"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Targeting Meritocracy

I.

Prospect Magazine writes about the problem with meritocracy. First Things thinks meritocracy is killing America. Feminist Philosophers comes out against meritocracy. The Guardian says “down with meritocracy”. Vox calls for an atack on the false god of meritocracy. There’s even an Against Meritocracy book. Given that meritocracy seems almost tautologically good (doesn’t it just mean positions going to those who deserve them?), there sure do seem to be a lot of people against it.

Some of these people are just being pointlessly edgy. The third article seem to admit that a true meritocracy would be a good thing, but argues that we don’t have one right now. This hardly seems “against meritocracy”, any more than saying we don’t have full racial equality right now means you’re “against racial equality”, but whatever, I guess you’ve got to get clicks somehow.

The other articles actually mean it. Their argument seems to be gesturing at the idea that elites send their kids to private schools, where they get all A+s and end up as president of the Junior Strivers Club. Then they go to Harvard and dazzle their professors with their sparkling wit and dapper suits. Then they get hired right out of college to high-paying management positions at Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV. Then they eat truffle-flavored caviar all day and tell each other “Unlike past generations of elites, we are meritocrats who truly deserve our positions, on account of our merit”, as the poor gnash their teeth outside.

Grant that this is all true, and that it’s bad. Does that mean we should be against meritocracy?

II.

There’s a weird assumption throughout all these articles, that meritocracy is founded on the belief that smart people deserve good jobs as a reward for being smart. Freddie de Boer, in his review of yet another anti-meritocracy book, puts it best:

I reject meritocracy because I reject the idea of human deserts. I don’t believe that an individual’s material conditions should be determined by what he or she “deserves,” no matter the criteria and regardless of the accuracy of the system contrived to measure it. I believe an equal best should be done for all people at all times.

More practically, I believe that anything resembling an accurate assessment of what someone deserves is impossible, inevitably drowned in a sea of confounding variables, entrenched advantage, genetic and physiological tendencies, parental influence, peer effects, random chance, and the conditions under which a person labors. To reflect on the immateriality of human deserts is not a denial of choice; it is a denial of self-determination. Reality is indifferent to meritocracy’s perceived need to “give people what they deserve.”

I think this is both entirely true and entirely missing the point. The intuition behind meritocracy is this: if your life depends on a difficult surgery, would you prefer the hospital hire a surgeon who aced medical school, or a surgeon who had to complete remedial training to barely scrape by with a C-? If you prefer the former, you’re a meritocrat with respect to surgeons. Generalize a little, and you have the argument for being a meritocrat everywhere else.

The Federal Reserve making good versus bad decisions can be the difference between an economic boom or a recession, and ten million workers getting raises or getting laid off. When you’ve got that much riding on a decision, you want the best decision-maker possible – that is, you want to choose the head of the Federal Reserve based on merit.

This has nothing to do with fairness, deserts, or anything else. If some rich parents pay for their unborn kid to have experimental gene therapy that makes him a superhumanly-brilliant economist, and it works, and through no credit of his own he becomes a superhumanly-brilliant economist – then I want that kid in charge of the Federal Reserve. And if you care about saving ten million people’s jobs, you do too.

III.

Does this mean we just have to suck it up and let the truffle-eating Harvard-graduating elites at Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV lord it over the rest of us?

No. The real solution to this problem is the one none of the anti-meritocracy articles dare suggest: accept that education and merit are two different things!

I work with a lot of lower- and working-class patients, and one complaint I hear again and again is that their organization won’t promote them without a college degree. Some of them have been specifically told “You do great work, and we think you’d be a great candidate for a management position, but it’s our policy that we can’t promote someone to a manager unless they’ve gone to college”. Some of these people are too poor to afford to go to college. Others aren’t sure they could pass; maybe they have great people skills and great mechanical skills but subpar writing-term-paper skills. Though I’ve met the occasional one who goes to college and rises to great heights, usually they sit at the highest non-degree-requiring tier of their organization, doomed to perpetually clean up after the mistakes of their incompetent-but-degree-having managers. These people have loads of merit. In a meritocracy, they’d be up at the top, competing for CEO positions. In our society, they’re stuck.

The problem isn’t just getting into college. It’s that success in college only weakly correlates with success in the real world. I got into medical school because I got good grades in college; those good grades were in my major, philosophy. Someone else who was a slightly worse philosopher would never have made it to medical school; maybe they would have been a better doctor. Maybe someone who didn’t get the best grades in college has the right skills to be a nurse, or a firefighter, or a police officer. If so, we’ll never know; all three of those occupations are gradually shifting to acceptance conditional on college performance. Ulysses Grant graduated in the bottom half of his West Point class, but turned out to be the only guy capable of matching General Lee and winning the Civil War after a bunch of superficially better-credentialed generals failed. If there’s a modern Grant with poor grades but excellent real-world fighting ability, are we confident our modern educationocracy will find him? Are we confident it will even try?

Remember that IQ correlates with chess talent at a modest r = 0.24, and chess champion Garry Kasparov has only a medium-high IQ of 135. If Kasparov’s educational success matched his IQ, he might or might not have made it into Harvard; he certainly wouldn’t have been their star student. And if it was only that kind of educational success that gave spots on some kind of national chess team, Kasparov and a bunch of other grandmasters would never have a chance. Real meritocracy is what you get when you ignore the degrees and check who can actually win a chess game.

One of the few places I see this going well is in programming. Triplebyte (conflict of interest notice: SSC sponsor) asks people who want a programming job to take a test of their programming ability, “no resume needed”. Then it matches them with tech companies that want the kind of programming the applicant is good at. It doesn’t matter whether you were president of the Junior Strivers’ Club in college. It doesn’t matter whether you managed to make it past the gatekeepers trying to keep you out for not excluding the right kind of upper-class vibe. What matters is whether you can code or not. As a result, a bunch of the people I know are poor/transgender/mentally ill people who couldn’t do college for whatever reason, bought some computer science books and studied on their own, and got hired by some big tech company. Programming is almost the only well-paying field where people can still do this, and it doesn’t surprise me that the establishment keeps portraying its culture as uniquely evil and demanding it be dismantled.

I think we should be doing the opposite: reworking every field we can on the same model. Instead of Goldman Sachs hiring whoever does best at Harvard, they should hire people who can demonstrate their knowledge of investing principles or (even better) who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance. Some of these people will be the academic stars who learned how to do it at Harvard Business School. But a lot of others will be ordinary working-class people who self-studied or who happen to have a gift, the investing equivalents of General Grant and Garry Kasparov.

I don’t think the writers of the anti-meritocracy articles above really disagree with this. I think they’re probably using a different definition of meritocracy where it does mean “rule by well-educated people with prestigious credentials”. But I think it’s important to defend the word “meritocracy” as meaning what it says – decision by merit, rather than by wealth, class, race, or education – and as a good thing. If we let the word be tarnished as some sort of vague signifier of a corrupt system, then it’s too easy for the people who really are in that corrupt system to exploit the decline and fall of the only word we have to signal an alternative. “Oh, you don’t like that all the important jobs go to upper-class people instead of the people who are best at them? You’d prefer they be given out based on merit? But haven’t you read The New Inquiry, First Things, and Vox? Believing in so-called ‘meritocracy’ is totally uncool!” And then we lose one of the only rallying points, one of the few pieces of vocabulary we have to express what’s wrong with the current system and what would be a preferable alternative. We ought to reject the redefinition of “meritocracy” to mean “positions go to people based on their class and ability to go to Harvard”, and reclaim it as meaning exactly what we want instead – positions going to those who are best at them and can best use them to help others. Which is what we want.

(None of this solves one of the biggest problems that the anti-meritocracy folk are complaining about: the fact that there’s a distinction between millionaire Goldman Sachs analysts and starving poor people in the first place. I’m just saying that in a world where somebody has to be an investment banker, a surgeon, or a Federal Reserve chair, I’d rather choose them by true meritocracy than by anything else.)

[see here for more discussion]

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

606 Responses to Targeting Meritocracy

  1. dndnrsn says:

    Quibble: The term “meritocracy” was initially coined as a negative term in a dystopian science-fiction novel criticizing streaming in British schools. It subsequently was adopted as a positive term, which the author in question rather disliked.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thanks, fixed.

    • Crell says:

      And that’s really the issue. “Believing in meritocracy” doesn’t mean “believing in the best people getting the best jobs.” That’s a strawman. How it’s actually practiced is those with the best jobs using it as a post-hoc justification for being on top.

      If anything, it’s an example of Scott’s favorite fallacy: Mot and Bailey, with some circular logic thrown in.

      Mot:
      “I’m on top because this is a meritocracy, so clearly I am the best.”
      “How do you know you’re the best?”
      “Because I’m no top, and this is a meritocracy, so clearly I must have been.”
      “But that’s stupid! That’s circular logic and you’re just using it to justify existing inequality.”

      Bailey:
      “What? You don’t think the best doctors should get paid the best? Don’t you want the best doctors to be treating you?”
      “Well of course I want the best doctors available but…”
      “But you just said you’re against meritocracy. So you just want total equality where mediocre people can lead?”
      :angry eyes emoji:

      Sorry Scott, but you fell for that one. 🙂 To be fair, many anti-meritocracy writers fall for it to and/or suck at writing coherent arguments.

      And that’s even ignoring “”best” being highly contextual, the education-ocracy you mention, and pre-existing social stratification that inherently restricts access to the many ladders of advancement independently of an individual’s aptitude.

      It also ignores that in many many fields (including programming, my field) the team collectively is more effective than the individuals in it, and moreso when they are of mixed background (along many axes, including social and educational). The “best” team may or may not have the “best” people on it, just the “best” combination of people. (For some entirely undefined definition of “best”.)

      The problem with meritocracy isn’t the ideal vision it paints. It’s that it is designed as a post-hoc justification of the status quo rather than as an aspiration to strive toward.

      • Rick Hull says:

        I regret to inform you that based on the following paragraph, you are a meritocrat:

        It also ignores that in many many fields (including programming, my field) the team collectively is more effective than the individuals in it, and moreso when they are of mixed background (along many axes, including social and educational). The “best” team may or may not have the “best” people on it, just the “best” combination of people. (For some entirely undefined definition of “best”.)

        That undefined definition of best is likely merit. Likewise the effective team is that which possesses merit.

        • rpglover64 says:

          That undefined definition of best is likely merit. Likewise the effective team is that which possesses merit.

          I don’t think that’s correct. “Merit” is an intrinsic property of an person (more broadly, an actor; you could talk about a team or an organization having merit) at a general task. It’s technically correct but misleading to talk about merit at tasks which don’t generalize; I may be the best person for the team, but if there is literally no other team like it, I argue that it’s a category error to use “merit” to describe the quality over which you are optimizing in selecting team members.

          You can also imagine circumstances where you are building a team of two, and there is no single measurement you can assign to individuals that correlates well to team success: e.g. recruiting from individuals A, B, C, and D, teams (A, B) and (C, D) will do well, and all others will do poorly.

          • losethedebate says:

            I don’t see what’s to prevent your conception from being characterized as “meritocracy quantified over teams”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you would agree that there is a most effective team for any particular task, and that it would produce the best result if that team, rather than some other, were assigned to do that task. That seems like only a slight modification of meritocracy that would accommodate the cases you described. (And of course it still gets most of the same results with regard to individuals, since an individual is just a special case of a team of size = n with n set to 1.)

          • Forlorn Hopes says:

            > I don’t think that’s correct. “Merit” is an intrinsic property of an person

            Being a team player is an intrinsic property of a person, and can be included in their merit.

            Having personality style X, where X is the sort of person who thrives in team Y is an intrinsic property of a person, and can be included in their merit.

            Meritocracy just means the person most competent at the job gets the job; if fitting into a team makes you better at doing the job that’s part of your merit.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Forlorn Hopes wrote: Being a team player is an intrinsic property of a person, and can be included in their merit.

            Hrm. Some people are team players in general. But others are team players provided the team they’re on is a good fit.

            This may sound like a quibble, but I think it’s important. Determining whether someone is a team player may depend on the team, which puts you right back at having to decide whether Team A + Joe can deliver results better than Team B + Joe. Joe’s merit is partially a function of the input team.

            In the same breath, the team’s merit is also partially a function of whether it can work well with Joe. We’re still (roughly) quantifying merit over both teams and individuals. Neither approach is invalid.

      • dndnrsn says:

        @Crell

        Have you read Young’s book? The future society it portrays is one where meritocracy does function as advertised (for men – Young failed to predict that feminism would become a thing in the middle 20th century, instead of a couple decades into the 21st). Everyone is given IQ tests throughout their life and placed accordingly – the multiple tests over time serving to accommodate late bloomers and to deal with people getting less sharp as they age. People are streamed into different schools, assigned different jobs, given different ranks, etc based on IQ.

        His attack on meritocracy – really, the original attack on meritocracy – was not “gee it’s awful convenient how the people on top have come to the conclusion that society puts the best on top” (which is, to a considerable degree, a legitimate and true criticism) – his attack on meritocracy was that it would strip the working classes of high-IQ individuals from those classes who in his world (the Britain of the early to mid 20th century) became union reps and Labour politicians – that a real meritocracy would leave the working classes defenceless against being snookered by the bosses.

        • neaanopri says:

          That actually is a really great point. A meritocracy becomes a lot less dystopian, though, when you don’t think of general intelligence and instead think of task-specific skills, some of which generalize very broadly and others which are much more narrow. In this world, there isn’t a “permanent underclass” of dumb people. People are good at different things, and supply and demand nudges people so that they develop their talents in a way that reduces clustering.

          That world looks very much to me like a world with a good part of the service sector lopped off: mainly, jobs it’s impossible to be good at or get better at are gone. This seems to coincide with “full automation”: every job which CAN be precisely defined (not all!) is automated. Obviously this is a dystopia unless our current “no job is a death sentence” policy is relaxed, since the amount of work required to create jobs is non-trivial in this world.

          This kind of an economy seems like the pie-in-the-sky goal for the group I’m going to loosely refer to as “liberal intellectuals”, at least the half that support basic income. Meritocracy is an important part of this formulation.

          • dndnrsn says:

            The world of sports is a meritocracy for people with the right qualities for any given sport; I would argue it’s a far purer meritocracy than anything that’s supposed to select for intelligence (“bullshit baffles brains” but your 100m sprint time is your 100m sprint time).

            However, I think it’s a fairly solid claim that human society in general (some more than others) rewards high IQ more than it used to, and sorts IQ more than it used to.

          • albatross11 says:

            Competitions are a pretty good way to find people at the top of ability and preparation and work ethic. Chess tournaments probably select for people whose brains are extremely well suited to chess, which correlates with general intelligence, which correlates with IQ. Similarly, math competitions and spelling bees are selecting for some very smart kids, even though both sets of skills are largely trained and only correlate with general intelligence.

            To the extent top schools filter on test scores and meaningful grades (AP Chemistry, not Health or PE), they manage to get a set of pretty smart kids. That’s at least sort-of a competition, so you get similar results.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          And that pretty much happened:

          “his attack on meritocracy was that it would strip the working classes of high-IQ individuals”

          It’s not just that union leaders aren’t as powerful as they used to be, but they also aren’t as interesting as they used to be. Gompers, Reuther, Lewis, Hoffa, etc were interesting guys.

          • Forlorn Hopes says:

            And that pretty much happened:

            How much can be blamed on the lack of super-smart union reps, and how much can be blamed on things like greater competition from Japan and automation.

            I’d say the problem wasn’t the lack of working class geniuses to fight as union reps. I’d say the problem was an increasing focus on economy over culture and community which led to governments bungling the transition from a manufacturing to service economy.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          English journalist Toby Young has some interesting things to say about his father’s Michael Young’s book and current society.

        • But the UK is meritocratic-ish, and that hasn’t happened in any very dramatic way. Young’s dystopia requires a maximally efficient meritocracy.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Meritocratic-ish. Is Young’s claim in the article that a working-class boy with a manual labour background is less able to get into government now than sixty years ago correct? My perception is that one sort of classism has been replaced by another.

          • po8crg says:

            I think the problem is that very few highly intelligent working-class boys go into manual labour.

            I grew up in a Northern industrial town, so I went to school with a lot of intelligent working-class boys, whose fathers mostly worked at one of the glass factories (my school was about half working-class and half middle-class; my father was a college lecturer and then a management consultant; my mother was a civil servant). The intelligent ones who in their parents’ generation would have gone to work in the glass factory and then become shop stewards and then union officials and then MPs instead now go to university and emerge as someone hard to distinguish from someone who was middle class as a child.

            People in working-class communities complain that the brightest and best of their community are leaving (by which they mean that they get a degree and a middle-class job) rather than staying and working to improve their community. It’s almost a cliche now.

          • Randy M says:

            My working class father (self-employed plumber) was quite certain that his children who showed intellectual capabilities should not follow in his footsteps but attempt a career less physically demanding. I suspect I’d have more job satisfaction with a trade, though I am in much better physical shape than my tile-laying brother (a lot of which is lifestyle related, I suspect).

            However, I doubt “preserving intellectual ability for our class” is ever crossed his mind. It doesn’t strike me as particularly American thinking (to be descriptive and not prescriptive about it). Maybe it is different in industrial towns majority working class seeing the best and brightest leave the community entirely?

          • tscharf says:

            Nothing motivates one for college more than spending a summer cleaning sewer systems for the city in high school. Minimum wage and 40 hours a week were a luxury in my view. Every single person I worked with there was quite clear “go to college, you don’t want to be doing this as an adult”. I got to use a jack hammer, dig a lot of ditches, drive dump trucks and all sorts of fascinating things. It was a formative experience when I look back and I have never been sorry I did it. Strangely I was never the least bit ashamed of doing this work nor did it ever cross my mind I should be, times have changed I think.

            Hint: Take the day off when its time to clean the system down stream from KFC.

          • Virbie says:

            @Randy M

            > I suspect I’d have more job satisfaction with a trade, though I am in much better physical shape than my tile-laying brother (a lot of which is lifestyle related, I suspect).

            Do you mind if I ask why? I’ve only worked in white collar jobs, and all of my ennui comes from being horribly under stimulated (due to inefficiency in hiring in my industry, employers are willing to pay me a 100k more to do work I can do in my sleep than stuff that challenges me).

            I’m curious about the perspective that even less intellectually challenging would be more stimulating. I get that being physically unchallenged presents its own issues but I’m an avid sports enthusiast and that more or less solves it for me.

            I want to be clear that I’m not trying to put down your perspective, just understand it.

          • Randy M says:

            Sure. Part of it is no doubt being less acquainted with the downsides of it, a grass-is-greener naivete. But what I had in mind is the satisfaction of seeing a tangible effect of the work done at the end of the day, fully understanding the process, seeing directly how the work being done is relevant, and generally knowing what needs to be done.
            All that can be a part of, say, testing a new chemical product, but at a much more removed and abstract scale that is harder to appreciate.
            “What did I get done by going in to work today? Well, I made some improvements to a power-point to hide some inconsistent points in my data to help show that formula A is a bit better in a few more parameters than formula B and realized I needed to follow up on testing xyz.”

          • the satisfaction of seeing a tangible effect of the work done at the end of the day

            I share this attitude, but I don’t think it’s a distinction between physical and intellectual work. I feel better about being paid for something where I can see my distinct contribution, an honorarium for a talk rather than salary for my job. The audience of the talk obviously enjoyed listening to it, some of them seem to have absorbed what I view as interesting ideas they wouldn’t have otherwise known, so I feel my act directly caused good things to happen, hence I deserve the money I am paid for it.

            As an economist, I believe that the salary I am paid ultimately reflects value produced for someone, but the connection is much more indirect, unintuitive and uncertain.

      • Hyzenthlay says:

        And that’s really the issue. “Believing in meritocracy” doesn’t mean “believing in the best people getting the best jobs.” That’s a strawman.

        The literal definition of meritocracy is “government or the holding of power by people selected on the basis of their ability.” So believing in meritocracy is, by definition, believing that.

        How it’s actually practiced is those with the best jobs using it as a post-hoc justification for being on top.

        In other words, your objection is not to meritocracy but rather to fake meritocracies. Which was Scott’s whole point. What 99% of people are actually complaining about when they complain about “meritocracy” is the fact that we don’t live in a real one.

        I mean, maybe your position is “all meritocracies are inherently fake because a real one is impossible.” But that’s different from saying you’re against giving people jobs on the basis of ability.

        • Alexp says:

          In other words, your objection is not to meritocracy but rather to fake meritocracies. Which was Scott’s whole point. What 99% of people are actually complaining about when they complain about “meritocracy” is the fact that we don’t live in a real one.

          Isn’t that what Marxists say? That our objections are about fake communism, not real communism.

          Isn’t it important that nobody has ever implemented a meritocracy in the way you would define a ‘real’ one?

          I’m personally skeptical it can be done, at least until we have super powerful AIs that can manage everything for us, at which point it’s kinda moot for humans anyway. The problem is that measuring aptitude and performance are just really hard. Generally, in an office, people might know who the best and worst people are, but try defining that in objective measures, and you immediately run afoul of Goodhart’s law. And that’s assuming that people’s subjective assessments of competence aren’t colored by unrelated factors like how good looking the person is.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            Isn’t that what Marxists say? That our objections are about fake communism, not real communism.

            True. Though I still think it’s useful to differentiate between people who are opposed to communism in principle and people who say, “I like the idea of communism, I just see a lot of practical barriers to creating a communist society that works.”

            The same could be said of meritocracy. There are people who are for it it in principle but think it just can’t be done, and there are people (uncommon, but they exist) who are outright opposed to the idea of ability being a primary deciding factor in whether or not someone gets a job or role.

            Isn’t it important that nobody has ever implemented a meritocracy in the way you would define a ‘real’ one?

            No one has ever implemented a pure meritocracy, because no one has ever implemented a pure anything. But there are societies that are more or less meritocratic. I would say that modern democratic society is more meritocratic than feudalism or any rigid caste-based system where people are born into certain roles and have little to no chance of breaking out.

          • Vorkon says:

            Isn’t that what Marxists say? That our objections are about fake communism, not real communism.

            And they’re absolutely right when they say that. As are the Libertarians who try to argue that a truly Libertarian society has never been tried, or people who complain that we’ve never had true, direct democracy, or people who believe that a monarchy is the perfect system of government, if only you can get the right monarch.

            Obviously, no idealized form of government can ever be perfectly established by flawed humans. But those ideals are still worth striving for, and the closer we can get to one of them, the better world we’ll be living in. What you need to worry about when choosing which ideal to strive for are A) the potential failure modes of that system, and B) how likely those failure modes are to occur.

            All of the flawed attempts we’ve seen to implement Communism have been pretty abject failures. Our failed attempts to implement meritocracies, on the other hand, have mostly just resulted in a bit of inefficiency, but generally working systems, which don’t screw things up quite so badly when they do collapse. The first ideal doesn’t seem to be worth the cost of trying to strive toward, but the second just might be.

      • Ketil says:

        “I’m on top because this is a meritocracy, so clearly I am the best.”

        Sure, but there’s also the inverse of this. Assuming there is no racial or gender correlation with merit, we should have equal representation in prestigious positions. Instead, we find an overrepresentation by some groups (e.g., males, caucasians, jews, or asians). As there is little evidence of outright discrimination anymore, the reason must instead be favoritism and camaraderie between ivy-league alumni, or some other definition of the despicable “meritocracy”. Or to put it another way: “I’m not on top, so clearly this is not a meritocracy.”

        It seems obvious that the assumption is wrong, but it is equally obvious that liberal media like Vox and the Guardian will never admit to this.

      • wiserd says:

        I’ve heard people argue that time on the job is the best determinant of merit. That seems like an anti-meritocratic argument, especially in fields with a low weed-out rate.

        ““Because I’m no top, and this is a meritocracy, so clearly I must have been.””

        Can you provide two or three examples of people making this style of circular argument? Are you saying that meritocracy is used to justify an existing set of criteria like grades, circularly, without critically examining the validity of the criteria being used? Or that it’s used to justify status circularly (anyone with power must deserve it.)

        The first type of argument seems possible to me. The second, I question being a common argument.

      • wiserd says:

        I’ve heard people argue that time on the job is the best determinant of merit. That seems like an anti-meritocratic argument, especially in fields with a low weed-out rate. Proof of nepotism or similar seems like it would also disprove meritocracy.

        ““Because I’m no top, and this is a meritocracy, so clearly I must have been.””

        Can you provide two or three examples of people making this style of circular argument? Are you saying that meritocracy is used to justify an existing set of criteria like grades, circularly, without critically examining the validity of the criteria being used? Or that it’s used to justify status circularly (anyone with power must deserve it.)

        The first type of argument seems possible to me. The second, I question being a common argument.

    • sassymoron says:

      Yeah it actually pretty much literally meant “rule by well-educated people with prestigious credentials”

  2. GeneralDisarray says:

    People tend to conflate meritocracy with the just-world fallacy held so dear by the economically advantaged. There would be much less debate about meritocracy if opportunities to develop and demonstrate merit were freely available to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. Concern about that unfair edge continues to grow as both the economic divide widens, and we gather more and more evidence of its impact.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Once everything is actually based on merit rather than education or other easily-gamed metrics, the question becomes what hacks rich people have to make their kids more actually-meritorious than poorer kids.

      If it’s just getting them into good schools, then obviously we want to improve equality of educational opportunity. But all the research I’ve looked into suggests school quality doesn’t matter as much as anyone thinks.

      If it’s complicated things like rich parents being more likely to read books to their children, then whatever complicated thing it is will hopefully suggest an intervention, like educating poor parents on the value of reading, or whatever.

      If it turns out to be mostly genetic, then we just make the system as liveable as possible for people who don’t end up on the top rungs, until genetic engineering is widely available.

      • Mengsk says:

        Its’ an interesting thought. It’s pretty common for new technologies to start as a luxury good that only rich/enthusiasts have access to, but then gradually over time becomes mass marketed and affordable for everybody (think cell phones). You could imagine a similar dynamic happening in education practice, where effective educational techniques start at the ritzy private schools, but then become more broadly adopted.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        ” like educating poor parents on the value of reading, or whatever.”

        I’m convinced that more work needs to be done on adult literacy– a lot of parents are illiterate, and that needs to be solved before they can read to their children.

        It’s still probably a good idea to encourage reading to children.

        Any thoughts about making reading more likely to be pleasurable? A lot of people can read, but don’t unless they have to.

        • reasoned argumentation says:

          C’mon, that’s “wet streets cause rain” thinking.

          Adults who don’t enjoy reading because they have less capacity for abstract thought don’t read so they don’t improve at reading (like passively picking up vocabulary) so when you look at measures you find “weird” things like “people who are better at reading enjoy reading more”. The causality works in both directions – if you want a better signal you should discourage children from reading so you don’t get people motivated by conformity mixed in.

          • GeneralDisarray says:

            But saying “atmospheric moisture causes rain” makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it?

            People are drawn to activities that suit both their predilections, and the environment they’re in. If I’m working two jobs, I’m less inclined to read (to myself or my kids), help with homework etc, and more likely to do other things instead. Are you really saying that’s all the result of genetic legacy?

          • albatross11 says:

            reasoned argumentation:

            Do you know this, or believe it, or suspect it? What’s the evidence?

            It seems plausible, but you’re stating it as though it were “the sky is blue,” whereas it’s not obvious to me that this must be true.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            reasoned argumentation, there’s more to enjoying reading than the ability for abstract thought.

            There are people who like reading enough that they form a substantial market for low-quality material, even though they’re not doing especially abstract thought.

            On the other side, reading requires turning shapes into understandable words, and that can break down in a lot of ways. I’ve talked with a man who never read anything after he left school because reading gave him bad headaches. I assume he had an undiagnosed vision problem.

            There’s also dyslexia.

            I think there are people who had a bad early educational experience, and gave up. Schools encourage that.

            At a later level, as David Friedman points out, a lot of what students are expected to read is things they don’t like.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            Women read almost twice the number of books that men do each year; I assume this is not because women are twice as capable of abstract thought as men are.

          • manwhoisthursday says:

            Comparative lack of reading has had zero effect on men’s average IQ scores, or average income.

            However, we need to keep in mind that lower capacity for abstract thought can be one reason people avoid reading.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            Women read almost twice the number of books that men do each year; I assume this is not because women are twice as capable of abstract thought as men are.

            Obviously not.

            Women consume porn in the form of books, men in the form of video.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            It is always fascinating to hear opinions on romance novels from people who have never read one.

            Sweet romances are very popular and it is not because women have the mysterious ability to jack it to fade-to-black scenes. While some romances additionally provide porn (and, particularly in the ebook era, some porn additionally provides romance), the primary appeal of romance novels is the same as the appeal of romantic comedies: watching a couple fall in love with each other. (It is also hardly a female-only interest; IME most men’s lack of interest in romance novels lasts precisely until they are recommended their first Hermione/Luna fanfic.)

            Regardless, it seems quite strange to me to simultaneously believe that preferring to read means you have increased capacity for abstract thought, that women prefer reading porn to watching it, and that women do not have an increased capacity for abstract thought. Perhaps you are under the impression that technical difficulties prevent the creation of romantic movies?

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            Yep, you’ve solved it – brain size, brain size by body weight, the entire history of science and engineering, architecture, writing – all there to throw us off the scent. If only we looked at porn consumption habits sooner we would have solved this mystery.

            It is also hardly a female-only interest; IME most men’s lack of interest in romance novels lasts precisely until they are recommended their first Hermione/Luna fanfic

            Men don’t even generally like Harry Potter as frequently as women – never mind shit-tier fan-fics. Your personal experience is weird and shouldn’t be used to draw conclusions.

          • INH5 says:

            Men don’t even generally like Harry Potter as frequently as women

            That’s completely wrong:

            The findings also show that Harry Potter books have had a significant impact on the reading attitudes and behaviors of boys. More boys than girls have read Harry Potter (57% vs. 51%), and a greater number of boys than girls say that they did not read books for fun before Harry Potter (61% vs. 41%). More boys than girls say that it was important for them to read Harry Potter so that they would feel “in” with their friends (63% vs. 44%).

            Now, I agree with you that Harry Potter fanfic is much more popular among females than males, but that doesn’t say much seeing as how fanfic about everything is much more popular among females than males. Even for franchises like Transformers.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            INH5-

            There’s a reason you had to go back to a 2005 article – HP had a much more even split of readers / fans by sex when it was new and the movies had not yet been released. Current HP fandom is (subjectively obviously since no one has any incentive to systemically investigate it) – much more female skewed.

        • LadyTL says:

          From what I have seen it’s from the kind of books people are made to read in school. So much of it is classical fiction which while worth reading is often incredibly boring if you don’t like reading in the first place. Very few are books that grab one’s attention despite not being super into reading. To be honest we need less Treasure Island/Johnny Tremain and more Harry Potter and Neil Gaiman.

          • Mary says:

            “So much of it is classical fiction which while worth reading is often incredibly boring if you don’t like reading in the first place.”

            English class could make books I had enjoyed before, and would enjoy (long) after, incredibly boring while I read them in English class.

          • Deiseach says:

            Little did I think I’d see the day “Treasure Island” was described as one of the stuffy old classics!

            And of course in twenty years time, Harry Potter/Neil Gaiman will be “ugh, those boring old texts” 🙂 The pursuit of relevance is an ever-moving target that gets further away the nearer you think you are to it.

            Part of reading the classics is to get over chronological ‘stuckness’, to get you accustomed to reading outside the vernacular of your day and be able to handle texts in their original, not in the dumbed-down and stupid Quick Study Notes version. For practical purposes, you’ll also find yourself having to read or otherwise deal with dull, boring, technical/legal documents in life and work, and being able to make yourself go through these and pick out what’s relevant is a skill.

            Though I have no idea how you make reading enjoyable if someone doesn’t enjoy reading in the first place; it’s like trying to make basketball enjoyable to a short person with no hand-eye co-ordination that can’t score a shot to save their life. They may grimly learn the rules and the techniques of shots, and run up and down the court, but I doubt they’ll ‘enjoy’ it.

          • tscharf says:

            This has always been a pet peeve of mine. English class made me hate reading, and I hold it against them to this day 40 years later. It wasn’t until my 30’s that I discovered there are enormous areas of “literature” that are great. I’m not buying I only hated it because they forced me to do it.

            You don’t appreciate good writing of boring material that has zero connection to a teen’s life. I don’t like Shakespeare, you can’t make me like it, you can look down on me for not liking it, but I just don’t like it. I’d rather go to the dentist and have 8 teeth pulled without Novocaine before I spend another four hours trying to decode Early Modern English again. I read ~70 books a year now and I occasionally go back and read books that are allegedly of socially redeeming value. Some of them are OK, some are pretty good, a lot of them are just mediocre. Moby Dick made me suicidal from boredom, but conversely I really liked Rebecca which is not my go to subject material. I’d rather read poor writing of a compelling story than fluid prose of a garden party in 18th century England. The very last place on the planet I would look for book advice is the 11th grade reading list.

            Obviously these classics appeal to some people for a reason, but do we really need to make reading painful for the other 95% of people? I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture, we were able to pick our own books occasionally or pick from a short list (what’s the one with the least number of pages? That must be “Of Mice and Men”).

            But yeah, making kids like reading is way more important than a nice example of an allegory. My kids read Harry Potter on the school bus, not in English class.

          • tscharf says:

            @Deiseach

            English class is more like doing 45 minutes of wind sprints and leg lifts instead of playing basketball.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Deiseach, It’s pretty clear that forcing people to read books which bore them just doesn’t work to change their tastes.

            Perhaps pushing students a little outside their comfort zone rather than way outside their comfort zone would work better, but I’m not sure what would be good books for that.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            I’m not sure if it’s that the school reading list is terrible, or that the way they presented it is terrible.

            I’m a voracious reader: I’m typically limited less by my inclination or time to read, and more by what books I have. I too hated English class, often just reading whatever book I brought to class instead of whatever I was assigned.

            But during the first few weeks of class, I’d often find myself reading our English textbook cover to cover. When we did Canterbury Tales, I finished the book while people were going through the first couple tales. They weren’t all bad books (although a lot of them honestly just weren’t interesting enough for the age group, Shakespeare in particular is just not something you should be forcing on school age children).

            The actual work around it was terrible though. Quizzes with way-too-specific trivia you could go through the book three times and miss. Group reading where everyone’s falling asleep because we’re not four years old. Nonsense essays about the themes of the book.

            I’m not sure I have a better solution, but just cultivating the love of reading (“here’s a fully stocked library and a teacher who can make OK recommendations, every week one student has to do a presentation about the book they read”) would probably be more helpful than what we have now. I’m pretty sure my love of and skill at reading are one of the biggest aids to my professional career, so it would be good to have more of that.

          • Deiseach says:

            You don’t appreciate good writing of boring material that has zero connection to a teen’s life.

            Yes, but teenagers are young, inexperienced, relatively stupid, and massively self-absorbed. If we stuck to “schools teach material relevant to teenagers’ interests”, we’d mainly be teaching “fashion and make-up tips and how to get on the sports team/get a girl or boyfriend”. Part of the “you may not like it but tough, you have to study this subject for at least this year” is to get over that “if I don’t like it, then that means it is boring, useless and meaningless” attitude by exposure. Maybe you’re planting seeds that will take twenty years to sprout, but that’s better than never giving them the chance to encounter the thing at all.

            I don’t like Shakespeare, you can’t make me like it, you can look down on me for not liking it, but I just don’t like it.

            I think I was lucky in that I got my hands on a copy of Shakespeare the year before we did it formally in English class, so it wasn’t wrecked for me by the “strip this down to themes, quotes and formulaic answers to test questions” approach, and that it was in a version translated to contemporary English so no struggling with “decoding Early Modern English”. I had the attitude, inculcated by the poetry we’d had to learn up to this date in primary school, and from picking up on attitudes, that Shakespeare would be difficult, tedious and boring because (a) it was “classic” and (b) it was poetry, so it was out of curiousity that I read the play (“Hamlet”) and set to it with gritted teeth imagining that I’d have to plough through verbose, meandering verse trying to puzzle out the meaning.

            Instead, I was blown away by the music of the words. I had bells ringing in my head from the way they chimed and struck against each other. When I finished it, my reaction was “Why did nobody tell me Shakespeare was good????” I mean, they had done, but in the “eating broccoli is good” fashion, not “read this, you’ll love it” fashion.

            So I was lucky there. But then again, there are things you really will only appreciate when you’re old enough, and 15-18 years of age isn’t old enough.

          • tscharf says:

            It’s important I think to let people understand that there is relevant and engrossing material out there for just about everyone. I was totally into the space program in my teens and as I recall there wasn’t a single science fiction book on any list for the entirety of my K-12 career. Shakespeare shouldn’t be banned but is it really required reading? Arthur C. Clarke was my Shakespeare in my teens. If Fifty Shades of Grey gets people reading books on their own then mission accomplished.

            English teachers have a tough job with a non-receptive audience. I doubt a few tweaks will produce miracles but replacing Shakespeare with Harry Potter seems to make sense. Perhaps this will unfortunately turn Harry Potter into a much detested requirement like Shakespeare, ha ha.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Deiseach

            It seems to me that you react very badly to being forced, and the same really applies to teenagers.

            As for a couple of specific examples, I did read some Shakespeare on my own, and was quite fond of MacBeth because it had fantasy. And I was shocked to tears by King Lear (V jnfa’g rkcrpgvat Pbeqryvn gb qvr).

            I liked Moby Dick, and I’ve seen it recommended as the classic sf fans are most likely to like.

            The music of language is an issue, and I’m not sure how it can best be taught. My impression is that many (most?) countries have a popular audience for poetry. America doesn’t. I’m pretty sure I go into a mental state that just doesn’t work when I read poetry, but I’m not sure what to do about it.

          • tscharf says:

            I do recall our English teacher drug us to a film of Romeo and Juliet and that experience was far superior to reading it. Having it acted out and properly verbalized helped the experience tremendously.

          • Randy M says:

            If we stuck to “schools teach material relevant to teenagers’ interests”, we’d mainly be teaching “fashion and make-up tips and how to get on the sports team/get a girl or boyfriend”.

            I think this is pretty on true. As a young reader little of what I read was about going to school and fitting in or whatever (a bit, but only because it was funny, like Gordon Korman). I devoured Redwall, Ender’s Game, Foundation, etc. People will have different tastes, and books about relationships aren’t any less valid than books about spaceflight or fighting mice by any means, but I think trying to make works “relevant” will suck a lot of the joy from them.

            Here’s how I think works presented in an English Literature class should be:

            -Be in accessible language. I kind of shudder to think what that is for the current generation, and stretching is a goal, but the students have to be able to follow the plot and understand the references. I really want to like Shakespeare–I’m interested in Rome and warfare and betrayal and friendship and loyalty etc., but even now it is non-trivial to understand. This kind of reading shouldn’t make up the bulk of student literature.

            -In fact, while exploring ideas with ramification for our lives is half the point of literature, it needs to do so in a way that focuses on clarity, not literary style. Metaphors etc. are only valuable in as much as they help communicate the plot, action, or themes.

            -And I think the way books are consumed is counter-productive. Students can be discouraged from reading ahead, and quizzes focus on reading for trivia as was mentioned. Is this how you read books that fascinate you? It is mentally taxing, in a pointless way, to have to break from the book and re-engage at the pace of the class rather than the pace of your interest.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            @Randy M: I think you can slowly work people up the language difficulty level. I’m not sure you ever get to Shakespeare, but if it’s 90% fully-accessible language and 10% “words I don’t understand but can basically get from context”, the reader eventually picks up the rest of it, and a later book can count that towards the 90%

            I still get tripped up every now and then because I’ll be talking and know a word and how to spell it, but I’ve never heard it said aloud and so I don’t know the pronunciation.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            @ Deiseach:

            Yes, but teenagers are young, inexperienced, relatively stupid, and massively self-absorbed. If we stuck to “schools teach material relevant to teenagers’ interests”, we’d mainly be teaching “fashion and make-up tips and how to get on the sports team/get a girl or boyfriend”. Part of the “you may not like it but tough, you have to study this subject for at least this year” is to get over that “if I don’t like it, then that means it is boring, useless and meaningless” attitude by exposure.

            Yes, exactly.

            Also, to add my own anecdote to the mix, I used to absolutely hate the “relevant” BS we were forced to read at school. A big pleasure of fiction is being able to escape from your own humdrum surroundings; why on Earth would I want to spend my time reading about somebody whose life is exactly the same as mine?

            @ tscharf:

            If Fifty Shades of Grey gets people reading books on their own then mission accomplished.

            Reading corrupting material is worse than not reading at all.

          • tscharf says:

            Fifty Shades of Grey has topped best-seller lists around the world, selling over 125 million copies worldwide by June 2015. It has been translated into 52 languages, and set a record in the United Kingdom as the fastest-selling paperback of all time.

            I haven’t read the book and only know it is controversial, but apparently it struck a chord with a lot of people as it is one of the best selling books of all time. It probably reflects human nature so whether it is “corrupting” or not I don’t know. I doubt this is going to make the high school reading list anytime soon, ha ha.

            If you read 50 books a year of almost any variety your oral and written communication skills are going to improve.

