Leaky Bucket

This is the image I used here on 11/15/16 when writing about Okun’s leaky bucket:

Wealth redistribution efforts not only work against our financial interests, they shrink everyone’s wealth. The more equal you try and force a society to be, the poorer it gets.  Economist Arthur Okun (1928-1980), in his book Equity and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff (1975), documented this economic phenomenon, which has become known as “Okun’s Bucket”.  He likens wealth redistribution to moving money from one person to another in a leaky bucket.  You manage to get some money transferred from one person to another, but along the way a lot leaks out and is lost forever.

Daniel Markovits makes several references to Okun’s Bucket in his conclusion of The Meritocracy Trap (2019) because he knows it’s fatal to his argument for wealth redistribution.  I think he correctly points out the really bad psychological aspects of meritocracy:  “Meritocratic inequality therefore induces not only deep discontent but also widespread pessimism, verging on despair”.  But there is no alternative.

The amount of wealth leaking out of Okun’s wealth redistribution bucket is not trivial.  One commentator estimates it at between 34%-56%!

The only possible way to justify destroying half of the wealth Government would steal to get the other half forcibly transferred to the “needy” (who gets to determine who’s needy?) is the tired old marginal utility argument.   But that is flawed logic.  As I wrote here a few months ago:

[wealth redistributionists think that the marginal dollar taken out of a wealthy person’s pocket and given to someone in need will increase overall human flourishing].  To the contrary, as we’ve learned from Game Theory and Scott Alexander’s Mistake Theory vs. Conflict Theory dichotomy, the notion of overall marginal utility is wrong.  Von Neumann and Morgenstein pointed this out in the 1940’s:  “the popular misunderstanding about this pseudo-maximum problem is the famous statement according to which the purpose of social effort is the ‘greatest possible good for the greatest possible number’.  A guiding principle cannot be formulated by the requirement of maximizing two (or more) functions at once.  Such a principle… is self-contradictory.  One function will have no maximum where the other function has one.”  It’s like saying that a business should pursue maximum revenue and minimum expense.  Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944).

Markovits begins his book with the sentence “Merit is a sham”.  He concludes by arguing that “meritocratic inequality benefits no one; neither the many whom meritocracy idles and thereby excludes from income and status, nor even the few whom meritocracy ensnares in a destructive tournament to exploit their human capital by yielding oppressively intense pervasively alienated labor”.  His logical leap to wealth redistribution is “by unmasking merit as a sham, the diagnosis of meritocratic inequality pierces the ideologies that lead the elite to cling to is privilege and the middle class to direct its resentments at innocent outsiders.  It is one thing for a person to suppress his humanity in order to protect real advantages; it is another to do so in the service of an illusion.”  He concludes that meritocracy is a trap ensnaring everyone by “creating false pride in the rich and false resentment in the rest”.

He is correct that meritocracy makes us miserable:

https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/07/why-meritocracy-makes-us-miserable/

But whether or not merit is a sham/illusion, wealth redistribution is not a solution because of Okun’s Bucket and the pseudo-maximum utility problem.  We are each independent, free moral and economic agents in competition with one another.  Government cannot impose radical change to a natural aristocracy and would engage in immoral wealth destruction by trying.

Next week, we begin a new dig down even further into the philosophy of merit via the extraordinary mind of Adrian Wooldridge.

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The Myth of Merit

Chapter 9 of The Meritocracy Trap (2019) is “The Myth of Merit”.  The two anti-meritocracy books we’re exploring now, this one and Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit (2020), both argue that upward social mobility through one’s own effort, regardless of social position, cannot be widely achieved because of inherent contradictions in the idea of Meritocracy.  The phrase “Myth of Meritocracy” even has its own Wikipedia page (with Wiki-leftist bias of course).

A myth is a widely embraced but false belief.  Markovits contends that meritocracy is a myth because it has “built a world that makes itself – in all its facets, including meritocratic inequality – seem practically and even morally necessary”.  The authors claim that believing this “Myth” produces the negative sociological consequences of hubris/humiliation and compulsive overwork/forced indolence.  But is Merit really a myth?  Helen Andrews’ article, “The New Ruling Class” (2016), and others seem to agree that there is no alternative to it.  Critics just cannot get their heads outside of it because merit is almost a tautology – smart accomplished people get rewarded. 

