Adam Davidson Praises Economic Exploitation

There has been so much news on the mortgage beat the last few weeks that I managed to neglect one of my missions, which is my personal Ben Stein watch on Adam Davidson, who operates as the Lord Haw Haw for the 1% in his column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.

His latest piece, “Why Are Harvard Graduates in the Mailroom?” is more accurately titled “In Praise of Exploitation.” When you strip his argument down, it amounts to: “A lot of people choose to be exploited, and voluntarily take jobs where they are paid less than they deserve because they hope to be big winners.” As in really big winners. Davidson repeatedly compares the payoffs to various activities (working the the mail room at William Morris, being a low level drug dealers, acting, working in a law firm or investment bank) to a lottery.

The lottery analogy, which Davidson uses through the entire piece, is wonderfully, nails-on-the-chalkboard screechingly at odds with his claim: “That’s the spirit of meritocratic capitalism!” Lotteries involve random, blind draws of “lots”. Modern lotteries, the kind that plug holes in government deficits, are such astonishingly low odds affairs that they are described as “a tax on people who are bad at math.” So Davidson appears to be telling us that success in modern capitalism is painfully unlikely and pretty much random.

And there are ample proofs that meritocracy is a fantasy. A devastating 1992 paper by Patrick D. Larkey and Jonathan P. Caulkin, “All Above Average and Other Unintended Consequences of Performance Appraisal Systems,” declared that 100 years of dealing with performance review systems proved they were inherently unable to produce objective results. Among the reasons: the complexities of the boss-subordinate relationship, the fact that virtually all performance appraisals are subjective (even ones of salesmen should allow for who has better or worse territories), and that it is pretty much impossible to devise sensible ways to compare staff caliber across departments. When I was a young person on Wall Street, getting comp right was management’s most important job, and at Goldman, they spent the better part of six weeks of the year on it.

Or consider the example portrayed in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball. The baseball industry has always measured players’ skill and achievements by a handful of well-known statistics. To make the most of a limited budget, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane relied on statistical analysis to sign low-salaried players that appeared to be dramatically undervalued. The result: The team, with one of baseball’s lowest payrolls, has placed first or second in its division for eight seasons running.

Remember: baseball is a business where the recruiting is unusually transparent, the basic rules have remained unchanged for decades, competitive encounters are in full view, and the incentives for success are high. This would seem to be the perfect environment for developing good rules for hiring and promotion, yet the entire industry was largely wrong.

And that’s before we get to the role of good old fashioned bias. A 1997 Nature paper by Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wold, “Nepotism and Gender Bias in Peer-Review,” determined that women seeking research grants need to be 2.5 times more productive than men to receive the same competence score. Similarly, Tom Ferguson has combed though the data sets underlying a recent study claiming that the executive ranks of large firmswere meritocratic, and the underrepresentation of “out groups was due to their lack of skills. Ferguson found that the distribution suggested otherwise: ethnic groups are in fact over-concentrated in a few pockets, when they should be scattered evenly if merit selection dominated.

And another part of the fantasy that Davidson and other status quo apologists exploit successfully is the desperate need to believe the system is fair. As Stanford neuroscience professor Ben Barres (who knows more than a bit about discrimination, having formerly been Barbara) noted, citing research:

When it comes to bias, it seems that the desire to believe in a meritocracy is so powerful that until a person has experienced sufficient career-harming bias themselves they simply do not believe it exists.

Another intelligence-insulting aspect of this article is how Davidson force fits all sorts of different jobs into the same simple-minded generalization. One of the reasons some career paths have extreme power law payoffs is lots of people are willing to do the work for no or little pay because it is creative and intrinsically enjoyable (at least for some people). Writing and the visual and performing arts fall into this category. By contrast, as Frank Partnoy’s book FIASCO made clear, highly paid derivative salesmen hated the work and all said they’d do anything else, including haul garbage, if they could make anything resembling the money they were earning.