          • Randy M says:

            if it’s 90% fully-accessible language and 10% “words I don’t understand but can basically get from context”, the reader eventually picks up the rest of it, and a later book can count that towards the 90%

            Oh, absolutely, I tried to include this when I said “stretching is a goal.” Likewise, while I let my kids read whatever level they like, when I read to them I try to aim high.

            But having to concentrate to figure out what any given sentence means is very taxing and not as likely to get someone wrapped up in the story and deeper questions of a work. Much of what we think of as classics were basically the pulp of the day. Not all, but the exception of Shakespeare, for instance, was received as a performance which aids in the communication–although subtitles are the best of both worlds.

            I still get tripped up every now and then because I’ll be talking and know a word and how to spell it, but I’ve never heard it said aloud and so I don’t know the pronunciation.

            We should have a rendezvous some time and discuss this over hors d’oeuvre.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Fifty Shades of Grey has topped best-seller lists around the world, selling over 125 million copies worldwide by June 2015. It has been translated into 52 languages, and set a record in the United Kingdom as the fastest-selling paperback of all time.

            Pornography of all kinds is popular in modern society. That doesn’t make it good for you, nor does it mean that we should be giving it to children.

          • Vorkon says:

            You don’t appreciate good writing of boring material that has zero connection to a teen’s life. I don’t like Shakespeare, you can’t make me like it, you can look down on me for not liking it, but I just don’t like it.

            This is actually a really good point.

            Interestingly enough, when I was younger I didn’t really care one way or the other about Shakespeare until after I watched Gargoyles, which referenced it in a particularly kid/young adult-friendly way. After I got into that show, though, I couldn’t get enough Shakespeare.

            Somewhat similarly, although a lot of people hated Dickens, I always found that the wry tone reminded me an awful lot of the tone I loved in Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett’s work. (Though, that was more of a similarity in tone than a direct reference, like with Gargoyles and Shakespeare.)

            It seems to me like part of the solution for getting people into literature lies in making more direct references in popular entertainment, and just generally making popular entertainment smarter. The classics referenced each other all the time, after all; I have a feeling they were onto something.

            Also, as a side note…

            And I was shocked to tears by King Lear (V jnfa’g rkcrpgvat Pbeqryvn gb qvr).

            Seriously, online anti-spoiler culture is getting out of hand these days…

            (Hrm. Come to think of it, I was just in the middle of writing up a joke about how Shakespeare, of all things, has to be past some sort of spoiler statute of limitations, but while I was writing that a new thought occurred to me: I wonder if this intense fear of spoilers we’ve developed online is actively preventing people from making the sort of explicit references I was talking up earlier in this post. I’m not sure if there’s anything to that theory, but it’s an interesting thought…)

          • Randy M says:

            It seems to me like part of the solution for getting people into literature lies in making more direct references in popular entertainment, and just generally making popular entertainment smarter.

            Which, of course, Shakespeare himself did almost to a fault with various ancient myths and then-current events. Which is part of why it is hard to get into.

            By the by, I liked the Gargoyles treatment of MacBeth better than the Shakespeare treatment.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            That experience is specifically why I’m careful about spoilers. Reading King Lear was a much better experience because I didn’t know what would happen.

        • Any thoughts about making reading more likely to be pleasurable?

          Have schools assign readings that the kids will enjoy reading rather than using the class to introduce them to whatever the current generation of English professors regard as worthy literature.

          • Mary says:

            Revert to older sorts of tests where you did such things as tell the students to identify a bunch of quotes. That is, tests with the sole purpose of ascertaining whether they read the book.

            (C.S. Lewis saw the transition to the present day and objected.)

          • Deiseach says:

            Have schools assign readings that the kids will enjoy reading

            Perhaps by teaching them Lynes of Picke-Up? 😀

            GALFRIDUS CHAUCERES LYNES OF PICKE-VPPE:

            -Do sheriffs administere thee to those who breke the kinges peace? Bycause thou lookst “fyne.”

            -Yf thou were a latyn tretise ich wolde putte thee in the vernacular.

            -Ich do deuote myn diligence to studye of the anatomie of engendrure. Ich haue happed vpon an abstruse passage in the werke of Constantyne the Affrikan De Coitu, the which I kan nat construe. For lernynges sake and the goode of wisdom, woldstow performe the acte of venus withe me so that ich may interpret thys clause in propre wise?

            -Ich loved thy papere, but yt wolde looke much better yscattred across the floore of myn rentede dorme roome at dawne.

            -Art thou a disastrous poll tax? Bycause I feele a risynge comynge on.

            -Nyce bootes. Wanna swyve?

            -Thou lookst so mvch lyk an aungel that the friares haue lefte the roome yn terror!

            -Shulle we maken the cindreblokke to synge?

            -Woldstow haue me shyfte thyne voweles?

            -Were thou yn my seisin, ich wolde nevir escheat on thee.

            -Thy beaute ys more intoxicatyng than the OVP openne bar.

            -Yf thy beautee were an poeme, yt wolde make Dante looke lyk Marcabru.

            -The preeste telleth me that we aren more than VII degrees of consanguinitee. Game on!

            -Ich notyce that myn demense and thyn do abutte. Wolde yt plese thee to consolidate ovre powere-base in the midlands?

            -Makstow a pilgrymage heere often?

            -Let vs breake oure mornyng faste togedir tomorrowe. Shal ich sende a page wyth a message for thee, or shal ich wake thee wyth an aubade composid ex tempore?

            -Ich coude drynke a yearlye tun of thee.

            -Ys thy father a makere of walles? For how else dide he gyve thee svch a tall and fayre forheed?

            -Ich haue the tale of Lancelot yn myn roome. Woldstow rede of yt wyth me?

            –By my soule, thou art a verye mappe of helle. For thy face lyk the rivere Styx wil make me swere oothes neuer to be fforsworn, and thy embrace lyk the Lethe shal make me foryet al else, and lyk vnto the Flegeton thyn arse ys ON FYRE!

            -Woldstow be myn Gaveston?

            -Howe abovte a blancmange and the acte of Venus? Whatte, blancmange pleseth thee nat?

            -If ich sayde that thou hadde a bele chose, woldstow holde it ayeinst me?

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            Nah, I had classes that did that, and it turns out English teachers’ stunning ability to ruin Shakespeare and Kipling generalizes to a stunning ability to ruin the Hunger Games.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Maybe we should look at this as a War on Intrinsic Motivation.

          • liquidpotato says:

            I had the Chrysalids by John Wyndham as one of my texts in high school and I loved it to hell. So much so that I went out and laid hands on as many titles written by John Wyndham as I could find that year. Sadly he didn’t write too many, and it was remarkable to me how difficult it was to find them.

      • GeneralDisarray says:

        It’s pretty obviously complex and multifaceted, and most obviously at issue at various crisis points (eg, a temperamentally arousal-seeking young person who just became involved with the juvenile court). Other factors include parental availability to help with schoolwork, filter friends, housing/neighborhood socialization and the complex negotiation of internal priorities in adolescence. And yes, read to their kids. Epigenetic factors also undoubtedly come into play.

        Before long we’ll find ourselves recapitulating the debate on affirmative action.

        Unfair advantages are obtained largely at the expense of everyone, and most frequently capitalized on by competitive folks who’s children grow up to be working in field like private equity. If I’m right, this could form the basis of a powerful argument for social democracy, Scandinavian-style.

        Baseline arousal is largely genetic, and one of the major temperamental differences between people. The impact of family money ends up meaning that in those situations, it’s much more likely to be capitalized on than in relatively poor families, where it’s much more likely to get you in trouble. As a real-world example, see the mainstreaming of organized crime lords. (For a real-world-inspired example, see The Wire.) Our country is being run, increasingly, by people who in other circumstances would be well-suited to organized crime etc. It’s a problem.

        • Unfair advantages are obtained largely at the expense of everyone

          That depends on the advantage. If I have unfairly become a very good programmer due to having parents who spent money and effort helping me become one, my high income isn’t coming at the expense of anyone else, it’s coming from the additional output due to my training. The same applies in any context when the “advantage” consists of the ability to produce more value, since the additional value is available to reward me.

          • GeneralDisarray says:

            Everyone contributed to the economic and educational infrastructure you and your parents relied on to obtain your education, and create the environment in which your employment occurs.

            Are they getting a good return on their investment?

          • Everyone contributed to the economic and educational infrastructure you and your parents relied on to obtain your education,

            General, what is your argument? In the earlier post, you complained about the competitive types getting their kids into better positions. Now you seem to be saying they are using public funds for this? Is it your argument that those getting better positions used a higher proportion of public funds to do this? You could make an argument for this for college funding, although I suspect even that isn’t true. But it certainly isn’t true for government schools pre-college, clearly the opposite is the case.

          • onyomi says:

            Everyone contributed to the economic and educational infrastructure you and your parents relied on to obtain your education, and create the environment in which your employment occurs.

            And they did all this for free?

          • random832 says:

            Are they getting a good return on their investment?

            Doesn’t that depend on whether “return on investment” is measured as obtaining good code vs obtaining well-paying programming jobs for themselves and their own children?

      • Mario says:

        Informal know-how and networks is one important thing that the rich and well-positioned inherit to their kids.

        The informal know-how includes how to dress, how to judge situations, what a manager expects from a potential hire, how to study for an exam, etc. It’s a lot of little things that aggregate to a real solid advantage. If your dad is a professor at a university he just knows a lot about how the game is played, and it’s more likely that he will tell you about it than that he will tell your neighbor’s kid.

        Networks are also very useful, if only to know about what is the next hot topic before everybody else notices. It has other uses, too, of course…

        • Steve Sailer says:

          “The informal know-how includes how to dress, how to judge situations, what a manager expects from a potential hire, how to study for an exam, etc.”

          In the past, America had a more uptight, straight-laced society, so people from the bottom end had a simpler challenge to learn the rules. My mother came from pretty near the bottom of Minnesota society, but she paid very careful attention to the rules of proper behavior (in the 1930s, you could watch movies and figure out how to dress, speak, which fork to use, etc.) and wound up with a nice middle class life.

          Since the 1960s, however, the rules of “appropriate” behavior have been rewritten to be easier for higher IQ people from educated families, but they are more difficult for lower IQ people from less educated families to master. (This, of course, was the moral of David Brooks’ much despised Sandwich Story.)

        • If your dad is a professor at a university he just knows a lot about how the game is played, and it’s more likely that he will tell you about it than that he will tell your neighbor’s kid.

          My father was a professor at a university and I can’t remember him telling me anything at all about “how the game is played.” The benefit came from learning how to think–more specifically, how to think like an academic, and still more specifically like an economist. And that, unlike training in dealing with academic politics, made me better qualified to do the job. Hence the right person to have that job in a meritocratic system.

          The fact that I got to grow up arguing with him was arguably an undeserved benefit, but it was a benefit relevant to what job I should end up with.

          • gemmaem says:

            My parents both teach at a university. They taught me what to do if you think you’re failing a class, and what sorts of thinking a degree would normally consist of, and how to find a PhD supervisor within the local system … and then I went to the USA to do a PhD over there, and it was sort of understood that I should know how this (remarkably different) system worked, with its “quals” and “candidacy” and how to find an advisor, and of course I understood none of it and it was terrifying. Just saying.

      • Deiseach says:

        Once everything is actually based on merit rather than education or other easily-gamed metrics

        So how do we measure merit? Raw intelligence in two day old babies? This is getting into “how long is a piece of string” territory, because one reason people went for “merit = smart = went to college” is that it is a way of measuring ‘merit’ on what is assumed to be an objective basis (high IQ being presumed to be something anyone of any race or background can have as a result of genetics and genetic distribution assumed to be random).

        If we don’t measure merit by brains, then how? Hard work? Stakhanovite muscular achievement? Superior refinement and taste – the arbiter elegans? The notion of “gruff but genius” doctors like House M.D. is something I think more common in fiction than reality, though surgeons may be more likely to fit the typology, as I imagine consultants who routinely are horrible to patients mean patients are reluctant to see them until their case has reached such a state that it’s now critical, so they may actually reduce patients’ health in the main (yes they’re so brilliant they can successfully treat/operate on the cases no-one else will touch, but they get more of these cases because the only patients who go to them are the last hope ones, and they’re more likely to have reduced quality of life/higher mortality, whereas a less brilliant but more pleasant doctor will see patients earlier in their disease and have a better chance of catching it early before the worst damage is done).

        • Scott didn’t really talk about how to measure merit. I think he is certainly correct that for almost any job one can measure merit better than just looking at education. Although it is harder to do so, and usually more subjective, which at least in the US, can make one subject to lawsuits. I think an IQ test is probably as good a measure as education as a preliminary measure. IQ tests don’t measure tenacity and conformity like education does, but it does a better job of measuring smartness.

          But once someone has been on a particular job for a little while, it is totally non-meritocratic to use either education or IQ to judge performance. To require a college degree at that point for any future moves is very bad management, IMO. I think even the worst managers can make better decisions than that.

          • potato says:

            The reason this is getting so convoluted and stupid is simple. Different firms need different types of labor for different reasons. This entire thread reads like programmers and engineers lacking understanding of how the bifurcation of labor markets works.

            So, really when people complain about this they’re not upset at the mechanical engineer making 60k. They’re mad because they work hard and make 60k a year and “those people” make 130k out of college.

            What … super literal people need to understand, is pedigree and eliteness is valuable for its own sake.

            Bain doesn’t hire state u not because they couldn’t do it, but because the whole point is selling prestige. Millions of Chinese can do every job at GS, except for connections for things, and selling prestige.

            You can’t engineer society to NOT be a status game. It’s always a status game. Height, money, whatever.

            You can try to convince women to be status communists, then maybe.

        • davidweber2 says:

          For whatever occupation you’re going to be doing, in the process of hiring someone, have them do whatever small tasks are required for the job, as well as have longer term demonstrations of talent. In programming, this means live coding, and recorded projects on something like github. In sales, this could mean giving a pitch, or the word of former employees. Then some employers will need to take on the risky people, but if we wanted to actually encourage this at the governmental level, you could introduce some kind of tax break to take on people just getting into a new field.

          The point is not that there are people uniquely talented to do every job. The point is that we want those who are doing the job to have the necessary skills to do it.

        • So how do we measure merit?

          That depends on the job, and is unlikely to be done at birth. We measure merit in a surgeon by the outcome of his surgeries. In a writer mostly by whether people want to read what he writes. In a plumber by whether he fixes what was wrong with the pipes and how long he takes to do it and how long before they stop working again. In the steps that lead to those positions, such as admission to medical school, we can try to predict those outcomes, necessarily imperfectly.

      • Deiseach says:

        If it’s complicated things like rich parents being more likely to read books to their children, then whatever complicated thing it is will hopefully suggest an intervention, like educating poor parents on the value of reading, or whatever.

        I’m always vastly amused when I see things about “parents should read to their kids!” because In My Day this wasn’t a thing at all. My parents didn’t read to me (my father told us kids bedtime stories but never read them to us, my mother had shaky literacy so I had a better reading level than her – she wasn’t stupid but she had been badly educated). I don’t even remember learning to read, and I ate books whenever I got my hands on them, despite this handicap of never having my parents read the Ladybird version of Rapunzel to me (this was the version where the prince has his eyes put out by thorns when he jumps from the tower after the witch catches him, I don’t know if modern versions include this bit anymore).

        Poor parents can tend to have poor literacy skills themselves, so reading is difficult for them and they may feel embarrassed at not being able to read fluently to their kids, let alone be able to help them with reading and homework.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Tests are a lot more gamed today than when I was a teen in the 1970s. I showed up for the SAT in 1975 not hung over and having done the practice test sent out by the ETS, and even that level of test prep was considered slightly unsporting back then.

        Our current testing system was largely invented by WASPs for WASPS. People like Stanley Kaplan and his 14-year-old protege Chuck Schumer (D-NY) realized it was a sitting duck for people who didn’t care about whether test prep was cricket or not:

        http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112215648

        But Kaplan was just the start. Tiger Mothers have been acquiring intensive test prep for their Tiger Cubs since the first Emperor introduced testing for mandarin civil service posts.

    • You are viewing the allocation of positions as a matter of what people deserve. Scott’s point is that it is a matter of who will do the job best. Those are entirely different questions.

      Suppose ability is entirely based on undeserved characteristics. Putting the ablest in the positions where their ability matters still results in things being done better. If the reason doctor A is a better surgeon than B is that A’s parents could afford to send him to a better medical school, A arguably doesn’t deserve to have the job doing surgery, but he should still have it.

      Nobody deserves to be born blind. But there are jobs that someone who is blind is not competent to do.

      • GeneralDisarray says:

        But the factors determining “who will do the job best” are to a large extent (and increasingly, I’d argue) distinct from “who could do the job best.”. Too often, the same people who can arguably “do” the job best are using their outsized influence to limit opportunities for people who might be able to do the job better (and statistically, some who would).

        Nobody deserves to be born blind. Nobody deserves to be relegated to an environment in which they’re blinded.

        • sourcreamus says:

          How are opportunities being limited? Our society has eliminated malnutrition, has universal free schooling, and the wisdom of mankind assembled for anyone with a smart phone, which can be obtained free from the government.
          It seems that the relevant scarcities are a lack of good genes and good parents, not a lack of opportunities for self improvement.

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            a smart phone, which can be obtained free from the government

            This is a minor nitpick, but one which becomes important in many of the other debates we have here, so I’m getting in early.

            snopes obamaphone

          • GeneralDisarray says:

            Our society has most certainly not eliminated malnutrition. Our society hasn’t even eliminated environmental contaminants like lead; though we’ve made great progress in that regard, there is frank political pressure to eliminate the EPA. That pressure is never coming from people who have much to worry about, lead-wise.

            Various social programs have been developed to mitigate the unlevel playing field, but something as influential as ACT/SAT test prep courses isn’t readily available to the vast majority of lower SES high school students, and we know that the practice tests alone contribute significantly to higher scores (half a std deviation for the first, diminishing returns for successive administrations). Also, those l what programs there are have been consistently eroded. I think what bothers me the most about arguments for meritocracy is how often they’re used to justify correctable social disparities, and as a wedge for wealthy people to distance themselves from disadvantaged people.

            Similar arguments for Olympic athletes; increasingly, they’re the ones who’s families can afford to train them. But they’re almost certainly not the ones who’d qualify, if those same opportunities were available to everyone.

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            One way opportunities are being limited is due to systematic cognitive biases of people in power. Another is the fact that a lot of juicy opportunities are only available via social networks. Social networks reinforce existing status quo, regardless of how far from optimum.

          • eccdogg says:

            I don’t see the system working to shut people out. And I see a lot of actions to lift people up.

            If you are a poor person you likely will get a leg up in admissions to almost any college, many schools have race based or geographically based preferences (for instance some flagship public universities take the top X% from every high school).

            And in many primary and secondary school systems you kids are bused into better schools or have the option to transfer to better schools with heavy preference given to importing lower SES kids.

            And in many cases the system will bend over backwards to elevate a bright hardworking kid from lower SES background.

            Now I do think it is true that it requires active parents to navigate a lot of that (though a suitably ambitious child like my wife was could do it). But not having parents who will help you is not the same as the system working to keep you down.

        • neaanopri says:

          If all jobs gave the same pay, then this wouldn’t be an argument, would it? Obviously the best person should have the job, and if there are too many people, then just find something for them to do.

          There’s an obvious Mot and Bailey here:

          Mot: “I have a high-status job which pays 50x the salary that cashiers get.”

          Bailey: “But the best jobs should go to the best people! Do you think that cashier could do MY job? No! If they take my job, then the public will suffer!”

        • potato says:

          This is entirely besides the point.

          In your romantic endeavors, it doesn’t matter if she’s the “does the job the best” woman.

          What matters is consent. What matters is choice. Consent needs to be the dominant theme. Fairness is laughable once you compare money to sex.

          They’re the same. If everyone consents, then it’s no one else’s business. No need to rationalize it further.

          • eccdogg says:

            Absolutely! I find the whole “deserves” rationale silly. No one deserves anything. The poor do not deserve to be rich (or middle class) and the rich do not deserve to be rich (or poor or middle class).

            But a person is born with certain gifts and others are willing share their gifts to obtain them. You get to enjoy the fruits of those gifts because they are yours, they emanate from your body, and you are not the tool of another person. And others get to share their gifts with who they please for similar reasons.

        • sourcreamus says:

          The free government cell phone program varies by state, but it definitely does exist. I was offered one in Texas while sitting at a subway stop.
          Test prep has a very modest (20-40 points) impact of SAT scores, and taking a test prep course is only modestly correlated with income.

  3. Tom Bartleby says:

    I think Scott is using the word “meritocracy” differently than I’ve typically heard it used.

    Genuine question (for Scott and everyone else): what is the “meritocratic” outcome in the following hypothetical:

    Alice and Carol are both programmers, and are up for a promotion to management. Alice is smarter, works harder, and produces better code. She gets along well with everyone and is consistently rated as the highest performer in the group. By contrast, Carol is consistently a mediocre programer. She’s not awful—certainly in no danger of being fired. But she’s not as smart, she doesn’t work nearly as hard, and her code is acceptable rather than excellent.

    On the other hand, Carol has a real knack for management. When she’s in a group project, she naturally takes the lead and others feel comfortable deferring to her. (Alice is more likely to just do an unfair share of the work herself.) Looking at the two of them, we can confidently predict that—even though Alice is the better programer—Carol would be the better manager.

    So, is it more meritocratic to promote Alice or Carol?

    I would say that it’s more meritocratic to promote Alice. If a company has the habit of promoting people like Alice, I would describe that company as having a meritocratic culture. I get the feeling, though, that Scott disagrees.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yes, that’s the opposite of how I would use the word meritocratic. It seems like Alice has more merit as a programmer. For all I know, she might also be a great writer, friend, mother, and amateur table tennis player. But if we’re talking about a management position, then I would consider the meritocratic option to be to promote whoever has more merit as a manager.

      (I agree in the real world this could be unclear and you might have to use a lossy proxy like who does their current job better, but I think of this as just not having the information you would need to do things right)

      • Tom Bartleby says:

        That makes sense. I think you should consider the possibility that the people you’re disagreeing with are criticizing the promote-Alice brand of meritocracy.

        For example, I frequently hear large law firms criticized as being too meritocratic: people say that the way someone makes partner/becomes more senior is just by being a good lawyer—which means that they are frequently bad managers.

        Similarly, when people criticize hiring the Harvard graduate, I frequently hear them say that someone else would do equally well in the job. If that’s true, then hiring the Harvard grad isn’t meritocratic in the way you mean it (as a prediction about the future). But it is meritocratic in the way I mean it (as a reflection of past success).

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Hm, that’s possible, but I’m pretty sure a lot of people use it my way as well. For example, that Feminist Philosophers article that gets angry because there’s no reason a meritocracy would have so many white men in it seems to mean “there’s no reason white men are always the people best for the job”, not just “there’s no reason white men should have the best credentials” (which is much more believable).

          • Tom Bartleby says:

            I agree that your definition is fairly common, too.

            I’m not sure about your Feminist Philosophers example, though. The article it’s quoting says:

            A meritocracy is not a system for locating and rewarding the best of the best. If it were, the “best of the best” in almost every goddamned industry or group on the planet would not be a clump of white men. … A meritocracy is a system for centralizing authority in the hands of those who already have it, and ensuring that authority is only distributed to others like them or those who aren’t but are willing to play by their rules.

            That sounds a lot like it’s explicitly defining meritocracy as promote-Alice (as promoting those who are good at playing by the existing rules) and not as promote-Carol (“not a system for locating and rewarding the best of the best.”).

            And I suspect that many of the critics of meritocracy also define it as not being a system of promoting the best future performers so much as a system of rewarding the best past performers.

          • John Nerst says:

            @Scott

            Right, their complaint seems to confuse “merit” as an inherent, timeless characteristic of a person with “merit” as accumulated skills and experience of a person at a particular time.

            If you’re a feminist philosopher, you’re probably perfectly convinced white men can’t be more meritorious in the first sense, but I don’t see why you’d think the same regarding the second. I mean, if we live in a grossly unfair society where white men get all the opportunities to gain skills and experience then of course they would be more meritorious on average. How could they not?

            (I’m starting to notice this distinction between personal properties as inherent aspects of a timeless self vs. incidental properties of a self at a particular time more often lately. Seems important…)

            I guess the objection many of these writers have is that the first kind doesn’t reliably translate to the second, i.e. your momentary merit (which is what gets you stuff) is not a reflection of your inherent merit (which determines your desert) with anywhere near the fidelity they want (because of inequality of opportunity and such). Therefore deserts are not sufficiently connected to outcomes. “Meritocracy” rewards momentary merit when what we should be rewarding is inherent merit, so “meritocracy” is bad.

          • abc says:

            Right, their complaint seems to confuse “merit” as an inherent, timeless characteristic of a person with “merit” as accumulated skills and experience of a person at a particular time.

            If you’re a feminist philosopher, you’re probably perfectly convinced white men can’t be more meritorious in the first sense,

            The problem is that this is in fact false. Thus feminist philosophers end up spending most of their time rationalizing away contrary evidence.

          • gemmaem says:

            @ John Nerst

            I mean, if we live in a grossly unfair society where white men get all the opportunities to gain skills and experience then of course they would be more meritorious on average. How could they not?

            Speaking as a feminist, yeah, I’ve noticed that. There’s a reason I split my analysis of obstacles to women in my chosen career into “Can I do it?” and “Will they let me do it?” Even if you assume completely equal capability to learn, gender can still affect both, and it’s important for me know which problem I’m tackling.

            Of course, what this means is that the limited version of “meritocracy” defended by Scott, where people always choose the best person for the job, is all well and good — but if that’s what you mean by “meritocracy” then it is flat-out blatantly false to say that “In a perfect meritocracy, we would be using all our resources optimally and everyone would be in the job they are best suited to.” Which is interesting, and I think shows the limits of Scott’s definition.

        • cjgbest says:

          people say that the way someone makes partner/becomes more senior is just by being a good lawyer—which means that they are frequently bad managers.

          Reminds me of the Peter principle. Basically: if everybody gets promoted based on how good they are at their current job, people “rise to the level of their incompetence” and get stuck in jobs they suck at.

      • pdbarnlsey says:

        (I agree in the real world this could be unclear and you might have to use a lossy proxy like who does their current job better, but I think of this as just not having the information you would need to do things right)

        I think this is pretty important – and it links to your hand-waving about what a bank looking for good future bankers might want in its recruits.

        In general, there doesn’t seem to be a good for proxy for “would make a good banker” other than “has previously been a good banker elsewhere.

        (And all of this assumes away the question of whether “good bankers” are in fact “good” by some objective standard, or whether this is just an aesthetic criteria that has grown up around banking, in much the same way an aged Bordeaux is “better” than a Moldovan Merlot).

        All that senior bankers know they want from junior bankers is an ability and willingness to work ridiculously long and hard, defer to authority, carry themselves in a non-embarrassing fashion and learn all the actual things required to do the job quickly and without much support – combined with some minimum base level of general intelligence/finance knowledge.

        (They same is true-ish of corporate law, which was where I started, but the qualification and knowledge conveyed getting it is maybe 25% more relevant)

        That’s super, duper hard to test for at scale. And “made it through an elite university” is a pretty ok proxy for it, though obviously a sufficient rather than necessary one. I’m not sure how you widen that filter without letting in people who end up flunking out badly.

        Maybe society gains enough from that that you make them do it, but they probably don’t benefit from doing it on their own.

    • Brad says:

      I would say it is more meritocratic to promote Carol. The job is managing and the sole criteria in a meritocratic system is who can do the best job.

      In fact, promoting Alice is a well known failure mode. It is the reason that some companies in recent years have tried to set up much longer individual contributor paths — so that the Alices can keep being excellent Alices instead of being forced into mediocre Carols.

      • Tom Bartleby says:

        I agree that promoting Alice “is a well known failure mode.” It’s the Peter Principle, and there was a whole book about it.

        The question is how to describe the failure mode. I would describe the failure mode as being too meritocratic. Rewarding past merit is good—it’s good to be meritocratic, as I use the word. But it’s possible to be too meritocratic and fall into the failure mode I describe.

        Since you view promoting based on (predicted) future merit as the meritocratic thing, what do you call promoting exclusively on past merit (the failure mode I’m calling being “too meritocratic”)?

        • andrewflicker says:

          I don’t think I have a term for the *practice* of only evaluating past merit and not extrapolating/hypothesizing future merit on a possibly-overlapping set of skills. If a fellow manager at my office were doing so, I would describe his or her technique as “dumb” (Or, if I were talking to a C-suite, “poorly optimized”).

        • Brad says:

          I don’t have a snappy name but I think it is one example of a contest and prize mentality that is a big problem in a lot of areas. Hiring someone for a job as manager isn’t a reward for past service. Being accepted to a particular college isn’t a prize for doing well in high school. No one actually wins the girl.

          This misunderstanding of the nature of matching problems doesn’t just manifest at transition points. Understanding your job as a contest with rules and judges leads to sub-optimal performance. I have several friends that manage underlyings that complain again and again about fresh college grads wanting to be told what to do instead of trying to understand what needs to be done.

        • Deiseach says:

          Promoting on past merit was seniority, or Buggins’ Turn, or dead men’s shoes. Often a (justified) criticism of the civil service, where time-serving meant promotion slowly up the ranks. I don’t see how it can be criticised as “too meritocratic” when the usual criticism is that it doesn’t regard merit at all, merely length of service or even cronyism.

          Promotion on future merit is based – or should be based? – on the needs of the job. Yes, Alice is a great programmer, but does the position need a great programmer or a good people manager? Is Alice a good manager as well as a great programmer? Will you do better by leaving Alice where she is, removing Carol by ‘kicking her upstairs’, and freeing up Alice to do the work she would be doing anyway under Carol (the unfair share of the work mentioned in the example) and opening up a position to hire a new, great programmer to help Alice (now that Carol is out of the way)?

      • James Miller says:

        Interesting that academia doesn’t have this problem. University administrators and Presidents are never picked based on who is the best researcher and teacher.

        • GeneralDisarray says:

          No, they’re generally picked on the basis of who can best cultivate the endowment. Whether or not that’s the most desirable quality is a value judgement, and in an environment where money is everything, it’s the obviously the most desirable quality.

          But maybe the problem is that value in education is measured in monetary terms, and maybe that will never change until we stop choosing University presidents suited to that worldview.

    • nweining says:

      This is actually a great example of how there are multiple dimensions of merit and trying to map them all to a single ladder produces broken results. A well-managed tech company will figure out how to put Alice and Carol on different career paths that both have opportunities for high productivity to produce high rewards. A poorly managed company will make Alice choose between moving from individual engineering into management, which she may not be much good at or like very much, and staying in her current role and being limited in the rewards she can receive even for outstanding performance in that role. Unfortunately there are lots of poorly managed companies.

      • po8crg says:

        My (now retired) father worked as a pay and promotion systems design consultant (a particular sub-species of management consultant) for more than twenty years.

        He recommended creating separate “expert” and “manager” promotion tracks to a large number of businesses with this sort of problem. Even with the selection effect that only the businesses that were self-aware enough to realise they had a problem were paying a consultant to look at fixing it, he reckoned up when he retired that marginally more businesses had declined that recommendation than had accepted it.

        This was the only recommendation (that he’d made enough times for the stat to have any meaning) that he’d made that was accepted less than half the time.

        • Eponymous says:

          Didn’t Scott Adams once hypothesize that it’s the less competent employees that get promoted to management because the competent ones are needed to do the actual work?

          I know Scott’s utterances are optimized for humor and attention rather than correctness; but I seem to recall that this one was widely circulated (and maybe given a name?), suggesting people thought there was something to it.

    • Skivverus says:

      So, calling it meritocracy vs. calling it eudaimonia?
      Or, I suppose, single-scalar meritocracy vs. multi-scalar meritocracy.

      It does bring to mind the consideration that evaluating people for promotion (or hiring, for that matter) is itself a skill, and one that not everyone is equally good at. Single-scalar meritocracy might itself be an intermediate technique for those without the aptitude/training/understanding for the multi-scalar versions. (Beginner level: cutting down on nepotism?)

    • Tom Bartleby says:

      I raise this as more than a semantic point. You can defend the promote-Carol brand of meritocracy by asking who you’d want to perform your surgery (the way Scott does, above). But you can’t defend the promote-Alice brand on the same grounds—at least not as simply.

      You might be able to make a more nuanced argument, making a claim that strategy of promoting Alice in the long run is more likely to yield good results. You could say something about predictions being hard, and it being better to base your predictions about future outcomes on past achievements rather than guesses about the future. You could also say something about the incentive structures that are created by promoting Carol instead of Alice, and how it’s better to reward excellent programing if you want people to program excellently. I might even agree with those arguments. But they’re hardly self-evident.

      More broadly, I worry that the promote-Carol definition of meritocracy is so broad as to be almost meaningless. I mean, imagine a defender of hereditary aristocracy. I suspect that person would say that the children of the aristocrats are the ones who will perform the “best” in the leadership positions. That is, they would say that being an aristocrat is a better predictor of future outcomes than past performance on tests or in school or whatever. Thus, the aristocrat could argue that they are the “true” proponent of meritocracy in the promote-Carol sense.

      I’d prefer to limit “meritocracy” to the belief that we should reward people for their past merit, not based on predictions about their future merit. That is, I’d prefer to use it in the promote-Alice sense.

      • mnarayan01 says:

        What word would you use for the promote-Carol sense?

        • Tom Bartleby says:

          I would call that trying to hire the best person for the job.

          And then the committed meritocrat can say “the way to find the best person is by looking at past test scores/performance/grades” and the committed aristocrat can say “the way to find the best person is to hire from the best family” and the committed egalitarian can say “all people are equal and there’s no way to distinguish who would be best,” etc.

          • mnarayan01 says:

            Literally every person who expressed an opinion on your top level topic says they’d choose Carol, and yet your list of ways to find the best person for the job leaves one that would arrive at Carol completely off. I feel like it would be good to have a pithy way to distinguish the method which would arrive at hiring Carol from the other ones on your list; that way you could include it the next time you make such a list! I’d recommend “Meritocracy”.

            Admittedly, you would no longer have a single-purpose word to describe someone who would choose Usain Bolt over Alice for a programming job, but it feels like a worthwhile exchange.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Do you have an example that disentangles the past/future issue from the issue of having multiple types of skill? (tenure for professors?)

        Added: Is this distinction relevant to any of the articles Scott criticizes? Further: well, maybe this is exactly the distinction Scott wants to talk about, desert vs consequence.

      • Brad says:

        @Tom Bartleby

        More broadly, I worry that the promote-Carol definition of meritocracy is so broad as to be almost meaningless. I mean, imagine a defender of hereditary aristocracy. I suspect that person would say that the children of the aristocrats are the ones who will perform the “best” in the leadership positions. That is, they would say that being an aristocrat is a better predictor of future outcomes than past performance on tests or in school or whatever. Thus, the aristocrat could argue that they are the “true” proponent of meritocracy in the promote-Carol sense.

        I don’t think it is so broad as to be meaningless. You want to recast meritocracy as a predictive claim — i.e. that past performance is the best predictor of future results. But I think it operates on a different level — merely that the job ought to go to he that can do it best. It is agnostic with regard to what the best way of figuring that out is. Maybe the aristocrat is correct — in which case a meritocract would agree that those who were born to lead should lead. But if there’s a better way of picking who leads — one that empirically leads to better outcomes — then the meritocract would support that instead.

        • Aapje says:

          The consequence of that is that many people will take advantage of the difficulty of predicting future performance and/or holding them accountable for their predictions in the past to argue that the system in which they win is the best.

          • Brad says:

            Sure. It is still better to try to pick the best person for the job than throw up your hands and not even try.

      • Alexp says:

        Funny thing is that if you dig down into the etymology of ‘Aristocracy’, you get Aristos- meaning ‘excellent’ and kratia- meaning ‘power’. So ‘aristocracy’ originally meant what many consider ‘meritocracy’ to mean now.

      • moscanarius says:

        I’d prefer to limit “meritocracy” to the belief that we should reward people for their past merit, not based on predictions about their future merit. That is, I’d prefer to use it in the promote-Alice sense.

        When promoting Carol to management, we would be rewarding her past merit as a manager as she has shown that in a group project she naturally takes the lead and others feel comfortable deferring to her.

        Alice may have shown more past merit as a programmer, but the promotion is to Management, where Carol has been more meritorious.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      You “promote” Carol to management (where she doesn’t have to code), but give Alice the raise. This isn’t hard.

      It’s only a conundrum if you tie salary increases (and other perks) exclusively to management-track promotions, which is poor policy almost everywhere, but especially absurd in tech.

      • Tom Bartleby says:

        I agree with you (and with Brad and nweining above) that there are good ways to solve this “dilemma” in practice that are better than promoting Alice or Carol.

        The point I wanted to make is that there are two possible definitions for meritocracy: 1)the practice of promoting/hiring/admitting/whatever based on predicted future merit; or 2)the practice of promoting/hiring/admitting/whatever based on demonstrated past merit. The two are very different and (I believe) the second is the one that is more commonly the target of criticism.

        • Said Achmiz says:

          I’m sorry, but this is a ridiculous false dichotomy.

          Your “past merit” and “future merit” aren’t merit in the same domain!! If they were, then differentiating between them would be manifestly nonsensical. Suppose the promotion were not to a management position, but simply to a higher grade engineer (Engineer to Senior Engineer, etc.), with more money/etc. Asking “should we promote based on demonstrated past merit in coding ability, or predicted future merit in coding ability” is silly, because — past merit is what predicts future merit!

          The only reason this even looks like a dilemma is that you’re taking at face value the idea that “promoting” someone into a totally different sort of position, that requires a totally different set of skills, personality, disposition, etc., makes any sense. It doesn’t. “Management” is one of the few contexts where anyone even thinks that it does.

          I mean — would the following make any sense at all?

          – “Dave is an excellent welder; should we promote him to architect?”
          – “Eve is an excellent writer; should we promote her to pediatric surgeon?”
          – “Frank is an excellent pilot; should we promote him to pitcher for the Mets?”

          Do you really think that any of these questions would be answered differently by proponents vs. opponents of “meritocracy”?

          • Tom Bartleby says:

            I don’t think it’s a dichotomy so much as a continuum.

            I think (nearly) everyone agrees that Engineer to Senior Engineer should be based on performance as an engineer (though some old-fashioned companies would literally base it on seniority in terms of years served).

            I also think that (nearly) everyone would agree that pilot to Mets pitcher should not be based on performance as a pilot.

            I think the disagreements come in the middle.

            – George is a straight-A student. Should we hire him for our entry-level job?

            – Harriet was the top fundraiser for our charity, should we put her on the Board?

            – Igor is a star employee in the mail room, should we give him a job as a data analyst?

            I think people do differ in how much they think past merit should be “rewarded,” and who much decisions should turn exclusively on predictions about future outcomes.

          • Said Achmiz says:

            – George is a straight-A student. Should we hire him for our entry-level job?

            Depends on the job. Probably, though. Grades are usually pretty g-loaded, which predicts performance in a broad range of contexts (as well as adaptability / ability to learn).

            – Harriet was the top fundraiser for our charity, should we put her on the Board?

            I don’t really know anything about how charities are run, or what being on the Board of one involves. No comment.

            – Igor is a star employee in the mail room, should we give him a job as a data analyst?

            … no? Unless I’m missing something here, this seems unrelated.

            I think people do differ in how much they think past merit should be “rewarded,” and who much decisions should turn exclusively on predictions about future outcomes.

            I don’t agree, and I’m afraid that nothing that you’ve said so far has done anything to convince me.

          • Deiseach says:

            Igor is a star employee in the mail room, should we give him a job as a data analyst?

            Depends. Is Igor a recently-graduated data analyst who got the mail room job as a foot in the door opening? Is he studying to become a data analyst? Have you previously promoted mail room staff to data analysts? Does Igor want to be a data analyst?

            On the other hand, if Igor is keeping the mail room running efficiently and the post goes out on time in the evening and is sorted and distributed so everyone has it first thing in the morning when they start work, then maybe promote Igor to head of the mail room and give him a rise, or move him out to the front desk dealing with customer queries and the public (knowing exactly who “Mr Smith in Finance” is and where his office is and what he does will be very helpful when dealing with members of the public wandering in saying they are supposed to meet this guy but they’re not sure of his name, what floor they should go to, or what time they are to meet him).

          • Deiseach says:

            I think the predicted future merit arises out of George just qualified with an excellent degree from a top-notch university versus Joe who went to a state college and got a decent but not stellar degree, neither of them have worked in this particular job before, do you go by “George has the better qualifications, Joe has some experience but not at this level”? Then you have to decide if future merit can be extrapolated from their current state.

            Now, if it’s “George the newly qualified engineer versus Joe the Deputy Engineer who has worked in this department for five years, both applying for Senior Engineer” then okay, that’s done on past merit because you know Joe’s standard of work already.

