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The Lie of of a Meritocracy

I wrote this quote on an index card and it's been floating around my desk for awhile. It deserves to be shared. It's from Matt Miller's The Tyranny of Dead Ideas:

"The instinct to treat the poor as deserving, not of charity, but of their fate, is easy to come to when you believe in a meritocracy."

A lot of my current work is related to designing training and development programs for disadvantaged youth and adults. We butt up against this idea all the time--that the poor DESERVE to be poor because they just don't have what it takes to succeed in a society based on merit.

But the notion that money follows merit assumes that "merit" (generally intellectual merit) is something we earn.

In fact, much of what passes for merit is really privilege--the privilege of a life that allows you to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to earn a good living. It is the privilege of having parents who could afford to move you into a good school district or give you money for college. It is really the privilege of race and class, which still affords people protections and opportunities they refuse to see, insisting that their achievements are a result of their skills and hard work, rather than where they live, who they know and what they started with. (This is not to say that skills and hard work aren't there--just that privilege plays a major role in this notion of "merit.")

As Miller points out in the video above, though, maybe people are really starting to understand that money following merit is a dead idea.  Because if that was true then all those millions paid out in AIG bonuses were actually DESERVED and I'm pretty sure that not many outside of Wall Street buy that idea.

Hopefully this new knowledge--that those above us on the economic ladder don't necessarily "deserve" it--will make us think twice about those who are less fortunate. And the fact that many of us have lost jobs despite the fact that we've done all we were supposed to to "earn" them, may give further food for thought, too.


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This myth has been around for ages and it is so obviously untrue, but our sense of what ought to be may override our observation of reality.

Recognizing the inequality of opportunity is one step, and maybe we also find some ways we can raise awareness and change the situation. But I don't feel particularly confident about my own ability to make a big difference on this front, though I'm getting more hopeful these days. But with or without hope, I absolutely need to be more compassionate. Whatever befalls someone else could just as easily and just as likely hit me over the head.

Kia ora Michele!

I see the gazillions that these 'privileged' CEOs went off with as a grotesque but none-the-less accurate reflection of how society handles the value and worth of human endeavour.

We can witness this in many different manifestations of human judgement.

Equity/equality has been put under the microscope over the decades. Yet there is a complacency that exists in western society that permits the obviously inequitable action and judgement meted out by authoritative elements within that same society to happen. This continues until the accumulated outrage can tolerate it no longer.

The seemingly ungraduated tolerance possesses a component of permissiveness that tends to overlook inequity of compensation, of rights, of entitlement, of earnings, of reward, of honour and even of privilege.

Many factions feed this culture, one of them being greed. Yet society as a whole apparently condones and even strives at times to maintain that state.

The near zero tolerance that's needed to prevent this happening within society is unpalatable to those within that society who needs it most. My own feeling is that society today is too tolerant of all this on the one hand, and on the other, too severe when it eventually acquires an active sensitivity to it. The all or nothing, black or white point of view fosters the occurrence of this with no effective moderating graduations in between these extremes.

Why, for instance, does it take a global financial disaster to bring to light the ridiculous inequities between the rights and earnings of the so-called working class and these gazillion munching CEOs? Why, for instance, does it take a 9/11 to spotlight the evident political/cultural time-bombs that fizz in pockets on our globe.

Pragmatically, it could be said that Society reaps what it sows. It's sad really.

Ka kite anō
from Middle-earth

Thanks, Michele - another interesting post!

A couple of a Christian, I view all humans as being equally created in the sight of God. We may not all have the same gifts and talents, but we are all fundamentally equal due to the fact that each one of us has been specifically created by God, with a specific mission and purpose for being placed on this planet, at this point in time.

It might not work for everyone, but it works for me!

I do not live up to this view all the time, but it nevertheless informs all that I do. Once I reconciled myself to that view a number of years ago, I became completely opposed to abortion and euthanasia due to the fact that I now viewed all humans as having equal worth and value, simply by the fact that they were created..and they existed.