Not that we should fell sorry for the aspiring partners or equivalents in accounting, consulting, investment banking, or the law that Davidson weirdly equates with drug dealers or mail room boys looking to leap into a professional role. Those jobs are all well paid to very well paid. The hours are typically exploitative, but the young’uns are also learning a trade, as well as how to manage clients, not just doing scut work. And unlike the mail runners who never get their break, the downside for people in banks or professional firms who don’t make it to the very top are usually very handsome. Indeed, a not trivial number opt out into better careers than if they had stayed with their firm and had made it to the top.

So Davidson misleads in suggesting that a normal organizational pyramid, or the more Darwinian “up or out” version of law, accounting, and consulting firms, is a “lottery” when the upside and downside payoffs of those career paths are very attractive, as contrasted with the typical payoffs of trying to be a professional performing artist (for instance, a woman I know who majored in dance and had gotten hired as a ballerina had to turn to stripping to pay off her school debts).

But there is one way in which Davidson’s lottery metaphor is apt. A 2008 study found that poor people spent a whopping 9% of their incomes on the lottery. I’ve read various theories as to why, most of them of the moralizing “aren’t they dumb/irresponsible” subtext. But as someone who once in a great while buys a lottery ticket (only when it is a rational bet after taxes, and that occurs very rarely when the pots are super huge, and even then, with the predictable lack of success), the explanation that seems most plausible is that the wager allows them to engage in some pleasant fantasizing, just as shelter and vacation magazines do for the more affluent (you can argue that this fantasizing comes at a high cost, but people who are poor need their pleasures too, and there are worse choices than lottery tickets).

So unintentionally, Davidson’s lottery metaphor is apt for those who aren’t on the fast track: exploiting people’s tendency to dream to get them to accept economic propositions that are hopelessly stacked against them. And his insistently cheerful tone tells us we should recognize that this is all for the best in this best of all possible worlds.


I must report that Davidson did e-mail me after one of my salvos at him, but I chose not read his message. If he would like to take issue with one of my posts, he is free to do so in my comments section. I do correct posts pronto if I have made a mistake or misconstrued an argument or data. Felix Salmon argues, and I concur, that one of the values of the blogosphere is that participants can engage in conversations in public, and it forces everyone to sharpen their discourse.

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  1. Paul Walker

    Some folks will always try and outdo Archie Bunker’s pontificatation about what it means to be black or an aspiring female professional in America and transfer those generalizations to any other segment desired in an enfeebled attempt to stroke their own sense of superiority.

    Fortune is a much maligned lady. Yes indeed.

    1. nonclassical

      I took NY TIMES through “W” years, to stay up on bushit legislative deregulation, and did..Stein is a complete tool…but I do love the Sunday book revue…almost
      always a gem or three..

      Of course in those days Frank Rich was there..Morgenson still is..

  2. vlade

    Yves, I’m not sure – are you arguing that it is, or isn’t a lottery?

    I’d say it is, albeit a skewed one (basically someone’s tickets tend to have higher expected value than for others) – and I’d strongly agree that meritocracy doesn’t really come into the picture in reality.

    The reason why we need the blather about meritocracy is because we need to feel at least a sliver of control (“Drunkard’s walk” talks about a study that shows how big impact illusion of control over our lives has). Can you imagine a world where we’d all accept that’s it’s ultimately random (I hesitate to write capricious, since randomness is not bad or good per se) and we have much less – if any – control over our lives than we now think we do?

    Relevant to that is – although it’s more relevant to the whole situation as it is now. Basically, what it boils down to is that if you have a population with the same skills, but different luck, you’ll get unequal wealth distribution (limiting to total concentration).

    My corrolary to that is the wealth distribution tells you little or nothing about skill distribution – but we (=humans) do backwards rationalization to avoid the luck factor and continue the illusion of control – and that gets in way of redistribution that would normalize for luck. If people choose to believe that the wealth distribution is due to skill, then redistribution based on luck does not seem fair. Ironically enough I’d say that it’s the people with skill who are more likely to believe in this – regardless of where on the luck scales they are.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Please reread piece.

