Defining Merit

I read David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times pretty regularly. As I have noted previously, sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don’t.

By far my most typical response to Brooks, however, is “yes, but…” That was my reaction to observations he shared a couple of weeks ago, at the height of the college graduation season. Here’s how he began:

Once upon a time, white male Protestants ruled the roost. You got into a fancy school if your father had gone to the fancy school. You got a job at a white-shoe law firm or climbed the corporate ladder if you golfed at the right club.

Then we smashed all that. We replaced a system based on birth with a fairer system based on talent. We opened up the universities and the workplace to Jews, women and minorities. University attendance surged, creating the most educated generation in history. We created a new boomer ethos, which was egalitarian (bluejeans everywhere!), socially conscious (recycling!) and deeply committed to ending bigotry.

You’d think all this would have made the U.S. the best governed nation in history. Instead, inequality rose. Faith in institutions plummeted. Social trust declined. The federal government became dysfunctional and society bitterly divided.

No argument with the first paragraph. It describes the world I grew up in.  (I attended a women’s college where the “joke” was that the school had accidentally admitted an extra Jew over its “quota” of 50, and three trustees had committed suicide as a result.)

The second paragraph, however, describes an aspiration rather than a reality. Yes, many of the barriers were removed; elite schools no longer imposed quotas for Jews, Asians and others, and more people went to college. But bluejeans do not an “egalitarian ethic” make–and among graduates of less-elite institutions, both recycling and a “deep commitment to ending bigotry” can still be pretty hard to find.

The third paragraph displays an inverted version of one the oldest logical fallacies: after this, therefore because of this. Here, Brooks says we had an unfair system, we made it (somewhat) fairer, and the measures we employed didn’t solve our social ills. Ergo, meritocracy doesn’t work.

Brooks says that the problem is with the “ideology” of meritocracy, which he believes encourages “ruinous beliefs,” including an exaggerated regard for intelligence (“Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions”); a misplaced faith in autonomy (leading to a society “high in narcissism and low in social connection”); a misplaced notion of the self (“a conception of self that is about achievement, not character”); and a misplaced “idolization” of diversity (“Diversity for its own sake, without a common telos, is infinitely centrifugal, and leads to social fragmentation”).

The essential point is this: Those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods in the old establishment had something we meritocrats lack — a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.

Actually, I don’t remember those “stuck up blue bloods” having much civic consciousness, but perhaps I encountered the wrong ones…

Brooks’ “essential point,” like Aristotle’s golden mean, locates virtue in the midpoint between  extremes. To the extent that “midpoint” is another word for reasoned moderation, that insight has proved valid through most of human history.

But our problem isn’t meritocracy; it is how we define our terms.

Merit is not defined by intellect alone, although I would argue that a respect for intellectual achievement is meritorious. Diligence, honor, compassion and other markers of character are  essential to any definition of merit. Nor is intellect merely a matter of IQ–genuine intellectual achievement requires an open mind and intellectual curiosity, not just capacity.

Autonomy does not require disconnection from community or preoccupation with self. Properly understood, it simply requires each of us to engage in self-government, to create and be true to our own telos. The most autonomous people I know are deeply involved with their communities.

Similar critiques can be made of the other terminology Brooks employs.

The problem isn’t that we reward people on the basis of merit; the problem is we don’t agree on what constitutes either merit or an appropriate reward.

 

23 thoughts on “Defining Merit

  1. In this angst-ridden Trump era, I can’t help imagining that tragic news of some assassinations and/or suicides in New York, Washington and elsewhere will be splashed on the media one of these mornings.

  2. So many great comments from yesterday…Terry wrote:

    “Capitalism, our farcical excuse for an economic system, goes apoplectic when people clinging to the lowest rung of the income ladder earn enough to put food on the table and make a car payment in the same month. This is insanity.”

    I’m sorry but our country was founded and ruled by those who owned it. These owners benefited from the “revolution” or fight for independence. Who sacrificed their lives for these new owners?

    An enlightened or open mind recognizes the oppressive nature of our systems and how are institutions spew propaganda to manufacture consent for the owners. It gets worse every year, month and passing day.

    Einstein’s brilliance recognized that humans were both selfish and social. We need systems that allow and promote both. It’s why he condemned both communism and capitalism. Both capture one-half of our major instincts and drives.

    It’s not the people; it’s the system(s). The people realize this system is failing the masses…it serves the owners. Period. I believe Karl Marx predicted a battle of authoritarianism (Fascism) versus socialism in a post-capitalistic society.

    (p.s. Our local Democratic Party created a candidate to run against a delegate they didn’t support. Because this DHQ creations last name came before the other on the ballot, she won. Sadly, she didn’t even know she was running for office. However, by the time she appeared before county voting board, her memory was amazingly restored. Games over a platform. From top to bottom.)