Markovits writes that Meritocracy has a powerful charisma, a compelling charm, framing it as an idea that people fetishize because it seems natural, correct, the way things should be.  He uses the word charisma 5 times and fetish 6 times in this chapter.  But, as I’ve written here before, just because an idea is difficult to grasp, define or demonstrate [see my 5/7/19 post on morality] does not mean it’s a myth – meritocracy and morality are indeed real.

We shall see that Meritocracy has extremely deep roots.  Our next project is the book The Aristocracy of Talent – How Meritocracy Made the Modern World (2021) by Adrian Wooldridge.  He writes that all thinking about meritocracy is a series of footnotes to Plato (375 B.C.) and China’s application of the philosophy of Confucius (479 B.C.).   Wooldrige’s book is a direct response to Sandel and Markovits, who he argues do not go deeply enough into the ancient wisdom of Meritocracy before reaching their hasty conclusion (more Government wealth redistribution).

Next week, Markovits’ tries to dispense with Okun’s leaky bucket, attempting to argue that wealth redistribution will help both the rich and the poor.  As we’ve seen here for many years and many years to come – it will help neither.

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Snowball Inequality

Last week we saw the deepening divide between today’s wealthy and poor.  This week we see how this is happening and why meritocratic inequality is so entrenched, growing and irreversible.  Chapter 8 of The Meritocracy Trap (2019) is “Snowball Inequality”.  Markovits’ analysis of the phenomenon is spot-on, while his solution (wealth redistribution) is dead wrong.  The chapter’s opening paragraphs hint at his anti-wealth redistribution frustration:

“The Reagan Revolution flatly rejected outright redistribution… .[there is an] implacable objection to redistribution….[an] unbending constraint that taxes must become less…”

So, redistribution being out of the question, the middle class dealt with their stagnant wages by taking on debt – and LOTS of it.  This lead to radical financial innovations that are the root cause of meritocratic inequality.  A revolution has propelled the value of intensely skilled work and sophisticated knowledge in finance, law, technology and management that has commensurately reduced the value of mid-skill workers.  Throughout the book and 7 times in this chapter Markovits terms it a “fetish for skill”.  The word fetish connotes an irrational, excessive commitment or obsession with high skill.  However, “The shift follows an intelligible inner logic”.  Even though he does not like it and detests the terribly negative consequences for a majority of humans, the  reason for why it is happening is logical. 

There is a paradox in economics.  Why are countries rich in natural resources (oil, gold, diamonds) much less wealthy overall than countries with fewer resources?  Resource rich countries focus on extraction, so wealth is concentrated in owners, leaving a large class of oppressed labor to do the work of getting wealth out of the earth.  They therefore fail to invest in mass education and develop corrupt institutions that protect private interests of the powerful at the expense of the common good.

Markovits believes a similar thing is happening in the U.S., but the resource is not oil or gold or diamonds – it’s human capital.  He writes:

The exceptional skill of superordinate workers distorts economies that rely on them.  Concentrated human capital induces innovations that refocus production on industries and jobs – finance, elite management – that use superordinate labor.  And these industries concentrate wealth and power in an increasingly narrow caste of meritocratic workers, doing glossy jobs, who dominate a large class of subordinate workers doing gloomy jobs.  They are in effect extractive industries, with the twist that they extract income not from natural wealth but rather from the human capital of the superordinate workers.

This produces the negative Meritocracy effects detailed in Sandel’s and Markovits’ books but it is a rational, natural product of human innovation and history.  Economic production was dominated by land and then industrial machines.  Now, human capital has become the greatest source of wealth.  Innovators are not dispassionate.  They work in a social environment and have economic interests, which drives which thoughts and ideas, from the immense set of imaginative possibilities, they actually pursue – it’s profitable to deploy elite PhDs, lawyers and MBAs even though the masses get left behind.  Meritocracy grows and reinforces itself in a feedback loop of exceptionally educated rich children and the extravagant incomes they earn. 

The cycle continues, and meritocratic inequality snowballs down through the generations, gathering size, mass, and momentum as it rolls down history’s hill.  Next week, Markovits continues his argument against Meritocracy as a charismatic fetishization of elite skill.

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The Rich and the Rest

FishBowls

Chapter 7 of Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap (2019), “A Comprehensive Divide”, delves into a stark contrast between two sides of an enormous cultural seam dividing elite wealthy and the mass poor.  There is no middle class anymore.   If you think your middle class, you’re not; you’re either poor and uninformed or wealthy and insecure.

