The Meritocracy Trap

John Staddon, professor emeritus at Duke, reviews The Meritocracy Trap over at Quillette. It’s a good review, and if you want to get into a discussion about the book or the topic I recommend you read it, so you don’t talk yourself out on a limb.  But if you just want to know the gist of it, I can simplify: First, David Markovitz, author of The Meritocracy Trap, mostly means academic credentialing when he uses the term meritocracy. Most of us mean something else by the term.  Insofar as academic credentialing is a poor substitute for meritocracy, Markovitz is correct – it does screw the middle-class in order to give advantages to an elite class attempting to be hereditary.  We agree.  We just think you don’t know what a real meritocracy is, perhaps from being at Yale all these years. 

Secondly, Markovitz thinks the standardised testing used to get children into colleges, especially elite colleges, can be gamed, and that rich people know how to do this. This is just not true. Instruction can improve scores, but remember the following number: Total SAT will go up 50-100 points from junior to senior year anyway, because of maturing brains being able to think more abstractly, see more analogies, and not get distracted by buzzwords and irrelevancies. Beyond that, instruction and supposedly gaming the system don’t add much. If you want I can go into that in more detail.

Markovitz doesn’t believe in natural ability and thinks it’s all gaming the system.  He’s just wrong. Summary Over.

Related Topic: He is bothered that the fabled 1% somehow keep having more and more advantage every year, instead of the world leveling. But that is a natural and perhaps unavoidable consequence of a world with better communication that is more interconnected.  200 years ago, a LeBron James or a Beyonce or a JK Rowling or a Century 21 might be the best in town at what they do, and even start to get a reputation in the surrounding towns, then maybe statewide. They could make a living writing, entertaining, selling. Yet in the next state, a person less talented might get just as famous and also make a living, because the extra 10% advantage than the true expert has would just be wasted. No one is going to take a daily horse-and-buggy ride of 100 miles to read a 10% better newspaper columnist.

Yet in an interconnected world – where one can be famous not only in Akron but in Ohio; not only Ohio but in America; not only America but the English-speaking world; not only the English-speaking world but the whole planet – that 10% advantage will be parlayed into fabulous wealth. Fairly automatically.  Better investors don’t have to screw other almost-as-good-investors to dominate.  It will just happen.  Now, because the stakes are so high, and the margins of advantage among the very best are more like 1% instead of 10%, it is true that there is a great deal of angling, corruption, cheating, and criminality. That shuffles who is at the top.  But it doesn’t change the fact that the top is going to be there, that someone is going to reap the benefits of that audience.

As we reach ever more markets, not only China but India, not only India but Africa, not only cities but towns, not only towns but villages, the 1% is going to make  even more. You can count on it. Not because they are cheating or screwing people over (some of them are, but it doesn’t change things for us), but because their slight advantage can be expressed over greater population.

And if you are doing something new that actually creates wealth, then there’s more to fight over, not less. Michael Jordan not only made money playing basketball, he and his people figured out that there might be money in sneakers with his name on them.  And there was. New money. He didn’t take it from anyone (except, I suppose, his customers).

20 thoughts on “The Meritocracy Trap”

  1. Most of the “thinking” in this area is entirely delusional.

    There is no real “meritocracy” in either the educational establishment or the rest of the things that this Staddon character thinks of when he uses that term. A true “meritocracy” would not rely on gateway institutions with voluntary participation; instead, it would be out in the countryside, identifying those of true merit, and forcefully putting them where they can be best utilized by society.

    Seen any vans going around your neighborhoods, testing the kiddies and then dragging them off for “optimization”? No? We don’t have a meritocracy.

    What we have is the first stages of a self-evolving aristocracy, much like the early days of feudalism. It doesn’t rely on anything more than what such things have consisted of in the past–The connected. You really think that a Hunter Biden would get anywhere on his own merits? He’s a near-perfect exemplar for the connected class, a man whose primary skill is being there with his daddy, holding the bag.

    What Staddon sees as “merit”, the rest of us call “connected”. That’s all it is–Look at the average graduate of these institutions: Are they intellectually superior? Do they have better educations? Are they better read than their state-university peers?