    #Pathetic

  3. Like Sheila; I agree with that first paragraph, but from the position of a child of the blue-collar worker level. I also held college educated people in a highly vaulted position from my view below them…until I went to work in my mid-30’s and had to deal with some of those college educated people who read their supervisory techniques in a book. By the time they were in a supervisory position, those books and their techniques were out of date.

    Has the Republican party attempted to move government back to that first paragraph era by placing a white, super wealthy, college educated (I question the term educated here), male as our vaulted leader? It is not only our leader that is the problem; how many in the current administration merit their positions today. This morning on “Morning Joe”, the primary subject was of course Trump and Mika made the perfect comment to fit his current situation – what ever the hell he and Congress thinks he is doing – “No one can do nothing better than him.”

    Speaking of merit; an AOL news item yesterday (keep in mind AOL is right-leaning) reported that a poll showed more than half of America approved of Trump’s dealings with North Korea. I often research polls reported on AOL and I thought Reuters word could be taken at face value but the Ipsos poll was requested by Reuters, an international news service headquartered in London, United Kingdom. Ipsos is a French global marker research organization headed by Didier Truchot. How do two foreign organizations, however highly regarded, merit reporting what Americans approve of, especially in this instance? Has no American research organization polled Americans?

  4. Brooks often engages in this grand and abstract teleological ethical theorizing. It says nothing and means nothing.

  5. Brooks: “You’d think all this would have made the U.S. the best governed nation in history. Instead, inequality rose. Faith in institutions plummeted. Social trust declined. The federal government became dysfunctional and society bitterly divided.”

    Brooks, the neo-conservative, is right. There’s a simple answer. It’s all Barack Obama’s fault. I guess we should have left it ALL up to the “blue bloods” like the “loving” Bush family who gave us COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM & OUR AMAZING VICTORY IN IRAQ.

    Wow! What a “bullshit” nation we have become.

  6. WW 2 and the post WW 2 era witnessed what I would call “the step-up” for millions of Americans. The GI Bill made it possible for millions of GI’s to receive a college education and Veterans took advantage of mortgages to buy houses.

    Trust has been lost in the “establishment system”: the government lying about Vietnam, the inequality of the Vietnam era draft, big corporations polluting our environment, Iran-Contra, junk bonds, trickle down, aggressive militarism as a key element of our foreign policy and neo-liberal economic policies, which closed our factories.

    The higher education system is open today. However, the huge hurdle is the enormous cost of a higher education.

  7. Marv,

    “What a bullshit nation we have become.” No, the nation has not become bullshit, but the Republican Party, its members and minions sure have. From Fox, Rush, Ryan, McConnell, Pence and Trump those who lack a knowledge of history and civics have been served up nothing but bullshit for way too long.

  8. “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” (H.L. Mencken)

    We can blame all of our ills on capitalism and that would be wrong. We need the engine of the marketplace where the marketplace is fair and rational. We don’t want it in healthcare or education, where it can be neither.

    We can blame all of our ills on intellectualism and that would also be wrong. America has long valued egalitarianism over intellectualism when balance would have served us better.

    We should face the fact that we have a long history of disappointing our better angels. Only by facing up to the fact that we are the problem, will we even begin to resolve our issues.

  9. Todd Smekens:”An enlightened or open mind recognizes the oppressive nature of our systems and how are institutions spew propaganda to manufacture consent for the owners. It gets worse every year, month and passing day.”

    The operative word is “systems”. That’s why I get so damned frustrated. Trump is just a symptom. Unfortunately, all of the attention is paid to him whilst all of the corrupted “systems” that gave rise to Trump receive absolutely no sunlight/criticism/opposition and/or chance at being reformed/corrected. I really do believe the lack of such attention to the “systems” is not a bug but a feature. And,all of this is happening with absolutely no real and genuine opposition.

  10. William,

    “The operative word is “systems”. That’s why I get so damned frustrated. Trump is just a symptom. Unfortunately, all of the attention is paid to him whilst all of the corrupted “systems” that gave rise to Trump receive absolutely no sunlight/criticism/opposition and/or chance at being reformed/corrected.”

    It’s the ultimate fear. And it is not baseless. To go deeper systemically means risking more than only a few can handle…….financial ruin and possible assassination. Believe me there’s no free ticket, I’ve been there.

    Take a look at http://www.KillingtheMessenger.info. At least, I was given a CODED WARNING.

  11. Todd: FYI, systems are made by people, therefore if the system isn’t working or is screwed up it’s because the people involved screwed it up.

    This segment of today’s blog says it all about so much of ours as well as other societies. In Rebecca Costa’s compelling book, “The Watchman’s Rattle”, she details the reasons why we evolved the way we have:
    (“Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions”); a misplaced faith in autonomy (leading to a society “high in narcissism and low in social connection”); a misplaced notion of the self (“a conception of self that is about achievement, not character”);

    Intelligence is a good thing when it works to helping the species survive on a narrow, or, in the case of humans being able to discern that survival in the abstract, broad picture. Otherwise, it’s just involved with personal functions.

