The Cult of Meritocracy
Suppose you and I are playing Monopoly. There’s an element of skill, but also a big element of luck. Inevitably, one of us is going to gain an advantage. One of us will end up being an “owner,” while the other is a “renter.” This will create a positive feedback. The owner will get progressively wealthier and the renter will get progressively poorer.
Let’s say that I gain the advantage. And after I do, we pass the game on to our children. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict what will happen. My child will get progressively wealthier while your child gets progressively poorer. This happens because of the nature of the game, not because your child is being discriminated against. The game neither knows nor cares about the personal attributes of my child or your child. The game doesn’t have an agenda. It is simply the nature of the game that one child will get richer while the other gets poorer.
I grew up in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood. Crime was low and I had plenty of social support from family and neighbors. My family was what I would call lower middle class. Our cars were forever on the verge of breaking down and there were times that our electricity was cut off for a while because my father couldn’t pay the bill on time. I was a poor student until the fifth grade, when I was fortunate to have a very good teacher who motivated me. When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time in the woods, and had more than one encounter with police officers who treated me disrespectfully. Although he could barely afford it, taking us on trips was important to my father and he tried to give us those experiences as often as possible. As an adult I have lived in 30-foot travel trailers and eaten baloney sandwiches for a week to get to the next check. I have had all kinds of jobs, from roofer to zoo keeper to research technician. But thanks to federal grants in the 1970’s I was able to go to college, eventually obtaining a Master’s Degree. I inherited a house and lands worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from my father and grandfather. Today I have a good job with health and retirement benefits, and my wife and I own some stock. We still worry about finances but we live in a 3-bedroom house and are doing pretty well.
It is not hard for me to imagine what my life would be like if I had grown up in a different neighborhood, with gangs trying to recruit me, police harassing me and my father, and an underfunded school with teachers who were more concerned with order than education. There’s a pretty good chance I would have ended up in jail. Even if I hadn’t, there would have been plenty of other young people eager to lead me onto self-destructive paths. Would I have been able to go to college? I doubt it. I probably would have run away from home at some point, and ended up dead or on the street.
Similarly, it’s not hard for me to imagine growing up in a very safe, wealthy neighborhood, going to very good schools with very good teachers, and having my interests in nature very much catered to from a young age. Since my father liked to travel, we probably would have gone on lots of adventures all over the country and the world, which I would have eaten up, and which would have stimulated me to pursue a scientific career. I would have had no difficulty going to college and might have done volunteer work at a zoo. Finances of course would have never been a concern.
A lot of people like to argue that they have worked hard for what they have. I have certainly worked hard over the years, using my muscles as well as my brain, to navigate the ups and downs of life. But I also understand that I am in a position of privilege compared to many others. That I have taken a lot of risks in my life, made some bad decisions, and that there is a large element of luck in whatever “success” I have achieved. In a previous post (here), I discussed intergenerational earnings elasticity, a measure of economic mobility. America has low mobility compared to many European countries. The Scandinavian countries particularly have high economic mobility. The United Kingdom and some southern European countries have lower mobility. Low economic mobility is directly related to the college earnings premium. The Scandinavian countries have low college earnings premiums. The United Kingdom and America have much higher college earnings premiums.
Economic mobility in America started to decline around 1980. Labor unions began to be gutted and good-paying manufacturing jobs were slowly disappearing. Not surprisingly, it was around this time that the college earnings premium began to increase.
In many European countries, particularly the Scandinavian countries, labor unions are very strong. Even if you don’t have a college degree, you can have considerable financial security and your opportunity for economic mobility is there. In America, a worker without college is pretty much screwed. You will likely struggle from one paycheck to another and have to go into debt just to keep your head above water. There is a good chance you will have poor credit and have to go to predatory loan companies to survive, which will create a vicious cycle of destitution. You are the one who will have to be shelling out money for late payments on this and that, fees for having a low balance on your checking account (assuming you have a checking account), and of course astronomical interest rates on your predatory loans. You are the one who will have to pay a high percentage of your income in taxes, particularly sales taxes. Those who have money do not have to pay all of these things. They never pay late payments or fees for low balances. They are the ones who are collecting interest on bank accounts, as well as dividends and capital gains on equities. Since there are lots of tax loopholes for them, they pay a much lower percentage of their income in taxes. When you already have the money, you don’t pay. You collect more money. That’s how the system works.