I don't like all the actions and behaviors that they use or display, and I believe in punishing behavior that is against the law or violates norms (this ranges from jail time, to parents taking away driving privileges for poor grades, etc.). Nevertheless, there is a fundamental equality to all people.

Item 2 - The poor do not deserve to be poor, agreed. However, I know that as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle class roots on one side lie with the very poor German immigrant who literally came to this country with 20 dollars to his name. He died as a young man, leaving his wife with 4 children to raise...the youngest aged 7.

What allowed the three sons to each forge a life that included one (my great uncle) rising to the very top of a well-known American Fortune 50 company?

They had NO advantages, except the values and beliefs that their parents passed to them...including the role of hard work, honesty, and fair dealings with each and every person they encountered.

Financially, I would be considered very poor right now. I do have some of the advantages you name above (a college education, parents who believe in me, etc.) but I also have some disadvantages (like ADD) which can keep me from achieving my full potential.

But - I believe in my roots, I believe in my gifts, and I believe in myself. There will be many obstacles I face, but ultimately I believe I will become successful. I've had it before, and I will have it again.

Does this make me different from "the poor"? Maybe...but financial mobility in this country is very interesting. I am in good company, actually. There is a great deal of shifting between income brackets in our country.

Item #3 - If by "the poor" you mean black, Hispanic or Hmong people...some interesting observations. Hmongs (who are heavily represented here in MN) are following a typical immigrant path that includes stories like my great-grandfather's. We have our first Hmong legislator, Mea Moua, and more power to her. I predict they will continue to migrate to the middle class, with subsequent generations showing more income growth than their parents.

Having lived and worked in non-profits in San Antonio for almost a decade, I saw the Hispanic culture more closely than any other. I love the vibrant culture, the emphasis on family, and the generosity of spirit that flourishes in Texas.

Entrenched poverty was a fact of life there, yet many, many Hispanics had achieved a middle class lifestyle. What "advantages" does a middle class Hispanic have over his or her poorer counterpart?

Few of the Hispanics I knew started out with "privileges" as noted above. Most were as hard-working (or more) than the Anglos I knew. I didn't see privileges of race or class, per se. I did see some people choosing family over work (OK, fine - but it does have a financial impact)...and there is definitely a "manana" culture.

"Manana" basically means "tomorrow". It is used when you can't get someone to fix it now, or take care of a problem right away. Both Anglos and Hispanics use it to mean the same thing. "Enh, manana." Whenever.

That cultural expectation can hold some people back from doing all they can to succeed. Not always, and certainly not every person...but it is a real influence in the culture.

If you are speaking of black Americans, then there is a problem in that community. My perspective is that on top of the legacy of slavery and racism, the Great Society welfare programs of the 60's absolutely contributed to the almost complete destruction of the black American family.

The federal government paid people to have babies, and not get married. When you really look at what was going on, that's the reality of it. Additionally, increased amounts of welfare drew black Americans away from their churches - long a stable means of support and encouragement in black communities.

We are witnessing the logical outcome of such policies - an entire generation of (mostly urban) young men and women who have little idea of how to succeed in life, with little education and few marketable skills. I will say that the lack of stable, dependable fathers in those families has been unbelievably tragic.

Without the central purpose of husbanding and parenting (which drives most men to "bring home the bacon", or in other works, protect their families) - what were those men to do?

What would a black American man, who came of age in the 60's and 70's have as his life's purpose if the woman (eventually "women"...they are males, after all) in his life didn't need him to support her or the children he helped to create? Seriously.

I'm painting with a very broad brush, and there are notable exceptions. But the fact remains that this group has the most difficult time overcoming the obstacles most of us face.

While I completely disagree with virtually everything President Obama is, does, or good thing may come out of his presidency (it won't be his economics...).

By showing black American males and black American females, how a black American man (any man for that matter, but race plays an important role here) how to be both a husband and a to be a man...that may ultimately be this President's most valuable and enduring legacy.

Item #4 - Ummmm...actually, those AIG bonuses were VERY much earned. The Congress and the press have it all wrong (surprise, surprise).