Even though it’s psychological (as we saw the last 2 weeks), the chasm between compulsive overwork and enforced idleness has very real life and death consequences.  Economic division imposed by meritocratic inequality leads directly to moral conflict.  The rich and the rest are completely separate tribes occupying vastly different worlds.  Their family structure, cultural values, tastes, morals and beliefs couldn’t be more different.  What used to be known as the middle class is now called the “precariat” (precariously clinging to their lifestyle).

Two statistics that blew my mind:  First, on the rich side, Bentley Motors sold more cars priced over $150,000 in 2014 than the entire automotive industry did in 2000.  Second, on the poor side, there are now more payday lending stores in the U.S. than there are McDonalds and Starbucks combined.   This is not just class envy – it really is life and death.  The difference in life expectancy (at birth) between people in a rich state (Connecticut) and a poor state (Mississippi) is 6 years.  To put that into perspective, the life expectancy gap between the U.S. and Nicaragua is 4 years – and curing all cancers would increase life expectancy by only 4 years (p. 232) – yet the rich vs. rest life expectancy within the U.S. is 6 years!

While this is alarming and disconcerting, there is nothing public policy (wealth redistribution) can do to reverse these trends.  Next week, we’ll see why snowballing inequality is structural and unavoidable.  As Schelling’s game theory elucidates, individually innocent choices – to educate children, to work industriously, to innovate – accumulate and feed back on themselves in ways that cause collective harm.  It is permanent because abolishing the family or eradicating individual liberty for the sake of “the common good” is neither practical nor moral.  

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Exploit

*

Last week we saw why Meritocracy is bad for the wealthy (it’s an unhealthy rat race).  This week we see why it’s bad for the middle class.  It’s not just that they are prevented from acquiring wealth, it’s deeply socio-psychological.  The source of social esteem has changed radically and unexpectedly.  When Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) a “man of leisure” [someone who didn’t need to work] was admired and respected by others.  Now, he’s just a deadbeat loser, denigrated by society as worthless and lazy.

What happened?  Markovits explains that the middle class has been “idled but excluded from leisure”.  He uses the word exploit, not as a verb but as a noun (a bold or daring feat).  Since ancient times physical labor was seen as an impediment to higher thought, while a life of leisure was ennobling.  Leisure is the non-productive consumption of time for a purpose other than making a living.  A man of leisure is very busy but not for the purpose of subsistence.  He pursues exploit – achievement of the immaterial kind – knowledge of art, history, music, philosophy or extreme skill in hunting, sports or war.  Before we became a peaceful society, we were violent.  The human attributes in society most esteemed were those which gave the possessor the ability to use overwhelming force to take life, acquire property and defend it.  The vestige of this evolved human attribute is still here in that property rights will always be inherently violent, “held against” others [Winters Oligarchy (2011)].

Cultural values have shifted.  Leisure was once understood as associated with the aristocracy, of exploit that confers honor and status.  Technological innovation has not just changed how people spend their time, it has remade social meanings.  Concentrating economic production in a cognitive elite has fused high paid careers and leisure, so that industry and exploit became one in the same.    The masses have been released from drudgery but by the same mechanism, they have been excluded from industry and leisure.  Markovits writes:

The polarized labor market leaves the middle class with not enough – not nearly enough – to do.  Once again, the enforced idleness – including not just unemployment but also involuntary underemployment and withdrawal from the labor market – that meritocratic inequality now imposes on mid-skilled workers roughly equals, in size and scope, the enforced idleness that gender discrimination imposed on women at midcentury. 

Because industry now constitutes honor, this idleness no longer sustains status-conferring leisure but rather imposes its opposite – listless indolence and its attendant degradations…

This explains the otherwise mysterious anger and contempt that increasingly overwhelm society:  the populism that engulfs politics, even during an economic expansion, and the self-inflicted deaths (from addiction, overdose, and suicide) that increases overall mortality, even without plague or war.

The bad news is all the pain, anger and death.  The good news is that the cause is psychological, not financial.  When intelligent people begin to understand this cultural tidal wave, it can be absorbed and redirected.  And it is intelligent people for whom social esteem is still reserved.  You can’t redistribute wealth to the poor and expect that to give them esteem.  They will still be bored, listless and unaccomplished despite having more money because Government played Robin Hood.  But intelligent people of modest wealth can still engage in noble leisure – win exploit by doing or knowing something most cannot do or understand.  Exploit is beyond the reach of the mass, dumb poor.  Schopenhauer wrote “no amount or diversity of social pleasure, theatres, excursions and amusements, can ward off boredom from a dullard.”