          • neaanopri says:

            “Manager” is not a totally different position from worker! Being a manager does require some skills, but there’s a lot of transfer. Also, being promoted from worker to manager let’s you keep a lot of crucial context that you use to get to know what it’s realistic to ask people to do, what people want and don’t want to do, how long things will take, etc, ALL of which are crucial to being a good manager.

            Where do the managers come from, for their first job, if not from the ranks? Manager school? Getting an external hire manager who needs to get up to speed on the industry, has no idea who anyone is or how long anything takes, that sounds like hell. Getting someone on your team promoted sounds far far better.

          • Randy M says:

            “Manager” is not a totally different position from worker!

            This is certainly true; the engineering manager needs to know how to recognize which skill sets are needed for which projects, and who has those skill sets, and what to do for the really hard engineering problems that his employees can’t do. There’s a layer of people skills in, say, motivating people, but these are probably the lesser of importance to the manager. The skills are more meta than they are unrelated.

      • Eponymous says:

        It’s only a conundrum if you tie salary increases (and other perks) exclusively to management-track promotions, which is poor policy almost everywhere, but especially absurd in tech.

        If you think there’s some industry-wide role-based unwarranted pay disparity, then you could make money by starting a tech company, paying your managers less, and using the savings to poach the best programmers from other companies.

        Or maybe the industry-wide “poor policy” you’ve observed is actually the result of the relative scarcity of needed skills. (Or, in more common language, which has unfortunately become so rote that people often overlook its depth and explanatory power: supply and demand.)

        • honhonhonhon says:

          I’ve read stories about individual contributors being promoted to managers, or managers to directors, without pay increase. The explanation being that the promotion is its own reward, as the new manager will be able to get experience to break into the role.

          If those stories are true, then you won’t have much competitive advantage as other companies are already doing this low-paid manager thing.

    • Mark Lu says:

      A simple solution (of some sort) is to promote Carol, but give Alice a pay raise, i.e. just pay them what the market price is for their respective skills. Meritocracy isn’t just about titles and positions.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Some people do like titles and positions; the easiest solution is to give Alice a pay raise and call her a “senior programmer” or something like that.

        • Everyone contributed to the economic and educational infrastructure you and your parents relied on to obtain your education,

          Yes and this can be very important for employee morale too. Other employees may get annoyed at Alice making a lot more than other programmers, but if she is a “senior programmer,” well then “that makes sense.” Of course, in reality this makes no sense at all, but that’s politics in an organization. In my experience in a middle sized corporation, it was extremely important to keep everyone within their assigned salary ranges, and the ranges themselves had to make sense, such as professional categories had to be above clerical categories, and manager categories above that. The actual productivity of the employee to the organization wasn’t a large factor in deciding salaries. If a highly productive person was thinking about leaving, then creativity was called for, to provide them with a high paying range without messing up the system.

        • Deiseach says:

          Unfortunately sometimes companies try to solve the problem by “give Alice a fancy title but no salary raise/greater responsibility”, which causes resentment because Alice feels she’s being taken for a fool (“Same work, same money, no promotion but a meaningless title? How dumb do they think I am?”) and others think Alice is being favoured unfairly (“She’s not senior to me, I’ve been here longer than her and we’re doing the exact same work!”)

    • roystgnr says:

      It’s more meritocratic to make Carol the manager, but pay Alice more.

      I know that, when people’s jobs include helping to decide where money goes, it always turns out that “to me” is one of the highest priorities, but that’s a tragedy of principal-agent problems, not a law of nature.

      • baconbacon says:

        It’s more meritocratic to make Carol the manager, but pay Alice more.

        How do you know which is more valuable, a good coder or good manager?

        • lupis42 says:

          Which job can you more easily find a bunch of qualified applicants for at the current pay levels.
          Cost to replace drives salary more than anything else. This is certainly problematic where people tend to have company specific knowledge, skills, or connections that affect job performance and cannot be quickly replaced by hiring out, but “how much would we have to pay to find someone else this good” and “would we pay more than that to keep this person from leaving over money” are the core questions to ask.

    • John Schilling says:

      On the other hand, Carol has a real knack for management.

      How is that not merit?

      How is that not the most important kind of merit, if you are trying to fill a management position?

      How is whatever they did to demonstrate that knack, not exactly the sort of thing “meritocracy” is meant to reward and/or select for?

      Merit is obviously not fungible. If you genuinely don’t know any better, if you have to fill a manager-of-programmers position and all you have are programmers with no known management experience, you go with the best programmer and hope there’s at least a positive correlation. But if you do know, it would be a very perverse brand of “meritocracy” to dismiss the particular sort of demonstrated merit you do need, and I don’t think that perversity is what most people mean by the term.

    • Deiseach says:

      If Carol is a better manager and she is being considered for a management position, then it is fairer and more meritocratic to promote her. Alice may be the better programmer, but she might not be able to handle managing people, might be bad at dealing with the “you have to call Jim in for a talk about improving his performance” part of the role, might get caught up in dealing with “yeah but the programming problem here is…” rather than “yeah but the management problem here is…” (Part of this is me not being good at that “call Jim in for a talk” which I had to do in a supervisory position, which is why I avoid management-type roles, and part of that is seeing via work a situation where we’ve had turnover of managers in the past two years and as a result there is pretty much chaos in a particular centre due to poor management, even though those promoted were otherwise good at their previous jobs).

      Contrariwise, if the position is dependent on technical skill and knowledge so that being a good programmer is vital, then promote Alice. It all depends on the skills of both Carol and Alice, and the requirements of the position.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      @Scott Alexander:

      you might have to use a lossy proxy

      You seem to have a very strong objection to the lossy proxy currently being used.

      So it might behoove to think about the implications of what you just said.

      Because right at the beginning of this article you raised an objection to another lossy proxy (IQ) that you previously have touted.

      Maybe, just maybe, the problem you seem to assume is easy to solve is actually very difficult to solve.

      • Aapje says:

        +1

        I think that a large part of the disagreement stems from perfect meritocracy being impossible. So the question is more whether the achievable level of meritocracy is sufficiently just, produces good outcomes, etc.

        I also think that meritocracy tends to lead to a rather destructive narcissism, where people with high merit feel justified in being selfish or even abusive to those with little merit. So another question is whether meritocracy is actually compatible with human psychology or whether it leads to abuse.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      I would promote Carol in a heartbeat given the information here, and then curse the connotation of the word “promote”. Basically, my thinking correlates a lot with Said Achmiz and Mark Lu and a few others.

      As others have said, many companies and even the government have recognized different dimensions of merit; it’s why there is such a thing as technical tracks. I’ve even been on programs where my supervisor made less than I did. I interpreted that as software development being in higher demand than supervisory skills. I also interpreted that as a temporary state of affairs. Ten years from now, it might be the other way around, and I’d expect the salary levels to follow.

      Nevertheless, a lot of people still seem to associate “higher salary” with “better person”. (Despite this meaning all retired people are “worthless”.) They also associate “in charge” with “more important”. There’s a little truth to this, but less, I think, than is truly in evidence. Yes, the person in charge can tell this welder or that to pack their bags, but the more they do that, the more people will look for capriciousness, and the more of that they find, the harder the person in charge will find it to do the valued task of getting the welding done.

    • grendelkhan says:

      So, is it more meritocratic to promote Alice or Carol?

      To make this a bit more concrete, there are engineering firms which have separate job ladders for individual contributors and for managers. You can go into management, but it’s not seen as ‘if you’re really good at programming, we’ll give you this job where you don’t program at all’. Which would be a ridiculous way of looking at things.

      The problem isn’t that the process is meritocratic. The problem is that the process is nonsensical.

    • sporter says:

      I’d say that this is a less-than-ideal example because it depends on what you mean by “promote”.

      Is the promotion to a more senior position (more authority; recognition of ability; better paid; some leadership/mentoring but not supervisory) or into a management position? A healthy corporate culture would recognize both advancement tracks, and so being meritocratic would be more straightforward.

      Sadly, many corporate cultures lack an advancement track aside from management.

  4. Jiro says:

    First of all, Scott is doing something he’s done before: taking really bizarre claims, which are typically just excuses for something else, at their face value and then refuting them. This can be useful if your real point is “that claim is so ridiculous that it shouldn’t be taken at face value”, but I don’t feel that Scott is doing that here. He seems to really think this is about whether meritocracy is good or bad in general, rather than a power grab by people who don’t have merit but do have social and political status.

    Second, college is an anomaly, because using anything other than college as an IQ filter would be considered discrimination. It would be hard for the employer to prove that any college alternative is connected to job requirements (especially if the judge is hostile).

    • Scott Alexander says:

      If people are saying false and destructive stuff in order to make a power grab, that sounds like exactly the sort of thing it’s helpful to refute.

      But I’m not sure that’s true here – everyone at Vox has loads of Ivy-League-education-merit, and I’m pretty sure from Freddie’s other work that he’s a decent guy who has better things to do than make power grabs. I prefer to take people at face value as meaning what they say.

      I’m not sure what you mean by calling college an “anomaly”, but if so it’s an anomaly that shapes pretty much every aspect of our economy and society.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        I’m not sure what you mean by calling college an “anomaly”, but if so it’s an anomaly that shapes pretty much every aspect of our economy and society

        He means that colleges use limited IQ testing for admissions whereas no other institution is permitted to do that directly (except the military).

        The result is that the only value colleges produce is sorting candidates into IQ bands based on the prestige of the school.

      • Jiro says:

        everyone at Vox has loads of Ivy-League-education-merit

        In those cases it’s a direct power grab for some people (who don’t have Ivy League educations) and an indirect power grab for their allies (who may have Ivy League educations but have tied their fortunes to the first group).

        But I was really thinking more of the anti-geek backlash (either in geek hobbies or in programming) where the outsider doesn’t like the idea that it’s hard to fake either geek hobbies or programming. In such cases, the outsider typically lacks the relevant merit.

        I’m not sure what you mean by calling college an “anomaly”, but if so it’s an anomaly that shapes pretty much every aspect of our economy and society.

        It’s a legal anomaly–you can use it to screen applicants based on, in effect, IQ without being subject to an anti-discrimination lawsuit.

      • vV_Vv says:

        But I’m not sure that’s true here – everyone at Vox has loads of Ivy-League-education-merit

        But these are essentially hereditary credentials, not merit.

        The main attack on meritocracy seems focused towards the tech industry, where skilled but low-status people can gain significant amounts of money and eventually even status, something that irks the established aristocracy.

        So the claims that the tech nerds are actually aristocrats in disguise, or that they use some other form of class system to exclude outsiders (“bro” culture, white privilege, etc.).

    • Chalid says:

      using anything other than college as an IQ filter would be considered discrimination

      This comes up every few months and I always have the same response – tons of interview questions are just barely-disguised IQ tests. Brainteasers are ubiquitous in some industries.

      e.g. use “look inside” to view the first several pages of problems in this guide to quantitative finance interviews. They’re just pure logic questions.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        The fact that interview questions are (often (in cognitively demanding fields)) hidden attempts to build ad hoc IQ tests is amazingly good evidence that actual IQ tests are illegal.

        • Chalid says:

          Perhaps, but even if true, a law that is so easy to work around can’t possibly create the massive distortion in the economy that Jiro is claiming.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            Of course it does – you can only give the interview questions to the people you actually interview while you could give a screening exam to thousands (or use the results of a mass administered screening exam).

            How do they determine whom they should interview? College degrees.

          • Chalid says:

            I’ve seen more than one company require that the applicant include their SAT and/or GRE scores in their application materials, so using those particular mass-administered exams is apparently fine.

          • Chalid says:

            To see for yourself, you can go start the application process for DE Shaw and the first screen, at least for the “Quantitative Analyst” position, will request your SAT and GRE scores.

            This is a very well-known firm, with a reputation for trying to hire only the smartest people. If anyone would draw scrutiny from regulators about these disparate impact issues it would be them.

          • James Miller says:

            If it was creating a massive distortion we would see firms in other nations, where it isn’t illegal to use IQ tests, making massive use of IQ tests and less use of college credentials in hiring. To the best of my knowledge, this doesn’t happen.

            My guess is that it doesn’t happen because college credentials signal IQ plus diligence and a bit of conformity.

          • baconbacon says:

            @ James Miller

            Most countries aren’t as large and diverse as the US, so that point doesn’t necessarily hold. Most of the countries that are as large (or larger) and as diverse have lower average IQs than the US.

          • Brad says:

            @baconbacon
            Why would a country being smaller, less diverse, and/or having a lower average IQ imply that IQ testing would be far less useful to employers in hiring?

            If anything the IQ essentialist argument would imply that IQ testing would be even more valuable where the average is lower.

          • GeneralDisarray says:

            Statistically speaking, composite variables always make more stable predictors than discrete variables.

          • INH5 says:

            @baconbacon
            Why would a country being smaller, less diverse, and/or having a lower average IQ imply that IQ testing would be far less useful to employers in hiring?

            If anything the IQ essentialist argument would imply that IQ testing would be even more valuable where the average is lower.

            Right. And even if we assume that only countries like the US would benefit from IQ testing for jobs…does Canada also have laws banning IQ tests for the purpose of hiring? Australia? New Zealand? The UK? Brazil? Argentina?

            I’m not familiar with the laws of any of the above countries, but surely at least one of them has to be more lenient about this issue than the US is.

          • baconbacon says:

            Why would a country being smaller, less diverse, and/or having a lower average IQ imply that IQ testing would be far less useful to employers in hiring?

            If IQ is genetic (or heavily so) there should be a less extreme distribution. A country with a population that is 80-90% Western European is already going to have a done a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of IQ selection for you. Between schools, grades and interviews you aren’t going to gain much from IQ tests as well. Small size means that it more difficult to build a multinational corporation without pulling in significant talent from other countries. I would speculate that the cultural/legal/language barriers probably require additional talents that don’t mesh as directly with IQ testing.

            For the handful of larger countries, they are significantly poorer per capita and aren’t likely to be directly competing in high end IQ ventures. The average US employee is probably going to be >= a selected employee from India (for example).

          • baconbacon says:

            I’m not familiar with the laws of any of the above countries, but surely at least one of them has to be more lenient about this issue than the US is.

            How many of the countries listed have rigorous government sponsored schooling. Japan is a high IQ country, but is an IQ test really going to add significantly to a hiring practice there when you consider what is considered an extremely competitive academic environment focusing on standardized tests (as far as my limited knowledge of Japan goes, this sounds like a fair description).

          • INH5 says:

            How many of the countries listed have rigorous government sponsored schooling. Japan is a high IQ country, but is an IQ test really going to add significantly to a hiring practice there when you consider what is considered an extremely competitive academic environment focusing on standardized tests (as far as my limited knowledge of Japan goes, this sounds like a fair description).

            Japan wasn’t on my list, so I have no idea why you’re bringing it up. And while I don’t know much about Brazil or Argentina, I’m pretty confident that the educational systems of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK are not significantly more competitive or standardized-test-focused than the US educational system is.

            Now, it is true that except for Brazil every country on my list is significantly smaller than the US, but I’m going to want to see some evidence if you want to argue that IQ tests are effective for hiring in countries with hundreds of millions of people but not in countries with tens of millions of people.

          • Chalid says:

            A country with a population that is 80-90% Western European is already going to have a done a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of IQ selection for you.

            this sort of test is typically about distinguishing the right tail from the extreme right tail, so none of this heavy lifting is particularly relevant.

          • vV_Vv says:

            @baconbacon

            A country with a population that is 80-90% Western European is already going to have a done a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of IQ selection for you. Between schools, grades and interviews you aren’t going to gain much from IQ tests as well.

            Racial IQ differences are at most one standard deviation (excluding perhaps true Sub-Saharan Africans), IQ differences by college major span more than two standard deviations.

          • owentt says:

            I’m pretty confident that the educational systems of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK are not significantly more competitive or standardized-test-focused than the US educational system is.

            The UK system is drastically more standardized exam focused than the US system. Admissions are based mostly on a series of subject exams in the UK and graduation is also focused on a major exam. In the USA, exams play very little role compared to grades and personal recommendations in admissions and no role in graduations. At elite universities in the USA, exams play almost no role at all.

            But then the USA and Canada are distinct in the world for how little weight standardized exams have. Nearly any other advanced country uses standardized testing much more in its university system. Usually standardized exams are the only really important factor in admissions.

          • INH5 says:

            @owentt: I stand corrected.

            But that still leaves Canada, and this web page indicates that, at the very least, it is legal to use IQ tests when hiring people for public sector jobs in that country. If this article is accurate, they’re also legal in the private sector:

            So what’s the hold-up? Despite several years of steady recovery, Canadian employers are being more selective these days, using additional filters to screen candidates, Glassdoor chief economist Andrew Chamberlain writes in the report. These include group panel interviews, skills tests, IQ tests and drug tests: “Taken together, these small hiring delays from additional interview screens can add up.”

            (Emphasis added.)

      • Luke G says:

        It isn’t unusual in legal matters for things to be logically inconsistent; this is one of those situations. IANAL, but my understanding is that the way the law evolved, formal test requirements are a legal minefield, but your in-person interviews are generally OK so long as you stay away from illegal topics. Asking quantitative brainteasers in an interview for a quantatitive analyst is not going to cause any trouble–it’s easy enough to say quant ability is important for the job, so you have the right to ask these questions. But if you collect your brainteasers into an exam and tell the candidate they have to do it to qualify, your lawyers will have panic attacks. Even the smallest bias or discrimination in the test could cause you to lose a case. I guess with in-person interviews it’s much harder to prove discrimination.

        This results in a huge waste of resources as we (we = a large company, and therefore high litigation risk) have to spend time phone screening candidates, always asking the same technical questions, and have only limited ability to use testing tools like HackerRank.

        • reasoned argumentation says:

          But if you collect your brainteasers into an exam and tell the candidate they have to do it to qualify, your lawyers will have panic attacks. Even the smallest bias or discrimination in the test could cause you to lose a case. I guess with in-person interviews it’s much harder to prove discrimination.

          Let’s be precise here – it’s not bias or discrimination in the test that causes legal problems – it’s disparate outcomes which are guaranteed for any test that has any predictive value. The difference isn’t small. Worrying about “bias or discrimination” in the test is something where you can point to the content and have some kind of defense on the merits. The only defense to disparate outcome is “well, obviously the legally privileged classes have lower IQ therefore any good test will have them failing more often” – probably even making that defense would get you fined.

          As far as “proving discrimination” with interviews – it’s nothing of the sort – pre-sort the interviewees by IQ and don’t leave a record of whom you interviewed and rejected broken down by legally privileged status and there’s no one who can sue. If you give a mass exam then there’s all kinds of records and data to examine for a pattern of hiring.

          • Brad says:

            The only defense to disparate outcome is “well, obviously the legally privileged classes have lower IQ therefore any good test will have them failing more often” – probably even making that defense would get you fined.

            No that’s not true. There’s a shifting burden of persuasion framework. I don’t understand why posters that are so clearly unfamiliar with the case law post with such seeming confidence on this topic.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            …and the shift in burden (from employee or job seeker to the employer) is triggered by disparate impact – which is guaranteed in any exam that has enough g loading to actually work for it’s purpose.

            All you’ve done is thrown out a legal term to make it appear as if you’ve made an argument.

          • Brad says:

            Yes, the burden is shifted. But it is only a burden. It is capable of being met. It isn’t even an especially high burden as burdens in the legal system go.

        • Chalid says:

          It has been a few years since I interviewed, but when I did, three companies gave written pseudo-IQ tests. Two were from large companies that you have heard of.

        • Janet says:

          I think a fair amount of this “there’s no problem with giving IQ tests to prospective employees where I work” is due to the fact that tech companies have been given a pass with respect to a number of labor laws– disparate impact, work hours limits, exemption from tax on fringe benefits like food and personal services, internship rules, sexual harassment, age discrimination, etc. This may very well be changing, and abruptly at that.

          Unwise of tech firms to put all of their political eggs in one basket. Plus, everybody’s a lot more willing to ignore stuff when there are bazillions being made and cycled into the system, a lot less willing once it starts looking like a zero-sum game, and nobody believes your hype about the societal benefits.

          • INH5 says:

            Not that long ago, I took something that was explicitly called a “Cognitive Assessment” when applying for a programming position at an insurance company. So I don’t think this is something peculiar to the tech industry.

            I also don’t think that Chalid was talking about tech companies/jobs, at least not exclusively:

            e.g. use “look inside” to view the first several pages of problems in this guide to quantitative finance interviews. They’re just pure logic questions.

            (emphasis added)

          • Chalid says:

            Right, investment banks use these sorts of interviews for quants, and they all have entire divisions stuffed with lawyers devoted to regulatory compliance.

          • Janet says:

            Again… this works because it’s being permitted for tech (and a programmer job, or a “data analyst/scientist/quant”, is definitely a tech job). But ultimately, if Duke Power can be (successfully) sued for using a “cognitive assessment” for hiring people to run power plants, then insurance companies or banks can too. Their lawyers do a risk/reward evaluation and green light it… for now. But the “risk” part of the equation will change, possibly a lot, if/when legal actions and tax inspections start.

            My read is, rightly or wrongly, ready or not, the labor rules are going to start being applied to tech, just like other fields. Several confluences are happening: the US government is now being run by a faction which the tech industry tried to defeat, and payback’s a bitch. People have now bought in to the “the good jobs are tech jobs” and “everybody can code”, but are noticing that the actual hires are 95% male and 98% white/Asian (i.e. “they” are taking “our” jobs, the only “good” jobs, which we could totally do if “they” weren’t so biased). The tech evangelists oversold their financial and societal benefits, and people have noticed. Tech bosses have gotten quite egregiously stupid/arrogant in public, repeatedly, and again, payback’s a bitch. The government is no longer willing to watch as so much tax revenue floats away.

          • Chalid says:

            Investment banks hire tech people but they definitely do not have the attitude toward regulation that tech companies have. Same with insurance for that matter, only more so I imagine.

            Anyway, for a different example, entry-level management consultants are in no way tech people and they face brainteasers too. Granted they’re a different flavor of brainteaser but “how many cars are there in New York City” is essentially a combined IQ/charisma test.

    • neaanopri says:

      Does anybody know if communication skills are correlated with IQ?

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        If you’re willing to accept as equivalent the question “do there exist sufficiently many counterexamples?”, then I can respond with (some) evidence; namely, a cohort of politicians, and meanwhile, a cohort of people I grew up with in the country who didn’t bother with big words (such as in this comment) but nonetheless showed remarkable senses of pragmatism in daily life.

    • dansimonicouldbewrong says:

      He seems to really think this is about whether meritocracy is good or bad in general, rather than a power grab by people who don’t have merit but do have social and political status.

      This is indeed the key point: the backlash against meritocracy is the natural reaction of descendants of one meritocratic elite trying to protect their elevated social status against the rise of another one. As I wrote in a recent blog posting that I’m not allowed to link to,

      Historically, aristocracies have always constructed elaborate systems of social signals to distinguish themselves from commoners, for a simple reason:  such signals are far easier to pass on to descendants reliably than the kinds of traits–intelligence, talent, discipline, diligence–that would allow those children to attain elite status based on merit alone.  Consider accent, for instance–long at the core of the British class system’s social sorting process.  The most worthless wastrel can be taught a posh accent simply by being raised among others speaking in it, while only a few talented mimics are capable of overcoming a childhood steeped in lower-class argot.  Americans, as it happens, aren’t nearly as attuned as the British to the subtleties of speech–most Americans can’t pinpoint a countryman’s place of birth more precisely than, say, “South” or “not South”, let alone his social status, by listening to his accent.  So members of the American elite instead instill class markers in their children based on domains they’re more deeply immersed in:  pop culture and politics.

      Of course, America’s upper-middle class thinks of itself as meritocratic–college-educated, industrious, talented and ambitious.  And that was largely true of the high achievers of the postwar and baby-boom generations, most of whom climbed the ladder of success on their own merits.  But much of today’s upper-middle class is third- or fourth-generation, and regression to the mean is an awfully hard trend to combat, even with the best schools and neighborhoods.  And that’s why this aristocracy, like the ones before it, is…forced to fall back on cultural signals, rather than truly admirable traits, as its class markers.

    • Z says:

      People continually misinterpret Griggs vs. Duke Power Co.

      Yes, it ruled that a test or any other “condition of employment” is presumed to be illegal if different races, sexes, etc. do differently on it. However, that is a “rebuttable presumption“; it is legal if the employer can show that the test or whatever is actually a valid and reliable predictor of success on the job.

      There are several industries that uses tests and other “conditions of employment” to screen workers that affect races, sexes, etc. differently. Police departments, fire departments, the military, and the NFL all use physical and mental tests.

      There’s 100 years of data on factors that predict job performance. See for yourself on page 65, Table 1.

      For an idea of the practical benefits of using hiring methods that work, see pg. 6 in this document. The predictive gains in that paper are modest compared to the gains outlined in Schmidt’s work on predicting performance.

      • John Schilling says:

        However, that is a “rebuttable presumption“; it is legal if the employer can show that the test or whatever is actually a valid and reliable predictor of success on the job.

        We know this, yes. You understand that the employer can’t know whether they actually have rebutted the presumption, whether the thing is actually “legal” or not, except retroactively and at great risk? There’s no government agency one can go to and get approval for one’s job screening test, there’s only implementing the test, getting sued, hiring lawyers, and a year later find out whether the test was legal all along or, oops, you owe ten million dollars in a class-action settlement.

        For most people, things that can get you sued for lots of money, where there’s no strategy that reliably leads to the lawsuit being dismissed as trivia, and for which there is a body of lawyers actually looking for clients on whose behalf to sue, are close enough to illegal as makes no difference and it is annoyingly pedantic to correct them if they use “illegal” as a colloquialism.

        • Brad says:

          We know this, yes.

          All public evidence is to the contrary.

          As Z and other point out there are companies out there doing it. High profile, juicy targets.

          It’s not being imprecise or just technically wrong to say it it’s illegal to do something lots of companies are doing without problem. It’s just plain wrong.

          • It would be really nice to have some evidence on this. Unfortunately there probably isn’t a lot of evidence out there. This is one of those things that companies keep close to the vest.

            It is definitely my experience that companies are very gun shy about giving tests to applicants, especially cognitive tests, for the reasons John gives. The fact that a number of companies don’t listen to their lawyers, or maybe don’t have any lawyers, doesn’t negate the general case. But it is true that I don’t have evidence either.

            I suppose the juicy targets that Brad refers to are the big tech companies like Google. I don’t know why they haven’t been sued, but I bet it is a matter of time. I’m sure Google has lawyers, but I imagine management thinks they are immune from this risk for some reason. Or perhaps they figure the risk is worth the value of the better employees they get from testing. I do think that testing is very valuable for recruiting. Back in the ’80’s I created a test to give to applicants (small company without lawyers), and it turned out to be the most valuable part of the interview process.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            It’s possible that Google’s just willing to have that fight. They’ve certainly got the resources on hand for a legal battle, and they have a strong legal department for plenty of other reasons. And I can certainly imagine that getting stronger employees is worth the costs of that fight.

            It’d be a really interesting case, I think. You could probably establish that programming tests in general are testing essential skills to the job (try getting someone who fails FizzBuzz to produce any useful code), but I’ve seen some of Google’s Foobar testing stuff, and it’s a very strange set of problems. Definitely correlates well to the skills that’ll make you good at software engineering, but it might be a tough sell to call it necessary, and harder to prove to an only-somewhat-tech-literate jury.

            They have a massive set of problems and just throw harder and harder ones at you until you stop getting them right. So if Adam gets to level 7, and Betty gets to level 6, and Adam gets a job and Betty doesn’t, you’d probably have to defend level 7 specifically as being essential to the job, right? And repeat for any level that was the difference between a hired candidate and a non-hired one.

          • random832 says:

            it is legal if the employer can show that the test or whatever is actually a valid and reliable predictor of success on the job.

            you’d probably have to defend level 7 specifically as being essential to the job, right

            “essential” and “predictor of success” are very different standards. In particular, if you have to prove it’s “essential”, that essentially enshrines “you’re not allowed to prefer better candidates if we can convince a jury that the worst ones were ‘good enough'”. What is the actual legal standard?

          • Brad says:

            The touchstone is business necessity. If an employment practice which operates to exclude Negroes cannot be shown to be related to job performance, the practice is prohibited.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            I’m sure Google has lawyers, but I imagine management thinks they are immune from this risk for some reason.

            Having extremely close links with the State Department and the IC and having blackmail material on every living human does help immunize you from risks.

      • random832 says:

        it is legal if the employer can show that the test or whatever is actually a valid and reliable predictor of success on the job.

        And the only statistically valid way to do that is to also hire the people who fail it and observe how much worse they do, which is probably more expensive than losing the lawsuit.

        • Z says:

          And yet we have a massive meta-analysis saving us all the trouble. Why ignore it?

          • random832 says:

            What “massive meta-analysis”? I thought we were talking about a (hypothetical) particular test and a particular job.

  5. nate_rausch says:

    Interesting article and certainly agree that the original concept of meritocracy is both good and the definition useful.

    One thought though, and forgive me if this is culture war-y: when I see words like “performative” or “diversity”, like in the Vox article, it reminds me of a certain type of philosophical analysis I recognize from university.

    If you skim the feminist philosopher article comment section, it’s things like:
    -“80-90% white men. That still feels ‘normal’.”
    – “This is how things back in the days of the Jim Crow North must have looked and felt.”
    – “This racialized state of affairs isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.””
    – “I was going to say “so few people with disabilities,””

    There is an intellectual tradition where all roads lead to this particular Rome. It is in a way beautifully summarized in the last comment on the Feminist philosopher post:

    “Privilege is based on the actual destruction of the capabilities of the unprivileged. It is for that reason that meritocracy is a cruel joke. The elite cut off the feet of their competitors, and then hold a race to decide who will rule.”

    Beyond the definitional work. I think this possible core argument could benefit from serious consideration at SSC. To my eyes this look a lot like postmodern critical theory: everything is language and language is oppression.

    • peterispaikens says:

      In this context we probably need to consider two very different aspects of meritocracy (perhaps we need two different terms?)

      One aspect of meritocracy is that at any single moment we’d want to pick the most capable person for the important tasks, no matter how they got there – if it’s important to run fast, then we want to pick the fastest runner, even if he’s the fastest runner only because 90% of population had their feet cut off, even if the (now) fastest runner did the feetcutting personally. That’s a very practical decision, doing so gets us the results we want while completely ignoring who’d “deserve” something; there’s no “should” or “ought”, it’s simply acknowledging a fact that doing this will get you the fastest running and doing anything else will not; and that would likely be called meritocracy.

      The second aspect of meritocracy is that we’d want to ensure that we sustain and develop the running speed of the *potentially* fastest runners, since that’s how we ensure that our fastest runner is as fast as possible. That is also a very practical decision, doing so obviously gets you the fastest running in the long run, no matter who “deserves” running training for whatever cultural/traditional/whatever reasons. Note that goes hand-in-hand with the first aspect; if in the end we’re going to pick the prettiest or richest runner for the challenge, then we might as well cut the feet off of ugly poor runners, since in the end it won’t matter how fast they run, they won’t get picked anyway. Obviously, a policy of extra training for the kid-runners that show potential to be the best runners in the future (and if we have to cut off some feet, ensure that we don’t cut the feet of the best potential future runners) would be called meritocratic.

      So these are two linked but separate meritocratic policies. Or do we call a system meritocratic only if it incorporates both of these aspects? Since I read your comment as (correctly) noting that a system which does the first aspect but not the second isn’t particularly meritocratic in the long run.

      • baconbacon says:

        Before we have any more analogies can everyone remember that comparative advantage exists?

      • neaanopri says:

        I think there’s a problem with the analogy with cutting off feet: it hurts! However, if under option 2, a rich kid no longer receives some specialized training to be a banker, that doesn’t hurt anyone at all. Nobody looses their feet. The only way that this analogy works is when winners and losers are determined by what kind of work you are doing, to an absurd degree. When this is reduced, a “post-op meritocracy” becomes less bad.

      • nate_rausch says:

        Yes well that’s a beautiful way to put it, and I agree a very important thing to mention when supporting meritocracy.

        And I suppose the way we try to do this in everyday life is giving people a chance. So that we try to get the standard selection method closer to one based on relevant merit (and thereby getting away from obviously bad selection/promotion mechanisms which happens “naturally”).

        If you then combine that with letting people try, this is essentially exploration. It’s your R&D budget or education budget. Apprentices and internships are I suppose formalized examples.

        By the way, another critique on meritocracy is that there seems to me in many situations to be something that often overlaps with meritocracy, but not neccesarily, and that is value. In practice people in private companies usually get paid (up to) the value the person paying think they will get out of it. Of course that can be called say relevant merit. But in practice people often find this unfair, because they feel that the specific merit shouldn’t be relevant to the position.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      To paraphrase another wise comment in another blog:

      When it comes to merit, Mother Nature is the final judge, physics is her law, and her rulings are not open to special pleading.

      If the fast-running class secures its merit by defining merit as “running fast” and then cuts the feet off its competitors, then it can get away with that about as long as running fast actually gets them to the next round of Survivor. They still have to outrun the puma.

  6. I think your point on there being easy gains from an optimization of how culture views education is certainly true, but I don’t know where those gains end and the structural/signalling reality sets in.

    For example, top investments funds have trouble hiring on ability to persistently predict the market outside of people with 20 years experience, and even then, controlling for luck, risk, and skill, makes it almost a joke. They still need young talent though to keep their machines going, so their best bet is to hire people with the highest ability markers who understand the market.

    Tech firms exist in a different world, where a github account speaks for itself.

    Although I suspect there are then 2nd order effects, where even though Goldman only hiring from top5 schools started out as a rational optimized choice, it then works its way into the culture of the firm, and the firm is now averse to hiring that really bright math major from StateU. Even more insidiously, their customers become used to an equilibrium where all the top banks only hire from top schools, so when they see 1st gen College kid or 1st gen Immigrant from StateU on their investments team, they interpret this as a negative signal.

    Again, all of this is mitigated from a github account.

    The structure of high finance is almost perfectly suited to select on elitist-signals in the face of noise.

    • Spookykou says:

      Assuming you can’t do better than chance in high finance, then what matters is impressing customers, so they are already optimizing for status/signaling. In such a system I am not sure if any ‘gains’ could be made by dismantling any particular signaling mechanisms.

      I am not sure if more industries are like high finance, or tech? The more/closer things are to tech, the more gains to be had from trying to dismantle the signaling mechanism(high status schools?) and directly measuring the relevant industry skills.

      Of course trying to accurately measure skills is it’s own hard problem, given how much we spend on education currently, I think we could probably find a more efficient method though.

  7. alwhite says:

    As the Rightful Caliph has said “The reference is not the referent”.

    Does all of this look different if we take the approach that we don’t merely disagree with people, but rather we are observing a way in which others are failing to think?

  8. Jacob says:

    You do realize that linking to a clickbaiting website, even in a critical way, still helps the site right? I’m not even talking about no-follow tags; many of your readers will click through. In fact it would be the responsible thing to do to make sure you have represented their position fairly and get a balanced perspective. Maybe use archive.is links if you don’t want to reward people for publishing these articles.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Which one are you talking about?

      • mnarayan01 says:

        but whatever, I guess you’ve got to get clicks somehow.

        I assume he’s talking about whatever ones you were.

    • neaanopri says:

      What’s so bad about these articles? They could be writing about trivial things. It’s good to contribute to intellectual discussion even if you’re wrong. And what if Scott’s further from the truth than they are? It’s a good thing, then, that they wrote these articles!

  9. eqdw says:

    The other articles actually mean it. Their argument seems to be gesturing at the idea that elites send their kids to private schools, where they get all A+s and end up as president of the Junior Strivers Club. Then they go to Harvard and dazzle their professors with their sparkling wit and dapper suits. Then they get hired right out of college to high-paying management positions at Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV. Then they eat truffle-flavored caviar all day and tell each other “Unlike past generations of elites, we are meritocrats who truly deserve our positions, on account of our merit”, as the poor gnash their teeth outside.

    This strikes me as somewhere between “not meritocracy” and “exactly the opposite of meritocracy” (credentialism)

    Every single discussion about meritocracy being bad that I have ever witnessed, has gone something like this:

    1) Tech companies and the like claim to be meritocratic
    2) Tech companies and the like appear to operate based on a combination of credentialism and nepotism, which are bad
    => Therefore, meritocracy is bad.

    Meanwhile, it seems very obvious to me that if we take the conventional definition of “meritocracy” (people who are best excel), then this is not a meritocracy at all!

    I would propose a reworking of the argument to make it more congruent with reality:
    1) Tech companies and the like claim to be meritocratic
    2) Tech companies and the like appear to operate based on a combination of credentialism and nepotism, which are bad
    => Therefore, those tech companies and the like are bad.

    If you actually get into a discussion with most people who are opposed to “meritocracy”, it becomes obvious that they have no problem with the proposal “people who are best suited to a task should be put on it”. Hell, even the communists agree: “From all, according to their ability, to all, according to their need”

    It is very frustrating, trying to have discussions on this subject, when everyone insists on defining words to mean their opposites

    • neaanopri says:

      I agree wholeheartedly, comrade!

      Kidding aside, I think that this is part of the process around how a term as nebulous as meritocracy gets defined. There just needs to be a lot of talking about it, and people have their own agenda about why one definitely is better. The best argument will win, and it is because it won. Just give thanks it’s not as messy as the definition of “socialism”.

    • Collected Over Spread says:

      when everyone insists on defining words to mean their opposites

      I think it’s a sort of pragmatic descriptivism; that is, “meritocracy” means what most people are describing when they use the term, which appears to be a combination of credentialism and nepotism that is claimed to be based on merit.

      It then becomes easy to attack the combination of credentialism and nepotism by attacking “meritocracy.” After all, that’s what most people mean when they use the word.

      I agree, though, that there is value in maintaining the conventional definition of meritocracy.

  10. MartMart says:

    If word X should mean X, but thru out known history has always meant Y, it’s not unreasonable to claim that you oppose X on the grounds that it always results in Y which is terrible.

    I mean, people who oppose soviet style communism do just that.

  11. Corey says:

    None of this solves one of the biggest problems that the anti-meritocracy folk are complaining about: the fact that there’s a distinction between millionaire Goldman Sachs analysts and starving poor people in the first place.

    I think it’s related, but in an inverse sense: peoples’ desert is widely assumed to be equal to their labor market outcomes. In the Federal Reserve example, if the Fed makes bad decisions and 10M lose their jobs, those 10M will be considered less deserving (of anything) than in the counterfactual where the Fed made good decisions. I can see why this disconnect annoys people.

  12. eqdw says:

    I think this is both entirely true and entirely missing the point. The intuition behind meritocracy is this: if your life depends on a difficult surgery, would you prefer the hospital hire a surgeon who aced medical school, or a surgeon who had to complete remedial training to barely scrape by with a C-? If you prefer the former, you’re a meritocrat with respect to surgeons. Generalize a little, and you have the argument for being a meritocrat everywhere else.

    A few weeks ago, in a talk on a somewhat unrelated subject, Jordan Peterson said something clever that touched on this subject. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this: people opposed to capitalistic free markets think that we reward people with lots of money as some kind of commentary on their social value. This is not true. What we do is we find the really smart/capable people in society, and attempt to enslave them for our benefit by bribing the hell out of them. We don’t give them money because they “deserve” it in any moral sense of the term. We give them money because OH GOD WE NEED THEM TO DO THE THING THEY ARE GOOD AT AND OH GOD WHAT IF THEY STOP HERE TAKE THIS MONEY TAKE WHATEVER YOU WANT JUST PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE DON’T STOP DOING THAT IMPORTANT SOCIAL FUNCTION THAT YOU’RE REALLY GOOD AT

    Society doesn’t always do a great job of maintaining this disposition, and there is corruption and graft at the margins, but overall this is the aspirationally-correct way to look at these things. Anyone who is thinking of salaries / pay / whatever in terms of what people deserve is already way out to left field

    • qwints says:

      Is there any evidence of that? I think society could get along fine if Dwayne Johnson or LeBron James retired tomorrow. Conversely, I don’t believe there are any super rich among the people who eradicated smallpox or the people currently eradicating polio.

      • Mengsk says:

        I think you’re looking at atypical examples of the super rich, most of whom are anonymous and do things like work in financial markets. Investment banking, for example, is arguably very useful, very high stress, and very high paying. (Also, celebrities usually become super by cultivating their own “brand”, which provides a lot of coordination benefits)

        It is true that our market economy doesn’t reward a category of useful activities that are difficult to monetize. However, I’m not sure that failure to monetize some useful activities refutes the general premise that we pay people to do useful things.

        • qwints says:

          It’s just not clear at all to me that the highest compensated sectors are “most useful” or even “useful.” The ultra-rich aren’t primarily compensated for the things they do anyway, but the companies they own.

      • pdbarnlsey says:

        Lots and lots of people enjoy watching Lebron James/the Rock more than the next most talented sports star/actor. Those people get less happy, individually to the tune of a few bucks and collectively to the tune of maybe hundreds of millions of bucks.

        We like Lebron James playing basketball for the same reason we like getting rid of polio – they both make people happier.

