Building on that zillion post thread about the co-valedictorian lawsuit, I thought I’d post a few thoughts about the US form of meritocracy. Kaus’s End of Equality is a source for a lot of this.

The chief problem with a meritocracy is its effect on the losers. An opening line from Kaus:

The more an economy’s implicit judgments are seen as being fair and based on true “merit” (and “equal opportunity”), the more the losers will tend to feel they deserve to lose, the easier it will be to equate economic success with individual worth, and the greater the threat to social equality.

The US system is doing an increasingly bad job of separating the notion of self-worth with economic success - remember the quotes from those kids at the south american prison camp, sent there by their parents? They quote a few talking about how if they hadn’t been sent there, they’d end up “dead, or living in a trailer.” For god’s sake, they rhetorically considered poverty the equivalent of death.

Another example:

In the summer of 1943, John F. Kennedy was a well-known author, a graduate of Choate and Harvard, and the son of one of the richest men in America. Serving with him on a small PT boat in the South Pacific (as recounted by Robert J. Donovan) were:

Andrew Kirksey, 25, a high-school dropout who before the war had been working as a refrigeration engineer in Macon, Georgia.

Leonard Thom, the left tackle on teh Ohio State football team of 1939 and 1940.

Leon Drawdy, 30, a machinist from Chicago.

Maurice Kowal, 21, son of Polish immigrants, who had been working in a factory that built engines for Victory ships.

John E. Magurie, 26, from Dobbs Ferry, New York, who had quite his job at Anaconda Wire and Cable.

George Henry Robertson Ross, 25, another Ivy Leaguer (Princeton, Class of '41).

Raymond Starkey, 29, a former commerical fisherman who had been working in the oil fields of California.

Charles “Buck” Harris, 20, from Watertown, outside of Boston, who had taken a job at Hood Rubber after high school.

Gerard Zinser, 25, a career Navy man from Illinois, who during the Depression had joined the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Edmund Drewitch, 30, a jazz pianist who had worked as a steel inspector at Jones & Laughlin and attended law school at night.

Harlord Marney, 19, who had finished tenth grade at a trade school and enlisted in the Navy at 17.

William Johnson, 33, who had driven a trailer for Gulf Oil.

Patrick MacMahon, 37, a mechanic for the Detroit Street Railway Company.

You get the point. During World War II, Kennedys and other wealthy types served with a broad cross section of ordinary Americans…Is it just because we won that so many Americans seem to feel that this war, despite all the death and destruction, provided some of the best years of their lives? I don’t think Charles Peters is far off when he suggests that it was World War II itself, and the draft, that as much as anything else cemented America’s mid-century sense of social equality and consensus.

Now compare that draft, and Kennedy’s World War II experience, with the diary entries of William Broyles, who served as a second lieutenat in Vietnam (and later recounted the experience in his book, Brothers in Arms):

I have fifty eight men. Only twenty have high school diplomas. About ten of them are over twenty-one. Reading through their record books almost made me cry. Over and over they read-addres of father: unknown; education: one or two years of high school; occupation: laborer, pecan sheller, gas station attendant, Job Corps. Kids with no place to go. No place but here.

It doesn’t take deep insight to realize that in the intervening period something began to go deeply and fundamentally wrong with the US. Kaus provides all sorts of other examples: are schools are more segregated by class than ever, as are our social lives and neighborhoods.

Anyway, the meritocratic US system is a part of this; as long as money is unchecked, the classes will be mercilessly sorted farther and farther apart. I highly recommend the book, it’s full of all sorts of neat policy suggestions.

How do you respond to the argument that over the same period of time, US wealth, power, and overall standard of living–even for the poor–increased at a greater rate than any other country? How do you explain the fact that the more meritocratic a society is, the better it seems to do, at least in modern history? (Of course, that assumes certain judgment criteria–that a country is “doing better” if it has more wealth, security, freedom, etc. You may or may not agree with those criteria.)

The USA is not a meritocracy. In a meritocracy, every individual has the same opportunity to succeed as anyone else (on merit). In the real world, success is largely based on how wealthy your parents were.

Hourly wages for the poor and lower-middle class have flatlined since 1970, actually.

Regardless, it’s not the relative incomes that are important - its that the postwar egeletarian society is disappearing, driven chiefly by the increasing meritocratic nature of the economy. Whether it actually is sorting by economic merit or not is irrelevant; people believe more and more that it is.

Kaus has tons of examples; US magazine ran a demographic “here’s our readership” spread a few years back, showing who “US readres weren’t” by laughing at those troglodytes who have Ritz crackers on the table.

He doesn’t suggest doing away with it; just keeping its influence from bleeding outside of the private finance sphere.

I don’t think Charles Peters is far off when he suggests that it was World War II itself, and the draft, that as much as anything else cemented America’s mid-century sense of social equality and consensus.