    Are they more successful, in real terms? Do they run things better? Are we better off with them in charge of things?

    Reality is, none of the above can be answered with a “yes”. Quite possibly, none of those questions could have been answered “yes” at any point in our history, because the idiots have always been running things. Why? Connections.

    It isn’t what you know, it’s who you know. There is no “meritocracy”, there’s only the mirage of one. The reality is that most of the people we have running the game are scions of the former elites, who have gracefully morphed into today’s “egalitarianist” elite. Reality isn’t what is presented in the media–Look at the incestuous relationships between governance and the media, at the higher levels. They’re intermarried to a degree that should disturb the hell out of the common man, because that means that the sources we rely on to keep the politicians honest are compromised, corrupted. None of these people are to be trusted, nor should we trust any of the people they recruit and promote.

  2. “Markovitz doesn’t believe in natural ability and thinks it’s all gaming the system.”

    I strongly suspect he is writing from his personal history. Twice too clever so he outs himself. With no loss of standing in such a profession. As you so expertly point out, it’s Yale (and Harvard, tu (Texas University), USC, A&M, *** State, etc.)

    My observation is that credentialing is largely protectionism. The most outstanding professor I ever studied under had only a masters degree, but was widely and deeply read and was able to communicate this wide and deep wisdom in compelling instruction and interaction.


  3. “He is bothered that the fabled 1% somehow keep having more and more advantage every year, instead of the world leveling. But that is a natural and perhaps unavoidable consequence of a world with better communication that is more interconnected.”

    Note that this effect happens at the lower part of the income scale as well. A factory worker with a particular skill set was once competing only with other workers with similar skills in the US (and, previous to that, only in certain regions of the US), but now is competing with similarly-skilled workers all over the world. (Logistical and other factors make the competition less than perfect, depending on the products and processes involved

    Many people think that this effect is limited to the physical-goods industries, but it is not…a programmer may find himself in competition with programmers in India or Ukraine, ditto a financial analyst. See my post Telemigration:

  4. Current America is not a meritocracy, it’s a credentialocracy. That’s why when talking about political candidates, supreme court nominees, etc., the very first thing that is ever mentioned is which ivy league college they went to. There is very little appetite in the political and media worlds to try to change this, because it serves their interest to have these gatekeeper institutions to keep the “wrong sort” of people far from power and influence.
    Personally I think we’re probably more likely to succeed by attacking the term meritocracy than by trying to redefine it from what people think it means. I think that’s a very, very hard thing to do.

  5. Another aspect of this is that by calling Connectedness/Positioning “meritocracy” it frames the winners as the most deserving–as if our Meritocrats rose to the top on intelligence and ability.

    A look at the last 50 years in academe (where I spent my working life) or the legal profession will blow that theory out of the running.

    Thanks, anon (I have only masters’ degrees)

  6. “Current America is not a meritocracy, it’s a credentialocracy.”

    Varies hugely according to what segment/industry….the top-level judiciary, clearly credential-focused; congresscreatures, not as much. Investment banking much more so than manufacturing; management consulting, more so than actual management.

  7. Well, sure, but that’s the thing–when I want my roof fixed, I find a roofer, and I ask for references, which tells me whether he has done this job before. I couldn’t care less what college he went to decades ago. So why the heck does the fact that some judge, or politician, or whatever, went to Harvard, or Yale Law School, etc., mean ANYTHING?
    Day to day, face to face, we’re all meritocrats, but in the top social class credentials have completely taken over, to the massive detriment of us all.

  8. Call it whatever you like, but the facts are fairly plain: The system is dysfunctional beyond belief.

    Nobody is held accountable. Nobody pays a price for screwing up. No consequences flow from failure. No introspection occurs, no self-examination. Hell, there isn’t even external evaluation on these people–Nobody is pointing out the tragic failure of it all, even though we see the evidence before us.

    Because there is no examination of actual performance, there are no correctives taken.

    Look at Seattle and other major West-coast cities. They’ve turned them into horror stories–You can’t even walk the streets without either being accosted by vagrants or stepping in feces.