        We can have a complicated fight about using effective demand to measure these sorts of things, or whether expectations would adjust if people only had Kevin Durant to watch, or how we should reward medical researchers, but the starting point for a defence of persuading people who are strangely good at trivial but popular things to do those things to the exclusion of all else, using big piles of money, is pretty obvious.

        • qwints says:

          Those people get less happy, individually to the tune of a few bucks and collectively to the tune of maybe hundreds of millions of bucks.

          Is there any evidence at all for that claim? It’s one thing to make Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument that Chamberlain or James having much more wealth than an average individual is just, it’s another to argue that people get more utility from James choosing to play basketball. The hedonic treadmill seems to apply to watching basketball in a way that it doesn’t to not dying from polio.

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            The hedonic treadmill seems to apply to watching basketball in a way that it doesn’t to not dying from polio.

            I acknowledge above that it might, but I think, when a huge number of people eagerly vote with their wallets (tickets to games featuring Lebron systematically cost more than those not featuring him), the burden of proof is probably on the person asserting that they’re collectively fooling themselves about what they enjoy.

            FWIW, I think that I, and probably also we, would enjoy watching the olympic 100m (in any format) about as much if the participants were 5% slower, provided I didn’t know what I was missing. I don’t think I’d enjoy watching basketball as much if the best players were 5% less good, and the uptick in basketball’s popularity as play quality and athleticism improved between, say, the 50’s and the 90’s suggests I’m not just fooling myself. But you never know.

            (strong hedonic adaptation arguments, taken to their logical conclusion, lead to some sweeping policy preferences, basically focusing on life extension and/or small utility bumps, depending on normative treatment of time preference, adaptation speed and symmetry between gains and losses – my PhD thesis provides evidence suggesting that these are symmetrical over the relevant time scales)

          • Tracy W says:

            I think there’s two things going on there. Firstly people get a lot of utility from watching their team win (though this exists in the odd tension that the more you expect them not to win, the higher the utility you get if they do.)

            And also, people get utility from watching someone very good at something display that excellence (assuming the spectator has sufficient knowledge to recognise the excellence, and of course assuming the expert is not displaying said expertise against your own team.)

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        “Society” might get along fine, but the Cleveland Cavaliers would not be fine. Lebron is one of the greatest of all-time, who can almost single-handedly carry a lottery team to the NBA finals.

        In fact, you can see the effect of Lebron, because this actually happened. The Cavs went from a 61-21 NBA finals team in 2010 to a 19-63 team in 2011, by far the worst in the Eastern Conference.

        Lebron is worth every penny to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

        • thad says:

          Mostly true. The Cavs lost 3 of their starting 5, and a few notable backups like Ilgauskus, not just LeBron. They wanted to be bad for that sweet draft pick, a very sensible strategy in the NBA. Today’s Cavs could lost him and would still be one of the best in the East, if that was the only loss.

          But the post being responded to was about Society. It is absolutely worth it to most NBA teams to pay LeBron the maximum allowable salary, but whether or not society benefits from that exchange is a valid question.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Whether society is better from that exchange is a question that cannot reasonably be answered, and the best approximation we have are markets setting wages.

            The other alternative is arguing about utils that we cannot see or reasonably approximate.

            The society consensus on how to solve this is to tax higher incomes progressively more and use the funds on social goods. Which seems to be a much better option than arguing whether individual classes of people are deserving of any money at all.

    • gemmaem says:

      I mean, I actually do think that there exists a sort of “social capitalism” (as opposed to “economic capitalism”) in which it is taken as given that money is generally a commentary on a person’s social value, and I think it’s a problem. “People who have money deserve that money” is a fairly common attitude among people who support lower taxes and fewer social programs.

      • neaanopri says:

        Well, I think it’s a very common implemention of “no worker can understand a piece of information that means that their job is worthless.”. Once you start saying people don’t deserve money, then you have to answer the question about whether you do. I think that’s where a lot of people stop thinking about it.

      • “People who have money deserve that money” is a fairly common attitude among people who support lower taxes and fewer social programs.

        It’s worth trying to distinguish between “deserve” and “are entitled to,” since the two concepts are quite different but easily confused.

        Consider the simplest example. I bet you a dollar on the flip of a coin. The coin comes up your way. You didn’t deserve to have a dollar more and I a dollar less, since the coin’s act had nothing to do with the merit of either of us. But you were entitled to get the dollar, because those were the terms of our voluntary agreement.

        The people you complain about might believe that high income is evidence of virtue and deserves to be rewarded, the position you reject. But they might alternatively believe that people are entitled to the money they get by voluntary transactions, an entirely different position which has nothing to do with moral virtue.

        And it’s always tempting to attribute bad arguments to people whose conclusions you don’t like.

        • gemmaem says:

          And yet, I can’t help but think that in many ways “people are entitled to what they earn” is actually the weaker position, in an argument over taxes, compared to “people deserve what they earn.”

          The plain obvious fact is that people are not entitled to all of their earnings. They are entitled to the untaxed portion of their earnings, as a matter of law. So the question of how high taxes should be is not a question of “How much are people entitled to?” It’s a question of “How much should people be entitled to?” Which pretty much takes us back to “How much do people deserve?”, does it not?

          • The plain obvious fact is that people are not entitled to all of their earnings. They are entitled to the untaxed portion of their earnings, as a matter of law.

            You are using “entitled” as a legal category. I’m using it as a moral category. The two have no necessary relation. In the pre-Civil war South, a slave owner was legally entitled to beat his slaves, sell them, prevent them from running away. Few people now believe he was morally entitled to do so.

          • gemmaem says:

            Fair enough. The distinction you’re making between deserving something that someone else does not deserve (because you are in some sense a better person than they are) and being morally entitled to something that someone else is not morally entitled to (as a result of some broader moral rule) is a coherent one.

            I still think there exists an attitude, held by a non-negligible number of people, that rich people are more morally worthy than poor people, mind you. But you’ve convinced me that it’s possible to believe that rich people are morally entitled to their money without believing that they are in any sense better people, and I’ll watch out for the distinction.

    • manwhoisthursday says:

      Here is the Jordan Peterson talk you were referring to:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AslM5MaxCeg

  13. Iain says:

    The other articles actually mean it.

    Do they?

    In your eagerness to point out that it is a good idea to put competent people in charge, I think you are ignoring the thesis of those anti-meritocracy posts. There is a consistent theme running through the Vox, Guardian, and Prospect pieces: by sucking the best and the brightest into the upper classes, our current attempts at meritocracy have created an out-of-touch elite who do not understand the people they rule.

    The Vox piece focuses on how our attempted meritocracy leads to elites with a skewed view of the world.The Guardian piece focuses on how it exacerbates income inequality. The Prospect piece argues that it leads to self-interested leaders making bad decisions. None of these are attacks on the idea of finding the best person for the job. They are arguments about how our attempts at instantiating a meritocracy have had negative side-effects.

    Maybe those arguments are mistaken. But your failure to engage with them significantly weakens your post. Nobody is claiming that what you call “real” meritocracy is inherently unfair. They are claiming that our current system is not meritocratic in that sense, and calling it “meritocracy” lets the winners assume they won fair and square, with negative effects ranging from a lack of understanding to contempt for the underclasses.

    PS: Well, maybe it is not true that nobody is against meritocracy itself. This part of the Guardian article raises an interesting point: if people of merit are suctioned up into the upper classes, who will be the compelling advocates for the lower classes?

    It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.
    They have been deprived by educational selection of many of those who would have been their natural leaders, the able spokesmen and spokeswomen from the working class who continued to identify with the class from which they came.Their leaders were a standing opposition to the rich and the powerful in the never-ending competition in parliament and industry between the haves and the have-nots.
    With the coming of the meritocracy, the now leaderless masses were partially disfranchised; as time has gone by, more and more of them have been disengaged, and disaffected to the extent of not even bothering to vote. They no longer have their own people to represent them.

    A good defense of meritocracy needs a response to this point, which I do not see in your post.

    • dndnrsn says:

      The author of that Guardian article, Young, whose book I continually recommend, is the guy who coined the phrase “meritocracy”, and he did not mean it as a positive, as noted above. His book, dystopian sci-fi, presents a system that is a true meritocracy (for men; even by his imagined 2030s high-IQ women are expected to go to school to meet a nice high-IQ boy and get their Mrs. degrees and then stay at home raising their high-IQ babies) with the results he describes in the Guardian article.

      • Iain says:

        It’s worth pointing out that Young also says:

        It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.

        Scott is vociferously defending the first sentence, which nobody disagrees with, and ignoring the second, which is the real point of contention.

        • dndnrsn says:

          The Young article is also quite different from the others. They’re mostly saying “meritocracy is a sham; there’s all sorts of things that hold down the merited and elevate the unmerited” and Young is saying “the truer a meritocracy, the more dangerous it is.”

        • quanta413 says:

          I can’t help but notice this second argument sounds awfully similar to arguments made by Charles Murray.

          There is irony here somewhere.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        for men; even by his imagined 2030s high-IQ women are expected to go to school to meet a nice high-IQ boy and get their Mrs. degrees and then stay at home raising their high-IQ babies

        Thank the arc of history we have better sense now and instead don’t have IQ babies.

    • baconbacon says:

      With the coming of the meritocracy, the now leaderless masses were partially disfranchised; as time has gone by, more and more of them have been disengaged, and disaffected to the extent of not even bothering to vote. They no longer have their own people to represent them.

      This is just playing with language without meaning. Once you are speaking for your “class” you are no longer of that class. If a higher class is accepting you as a legitimate representative there was either never a real gap between your class and theirs, or you have been elevated in their eyes. If your class views you as their representative then they have elevated you above their own standards. The only way this position makes any sense if if you think the working class should go out and find the most average working class guy/girl to go mumble a few thoughts about being working class into a microphone before going back to work in their plant.

      The author is trying to apply a concept used against racism, MLKj being an excellent speaker and generated a massive following, but that did not stop him from being black. Because of how race works in the US you could not be white, and watch his brilliance and concede his intelligence without to some extent elevating all black people. Unless the author want to argue that class is an innate trait akin to skin color he has made a weak argument.

      • dndnrsn says:

        The author is British and originally wrote on the subject in the 50s, so I don’t know that you can say he’s cribbing from the US civil rights movement.

        • baconbacon says:

          The time frame is irrelevant, the example is to highlight the difference between race and class only, not to claim that the author specifically copied a specific racial movement. Insert Frederick Douglas for MLK if you like, or Susan B Anthony, or Moses.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Consider that the class system in the UK is more rigid than the class system in the US, and was more rigid in the 50s than it is now. Someone with the wrong accent who makes a bunch of money is still someone with the wrong accent. It is more fluid than race, of course, but it is something that takes place over generations, far more than within a person’s lifetime.

        • reasoned argumentation says:

          The author is British and originally wrote on the subject in the 50s, so I don’t know that you can say he’s cribbing from the US civil rights movement.

          No but you can notice that the US civil rights movement cribbed from the same source.

          – Present example of noble working man / noble black man / noble woman held down by the system (note, actual nobility likely faked but since all the right thinking people are on board, reporting of this doesn’t happen (frex, MLKj))
          – This “authentic” specimen presents exactly the same argument favored by the left – that power should go to leftists to fix the injustice
          – An “organic” movement organized for press coverage is ginned up (like this https://twt-thumbs.washtimes.com/media/image/2017/06/05/CNN_London_protest_c47-0-592-318_s885x516.jpg?8c4f424432dd2b20a4c3750a7cd73b14bc213d5d )

          Rinse and repeat until someone who was on your side to begin with caves to the “pressure”.

          Fun example of this that didn’t quite work out as expected – Osama bin Laden was working off of this script and made statements about climate change: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-binladen-climatechange-idUSKCN0W35MS .

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            An “organic” movement organized for press coverage is ginned up (like this

            Oh buddy. You know it’s not polite to link to the moonie times until we develop some sort of internet-compatible disinfectant. You couldn’t find that image somewhere on the Gateway pundit?

            snopes cnn muslim protest london

            I feel like, if the sources I quoted were constantly embarrassing me in public, I would stop using them, even if I didn’t care even a tiny bit about the truth.

          • abc says:

            even if I didn’t care even a tiny bit about the truth.

            Well given that you’re linking to the disgraced snopes as if it were a legitimate fact-checking site, it’s clear you don’t.

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            Would “the disgraced snopes” be a good name for a rock band? It’s no “pizza sex dungeon”.

            Certainly, it would work better in that role than as an argument on the internet.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            What?!? That picture was in the Washington Times?

            Clearly that means the photograph wasn’t taken and it must have been an illusion.

            Note that I didn’t link to the words accompanying the photograph.

            https://www.washingtonian.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/garbage-fire-994×746.jpg

            I suppose if you’ve been trying you could have avoided any exposure to any of the million or so the “press deceptively photographs crowds to fit the agenda” photos.

            https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/16/staging-manipulation-ethics-photos/

            I think setting up photos — where they are completely staged — is very widespread. I’ve seen it done by very-well-known photographers, mostly in conflict or disaster situations. I’ve witnessed photographers try to recreate moments when they arrived to a scene too late.

            Oh no, now I’ve gone and linked to a discredited site.

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            RA, I can understand the impulse to change the subject to “does the press ever stage photos?”, because of the aforementioned embarrassment, but I can’t really see how you expect to get away with it, because of the quote function.

            An “organic” movement organized for press coverage is ginned up

            Remember that claim? I do, and so does the internet. But it turns out the source that told you a movement was ginned up by the press was lying to you, as it habitually does.

            As I say, that would bother me for credibility-preservation reasons, if not due to a commitment to the truth. But perhaps you see credibility as no longer being relevant to your posts.

            I do have to admire the chutzpah of “the press takes misleading photos to invent a movement, look at this!” to “how could you possibly suggest my link is misleading, it’s just a photo?!”

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            I realize that as a pathological liar your only resources are projection and irrelevant snark, but could you at least try to understand what an “argument” is so that you can actually write something that could plausibly pass for one.

            Sick Burn definitely works as a band name, probably ironically, but I feel like I’d be more likely to pick up something by Irrelevant Snark. Particularly if it was some of the early work they did with Projection.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            From the joke of a snopes link:

            But nothing suggested that CNN “staged” the demonstrations to any extent greater than engaging protesters, directing their positions, and asking them questions as part of a news segment.

            Oh! They just engaged the protestors and directed their positions. I can’t imagine how anyone could get the idea that the protest was an “‘organic’ movement organized for press coverage” (actually operating as ideological partners with the press). Snopes’s rebuttal consists of “CNN didn’t use paid actors, therefore saying that this was an underhanded lie is false”. Pathetic.

            EDIT – Ha! They actually quoted a statement by the organizer of the protest saying the protest was spontaneous and genuine. Well that seals it!

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            RA,

            Right now the whole thing starts and ends with “there is no non-made-up evidence that CNN ginned up a fake protest movement, rather than just reporting on it and taking photos of it, which is their job

            No one is rebutting anything, just pointing out that you fell for a racist lie, or hoped that we would.

            I feel like your “but perhaps they did!?” line would fly in some places, but probably not here.

          • tscharf says:

            @pdbarnlsey

            There was a guest post here from a person who specifically sets up media manipulations:

            IRAP’s ground level work meant that when Trump’s order went out, it took them approximately four seconds to create a list of extremely sympathetic/photogenic immigrants who would be caught at airports that day, for some of whom they were already the legal representative of record. It took another six seconds to find even more photogenic supporters of those immigrants who were willing to loudly support them in media interviews.

            One can disagree about whether this is ethical or not, but one cannot deny that attempts to manipulate the media are ever present and a media with an agenda will be happy to comply. I think directing “sympathetic and photogenic” protesters exactly where to stand behind a camera to give an impression they just happened to be standing there is unethical.

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            @tscharf,

            I think everyone’s agreed (though I’m not sure if abc adopts non-contingent views on questions of fact) that the media sometimes/often pose photos and choose their subjects to make things look particularly newsworthy/sympathetic.

            I’m open to arguments that this practice is perfect-world unethical, though my view is probably that, as long as the people captured are actual immigrants/muslims/etc I can live with a degree of selectivity when there is currently a government body devoted to hyping immigrant crime and another devoted to lying about voter fraud.

            I’m probably not in favour of unilateral disarmament when it comes to showing the harms of policies I oppose in the worst possible light, but I respect the contrary position for its ethical purity.

            But that’s not what RA claimed, at least not the first time around. He alluded to an alt-right meme that a particular protest was created, paid for and staged, out of whole cloth, by the media. That claim’s just a lie, and doesn’t belong here.

            So we can debate media ethics – I’ve no particular interest or expertise – but we can’t seamlessly retreat to that discussion conditional on getting caught recycling racist propaganda.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            But that’s not what RA claimed, at least not the first time around. He alluded to an alt-right meme that a particular protest was created, paid for and staged, out of whole cloth, by the media.

            You are lying and it’s a really stupid lie because my argument is right above your post.

          • random832 says:

            @reasoned argumentation

            You are lying and it’s a really stupid lie because my argument is right above your post.

            Okay, let’s look above his post to your post that he was referring to:

            An “organic” movement organized for press coverage is ginned up (like this

            Followed by a link to a picture of which the preceding description was a lie.

            You are lying and it’s a really stupid lie because your original post is right there above this thread.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            There are two points in that bullet point:

            1) An organic seeming movement is created through coordination with the press – “we’ll be having a demonstration, come by and photograph it”
            2) The actual coverage of the events is intentionally slanted to sell the implicit story from (1) – that the “movement” is significant in numbers and represents some kind of sincere expression of sentiment.

            The photograph above gives lie to the implicit narrative on both counts. It’s not that a huge number of people go out in public and the press somehow hears about it and covers it – someone calls the press, pitches the story and hires or otherwise persuades a few people to come out to complete the circle. The press then goes and will stage photos and video shots to make it look like there is some kind of mass demonstration. Have you really been able to avoid seeing the side shots of “demonstrations” where the crowd is two people deep in a semicircle around the cameras then the cameras turn off and the crowd disperses?

            The snopes “rebuttal” is totally beside the point. Yes, CNN didn’t literally hire actors. That’s not at all what I was using the photo to demonstrate.

          • random832 says:

            @reasoned argumentation your photo does not actually show that the movement wasn’t significant in numbers. It shows that the number of people present for that particular photograph (of which the subject was the signs, not an illusion of a larger crowd) was small, but not your ‘implicit narrative’ that they were the whole of the movement.

            CNN’s statement:

            This story is nonsense. The group of demonstrators that was at the police cordon was being allowed through by officers so they could show their signs to the gathered media. The CNN crew along with other media present simply filmed them doing so.

            So, what was the police cordon for, if there was no mass protest? Do you think it is impossible that a larger mass of protesters was being kept physically separate from the media?

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            The photo does show that it was deliberately shot to give the impression of the greatest possible number of “protestors”.

            So, what was the police cordon for, if there was no mass protest?

            You know the Berkeley police department has a form you can fill out which asks if you want to have symbolic arrests at your protest – “want us to put up a cordon so it looks better for the cameras” is mild compared to that.

            Do you think it is impossible that a larger mass of protesters was being kept physically separate from the media?

            Sure, there might have been leprechauns there too. The press – which admits to even outright fabricating shots (see the NY Times link – and yes, I know the Times has zero credibility but when they report that their news is lies that’s an admission against interest) – who is there to make the protest look as big as possible with every form of camera trickery (and editing if necessary) just overlooked a really big group of people because they were cordoned off – c’mon, have some sense.

        • hlynkacg says:

          To be fair I’ve met quite a few Brits who do seem to regard “class” as an innate trait akin to skin color.

          • baconbacon says:

            Then a meritocracy wouldn’t remove them from their class….

          • Tarpitz says:

            The claim’s essentially about culture, right?

            What Young is really saying is that in the old days, high IQ people born into the working class remained culturally working class throughout their life, even if they acquired a high status, well-paid job. In particular, Labour MPs remained culturally working class. His concern was that if high IQ members of the working class were identified at a young age and packed off to Oxbridge to learn (upper-)middle classness along with their degree, the political leadership of the left would no longer be culturally working class and would consequently cease to represent the wishes and needs of the working class. This does indeed appear to be what happened.

          • baconbacon says:

            What Young is really saying is that in the old days, high IQ people born into the working class remained culturally working class throughout their life, even if they acquired a high status, well-paid job. In particular, Labour MPs remained culturally working class.

            I don’t think there is much of a case for “working class MP = working class”. Someone who is earnestly trying to represent the working class isn’t automatically the same as someone who gets votes from the WC.

          • David Speyer says:

            Sam Gompers left school at age 10 to work in a cigar factory. Cesar Chavez dropped out of school at 15 to become a migrant farm worker.

            A child today with that sort of intelligence, drive and charisma, no matter how poor a school they started in, would be tracked for college. I think that’s good for society as a whole, but I can believe that it is bad for factory workers and migrant farmers.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @baconbacon

            What David Speyer says is correct. Let’s say you have a blue-collar kid with a high IQ. Classism – a lack of meritocracy – means he isn’t going to go to a fancy school, or university. He’s going to work making widgets. But if he’s got some organizational skills, he might advance in the union. If he’s got public speaking ability, he might catch someone’s attention and be asked to stand for election as a Labour MP. This isn’t some well-off politician who decided to represent the working class, this is a working class guy who rose in the ranks. But he hasn’t become upper class. The Tory MPs, even if they think he is a decent guy, do not regard him as one of them. He is not going to be invited to their fox hunts or polo matches or whatever.

          • A child today with that sort of intelligence, drive and charisma, no matter how poor a school they started in, would be tracked for college. I think that’s good for society as a whole, but I can believe that it is bad for factory workers and migrant farmers.

            It is also good for the child itself. Is Young arguing that the child should not be allowed to emerge from the lower class except as a representative? I sounds like he wants to sacrifice the child for the supposed political benefit of the lower class. I haven’t read the article, but that sounds like the gist from what I hear here.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Mark V Anderson

            A guy who was Labour back in that time might very well think that.

          • Jaskologist says:

            @Mark

            Why do we have our “gifts?” Are they to benefit ourselves, or so that we are able to bless those around us? (And isn’t the etymology of “gift” in this context itself interesting?)

            Does the smart child really get a raw deal? They get to be high-status within their dunbar number community, instead of being yet another smart guy in a sea of smart guys.

          • albatross11 says:

            Also remember that you might be looking for the best guys to write code or develop vaccines or make rockets that fly into the sky instead of blowing up on the pad. For those things, finding that clever kid whose parents were itinerant farm labor is a big win. Probably it’s a big win for the kid, too.

            The whole US did this in a big way over the last century or so, with really good results. We’ve probably gone past the point of diminishing marginal returns on sending everyone to college, but the transition from “only kids from rich families or really unusually brilliant kids from middle-class families go to college” to “bright kids go to college even if their parents were dirt poor” is a huge win for the country, as well as for the kids involved.

          • SEE says:

            Why do we have our “gifts?” Are they to benefit ourselves, or so that we are able to bless those around us?

            1) Genetics and natural selection.
            2) To benefit our genes.

          • Aapje says:

            @albatross11

            Also remember that you might be looking for the best guys to write code or develop vaccines or make rockets that fly into the sky instead of blowing up on the pad. For those things, finding that clever kid whose parents were itinerant farm labor is a big win. Probably it’s a big win for the kid, too.

            Sure, but there is a risk that these people will primarily focus on the concerns and needs of a small elite, if these people get forced into a single elite culture.

            IMO one of the main advantages of democracy is that it prevents the elite from disappearing too far up its own backside as the unwashed masses can pull the handbrake.

          • po8crg says:

            Class is an economically-linked subculture.

            It is not an economic status. If you’re rich, but you like monster trucks and NASCAR and country music and you put catsup (spelled like that) on all your food and you have a Southern redneck accent and wear trucker hats, then you’re still working class.

            [I have to emphasize very strongly to get an American version of this to work; British class distinctions are much more powerful exactly because they don’t require as much emphasis]

            You can change your class by changing your tastes and style and accent and so on, but it’s very hard to do that after your mid-twenties. If you want a class-change story from American pop culture, then Vivian in Pretty Woman is a classic one; once she’s dressed well and cried at the opera (indicating a change of her tastes) then you can see her class status rising rapidly as people start to defer to her and not to Edward’s money.

            You can be of a pretty high class (upper middle or so) and poor – lots of students are; so are many recent graduates who are waiting tables or working as baristas while looking for a job where they can use their degree. It’s harder to sustain that into middle-age, but not impossible.

            The easiest way to change class is by education (and even more so now than in the past, when it typically took two generations rather than one). If someone with rich parents who are the British equivalent of the NASCAR-and-monster-trucks guy goes to Eton, picks up an RP-estuary hybrid accent (the modern elite accent) and acquires upper-class tastes like polo and rugby union, then they will largely be accepted as members of the upper class. A good example is Kate Middleton (now, of course the Duchess of Cambridge) whose parents had made money but not much class background, but sent her to Marlborough school (Eton being, of course, male-only) and then she went to St Andrews (which is one of a number of universities that take people from upper-class schools who were not academically talented enough to get a place at Oxbridge). By the time she met William there, she was already accepted as being upper class, though her parents (especially her mother) never really will be. And that’s the extreme upper class; if you want to get into the upper middle class of the likes of (former PM) Cameron, then that’s even easier if you’re 12 and your parents have money.

          • Sure, but there is a risk that these people will primarily focus on the concerns and needs of a small elite, if these people get forced into a single elite culture.

            I’m struck, reading these threads, by an attitude implicit in this quote and many other things people say–that the important way in which some people help or hurt others is by caring about them, by deliberately doing things designed to promote their class, or the class they sympathize with, or the like.

            It’s a natural way to look at the world, but I think a badly mistaken one. Most people care primarily about themselves and those close to them, and most people realize that they have much more ability to affect the welfare of themselves and those close to them than to affect the welfare of millions of anonymous strangers. Hence acts that in fact benefit millions of anonymous strangers are usually undertaken for other reasons–the invention of a useful new device motivated by the love of inventing things plus the desire for money and status.

            Further, most people are not competent to decide what actions will benefit millions of anonymous strangers. Thus if they try to do so, they are quite as likely to make the intended beneficiaries worse off as better off.

            “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design to do me good, I should run for my life …” (Thoreau)

          • dndnrsn says:

            @DavidFriedman:

            Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that people are best at helping those close to them. Doesn’t this fit in with Young’s objection to hypothetical perfect meritocracy – that it concentrates the smartest people at the top, and thus means that those who are probably the best at helping others are only close to others at the top?

          • Aapje says:

            @DavidFriedman

            I think that it is highly questionable whether (all/most) people operate based on an ‘onion model’ where they are primarily and consciously motivated most by their own well-being, then by the well-being of their nearest, then those just beyond that, etc.

            Basically, my objection to this is similar to one of my objections to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in that it discounts the very common human need for a sense of justice and self-esteem which can override the well-being of the self and those near a person. When my grandparents hid people from the Nazis, this can in no way be explained by selfish considerations, except by cheating (‘their own well-being depended on a sense of justice, so by helping strangers, they were actually primarily helping themselves’).

            Economic research also shows that humans tend to forgo personal gain if they perceive a situation as too unjust, preferring to make a personal sacrifice to enforce a societal norm.

            So given the strong evidence that people do have and are strongly motivated by empathy, it is rather important that the empathy of the elite is somewhat correctly calibrated. This is hard, because it is true that people are better at empathizing with the familiar/those like them and suffer from a great many weaknesses like a desire for tribalism and the like.

            Hence acts that in fact benefit millions of anonymous strangers are usually undertaken for other reasons–the invention of a useful new device motivated by the love of inventing things plus the desire for money and status.

            A love of inventing things merely explains why people want to invent things, not why they seek to invent A rather than B.

            A great many people who (seek to) invent things actually state as a motivation that they want to make the world a better place. If you look at the mission statements of Amazon and Google, they don’t center around maximizing profit. If you look at healthcare researchers, a great many chose their field because of a relative having a disease. Even when their relative dies/died, they keep that motivation even though their research now no longer benefits those near to them.

            To salvage your argument requires a level of divining people’s ‘actual motivations’ by using all kinds of rhetorical tricks that can just as easily be employed to prove the opposite.

            Of course, if you were to adopt my beliefs on this it would shatter your libertarian world view, greatly harming your self-esteem, so if I’m right then my argument can’t realistically persuade you. 🙂

            PS. Also note that one of the main reasons why money is a strong motivator for men is that the gender roles make people judge men on their earnings. Research strongly suggests that this does not reflect natural preferences, so if you want to achieve a society where people are not coerced by societal pressures*, but merely optimize their own outcome based on their own individual needs, then you can’t really build on money as the main/only motivator.

            * Of course, you may distinguish between governmental coercion and cultural/social coercion, excusing/supporting the latter, but then you have to abandon the claim of wanting to maximize personal welfare based on people’s true needs.

          • To be fair I’ve met quite a few Brits who do seem to regard “class” as an innate trait akin to skin color.

            I’ve met quite a few Usians who think hispanic is a race, although it predicts nothing about skin colour or any other physical trait.

            Then a meritocracy wouldn’t remove them from their class…

            You mean it wouldn’t remove their class from them.

            IMO one of the main advantages of democracy is that it prevents the elite from disappearing too far up its own backside as the unwashed masses can pull the handbrake.

            But there is no equivalent in the workplace.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            I’ve met quite a few Usians who think hispanic is a race, although it predicts nothing about skin colour or any other physical trait.

            Yes, the technical legal definition* of Hispanic implies nothing about ancestry. However as a practical matter a huge percentage of Hispanics in the United States are mestizo – which is an ancestry. The single largest ethnic spoils group that represents them even calls itself “the Race” – can’t imagine where people got the idea that they’re a race – ignoramus Usaians (what is with the allergy to even saying “American”?).

            * Legal definition being “has an ancestor who originated in or lived in a Spanish speaking country in the Western hemisphere” – combined with the “everyone living in a country is citizen” formulation of the immigration debate means that if you went to Cancun on spring break you were Mexican for the duration of your trip and therefore you and all your descendants are now Hispanic.

      • Iain says:

        @baconbacon:

        Did you read the Guardian article, or are you just responding to the section I quoted? This seems like a non sequitur to the actual argument being presented, which I encourage you to read.

        The point is that creating a separate class of elites based on merit means that people who previously would have been effective leaders for the working class instead end up identifying with the elite class, and this sucks for the working class. It’s not about how the elites see leaders with working class backgrounds; it’s about how those leaders see themselves.

        I’m not saying I completely buy this argument. It could be completely wrong. But it is disappointing that Scott never engages with it.

        • baconbacon says:

          The point is that creating a separate class of elites based on merit means that people who previously would have been effective leaders for the working class instead end up identifying with the elite class, and this sucks for the working class. It’s not about how the elites see leaders with working class backgrounds; it’s about how those leaders see themselves.

          People’s individual evaluations are totally divorced from the opinion’s of those around them?*

          The author is skipping over the irksome task of defining value as leaders and just assuming that you need leaders of your class (and staying in your class). Does Steinbeck or Dickens not count because they grew up and lived a different lifestyle than the people they wrote about? What about Sinclair? Marx?

          He wants the reader to make two major leaps, first that having a leader for you class be off your class is good in and of itself, and that absent a meritocracy that those leaders would remain loyal to their class. I see neither as true, or likely to be true.

          *Rhetorical question since if you answer yes, then society being a meritocracy won’t prevent people from speaking for the working class identifying as WC, and if you say no, then not having society as a meritocracy won’t help for the reasons outlined above.

          • albatross11 says:

            Some variant of this argument shows up in _The Bell Curve_, as well. Murray and Herrenstein worry that as the society has gotten better and better at getting almost all the high-IQ people to go to college, we’ve ended up with almost no high-IQ people in poor communities and in less-education-centric jobs.

            You can imagine this causing practical getting-stuff-done problems as well as social out-of-touch-elites problems. Perhaps the world works better when there are a smattering of 130 IQ plumbers around, known to their fellow plumbers as the really smart guys you go to with really complicated plumbing problems. Your meritocracy has successfully sucked up every one of those guys to go get a college degree and get a desk job somewhere, with the result that the really hard plumbing questions get handled badly by guys who mean well, but just aren’t clever enough to solve them.

          • Mary says:

            Hmmm. . . where I have heard that before. . . oh yes,

            I have heard two teachers expound the theory that, as social mobility reinforces the existing social structure, it delays the achievement of social justice by depriving the lower classes of militants and potential leaders.

            which does, of course, point a convenient aspect

            It also conveniently absolves teachers of the tedious responsibility for the welfare of individual pupils.

            https://www.city-journal.org/html/lost-ghetto-12261.html

        • Mengsk says:

          So he’s basically arguing that greater social mobility is bad because acts as a “brain drain” on non-elite communities?

    • Douglas Knight says:

      One article doesn’t need to do everything. Scott shouldn’t imply that he has addressed those articles, but if he is right that they make the “weird assumption” of Tom Bartleby’s notion of meritocracy because they’ve never considered Scott’s notion of meritocracy and the potential benefits, then it is more important topic. I am reminded of this.

      • Iain says:

        I read the Vox, Guardian, Feminist Philosophers, and Prospect pieces, and skimmed the First Things piece. I had a hard time finding the “weird assumption”. Your mileage may vary — feel free to double-check my work.

        Several of them do make the argument that the people who come out on top in a “meritocracy” are inclined to feel that their success is self-made and they deserve all the fruits of their labour. This leads, they claim, to negative outcomes in terms of how the winners think about the losers. This might look kind of like the “weird assumption” if you squint? I don’t think it’s the same, though.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          I read Young on the grounds that he might have thought about the topic, but that might have been a bad choice because public intellectuals often degenerate into hyperfocused self-parody. He asks Blair to acknowledge the downside of meritocracy, but he never explains the upside. He certainly implies that there is an upside and maybe it’s unreasonable to expect him to spell it out, but he certainly leaves open the possibility that the upside is the weird assumption. If it were just Scott’s word, I probably would have read Young charitably and rejected Scott’s interpretation. But after reading Tom Bartleby, I find it a pretty plausible reading of Young. He certainly does not give me the impression that he believes that the government or business does anything, let alone anything useful that could be done better. If, as Tom says, it is the standard interpretation, it justifies Scott’s essay, regardless of what Young meant. Maybe you should argue with him. (Just to be clear, Tom seems to reject the weird assumption, but I find his definition of meritocracy very relevant to the question of whether most people think it is about desert.)

    • jumpinjacksplash says:

      This. It’s a little bit Charles Murray-ish, but if we live in the least convenient possible world where general intelligence is the main factor in being good at (most) things, and is also largely hereditary, then meritocracy means a hereditary class system with intelligence replacing good-at-jousting or whatever.

      I think the other thing Scott may be missing is the -ocracy part; it’s far less of an issue if surgical residencies are allocated to a narrow class of people than if political power is; doubly so if you believe subjective values have a role in politics as opposed to “objective” public policy discernible through intelligence and training (it may not be a coincidence that the latter is an increasingly popular idea as the world becomes more meritocratic/”meritocratic”).

  14. baconbacon says:

    Some of them have been specifically told “You do great work, and we think you’d be a great candidate for a management position, but it’s our policy that we can’t promote someone to a manager unless they’ve gone to college”.

    This might very well be true, as in this is the actual reason some people don’t get promoted, but I have also experienced a few times that these lines are mostly lies, or convenient truths. At one restaurant at a chain in between stints at college i started at (iirc) $8 an hour. There was a corporate ‘policy’ about raises which was directly tied to length of employment, so you know, don’t bother asking. A few months in an my manager found out that I was looking for another job (because I told him, honesty works sometimes!) and then I was offered a ‘promotion’ to kitchen manager which came with no recognition (no one else was told as far as I know), no additional responsibilities but a dollar more an hour. Another time I wasn’t promoted to “head baker” at a bakery to avoid irritating someone that had seniority on me, but I was given a raise that paid me more than her along with all the responsibilities the former HB had. I have known people who have gotten small to tiny annual raises so that they don’t make more than their manager does, but get a larger bonus at the end of the year to make up for it.

    Long story short the ‘rules’ that exist are typically easily circumvented. They are there to diffuse tension between managers who don’t want to have to end conversations about an employee’s worth with “you aren’t good enough”, but also don’t want to end those conversations with a promotion/raise. Basically they are Jack Nicholson saying “Maybe i overshot a little since I was aiming for just enough to keep you from walking out.

    If your clients live near a major population center at all then they can take their exemplary work history, and strong recommendations (if the manager is truly sorry they can’t promote them, they must realize that what is best that the employee moves on, or are all their managers total two faced shits out only for themselves, in which case why do you believe them in the first place), and find a place that doesn’t have such a stipulation. Or if they look they will find some loophole or assistance (like company reimbursement for completing a degree, or training programs etc that qualify them for the promotion, this is a classic way to split the people you want to actually promote from those you just don’t want to quit).

    • James Miller says:

      Yes, I was thinking the same thing. If an employee wants more responsibility and you want to keep him but don’t think he can handle more responsibility saying, “sorry but you have a characteristic that makes it corporate policy to not give you a promotion,” is the easiest way for you to handle the situation.

    • Deiseach says:

      This might very well be true, as in this is the actual reason some people don’t get promoted, but I have also experienced a few times that these lines are mostly lies, or convenient truths.

      I’ve had similar experiences but in the opposite direction; like you, a business where raises were tied to length of employment so the owner/manager used to find an excuse to fire employees just when they were due a raise (there was a lot of turnover because of this, but their attitude was “eh, this is low-skilled labour, why should I care as long as there is a supply of peons I can hire in the morning?” This was squeezing blood out of a turnip at its most extreme, and permanently jaundiced me about “productive wealth creators” because this was all in order to avoid measly – really tiny – raises for people who were good at the job and had put in the hard work, while the owner was a literal millionaire, back when a million was real money).

      And back when I was young and stupid and in my First Real Job, I got a promotion to “department manager”. It didn’t mean more money, it actually (after taxes) meant less money because now I wasn’t earning overtime, I was working longer hours and had more responsibility but the hours were now all-inclusive in the ‘salary’. I figured out too late that this was why the other, longer-serving employees had all dodged the ‘honour’ of promotion and why the manager picked Muggins Here to carry the can 🙂

      And just recently some very awkward office politics where, in order to get rid of someone, a requirement for the post was pulled out of thin air – a qualification this person did not have, specifically chosen in order to have a test and interview for the position they held so the management would be able to say “Sorry, you failed the test” so they could safely get rid of them. They’ve been doing the job for the past couple of years and don’t need this new qualification, but it’s an excuse to get rid of them because of personality clashes with another colleague who has recently been promoted.

  15. Douglas Knight says:

    Investment banking is a pretty weird example. You write as if investment banks are investors, but they mainly aren’t. Investment banks are middlemen who, eg, match companies that want to issue bonds to investors that want to buy bonds. Mainly they are salesmen. A high-class finishing school really does provide them with relevant skills. Of course, this just pushes the question back a step and suggests other questions that might fall under the topic of meritocracy, but aren’t what you want to talk about here.

  16. aciddc says:

    Yeah all these articles are really about the double problem of our society claiming to be more of a meritocracy than it really is, and then using that supposed meritocracy to justify inequality. We need more meritocracy in the sense of actually having the best people for the job get hired, and meanwhile we need to make what position you have in the meritocracy much less important for your quality of life.

    • lupis42 says:

      we need to make what position you have in the meritocracy much less important for your quality of life.

      I suspect that that is impossible – the root problem is that the more power you have to arrange the world around you in various ways (wealth, hierarchy, status, etc) the better your quality of life will be, because you will make it so. Whether talking about rewarding past performance or attempting to match future performance, everyone generally wants the same things: the power to make the world around them better (as they see it).

      • gemmaem says:

        Is that true? A counterargument would be that the extent to which people try to arrange their world to benefit them personally (rather than benefiting society as a whole, including those with less power) can be affected by the society they live in and the stories they tell about it.

        For example, you could have a collective societal story that amounts to: “We live (and should continue to live) in a highly unequal meritocracy, where people who have wealth and power deserve that wealth and power, and those with less wealth are in danger at any moment of falling into much less pleasant lives. Anyone who stops striving to have as much wealth and power as possible is slacking off, and deserves their inevitable fall.”

        Alternatively, we could have a collective societal story like “We live in a society where it is (and should be) difficult to fall through the cracks. If you find it hard to get money, we will make sure that you can still find food and shelter somehow. It’s not too hard to find a job that lets you live comfortably by putting in your 40 hours per week and doing the best you can. Sure, most people aren’t millionaires, but nobody needs to be a millionaire in the first place, so who cares? People need time to put in the unpaid work that makes society function, caring for each other and volunteering in their communities.”

        A society where it’s not necessary to be constantly striving for more wealth and power in order to be comfortable is a society that will have fewer of the wealthy people desperately striving to increase their power at the expense of everyone else. It’s not inevitable that everyone will want to live in a capitalist and supposedly meritocratic inequality spiral. It’s just that once you start one, even the wealthiest people feel like they have to keep pushing in order to survive.

        • lupis42 says:

          Is that true? A counterargument would be that the extent to which people try to arrange their world to benefit them personally (rather than benefiting society as a whole, including those with less power) can be affected by the society they live in and the stories they tell about it.