I love this mystical notion of ‘social equality’. What in the heck does this mean, anyway? The cement that forms bonds between men are born of shared principles, not social standing in a PT boat in the pacific during WWII. The similar belief unites, not the war itself.

You also don’t have to be a millionaire to be happy or similarly be poor to understand the values of hard work. But according to your statement about the children in the Jamaican millitary school, we should be happy with failure? We should be content with poverty and not strive for improvement? Achievement is bad? Your aversion to labeling bad and good is why we’re in this ‘don’t offend anyone’ pollitically correct society mess in the first place. Because it teaches people we don’t need to better ourselves, someone will take care of us. We don’t need to get good grades because grades don’t mean anything. We don’t need to achieve, because someone still cares about us in our trailer.

The world used to be a place where your destiny was predetermined. Your father was a blacksmith, you will be a blacksmith. Your father was a Lord, you will be a Lord. Never the 2 paths would cross. There will always be class differences in any society, but I would rather live here where there is always the chance that someone can find the crossroads.

There are actually 3 roads, and the middle road is still the most populated.

This into some sort of welfare/class warfare thing; it’s a sneering at the lower classes thing.

Can you think of anything that would get the crowd on JFK’s boat all in one place? Even baseball games are extremely price-segregated now.

It’s only class warfare when certain political leaders create the animosity necessary to incite war. Rich people need poor people to work in their factories, don’t they? Poor people need rich people to give them factories to work in, don’t they? Isn’t this a good trade? Not everyone can be company president, it’s called a natural order. We all have our little place in the world. Some rise, some fall, some stay the same. I say stop trying to fix everything for everyone. Doesn’t god help those who help themselves?

All I’m saying is that there may not be anything wrong with being poor, but there also isn’t anything wrong with trying to not be poor.

It’s the same in Australia. We have a so-called ‘aspirational class’ here that our conservative government has targetted. These are members of the middle class who want more. Rather than brand them as greedy, arrogant, self-centred, nouveau-riche wannabees, they’ve been labelled ‘aspirational’. Sheesh. ‘Entitled’ is another disagreeable word to me now.
There is a poverty of community spirit nowadays. I’m definitely not for socialism but it would be nice to have a free-market society with citizens who regulate themselves by an agreed social compact. Aint gonna happen though. Unlike America, too much religion is regarded suspiciously and there aren’t many alternatives for people to model.
There was an interesting speech by our former Director-General of Education where he claimed that comprehensive public schooling provided the glue of our tolerant society. The fact that everyone had a similar shared experience and exposure to shared values allowed greater social cohesiveness.
There has been a marked increase in private school enrolments as people try to give their kids a more religious education or they want their kids kept away from the common riff-raff. Either way, I feel it builds a few more walls between people.
Sometimes I just wish a wiser person than I could calmly and lucidly explain to me why times seem to have changed for the worse and what I should be doing to help fight it. (BTW Cleve, you are not that person!)

It doesn’t take deep insight to realize that in the intervening period something began to go deeply and fundamentally wrong with the US.

It’s not exactly fair to compare a random sampling from WWII and Vietnam. For one people believed in WWII and signed up willingly to defend their country. Most were drafted into Vietnam. The smart ones went to college and got a pass. The rich ones also went to college, or fled the country or joined the Texas Air National guard to keep the skies over Dallas free from Commies. So you end up with a force largely made up of poor people with no prospects. There’s nothing suprising about the disparity, given what we all know about history.

I can’t understand you Jason. You seem to be arguing against a meritocracy by presenting evidense of situations where that ideal is being subverted. You should perhaps give it up and stop using “meritocracy” when what you seem to be talking about is capitalism.


When exactly did the US system even try to do this?

Wasn’t the whole nation founded by Puritans who believed that material success was a reflection of a good and god-fearing soul, and that poverty was a character flaw? What about the pop psychology and self-help industry that regularly identifies mental & physical fitness and social acceptance with financial success? Has there been a time in American history when wealth wasn’t glorified, at least as long as it wasn’t inherited?

I think I see what Jason’s getting at; it’s just presented a little strangely in your first post. Let me try to restate it and you tell me whether I’m on track or way off base:

The problem you see is not that some are rich and some are poor, or anything like that–the problem is that everyone equates poor with “worthless” and rich with “valuable”; that rich (or middle-class) people see the poor as lesser beings and won’t interact with them in any way beyond what is absolutely necessary. Is that right?

“Now only people with bad jobs fight in wars” is exactly what I’m talking about - what is it, if not based on “merit?” We don’t want to send valuable people to die!

When exactly did the US system even try to do this?

The postwar generation was probably the best at this. The US appears to be slowly developing a British-style class system, which is new.

Yep. Income inequality isn’t necessarily bad; its just that the walls around the private, financial sphere are crumbling, and its poisoning the rest of them.

That has nothing to do with your claim, though. A class system (which I might add has not existed in Britain for at least 50-60 years) implies a fixed distribution of wealth and power, but not necessarily a moral valuation of material possessions. The latter does not require a class system, only some (possibly temporary) differences in wealth.