The system, of course, depends on a well-oiled propaganda machine to maintain itself. This is provided by the constant lionization of the “hard-working” American who supposedly drives the engine of economic prosperity. America is a young country, with a recent frontier. This has an enormous impact on the way we view ourselves. The frontier is largely seen as a place where white American families struggled mightily against nature and hostile Indians to build a civilization. This narrative has never seriously considered the role that slavery, low-wage factory jobs, and mechanization played. Steam power. Cotton gins. Plantations. Railroads.
In my view, the Protestant work ethic is more fundamental to white Protestant culture than xenophobia, homophobia, an attachment to guns, a desire for prayer in schools, opposition to abortion, or any particular religious doctrine. I believe that those who defend it would be willing to peel away all of these things, if it came to it. But not the work ethic. It is key to their identity and their self-worth, and the one element that all of the others can be traced back to.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a strong work ethic. The problem is that it quite generally gets folded into a whole mythos about the relationship between hard work and financial success, and who is deserving of such success. Such beliefs run very deep and are often unspoken, because they don’t need to be expressed. Everyone in the culture takes them as givens. Hard work has always been, and still is, rewarded in this mythos. It is the foundation of America’s economic might and political power. Freedom largely consists of making sure that nothing stands in the way of these rewards. Those who push themselves to work hard are the backbone of the country. To the extent that their work is parasitized by others, the country suffers.
In an international social survey conducted between 1998 and 2001, 69% of Americans agreed with the statement “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill,” the highest percentage among 27 countries in which people were polled. The median for the 27 countries was only 40%. Only 19% of Americans agreed with the statement “coming from a wealthy family is essential/very important to getting ahead.” The median among 27 countries was 28%. Only 33% of Americans believed that the government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality. The median for the 27 countries was about 70%.
In a Pew survey published in 2009, 55% of Americans disagreed with the following simple statement: “In the United States, a child’s chances of achieving financial success is tied to the income of his or her parent.” Notice that this isn’t soliciting an opinion. It is testing one’s knowledge. It isn’t just that Americans tend to reject a government role in reducing inequality. It’s that they really believe that America has high economic mobility, which simply isn’t true. When you don’t even have your facts straight, when you don’t even realize that there is a problem, it isn’t surprising that you reject solutions. The propaganda machine has done its job well.
An interesting consequence of the cult of meritocracy was revealed by a study published in 2010. In the study, 445 managers were given employee profiles and asked to make recommendations on bonuses, promotions, and terminations. Some managers were from companies that emphasized meritocracy in evaluations and compensation. The researchers found that managers from those companies tended to give men greater rewards than equally qualified women. Managers from companies that did not emphasize meritocracy did not favor men over women. The authors called this “the paradox of meritocracy.” And emphasis on meritocracy did not, in the end, reward employees based on merit alone. Instead it maintained gender inequality. The authors suggested that this occurs because an emphasis on supposed impartiality tends to blind us to our own inherent biases.
The belief that America is a land of social mobility is undoubtedly tied to people’s personal belief that, whatever they have, they earned by their own efforts. None of it is luck. It all ties together in a nice neat package. Hard work is rewarded. The wealth of parents has no bearing on the financial well-being of their children. Whatever I have, I earned every bit of it with my own hard work. Only those who are unwilling to make the effort are left behind in America. The American dream is within the reach of everyone.
Closely tied to the cult of meritocracy and the recent frontier is the tolerance American society exhibits for charlatans and hucksters of every stripe. We accept that those who want to sell us something will use deception and distraction and fudging the facts to get what they want. We sympathize with cheaters on some level, because we value winning more than fairness. It is very American to do this, and again, it is closely tied to our recent frontier. We think cheating is bad but fudging, which is the worst kind of cheating, is acceptable. Why? Because cheating is an act of desperation when you’re almost bound to lose. Most of the time it won’t work. Fudging is what you do when the contest is close. That’s when cheating really matters, when it’s likely to work. And nothing is as important as winning. This kind of pathological competitiveness defines much of our economic system and our approach to human relationships. Large numbers of our fellows can be written off as “losers,” just one of many varieties of “them,” not “us.” And around we go, allowing hucksters to keep us atomized while they laugh all the way to the bank.