          I’m not saying that people always seek power to benefit themselves personally – I’m saying that anyone who has desires will tend to seek power to drive those desires forward. The nature of the necessary power varies with the desire, and with the obstacles to it, but outside of a lotus eater machine, it doesn’t matter what you want, there are more things you could do to advance it if you had more resources or more allies or the ability to reach more people.
          Money, fame, and various forms of authority are tools that can advance almost any goals. If you have any goals you want to work towards, you could probably achieve them more easily with more money, fame, or authority, so those things are always going to be desired, and to have a dramatic influence on how in control of your life you are. Meanwhile, other people who do will be trying to use their money/fame/authority to get you to work towards their goals.
          The way to avoid that is to have enough money to live comfortably without help, and enough confidence/authority to refuse the demands of others – but it turns out that ‘comfortably’ is a moving target, and most people aren’t happy with the level of isolation needed to live at even a subsistence level and protect oneself from the demands of authority is pretty rare.

          The next order of complication sets in when you realize that for the vast majority of people, some of their goals are at best conflicting. When one person wants to be left alone, and another wants everyone to pull together, only one of them can get what they want and there will be some sort of power struggle.

    • Deiseach says:

      meanwhile we need to make what position you have in the meritocracy much less important for your quality of life

      And then you get “why should the hard-working and talented and productive people be forced to support drones?” argument, be it about UBI or whatever: if these lazy bums aren’t in good-paying jobs, it’s because they’re too dumb to work hard and succeed, why should my hard-earned tax money go to prop up their lives of idleness?

      There’s no easy answer: false meritocracy makes people ignore the advantages they may have had, and go “Nobody handed me anything on a plate”, while on the other hand like the Little Red Hen, if you didn’t help sow the wheat and grind the flour why do you think you should get to eat the cake?

      I think we’re particularly going to face a problem because, in previous comment threads, it’s pretty much agreed that (a) good paying, secure, working-class manufacturing jobs are gone the way of the dodo; any manufacturing is going to be done more cheaply in China or India first, by robots and automation second (b) the Brave New World will live and die by education and IQ; the ones who have any hope of surviving are STEM qualified who can write the software that runs the automated factories, can make cutting-edge discoveries in tech, can do the research in the hard sciences and maths, etc. And this depends on high IQ and good qualifications from recognised universities that are centres of excellence, which pretty much means the Ivies, MIT, etc.

      So our meritocracy of smart but not college educated, working in practical fields at lower levels and getting promoted on grit and experience, class of workers is dead in the water in the near future. There may be some hold-outs in the skilled tradesmen sector, but with building robots (and who knows – plumbing robots, electrician robots, etc), even those will be reduced to “foreman supervising the machines”, not “apprenticeships for bricklayers leading to good jobs in construction”.

      • hls2003 says:

        The little red hen wasn’t so Red, after all.

      • gemmaem says:

        You’re definitely hitting on the main counterargument here, and I don’t want to take away from your point, but I find myself musing on a sequel to the Little Red Hen, where all the other animals realise that they need to work in order to eat, and go to the farmer (or whoever) to say “please let me help on the farm so that I can have bread to eat” and the farmer says “but the Little Red Hen is perfectly capable of doing it by herself, so why should I have to pay all of you?” The farmer then tells the Little Red Hen that she must keep doing all of the work by herself, and furthermore that he is lowering the amount of bread that she gets to keep at the end, and if she doesn’t agree to those terms then he’s pretty sure that the dog will be happy to take over…

      • John Schilling says:

        The ones who have any hope of surviving are STEM qualified who can write the software that runs the automated factories, can make cutting-edge discoveries in tech, can do the research in the hard sciences and maths, etc.

        I would not narrow this to STEM; the example of managerial skills being distinct from technical skills was raised earlier, and there are others. So long as there are still people involved in the process at all, people skills will matter.

        But you are right that the economic gap between high-level and mid-level skills is going to grow, whether they are people-skills or making-stuff skills, and that’s going to drive a lot of unpopular inequality.

  17. Some Faceless Mook says:

    I think in some ways, meritocracy as it is practiced as opposed to meritocracy as it is idealized is in play here. Companies that incorporate meritocracy start out in the idealistic manner: Choosing based on merit and ability. However, over time, companies (especially big ones that get hundreds or thousands of applications) will start to make the hiring process efficient, and gloss over a lot of details by weighing on specific factors: “Oh hey, these guys came from X school and were in Y organization and have done really well for us! We should pay attention to more applicants that have X and Y.” Or “Oh, these two guys have experience from Z company and were fired two months in. Are we sure we want applicants from Z?” The reasons why X, Y, and Z matter are almost never analyzed, and instead these name just get turned into keywords for the applicant tracking system to filter. This can lead to, worst of all, “This applicant may have the abilities, but they went to A school, served in B organization, and worked at C company. And I haven’t heard any of these!” What you witness is an institutionalized form of quasi-nepotism, in that your application gets weighed on by the names on your resume rather than what you did with those names. That’s what I really think these publications are deriding, they just call it meritocracy because they can’t think up a good word for it.

    Also, I think it’s important to consider that, starting mid-career, education becomes less of a concern (unless the quasi-nepotism I mentioned is steep, usually at bigger companies) and what companies you worked at becomes as much if not more of an issue, especially in white collar jobs.

  18. shakeddown says:

    Programming is almost the only well-paying field where people can still do this, and it doesn’t surprise me that the establishment keeps portraying its culture as uniquely evil and demanding it be dismantled.

    I don’t think that’s fair. The complaints about meritocracy are mostly about the type of finance/management jobs you complain about too. The complaints about tech are about unrelated stuff (lack of diversity, if we steelman it). To the degree this is even about meritocracy, it’s people saying tech is non meritocratic based on flawed assumptions (“a real meritocracy should include more women, since women have equal talent, so tech must be credentialing by gender”).

    The bottom line, that it’s bad that people misdiagnose their problem and insult meritocracy, still holds. It just seems unrelated to people attacking tech jobs.

  19. Horkthane says:

    Reality is indifferent to meritocracy’s perceived need to “give people what they deserve.”

    I wanted to scream so loud reading this. Reality is exactly the judge of whether people get what they “deserve”. So long as you aren’t pointlessly moralizing.

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      You ever watch a kid die from Tay-Sachs? That’s about as real as reality gets, motherfucker. Let me assure you of something: there is no force on earth that can ever save you from being the moral failure that you are now.

      • Aapje says:

        This is not an appropriate tone of voice, Freddie.

        • carvenvisage says:

          No pointless moralizing please. Freddie is just the tool by which reality is giving Horkthane a well deserved slap up the head.

      • Deiseach says:

        Freddie, I saw my mother die of lung cancer, which is a fucking miserable way to die, let me assure you. She got that cancer from smoking, which she had several times tried to give up, couldn’t, and went back to smoking even heavier than before.

        Did she “deserve” to die like that?

        No.

        Was it a result of her starting smoking in the first place, and so a result based on the consequences of actions?

        Yes.

        Is this why I am absolutely death on the re-glamorisation of tobacco smoking and yelling at dumb kids who post images of actors/musicians smoking, and the even dumber adults who use the imagery of “cigarette smoking is cool and rebellious” in movies, because no it is a fucking stupid habit that will kill you, it’s not cool sexy rebellious sticking it to the man?

        Yes.

        Because Horkthane may be a pain in the arse but the point remains: reality doesn’t care what you do or don’t deserve, it gives you the fruit of your choices in a lot of cases (and yeah, the fruit of what you didn’t choose but life/society shoved down your throat as well, I get that).

        • Horkthane says:

          Perhaps I came off as more hard line than I meant to. I was just reacting to what appeared to be an equally hardline anti-reality stance.

          I anticipated pushback, but mostly in the form of “What about structural inequality? Do people deserve that?” to which I would have said, of course not.

          I wasn’t expecting “But what about people who get sick and die?” Because, I mean, we’ve all had people get sick and die. Often horribly.

          But what else is going to happen? We’re creatures with a limited lifespan, who reproduce sexually in a manner where mutation occurs. Shit’s going to happen and that’s just reality. It can’t not happen, no matter how horrible it is to our moral sensibilities.

          I know we all think we’re super important, and we think our families are even more super important. But reality, if we were to personify it, at best might see us as cogs in a biological fitness algorithm with billions of branches computing mostly breadth first, the outcome of any single branch not really mattering a great deal. That’s just reality. We can try to improve our lot as best we can. But underneath it all, reality is always lurking to put our conceits to shame.

        • albatross11 says:

          Reality gives you a set of outcomes that has a mix of stuff you had some control over and stuff you didn’t. At one extreme of this is the kid dying of brain cancer–horrible outcome, no choice. At another extreme is an old drunk dying in a car wreck on his hundredth drunken drive home from the bar.

          The same works for good outcomes–Elon Musk and Tiger Woods have had immense success in life, thanks to a mix of stuff beyond their control (including genetic gifts and being born in a time/place where they could make the most of themselves) and hard work and careful planning. There are also people whose wealth and power fell into their lap thanks to accidents of birth.

          Most of the time, there’s a mix of these two things. You didn’t deserve to get mugged, but you were careless in sketchy neighborhoods a lot. You didn’t deserve to get filthy rich, but you did work your ass off at that startup.

    • So much for the is-ought gap.

      • No.

        Hume’s is-ought gap is the observation that you cannot deduce normative facts from positive facts. It doesn’t imply that you can’t deduce a normative fact from the combination of a positive fact and another normative fact.

        Normative fact: Murdering people is wicked.
        Positive fact: John murdered someone.
        Normative conclusion: John is wicked.

        • How do you get to “whatever is, ought to be” without assuming it?

          • You don’t get to whatever is, ought to be. But you might get to “what is, ought to be,” if you start by assuming some standard of what ought to be and then showing that what is satisfies it. In which case the combination of a normative belief and a positive fact gets you to a normative conclusion.

            Which doesn’t run into the is/ought problem.

          • You don’t get to whatever is, ought to be. But you might get to “what is, ought to be,” if you start by assuming some standard of what ought to be and then show that what is satisfies it. In which case the combination of a normative belief and a positive fact gets you to a normative conclusion.

            Which doesn’t run into the is/ought problem.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @David Friedman:

            Reality is exactly the judge of whether people get what they “deserve”.

            That’s the original sentence. It presumes nothing about what ought to be (other than what is.)

  20. James Miller says:

    Graduating from a good college can signal both intelligence and diligence. While IQ tests are good measures of intelligence, we don’t have a similar test of diligence, so I have a proposal to fill in this gap. To test diligence we could ask subjects to spend up to, say, 48 hours in a room alone (with food, water, and a bathroom) doing simple math problems by hand and inputting the results into a computer. The computer would keep track of how many math problems the subject got right and when the subject decided to leave.

    • Deiseach says:

      This test works great for maths people; for those with non-maths talents, it measures nothing (except maybe how stubborn are you, and sticking out 48 hours when you’re getting 1 out of every 2 questions wrong doesn’t show good judgement).

      • andrewflicker says:

        I think that’s why he said “simple” – presumably, something tedious but so simple that non-maths people can still complete it. It’s testing stick-with-it-ness, although I’d argue poorly. I know a lot of people that can tough out 48 hours of awfulness, but still wouldn’t be diligent employees.

        There are a few other interview-style questions that I’ve found useful in trying to suss out diligence. Asking about their oldest hobbies isn’t bad, and the old standby of having them talk through a few challenges they fought through is a standby for a reason, despite it’s faults.

        On the other hand, there’s definitely a thing as too much stick-with-it-ness. On a team I was building several years back, I prioritized people who gave up and Googled quickly first, people who gave up and asked for help quickly second, and people who tried beating their head against the wall for hours quietly last.

      • Brad says:

        I think a better bet would probably be math problems adjusted to the abilities of the test taker. Difficult enough so that the tester needs to concentrate fairly hard to do them at all, and with concentration could still only get around 75 or 80%.

        Still, as andrewflicker says it doesn’t necessarily prove anything.

        Some industries use a tournament model — they have lots of entry level employees with lots of turnover. It can be pretty expensive because you don’t get too much valuable work out of them, so it works bests in industries were you can bill a client for their time.

    • manwhoisthursday says:

      Jordan Peterson says that psychologists have not been able to measure Big 5 Conscientiousness in the lab. All those tasks end up doing is measure IQ.

      • Deiseach says:

        Mmm, I’d have thought a conscientiousness test would be something tedious that requires you to just put your head down and plough through. Imagine something like sorting a filing cabinet – all you really need there is the ability to go by the alphabet (if that’s the particular filing system being used) and then the patience to absorb the tedium of putting all the A files in order, and making sure the papers for Ann Andrews are in Ann Andrews’ file and not Archie Adams’ file, all the way up to Zachariah Zablonsky’s file.

        Or the kind of clerical checking tests that you do for clerical/administrative applications.

        Couple hours of that would sort the women from the boys 🙂

        • manwhoisthursday says:

          I’d have thought a conscientiousness test would be something tedious that requires you to just put your head down and plough through.

          When you ask people to do those sorts of tasks in the lab, they don’t correlate with Conscientiousness or real life success.

      • Bugmaster says:

        Isn’t that the same thing as saying that Conscientiousness (probably) doesn’t exist ?

        • manwhoisthursday says:

          Nope. Both self reported and other reported conscientiousness survive factor analysis and predict real life results. They’re real, just not correlated with these kinds of lab tasks.

          • po8crg says:

            Possibly because Conscientiousness is doing the right-but-tedious thing when not under pressure to do so, and the lab tasks are necessarily about pressure?

            That is, Conscientiousness is doing it even when no-one would care if you slacked off a bit. But if you’re measuring, then you know that someone does care!

          • manwhoisthursday says:

            po8crg:

            That’s not a bad guess. If you factor analyse Conscientiousness, it splits into Industriousness and Orderliness. Industrious people seem to be the kind who always have to be doing something.

  21. qwints says:

    I’ll chime in with the other commentators saying that I don’t think you really got the point.

    Hayes, Kheriaty and Young all really believe that a society structured like the modern US and UK has very negative consequences, even if it was set up to make sure everyone maximized the ability and the best qualified person got each job.

    Hayes claims that meritocracy results in decisions by people in power because of a combination of entitlement and insecurity. Those problems don’t go away with a more perfect system to put the best person in each position – in fact, they get far worse. This ultimately is an argument about incentives that shares a lot with public choice theory.

    Kheriaty focuses on the effects of meritocracy on the people competing – claiming that meritocracy results in social atomization and valuing people for their usefulness. Abolishing credentialism again does nothing to fix those impacts – this is a point of view that is emphasizing the harms of social mobility. The freedom from the binds of social bonds comes with a cost.

    Finally, Young is proceeding from a socialist perspective by looking at classes means of reproducing themselves. His key emphasis is on the suffix – the ruling done by the intellectual elite. The problem is not at all an inequality of opportunity, it’s the power given to those who’ve taken the opportunity and the moral authority they wield.

    These critiques are really saying that letting the most able rule is, in fact, a bad thing – even worse than letting all the important jobs go to aristocrats (at least for Hayes and Young). They’re really saying that the seductive nature of the claim “we should give out jobs based on merit” is dangerous, and the claim must be opposed. The solution they offer is getting rid of the idea of ruling altogether.

    • Bugmaster says:

      What is the alternative, though ? That is, is there a system that can replace meritocracy, yet still pass the “surgeon test” ? At the end of the day, when I go into surgery, I want to be reasonably sure that the surgery will go well.

      One possible answer to this is, “sorry, there’s no way of ensuring that your surgery will go well without sacrificing other, more important goals”. This seems sub-optimal, though. Would you rather live in a perfectly egalitarian society where every job is done poorly, or a stratified society where every job is done reasonably well ?

      Another objection could be, “surgery is the exception here; most jobs can be done well enough by any random person, so meritocracy is usually not needed”. This is a bold claim, though, and I’m not sure if anyone truly thinks that way.

      So, are there any better solutions ?

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        Well we could try giving jobs out to the progressive coalition then declaring that anyone who points out that they do a bad job a sexist and a racist. Then, through the magic of gaslighting, it becomes true!

      • nimim.k.m. says:

        What is the alternative, though ? That is, is there a system that can replace meritocracy, yet still pass the “surgeon test” ?

        One part of the issue raised by Young seems be that the meritocratic elite will be an insular culture that believes it is entitled to be the elite that exists on the another plane of existence above the lower castes. It appears that the standard mildly socialist propositions would be compatible: Have incentives that promote egalitarian culture if not perfect professional/economic equality (surgeon-capable people get to be surgeons, but say, live in the same neighborhood as the menial unskilled workers and their children go the same schools). Try to bound the effects of inherited material resources because that makes the stratification effects worse during the span of multiple generations if unchecked.

        • vV_Vv says:

          One part of the issue raised by Young seems be that the meritocratic elite will be an insular culture that believes it is entitled to be the elite that exists on the another plane of existence above the lower castes.

          As opposed to a hereditary elite that operates literally as a chaste?

          • Skivverus says:

            I presume you meant “caste”; it’s somewhat difficult for a chaste elite to be hereditary.

            More seriously, the issue still seems a matter of single-scale meritocracy: with separate (if overlapping) meritocracies for separate jobs, you’d expect to see separate elites for each job. But for some reason (probably to keep complexity at bay) we keep measuring societal merit on a single scale.

          • vV_Vv says:

            I presume you meant “caste”; it’s somewhat difficult for a chaste elite to be hereditary.

            Oops.

            But for some reason (probably to keep complexity at bay) we keep measuring societal merit on a single scale.

            Do we? We have plenty of different degrees, certifications and so on.

          • nimim.k.m. says:

            I don’t speak Greek, but I know that the translation of “aristocracy” is “rule of / by those who are excellent”. When Aristotle was kicking around (and long after), the word was taken at the face value.

            The great promise of the democracy was that the ordinary people have a say at matters that concern them, instead being simply ruled over.

          • vV_Vv says:

            I don’t speak Greek, but I know that the translation of “aristocracy” is “rule of / by those who are excellent”. When Aristotle was kicking around (and long after), the word was taken at the face value.

            Perhaps in Ancient Greece it literally meant that (and even there, in practice the only “excellent” who could rule were chosen from a small fraction of the population), but since at least Medieval Europe, if not Ancient Rome, it meant hereditary transmission of power and social roles.

          • Jaskologist says:

            @vV_Vv

            If our host’s view on the nurture assumption are as true as he thinks, picking the “excellent” and hereditary transmission may not be all that different in practice.

      • Baeraad says:

        This is a bold claim, though, and I’m not sure if anyone truly thinks that way.

        I do, to a point. I’m sure there are fields where you actually have to know what you’re doing – surgery presumably being one of them – but most jobs I’ve seen up close have been all about frantically self-educating and making wild guesses based on past experience. Give any random person a few months of on-the-job training and I doubt very much that they’d be any more useless than someone with the right qualifications.

        I admit to being cynical about these things.

        But that aside, I would also point out that there’s a grey area in between picking the best person for the job (for any particular value of “best”) and just pulling a random passer-by in from the street whenever there’s a job opening. Might one not imagine a system where there were certain requirements that had to be met for a person to be qualified for a position, but the choice between the viable candidates was done by some other criterium – seniority, say – rather than by trying to pinpoint who the objectively best person for the job was? Because I think rough qualifications are a lot easier to objectively define than specific points of superiority, which means that there’s less risk of bias and prejudice sneaking into them.

        • vV_Vv says:

          but most jobs I’ve seen up close have been all about frantically self-educating and making wild guesses based on past experience. Give any random person a few months of on-the-job training and I doubt very much that they’d be any more useless than someone with the right qualifications.

          Qualifications != talent. Various jobs, computer programming being the prototypical example, require little or no formal training, but can be properly done only by a subset of the population.

    • napsupremacy says:

      Another way to look at why selecting a subset of people to rule is bad: decisions about goals and values are prior to, and more important than, the sorts of technical decisions that optimize for achieving them. There is by definition no way for one person to be “better” at goals and values choices, even if we didn’t observe that people tend to select goals and values that benefit them personally. Therefore we should try to distribute power as equally as possible, so that everyone has a say in goals and values choices.

  22. Lasagna says:

    God damn it Scott, THANK YOU. This is so important.

    I voted for Bernie in the primary, but I hate (hate) the “universal college” idea promulgated by so many progressives. It’s the opposite of what we should be doing. We should not be figuring out how to get more people to obtain college degrees; we need to figure out how to make the economy work for people without them. By definition, the more people with a degree in, say, accounting, the more worthless the degree.

    The only thing I really have to add to your argument: I think the reason state-sponsored college tuition is so popular is because the people who are pushing for it are the kind of people for whom college worked and comes easy. Shit, I’ve been eating out on my Ivy League law degree going on twenty years. I get how somebody like me could look at that and say “look how much it helped me – let it help everyone”.

    But it helped me because I’m the kind of person who LIKES school, and is good at it. It will be torture – and failure – for people who don’t and aren’t. What’s more, it’ll be a ruinous failure for people who take Bernie up on it, but don’t end up at an Ivy. My law school gives you a guaranteed well-paying job. Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego gives you nothing but debt and a waste of three years.

    All we’re doing is unnecessarily contributing to credentialism. My cousin has a communications degree from Lehigh. He’s a cop in NYC. He loves his job, and is good at it. Know what he would have loved more? If he could have started his job four years earlier, earned money, and not been saddled with unpayable debt. Those communications skills aren’t coming in handy, but hey, the NYPD requires a degree. So there.

    Twelve years of schooling needs to be enough. We need to walking this stuff back, not demanding more.

    • Deiseach says:

      By definition, the more people with a degree in, say, accounting, the more worthless the degree.

      Depends if they “dumb down” the degree so they can churn out more people with accountancy degrees; from what I know of the accounting qualification (not a degree) earned through a course taught at a previous place of employment, it is indeed rigorous and if you obtain it, you do so on hard work and brains and aptitude, not “all shall have prizes”.

      • baconbacon says:

        Even if true, the higher supply should mean lower earnings for those individuals, unless accounting degrees are Say’s Lawing themselves more positions.

        • Deiseach says:

          I suppose it depends on “is accountancy the exciting new growth field?” that you get every so often, where businesses start panicking over “quick, the schools are not turning out enough mango peelers, we demand the government introduce extra classes in mango peeling in the curriculum from the age of five to fill all the vacancies for mango peelers we need right this minute!”

          Certainly the eight years ago that I worked in that school, you were pretty much guaranteed to walk straight into a job when you got the Accountancy Technician qualification, though to be fair numbers were not high in the classes (the selection criteria were strict enough).

          • As someone with an Accounting degree, I like to think it is more valuable than say a degree in English. Based on demand, it certainly is. The world actually needs a lot of people who can manage and analyze the financial results of various organizations. That doesn’t mean people need four year degrees to do this — in fact it is my belief that I could have gained the knowledge required in one year. So I agree with Lasagna about excess schooling, although I am a bit annoyed about his example.

          • Lasagna says:

            I didn’t want to pick gender studies or any liberal arts degrees because then I’d get complaints that I picked the obviously useless ones, or something. But feel free to sub in English (which was my BA, and was and is, yes, completely useless, hence my JD). I agree that an English degree is undoubtedly less valuable than an accounting degree.

            For now. If tuition becomes available at no cost to the student? You might find the accountant field a lot more crowded.

  23. iamnoah says:

    I have not worked with TripleByte but as someone who has conducted hundreds of interviews for programming positions… It’s very hard to evaluate skill in this area. Someone can be exceptionally good at talking about coding and absolute garbage at producing it or vice versa. Someone can be very good at coding, but also a cowboy who does not work well with others and a resulting net negative for the team. Good at systems, terrible at UI. etc.

    It’s also very easy (and highly lucrative) to game the system. False degrees, getting someone else to take test for you, etc. Come up with a good test today that anyone can take online and [in metaphorical] tomorrow you will have a flood of thousands of unqualified applicants who know the steps (or paid someone) to pass it. Look at how many programming certifications are available just from Microsoft, and then Google them quickly to see how much of a joke they are considered in practice.

    So, I’d be very skeptical of TripleByte. The only thing that works OK is referrals. Mike worked with Jane who he knows is super good at distributed systems. The problem is that Mike also referred his college buddy Bront who is a hack, never any good, but got that degree anyway and is very well liked by the non-technical management. Bront refers a few more connections and suddenly the idea of “merit” has changed to “makes a good drinking buddy for Bront.”

    This doesn’t happen everywhere or all the time, but no one has cracked how to keep it from happening. Meanwhile meritocracy, while a good idea that we would all like, is used as the word to justify hiring the same bros, that all look at talk the same over and over.

    Meritocracy requires a very good definition of what merit actually is and very good information and rigor to verify it. How do you get there from here?

    • Bugmaster says:

      In several companies that I’ve worked at, the management eventually settled on a combined approach.

      Firstly, they’d filter out any applicants whose resumes did not include relevant schooling or past work experience. So, if the position required knowledge of Java, and the applicant didn’t have Java on his resume, he was out. This stage was usually outsourced to recruiters.

      Secondly, they’d set up a 15-20 minute phone screen with the remaining candidates, asking basic programming questions. Any candidate who could not recite a simple two-line loop was out. This stage was often outsourced as well.

      Thirdly, the remaining candidates would be invited in for an in-person test. They’d be put in front of a computer, given several programming challenges, and asked to solve them all — by producing working programs. The senior engineers would then run the programs against predetermined inputs, and see if the output was right; they’d also evaluate the code for issues of style, clarity, and general elegance.

      The final stage was a round of personal interviews, designed to gauge the surviving applicants’ personalities and ability to work with others. Several people would still wash out at this stage (usually for being too arrogant, sadly enough).

      This process wasn’t perfect; too many people made it past the first two stages while being totally incompetent. Still, it was way better than just hiring people based on resumes alone, and then firing them a week later when it turned out they didn’t know what a “loop” is.

      • Malarious says:

        How much is the resume really helping you there? As you’ve said, too many people made it past the first two stages and fail out when their skills are actually tested. Meanwhile, you have to wonder how many skilled applicants you miss out on by just binning anyone who doesn’t happen to write down the right keywords on their resume.

        Certainly if people are willing to cheat on the phone screening they’ll have no issue fabricating their resume (and vice versa). The phone screen will stop the genuinely incompetent, but not the frauds. And the resume screening eliminates a huge number of skilled developers. I suspect those who made it to stage three and failed were making a deliberate effort to mislead you — it’s not believable for someone to have years of Java experience and be incapable of writing a loop — and their large number is a result of your first stage selecting against genuinely skilled devs, and your second stage failing to select against frauds.

        • Bugmaster says:

          As you’ve said, too many people made it past the first two stages and fail out when their skills are actually tested.

          Quite a bit; “too many people” is not the same thing as “all the people”. Unfortunately, the pool of available applicants is so massive that missing out on the skilled ones is not a problem — the problem is filtering out all the incompetents. Additionally, if you can program in Java, but don’t write down “Java” on your resume, then I kind of feel like maybe it’s your fault for missing out.

          Anyway, you simply cannot imagine how many applicants there are for even a mid-level position. Accepting anyone, regardless of resume, is just not feasible; even if you want to screen out most of them with the phone screen, that’s still 20 minutes per person. No one has the time or the money to invest in that.

  24. The criticisms of meritocracy that you describe have two errors. One is confusing status markers, such as degrees, with merit. The other is the implicit assumption that the important issue is how to hand out goodies not how to produce them. The latter seems to me to be an important element in a lot of left wing thinking. There is a certain amount of stuff out there and we have to decide who gets it.

    That matters for two different reasons. You point one out–if we allocate jobs on a basis other than merit, they get done less well. The other links to the fact that high merit jobs also tend to be highly rewarded, which is why the critics think they should go to the deserving. Once one recognizes that stuff has to be produced, desert is not the only candidate for a basis on which to determine who gets what. There is the alternative intuition that people who produce a lot are entitled to get a lot.

    That intuition is pretty powerful when you can clearly link the production to a single person, a sports star people want to watch, a writer people want to read. It is weaker for more complicated forms of production, where it is hard to link an individual to value produced. So if you want to argue against a system where inequality of income is largely linked to inequality of value to others produced, it helps to ignore the productive end.

    There are, of course, ways of defending the egalitarian conclusion without that, but that’s at least one way.

    • qwints says:

      But what about political power? Deciding where and how the US wages war, for example, seems to be a very different type of role than who best wields a scalpel. One of Hayes’ claims is that the war in Iraq was a result of the failures of meritocracy.

    • Bugmaster says:

      one is confusing status markers, such as degrees, with merit

      Are you saying that degrees are purely status markers, which do not correlate with merit in any way ?

  25. Skivverus says:

    A different take on the concerns over meritocracy: supply and demand for Sufficiently Competent People (SCP)*.
    If demand exceeds supply, the price of SCP goes up; this much is straightforward economics. The price of SCP going up translates to inequality.
    Demand for SCP increases with societal** complexity, and societal scale. Supply of SCP increases with societal scale, but does not increase directly with societal complexity; rather, it increases based on education/training/inherited talent/other culture-war-y factors, which determine what percentage of the population is SCP.

    *Pretty sure this is a power-law distribution, not a Boolean yes-or-no, but I believe the argument is coherent either way.
    **Or industrial, or occupational, but same idea really

    • Janet says:

      I agree. More to the point: most businesses are much more concerned with avoiding the catastrophically wrong person than hiring the awesomely amazing one. Hiring a bad employee– one who picks fights with the team, then sues you for harassment; bungles a major contract; embezzles from you; gets you in regulatory hot water; whatever– could very well bring even a medium-sized company to bankruptcy. I like to say that “Mr. Nobody” is always an applicant to every job, and quite often he’s the one that gets picked.

      So, recruiters go to a relatively small group of competitive, 4-year schools and look for people with GPA’s above X– it’s a good marker that the people in question are not catastrophically bad. They won’t go looking at Podunk Community College, because that doesn’t have the same proof-value (even if the Podunk CC person is, in fact, much better than the Flagship U. person– more grit and determination, smarter, more experience, whatever).

  26. Deiseach says:

    Instead of Goldman Sachs hiring whoever does best at Harvard, they should hire people who can demonstrate their knowledge of investing principles or (even better) who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance.

    I think this is where the ignored spectre of class pops up. Sure, Goldman Sachs wants good investment fund managers (or whatever it is they do in between being Evil Capitalist Scum Eating Truffle Caviar) but more importantly, they want the kind of people (as described in one article mocking Trump eating burned steak with ketchup) who can “read the menu at a nice restaurant”. They want the guys (and some gals) who can network, who were in the same fraternity as Richie Rich who has the family fortune to invest, who can (to be blunt) pass – they know the right fork to use, the right suit to wear (and how to wear it), and just exude the aura of ‘brought up nicely’.

    Now, if a working class kid gets into Harvard on the merit of brains and learns how to shed their accent and class mannerisms and assimilate to the style of their betters, they will get on, but they’ll never quite get on the same way as someone to whom this comes naturally; the stereotype of the barrow boy in English financial trading:

    “For somebody basically uneducated, academically stupid but presentable and easy to get on with in a pub over lunch and a glass of wine, it was a job sent from heaven. It was money for old rope,” says Panmure Gordon’s veteran commentator David Buik, who started money broking in the Sixties and enjoyed stints at Tullett predecessor Prebon Yamane, BGC Partners and Cantor Fitzgerald.

    “Today, it’s totally different. You have to be highly educated or highly numerate and literate. It’s incredibly mature, the bucks are huge, the risks are enormous and the whole ethos of things has changed. I had all the fun.”

    Note the connection of “uneducated” with “stupid” (granted, qualified as “academically stupid” but the implication is that this is plain old stupid anyway), just as Scott says. A degree at least means you’re not a thicko, even if you are an oik.

    So yes, I think meritocracy is a great idea, but one that was always rigged from the start: those who promoted had a natural if unconscious bias to regard it exactly as “smart people deserve good jobs for being smart (not because of what school they went to or who their dad was)” because they were smart people who had gone to college and gotten good jobs, so that was the yardstick they were accustomed to use to judge.

    • Janet says:

      I think there’s a lot to this. Goldman Sachs needs a few people every year, and there’s no clear way to measure how good someone will be doing the job, until they actually do the job. What the recruiters have to go on is 1) some sort of rough estimate of your intellectual “horsepower”, as shown by your entrance exams, and 2) a “gut feel” of how well you’d fit in. And #2 is indistinguishable from class bias, or ethnic bias, or age bias, or whatever. “Somebody like me” would fit in, which quite unconsciously drags along all these other elements with it.

      • Deiseach says:

        “Somebody like me” would fit in, which quite unconsciously drags along all these other elements with it.

        It’s like what we discussed on another thread; Jamal from the hood may be smart and hard-working, but Thomas the son of middle-class black parents will just fit in better. And nobody can accuse you of being racially biased because hey, you hired Thomas Jackson the nice black Harvard graduate, and not some white Harvard guy, didn’t you?

    • Bugmaster says:

      Well, if a major component of your job is being able to network with rich people; then, in a perfectly meritocratic system, those who are exceptionally good at networking with rich people will rise to the top. The problem here is not the meritocracy, but the job itself.

  27. albatross11 says:

    Let’s steelman the meritocracy.

    Imagine we actually have a working meritocracy in our society–everyone rises to the level of their ability, everyone’s job is one they’re intellectually and temperamentally suited to. We have the best possible meritocracy here–the smart guys with great eye-hand coordination are surgeons and fighter pilots, the introverts with a great intuition for programming are writing the software, etc. Some folks get street sweeper or janitor jobs, because that’s all they can do.

    What would be bad about that society?

    One inevitable thing would be that since abilities aren’t uniformly distributed, some people would resent the outcomes. Not enough of my ethnic group are surgeons and too many are garbage collectors. Too many of that upstart ethnic group is taking the high-prestige jobs from my group. (These two together more-or-less summarize affirmative action in education.)

    Another problem would be the shaking out of society by intelligence, with no smart janitors or plumbers and no dumb managers or engineers. That might be optimal in most ways, but you can imagine ways it would be both socially and practically bad. (If nobody with any power personally knows anyone with an IQ[1] of 85, it’s a good bet that all kinds of laws and rules and policies tend to grind up the IQ 85 guys in the gears, and nobody important ever even notices.) You can imagine class conflict in that system, but it sure seems like one that the bottom class is almost certain to lose.

    What else?

    [1] IQ of 85 is one standard deviation below the mean, so in the bottom 16% or so of intelligence.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Why wouldn’t there be smart plumbers? If your society’s testing is ideally good, it will recognize that there are smart people who will be good at the more difficult parts of plumbing.

      • albatross11 says:

        Nancy:

        My point was that if you simply put everyone into the job they’re best qualified for, you may miss out because there is value in having a few smart people around even in jobs that mostly don’t take a lot of intelligence. I’m not certain that’s generally true, or true in any particular case, but it does seem like it *might* be true.

        Now, you could imagine your meritocracy creating a “consultant plumber” position so they could fill it with smarter and harder-working plumber candidates, too.

        • eyeballfrog says:

          There’s the potential problem that the distribution of “jobs most qualified for” may not match the distribution of “jobs that need to be done”. I guess this can be solved by saying “jobs most qualified for in the comparative advantage sense”, but then you should get some mixing due to people ending up in somewhat ill-fitting jobs because someone else was even less fitting for it.

          Actually, come to think of it, if we try to allocate people by comparative advantage, does this allocation problem necessarily have a solution?

          • trebawa says:

            Actually, come to think of it, if we try to allocate people by comparative advantage, does this allocation problem necessarily have a solution?

            In the sense that there a finite number of permutations of people and jobs, there’s a maximal solution for any given fitness function – the question is what fitness function to use (overall production might be a good start if this meritocracy is all about maximizing comparative advantage).
            Unless the meritocracy is allowed to shape the kinds of jobs available, in which case a “plumbing consultant” should rapidly be created to maximize the fitness function.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            @trebawa: I think you don’t have to work that hard to have a satisfactory fitness function, because you don’t really have to think in terms of permutations of people and jobs. Alternately, if I understand your meaning, then letting the meritocracy shape the market is what I expect to keep things satisfactory.

            In any realistic market today, the jobs on offer will be dominated by local factors. Imagine a boom town driven by discovery of a rich ore deposit. The first jobs on offer will be mining. Immediately after will be jobs to fill the first Maslow tier of the people who do the mining – food supply, housing construction – and jobs to provide the capital and stock for the mining itself – fuel supply, storage construction, tool maintenance. Then come jobs further from the spear tip – accounting, hair trimming, entertainment, etc.

            No matter how many jobs are filled, more will be on offer to improve the lives of those taking the former jobs. This is the sense in which I interpret the common economic claim that “human demand is essentially infinite”.

            Note that you don’t have to have someone computing exact utility functions to place each person with each job. Because the jobs in demand are so numerous, the network for any given person to explore for better work is dense; they may not find the shortest path to an optimum, but it will almost always be short enough so long as price signals are allowed to operate.

    • hollyluja says:

      I like this
      So you’re talking day 1 – every job has the most-qualified person.
      What happens day 2 is that those oh-so-smart people have kids, and immediately turn their brainpower from whatever they were doing to ensuring a comfortable future for those kids. Call it the Fukuyama Origins of Political Order theory. Humanity needs the smartest people making the decisions, but kinship ties will eventually turn the meritocracy into an aristocracy.

      My preferred solution is making sure that the material distance between the highest and lowest is small. So even a janitor or Uber driver can be assured of adequate healthcare, housing, and retirement.

      • albatross11 says:

        hollyluja:

        Any real-world meritocracy is going to have some of that, exacerbated by regression to the mean–super-impressive parents tend to have less-impressive kids. But they’ll still want their kids to make it into the high-prestige/high-pay fields that their parents made it into, and they’ll do what they can to give their kids a boost.

        How much parents can do there isn’t 100% clear. To the extent the meritocracy functions well, the only thing you can do as a parent is to try to help your kids become more productive people. Choose your spouse well, raise your kids in a stable loving home full of intellectual stimulation, put your kids in good schools and get them lots of tutoring, etc.

        Since real-world meritocracies are imperfect, parents can do more to help their kids–pay for them to have lots of application-letter-appropriate experiences, send them to cram schools to max out their SATs, use any connections you may have to get them into a top school (maybe you’ve got the spare few million to fund a building on campus–hey, your B- student is headed to Harvard!), use other connections to get your kids internships and first jobs and such.

        Some fields (entertainment, politics, medicine) tend to run in families–I imagine the kids get some help getting established from their parents. In all three areas, it’s quite possible that having someone who knows the field well means you get a big benefit, in terms of having guidance about how to succeed in the field. What must you do at age 19 to have a good chance of achieving your goals when you’re 30? That might be arriving at college with a plan for what to major in and how to keep your GPA up, or recognizing that some kinds of bad behavior will follow you into your political life, or realizing what you can and can’t learn in acting school, or some other random thing.

        My best understanding of the world is that a huge amount of where even an ideal fair meritocracy would sort you depends on stuff entirely outside your control–genes, developmental noise, early childhood environment. So on moral grounds, I’m definitely on board with making sure the janitors and street sweepers get a decent life.

      • Corey says:

        Right. Whenever people talk about equality of opportunity as being desirable vs. equality of outcome, I like to point out that it would require either eliminating the family, Brave New World-style, or having equality of outcome in the previous generation (and therefore in every generation by induction).

    • Deiseach says:

      I’m going to stamp my foot here a bit over the assumption that “janitors and plumbers” will necessarily be all IQ 85. It’s entirely possible that many or even most of them might be IQ 100 or even the dizzying heights of IQ 105!

      I get the point you’re trying to make, but the unconscious “well manual labour is for the academically less able, and academically less able = dumb” is the precise point we’re arguing re: true meritocracy.

      exacerbated by regression to the mean–super-impressive parents tend to have less-impressive kids

      Can somebody give me the idiot’s guide to this? How do we get super-impressive parents in the first place, if the next generation always regresses to the mean? Wouldn’t the super-impressive parents have regressed to their parents’ mean when their parents had them – maybe this is the explanation for the constant complaint that the new generation is not a patch on the preceding generation, and we are declining from a Golden Age with every new generation! 🙂

      • poipoipoi says:

        So our best guess is that “IQ” is about half genes, half –waves hands– something else. (Or technically, about half genes, 1/6th epigenetics, 1/3rd something else, but same thing).

        So everybody starts out with a base score from 0 to 10, then rolls a D10 to round it out.

        The super-stars are 10 genes + 10 luck. Their kids are 10 + [random number between 0 and 10] and will thus average out to 15. This is regression to the mean.

        However, some of their *grandkids* will start out with that lovely 10 base number (Assuming no one married down), and some of those grandkids will also be 10 lucks and be the new round of 20’s.

        Which is how you get Clark’s findings on multi-generational social mobility. Because the kids of 15’s who became 20’s are the (great?)grandchildren of 20’s in and of themselves.

        And meanwhile, it cuts the other way too.

        That group of 6’s is going to average 8 kids, but is also going to pop out a couple of rare 16’s.

        And of course, this is how you get classes. Because if Marlborough’s family line is going to be puking out a Winston Churchill every couple of centuries, and average to above-average competence in the meantime, it might make sense to keep that family tree in your back pocket in positions of training and wealth.