In the TV series Star Trek the Next Generation, Captain Jean-Luc Picard explains to a man from our time “This is the 24th century.  Material needs no longer exist”.  The time traveler asks “Then what’s the challenge?” to which Jean-Luc responds “The challenge, Mr. O, is to improve yourself.  To enrich yourself.  Enjoy it.”

*This painting is “The Triumph of Victory” (1614).  Exploit is evolving from violent conquest – the spoils of war; to today’s overworked narcissistic elite; then will become (I predict) moderate wealth acquisition, enabling individual intellectual feats, which “no other could achieve, by producing some work which contributes to the general good, and redounds to the honor of humanity at large.”  Again, quoting Schopenhauer as I did here on 10/24/17 and 10/17/17.

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Conspicuous Exhaustion

The most revealing section of Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap (2019) is pages 185-194.  His argument throughout the book is that Meritocracy is very bad for the middle class because they are “idled but excluded from leisure” (I’ll explain what he means by that later).  Meritocracy is also very bad for the rich and successful (who he dubs ‘superordinate workers’) because it traps them in a Rat Race Equilibrium.  They are forced to work way too hard for ever-longer hours to wring out social esteem.  He writes:

Competitive rowers illustrate the effect in action.  Victorious single scull rowers typically celebrate extravagantly when the cross the finish line; rowers in victorious eight person boats, by contrast, slump immediately after the finish in displays of conspicuous exhaustion.  The single scull rowers show, in the spirit of Veblen, that they did not exhaust their full capacity to achieve victory but rather won at their leisure, as one might say.  But the eight-oared shell – an averaging device – disguises each rower’s individual contribution to the boat’s speed.  Conspicuous exhaustion signals productivity where productivity cannot be measured directly.

The term conspicuous consumption is from Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).  In a nutshell, it argues that societies are driven by emulation and a need for social status.  The more resources we consume, or which allow us not to work, the greater our social esteem.  Markovits’ brilliant insight is that leisure and consumption no longer signal status; rather, it’s now high paying elite jobs with ungodly hours that signal status.  

Game Theory can help us understand our hyper-competitive, complex economy.  Rat Race Equilibrium is like Nash Equilibrium (named after John Forbes Nash, Jr. – did you see the movie A Beautiful Mind?).  Nash Equilibrium is a mathematical way to define the solution of a non-cooperative multi-player game (including the esteem economy game of life).   It may also help explain why intellectuals are now disparaging the intuitively correct idea of Meritocracy. 

Scott Alexander analyzed why people strongly disagreed with his essay on Meritocracy by contrasting Mistake Theory people (logic, reason, evidence) against Conflict Theory people (everything is “us vs. them” oppression).  Conflict people sidestep rationality and argue “you’re just saying that to justify unfair inequalities”.  Scott also taught us the limits of argument and reason.  Here’s his classic 2012 article in which he explains the notion of a Schelling Fence.

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/Kbm6QnJv9dgWsPHQP/schelling-fences-on-slippery-slopes

I have a precommitment to vigorously defending my clients’ wealth from redistribution.  It’s my Schelling Fence and I passionately pound a new fence post down here every week. I agree with the Grumpy Economist that Meritocracy and Redistribution are separate issues but the negative aspects of Meritocracy (Sandel’s hubris/humiliation and Markovits’ rat race/leisure exclusion) will be used as arguments to impose Redistribution, so it’s relevant here.

Thomas C. Schelling’s book Micromotives and Macrobehavior (1978) points to the profound conflict between perceived individual interests vs. some larger collective bargain.  There is a  huge divergence between what people are motivated to do individually and what they might like to accomplish together.  The individual behavior of freely acting moral and economic agents results in vast inequality.  There’s no way around that unless private wealth is coercively redistributed. 

Markovits points out a remarkable statistic that helps explain why (on pg. 121) the advantages, both cognitive and economic, that the wealthy provide their children are never going away:

A 3 year old child born to professional parents will have heard 20 million more words than a 3 year old born to non-professional parents and 30 million more words than a 3 year old born to parents on welfare.  And after age 3 professional parents spend 2 more decades getting their kids ahead in life.  You can’t overcome that unless you abolish the family or impose totalitarianism.  That’s not going to happen as long as our War Chest of wisdom and wealth is well stocked.