    Yet, nowhere is anyone looking at the evidence before their eyes, and then looking up at the geniuses who administered us all into this mess, and saying “You. You did this–Your ideas, your actions, your policies. You have failed. Get out.”.

    Instead, we keep doubling down, and giving this set of arrant idiots more and more power over our lives, when they’ve given more than enough proof to demonstrate that they can’t do much of anything with what they’ve already arrogated.

    At some point, the blinders are going to come off, and the whole sorry edifice is going to come crashing down around the feet of these numpties. I wager that the first casualties of the Cascadia subduction fault earthquake we’re all expecting are going to be the “compassionate” and their parasitical victims. There won’t be time or resources to support either, and they’re going to die in job lots. The first things jettisoned in crisis are going to be these barely functional human dregs, and it won’t be pretty.

  9. The truth that no one dares speak: meritocracy is deplored because it would exert disparate impact, to coin a phrase.

    In a meritocracy, it would be first come, first served, devil take the hindmost, the race is to the swift, etc. That’s still true in the athletic sphere, but in cognitively loaded endeavors, it would result in an unacceptable outcome. Hence the push to eliminate the SATs, for example. No academic or professional version of the NFL Combine could even be proposed.

    So, what to do? How to attempt to distinguish between able and not so able candidates? Credentialism is the response; if a candidate has credentials, and another doesn’t, and the prospective employer just hopes that those providing the credential did the screening he himself cannot do owing to Griggs v. Duke Power. Furthermore, hiring on the basis of credentials provides some defense in litigation by involving a putatively objective basis for selecting one candidate over another.

    Now in fairness, this Supreme Court decision strictly speaking forbade only requirements – in this context, tests – that were not directly related to the ability to perform the job. But realistically, in today’s environment, and under the disparate impact doctrine, administering almost ANY test is fraught with risk of litigation.

  10. Jay…”In a meritocracy, it would be first come, first served, devil take the hindmost, the race is to the swift, etc. That’s still true in the athletic sphere, but in cognitively loaded endeavors, it would result in an unacceptable outcome.”

    Also no one is demanding equality in music or acting, at least not yet.

  11. re Duke Power…it is rarely noted that the Supreme Court decision *also* banned the use of educational requirements that are not related to the job. This aspect of the decision seems to have been forgotten…I’m not sure if it was modified via legislation or later court decision, or is simply being ignored.

  12. from Hymowitz:
    “Yet no one has a real alternative to academic ability as a filtering device for finding talent in complex analytic jobs.”
    Not quite right, but also not really the issue. The problem is the bizarre notion that the only filter that matters has been applied by the admissions committees of the “best” colleges.

    “it’s a safe guess that Markovits himself would seek out a highly ranked cardiologist if he were having chest pains”
    Note the switch here–why should “highly ranked” in this case have ANYTHING to do with what college the doctor went to?

  13. I admit I am addressing only part of the subject with the following, but I think it is useful for clarity.

    The elite schools depend on the SAT’s, which are an IQ test, far more than they will admit.

    IQ is a real thing, but it is not the only thing.

    Because IQ is largely genetic, it is stable over time. Even people who don’t work very hard and waste their lives still have a lot of the original item when they are 50.

    Credentialing based on “mere survival at a good school” is therefore very good at measuring a narrow thing. That’s why it persists. The people who have it think it’s the most important thing, so they favor their own, the others who have that thing.

    The problem arises in that the narrow thing is not the only thing, it’s just the one that’s easiest to measure. Over time, other abilities – determination, resilience, focus, charm, luck, specific training, connections, discretion, reliability, experience or a dozen other qualities usually matter more.

    The credential thus becomes an insufficient indicator of fitness.

    As an analogy, height is clearly useful in basketball. But as speed, coachability, hand-eye co-ordination, determination, and judgement are also useful, judging only on height will not be adequate. 7 feet tall is 7 feet tall, and there’s no good saying that’s not a good start. But it just isn’t enough to build a team. Extending this, saying that basketball is a meritocracy is fine when it involves “helping your team win games.” But if it only means “how tall are you,” valuable as that is, you might win some games but you will not win a championship.