        /And which is also where the observation that you’re better off marrying a terrible person from a good family than a good person from a terrible family comes from. If you have to marry a 15, better to marry the 10 base + 5 random than the 5 base + 10 random.
        //And in practice, it helps to add in a third number that’s “Inherited behaviors”, so that the 10 kid of the 20 can still pretend to be a 15, but then his 12 kid doesn’t get those advantages because he wasn’t born to a 20.

        • dndnrsn says:

          RPG/dice nitpick: it’s probably not 1d10, since that would create an absolutely flat distribution of luck.

        • Deiseach says:

          So, even with genetic engineering and the forecasted future of global geniuses, if the best we can do is make sure everyone is a 10 base on genes and the remainder is pure randomness/luck, we’re not going to get the world of “Everyone is IQ 140 and it’s utopia”, we’ll still have the “some people are luckier than others and that’s out of our control, so there is still inequality and it’s not a utopia of cancer-curing researchers and Mars colonisers”?

          That does fit in with my gut feelings about the “no we can make paradise on earth if we use CRISPR for smart babies” proposals, but it seems a bit more like the mediaeval world-view: roll those dice/turn the wheel of fortune, those who were up yesterday are down tomorrow and those on the bottom today will rise in their turn 🙂

          • poipoipoi says:

            Sort of kind of.

            The other problem with that setup is that “something else” certainly includes proper nutrition growing up. And seems to include living in a city where there’s lots and lots of stimulus going on. And…

            So that half-and-half number is based on America, a continent-spanning first-world country with a middling degree of variance in early life experiences, pre-natal care, so on and so forth.

            If you decided to add in say… random scattered Amazon tribes… it might be as low as 20/80.

            Is there a certain degree of luck? Yes.
            Can you close the gap by .2 SD by feeding everybody, both rich and poor, multivitamins as a child? Also yes.

            So in practice, the world where you give everybody 10 genes is also probably a world in which you can assure that nobody nowhere is less than a present-day 5.

            At which point, you took the world of 0-20, and turned it into 15-20.

    • Bugmaster says:

      with no smart janitors or plumbers

      I don’t know about janitors, but you definitely need a high amount of problem-solving ability if you want to be a good plumber, or mechanic, or even an industrial welder. These are all basically engineering jobs. True, they don’t require as much academic ability as e.g. software engineering, but still, I would expect the best plumbers to have reasonably high IQs.

      • Eponymous says:

        I think you’re quibbling over words. If we take “smart” to be (say) 130+ IQ, and if you placed everyone in the profession that was their true comparative advantage, then you probably wouldn’t have many “smart” plumbers. Plumbers are probably IQ 100-120 people with good visuospatial skills or whatever.

        • Deiseach says:

          I think you’re quibbling over words. If we take “smart” to be (say) 130+ IQ

          I have no problem with defining “smart = IQ 130 at a minimum” but I do object to the corollary “if you’re not in a ‘smart people’ job then you must be IQ 85 for your dumb manual labour job”.

          Sure, maybe the IQ 130 plumber isn’t a plumber anymore – maybe he runs his own plumbing business that contracts out to large construction projects (with or without having obtained a degree in mechanical engineering first). IQ alone doesn’t mean he’ll want to be a programmer or surgeon or financier.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          So, take figures with a large grain of salt, but this “wordsum” estimate puts plumbers at 99.6 (basically average).

          http://anepigone.blogspot.com/2011/01/average-iq-by-occupation-estimated-from.html

          Plumber I salary ranges from 37k-52k. Plumbers make, on average, 50k a year.

          This means a household of two perfectly normal people should be able to pull down an income of 100k/year, which is in the top 20% of households.

          Interestingly, wages would, by eyeballing this, fall off really fast once you’re below average. 1 Std Dev below median is dishwasher. IQ 90 is receptionist level, which knocks your salary down from 50k to 27k.

          I mean, I guess this says 40% of society is just screwed and next to useless in the economy.

          • tscharf says:

            I mean, I guess this says 40% of society is just screwed and next to useless in the economy.

            What I’ve been trying to figure out is whether this is just another run of the mill disruption of the economy that will self resolve using market forces or whether this is now a unique and unprecedented problem that needs to be dealt with that the market cannot fix.

      • Civilis says:

        There are a lot of jobs where a high amount of problem solving would come in handy. The question is, how many of those jobs provide more value to society than plumbers? If we’re trying to line up the jobs by order of importance and assign the best problem solvers to the jobs that get the most value out of that problem solving skill, assigning high problem-solving individuals to plumbers when you still need more surgeons and engineers seems like a bad idea.

        Part of the whole meritocracy problem comes because you have a limited number of individuals with top-level skills and hence a lot of demand for them. It’s not the one top-tier school grad that’s perfectly matched in skills for the position you need to worry about placing, it’s the thousands of people with imperfect skills that may be all you have to choose from.

        Note: my grandfather and his brothers were plumbers, and the skills I’ve picked up indirectly have come in handy, so I’m not trying to knock on plumbers. I definitely think the trade skills are undervalued, often for class reasons.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          Have an anecdote: My place had a roof repair done by a man who had considered becoming a doctor. He seemed to be a happy person, and I believe being a doctor was becoming less fun by then (late 90s or so).

          Not only has the roof stayed repaired, but he gave a good clear explanation of what he did.

          I found him by asking neighbors for a recommendation, and I wonder whether that’s at least as good as searching online.

  28. rminnema says:

    The upper middle class always finds ways to look out for its own. For instance, check this discussion of mid-20th century Soviet higher education:

    http://higheredstrategy.com/lessons-from-mid-century-soviet-higher-education/

    Even in a regime where egalitarianism is mandated, the higher classes will make sure that their kids are the ones who acquire the credentials needed to ensure success.

    • hollyluja says:

      This is a great illustration of the point – bookmarked.

    • Mary says:

      Of course, the USSR had the additional problem that prices were fixed.

      That meant, in reality, you still had to pay more for the goods, you just had to pay them in intangibles. If there were a quarter of the winter coats needed, of course the chief of police and his family would be warm, but also anyone who could help the kids of the guy who handed out coats would be warm IF they got the kids into the right schools.

  29. Mario says:

    IIUC, a good part of the critique of meritocracy does not concern the question of “who is the best” for a certain position, but actually questions the assumption that this “best” thing is universally well defined or even meaningful.

    And I’m afraid that that is probably true. Most of the time, if you are up for surgery, what you really need is a competent surgeon, not a wizard. Wizards are useful, of course, but their wizardry is usually completely irrelevant. Similarly, competence is often the only thing you can meaningfully achieve in many fields. E.g. lorry driving. 99.9% of the time, the wizard (whatever that means) will perform identically than the “merely” competent. The same is true for teaching, most surgery, most engineering, most programming, cooking, nursing, etc. It’s disappointing in a way, but it’s true.

    In such a situation, putting too strong an emphasis on “merit” will only favor those who for whatever reason can do better marketing for themselves.

  30. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    This sounds like Goodhart’s Law– a measurement which is used to guide policy will become corrupt.

    In some cases, I don’t think we know how to identify competence. The financial crisis could be viewed as a massive hiring failure at the top.

    So far as I know education level doesn’t tell you anything about whether a person is virtuous (for example, unwilling to push people into bad mortgages), but this is a very important trait.

  31. manwhoisthursday says:

    RE: Freddie’s attack on “desert”

    Clearly it is the height of immorality that those who contribute more should be valued more by others.

    • Acedia says:

      “Contribute” is doing an awful lot of work there.

      • Eponymous says:

        Those that make more stuff others want to buy should have more ability to buy what they want.

        Or, to put it in an extreme moral libertarian way, no slavery to the state.

      • manwhoisthursday says:

        “Contribute” is doing an awful lot of work there.

        This kind of criticism is obliterated in the face of actual examples. A farmer or brain surgeon clearly contributes more value to people in the community than someone so sick they can’t even get out of bed.

        The latter may properly be the object of pity, and may be deserving of a certain minimum level of love and support, but there is no way they are going to get the same level of respect and admiration.

        • Civilis says:

          More importantly, we’re at a time of relative plenty, and there’s no guarantee that that’s going to continue. We could have a succession of volcanic eruptions leading to a mini-Ice Age where there’s not enough food or a disease epidemic that outruns our ability to produce vaccine doses or treatments and have to determine who merits scarce resources. I’d rather hash out a political theory of merit now rather than in those circumstances, because if we’re forced to do so we’re likely to discover that whoever has the capability and will to use violence will be determining who has merit.

          • Deiseach says:

            We could have a succession of volcanic eruptions leading to a mini-Ice Age where there’s not enough food or a disease epidemic that outruns our ability to produce vaccine doses or treatments and have to determine who merits scarce resources.

            In such a situation, it well may turn out we’ll give the vaccine to the IQ 100 plumber than the IQ 130 Wall Street trader because we need the skills of the guy who keeps the sewerage system operational more. A theory of merit based on “Those that make more stuff others want to buy should have more ability to buy what they want Rich guys should be able to buy what they want, even if that’s a bigger than the next rich guy’s yacht” isn’t going to fly in those dire circumstances

        • 1soru1 says:

          > This kind of criticism is obliterated in the face of actual examples

          Of course, even better if you take your examples from the real world, where working multiple jobs, 80 hours + a week, is strongly correlated with poverty. Rather than some perfectly spherical one where the hard-working make perhaps a single-digit factor more than the feckless.

          Essentially all the large-scale wealth in the world is owned by those who have not done a weeks hard work in the last 20 years; the few exceptions are sufficiently exceptional we could probably both list them.

          • Civilis says:

            Essentially all the large-scale wealth in the world is owned by those who have not done a weeks hard work in the last 20 years; the few exceptions are sufficiently exceptional we could probably both list them.

            There’s a story going around that’s probably made up but goes something like this:

            “A major manufacturer had a large machine that failed, and despite bringing in technician after technician and specialist after specialist they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Eventually, the business owner heard of a man that was supposedly an expert at this sort of thing, so they begged him and begged him until finally he came to look at it. The expert spent about fifteen minutes walking around the machine, sometimes tapping at the outside or writing down numbers on a notepad. Finally, he pulled out a piece of chalk and made an X on one of the panels. He returned to the owner and said ‘your problem’s behind that panel’. The owner had the panel opened, the problem was found, and the owner asked the expert to send him a bill. When he received the bill for $10,000 for 15 minutes of work, the owner asked for an itemized bill. ‘Making one X – $1. Knowing where to make one X – $9,999.’ ”

            Is what the hypothetical expert did classified as ‘hard work’?

          • albatross11 says:

            I’m not convinced this is true. Is there data somewhere on what fraction of the very wealthy earned most of their money? In general, finance, law, medicine, and business tend to allow for people to make a lot of money (though usually not the stuff that puts you into the lists of the top N richest people) by working very hard for a very long time.

            I suspect the answer to this question comes down to what fraction of the wealth distribution you’re interested in. I think the 1% mostly earned it, but the 0.01% may have inherited it. But I don’t actually know that.

          • manwhoisthursday says:

            Of course, even better if you take your examples from the real world, where working multiple jobs, 80 hours + a week, is strongly correlated with poverty. Rather than some perfectly spherical one where the hard-working make perhaps a single-digit factor more than the feckless.

            I’ll just note that the terms have been slightly altered, without the writer noting it, as is usual with the kind of person who makes these kinds of arguments. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out what that alteration is.

            Essentially all the large-scale wealth in the world is owned by those who have not done a weeks hard work in the last 20 years;

            The hyper-Industrious types who tend to make large fortunes, tend to stay hyper-Industrious throughout their lives, at least until physical infirmity slows them down. If they retire from business per se, they tend to be hyper-Industrious in some other area of life, often charitable.

            So, this is a blatant falsehood.

          • John Schilling says:

            Is there data somewhere on what fraction of the very wealthy earned most of their money?

            For what definition of “earned”?

            Purely hereditary wealth is the exception, and most of the really big fortunes are made by the current generation by trading in the mostly free and fair markets of modern global capitalism. But often in the sense of being a billionaire because one inherited $50 million and did great things with it, where an ordinary middle-class American demonstrating the same relative level of “merit” would wind up a mere millionaire.

            And of course there are some people who would deny that a person who finds the opportunity to buy a thing for $X and sell it for $2X has earned anything, because he didn’t build any thing but is merely a parasite. But I suspect that there are people who see a person who starts with $50K from their parents and winds up through hard work and talent a millionaire has “earned” it, where the person who inherits $50M and by similar hard work and talent winds up a billionaire has somehow not.

        • > A farmer or brain surgeon clearly contributes more value to people in the community

          Yes, but a CEO gets paid a lot more than either. The actual problem with Acedia’s comment is that it makes the circular assumption that is so often criticised: whoever is eminent and rewarded must be doing something to deserve it.

          • Eponymous says:

            What is true is that people who are highly compensated in a free market economy are producing something that somebody is willing to pay a lot of money for, and thus by revealed preference highly value.

            I agree that equating this with some notion of “contribution to society” requires additional assumptions.

          • Aapje says:

            @Eponymous

            We don’t have a perfect free market, so the compensation doesn’t have to reflect actual preferences.

            Secondly, if you believe that many people have dumb revealed preferences that don’t achieve their goals/increase their happiness, then catering to that is not necessarily a contribution to society.

  32. VolumeWarrior says:

    As a result, a bunch of the people I know are poor/transgender/mentally ill people who couldn’t do college for whatever reason, bought some computer science books and studied on their own, and got hired by some big tech company.

    Ohh you got so close there.

    Going to college proves that you’re a normal, functional person capable of extended delayed gratification.

    Businesses don’t want people with philosophy degrees because business owners have some weird form of brain cancer that causes them to worship college. They’ve just learned empirically that college is a good signal for merit. That’s why your philosophy degree got you into med school.

    Look I get that you want to tell a story about how some traditionally-disadvantaged classes are able to leverage merit to make it in an otherwise hostile workplace, but they’re making it in *spite* of their defects (read: inability to muster through college).

    • ManyCookies says:

      Going to college proves that you’re a normal, functional person capable of extended delayed gratification.

      “Proves” is a strong word there, as I can personally attest to!

      Scott isn’t arguing college degrees have no correlation with merit; he’s arguing employers are weighting them way too strongly, and are missing out on meritorious candidates who are provably (by other metrics) good fits. Scott apparently has personal experience with this in his favor:

      …Before taking my current job, I taught English in Japan. I had no Japanese language experience and no teaching experience, but the company I interviewed with asked if I had an undergraduate degree in some subject or other, and that was good enough for them. Meanwhile, I knew people who were fluent in Japanese and who had high-level TOEFL certification. They did not have a college degree so they were not considered.

      • Bugmaster says:

        Scott isn’t arguing college degrees have no correlation with merit; he’s arguing employers are weighting them way too strongly…

        I personally agree with the second part of that statement, but, as far as I can tell, Scott really does endorse the first part. He believes that college degrees are basically “tulip subsidies” and should thus be abolished. I could be wrong though…

      • VolumeWarrior says:

        Scott isn’t arguing college degrees have no correlation with merit; he’s arguing employers are weighting them way too strongly

        This may be the case. But the very first question is to ask why employers are weighting college degrees so strongly. If your answer is: “employers are morons and they hate money so they don’t care if their hiring strategy is bogus”, you might continue to get wrong answers.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          Employers tend to be busy and distracted.

          If there isn’t a lot of information available about whether degrees are good surrogates for competence, employers aren’t generally going to experiment. After all, they don’t have to beat some theoretical ideal business, they just have to do well enough to survive in competition with similarly semi-competent businesses.

          Also, it occurs to me that hiring practices aren’t all that public. If a company in a boring line of work (that’s most of them) was unusually sensible about hiring, would you hear about it?

          http://www.mambomovers.com/Manifesto.html

          A moving company that hires artists and musicians. The company gets good reviews.

          • VolumeWarrior says:

            Employers tend to be busy and distracted.

            Isn’t this the human condition?

            After all, they don’t have to beat some theoretical ideal business, they just have to do well enough to survive in competition with similarly semi-competent businesses.

            I think striving for the platonic ideal of human organization is going to bite all human institutions in the butt pretty hard.

            But in real life, you would expect the efficiency lost to be pretty small, and it isn’t all about competition. If I can hire equivalent non-college grads for $10,000/year less, I can give myself a pay raise for every single one of them I find. That’s really big money that businesses are leaving on the table. So I suspect they are in fact not leaving it on the table.

        • Corey says:

          There’s counterargument elsewhere in this thread: it’s not possible to hire anyone without a simple filter, because every posting gets deluged with applications. Employers accept the flawed proxy of college-degree because they have no better ideas for a simple filter. (Nor do I to be fair)

        • Brad says:

          That may be the answer for some situations, mostly entry level jobs. But some employers require a college degree even where they already have better information. For example, in a major retailer I’m familiar with there is a hard limit on promotion of workers without college degrees.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            For example, in a major retailer I’m familiar with there is a hard limit on promotion of workers without college degrees.

            Not entirely unreasonable for a big company. Big companies can set-up some major rules without a lot of wiggle room, designed to protect the company from huge, systemic failures. Even if it rules out a few good employees on edge cases.

            Corporate probably thinks it’s a good idea to take this decision out of individual manager’s hands. You don’t want to end up being the company that tried hiring non-college grads and then goes bankrupt.

          • Brad says:

            I don’t follow. Where would the systematic failure come in? If it were going to be a problem it would have to mean that many many of their managers were independently total crap at determining employee quality. And if that were the case would the better pool average of college grads really save them?

            A systematic failure would require a rules from the center without a lot of wiggle room, not decentralized decision making. For example, a centralized IT department that enabled POS in the entire company to be compromised by the same vulnerability.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            If it were going to be a problem it would have to mean that many many of their managers were independently total crap at determining employee quality. And if that were the case would the better pool average of college grads really save them?

            A. It doesn’t mean many managers are crap at determining employee quality. Just the kind who are disproportionately likely to favor non-college educated workers.
            B. Restricting to college grads might very well help!

            It’s not hard to picture one supervisor or two that thinks college is just a joke and hires a bunch of people who have never been to college. Maybe that manager is correct. More likely that manager is an idiot and just staffed, say, financial analytics with a bunch of morons. Now financial analytics is screwed, and it will take years for the company to even notice the problem, and years to fix the problem once identified.

          • Brad says:

            But my example was in retail. In the company in question you can’t be a shift supervisor (overseeing no more than 10-15 people with someone above you always on site) unless you have a college degree. I agree some manager at a particular store could have a bias in favor of non-degreed people and get a bunch of bad shift supervisors in that store, but I fail to see how that would lead to systematic failure across the company like your financial analytics department example. In order for that to happen there’s have to be some reason that a lot of mangers across a lot of stores had that same bias.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            It doesn’t need to be a problem across the entire company for it to be a good policy, it only needs to be a problem period.

            I don’t know the specifics of the retail industry, but it seems to me it’d be difficult to get brick-and-mortar college graduates to sign up for that position on any extended basis.

            From the perspective of the whole company, no, managers aren’t automatically trustworthy. You should assume that your manager who wants to hire non-college grads isn’t Brad Pitt in moneyball, he’s just an idiot. Or lazy. Or some combination thereof.

            I’m opposed to the practice, but I can certainly see why large companies would have a policy like this.

          • Brad says:

            Ultimately it is an empirical question, but I think if you trust your managers to do hiring and firing you shouldn’t restrict them in that way, and if you don’t than you should have a more centralized system that doesn’t give them wide open discretion among the college degree having pool.

      • vV_Vv says:

        Meanwhile, I knew people who were fluent in Japanese and who had high-level TOEFL certification. They did not have a college degree so they were not considered.

        But maybe they were hikikomoris with zero people skills and poor executive functions (e.g. the basic things you need to to get out of bed and show up to work every day on time). In fact, I predict that many of Scott’s patients that he mentions in this posts are this kind of people (maybe not as exteme as the hikikomoris, but on that spectrum), because people with high people skills and executive functions are less likely to be psychiatric patients.

        A college degree doesn’t just signal IQ or knowledge of a language or some other technical subject. It also signals the ability to consistently perform for years, under a certain level of stress, completing somewhat arbitrary tasks requiring social interaction. This is a very valuable skill to an employer for any job, even more so if you apply for a job that is public facing and people oriented such as teaching.

        A college degree also signals for social class, depending on how expensive college is (this varies greatly by country). This arguably creates an anti-meritocratic effect, but it doesn’t mean that college degrees don’t have any meritocratic signalling value.

  33. J says:

    My steelman for social justice is “caring for people is our central aim. there are traditionally disadvantaged groups, and we should help advance their interests”, which is actually a pretty reasonable position.

    Slogans like “leveling the playing field” are effective propaganda because they sound fine to the in-group (since leveling a disadvantaged playing field would advance interests) and cause lots of friction with the outgroup (since the outgroup can tell that advancing interests is the terminal goal, not leveling the playing field). So the in-group and outgroup stay alienated, and there are lots of flame wars keeping the topics in the public eye.

    This issue strengthens my belief that it’s about advancing and not about leveling. Fairness or an efficiently operating society aren’t the terminal goals, which is why meritocracy should be eliminated and not just fixed. We might appeal to those values, but ultimately the issue is that there’s money and power in those jobs and we want more of them to belong to people from disadvantaged groups.

    I kind of feel like it’s a poor steelman in that it doesn’t produce the best arguments against meritocracy, but as a steelman for the entire category of social justice, it’s the best argument I can find that explains the range of causes I see the movement advocating, and when I’ve tried advocating that steelman to social justice folks, they seem to agree with it.

    • John Schilling says:

      My steelman for social justice is “caring for people is our central aim. there are traditionally disadvantaged groups, and we should help advance their interests”, which is actually a pretty reasonable position.

      Is it still reasonable if we take out “traditionally”? Because I tend to be skeptical of arguments that depend on tradition.

      • Mary says:

        It’s only reasonable if we take out “traditionally.” Otherwise social justice would be all for giving Asian students affirmative action.

        • J says:

          Yeah, I guess I put in “traditionally” out of the dissonance between wanting a, well, black-and-white division between who’s disadvantaged and who isn’t, and having disadvantaged groups whose needs conflict with each other. A few times I’ve heard people rank groups from most to least disadvantaged, but that gets dissonant really quick.

          To steelman that issue, though, in general it’s quite admirable when somebody really supports a cause they believe in, say, music education in the USA, even when that cause isn’t the #1 most pressing issue in the world. So for social justice, I think people choose some groups they want to promote, eg., abused women and native americans, out of a fairly broad category whose edges have things like high-IQ Chinese-American college students and gay white men, and promote them in ways that don’t directly seem to oppose other groups in the broad category.

    • random832 says:

      when I’ve tried advocating that steelman to social justice folks, they seem to agree with it.

      Your ‘steelman’ has a nasty hidden strawman “…and should continue to help advance their interests past the point where they are no longer disadvantaged” (and that is in fact the only difference between a terminal goal of advancing interests of some particular groups vs a terminal goal of fairness), which I suspect you did not honestly convince anyone to agree with.

  34. Mark says:

    Meritorious rulers.

    Isn’t the problem, the real problem (not the lefty boo-boos), that we have no good system to identify who deserves power over others, in the most general sense?

    Grant the surgeon their power, in their specific field of expertise, within their own hierarchy.
    But, I think we have to question strongly whether we need grant them any special power beyond that.

    You play within the rules of a game, and if you play well, you may get a prize. But the prize is decided beforehand, and not by you, as the best player.

  35. ManyCookies says:

    Programming is almost the only well-paying field where people can still do this, and it doesn’t surprise me that the establishment keeps portraying its culture as uniquely evil and demanding it be dismantled.

    Wait have people directly criticized the non-credentialism aspect of programming? I’ve certainly seen the calls for dismantling the male biased culture and such, but nothing really related to credentials.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I have seen some articles demanding that programming companies hire women (and other disadvantaged groups) without any kind of evaluation or testing, because all testing is biased and is a tool of the cis-heteronormative structural patriarchy (or something). Fortunately, I have yet to see this strategy implemented in the field.

  36. Mark says:

    Salesmen get paid large amounts of money because they are in a position to sabotage a company.

    It’s a bribe that must be paid to a person performing a particular function.

    How does meritocracy work now?

    • albatross11 says:

      If only someone, somewhere could come up with a method of paying salesmen that made it in their interest to make a lot of sales, why, they could take over the world!

      • Mark says:

        ?

        I don’t know. Let’s say that I need to send my expensive goods to market by courier. I need to pay the courier sufficiently to ensure he doesn’t steal the goods for himself.
        I might pay him more to deliver more quickly, but the bribe portion of his pay depends more upon what I think someone’s time preference might be.

        If there is some structural reason why salesman pay needs to be high, how do we decide who gets to be a salesman, and does success in this competition give them a moral right to their rewards?

        Why shouldn’t we seek to shift the rules of the game to make it harder for them to exercise power for their own benefit (merit just determines who gets to extract rent).

        • VolumeWarrior says:

          I need to pay the courier sufficiently to ensure he doesn’t steal the goods for himself.

          You could just get him to put up collateral.

          As far as I know the folks driving around in armored cars don’t get paid 7 figures.

          Come to think of it, salesmen don’t seem particularly well-compensated to me either.

    • Bugmaster says:

      How do you figure ? What do you mean by “sabotage”, anyway ?

      As an engineer, I have inadvertently sabotaged my company multiple times over the years, usually due to some colossal failure on my part. I have also sabotaged it deliberately once, by leaving in the middle of a project (it was getting to the point where I had to make a choice between their prosperity and my mental health, and I picked my mental health). I have witnessed managers sabotaging companies in many ways, some deliberately, some by accident or stupidity. I worked with (or rather, against) a graphics designer once, who did the same thing.

      What does any of this have to do with meritocracy, anyway ?

    • Deiseach says:

      Isn’t payment by commission the way that this is controlled? Your salesman gets a basic salary and then tops that up by commission on goods/services sold. A good salesman can both enrich himself and serve the interests of the company by selling more. A poor salesman who cannot sell the goods is hampering the business, but by identifying their lack of commission earned you can tell who is and who is not a good salesman, and fire your bad salesmen.

      I mean, all wages are bribes if you look at it that way, but I’d reserve “bribe” for the kind of contracts that top management get which go “although I ran the company into the ground and caused hundreds of millions in losses, if you want to fire me you have to pay my pension entitlements which will cost millions because I have a contract and fighting it will be more trouble for you than its worth”.

      • albatross11 says:

        My impression is that the range of abilities of salesmen is extremely wide, in ways that matter a lot for the bottom line of the company. A good salesman can bring in *enormously* more money than a bad salesman. That means that it’s possible for a good salesman to get paid well (he’s worth it). But my guess is that there are a couple other factors that help:

        a. Salesmen know whether they made the sale or not, and what kind of money was brought in. So they know better than most employees how much their employer benefitted by having them.

        b. The set of skills that makes you a good salesman probably also makes you good at either negotiating a raise for yourself, or talking your way into a new job for better pay.

  37. rsj says:

    There is a problem with “meritocracy” as practiced versus meritocracy-as-theory, which is discussed most recently by Thomas Frank: http://billmoyers.com/story/author-thomas-frank-talks-hillary-clinton-bernie-sanders-and-his-new-book-listen-liberal/

    Meritocracy-as-practiced means herd behavior as a very small group schools (both intellectual and actual) produce the leaders who echo each other’s conventional wisdom. This is how we get entire nations pursuing economically or militarily disastrous policies, such as the whole western world deciding it needed to go back on the gold standard after WWI, or, for that matter, WWI. Or the current tragedy of Greece, and the sadism of the European Monetary Union. It’s how all economists agree that we should tax consumption rather than unearned income. It’s how we got financial de-regulation, wall street bailouts, a flatter tax schedule, a shrinking middle class. When these are deeply unpopular beliefs among common, less “meritocratic” people who didn’t all go to the same 5 elite graduate schools.

    Moreover apart from the complete mismanagement of the economy and crazy wars, there are no consequences. When individuals screw up, they get fired. But when conventional wisdom of the elites is wrong, there are very few repercussions allowed. To quote Keynes:

    Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.

    This is very unhealthy, from a systems point of view. We learn through failure, through facing consequences, and meritocracy is an ideological hammer to beat down those who demand consequences for failure. It is a shift from being judged based on results to being judged based on “qualifications”. It is very easy to be judged based on qualifications since that status never changes no matter how often you get things wrong. It’s a type of aristocracy that short-circuits the necessary discipline that must be applied to any elite. The Best and The Brightest should be a necessary reading for all those who cherish the idea of meritocracy.

    No one can defend the results — we have rising death rates, falling incomes, deteriorating infrastructure, and incredible widespread anger about how things are run — but, the argument goes, we have to hang on to the leaders who got us here because they are the only ones who are “qualified”.

    Suffice it to say that the angry electorate doesn’t care about the benefits of meritocracy. What they want is results. They want accountability. At some point, the leadership must be subject to outcome based metrics, rather than qualification based metrics.

    Moreover the best and the brightest are not that much smarter than anyone else. There just isn’t the wide disparity of skills to justify the extremely narrow band of allowed opinions. Again from a systems point of view, this is just a bad trade off. I’d rather be ruled by a group of people than on average had 10 IQ points less but were open minded and willing to accept punishment for their failures than a group that was 10 IQ points higher but was living in an echo chamber and assumed that they had a right to rule based on that IQ difference. This is especially true of social science.

    For these reasons, strong democracies have a very healthy skepticism of technocrats, and the recent outbreaks of populism are a natural reaction to being saddled with the most incompetent elites since the waning days of Byzantium. It is like a natural immune response when the body detects a pathogen.

    • albatross11 says:

      One downside to meritocracy as implemented is that it tends to reward people who stay on the standard track to success when they’re young. Good high school, top grades, great SAT scores, Ivy League college, top grades, good GRES, top graduate/professional program, internships, residencies, volunteering, etc.

      Some people don’t make some of those steps, but turn out to be extremely capable. There are further on-ramps (plenty of people graduate from good state universities and go to top graduate programs, some people take a year off after high school before going to college), but in some sense there’s like one top track, and once you fall off it’s hard to get back. And there are likely a lot of people whose position in the meritocracy is ultimately based on doing really well on some standardized tests and getting really good grades, and whole those are both correlated with ability, they’re certainly not equivalent to ability.

      This suggests that an important feature for a real-world meritocracy to have is multiple on-ramps. It’s a good thing if someone can flunk out of college, join the Navy, come back to college when they’re mature enough to show up to class regularly, and end up in a nice position based on their abilities. This is probably something that works better when we get away from the model of meritocracy where one/two standardized tests and an admissions committee decision when you’re 18 determines your whole course in life.

    • hollyluja says:

      Is this the “Nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM” argument?

    • static says:

      These seems more like arguing for different definitions of merit than arguments for using something other than merit to decide who should occupy a position. In addition, many of the things you think are obviously bad appear to be obviously good. However, while we would probably agree that overconfidence is a problem, I suspect we would disagree on limiting government power as a mitigation for that…

  38. ManyCookies says:

    Also minor typo:

    It doesn’t matter whether you managed to make it past the gatekeepers trying to keep you out for not excluding the right kind of upper-class vibe.

    I think excluding is supposed to be extruding.

  39. agranato says:

    Hi SSC,
    This is Andrew Granato, who wrote the Vox article. I’m a long-time reader of SSC and am pretty amazed that I’m in a post. I jotted down some responses on twitter, linked here if anyone is interested: https://twitter.com/agranato42/status/889640364885331970

    • J says:

      “and whenever you structurally give people money and power, you give them the means to seek and extract rents from society.”

      As far as I can tell, the structure that gives people money and power in exchange for spending their time doing something really well is called a “market”. You would like us to use something other than markets to decide who to hire?

      • agranato says:

        Markets are structures that give people money and power, but there are other structures that do so as well: giveaways in the tax code, exclusionary zoning laws, interpersonal discrimination based on categories in a hierarchy, etc. I agree that markets should be the default setting for resource allocation, but a pure market system will, over time, allocate resources in a way that is highly unequal. And unequal systems have an equilibrium of becoming more unequal and eventually ossified without outside intervention like a policy change. A king, who is given power and money by birthright, can extract rents from the population with impunity and everyone now recognizes that as bad. Market-based meritocracy is obviously not nearly as bad as having a king, but it will still empower a class of people with elite status that will inevitably lead to rent extraction, which further empowers the elite, which enables more rent extraction, etc.

        • J says:

          Yeah, I hear a lot about inequality and how markets are to blame for it. What’s your alternative that ensures equality? And in this system, having been allocated my perfectly equal share of whatever it is that we’re equally distributing, if I choose to waste and squander it while my neighbor cherishes and expands hers, will that be inequality again or will my poverty then be my own just desert?

          • J says:

            I guess what I’m getting at is that it’s bizarre to complain that markets produce inequality in the same way that it’s bizarre to blame math for having integers that are bigger than others.

            Like, okay, you don’t like that people give really good surgeons lots of money and prestige, and end up with higher integers in their bank accounts, so you want to have the government take some away and give it to someone else. Be my guest, but it doesn’t make sense to say you did it because the integers themselves aren’t equal enough and needed correcting, or that markets produce this bad thing called inequality.

            The integers, like the markets, are just measuring what happens when people trade stuff. Making the measurement instrument the scapegoat for your dissatisfaction with people’s choices encourages people to destroy the very instrument we use to detect abuses by powerful agents.

          • Aapje says:

            Progressive taxes, publicly funded education, estate tax and limited copyrights are examples of laws/policies that limit how much inequality markets produce.

          • J says:

            Right. I’m aware that wealth can be redistributed. What I’m objecting to is the implication that there’s some ideal state of equality that could be reached if only we would replace those dastardly markets with something more enlightened. Markets don’t *produce* inequality any more than math does. They both are just tools for observing what happens as people pursue what they want.

          • Aapje says:

            They produce inequality as long as people are acting as they are acting now, which seems likely.

            You also don’t need an ‘ideal state of equality’ for it to be better than what we have today.

            Do you ever read reviews to try to find the best product or do you just pick a random one because ideal products don’t exist?

      • VolumeWarrior says:

        So like, AI is potentially a problem because we guess that the AI will try to augment itself on some exponential curve and leave the rest of us in the dust because we got the AI’s value code wrong.

        This is basically what you’re afraid of happening with rich people getting richer. Except in real life, the rich do not put their children on some exponential path. In fact, their children often fall short of the parents’ greatness.

        The only American dynasty I can think of off the top of my head is the Bush family, and this is success in the political market. You probably won’t hear about Trump’s children doing great things and in aaaaaaaaaaaaaaallll likelihood they will not become president.

        Maybe you still complain that they have large unfair advantages. But when Chelsea Clinton is leveraging this into poorly selling vegetarian cookbooks, it seems like your concern is entirely overblown.

        Also the majority of ultra-rich people aren’t heartless monsters. Quite the opposite. Bla bla bla hate the rich bla bla bla capitalism kills bla bla and then Bill Gates, Marty Zuck, and Jeff Bezos are extremely humanitarian and should probably just be left alone to continue “monopolozing” the market.

        • Deiseach says:

          Chelsea Clinton is not depending on the sale of her cookbooks to feed and clothe her child, that’s rather the point. She’s footling around doing various things because educated women are expected to have careers nowadays, and from the older traditional social view well-off housewives were expected to engage in charitable activities.

          I don’t know how seriously the mooted political career for Chelsea is intended, but it sure would look bad if all she had on her resumé was “lived off my parents (by getting soft job in their Foundation) and then my husband”, particularly in light of Hillary’s sniping about “I’ve done more than stay in the kitchen baking cookies” back when the feud between her and Barbara Bush was set up by the media.

          • VolumeWarrior says:

            Chelsea Clinton is not depending on the sale of her cookbooks to feed and clothe her child, that’s rather the point.

            No that wasn’t the point.

            The complaint was that rich people get far ahead, and then get their children really far ahead and perpetuate a cycle of wealth-building that no one can ever catch up to.

            Now the problem with Chelsea is that it is unfair that she can live comfortably off her parent’s welfare and mess around with failed arts and crafts projects. Okay, but she’s definitely several tiers below her parents’ power level.

            At the risk of a tonedeaf #iamverysmart moment, this is a motte and bailey.

          • albatross11 says:

            Letting the children of the rich and powerful have comfortable and pleasant lives, even notably more comfortable than those of other people who are no less deserving, is a very small problem. Letting the children of the rich and powerful have a fast track into power and influence they’re not prepared for or worthy of is a large problem.

            Consider the royal families of Europe. Having the royals be unduly rich and get a lot of attention may be kind-of annoying, but probably doesn’t really do very much harm. Having the fate of Britain or Spain or The Netherlands turn on the wisdom and preparation of the next heir would be a huge problem.

        • This is basically what you’re afraid of happening with rich people getting richer. Except in real life, the rich do not put their children on some exponential path. In fact, their children often fall short of the parents’ greatness.

          Remember, good meritocracy is meritocracy, bad meritocracy is credentialism. The rich don’t have to make sure that their progeny actually better, they just need to make sure they seem to be.

          • VolumeWarrior says:

            If it’s obvious to you that the elites often aren’t actually better, then it’s probably going to be pretty obvious to companies and business partners who stand to lose big money by getting swindled by credentialism.

          • random832 says:

            @VolumeWarrior – What if it is not obvious but is still true? And you’re certain of that conclusion, and it took quite a bit of work to get there so you have reason to believe that those companies and potential business partners may not have realized it. None of that is contradictory, and all of it is a reason to believe that you can improve society by engaging in advocacy against “meritocracy”.

      • carvenvisage says:

        If he thinks you can have a market where a lesser portion of the value is captured, or where it’s captured less permanently, it wouldn’t be that outlandish. Money does diminish in value the more it’s concentrated on making one person happy, and horrible versions of this like steep inheritance taxes are not just implemented but considered normal by many people.

        • VolumeWarrior says:

          Marty Zucc doesn’t have $60bn in mansions and yachts though. The majority of wealth is tied up in capital and it doesn’t make sense to redistribute control of industry from experts to the American electorate.

          IMO the people the left are most pissed off at are the semi-wealthy with household incomes ~$500,000 range and live in multi-million dollar houses. They spend a very large proportion of their income on “luxury goods”. Except those people are all dual income professional families who went through twice as much schooling and work 80 hours a week. So if you start digging too deep you might figure out that some of the upper-upper-middle class kind of maybe earned their way.

          But they’re like, responsible for white-flight, gentrification, and have very little in common with the neckbeard baristas upvoting on r/esist waiting for fully automated luxury communism.

          • Brad says:

            IMO the people the left are most pissed off at are the semi-wealthy with household incomes ~$500,000 range and live in multi-million dollar houses. They spend a very large proportion of their income on “luxury goods”. Except those people are all dual income professional families who went through twice as much schooling and work 80 hours a week.

            This doesn’t match my experiance at all. When you have household income of $500k it is overwhelmingly either $500k/$0 or $400k+/$100k- and only one partner working 80 hours a week.

            Dual $250k/80 hour more or less precludes kids, and if you look at the stats families in that income range are very likely to have kids.

          • VolumeWarrior says:

            @Brad,

            https://www.statista.com/statistics/241530/birth-rate-by-family-income-in-the-us/

            The graph truncates at $200k, but the trend is clear. Fertility decreases with household wealth. Although I admit this is not a very good source, and I could not find anything like a wikipedia article on U.S. income vs. fertility.

            Regardless, my point was to caricature the leftist mythology. If these greedy lawyer couples don’t actually exist in large numbers, so much for how disconnected the political stories are from reality. But I suspect this is the archetypal rich-person-who-needs-to-pay-more-taxes leftists imagine, since actual multibillionaires seem to consume an extremely small proportion of their income as luxury goods.

    • pdbarnlsey says:

      Hi Andrew,

      I think there’s a tension in your argument here:

      If we define “meritocracy” as “optimally allocating the best people in the best way”, it’s tautologically good!

      Even if we had some extremely accurate way of identifying the most talented people and allocating them to the top positions,
      we would still have the same structural force at play that mars America now: the stratification of society into increasing distant tiers.

      That’s the criticism that a lot of people, including you, would still level at (what Scott would recognise as) meritocracy. So not tautologically good.

      I also worry that your argument boils down to “no matter how good the system of choosing leaders, the overclass will still be the overclass”. I feel like that’s maybe tautological, unless you’re explicitly arguing that a less meritorious overclass would be seen as less deserving and therefore wield less power (which is one of the defences for hereditary monarchy).

      • agranato says:

        You are correct- I should have been clearer that even if we define meritocracy in this manner that sounds tautologically good and meritocracy were to actually play out in this ideal manner, there would still be severe downsides. Meritocracy in this case is tautologically good because there is not a better way of allocating people, but the result is still flawed.

        In response your last paragraph, I would frame the situation as ‘we used to select an overclass by hereditary privilege, which was very bad. Now, we at least try to select an overclass by ‘merit’, a vaguely defined term which is subject to abuse and would still leave us with an overclass even in its best possible scenario. It would be better if we minimized having an overclass as much as is reasonably possible, and the least we could do is remove policies that enable the winners of the quasi-meritocracy to become merely a more academically talented aristocracy.’

