Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Game is Rigged: The Deadly Delusion of Meritocracy

Thomas Frank has made a career analyzing how liberals lost the  struggle for the soul of bottom 80% of the American electorate, which is to say the lower and middle classes, such as we actually still have a "middle class."

His big idea is encapsulated in the remark he cites from Lawrence Summers, an effete snob who never quite recovered from his rejection as an undergraduate from Harvard and who made a career of bullying his way into sinecure positions like President of Harvard and chief economist of the World Bank, who said, "One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they're supposed to be treated." 

This is something of a corollary to the remark he made which cost him his job as Harvard President, when he observed that women haven't established much of a presence in math and science because they aren't as talented as men in math in science. He was alluding to test scores which have suggested as much, but it was politically incorrect to say it.  

What he was really saying is that the successful deserve to be successful and the losers are what they are, losers.

This is  the idea that we have ways of measuring "talent" and worthiness and we should reward those on whom God has bestowed superior genes and brains and we should not feel too sorry for those less competitive, less worthy, less" talented," less intelligent individuals who comprised the lower 90% and who could never "qualify" to get into Harvard.

Which brings to mind the man Thomas Frank quoted in his book, "What's the Matter with Kansas," a guy who complains that his son, who could rewire his house, rebuild the tractor's motor, read the defense from the line of scrimmage before burning it for a forty yard touch down pass,  hunt and shoot a wild boar, kayak a class four rapid and sink a basket from 35 feet would never get into Harvard, because his college board scores are not high enough.

What the man from Kansas was saying is you have your ideas of what constitutes "talent," Mr. Summers, and I have mine. And in my world, your kid, with his perfect scores and perfect grades and his resume filled with made-for-college-application extra curricula activities,  is an empty suit, whose greatest virtue is knowing how to kiss up to adults.

That "talented" student, destined to garner the glittering prizes, is the Lt. Dick, of the Band of Brothers, a Yale graduate, who was never seen when the lead started flying, a dreadful failure as a leader of men, who is ultimately removed from command of Easy Company, only to wind up on the staff of the General who commands the whole regiment, the classic case of a fortunate feckless son,  kicked upstairs. 

Frank assails the "well graduated" cohort of smug collegians who have been told they are the select, the elect and they will rule the world and they graduate to join Mackenzie Consulting and, sure enough, they find themselves writing reports telling men twice their age how to manufacture widgets more profitably, having mastered the problem of profitable widget making in a blitzkrieg of studying the factory and it's place in the economy.

Of course,  those who have a more enlightened perspective  will tell you they got high board scores because their parents could afford to send them to Kaplan courses and tutors which ramped up their scores.

On the other hand, when one actually lives and works among the hoi polloi, one discovers they are not all brilliant, hard working people who were simply born into poor families. Many do come from families  with six brothers and four sisters and parents who worked two jobs and had no time to read to kids at night. College for them was never an option. But  whatever their talents and intelligence, many of these folks struggle putting pen to paper to simply fill out a questionnaire.  

It's not that people who dropped out of high school were unintelligent, but their lives took arches predictable from their circumstances and the marketplace has no patience and no intention of  bringing them up to speed.

But the rage that fuels the crowds at Donald Trump rallies is a rage at a dimly perceived injustice, buried in early childhood experience and reinforced throughout adolescence that meritocracy is a fraud, the system is rigged and the wrong people rewarded.

No comments:

Post a Comment