little insurrectionist nudge, education can fall into place and present more equality and less entrenchment.

Yet the change cannot stop simply at education, it must also follow into fiscal policy. The words “fiscal policy” are often the last words anyone wants to hear, but in the case of an entrenched elite they may be part of the solution. Fiscal policy should certainly not make millionaires into beggars or beggars into millionaires, but must create something more akin to an equal chance at life. In the September/October 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs, Andrea Louise Campbell discusses fiscal policy and its role in equality in the United States. Marginally, the US has a relatively progressive tax system, on par with many other OECD nations. However this tax system is made quickly regressive when you add on many tax breaks and subsidies that benefit mainly the wealthy, leaving you with a regressive effective tax system. Pair that with the fact that our social safety net is very small and the redistributive state is only very moderately progressive, and you leave those at the bottom at a loss. Campbell suggests a two-tiered approach to this problem. First and foremost, the United States must simplify its tax code, cutting out many tax breaks and making our effective tax system much closer to the marginal tax system. Then, when you are left with a moderately progressive tax system, add in a larger redistributive state which catches all those who need help, not just those with a giant need. Couple these two changes, both of which are not all that insurrectionist, and you are left with a more fair and progressive fiscal policy. This fiscal policy uproots the harsh lines which divide the elite from the others. Throw in some education reform for good measure, and we are able to achieve a system in which equity of opportunities is met with equity of tools.

Within the United States, our meritocratic system has gotten out of hand. What started with good intentions has devolved into well-established class roles and a dismissal of personal ethics in pursuit of meritocratic achievement. While in an ideal world, meritocracy appeals to the fundamental core of our American identity and produces inherent “good” within us, when meritocracy is left to run its course, and we continually push to stick closely to the mirage we call meritocracy, we in fact create more “bad” than “good” as well as entrench those at the top and leave those at the bottom to fend for themselves. Yet through a mixture of admittedly radical education reform and more moderate fiscal reform, the good of meritocracy on a national level once again outweigh the bad. If we can fix the broken national institutions, perhaps the change will trickle down into the smaller institutions. The Occupiers of Wall Street have since died out and the Occupy movement has all but come to a halt, however their core message that America is broken still resonates. America and meritocracy are indeed broken, but they do not have to be.

Brooks, David. “The Merits of Meritocracy.” The Atlantic. N.p., 1 May 2002. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

Campbell, Andrea L. “America the Undertaxed.” Foreign Affairs, Sept.-Oct. 2012. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.

Douthat, Ross. “Luck, Hard Work and Meritocracy.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 9 Dec. 2008. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

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

“Social Mobility in America: Repairing the Rungs on the Ladder.” The Economist 9 Feb. 2013: n. pag. Web.

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