      • What’s the problem with an overclass? they’re insufficiently competent? They’re over-rewarded? They’re insufficiently open? Whatever problem you think predominates, it will lead in a different direction.

        • Jaskologist says:

          I was going to say that the problem is that they hate the underclass, but I think it’s enough to say that they don’t love the underclass.

        • carvenvisage says:

          The problem with an overclass that earned its position would simply be if it has the option to pull the ladder up after itself.

          Taking a king as an analogy, the king might unite the tribes against a common outside enemy, performing an incredibly valuable service, but afterwards he’s still the king and he can do what he likes, and performing valuable services you expect to be well compensated for doesn’t actually prove you’re worthy to wield power. The king, being a human who has acted so far in his own best interests as well as the nations (this is unavoidable when talking about merit in a capitalist system. Getting rich can’t prove you’re a good person.), might then change the system so that his sons will rule for at least the next few generations, regardless of their competence, and then a hundred years later when the next outside threat comes no one will be able to save the country because the meritocracy was (inadvertently) destroyed by the winner.

          In that situation the leaders should say, you can lead the country, -you saved it, but you can’t do whatever you like with it.

          btw I didn’t read the article yet, so none of this is said in agreement of any details, just with the theoretical possibility for a meritocratic system of resource/power allocation to undermine itself.

          edit: for an example look at Marcus Aurelius. Iirc the first of the ‘five good emperors’ to pass their power onto their biological son was the last of the ‘five good emperors’.

        • static says:

          One “problem” is that classes don’t really exist in some objective sense, they are simply names created to generate support in a conflict of interests. If people feel that they are in some superior overclass or some oppressed underclass, the use of those designations for political gain is already underway…

  40. professorlb says:

    Evaluating merit for a lot of jobs is tricky and that’s why schooling requirements and such have been developed. If only there were a test you could give people for whether they would run the federal reserve well! I don’t think it makes sense to view hiring that’s influenced by educational background (e.g. Harvard, etc.) as non-merit based. Having better education/performing better in school does often help people be better at their jobs and so taking that into account in hiring just makes sense.

    • static says:

      The key factor is that which selective school you attended is often used as a proxy for merit, as the school presumably applied some merit-based criteria to determine who was admitted and awarded a degree. However, the admissions process is not really merit-based, as admission is often awarded to children of alumni, members of special interest groups, people with sporting skills, people with interesting stories, etc. as opposed to merit, in most cases. Thus it is a poor proxy.

      In addition, the education received in many schools is not necessarily superior to that received in other schools, as measured by changes in scores on various tests given before and after university.

  41. Anon. says:

    I can’t wait for Caplan’s Case Against Education and Scott’s review of it.

    • Yes, that would be good. Do you know when Caplan’s book is due to come out?

      Scott, look here! Please please do this. If Caplan’s book is like most of his writing, he will have some great arguments against education and some real terrible ones. I’d love to hear Scott’s response.

  42. sflicht says:

    >Grant that this is all true, and that it’s bad.

    Why should we grant that it is bad, assuming that we grant it is true?

  43. skef says:

    I think there is a problem that the authors you cite sense but haven’t fully articulated, and that you’re missing.

    Your whole focus is on people’s suitability for given positions. The idea seems to be that to the extent things have gone wrong now, credentialism and other misleading standards lead to less suitable getting certain jobs. If you fixed that, the problem would go away.

    The worry over meritocracy is a worry about the top, and therefore in a loose sense “ruling” positions (hence the suffix is “-cracy”). I don’t think people’s objection to the current system has all that much to do with who gets these positions. It has to do with the dynamics of accountability. When something goes wrong at levels below the top, someone is often blamed for it going wrong, and it can have a significant effect on his or her life. Increasingly, when something goes wrong at the top now, the excuse offered amounts to “oh well, the smartest people couldn’t figure this out, so there’s really no one to blame”, and things for people at the top continue largely as they had before. This basically means that people in top jobs no longer have as much reason to do well in them. The best person for a job won’t necessarily perform in the best way without the incentive of risk.

    The problem, in short, is that merit doesn’t ensure performance without incentives. Nothing in your suggestions would address it.

  44. Freddie deBoer says:

    Ethics
    by Linda Pastan

    In ethics class so many years ago
    our teacher asked this question every fall:
    If there were a fire in a museum,
    which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
    or an old woman who hadn’t many
    years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs
    caring little for pictures or old age
    we’d opt one year for life, the next for art
    and always half-heartedly. Sometimes
    the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face
    leaving her usual kitchen to wander
    some drafty, half-imagined museum.

    One year, feeling clever, I replied
    why not let the woman decide herself?
    Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
    the burdens of responsibility.

    This fall in a real museum I stand
    before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
    or nearly so, myself. The colors
    within this frame are darker than autumn,
    darker even than winter — the browns of earth,
    though earth’s most radiant elements burn
    through the canvas. I know now that woman
    and painting and season are almost one
    and all beyond the saving of children.

  45. albatross11 says:

    Meritocracy + voting with your feet + federalism = Le Samo.

    A normal part of American life is to leave home and go where there are opportunities. Often, this involves abandoning failing cities or regions (Detroit has lost an amazing amount of population; the rust belt more generally has lost a smaller fraction but still a huge number.). Highly mobile jobs plus a meritocracy makes it pretty easy to move the jobs or industry (or maybe just where the high-value people live) far from the old existing set of problems and arrangements. My wife and I move away from where we grew up, to a nice new community in the suburbs of a city, where we have good schools (because the kids are kids of other smart professional parents) and good services (because we can afford some taxes and the public service pensions haven’t come due yet). Maybe by the time our kids are grown up, our community isn’t doing as well–the main industry has fallen on hard times, poor people have moved in and brought the test scores down and the crime rates up, the public-service pensions are beginning to squeeze the public budget. And so our kids move on, as well, to some other new place where they can have nice jobs and raise kids and such.

    This is overall a good thing–it’s how we have made such progress as a nation. But it definitely amplifies the effects of sorting out by IQ/work ethic/early decisions/top schools/etc. It makes sense that when my wife and I move to a nice new suburb and are paying taxes to fund good local schools and services, we’re not interested in also sending money back to fund the pensions back where we grew up (where we never even got to vote, because we were kids), or to bus in kids from some local bad neighborhood who will bring down our schools’ test scores. If I’d been born in Detroit, I wouldn’t feel a special obligation to send money to the current Detroit government to help them out.

    One effect of all this dynamism is that the most able people move away from the costly people and their problems, sort themselves out into new communities that most people can’t afford to live in, and mostly don’t even notice the problems that are afflicting some of their fellow citizens.

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      “A normal part of American life is to leave home and go where there are opportunities”

      No. The vast majority of people stay within 100 miles of home their entire lives. The #1 most predictive variable of where you go to college is simple geographic proximity. Like so, so many people in this thread you’re substituting the values of an elite managerial class for the values of the people writ large. You shouldn’t.

      • onyomi says:

        This is true even at Harvard. You’d be surprised how many people at Harvard grew up in or around Boston. Not most, but a lot more than chance.

        And of course it’s much more so at all the universities which aren’t Harvard.

      • poipoipoi says:

        FWIW though, this system does seem to drive a lot of sprawl. My father was 1 of 13, who then went on to have about 20 kids in total.

        Dad was living in Detroit in ’64. Then he watched a looter get murdered in the streets when the Detroit Rebellion started (which is both how they found about the Rebellion, and why that entire generation uses “the blacks” in conversation) before my grandfather packed everybody up in the car, and fled to Oakland County.

        Of the 13 kids, 1 went to Grand Rapids, 1 stayed behind in Cleveland, and 11 stayed in Oakland County.

        Of my generation, there’s 4 kids who ended up fleeing for coastal hubs to live in third-world squalor. (2 who were kids of the Ford Executive, 2 who were kids of the… Golf Course Groundskeeper? HAHAHA?). The other 16 just ended up moving out to Livingston County or Northern Oakland County as Southern Oakland County slowly goes to hell.

        So in 2 generations, the center of gravity went from 7 Mile and Livingston to Milford.

      • pdbarnlsey says:

        No. The vast majority of people stay within 100 miles of home their entire lives.

        But might it sometimes be fair to ask them not to?

        That doesn’t mean the state should abandon failing communities, but maybe it means that one of those forms of assistance is helping some of them to leave, even if that’s not their instinctual preference. Are these really sacred values?

        (I say this as someone who grew up in a rural area and left, forever, to pursue better jobs and education. I think suggesting I have that preference because I’m “elite managerial class” is both giving me too much credit and confusing cause and effect)

        • poipoipoi says:

          And 100 miles is a long distance.

          That basically means that the entire state of Ohio can collapse into the Greater Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincy-Dayton Metro Areas with an honorable mention to Athens (Site of Ohio University).

          They aren’t exactly doing great compared to the usual coastal suspects, but they’re doing a good sight better than Rural Ohio.

          If “GTFO” means “Move to Cleveland and have an hour-long drive home for Christmas” and not “Move 3 time-zones away and have an $1800 all-day plane ticket* home for Christmas”, I think the GTFO position ends up a lot stronger.

          Especially if “Going to college” puts you in a mid-sized town a couple counties over by default.

          *That’s not a joke. Christmas pricing, but.

      • albatross11 says:

        Fair enough. My social class is mostly composed of people who moved toward opportunity. That’s partly because I’m in a science/technology field, but also because I grew up in a pretty dismal dying midwestern town which is kind-of a mix of rustbelt and declining family farm land. Very few of my classmates stuck around, because unless they were inheriting the family farm or coming back after law school to work at their dad’s law firm, they were looking at getting a job at Wal Mart or going on public assistance if they wanted to stay.

  46. markpneyer says:

    The word “aristocracy” originally meant what you mean by meritocracy.

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=aristocracy

    The root problem seems to be our incapacity to separate an aspirational state from a present state.

    Instead of “We should aspire to be good, so let’s not do a bad thing,” we get “we are good, so it’s ok to do this bad thing.”

    “Freedom” works the same way. Instead of saying “we want America to be the land of the free, so let’s look for and fix unfreedom,” it becomes “we are the land of the free” and we ignore those who aren’t.

    You don’t gain stature in a tribe by pointing out where that tribe fails to live up to its ideals. Unless that disconnect between individual and collective incentives is fixed, groups will continually fail their own aspirations unless they fall apart.

  47. Irenist says:

    It’s tautological that the best-suited to a given job are the best-suited to that job. But there are still problems with the meritocratic ideal.

    1. It strip mines talent from the lower classes and less fashionable locales, depriving subaltern communities of their leaders via brain drain. See: http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2009/05/the-decline-of-middle-america-and-the-problem-of-meritocracy/

    2. It encourages competitive striving to climb the occupational ladder. a. Those who lose this contest are exposed to self-blame, whereas the born peasant in a non-meritocratic society needn’t blame himself for his low station.
    b. Noblesse oblige makes more intuitive sense for some when high social rank is an accident of birth; those who feel they “deserve” their wealth may be less charitable.
    c. Meritocracy is hard to administer without competition and the social flux typified by capitalistic creative destruction. The less agonistic and the change-averse are more anxious in a competitive world.

    3. Meritocracy is impossible to attain. Many of our proxies do significant damage. E.g., democratic elections are often argued to be a means to select for merit. But the intersection between the set of statesmen and the set of those capable of appealing to the electorate is small. In some contexts, attempts to screen in merit may just screen in sociopaths who know how to game the screen.

    If any of the above points are correct, then meritocracy (or at least, the meritocratic ideal as actually attainably approximated) has negative externalities. Of course, having jobs done by those best at them is beneficial in myriad ways.

    There’s no pat answer to whether the positives outweigh the negatives. Whether a given job ought to be filled through our best approximation of meritocracy should be decided casuistically, rather than by a rigid pro- or anti- meritocratic ideology.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      A lot of people, both pro and con, think that depriving subaltern communities of their leaders is the main purpose of meritocracy.

      • albatross11 says:

        It’s probably a mistake to assume that there’s a purpose for something as large and diffuse as broad social organization. But that’s inevitably one of the consequences of increasing meritocracy. I’ve read the claim (I think in one of Thomas Sowell’s books) that desegregation did this to a lot of previously-vital black neighborhoods–the smartest and most ambitious people left, and took their intelligence and wealth and good example and such with them to some nice suburb with good schools. Charles Murray has a whole section about it in _Coming Apart_, discussing an underclass urban white neighborhood that has kind-of fallen apart over the last few decades. (My take was that this was partly because the ambitious and smart left, but there were surely other factors.)

    • Randy M says:

      These are good counterpoints.

  48. Bugmaster says:

    Instead of Goldman Sachs hiring whoever does best at Harvard, they should hire people who can demonstrate their knowledge of investing principles or (even better) who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance.

    This is a great idea in theory, but there’s a catch: it’s tremendously expensive.

    When you are trying to fill an employment position, you typically get hundreds of applicants… and that’s if you’re a small company. If you’re a large company, like Goldman Sachs, you get thousands, if not more. Per month. For a single open slot. In theory, you could run all of them through a battery of practical tests, evaluate their performance individually, and pick the best one — but who is going to perform all this testing ? How long is it going to take ? Are you even going to be able to test these people faster than fresh ones apply ? What’s worse, most of these people are probably totally incompetent; they’re only applying for your job on the off-chance they get lucky, since it’s a low-cost action for them.

    So, you need some sort of a filter upstream of your tests, or else you’ll end up DDoSing your own admissions process. Currently, the resume acts as such a filter; and, if you’re looking to fill a junior position, college education becomes the major filtering criterion. At the very least, it screens out the totally incompetent candidates; ones who have zero experience in your field, as well as ones lacking the basic life skills to earn any kind of a degree.

    True, it’s possible that you’ll end up filtering out a Ulysses Grant: someone who is excellent at the job, but terrible at earning degrees. But such people are incredibly rare, and thus the expected negative utility is too low to concern yourself with. On the other hand, your filter is going to pass all those useless caviar-munching upper-class twits. This is a bigger problem, but the filter doesn’t have to be perfect — just good enough to make individual testing financially feasible, for those who pass the initial stage.

    Thus, while I agree that improving the hiring process is a great idea, your proposed solution of eliminating college education from consideration entirely doesn’t work (at least, not for junior positions).

    • bpulec says:

      In addition to that, firms have tried to do this

      they should hire [….] who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance.

      This doesn’t actually end up working. If you have a 1000 applicant’s and pick the 10 best performers at predicting the market, they won’t tend to outperform once you hire them. When you pick the 10 best performers you are more or less picking the 10 people who mostly via luck got the best results and reverting to the mean after you hire them.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Every good Bayesian should understand this.

      • onyomi says:

        A short-term test would have this problem, but when applying for a job at an investment firm could one not, for example, include a copy of one’s personal portfolio’s performance over the past few years, at least?

        If I had no background in finance and no degree but sent an application to Goldman Sachs with detailed proof that my personal portfolio has outperformed the market the past five years in a row, would they hire me? Interview me? Having never worked in finance, I actually have no idea.

        • cassander says:

          If you can beat the market 5 years running, you probably don’t need an entry level job at goldman.

          • onyomi says:

            What if you started out with very little investment capital?

            Like if you happen to be a plumber with only $1000 of spare income to invest each year and you’ve managed to turn that into $10,000 in five years, then your investment track record is amazing, but you’re still not wealthy (though you would be eventually, of course, if you can keep it up at that rate for decades).

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I’d say that makes it more likely you are lucky rather than good.

            Sure, absent other knowledge, you are more likely to succeed at the job. But, you don’t want to restrict yourself to only this set of knowledge, for base rate reasons alone.

            There will be “idiots” who beat the market based on chance. It would be really weird if they weren’t out there.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          We should expect that large numbers of portfolios outpaced the market over five years by chance. That you happen to be one of those people doesn’t say very much about whether you are likely to outpace the market in the next five years.

          But even if your results are genuine, they probably tell us little about whether you can make money trading millions or billions in, say, CDOs, at Goldman-Sachs. It’s like asking whether someone who does a good job managing the local Gas-n-Go can be specter to reduce supply chain costs at Walmart. They aren’t actually the same job.

          • onyomi says:

            Well the question isn’t “aren’t some people who beat the market the past five years in a row just lucky,” but rather, “is having beaten the market the past five years in a row a better indicator of likely future success than having a Harvard MBA but no particular record of investment success?” I’m not sure it is, but also not sure it isn’t.

            I’m also not sure why the skill of beating the market with a large amount of money is all that different than beating the market with a small amount of money other than that we might expect some individual investors to get lucky on only a few investments, whereas one would never (sensibly) invest all of a billion dollars in just a few areas.

            But this could also be solved: if you’re evaluating the porftolio performance of a job applicant you should give more credit to someone who beat the market for x years running with a highly diversified portfolio over someone who beat the market over the same period with a narrow portfolio. The former seems less likely to have been pure luck.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            I’m also not sure why the skill of beating the market with a large amount of money is all that different than beating the market with a small amount of money other than that we might expect some individual investors to get lucky on only a few investments, whereas one would never (sensibly) invest all of a billion dollars in just a few areas.

            What you invest in (and what you can invest in) changes. Trading a massive book requires skill in hiding your trades from anyone who might potentially front run you – not a concern for a retail investor. Unwinding a massive, non-liquid position requires negotiating skill not required for a retail investor who is a price taker because of the limited pool of buyers, etc.

          • onyomi says:

            Trading a massive book requires skill in hiding your trades from anyone who might potentially front run you – not a concern for a retail investor. Unwinding a massive, non-liquid position requires negotiating skill not required for a retail investor

            That’s a good point. Though are most people at major financial firms making decisions on that scale? I mean, I’m sure the top guys are, but I imagine even at Chase or Goldman or wherever most people are managing smaller accounts than the kind likely to have such impact.

            But if the idea is that anyone Goldman hires may be on track to make such decisions then maybe that is a reason to require negotiation and other social skills an investment savant from the wrong side of the tracks might not have.

            Though it still seems like the investment savant from the wrong side of the tracks is probably under-utilized by such firms in general, even if it’s right that they never promote him to CEO.

          • Chalid says:

            The sort of job a good stock-picking track record might recommend you for at a large asset manager is not “portfolio manager”. It would be something like “stock researcher” – you recommend stocks to a portfolio manager who discusses the stocks with you and then decides whether to trade based on how compelling your case is, how the stocks you recommend would affect the overall risk of the portfolio, and how the stocks might interact with any other business or client requirements. So right away we can see that this job is pretty different from picking stocks on your own, most obviously that we clearly need our hypothetical researcher to have very good communication skills.

            Regarding the stocks themselves: the most important difference is a retail investor can trade relatively illiquid stocks. If a company has a $30 million market cap, it’s impossible for a big asset manager to establish a worthwhile position in it even if it’s badly mispriced.

            Relatedly, a retail investor can trade *fast*; you can establish or liquidate a position by clicking a button and you’re out in a few seconds. If you’re managing a billion dollars and you try to sell $10M in a few seconds you’ll drive the price down enormously. This interacts with the first issue in that the smaller the company, the larger the impact of your trades is on the price.

            Also, HBC alluded to the issue that, once you get outside the stock market, there are tons of things that are traded that are impossible for a retail investor to buy and sell. Not so much an issue for stock funds, but if Goldman is trying to hire someone to trade bank loans or do convertible arbitrage then essentially nobody outside of the industry has any track record.

            Trading a massive book requires skill in hiding your trades from anyone who might potentially front run you – not a concern for a retail investor. Unwinding a massive, non-liquid position requires negotiating skill not required for a retail investor who is a price taker because of the limited pool of buyers

            My understanding is that this isn’t really an issue in stock trading (though it is in other types of trading). In stocks, these sorts of things can be outsourced to a broker – you tell Goldman Sachs “I want $20M of Alcoa by the end of the day using a volume-weighted average price method” and for a small fee they get you that position using their own algorithms that deal with the front-running and market impact issues for you. Alternately, some teams have trading and technology teams that specialize in these issues.

            The research analysts who do the “stock picking” don’t actually think about this stuff very much, I think, other than that the know not to bother with stocks that are too small or thinly traded.

          • Chalid says:

            … and with all *that* said, what I wrote is really about big asset managers. There are hedge funds who do have the “track record” model – they’ll essentially hire based on industry track record, and then give each hire $20M and tell them “do whatever you want with this, subject to various risk controls.” These places pay a fraction of profits if they make money and quickly fire if they don’t make money; they end up firing a large majority of hires.

            Lots of competing business models in the hedge fund industry and none is clearly superior.

          • tscharf says:

            This is probably a good time to point out that low cost index funds outperform ~80% of professional stock pickers (after their fees are deducted).

            There isn’t a lot of magic here. Very few people consistently deliver returns a lot higher than the market. Those that do are typically more lucky than good (or are involved with insider trading) and “chasing performance” isn’t likely to pay off as well as people think. One would guess that to make large gains over the market you need to place narrow high risk bets that are….high risk. I’m not disputing the existence of some highly qualified fund managers, I’m only pointing out that most of them aren’t that good when reviewing long term results.

          • tscharf says:

            If anyone knows how to separate the lucky from the good, please email me the answer, ha ha.

        • Chalid says:

          Most hedge funds won’t hire on track record alone for essentially the reason HBC describes. There are zillions of people trading their own portfolios and the fraction of people who do well due to skill as opposed to luck is very small, and also, the investable universe for an asset manager is different.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          How could you prove that it was an actual history of your portfolio rather than lies about your portfolio? Do tax returns have details about what people invested in?

          Would requiring applicants to make predictions work at all?

          • Chalid says:

            You could in principle have the person’s brokerage give a list of all their trades.

            Tax returns are no good for this, there’s very little detail and some assets are untaxed anyway.

            For most trading systems, predictions will take too long to build a track record in a practical amount of time.

    • Corey says:

      A corollary of the job market being this inefficient is that its outcomes are a bad proxy for merit. But we use that as a proxy all the time – think of the “taxation is theft” crowd or the “makers vs. takers” crowd.

  49. Jaskologist says:

    This seems like a good opportunity to re-up a past dndnrsn comment:

    Their cluelessness, lack of self-awareness, and lack of empathy for people they consider below them is absolutely breathtaking. “Let them eat cake” level stuff. They can’t understand that their high IQs are not earned, and that intellect is not a moral quality (as an aside, I think this is part of the appeal of blank-slatism to intelligent people: if they ignore that IQ is probably about 50% inherited, and most environmental factors are out of their control, they can pretend that their university degrees and so on simply show their high quality as individuals, instead of showing that they rolled well for INT at character creation). They can’t understand why all those factory workers who want to keep their jobs, or want the jobs to come back to town, instead of learning to code and moving to the Bay, or getting a business degree and moving to London or NYC, or getting a law degree and… etc. Their mastery of skills that allow them to pick up and move pretty much anywhere and earn well doing it mean that they have little consideration, respect, or loyalty for their countrymen who cannot. The people from all over the world working in finance in London feel loyalty to each other – after all, they are the best, are they not? – far more than they do to the peons from wherever they come from.

    ither this will lead to the demise of neoliberal globalism – because even if the Brexiters and the Trump voters are dumb, they’re not so dumb as to not notice the contempt, and will vote to put a thumb in the eye of the elites who despise them. Or, it will lead to tyranny of one kind or another, as the elites decide that, really, those rednecks in coal country and those losers in North England shouldn’t be allowed to vote. I saw reactions to Brexit and Trump’s election that looked stunningly like this. A lot of “it’s old people who voted for Brexit – they’re all going to be dead soon, so why should they be allowed to make decisions they’re not going to feel the results of?” type stuff, for example.

    They do not get that they are extremely lucky – generally, in the class they were born into, and uniformly, in their inheritance of genes for intelligence and the good environment provided by smart parents. They rolled very well for INT but not so great for WIS.

    The capitalist global order has been extremely good in some ways, extremely good for a lot of people – worldwide standard of living is rising, after all; people in places we think of as starvation-ridden disasters live better than Europeans did in fairly recent history (we do not think of Victorian England as a third-world country, to give one example). But it has enabled the creation of a rich, smart international elite that feels loyalty only to itself. Either the masses will rise up and destroy what the elite has built – which will be bad for all of us – or the elite will decide that the masses must be prevented from riding up – which will be bad for all of us. It will even be bad for the elite, because sooner or later they will make a mistake, and then it’s torches and pitchforks.

    • dndnrsn says:

      For the record, I wrote this after, one, reading Young’s book (pretty sure) and, two, getting really annoyed at a lot of people I went to school with. One of the results of class being talked about less and less in favour of focusing on other factors that give people unearned advantages, is that really grotesque classism goes unnoticed. Similarly, not acknowledging intelligence (and things derived from it) as a largely unearned and amoral quality leads to the pretense that it establishes moral worth. Which it doesn’t.

    • j r says:

      Their mastery of skills that allow them to pick up and move pretty much anywhere and earn well doing it mean that they have little consideration, respect, or loyalty for their countrymen who cannot.

      I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t mean anything. I have a Masters degree and a job in finance and make a comfortable six-figure salary and am married to a woman who has the same. Where is the proof that any of this means that we don’t have “consideration, respect, or loyalty” for other Americans? I, like pretty much everyone else, feel these things in concentric circles centered on my family, then my friends and my community, followed by my country, followed by a general respect for human life. I’m pretty sure that’s the norm, so let’s stop pretending that there exists some salt-of-the-earth “real America” where people really care about all Americans.

      Let’s think about what this “neoliberal globalism” really entails. It basically means that you can walk into Walmart and find a hammer that was made in China. You can convince yourself that Chinese hammer is there, because the global capitalist class had some nefarious plan to strip deserving Americans of their well-paying factory jobs and take advantage of poor Chinese workers, but that’s not really what happened. Other parts of the world developed and learned to make stuff almost as well, or just as well, or even better than Americans could. The reason that Chinese hammer is there is because Americans, of all classes, continually make the decision to buy a good enough product for a lower price rather than choose to subsidize keeping semi-skilled manufacturing work in the United States. It’s the same reason why Japanese, and now Korean, cars have been so successful. People voted with their purchasing power. Those same working class Americans who globalism supposedly betrayed, they are the ones whose decisions drive the process in the first place. So, let’s come to terms with the economic reality, before we start positing theories of class betrayal by the elites.

      And sure, if you are a part of the upper middle class, aspirational class, you’re probably going to be part of a community composed largely of people like you, but chances are you are also part of a community that contains extended family members who never went to college and work blue-collar jobs and friends who have just as much, if not more education, but chose careers that pay much less money. That is certainly my reality.

      • dndnrsn says:

        @j r

        Read the original comment. The “they” is people I personally know, and my ancedata’s just as good as yours. I get treated to a lot of upper-middle-class kids (well, late twentysomethings now) trumpeting their moral superiority to working-class people. They have attitudes that would not have been out of place among, say, British aristocratic elites a hundred or so years ago (to the point that they question whether everyone should get the vote) except with a different rationale and partisan position (eg, 100 years ago, Lord So-and-So thought it would be a dreadful mistake to get rid of the property restriction on voting, because then the unwashed masses would all vote in Socialists; now London Finance Guy thinks it’s outrageous that people who voted Brexit have a vote worth as much as his – don’t they realize they’re the past?). I never posited some sort of conspiracy. There’s no conspiracy. People on top of society like to justify that to themselves, because otherwise they would feel guilty. The educated high-earning classes, in my experience, tend to feel that they are morally superior to the masses (wherever they are from), on the basis of their superior opinions and superior intellects. They are a meritocracy compared to the old aristocracy – I would doubt I know more than one or two people whose families had much money, education, or status before the late 19th century at the earliest; they got where they are due to smarts rather than their great-great-great-great-great-etc-grandfather having been the third-in-command to King Whoever back in the day – but this does not seem to lead them to have more consideration or respect for the less-well-off than the aristocrats had.

      • tscharf says:

        Those same working class Americans who globalism supposedly betrayed, they are the ones whose decisions drive the process in the first place.

        Is the expectation that poor people will now buy expensive hammers to solve their problem? Are they the ones who negotiated the free trade agreements? If they are now opposed to free trade agreements, who is standing in their way? If they want protectionist policies who is standing in their way? If they don’t want low cost immigrant labor competition in the US who is standing in their way? If the lower skilled classes have now decided globalism has gone too far and is damaging their communities why are they being fought over changing things and who is fighting them?

        I’m not a particular fan of any of these strategies but asking why we got to where we are is academic, what are we going to do now? Convince the lower skilled classes that current policy is as good as it gets or propose changes to help them.

        • albatross11 says:

          Social, political, and economic changes happen all the time, which:

          a. Nobody exactly wanted or planned for.

          b. Many of the people hurt by the change made individually-rational decisions that led to the bad outcome.

          There’s no contradiction at all in noting that some bad outcome for (say) the working class was brought about by their own decisions, which may well have been individually rational. This is one of the situations for which we invented larger-than-an-individual institutions like governments, churches, cooperatives, unions, clubs, etc.

  50. onyomi says:

    Scott again proves he’s the best 21st-century Mohist around:

    The gentlemen of to-day all exalt the virtuous in their private speech and conduct. But when it comes to the administration of the government for the public, they fail to exalt the virtuous and employ the capable. Then I know the gentlemen understand only trifles and not things of significance. How do I know it is so? Suppose the ruler had a cow or a sheep which he could not have killed, he would surely look for a skilful butcher. Or if he wanted a garment which he could not have made, he would surely look for a skilful tailor. For these, the ruler would not employ his relatives, the rich without merit, and the good-looking, because he knew clearly they were incapable. He was afraid they would spoil the things to be attended to. So, in these, the rulers do not fail to exalt the virtuous and employ the capable. Again, if the ruler had a sick horse that he could not have cured, he would surely look for an experienced veterinary doctor. Or if he had a tight bow which he could not draw, he would surely look for a skilful workman. For these, the ruler would not employ his relatives, the rich without merit, and the good-looking, because he knew clearly they were incapable. He was afraid they would spoil the things to be attended to. So, in these matters the rulers do not fall to exalt the virtuous and employ the capable. But when it comes to the affairs of the state all is different. The relations of the rulers, the rich without merit, and the good-looking are all promoted. Then does it not seem that the rulers love their states not even as much as they love a tight bow, a sick horse, a garment, or a cow or a sheep? Therefore I know the gentlemen of the world understand only trifles and not things of significance. This is like trying to make messengers of the dumb and musical directors of the deaf.

    • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

      If you want to make a garment, you choose a skillful tailor. However, if you want to grab half of the garments from a skillful tailor, because you are the government and that’s your fair share, you better choose somebody you can trust, probably a blood relative, otherwise why he’d bring the garments back to you and not keep them (or at least part of them) for himself?

  51. Chris Robert says:

    As one of those HBS grads working in finance (not at any of the places you mention), attempting to be as aware as possible of my privilege both in getting there and being where I am now, and also concerned about inequality and merit:

    You raise a great point that sometimes for some jobs success is not just “super IQ” correlated. For these situations, it is of course ideal that we care more about chess moves than raw horsepower. I think this is important and needs to be pushed to find tests and methods to filter people more accurately in as many scenarios as possible. This has formed the core of my political beliefs for a long time: that many people are left out and cannot maximize their potential.

    However, it is not the case that all jobs are more strongly correlated with things other than intelligence.. Some, particularly the ones you reference at Goldman Sachs etc, are in fact likely most correlated with raw intelligence. One might go further (like Charles Murray) and say that most jobs in fact fit into this mold, where higher intelligence leads to better performance. If that is true, then the system today which preferenced you as a high-GPA philosopher might actually reflect the market responding to incentives. I don’t know that I personally go that far, but I would stake the less drastic point that success in many jobs is most correlated with intelligence.

    It is not hard to see why this is the case. Working in the “knowledge” economy requires constant flexibility and adaptation to different circumstances and needs. No two days or problems are the same. And so Goldman Sachs selects the people lost able to handle this uncertain environment. An IQ test might be more straightforward, but that’s lately illegal, andby selecting top students from top schools they largely get the benefit of IQ screening with the added security of behavioral norms and social networks.

    To make matters worse, those jobs that are highly G correlated are also likely to be the highest paying, at least in our current global and digital world. Good decisions are amplified and leveraged in a modern corporation much more than other types of output. There is also a smaller supply of people who can do the most difficult knowledge jobs, increasing the price of their labor relative to growing demand.

    Further, the increase in the number of college students means that many jobs that are not primarily G loaded can now chose college students, crowding out non college students. This would make sense in a works where intelligence overrides specific skills in many jobs, limiting the pool of jobs that would respond to tests of specific skills in a world of Many college graduates. I don’t know enough here to make a definitive statement.

    I view much of this as a problem because not everyone who is capable has an equal opportunity to have a seat at the table. But Charles Murray would disagree, instead showing that IQ is the greatest determinant in these outcomes by far. The question of inequality is complicated.

    In sum, the world is actually following your proposal — it just thinks that the right filtration test for a bunch of the best jobs is a system that forces students to prove broad intelligence across course work over multiple years to take jobs that require broad intelligence. We should make sure everyone has access to that system. And we should isolate as many cases as possible where general intelligence is not the primary driver of success and create different filtration mechanisms. But the job market is responding to incentives currently, and it is really hard to pull in another direction. Perhaps the best solution is broad college education (which I support) — but even then one would have to suspect that new indicators would be chosen (which may explain the rise of graduate school). I would start from position that market is choosing the right metrics, and then disprove that.

  52. blacktrance says:

    There are two common conceptual confusions around meritocracy.

    First, the “-ocracy” part is sometimes interpreted to mean that meritocracy has something to do with power – that whoever has the most merit should have the most power. To them, whether Harvard graduation or IQ tests are a better proxy for merit is just a dispute about which group should rule over them. Which doesn’t have much in common with what proponents of meritocracy want.

    Second, there’s the conflation of ideological and practical merit.
    Ideological meritocracy is centered around the idea that desert is an inherent property of some people, traits, and/or acts. Common examples include hard work, intelligence, adherence to some cultural code of virtue, etc. “If I do X, I deserve to do well, and if I’m doing poorly, then” either “society is unjust and I’m not being given what I’m owed” or “I objectively suck”. If you’re not doing well, and this is how you think of meritocracy, then you’ll have a negative self-image if you internalize its norms, and if you don’t, you’ll resent being told that you’re objectively mediocre.
    Practical meritocracy is the result of people’s free choices according to their subjective values. I prefer to undergo good surgery, so I choose to pay better surgeons (as far as I know) more. This is a common preference, so better surgeons end up being paid more. (Obviously, there are many complicating factors that affect the real-life outcome.) They’re being paid for the quality of their work, not for their intelligence or effort (which are only inputs). They’re not inherently more deserving of worldly success, but they deserve what they were freely given by others, which may be a lot if their work is valued highly. In a functioning practical meritocracy, having less doesn’t mean that you’re inherently deficient and should feel bad, but only that others haven’t chosen to trade value for value with you.

    • Aapje says:

      First, the “-ocracy” part is sometimes interpreted to mean that meritocracy has something to do with power

      “cracy” means power/authority. Perhaps the people who don’t mean to say that those who have most merit should be in power should not use a word that literally means that, also in other words like aristocracy.

      In a functioning practical meritocracy, having less doesn’t mean that you’re inherently deficient and should feel bad, but only that others haven’t chosen to trade value for value with you.

      Which means that the person is inherently deficient in providing value to others. These people are not stupid and know what is valued in this society and know that their inherent qualities don’t allow them to produce a lot of value.

      You can argue that these people should not look down on themselves for this or be looked down upon by others, but somehow the rise of meritocracy correlated with an increase in people being blamed and blaming themselves for their lack of merit.

  53. suntzuanime says:

    I think what you want is technocracy, not meritocracy. There’s a difference between giving people good jobs as a prize for being high-quality people, and giving people high-leverage jobs because that’s the most efficient way to use their generalized talents. The world needs janitors too, and we need to be able to respect that a janitor may be a nice fellow, a good father to his children, respectful of the laws of God and man, and all-in-all highly meritorious, even though he may not be capable of effectively managing a hedge fund.

    I don’t think this is a trivial distinction. I think that the equation of intelligence/education/high-leverage-skills with personal value and human dignity is the key problem with meritocracy that people are responding to. Saying “no, education isn’t the measure of a person’s value, it’s intelligence” misses the mark.

    • tscharf says:

      I think this is a good point. There is too much of a “loser at all things” paintbrush associated with being on the wrong side of the meritocracy. It is too often assumed that other negative character traits are much more likely if you aren’t intelligent.

  54. Jaskologist says:

    I was looking for a passage from Tocqueville on aristocracy that I vaguely remember, and instead stumbled upon his Old Regime and the [French] Revolution:

    The Provincial Assembly of Upper Guienne, pleading with warmth the cause of the peasantry, alluded to them as “ignorant and gross beings, turbulent spirits, and rude and indocile characters.” Turgot, [224] who did so much for the people, used language very similar.

    Expressions as harsh were commonly used in documents destined to a wide publicity, and intended to be seen by the peasantry. It was as if the writers had been living in one of those European countries like Gallicia, where the upper classes speak a different tongue from the lower, and can not be understood by them.

    Let it be borne in mind, finally, that the nobility was separated from the middle classes, which it had [247] eschewed, and from the people, whose affections it had lost; that it stood alone in the midst of the nation, seemingly the staff of an army, really a group of soldierless officers; and it will be easy to conceive how, after an existence of a thousand years, it was overthrown in a single night.

    I have shown how the royal government abolished the provincial liberties, usurped the place of the local authorities in three fourths of the kingdom, and monopolized public business, great and small; and I have also shown how Paris consequently became of necessity the master of the country instead of the capital, or rather, became itself the whole country. These two facts, which were peculiar to France, would alone suffice to show how a revolt could achieve the overthrow of a monarchy which had endured so violent shocks during so many centuries, and which, on the eve of its destruction, seemed immovable to its very assailants.

    Wikipedia gives the following familiar summary:

    Another theme was the complete dissociation between French social classes, called the Estates, of which there were three – the clergy, the nobility, and the common people. Although this dissociation arose from social divisions imposed by the feudal system, the gradual disintegration of that system after the Middle Ages resulted, paradoxically, in social dissociation becoming increasingly complete. Whereas the feudal lord had at least a partial symbiosis with his vassals, the post-feudal nobility left ancestral estates in the hands of caretakers and flocked to the power centre that radiated from Paris, the seat of the monarchy and central government. The nobility lost all connection with the common poor. The growing middle class emulated the nobility. By the late 18th Century, the separation of classes was complete, breeding the class hatred demonstrated in the Revolution.”

    • Phil Goetz says:

      de Tocqueville was a brilliant analyst, but the narrative about the French Revolution which I have seen most often recently says that there was no revolt–that it was a middle-class power grab using hired mobs, which worked because the King refused to use violence against them. There are several pages arguing this in Lawrence Brown’s The Might of the West (1963).

      I don’t know how true this is; it may be motivated by a desire to distance the French Revolution from Marxist revolution.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        I don’t know how true this is; it may be motivated by a desire to distance the French Revolution from Marxist revolution.

        That makes it sound more like Marxist revolution to me (except with a slightly different group of people paying off mobs).

  55. onyomi says:

    What I think the critics of the problematic version of meritocracy (credentialism) don’t want to admit is the connection which likely exists between it and what we might call the “Sesame Street” or “Zootopia” ethos (“anyone can be anything“) I grew up with, but which I think the baby boomers sort of invented (?).

    We’ve long denigrated the idea of occupational training as a way for the elite to shunt the lower classes into crummy occupations while reserving all the top spots at Lemming Brothers for themselves. The idea is that democracy needs everyone to be some kind of Renaissance man with a very broad base of knowledge and that attempts to narrow education too much earlier on are classist.

    But of course, the tulip subsidies necessary to turn everyone into a Renaissance man just make Renaissance man certification a prerequisite for every job with the result that those who might be very talented in one or more narrow areas but lack the resources/temperament to become a Renaissance man get shut out.

    • po8crg says:

      Of course, we get exactly the opposite critiques in England, where you typically start specialising at 14 (most kids are choosing classes that will force them into a BSc or BA degree and not the other at that age) and where you choose your subject (not major) at 17 when applying to university.

      Just to give you an example of an English degree programme, these are the courses taken by a first-year undergraduate doing my subject at my alma mater:

      Advanced Electronics
      Electricity and Magnetism, Relativity
      Laboratory and Computing I
      Mathematics
      Measurement and Uncertainty
      Mechanics, Vibrations and Waves
      Professional Skills and Basic Electronics I
      Project
      Quantum Physics and Structure of Matter

      Note that this is the complete list. Not only is there no literature, or art, or social science, there’s no biology or chemistry. My last class in biology was at 14 (it would be impossible to drop before 16 now), my last chemistry class was at 18.

      Ths list was similar in my time, though we dealt with Classical Mechanics separately from waves and covered classical wave mechanics in the Quantum I course. Just as an example of a project, my first-year project was on predicting pion distributions from typical proton-proton collisions in the (then prospective) LHC – it was to be used in filter software that was to filter out the typical collisions from the interesting ones; I don’t know whether it was actually used, but I did a load of coding under the close supervision of a PhD student who was writing the filter software.