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Controversy Ahead

This is our 11th week in a cognitive expedition through the notion of Meritocracy.  I’ll keep going 11 more because the topic is so salient to reaching the extraordinary (and perhaps controversial) truth about wealth, work and human well-being.  The brutally harsh truth about our socio-economic reality is that we live in a hereditary, aristocratic meritocracy, three important aspects of which are:  1) it is not going to change; 2) it is an efficient, rational mechanism for allocating societal resources; and 3) it is moral and just, despite the perceived unfairness, pain, misery (and death) it imposes.

Obviously some very prominent thinkers disagree, so I have painstakingly gathered the logic and philosophy leading to this conclusion.  The “you’re just saying that to justify existing inequalities” retort does not diminish the conclusion.  I am well aware of status quo bias.  Here’s a recent article on that:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/social-justice-pacifists/202106/why-some-people-strive-justify-the-status-quo

I account for possible bias here by being exhaustively thorough and by citing the authoritative work of many others on the topic.  We just plowed through every chapter of Sandel’s book and will soon enter Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap (2019).  We’ll eventually get to this book, just published 6/3/21: The Aristocracy of Talent:  How Meritocracy Made the Modern World (2021).  by English writer Adrian Wooldridge.  I have not studied it yet but it is now on the way to me from the U.K.  Some of my intellectual heroes (Steven Pinker and Francis Fukuyama) write that it’s a really good book.  And The Grumpy Economist (John Cochrane) just wrote about it on his blog.  Here’s a link to the Wooldrige article promoting that book: 

https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-05-16/china-knows-that-meritocracy-is-the-key-to-boosting-economic-growth

Next week, we hedgehog down into the book, The Meritocracy Trap – How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, from a Yale Law professor who argues that Meritocracy is a harmful but charismatic fetishization of heavily credentialled, highly skilled, highly paid, elite workers.

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The Psychology and Philosophy of Work -Part 2

Michael J. Sandel’s final chapter and conclusion of The Tyranny of Merit (2020) zeros in on the intensely psychological foundation of work and wealth.  It’s not the money.  It’s dignity, respect and esteem.  Anger and resentment from millions of hard-working Americans are understandable when politicians and snobby academics call them racist rednecks.  Condescending elites belittle working class whites with talk of “trailer trash” and “fly over states”.  Hillary Clinton’s comment about “deplorables” and Barack Obama’s about people who “cling to their guns and religion” are examples of open contempt for the working class.  It’s psychologically damaging to them.

I agree with Sandel’s diagnosis but disagree with his solutions [which are to redistribute money to low-income workers and attack the finance industry].  A more practical solution would be to propagate an honest understanding of the psychology of wealth and work.  Books like this one and Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap (2019) along with classic works on the philosophy of capitalism should be widely read (they’re not).

Society will be much better off when people come to terms with the true, honest nature of wealth and work.  Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904)* should be understood by most Americans (it’s not).  And for those who cannot fathom the competitive and changing market for social esteem, Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) is illuminating, particularly in light of modern Game Theory.  Markovits’ refers to Veblen in 10 different parts of his book.  He digs deeply down into work/wealth psychology.  It is to him we shall turn next week.

* The spirit of capitalism is not greed and consumption.  It is the creation of order and the best use of resources.  We prosper without central planning with the decentralization of knowledge.  History, along with the work of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises demonstrate, without a doubt, that Government should not centrally manage the economy.  Anyone who thinks otherwise ignores their arguments or is ignorant of human history.  Government meddling in the private economy is not only an intellectual error, it’s murderous.  Here’s a not-so-subtle article on that:

https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/04/socialism-loses-again/

The anxiety, unease, resentment, anger and other psychological maladies in today’s America must be acknowledged and understood.  But more Government is NOT the solution.

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The Psychology and Philosophy of Work – Part 1

Chapter 7 of The Tyranny of Merit (2020) is “Recognizing Work”.   I’ve been writing about the philosophy of wealth and work on this blog since 10/9/14.  Here are some sample past points:

7/30/20 Nietzsche on wealth and pretense – only a man of intellect should hold property; otherwise, the owner does not know how to make use of the leisure, which wealth secures.

3/6/20 Work is a calling, not wage-slave drudgery.  Any Government imposed right to work or right not to work is not a right worth having.                   

