Friday, 30 August 2013

MERITOCRACY REDUX: THIS IS NOT WHAT IT MEANS


Short post, again.

Through my good friend Hussein Kanji, I got made aware of an article in the NY Post written by a tutor about admission madness for the kids of the wealthy.

And the point that tutor makes - rich, over-protective parents should learn to sit back, relax and let their kids live a little - is not entirely unimportant but that's not what interested me most in this article.

What I took from this article is that this tough admission process - and the fact that a few kids with "everything" somehow fail to get in one of these elite universities - probably re-enforces wealthy people delusional belief that they deserved their good fortune and position in life - they've always worked hard, after all. They worked hard at school, got the right internships with the right companies, got all the extra-curricular activities one has to have to show 'leadership', got into a top university and managed to get a good diploma, got the right kind of first job...

No one likes to think they don't deserve what they got, especially when they have a lot. Just-world fallacies are probably just as strong in rich people as they are in poor people.

I'd like to draw a parallel with our historical past. I think there were two main justifications for the supremacy of the nobility: One was "God's Will" and the other was "Blood Shed".

"God's Will", as you most probably know, is the idea that God/a Deity/Deities set the social order and there's no point arguing against it. These days, I think we are seeing this idea making a come-back under the guise of genetics: Intelligence - IQ - is an inherited trait and IQ is positively correlated with material success. Now, those two points are actually subject to quite a few caveats. But, as far as the politically useful simplification goes, genes explain one's success in life. Since no one would seriously propose to temper with people's genes or with people's freedom to reproduce with whom they choose, we ought to accept present-day social order. QED... And end of the debate about redistribution.

The second explanation for nobility's pre-eminence, "Blood Shed", was that the aristocracy was always first to fight and die for the defence of the realm and this sacrifice deserved compensation. This argument, as opposed to that of the will of God, was a positive one inasmuch as it stated that there was an objective reason for the supremacy of the nobility.

Of course, the fact that the nobility was sometimes the only one allowed to fight in the first place and/or had the better equipment - and, thus, the higher probability of survival by far - was gleefully overlooked.

Today, I think a parallel to the aristocratic right by blood shed is the kind of 'hardships' Lacy Crawford describes in her article: Competitive schooling from age 2, internships, extra-curricular activities in which you have to - have to - achieve some noteworthy distinction etc etc etc.

At this point, it is obvious and even factually correct that the young man or woman who went through that (and has family connections on top) is simply better than anyone else on the marketplace. So, for him or her the meaningful first job with career prospects and possibilities of promotions. The rest will have to make-do with McJobs...

Thus, you end up with a system that is not only pretty good at reproducing its elites but also pretty good at having such elites feel like they've worked their asses off to get what they have, that they deserve their position in life.

And since the young members of this elite are objectively better than anyone else at 23, some would term this system a 'meritocracy'. I don't.

This is no different that saying that the nobles were the best fighters. Yes, they objectively were. They had the training and they had the equipment. But that time-intensive training and that expensive equipment did not fall from the skies indiscriminately. It's not just positions or wealth that can be inherited or transferred. The very access to opportunities can be and is, in itself, a privilege.

True meritocracy can only occur when people have truly equal opportunities. Or as close to as we can humanely make it.

But, in case you were worried about those poor rich kids who have to sweat blood and tears to remain in their golden cages, well, worry no more: As the Pew Economic mobility project shows, kids from the top quintile without a college degree are 2.5 times more likely to stay there than kids from the bottom quintile who do graduate from college are to reach it.


And top quintile is households above $95,000 - not nearly the kind of wealth Lucy Crawford's clients have... How sticky do you think the top 1% is?