      • onyomi says:

        I have two seemingly very conflicting ideas about this, but I think they may be reconcilable, albeit not without massive changes in the culture of education:

        On the one hand, I think most people in US society today take way too long to get started learning practical skills which will result in a realistic career they can use to support themselves. For many, many people, studying calculus and Shakespeare is pointless because they won’t master it to any useful degree, won’t retain it, and it won’t be of any value to them in their later life.

        On the other hand, I do think that some people are “late bloomers” (myself included) and that shutting them out of certain career possibilities due to their having had ADHD as a child or what have you is also bad. If my career had been determined by my level of motivation at age 14 I would currently be… unsuccessful competitive video game player, I guess (I was going to pick some blue collar job, but I don’t think that’s fair; I didn’t show aptitude for blue collar work at age 14 either; I always tested well, but in terms of getting me to actually do anything I always felt too tired and grumpy and only wanted to play video games).

        I’m not sure there’s a good solution to this, but my best guess is it would be some sort of John Taylor Gatto-esque abolition of traditional schooling as we know it. I don’t think there is just one, uniform system that will produce good results for everyone or even most people, even if that system has different “tracks” it can shunt you into. I think children’s education should probably be a lot more self-directed and self-motivated (with input from parents, of course), even from an early age, so they can intently pursue, e.g. boat making if that’s what they really love at age 12, but aren’t then stuck on the “boat making” career track if they decide at age 13 they want to focus on playing the violin.

        Having an adult career nowadays often involves a lot of experimentation. This can be a good process of “finding oneself,” but it can also be frustrating: people living with parents till they’re 35 because they can’t figure out where they fit. I think part of the problem is that so much of this “figuring out” work has been delayed by decades in a school system which decides for you how you are going to spend your time and energy.

  56. tscharf says:

    I don’t know that I dislike the meritocracy as a system, my main problem is that the winners have turned into complete jerks, ha ha. It’s the arrogance that sometimes makes me wish I could take a stupid pill so I won’t be a member anymore.

    Most of the winners did earn their way and most often there is a lot of hard work getting there, so it’s not unexpected that there is going to be a bit of gloating. It’s more and more getting to the point of that 1980’s shampoo commercial “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” though. The classism is palpable to the lower merit classes at this point.

    A kinder, gentler meritocracy is in order, and a bit of humility that the world has conveniently arranged itself to increasingly benefit the intelligent would be nice. The meritocracy seems more like the new overlords instead of the benevolent. I don’t know why I expected anything better than the behavior of an unearned aristocracy, but I did. Earning a title doesn’t make one behave better than inheriting it.

    • onyomi says:

      I don’t know that I dislike the meritocracy as a system, my main problem is that the winners have turned into complete jerks, ha ha. It’s the arrogance that sometimes makes me wish I could take a stupid pill so I won’t be a member anymore.

      Is it actually true that the successful are, today, more insufferable about how much they “deserve” to be successful than they were in the past? I don’t have that impression. I don’t recall a push to get all the heirs and heiresses of years past to repeatedly profess how undeserving they were of their inherited wealth, and that truly was an accident of birth. Nowadays, the rich, even those who didn’t start out rich, must constantly signal humility in order not to be hated. They may not mean it, but in the past, I don’t think even that much was routinely asked of them.

      People used to think simple noble birth made them better than regular people. Nowadays we would not tolerate even a self-made millionaire coming from poverty bragging about how his superior intellect and work ethic makes him better than regular people.

      • tscharf says:

        Today’s elite are no different, they wall themselves off into isolated communities in the same way elites always have. I would previously have been much more receptive to the “less insufferable” argument except the reaction to last year’s election and Brexit was pretty ugly. They are no better or deserving than all regular people, except the lowly racists, morons, sexists, Islamaphobes, homophobes, etc. In other words they are no better than people who share their same cultural values and know their speech codes, as for the others…

        I wasn’t thinking how humble they were over the last year. The moment their world was slightly threatened by a crazy orange haired protectionist the gloves came off.

        The successful are more deserving of their position because of the meritocracy and they know it. They may signal otherwise, but I’m not buying it.

        • onyomi says:

          I’ll agree with you that a lot of the humility of the rich and successful today feels fake. I’m just saying I don’t think the rich are less humble today than they were in the past. I think they are, if anything, a little more humble today, as well as less likely to derive status from pure accident of birth with no effort on their own part than they were in the past. Maybe not a high bar to clear, but makes a difference in terms of discerning a trend.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I don’t know if they’re more or less arrogant; I get the feeling they’re just arrogant about different things. The aristocracy of the olden days saw themselves as chosen by God, by prowess in battle, by their ancestors being chosen by God/having prowess in battle, whatever. The people at the top of the heap now (and I don’t just mean the billionaires who wash their limousine in Chateau Lafite; I mean the top 2 or 5 or 10 percent or whatever) see themselves as deserving their status heavily on intellectual grounds.

            Raw intellect, however, is only marginally more within someone’s control than who their great-great-great-grandfather was. It’s largely due to genetics (your parents) and environment in the womb and in childhood (your parents plus a bunch of other things that are also outside of your control). Intellectual achievements, of course, depend heavily on effort, but there is a ceiling: someone with the genes for smarts who had a good life early on can be quite lazy and still do considerably better in school than someone with an average potential for intelligence who grew up in poverty and chowed down on lead paint chips can even if they are trying their hardest. Intelligence is a morally neutral quality, but many people who are smart seem to want very badly to pretend that it is a morally positive quality. I don’t see it as being significantly less an “accident of birth” than being descended from someone who gets referred to as “The Conqueror.”

          • carvenvisage says:

            Raw intellect, however, is only marginally more within someone’s control than who their great-great-great-grandfather was

            That sounds really unplausible to me. How interested is even your average annoying smart friend in becoming more intelligent? Most people don't believe it's possible, and wouldn't place a high priority on it if it was. If 'studies show' most intelligence variation being genetic at this point it doesn't mean that it's actually impossible to get smarter.

          • onyomi says:

            Intelligence is a morally neutral quality, but many people who are smart seem to want very badly to pretend that it is a morally positive quality.

            So are physical beauty, coordination, singing ability, etc. “morally neutral,” yet that doesn’t stop society from offering money, fame, and accolades to those born with them. (If it is, in fact, unjust for people born smart to get more money, power, and accolades, physical beauty seems to me to be even more unjust: unlike intelligence, musical talent, and e.g. sports skill, it seems very little effort is required on the part of the individual born with it to take at least some advantage; moreover people are subconsciously biased in favor of the physically beautiful when evaluating them on pretty much any other subjective basis).

            So in the end, the real question seems to be: can we decouple moral worth from the value society places on a person’s labor? In theory, it’s easy: all men are created equal; everyone, from the loweliest vagrant to the biggest Hollywood star possesses a fundamental core of human dignity which cannot be lost or magnified, etc. etc.

            Practically speaking, however, people derive a sense of self worth in relation to others. If not deriving a sense of self worth from identity (white, male, American, Texan, Christian, etc. etc.), which we tend to frown on nowadays, people are going to try to derive it from their own talents and efforts (smart, beautiful, hard-working, honest, successful investment banker, loving wife, etc. etc.). And people measure the success of their talents in efforts largely by how much others seem to value them.

            So it’s not an easy problem to get around, and the alternatives (deriving self-worth from the race or caste you were born into, for example) often seem worse, or unrealistic (everyone thinking, on a deep level, that no one is really better or worse than anyone else because genes+environment).

          • dndnrsn says:

            @carvenvisage

            Source on most people not thinking it’s possible to increase? If it was possible to increase someone’s intelligence to the same degree it’s possible to increase, say, a person’s strength, that would be huge. Especially given research into things intended to remedy or avoid detriments to intelligence – eg, programs intended to reduce lead exposure – it’s hard to believe that increasing intelligence is significantly possible but not being pursued. Environmental factors are huge in intelligence, but environmental factors tend to be outside of a person’s direct control: it’s not like you can make sure your mother gets enough to eat before you’re born.

            @onyomi:

            “This person is smarter and deserves to get paid more” is different from “this person is smarter and thus is morally better.” But the unpleasant people I know from university aren’t saying “well, we’re smarter, so with our various it’s entirely right and just that we make a higher income than people without.” They are sure that they are better people. Further, I think it is ossifying into an identity category.

          • onyomi says:

            But the unpleasant people I know from university aren’t saying “well, we’re smarter, so with our various it’s entirely right and just that we make a higher income than people without.” They are sure that they are better people. Further, I think it is ossifying into an identity category.

            Maybe the people you know are very different from those I know, but I know a lot of people from Ivy League universities and have never heard anyone say anything like this. Certainly not phrased in moralizing terms (actually, talking about “virtue” and “moral superiority” itself seems very déclassé among the elite types I know).

            Which doesn’t mean, perhaps, that some of them don’t act like they are superior, or secretly think it, deep down (though the ones they think they are superior to, so far as I can tell, are mostly their cultural outgroup, i.e. blue collar, conservative, and/or rural whites, not the less successful or less intelligent in general).

            Of course, those of them who accurately appraise themselves as smarter and/or more hard-working than average may look down, to some degree, on people they perceive as less intelligent or hard-working, but I’m pretty sure that’s a thing which has been happening for a very, very long time, to some extent across social class, and not worse now. Consider that sloth used to be a deadly sin, Calvinist predestination, etc.

            None of this is to say that I don’t want to punch everyone at Davos and there may be a case to be made that today’s elites are more harmful in their hubris because of the scope of their power.

          • dndnrsn says:

            They don’t say it out loud, but their answer to the question “why are our enemies so evil” is “because they’re stupid.”

            It’s not new that the elites – not the Davoiserie, necessarily, but the top 5 or 10 percent or whatever – tend to think themselves superior. Their explanation for why changes.

          • Brad says:

            I think you guys are off the mark. The people I come across most likely to be arrogant and annoying about their own intelligence aren’t the highly-successful, vaguely left wing, Ivy League lawyers, doctors, bankers, CxOs, etc. It’s White and Asian men, mostly in tech, often somewhere in the greater right politically, that can’t wait to talk your ear off about IQ this and IQ that.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Brad

            Arrogant about their own intellect, or about their own moral superiority? I would posit that both groups are not that different. STEM-uber-alles types can tend towards a “why are we letting the dummies make decisions” style of thinking. After Brexit, an acquaintance of mine who works in finance was absolutely outraged that old people living outside of London were allowed to make decisions that would affect him, living in London.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @dndnrsn:
            The people Brad seem to be talking about are also the same who would call SJ, or the left as a whole, “evil”.

            That’s slightly orthogonal, but still a pretty strong indicator that they are making some presumptions of moral superiority.

            Of course, that goes the other way as well, which speaks to the idea that most moral claims are tribal (and not based on IQ). But it’s also true that, for a certain set of tech people, their tribe is tech people…

            Come to think of it, that might have something to with the AI risk debate. A kind of projection, perhaps?

          • dndnrsn says:

            @HeelBearCub

            Projection how, with regard to AI?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @dndnrsn:
            The argument, not charitably put, would be:

            “I’m super smart and I think people who are stupid are pretty much worthless and it would be better if they didn’t exist, therefore if a super-super smart AI comes into existence it will find humans worthless and desire our extinction.”

          • dndnrsn says:

            @HeelBearCub

            Ah, I see. I thought you meant they were doing projection involving their view of what their outgroup is supposed to think/do.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @dndnrsn:
            Yeah, the “kind of” is doing some work there, but classically projection just means anyone else, not just your outgroup, IIRC.

          • onyomi says:

            @HBC

            The people Brad seem to be talking about are also the same who would call SJ, or the left as a whole, “evil”.

            That’s slightly orthogonal, but still a pretty strong indicator that they are making some presumptions of moral superiority.

            Is it? I feel like describing something as “evil” and describing oneself as “morally superior” are very different things.

            Presumably even someone who is not particularly virtuous but not particularly bad could still recognize or decry evil when he saw it, not because he thought he was better than most, but because he identified something he saw as actively bad.

            The supposed moral superiority people are talking about here seems to be with respect to “average,” morally neutral individuals and behaviors.

            I mean, if we move from SJ to something more uncontroversially evil like rape, we wouldn’t say “people condemning rape seem to presume moral superiority.” The obvious answer is “well, they consider themselves morally superior to rapists, at least in terms of that dimension of behavior…”

            Which is not to equate SJ or the left more generally with rape, but if you think taxation is theft, as I do, I’m not sure why you can’t use some degree of moral condemnation, milder than you would apply to rape, to refer to what you see as support of evil behavior.

            Which is also not to say I think everyone who supports taxes is an “evil person” or that I am morally superior to them in every way. I do, however, think, I am closer to holding the correct ethical stance on this particular issue than they do.

          • Brad says:

            I’m certainly not denying there isn’t a certain smug self satisfaction among the high blue set that is at least in part tied up in intelligence. I’ve had the misfortune of breaking bread with people that let you know within the first five minutes of meeting them that they went to a school outside Boston.

            But at least there’s a little bit of embarrassment and cognitive dissonance there. They might say in a moment of anger that those flyover hicks shouldn’t even be allowed to vote, but the next day they’ll go out to buy Hillbilly Elegy to try to understand.

            The ‘rolls his eyes at the thought that anyone majors in a English’, ‘has factoids regarding race and IQ, and gender and IQ, at his fingertips, plus convenient evo-psyche just-so stories to go along with them’ is on another planet all together. There’s no comparison.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @onyomi:
            If one thinks rapists are evil, and one thinks that oneself is not evil, doesn’t that mean one must assume oneself to be morally superior to rapists?

            Now, you might think of rape itself, or taxation, as an evil act, without condemning the person committing the act as inherently evil, but that would be a different argument.

            If one is condemning “the left” as evil, especially as it comprises some large plurality of the population, I think one is assuming a moral superiority even if one is also hypocritical enough to deny doing so.

          • onyomi says:

            @HBC

            If one is condemning “the left” as evil, especially as it comprises some large plurality of the population, I think one is assuming a moral superiority even if one is also hypocritical enough to deny doing so.

            What if you genuinely believe that meat eating is evil (I don’t; just hypothetically), and go around telling everyone “stop eating meat; it’s evil!” More people eat meat than are leftists. Are you claiming “moral superiority”? I mean, sort of, but I feel like this is very different from claiming moral superiority on the basis of possessing some trait or talent.

          • Aapje says:

            @Brad

            Evil can refer to having wrong terminal values, lacking certain terminal values (like supporting universal suffrage) and/or advocating sub goals that will have good outcomes.

            Moral superiority can consist of having a theoretical moral framework designed around the right goals and/or having a moral framework that will achieve good goals when implemented.

            My impression is that some people define morality very much in terms of abstract goals and others very much in terms of practicality. To the latter, realpolitik* is a moral choice. To the former, it isn’t.

            It seems plausible that STEM/Engineering oriented people are more focused on outcomes, while non-STEM people tend to be more focused on deontological purity. It makes sense that these people then consider their own focus to be superior to the other.

            You seem to consider the more outcome-focused people more irritating than the more deontological people, but don’t you think that this might be because deontological arguments get far less push back within the blue tribe than outcome-focused arguments? It’s a lot easier not to get bitter/arrogant/dismissive of others when your beliefs are accepted in your environment than when they are not.

            An example. Which argument do you think gets stronger push back in the blue tribe?:
            – We shouldn’t support dictators, including Assad, because they oppress and kill people.
            – We should help Assad suppress the opposition, because lots more people will die if we don’t and if the opposition gets to power they will be at least as oppressive as Assad.

            * Grrr, this seems like another case where the US has their idiosyncratic definition, different from the original. I mean the original German definition: making choices that result in better outcomes even if that violates deontological ethics.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @onyomi:
            Isn’t one of the chief complaints of meat eaters about vegetarians (and especially vegans) a sense of claimed superiority, moral or otherwise?

            In any case, if we further examine the rhetoric about “the left” that encompasses “evil”, you will see further claims like “They want to destroy our civilization”. Usually claims about “evil” are accompanied by claims about agency. It’s possible in general to distinguish between evil acts or systems, and the people within them, but in practice it becomes very hard to maintain that distinction.

            This is of course one of Scott’s and others complaints about use of the word “racist” because of what they feel is the implied “and racism is evil and therefore you are evil”.

            Again, tribal claims of moral superiority feel like they are endemic to me.

          • Brad says:

            Vegans are a central contemporary example of arrogant, annoying, moral self righteousness. I’m surprised it would be picked as an example.

            Whether they are right or wrong doesn’t change that. If the Abolitionists were arrogant, annoying pricks then they were arrogant, annoying pricks. Doesn’t matter that slavery really was a terrible evil.

            Furthermore, they’d probably have been more effective Abolitionists had they not been personally repulsive. (Assuming for the sake of argument they were.)

            In any event, the group in question might be arrogant and annoying and self righteous vis-a-vis taxation is theft, or on the subject of so-called social justice warriors, but that’s not the issue directly at hand. Rather it is being arrogant and annoying and self righteous about the supreme importance along every conceivable axis of the intelligence they just happen to think they themselves possess in abundance.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Brad

            Well, I don’t know many STEM-supremacists in real life. Probably due to proving my manifest inferiority by doing a humanities degree. I surely will be turned into paperclips first.

            Raises the question: does being open about an unpleasant sense of superiority make someone better, or worse? Similarly, how does hypocrisy fit in? One of the things that rankles me most with the folks I know is they make a big show about, say, the racism of right-wingers, but whenever they throw a party the group that shows up is whiter than the Republican base, let alone the Conservative.

            (Is it hypocrisy that some my-IQ-makes-me-better-than-those-plebs STEM types fear a superintelligent AI turning them into paperclips?)

    • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

      my main problem is that the winners have turned into complete jerks

      True. That happens. Maybe a lot. But why would you think changing the system by which the winners are assigned (and make no mistake – the only system what doesn’t have winners is where everybody are complete and terminal losers, the proverbial boot stamping on a human face – forever) – would change the arrogance of the jerks? There will always be jerks, at least until we learn to genetically engineer whatever makes people jerks out. And some of the jerks will end up winners (some would end up losers but we’d never hear about those). So using presence of the jerks among winners as a metric of the system’s performance appears to me a rather useless idea.

      • tscharf says:

        I guess there was an underlying assumption (at least in my brain) that the previous aristocracy by heredity were just entitled arrogant people of low morals and that once the good and proper people took over then we can dispose with the smugness and power hoarding. Now that this test has been run I can state my hypothesis was incorrect and that smugness and power hoarding is a universal attribute of those who obtain power by whatever means. The temptations of the position are the main corrupter. Everyone is a benevolent dictator in their own mind.

        • reasoned argumentation says:

          Alternative interpretation – the current credentialed elite (distinct from meritocratic) are the ones who are entitled and arrogant and projected their own flaws on the previous elite.

          Why would they project these particular views? When your self-conception is of being smart and qualified and you also have the very strange belief that intelligence is some kind of moral virtue caused by hard work rather than genetic inheritance then when the prior elite denied you it looked like they were arrogantly failing to acknowledge your own superiority.

          The credentialed elite have a whole bunch of beliefs* that are central to their worldview that they hold to very strongly and at the same time which imply their moral goodness – regardless of the results produced.

          * Intelligence isn’t genetic and heretible; intelligence isn’t measurable (which means that the only thing you have to go on is credentials – which they have)

        • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

          previous aristocracy by heredity were just entitled arrogant people of low morals

          From what I know about it – admittedly, woefully little – it is not true. There were some astounding jerks there, of course, but having seen Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot, and others like them, we can’t really complain about medieval jerks too much. I would even say aristocracy probably tried the most to conform to the morals, as it was understood then (peasants may not have time to think too much about morals and philosophy, being busy trying not to die of hunger and disease). With usual human rate of success, of course, which we didn’t do much to improve and have little idea how.

          once the good and proper people took over then we can dispose with the smugness and power hoarding

          There’s not only no known way to make that happen, there’s not even any sign of agreement who “good and proper people” would be. We regularly witness occurrences where certain people are proclaimed humanity’s last best hope by about half of the population and literally Satan’s incarnate, infused with every vice known to men and inventing some special ones just for them personally, by another half. While the remaining 10% or so of the population view this spectacle in despair. What in this picture could give an idea we suddenly can identify what “good and proper people” are, find a way to give them all the power and ensure they would never become smug and power hungry? Last 10000 years of human history was not a spectacular success in that, what did we invent that changed that?

          Everyone is a benevolent dictator in their own mind.

          Exactly, and that’s the best place for a benevolent dictator to stay. Outside of one’s head, I think it is prudent to account for the fact we’d have jerks, we’d have powerful jerks, and build the system that assumes their existence as a fact, and still manages to work properly. Or at least tolerably.

  57. Phil Goetz says:

    Programming is almost the only well-paying field where people can still do this, and it doesn’t surprise me that the establishment keeps portraying its culture as uniquely evil and demanding it be dismantled.

    First, I don’t know who the establishment is, or which establishment you mean.
    Second, citation needed re. demanding the dismantling of programming culture.

    • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

      citation needed re. demanding the dismantling of programming culture

      I am too lazy to go for a quote hunt right now, but if you didn’t encounter literally dozens of articles demanding swift destruction of “bro culture” which is presumably pervasive and endemic in software world, you are reading a very different Internet from the one I do. And I want to know how to get to yours. Because in mine it’s all around. And I don’t mean just the regular SJW watering holes, it regularly shows up, for example, in such supposedly techno-friendly places as Hacker News.

      • Corey says:

        You appear to be assuming that bro culture and meritocracy are one and the same. Counterexamples abound, like the department I’m in which is entirely boring middle-aged married men.

        • Aapje says:

          You misspelled a word:

          which is entirely broing middle-aged married men

        • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

          No, the writers of those articles are assuming that. Sometimes implicitly, sometimes stating it explicitly.

          Counterexamples abound, like the department I’m in

          I never said those articles describe anything like the reality. I am only saying these articles exist and demand dismantling of the culture they claim exists. If it turns out journalists in “sixth reason would shock you!” types of magazines do not always strictly adhere to reality and perform necessary research before making broad generalized conclusions while writing their articles, I would not be shocked. In fact, I would not even be mildly surprised.

  58. Phil Goetz says:

    I don’t believe the anti-meritocracy trend is what you say it is. It fits too well with Marxist principles, which are also on a rise. It comes from Marx’s slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” That’s the Golden Rule of Marxist ethics. Meritocracy means unequal outcomes for unequal people. Marxism demands equal outcomes for unequal people.

    Anti-meritocracy also fits with the longstanding public horror of genetic screens. Many science fiction dystopias have been written about worlds in which people are, say, offered more money for jobs because their genes indicate they might be good at those jobs. The odd thing about these dystopias is that they don’t spin this as being objectionable because it’s irrational prejudice; they assume that it works, and results in people being offered the jobs they are most-suited for. Yet no one has yet written an SF story in which this is seen as anything but bad.

    Here’s a theory: Westerners, or at least Americans, like to ascribe both ethical primacy and magical powers to willpower. In American movies, the most-virtuous thing someone can do is to want something very, very much. Being smart or making right decisions is, by contrast, not seen as a moral virtue at all. Also, wanting something very, very much has (in American movies) the magical power to make it happen. Making success depend on talent, skill, or ability makes it impossible to succeed via wanting something very, very much.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      “In American movies, the most-virtuous thing someone can do is to want something very, very much”

      And suffer a lot to get it. I believe this has something to do with injuries from exercise.

  59. albatross11 says:

    This whole discussion makes me think of Interfluidity’s trilemma of inequality, pathology, and liberalism. (I think what he’s calling liberalism is partly what we’re calling meritocracy.)

  60. MostlyCredibleHulk says:

    One of the few places I see this going well is in programming.

    By what I am sure is an absolute coincidence, programming is one of the few areas where you can earn substantial money without needing any particular license, be it government-enforced or trade guild-enforced, do not generally need any specific degrees (yes, it’d help but lots of people made it without any, and there are a lot of places – decent places – who would accept a person without a formal degree), does not have any noticeable formal unions or other collective labor relations units, and has probably the least amount of government regulation about how to do business compared to any other industry of the same size.

  61. Atlas says:

    The other articles actually mean it. Their argument seems to be gesturing at the idea that elites send their kids to private schools, where they get all A+s and end up as president of the Junior Strivers Club. Then they go to Harvard and dazzle their professors with their sparkling wit and dapper suits. Then they get hired right out of college to high-paying management positions at Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV. Then they eat truffle-flavored caviar all day and tell each other “Unlike past generations of elites, we are meritocrats who truly deserve our positions, on account of our merit”, as the poor gnash their teeth outside.

    Did any of the linked articles present evidence that would support this (light hearted) caricature of America’s putative oligarchy? Scott “grants” that this is true, but I’d really like to see a better evidentiary case made for the idea that “elites” have some sort of huge non-merit advantage that they use to outcompete more talented but less privileged non-elites. I remember Murray and Herrnstein claiming in the Bell Curve (which was really much much more about these kinds of cognitive meritocracy issues rather than race differences) something along the lines of your IQ at 13 being a better predictor of future success on multiple dimensions than your parent(s)’ income. Which sounds plausible to me in a “skin in the game” sense—if I had to choose between being born with significantly above average intelligence in a very low income household vs. being born with significantly below average intelligence in a very rich household, I’d choose the former.

    For example, in the review by Freddie deBoer that Scott linked, Freddie wrote:

    But the need to scare readers leads Twilight of the Elites to frequently tell too simple a story about advantage and ability… Hayes has often told the story of…Hunter College High School in New York, [where] students are selected from all five boroughs based on two high-stakes entrance exams and nothing else. There is, according to Hayes, no preferential treatment for the rich or powerful; he claims that Michael Bloomberg’s children would have no better chance of getting into Hunter than your child or mine.

    So Hunter is supposed to be a gleaming symbol of the meritocracy: Entrance is based entirely on your intellectual aptitude, provided we accept the dubious notion that the entrance exam is a valid and reliable assessment tool for intelligence. And in its history, Hunter has indeed attracted an impressive diversity of students in terms of race, ethnicity, and economic class. But Hayes claims that this onetime haven of equal opportunity has been corrupted by the rise of the for-profit test-preparation industry, which offers New York City parents the opportunity to spend vast sums to better their children’s odds of getting in to Hunter. Meritocracy subverted.

    Hayes likes the simplicity and narrative power of this story, but in constantly casting blame on the test-prep industry—the Princeton Review, Kaplan, sundry smaller companies— he finds a specific and obvious culprit for inequality when the real culprits are multiple, vague, and diffuse. Educational outcomes are dictated by a vast number of factors uncontrollable by students, parents, or educators, and the lines are never as bright as “took a test prep class/didn’t.” If it’s anything like the SAT and most other standardized tests, the Hunter exam is undermined by sociocultural factors that condition our metrics for intelligence.

    The students who take Hunter’s exam — students like the young Chris Hayes — are constrained by sociocultural conditions that they have absolutely no control over. Rich students enjoy significant and measurable advantages over poor ones even when they have not received formal test-prep training. In my own field, writing and literacy education, we know that consistent early exposure to syntactically rich language, oral and written, is essential for later literacy tasks and academic performance. But the levers to create those conditions are hard to push, because “early” here means very early, with the critical period (if indeed it exists) beginning perhaps as early as six months, with some researchers claiming that the most important period for later literacy ends as early as 30 to 36 months, well before children begin formal schooling. Since syntactic maturity tends to be heritable from one generation to the next (through behavior, not genetics), in many cases the parents had essentially no control over what they bequeath to their children. Given these buffeting forces, how could such a test be considered “fair”?

    I find this argument in favor of the “elite privilege” narrative very weak. Of course Bloomberg’s children have a higher chance of going to a selective high school than randomly selected NYC kids—but not because Bloomberg can use his personal connections or wealth to distort the selection process. They stand a higher chance because, as the children of at least one and likely two parents with non-trivially above average intelligence, they’re more likely to have a favorable combination of genes and childhood environment that blesses them with above average intelligence. Hayes is absolutely right in the sense that conditional on equal intelligence, Bloomberg’s kids have no advantage in the selection process. What I think a lot of leftists miss is that the alleged privilege “elites” receive from things like wealth and parental connections is confounded by their parents having the kind of valuable traits that allow them to accrue those things in the first place. (Conversely, the disprivilege that “marginalized” people have from e.g. poverty or having a dad in prison is confounded by their parents having the kind of unfortunate traits that lead them to end up in such situations.)

    Freddie also claims that the notion that intelligence tests are a reliable measure of intelligence is “highly dubious.” (No doubt this claim is echoed in many articles nominally contra meritocracy.) This is obviously a testable and disprovable hypothesis; most people would agree that you need to be “intelligent” to enter professions like engineering, medicine, law, academia (particularly e.g. math or physics) and so on. And no doubt in real life—on the basis of data from SAT scores highly correlated with IQ if nothing else—people in these fields have IQs in a range that would be mind bogglingly improbable if IQ was totally independent of “intelligence”.

    But the practical utility of psychometric tests isn’t necessarily to measure some Platonic ideal of “intelligence” (though I bet they’re pretty frickin’ good at doing that), it’s to measure abilities that predict success in some domain. Unless psychometrics denialists can show that standardized tests underpredict the success of “marginalized” people compared to “elite” people, which for some unknown reason they seem never to do, there’s no evidence that test scores are a biased measure of ability.

    So we should separate out, as Scott does in the OP, the ideas that “actually existing elites are elite because on average they have more ‘merit’ than actually existing non-elites” and that “actually existing elites have more merit on average than actually existing non-elites due to unfair privilege, so hypothetically more actually existing non-elites could be elites if we had a TRUE meritocracy/they were raised in better environments.”

    But again I want to push back the burden of proof on people who seemingly assert the latter idea. E.g. Scott says:

    I think we should be doing the opposite: reworking every field we can on the same model. Instead of Goldman Sachs hiring whoever does best at Harvard, they should hire people who can demonstrate their knowledge of investing principles or (even better) who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance. Some of these people will be the academic stars who learned how to do it at Harvard Business School. But a lot of others will be ordinary working-class people who self-studied or who happen to have a gift, the investing equivalents of General Grant and Garry Kasparov.

    This is a little different from what I wrote above, but it’s the same idea of “we need real meritocracy.” But the problem I have with this is that I think it isn’t just that “some” financiers would come from HBS and “some” from studying in the public library under some sort of perfect meritocracy; it seems to me that “a whole @#$%ing lot” of financiers would still come from HBS and “not a lot” would come from out of nowhere Good Will Hunting style. (And a fair bit of those people are probably gifted enough to find a way to succeed anyway even in the current system.)

    There’s a scene in Freaks and Geeks where Lindsay says something along the lines of “hey, Albert Einstein didn’t go to college” to her guidance counselor and he responds “right! Neither did Frank.” “Who?” “The guy who pumps gas down the corner.” And that’s kind of how I felt about the whole “Grant and Kasparov” thing. For every Ulysses S. Grant, there’s a Douglas MacArthur (first in his class) or Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. (43rd in his class, went on to get a Master’s in engineering, IQ tested at around 170), and there are probably a lot of non-notable bottom ranking West Point graduates who end up being somewhat less effective officers on average than their high-ranking classmates. (Though I think this is kind of a rigged example because, while I don’t have any hard data, I suspect that military leadership is a prestigious domain where success is the result of more factors than raw intelligence than usual, like courage, charisma, physical fitness, etc.)

    Because I think that, at the risk of imputing hard to prove motivations to other people, when you actually read the kind of articles that are linked as anti-meritocracy here, they think that the real issue isn’t what Scott thinks it is—that we don’t have enough of a meritocracy. On the contrary, I think that the real problem leftists have is that we already have too much meritocracy. Because meritocracy doesn’t produce a random walk of success—for whatever reason(s), certain groups of people, on the basis of class, gender, race, etc., will often tend to do better on average than certain other groups of people on a fair (or even biased against them!) playing field.

    And I think that, in the case of meritocracy where the most successful groups are ones leftists don’t like, leftists are unhappy about this and say that meritocracy is a false idol. That is, in the case of e.g. sports, which is very meritocratic, not many leftists complain about the massive overrepresentation (relative to population share) of blacks in the NFL, the NBA, track and field stars, etc. and say that we need more whites and Asians to increase diversity. But sports isn’t really that important, so it’s ok to have a meritocracy there. Whereas something like admission to NYC specialized high schools is pretty important, so the fact that we have a meritocracy there where non-Asian minorities aren’t as successful on average is considered a dangerous problem by some politicians and activists that needs redressing by tilting the playing field.

    TL;DR: I think that this line of thinking:

    Reworking every field we can on the same model. Instead of Goldman Sachs hiring whoever does best at Harvard, they should hire people who can demonstrate their knowledge of investing principles or (even better) who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance. Some of these people will be the academic stars who learned how to do it at Harvard Business School. But a lot of others will be ordinary working-class people who self-studied or who happen to have a gift, the investing equivalents of General Grant and Garry Kasparov.

    is kind of missing the point, because I think that an absolutely perfect “hiring the best people” system would still mostly hire the people who get hired under the current system, and the reason leftists aren’t happy about today’s system is because it hires people they don’t like for top positions, not because the process used to hire them is insufficiently meritocratic, because (for better or for worse) they care about equality and diversity more than they care about having effective institutions.

    (Sorry all for any rambling/incoherence/bad engaging with OP, I just wanted to get some of my thoughts out and I didn’t have a ton of time to compose/refine/reread OP.)

    • tscharf says:

      Bloomberg’s kids have no advantage in the selection process

      You have to be naive to believe this. While I agree part of the equation (and the “problem”) is the self selection of elites marrying and having offspring, the intangibles of political connections, the cultural bubble, better schools, and opportunities wealth provides are major factors. Joe Sixpack cannot spend his summers in Haiti feeding the poor to pad his resume. Joe Sixpack doesn’t even have any idea this is a thing. If you go to school in the hood your entrance application is quite likely to be inferior due to the low expectations of students there and you aren’t going to have 45 AP credits. Try to be the captain of the lacrosse team where there isn’t a lacrosse team. Teachers are less likely to be highly qualified and inspiring. Legacy admissions. Knowing what colleges want to hear. Parents who don’t care or don’t know the process. Knowing the speech codes in interviews. Not even understanding need based aid.

      Talent matters, but talent with good prep is an advantage. There is nothing inherently wrong with parents giving their kids every advantage, it’s being a good parent. The answer isn’t to handicap good parents. My preferred answer is to use a pool of qualified applicants and then use a lottery for admissions.

  62. pontifex says:

    This is just another episode in the culture wars, right?

    If, like a lot of people on the left, you take it as axiomatic that heredity and gender have no influence on IQ, you have to find some way to explain why they seem to be so strongly correlated in our meritocratic society. So you have to argue either that we don’t have an actual meritocracy, or that some races and genders need special treatment to “catch up” from a temporary setback that happened because of historical oppression. Most SJWs opt for a mix of both arguments.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I think one way to steel-man their arguments would be as follows:

      In our society, straight white men (and, to a much lesser extent, straight white women) dominate the upper classes. Thus, children of straight white parents are much more likely to receive certain advantages in life, as compared to children of other demographic groups: proper nutrition, good primary schooling, medical care, socialization, etc. By the time these kids grow up and go to college, these advantages are not only compounded, but also enhanced. It would already be easier for them to get into an Ivy League school as compared to e.g. a black gay child who was raised in poverty by a single mother, since the white children spent their childhoods preparing for college, whereas the black kids spent it mostly trying to survive. On top of that, though, a combination of biased admissions criteria and outright bribery by their parents smooths their path even further. This situation repeats itself when they graduate college and enter the job market.

      Thus, members of privileged groups end up getting the best educations and the best jobs, whereas members of disadvantaged groups get shunted to lower-level positions (if they’re lucky), and the cycle perpetuates itself. The problem is not just the bribery and old-boy network cronyism (though that is an issue); these privileged individuals really will perform somewhat better at their jobs than the disadvantaged ones (on average). However, if we always pick the most qualified person for the job, the disadvantaged demographic groups will stay disadvantaged forever.

      One solution to this is Affirmative Action; however, it can only take you so far. We could give every possible advantage to the black transgender non-binary woman over a straight white man during e.g. college admissions, but it won’t work if xe never applies to college to begin with. And even if xe does apply, xe will most likely end up washing out, unable to keep up with the curriculum (which is calibrated for straight white men who had every academic advantage in life) due to no fault of xer own.

      Thus, we should reject meritocracy altogether; it’s the only way to ensure that all demographic groups get an equal shot in life. We may re-visit meritocracy at some future point, when racial/gender/etc. biases have been eliminated; but for now, meritocracy serves to uphold the status quo, and must thus be eliminated, instead.

      • AeXeaz says:

        Abandoning meritocracy might have other effects, of course, like… destroying civilization as we know it, making sure we never even get the chance to re-visit the idea in the future.

        • Bugmaster says:

          I believe that at least some of the opponents of meritocracy would argue that civilization as we know it is oppressive, and should be destroyed.

      • tscharf says:

        the disadvantaged demographic groups will stay disadvantaged forever

        It’s probably more accurately an equation that involves the mixing rate (upward mobility) rather than an iron wall, so it’s not forever. There has been progress since slavery but advantages still exist 150 years later. The question is whether the mixing rate needs to be artificially changed to speed up the process or we accept change on long timescales. At the current rate it is going to take many more generations before it looks equitable. How one changes things also matters, crude mechanisms such as minority preferences or more indirect methods such as better parenting.

        • Aapje says:

          @tscharf

          Affirmative action won’t achieve this since disadvantaged groups like Appalachian whites are not recognized by those who favor affirmative action, as it doesn’t fit their narrative of how the disadvantages came about and lasted.

          A far less crude solution is to assist all with a background that limits their ability to achieve real or perceived merit.

  63. Curiositydrivenideas says:

    Really interesting post. I agree that many writers seem to blame the concept of meritocracy in their title, while their actual article is about the problem that we don’t really live in one. I often think “the illusion of meritocracy” would be a better title.

    But I also think meritocracy has a different issue – we wouldn’t just give those with the most merit (brains, talent, hard work) better jobs, more money & sucess. We also give them more respect.

    A CEO who dodges their tax gets more respect than a cleaner who volunteers at a homeless shelter on their day off. Brains, talent & hard work are not inherently moral – it’s how they are used that makes them good or bad.

    (In healthcare you could argue it’s different, more empathy may get better results. it may be one of the few professions where morality & merit are more closely aligned)

    I thought Alain De Bottom put it well in his Ted talk. We should strive to make society as meritocratic as possible but remember it will never be possible to truly assess someone’s worth.

    A meritocracy should determine your job but no more.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=MtSE4rglxbY

  64. Eponymous says:

    I don’t say this often, but I think that Scott is way off base here. My specific points of disagreement:

    (1) Scott seems to imply that there’s a lot of non-meritocratic credentialism, nepotism, and cronyism going on. I pretty strongly disagree. Companies are in the business of hiring and promoting the best-qualified people, at least if they want to stay competitive. Education and so on are noisy proxies for quality. If Scott can come up with a way to accurately assess peoples’ investing ability, that scales well enough to be of use to the HR department of Goldman Sachs, then I’m sure GS would be happy to use it.

    (2) Scott seems to imply that people who say they’re against meritocracy are not actually against meritocracy, but against the non-meritocratic practices he thinks are going on. I disagree. Scott focuses on productive efficiency to the exclusion of other considerations; but in our current economic system, the decision about who gets job X is not just about who can best perform job X, but also who gets the income, power, and prestige associated with job X. And since there’s a high correlation between the income, power, and prestige that derives from a job, and the “merit” required to perform that job; and since there’s also a high correlation between said “merit” and being from a privileged background, race, and gender; people who don’t want income, power, and prestige distributed according to privilege, race, and gender are in fact willing to give up some productive efficiency to achieve their aims.

    (3) I think that, painting in very broad strokes, you can characterize how “liberal” vs. “conservative” someone is on economic matters by where they fall on the efficiency-equality Pareto frontier. Conservatives are the sort of people who say, “Wouldn’t you want your surgery done by the most competent surgeon? And if universal application of this principle results in high inequality, then so be it; it’s worth it.” Whereas liberals are the sort of people who say, “Why should all the best jobs go to people who happened to win the birth lottery? Are the efficiency gains really worth it if that’s the outcome?” (Of course, there are differences in positive beliefs that tend to go along with these moral values.)

    (4) A closely related note: Scott implies that the powers that be are “targeting” programming because it’s uniquely meritocratic. I think it’s being targeted because it’s too white/asian and male. Of course, these are related, and I suspect that this issue lies behind a lot of people who criticize “meritocracy”. The extreme case is literally giving the position to a less deserving person (according to meritocratic criteria) because of their race/gender, i.e. affirmative action. And this is actually pretty common — I bet it matters more in actual hiring practices than unwarranted credentialism and cronyism, for instance. (Though there’s probably a decent amount of “tribalism” in hiring, i.e. hiring people who are “like you” in a general sense. That’s a pretty fundamental human bias.)

    • onyomi says:

      people who don’t want income, power, and prestige distributed according to privilege, race, and gender are in fact willing to give up some productive efficiency to achieve their aims.

      Yet those people don’t want the affirmative action surgeon performing surgery on themselves, of course.