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Friday, January 25, 2013

Meritocracy vs. Equality

David Brooks wrote (NY Times 1.25.13) that the recent Obama Administration’s focus on income inequality and the redistributive policies to reduce it were misplaced.  There is a difference in American society more fundamental, says Brooks, than income – the growth of a meritocracy which benefits the few and leaves the many behind.  This is not a bad thing, says Brooks.  After all, high achievement, ambition, and motivation are at the very heart of the American psyche and responsible for our remarkable innovation and productivity.
The first problem with the effort [to promote social and economic equality] is that it’s like shooting a water gun into a waterfall. The Obama measures, earned after a great deal of political pain, simply aren’t significant enough to counteract the underlying trends.
The second problem is the focus on income redistribution. Recently, there’s been far more talk about tax increases than any other subject. But the income disparities are a downstream effect of the human capital and geographic disparities. Pumping a few dollars into San Joaquin, Calif., where 2.9 percent of the residents have bachelor’s degrees and 20.6 percent have high school degrees, may ease suffering, but it won’t alter the dynamic.
No matter what government does, those who can escape the small towns and cities of America for the nodes of higher achievement – Washington, Boston, San Francisco, San Jose – do so.  In these nodal cities, over 50 percent of residents have college degrees, and are employed in upwardly mobile, demanding intellectual jobs.  Not only that, but at the top levels of employment in these cities, many executives, managers, and professors have obtained degrees from America’s top universities:
Robert Oprisko of Butler University found that half of the jobs in university political science programs went to graduates of the top 11 schools. That is to say, if you have a Ph.D. from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and so on, your odds of getting a job are very good. If you earned your degree from one of the other 100 degree-granting universities, your odds are not. These other 100 schools don’t even want to hire the sort of graduates they themselves produce. They want the elite credential.
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What Brooks is suggesting is that no injection of federal money, either directly or indirectly, can transform Flint, Michigan; New Britain, Connecticut; or Vineland, New Jersey into dynamic, fluid, intellectually exciting places.  The brain drain will continue, leaving these cities even worse off.

However, Brooks’ observations only confirm what has always been true in America – upward social mobility and economic competition.  People for generations have fled narrow, stultifying existences in Small Town, America for the bright lights of the city; and have understood that a premier education is the best and most proven passport for entry into this rarified world.  American capitalism has always been a system of inequality because it is a country devoted to equality of opportunity.

Benefits for those left behind are few and far between because we laud and reward those who rise and prosper.  Because intelligence, talent, drive and ambition, creativity, and insight will always be concentrated in the very few, it is no surprise that they leave insular lives for companionship with like-minded people. 

The only real issue is whether or not concerted efforts to help individuals rise to the meritocracy can prove beneficial.  That is, rather than continuing the generalized,scattershot, and minimal redistribution of income permitted within current American political philosophy; should investment be made in reconfiguring K-12 education to foster, nurture, and encourage the talented (contrasted to today’s policy of favoring the disadvantaged)?
Our system of higher education is like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks up some of the smartest people from across the country and concentrates them in a few privileged places.
However, higher education is more often than not a failed system, charging exorbitant fees and providing very little.  Those students who do manage to graduate do so in debt and with few prospects of good employment and little of the civic education necessary to make them responsible citizens.

Poor education is but part of the problem which consigns many American to socio-economic levels below their potential.  Not only must education be reformed, but public funding of social programs which perpetuate dependency, the status quo, and inertia must be discontinued and families forced into the mainstream of competitive, meritocratic America. 

It is not clear how much this investment and radical transformation of local communities will enable more people to rise to the top.  It may help to enable them to climb a few rungs on the socio-economic ladder, but it is unlikely to swell the ranks of the meritocracy.  These super-Americans will always find a way.  One needs only look at the most prominent Americans – our Presidents – to see how their drive and ambition was unstoppable.  Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, Obama were not born of privilege, but with ability, vision, and strength. Few highly successful Americans these days have been born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

American meritocracy is a good thing, and should continue to be encouraged. There should be no leveling of the playing field which restricts or inhibits rise and accession to it.  There will always be a social bell curve with the talented and unique at one end, the less well-endowed and disadvantaged at the other, and the great middle either fat and satisfied or striving to move up and out.

There are meritocracies in every society, even in primitive tribes.  If there is such a thing as a human bell curve, then where was it among the Jivaro? Where could one see power, influence, intelligence, and cultural leadership?  In the priests, witch doctors, and shamans; and in the bravest, most cunning, and most resourceful hunters and warriors.  Even the most primitive, marginal human populations act according to the same laws of human nature.

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Therefore Brooks’ observations are interesting, but nothing new.

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