I’ll admit I don’t know that much about modern Britain; how much of Orwell’s quoted “the poor smell” is still held among the upper classes? Anyway, I was talking about the moral valuation of wealth (we’re rich! we’re better than you!), not the fixed distribution of income.

I didn’t understand what you were saying beyond “Income inequality isn’t necessarily bad,” but here’s my opinion FWIW: assuming that a person’s wealth is going to roughly correlate with, for example, their intelligence, desire to better themselves, and thrift, is a rational assumption. Are there exceptions? Hell yeah, especially on the wealthy side of the equation. But as a rule of thumb, in my experience (which includes significant enforced time with all three classes of people), it holds up.

I’m not clear whether you’re saying “The poor are equally likely to have those traits” or “Those traits should not be relevant (or should not be as relevant) in society’s choice of whom to value.” Either way, though, I disagree with you. Does our society place too much emphasis on material wealth and possessions? I’d say it does to some extent. But it’s hardly an epidemic problem that needs immediate correction.

I applaud Jason’s honesty here. Most socialists attack capitalism because secretly they hate that it promotes a meritocracy where the good advance and the bad do not. Jason cuts straight to the point. He still isn’t being truly honest, but it doesn’t take much reading between the lines. I mean, come on, there’s something wrong with America because we are hurting poor people’s self-esteem?

Thanks to inherited wealth, you can’t deduce much about a person merely from knowing that they are rich, but the poor really are poor because they are some combination of stupid, lazy, and dishonest. It doesn’t take a whole lot of virtue to get an assistant manager spot at Taco Bell.

If one values intelligence, work ethic, etc., rich people are better than poor people on average. And if inherited wealth is removed from the equation, the difference becomes even more clear.

On the other point, inherited wealth doesn’t play that big of a role in personal earnings. Yeah, Johnny Rich gets to drive a better car than Joe Poor while in college, but after 10 years in the workforce merit will have sorted them out. Daddy can’t get you promoted at the law firm. Basically, being rich gives you a nice head start, as you’ll go to a better college and everything.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with sending the people with bad jobs to war so the people with good jobs can stay home. You’re right, we don’t want the valuable people to die. What’s so wrong about that?

You’re right, Rywill, the income people get is increasingly associated with actual market value. The downside to this is that it makes the “I’m rich, I’m better than you” thing even worse; at least you used to be able to blame it on who got lucky by birth.

Oh, give me a break, Ben, I’m not arguing about capitalism. I’m arguing against a society where the amount of money you make determines everything about you - your friends, your culture, who you interact with. When people get all fuzzy thinking about the 1950s, I don’t think they’re fantasizing about the gated communities of the era - they didn’t exist.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with sending the people with bad jobs to war so the people with good jobs can stay home. You’re right, we don’t want the valuable people to die. What’s so wrong about that?

This is exactly what I’m talking about. Can you imagine a public figure in the 1940s or 1950s saying this with a straight face? Much less using “how much money you make” as a synonym for “how valuable you are to society?”

Good summary from a book review:

The trouble with our society is not just that the rich have too much money, in Kaus’s view, but that their money insulates them, much more than it used to, from the common life. It is the “routine acceptance of `professionals’ as a class apart” and the “smug content” of the affluent and educated for the “demographically inferior” that poses the greatest threat to civic life, according to Kaus.

If we lived in a rigid class-based society where your income is essentially set at birth and never changes, this might bother me as well. But our society offers more class mobilty than any previous society that I know of. You can change your income, and you can change all those other things, too.

Just for the record, most Americans who fought in WWII were draftees. Most of those who fought in Vietnam were volunteers.

If we lived in a rigid class-based society where your income is essentially set at birth and never changes, this might bother me as well. But our society offers more class mobilty than any previous society that I know of. You can change your income, and you can change all those other things, too.[/quote]

Except that the meritocracy we have doesn’t reward you based on hard work; it’s gamed to reward you based on inherent ability. Unless you think everyone out is capable of being a computer programmer or doctor.

A lot of this US “class mobility” comes from silliness like treating a college student who graduates and gets a real job as moving from poor to rich.

Kyle, do you have a source on the Vietnam volunteer thing?

Edit: Oh, here we go. 63% of all casualties were volunteers because of the odd way the draft was set up:

The draft was specifically designed to trigger volunteer enlistments before age 18 1/2 had been reached. Volunteers were allowed to enlist as early as age 17 (with parental consent) & were required to serve for 3 years on active duty followed by 3 years as inactive reservists.

But the volunteer prog looked promising to the potential draftee because it allowed him to select his branch of service & receive specialized training if he qualified. He was able to fulfill his mili obligation immediately & he would be required to serve only another 3 years in the inactive reserves.

It becomes clear then why almost 65% of enlisted casualties were volunteers & 1/3d of these were 17-19 years of age & over 2/3ds were 17 to 21.