This editorial in the NY Times (certainly not a conservative paper) is quite illuminating -

Ah - it's now's the link to the repost at U.S. News:

The AIG employees receiving the bonuses were NOT the ones responsible for creating the mess they are in. They were specifically recruited/retained to fix the problems that others created, and the bonuses were specifically established by contract.

How many other people in this country could do what they do?

Compensation is based on scarcity - the rarer the skills, the higher the compensation.

The current employees are in fact members of a Meritocracy and deserve to be compensated accordingly - not hung out to dry by their own leaders and members of Congress (many of whom [Waters, Frank, Dodd], specifically created the [housing] problems that we are now facing).

If by an act of Congress, contracts are invalidated (deeply unconstitutional, by the way)...then none of us is safe from our own government. Interestingly, the Founding Fathers specifically saw this as a serious concern and divided and limited the role of government to prevent such an occurrence.

My .02, for what it's worth....

Thanks, everyone, for your great comments!

One reason I think that this myth of meritocracy has persisted is because of the accompanying myth (at least in the US) that we have real income mobility. But that isn't true. There's a very disturbing report published in December on The State of Working America. In it, the authors state:

"some families do move up and down the income scales, but most maintain their relative positions, meaning that relative to other families in their cohort, they remain at or near the income or wealth position in which they started out. For example, one recent study finds that about 60% of families that start in the bottom fifth are still there a decade later. At the other end of the income scale, 52% of families that start in the top fifth finish there at the
end of the decade."

One study cited in the book found that it would take 9-10 generations (200 years!) for a poor family of 4 to achieve the same outcomes as a middle class family of four.

This ends up creating huge inequalities in opportunity, particularly in terms of education. Again from the study:

"Of those adults who grew up in low-income families but managed to earn a college degree, only 16% ended up in the bottom fifth of the income scale as adults. But for those who failed to graduate college, the share that started out and ended up in the bottom fifth was 45%. In other words,
among children who grew up in low-income families, those who failed to graduate college were almost three times more likely to still be in the bottom fifth as adults compared to children who completed college."

This trend, I think, will only be exacerbated in a knowledge-based economy. Jane, the one major difference between your grandfather's time and now is that it is virtually impossible to find family-sustaining work that doesn't require higher education of some sort. When you combine this with poorer educational systems for disadvantaged people, we have a crisis.

I also believe that our culture, which emphasizes this "pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you can do it on your own" ethos, is a problem. It puts the onus for achievement solely on the individual, rather than on society. So if I don't manage to claw myself out of generations of poverty, it's because I didn't have what it takes, rather than something we need to do to address the barriers that kept me there in the first place. I see way too much focus on what individuals should be doing to escape the crappy systems we've created and not enough attention being paid to the unequal opportunities and distribution of wealth that create these conditions in the first place.

It's no myth, and it's no lie; it's the only true method of rewarding hard work, thrift, and innovation. If there are social constructs or situations within a local social environment that obstruct paths to success, they must be removed. Your blaming failure on the ideal of meritocracy has no foundation that I can see in your arguments; it seems instead you're confusing the causes.

I was so inspired by this thread of comments that I wrote an article about it, which is now on my blog: . I agree with Matt Miller and Michele - that a belief in meritocracy can lead to believing that the poor are undeserving (lazy, entitled, not trustworthy and the like). These beliefs are just not very useful (I think you're lazy so you are), let alone universally true. I find my way through this meritocracy hiccup by returning to abundance thinking - shifting to both/and thinking instead of either/or thinking. Abundance thinking takes me to wanting all people to take responsibility for their experience AND at the same time recognize the issues of privilege and class and work to deal with these. I agree with Jared - the issue is not the IDEA of meritocracy, the issue is scarcity thinking and a narrow focus. And fundamentally, I don't think we'll get anywhere without holding people accountable for being responsible for their lives, otherwise we're taking away their capacity to do anything about their situation, albeit with help.

Thanks Michele for hosting this conversation and for so graciously putting your ideas out there. You have inspired me in my own writing, and guided the birth of my blogging. It's great!

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