10/18/19 Wealth is wasted on the dumb.

10/17/17 We should never take for granted our blessings of wealth, intellect and free time.

10/18/16 Idleness is immoral – too many people are succumbing to the sin of laziness.

12/4/14 Wealth and work are deeply interwoven into and are a function of time.

Work, wealth and time are different aspects of the same thing – sources of human flourishing.  Life is brutally competitive.  Meaningful work and ennobling leisure are vital to happiness and wealth, which gives one dignity, esteem and an intellectually stimulating life, enriched with moral and cultural astuteness.  But not everyone can or should control the level of wealth required for this.  Most people waste wealth, whether they get it from a government handout or lucky windfall.  A majority of humans do not handle wealth prudently.  Shakespeare’s adage “beggars mounted run their horse to death” comes to mind.  I’ve seen it every day for last 26 years as a trusts and estates lawyer.  Every estate plan I create provides careful wealth restrictions for the young, dumb and improvident.

I agree with Sandel that Meritocracy is mean, dooming millions to despair and listless idleness, but that is the human condition – has been for eons.  You cannot “fix it” by shoveling other people’s money at the poor, which is 1) immoral; 2) inefficient; and 3) irrational.  Inequality is here to stay.  Sandel quotes Larry Summers (pg. 79): “One of the challenges in our society is that the truth is kind of a disequalizer.  One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated close to the way that they’re supposed to be treated”.

Sandel complains about the lack of esteem in the masses but, by definition, esteem is respect and admiration from others.  If everyone had esteem, it would not exist.  Intellectual dignity is reserved for a minority of humans because its supply is limited.  We shall delve deeper into this psychological reality in the coming weeks and see how non-cooperative game theory and free markets explain how who gets, earns or is lucky enough to win in the bloody boxing ring that Sandel calls “the economy of esteem”.  [spoiler alert – cross generational wealth levels have reached Nash and Rat Race Equilibriums.  It would take a global Black Swan Event to change things.]

More on work, the conclusion of this book and a companion book on the same topic next week.

EDIT – Here’s Arthur Schopenhauer on why only the wise should control wealth:

https://monadnock.net/schopenhauer/wisdom-3.html

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The Sorting Machine

Chapter 6 of The Tyranny of Merit (2020) is “The Sorting Machine”.   Sandel has some interesting conclusions on meritocracy as it relates to:  1) higher education; and 2) work (the next chapter).   These are fascinatingly intriguing issues being fiercely debated right now.

For example, Freddie DeBoer recently summarized his book The Cult of Smart (2020) here:

https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/by-request-the-cult-of-smart

Scott Alexander’s review of deBoer’s book is even more illuminating on the topic:

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/book-review-the-cult-of-smart

Despite DeBoer and Sandel’s moral outrage, there is sadly no alternative to having the smartest people doing the most important things.  Some people are more intelligent and harder working than others.  It’s economic reality.  There will always be winners and losers.  We can only strive to understand how and why via economics, moral philosophy and the growingly important knowledge found in information theory and game theory.  Sandel’s book is an effort to temper the unpleasant reality that some people are smart/wealthy and some people are dumb/poor.

Sandel tries to make a case for much less competition and idealization of achievement in academia.  He explains how colleges have become human sorting machines   The old aristocracy of wealth and birth has been replaced by the “natural aristocracy”, which legitimizes extreme inequalities of merit.  But birth still matters because meritocracy as not been an engine of social mobility; to the contrary, it now reinforces the advantages that “privileged” parents confer upon their children.  [Endnote 26, Chapter 6 and endnote 14, Chapter 5 cite vast and growing literature documenting meritocratic generational advantage]

Universities have become the arbiters of opportunity in a meritocratic arms race, which Sandels argues is hurting the esteem of those sorted out and wounding those sorted in with unrelenting pressure to perform, to achieve, to succeed.  Sandel’s proposal is to place much less emphasis on SATs and to treat merit as a threshold qualification in a “lottery of the qualified” type admissions process, where merit is not an ideal to be maximized.  Sandel urges the dismantling of the sorting machine.  He repeats the recurring argument that meritocracy leads to hubris among winners and humiliation among losers.  He wants to chasten merit’s hubris and get the successful to stop believing those who lose out are less worthy than they.

Next week, we move from education to the second domain of today’s hierarchy of social esteem and economic success:  Work.

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