  14. ““Yet no one has a real alternative to academic ability as a filtering device for finding talent in complex analytic jobs”

    How, then, did the United States survive and thrive from its founding up till, say, 1945, during which period only a small % of the population attended college at all?

  15. Re: DF (10/13/19 , 5:03 pm) et al.

    You use what you got.

    Testing allows an evaluation of a minimum. If there is a reasonable IQ, i.e. ability at abstract thought and a quick assimilation and use of data, the candidate had a chance. No guarantee, of course.

    In previous times, promotions were mostly within “class”, the creatures of the shop never moved to the “front office”. That was acceptable then.

    Now with general testing prohibited, decent grades from a good college/university/graduate school fill in to establish a minimum level of intelligence and drive.

    The cost of college/etc falls on the candidate. Developing a position specific test would fall on the employer. Credentials and a review of prior job performance is economical and sort of relevant. For new hires, credentials is all we have, or are allowed.

    A savy employer or recruiter will work from there. Smart and useful doesn’t always wear an expensive suit. A well fitted suit may have been from the prosecutor, provided when the candidate testified against his co-conspirators. I am told that “sociopaths” often present well in a general interview.

    A “credential” means that the candidate figured out how to “get it done”, didn’t wash out, transfer “down”. or get put in jail.

    Everything else has the taint of “systemic racism”, or “bias”. Credentialism seems to be heading down that same road, since failing grades are attributed to the institution, not to the candidate.

  16. Mike K…”In previous times, promotions were mostly within “class”, the creatures of the shop never moved to the “front office”. That was acceptable then.”

    I’m question whether there are more “from the shop floor (or equivalent to the executive office” promotions now than there were in, say, 1920. I suspect the opposite is true, as credentials have become more important.

    Also, when did formal (written) testing become a thing?…I don’t think there was much of it, or indeed any, in 1900.

    One big difference from earlier times: it’s harder to fire people who don’t work out (varies a lot from state to state), so the cost of being wrong on a new hire is higher. Still a lot easier in the US than in, say, France, though.

  17. @ David Foster – National formal standardised testing has been around a long time, but only picked up steam after WWII, and gradually. You may remember taking the Iowa Tests at grammar school. Tests took off in the 1960s and have held serve until now, though not in quite the same fashion. They have been very useful in breaking down class barriers and sex discrimination. If you had a better score, you simply had a better score and no one could say you nay. As administering tests became more universal, a small problem and a big problem arose. The small problem was that there were more males at the extremes – which is true of many genetic attributes. That there were more males below IQ 70 few people cared about, especially not aspirational middle-class parents who wanted their children to get ahead, or competitive students. Few humans give a rat’s ass who gets left behind. Yet the fact that there were progressively more males at each higher level of IQ was intolerable. They changed the test in a couple of ways, beginning with eliminating the math questions that males scored better on and keeping the ones that had more “gender balance.”

    But the big problem is the killer. Those of African descent (with the exception of the Ibo tribe of Nigeria) did not score near as well as Europeans, with Hispanics and Natives falling in between. That Northeast Asians and a few Indian castes did as well or better was not a problem at first but has become legally controversial more recently. Ashkenazis outscored them all, but there were pat explanations for that – not true ones, but satisfying.

  18. Those of African descent (with the exception of the Ibo tribe of Nigeria) did not score near as well as Europeans,

    I have wondered about this. The Ibos (or Igbos, as they now prefer) do especially well in math. There is a suspicion among some, especially African immigrants, that those African tribes that were captured and sold as slaves had lower average IQs. Of course, there can be no research but I have heard this speculation from Africans.

    Greg Cochran’s work on Ashkenazi Jews might suggest something. Until there is standardized testing in Africa, it will be speculation. Even that would probably be suppressed.

  19. Total SAT will go up 50-100 points from junior to senior year anyway

    Interesting. Did not seem to affect me much. I took the PSAT and got a 58 and a 62, and when I took the SAT I got a 590 and 610. Pretty much indistinguishable.

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