  12. William,

    If you can’t deal with the DEEP OLIGARCHIC SYSTEM OF CONTROL, then everything else, in the long run, is USELESS. As you have so well pointed out, the failure to do so has unleashed the UNSTOPPABLE TRUMP MONSTER.

  13. Here’s a thought nowhere near as deep as David Brooks thinks but perhaps worth considering. What if the bulk of our dysfunction is that we just like to be entertained too much? We like it so much that we are willing to set up our stuff so that it’s never out of reach. I remember back when times were tough we had to walk 10′ across shag carpet to change channels. We sure fixed that! We put up with seemingly endless commercials to sit numb minded watching screens of all sizes flash and blink and pour pablum into our hypnotized minds.

    While some of the price we pay for that bit of nothing is obvious, there are some more insideous costs too. We pay for it by exposing ourselves to expert propaganda, some convincing us that we never have enough stuff, and some exposing us to expert propaganda telling us that the world has gone to hell and it’s because there are conspiracies everywhere and it’s all because “they” are taking over the world. “They’s” are everywhere, behind every bush and lurking in every darkness and anger and hate and fear are the only defense we have.

    We have in effect made a Faustian deal to open our minds to propaganda in return for access to every sport every day from every city, “stars” dancing, dysfunctional families dysfunctioning, comedians governing and tradgedy everywhere all of the time accompanied by paid opinion of who can save us from ourselves if we’d only send them enough money and votes.

    Sanity can’t compete with that.

  14. Thank you for a splendid analysis.

    For a lifetime, I’ve viewed those who equate merit with wealth as suspect (the nicest word I can think of to describe such people). We had a governor not too long ago who viewed educators and others who devoted their lives to a cause or vocation of helping others as mentally or ambitiously deficient. If you didn’t make a lot of money, how smart or meritorious could you be? This deficient definition of merit infected public and educational policy.

    Our current President and too much of society succumbs in large part to the same sentiment. Trump only wanted millionaires and billionaires in his cabinet. His tax ‘reforms’ concentrated most of the advantages to the wealthiest Americans. His health insurance proposals sacrificed the sick to enrich the healthy. His immigration policies only welcome those with means, not those without who nevertheless helped build this nation and economy.

    Most of us grant some measure of respect to those of great means – even if their wealth was a happy accident of birth or other good luck rather than merit. Thankfully, most of us also respect the meritocracy of people of character and devotion to helping others. I’m guessing (and hoping) more of us value that character and devotion more than money.

  15. Respect for the wealthy is warranted in direct proportion to the degree of fair and honorable process for making wealth…which is far from fair and honorable.

  16. Piketty identifies inherited wealth and its continuation from one generation to another as a trove that should be taxed and does the numbers in support of his view with over three centuries of careful research. The mere accident of birth does not give a deserved right to heirs and devisees to such great wealth, wealth they had no hand in amassing, and wealth that in the capitalist economies he monitored that was necessarily extracted at the expense of other participants in such economies, which provides a basis for a “wealth tax” he proposes. He admits it won’t work (given the mobility of capital) unless the entire world agrees and that such an agreement is unlikely. I agree, but I think the idea engaging. After all, we tax real estate and income – and what are they but capital or capital in the making?

    Larry is right as to fair play in making wealth – a rare methodology in these days of policymakers’ decisions in picking winners (campaign contributors) and losers (non- campaign contributors), perhaps setting up the generational passing on of wealth Piketty has studied.

    As to Brooks, I find his methods of setting up intellectual strawmen and then destroying them entertaining and I’m with Sheila in that I find some of his patter more interesting than others, but theory does not buy groceries and make house payments

  17. From Thomas Frank…

    “In its quest for prosperity, the Party of the People declared itself wholeheartedly in favor of a social theory that forthrightly exalted the rich—the all-powerful creative class.

    To the liberal class, every big economic problem is really an education problem, a failure by the losers to learn the right skills and get the credentials everyone knows you’ll need in the society of the future.

    Professional-class liberals aren’t really alarmed by oversized rewards for society’s winners; on the contrary, this seems natural to them — because they are society’s winners. The liberalism of professionals just does not extend to matters of inequality; this is the area where soft hearts abruptly turn hard.

    Of course Republicans do it too. The culture wars unfold in precisely the same way as the liberal virtue-quest: they are an exciting ersatz politics that seem to be really important but at the conclusion of which voters discover they’ve got little to show for it all besides more free-trade agreements, more bank deregulation, and a different prison spree.”

    More..https://jessescrossroadscafe.blogspot.com/2018/06/thomas-frank-on-evolution-of-democratic.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *