This guy's really good at golf.A study presented recently at the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (PDF) shows (with somewhat confusing language) that the vast majority of the recent rise in income inequality is "permanent" rather than a result of increased year-to-year instability in earnings. Ned Resnikoff did a blog post linking these findings to recent political talk about opportunity and suggested on Twitter that these findings illustrate that America isn't really a meritocracy.
"Meritocracy" is a hazy subject, but as Tim Noah explained in a great Slate piece more than a decade ago, all this really goes to show is that the idea of meritocracy is overrated. If you take some field of endeavor where the concept of "merit" is pretty well-defined—professional golf, for example—what you see is an enormously inegalitarian distribution of income. Golfing ability is distributed very unevenly. The total set of people who golf is quite large, and most of them do it for negative wages. A tiny minority of people actually earn money golfing, and a much tinier subset of really good golfers dominate the tournament earnings. It's both very meritocratic and very inegalitarian. What's also true is that even as golf is a meritocracy where the best golfers win, it features major structural barriers to opportunity. Lots of kids don't have a chance to golf growing up. That could be because their parents don't have the money, or it could just be because their parents hate golf.
But if you removed those barriers to opportunity—by implementing, say, a well-funded universal golf education program—the end result would be even more inequality in earnings since the golfing market would only become more cutthroat and efficient.
The fact remains that if you tax rich golfers' income and give the money to poor people, you increase the sum total of felicity in the world. If you find a way to collect the same amount of money from rich golfers but do it primarily by taxing rich golfers' consumption, then you do an even better job. When you think about physical disabilities this becomes particularly clear. We try to help out people who are blind or who lost a leg in Iraq or who are born with a congenital heart weakness not because providing such assistance accords with a principle of merit, but precisely because people who lack "merit" in the field of seeing or walking or not dying as a child due to heart failure are the people who need help. But lots of people suffer from less visible problems, be it a genetic weakness for alcoholism or the below-average intelligence that afflicts exactly 50 percent of the population. Those people should have great lives, too. But a very egalitarian society in which everyone enjoys a high standard of living is almost certainly going to have become that way precisely because it doesn't strive to turn the remorseless meritocracy of the PGA tour into a model for society.
The word "meritocracy" was coined in a brilliant satirical novel published in 1958 by a leftist British sociologist named Michael Young (who has always been somewhat apologetic about the term's awkward melding of Latin and Greek). The word lived on while the book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, is largely forgotten. More distressingly, the point of the book, which was to demonstrate the potential evils of a society whose hierarchy is based entirely on merit (as opposed to inherited wealth), is also largely forgotten. Young and a small but dedicated band of admirers (including quite a few writers affiliated with the Washington Monthly, where Young's book is a sacred text) are constantly having to explain that "meritocracy" did not begin life as a term of praise and that the goal of rewarding merit, laudable though it is, can run afoul of the idea that all men are created equal.
Stripped down to its essence, the rap on meritocracy breaks down into two parts:
Our ability to measure merit (defined by Young as IQ plus effort) is faulty. Those doing the measuring tend to overestimate the value of certain credentials, such as whatever college somebody attended. The people best able to perform any given job often possess intangible skills or temperament or experiences that can't really be measured scientifically. It isn't even particularly clear what "intelligence" consists of or how useful it can be in any given situation. Remember that brilliant minds got the United States into the Vietnam War while ordinary minds (reporters, student protesters) got us out.
To whatever extent you can successfully identify merit and distribute wealth accordingly—and there's no question that capitalism does this more efficiently than it used to—there are certain goods that shouldn't be distributed based on merit. These include health care, education, and police protection. Right now such things are much more easily available to the rich. In a meritocracy the upper classes tend to feel much more entitled to the privileges they enjoy than in a society based on inherited position or wealth. Entitlement breeds arrogance. Meanwhile, the lower classes are made to feel more deserving of their misfortune. That breeds hopelessness.
If these ideas intrigue you, Chatterbox recommends that you read Nicholas Lemann's The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Mickey Kaus' The End of Equality,and the chapter titled "What Morons Could Do" in James Fallows' More Like Us: Making America Great Again. But if you want to see Michael Young's ideas submitted to an interesting field test, pick up a copy of How To Lose Friends & Alienate People, which was just published in England by Michael Young's son Toby. (DaCapo Press will publish a U.S. edition.)
Toby Young is a minor legend for the appalling swiftness with which he failed at American magazine journalism, a niche not previously known for its hostility to the English. Young parlayed a high-paying job as an editor at Vanity Fair into astint writing columns for a seedy right-wing shopper called the New York Press. He achieved this by demonstrating a pronounced lack of productivity, extreme boorishness (he sent a Vanity Fair colleague a strippergram on Take Your Daughter to Work Day), and a taste for liquor that alarmed even Anthony Haden-Guest, a famously dissolute British journalist who was Tom Wolfe's prototype for the boozy tabloid reporter Peter Fallow in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Reading Toby's memoir, Chatterbox felt as though he were driving past an unusually lurid traffic accident; he couldn't put the thing down. But Chatterbox also couldn't reconcile Toby's baffling combination of contradictory qualities. Toby is intelligent, yet he does extraordinarily stupid things (such as insulting his boss, Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter). Toby reveres his father, as well he should, yet indulges in an infantile celebrity worship that mocks his father's egalitarianism. Toby wishes to impress famous and/or powerful people, yet invariably he insults them whenever he encounters them face to face. Toby rejects the notion of romantic love, but becomes fixated on marrying his ex-girlfriend, Caroline, who, readers learn, has "Baywatch tits, perfect 34Ds." Although Caroline comes across in Toby's book as an extremely level-headed beauty, she agrees to marry him, which furnishes the book a truly unexpected happy ending. (The two now live in London.)
What does Michael Young think of How To Lose Friends & Alienate People? In his book, Toby writes:
He was nice about it—"very funny"—but not particularly enthusiastic. "Why not write a more serious book?" he asked. He reminded me of T.S. Eliot's distinction between two kinds of achievement, those for which we're acclaimed in our lifetime and those that last through the ages. Wasn't it time I stopped pursuing the cheap baubles of worldly success and went for something more substantial? He was right, of course.
After puzzling over the riddle of Toby Young, however, Chatterbox has concluded that How To Lose Friends & Alienate People is the sequel Michael Young never wrote to The Rise of the Meritocracy.It isn't anywhere near as good (sequels never are), and Michael is probably right to say that it won't confer immortality on its author. Still, Toby's memoir of failure is the result of what Chatterbox believes to be an experiment of sorts testing Michael Young's ideas about meritocracy. There really isn't any other way to explain the bad behavior it describes except to posit that Toby set out to test the value of his sterling meritocratic credentials (Oxford, Harvard) in the United States. Would he fail? Could he fail? If failure proved impossible, what better condemnation of the most advanced meritocracy the world has ever known? Unfortunately for Young, however, the American meritocracy doesn't work as badly as he'd counted on. Hence, he failed not only at making it in American journalism, but also at honoring his father with an extremely dramatic real-world demonstration of meritocracy's drawbacks.
Chatterbox ran this theory by Young, who has been publicizing his book quite energetically. Young agreed that "the fact that Vanity Fair chewed me up and spat me out is a rare example of meritocracy in action. I didn't deserve to be promoted; I deserved to be fired far sooner than I was." However, he went on, "I wouldn't want to describe my book as a sequel to The Rise of the Meritocracy. I would have liked to have written that book—my father would have really liked me to have written that book—but I didn't."
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