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On Meritocracy

I teach econ, and I decided to do an experiment last semester. We did four corners, this is one of the cutesy teacher-y activities that I mostly do when other adults are in the room so that they think I listen at PD, but basically it works like this: give the kids a statement, have them tell you how and whether or not they agree with the statement by walking to the corner in the room that corresponds to their beliefs. So I took my AP class and the statement was “I believe that we reward people based on merit” now here is the catch, I told them that if they chose to go to the “agree” corner they had to explain what “merit” meant. None of them could, I wasn’t surprised and I have since tried to have this conversation with nearly everyone I know and ultimately we all admit that we have no real way to count, categorize or recognize merit and that even if we did our system produces barriers that hinder merit anyway.

I know this from lived experience. I am supposed to be dead right now. I’m not even being melodramatic, it is just a statistical fact. I am not one of those goody-two-shoes straight A students that crawled out of the ghetto by being a super nerd who the other kids hated. I was a ferocious monster who circulated petitions to get teachers fired, got kicked out of class, had house parties on an epic scale, and started engaging in sexual activity earlier than I should have. I wasn’t poor but from a hard-working immigrant family. I didn’t go home to warmth and love, and I’ve met very few people who have the education I do that can say the same. I’m not supposed to be here. If I were dead or hanging out as a whore on Watt Ave right now everyone who knew me from high school would say “what a waste, but what do you expect?”

What I am saying to you is that I didn’t get here because the system worked, I got here because I got around the system. I am an exceptionally bright and hard working human being but the system was designed to keep me in North Highlands. I am not anarchist or Marxist, I’ve studied too much history and am too cynical for that anyway. You are going to have a power structure. Everywhere I’ve been, whether as the leader in the ghetto, or the classroom or the community at Stanford I’ve been part of the power structure. We need that. There is going to be some stratification. I don’t have a problem inherently with stratification, what I have a problem with is that our society has made it nearly impossible for the best and brightest to rise to the top. That is very bad for a civilization. It is highly problematic that even among the privileged we value compliance and workaholics over free thinkers. It is a serious problem that it was such a miracle that I made it to Stanford. If I had been born in Europe, Canada or China, chances are very good I would have been recognized early and the state would have put a bunch of money into me. The Chinese government does this because they figure that if you take the smartest kids from all groups and give them power and make them in-debt to the state they will be far less likely to revolt. They are of course right, and I am evidence of that fact. My being here should be a given not a miracle if our society is functioning.

Fundamentally we have to have a power structure because someone has to get stuff done. But the emphasis here is on getting stuff done. You get to be part of the power structure because you are doing your job which is making life better for the whole of civilization, if you can’t manage that and don’t want the responsibility of that then I’ve been very clear about this: we don’t need you in power. Do your job or be fired. It really is that simple.

I don’t know if it is because our country is really young or exceptionally delusional, but I can think off the top of my head of several civilizations that have fallen because they lacked a meritocracy. In fact, I can only speculate on this, but I believe that part of the reason that China’s system of government functioned pretty much continuously is because they’ve had some kind of meritocracy since the first dynasty, which for those of you who don’t know Chinese history was sometime before Christ’s birth. Ultimately when all the Nationalists worry about China taking over, what they are really concerned about is that their continued emphasis on education and meritocracy (even though it often fails) is going to cause them to surpass us in human development.

The truly sad thing, is that we should know better because we’ve done this before and it led to the time of the greatest prosperity the earth has ever known and would have been even better if not for the racism attached to it. I’m talking, obviously, about the 1950s. We invested more in education at that point than we ever had and ever have since and the Baby Boomers benefited from that so they should know better. And I don’t know whether we are blind, or dense or greedy but I do know that this won’t end well.

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One thought on “On Meritocracy

  1. Whenever the capitalists are attacked they defend themselves on meritocratic grounds.

    But then, theirs is the economic system that emphasizes exchange and ownership over production and they are quick to point out that the value of something is completely divorced from effort exerted to produce it.

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