This in turn is closely tied to a belief in the primacy of personal responsibility. Of course, if we put a label on someone, suddenly this attitude changes. If they have a syndrome or a disability or some vulnerability that we can slap a label on, suddenly responsibility shifts to the fraudsters. Its much harder for us to believe that we all have some degree of vulnerability.
In the political realm, “hard-working American” has become code for white, rural American. Never mind that obesity rates are higher in small town and rural America than in cities. The stereotype of a rural American is a rugged farmer or rancher, or perhaps a coal miner or logger, who works tirelessly from sunrise to sunset. Definitely white. But then the vast majority of farmers, ranchers, coal miners, and loggers are white. And male. White rural and small town America is often referred to as the “real” America, even though the country is 80% urban.
So what’s the alternative? If not merit, then what? Should we just have employers hire and promote people randomly? Of course not. There’s nothing wrong with friendly competition based on merit. But there’s something very wrong with a system that perpetuates and even magnifies inequalities that come about for reasons having nothing to do with merit. There’s something wrong with a system that puts a child at a huge disadvantage educationally and economically, because he happened to grow up in an impoverished, high-crime neighborhood. There’s something wrong with a system that keeps squeezing the middle class so that people who already have too much can have even more.
The demographics of professional baseball players in America are not all that different from those of the general population. 59% of players are white. 62% of America is white. There is a high percentage of Hispanic players, but then 27% of the players are not American, generally from countries like Venezuela and Cuba that emphasize baseball. If you can perform, you’re in. If you’re really, really good, you will make big bucks. Some people seem to be appalled that professional baseball players make so much money. But the money is already there, provided by fans. Who do you want it to go to, the owners? The average career of a player in MLB is less than 6 years. Even the poorest players do not get thrown under the bus, because the players have a powerful union that maintains salaries and benefits. The minimum wage for MLB players is more than half a million dollars.
America’s GDP per adult is about $99,000/year. Even the combined incomes of myself and my wife do not come close to that. Most of my life I have made less than $30,000/year. And, as I said, I consider myself to be in a privileged position. The vast majority of people employed in my town are grocery stockers, cashiers, waiters, hamburger flippers, hotel maids, and so on, who make considerably less than I do. The median HOUSEHOLD income in the parish where I live is about $40,000/year. About a quarter of the population is below the poverty line. My home state of Louisiana ranks 29th in educational expenditure per student. Almost a third of the population of my town is African American.
Compare this to New Haven County, Connecticut. The median household income is about $61,000/year. Only 11% of the population is below the poverty line. Only 13% of the population is African American. In the town of Woodbridge in this county, which is about the same size as the city in which I live, the median household income is about $137,000/year, and less than 3% of the population is below the poverty line. The school district is rated as the 6th best in the state, in a state that ranks 2nd in educational expenditure per student. This town is less than 2% African American.
The issue is not friendly competition based on merit. It is whether people are assured the basics. If they don’t have a safe environment, access to a decent education, and decent health care, how are they supposed to compete for the privileges? This was Roosevelt’s point with his Second Bill of Rights, which has been all but forgotten in post-Reagan America. I have known people who have worked their entire adult lives as grocery stockers or zoo keepers, always making close to minimum wage. Are they supposed to be able to afford a decent home and go to a hospital if they need to? The solutions are not really that complicated. Strengthen organized labor so that it can effectively negotiate with owners for decent pay and benefits. Make the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes and use the revenue to ensure that every child has access to decent education. Invest in impoverished communities that are the result of decades of discrimination. Abandon trickle-down economics.
With its seemingly baked-in cult of meritocracy, one might conclude that America will never budge from its trend of ever-increasing economic inequality and declining economic mobility. Yet if the propagandists were so invincible, how did progress ever come about? How did the 40-hour work week ever come about? How did compulsory education and social security ever come about? America seems to go through these periods of stagnation, even reversal in some cases, punctuated by progress. One way or another, the squeezing of the American middle class is unsustainable. The cult of meritocracy and the mythos of the American dream will be tough nuts to crack. There will be a lot of political maneuvering and a lot of culture war battles. But automation will not disappear, the browning of America will continue, and many Americans will be pulled, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.