      I objected to Davidson lumping many lines of work together that have very different payoff profiles. Therefore no one metaphor will do. So the lottery is misused.

      However, I also point out the the use of the lottery metaphor is perverse, since he uses it consistently throughout the piece to represent capitalist meritocracy, when a lottery is random (not meritocratic) and absurdly low odds. I’d hazard (but have not done the math) that an actress has better odds of, say, a B list or better career than lottery ticket buyers have of winning the big pot.

      But his use of the lottery example is correct in that there it ample evidence that organizations aren’t terribly meritocratic despite their claims otherwise.

      1. vlade

        Ok, I see, my take on lottery is weaker than your (and probably more common) one – I take it as “random payoffs”, without defining what expected payoffs actualy are (so “tickets” probabilities may not be equal), while your interepretation assumes equal ticket probabilities.

        For example, “investing” comes under my definition of “lottery”, since the results are effectively random, but you can, via various means, move the probabilities.

        The meritocracy stuff is, as I wrote, something I agree – mutually exclusive.

      2. Dan B

        “But his use of the lottery example is correct in that there it [is] ample evidence that organizations aren’t terribly meritocratic despite their claims otherwise.”

        A related issue is that organizations often select on the basis of non-conscious, non-meritorious “socilization” factors; the “Is she/he one of us?” criterion comes to mind. Chomsky discusses this in regards to how journalists self-censor.

      3. pws

        Why play the lottery when there are so many other forms of gambling with better odds? You are so much better off with a free odds wager at the craps table!

  3. Middle Seaman

    I have not read Davidson’s piece nor do I intend to. Stopped reading newspapers more than ten years ago. Our reporters do not recognize facts; they always listen to the mainstream of thier profession, which these days is overwhelmingly in support of the rich. Foreign affairs media pundits or local events ones all are spewing garbage. The Matt Taibis of the world are astonishingly few.

    Reviews are typically cruel jokes. The reasons mentioned in the post do not cover such things as fads, inability to do basic math, low reading comprehension, etc. Sadly, fad, for instance, favor some people over others for no good reason. Same may be said about math and reading difficulties.

    Case in point is tenure granting at universities; it is a major review. Typically they are based on scientific contribution in part based on recommendation letters written by unbiased observers. My experience is that vocal people “seem” to be more scientifically significant than the quiet types. Also, people do not understand what recommendation letters say.

    1. grumpesrex

      Similarly, Mr. Davidson was featured on a recent broadcast of This American Life about the Greece/EU crisis. Mr. Davidson is reflexively an apologist for the banksters and ‘technocrats’ that are debasing and overtaking the Greek state.

    2. LeonovaBalletRusse

      MS, so true. And underneath the denial of the cost of the daily grind, the bed rock despair must be incalculable.

  4. Brian

    I just remember Adam Davidson being a total dick to Elizabeth Warren in an interview – he didn’t let her finish a sentence without giggling or interjecting. In stark contrast, he fawned over Timothy Geithner in an interview around the same time. The Planet Money website has both interviews.

    1. LeonovaBalletRusse

      Brian, *giggling* and *fawning* in this scenario shows “impure” motives, in the vocabulary of T.S. Eliot.

  5. jake chase

    Actually, life is a lottery and the most important contributor to success is luck. The future is inherently uncertain and just about the only certainty is provided by power relationships, which exist in every situation involving two or more people. Merit can be determined only in retrospect. Executives are de facto geniuses because they get control of corporate boards and milk that control for as long as they control accounting fictions. Anyone can tell they are of average intelligence (or less) simply by listening to the nonsense they talk when promoting anything from themselves to their prescriptions for business and the economy. Unless and until people recognize that the rich are distinguished only by having more money, our society will continue blundering from one fatuous and ruinous winner take all precipis to another.

    It is easiest to understand this if one attended school or college with a few of these as**oles and got to know them before they climbed up on the corporate hobby horse. Of course, you cannot tell anyone the truth in normal circumstances, because your observations are written off as sour grapes. It hasn’t been easy keeping quiet for forty years.

    1. Anonymous Jones

      That was indeed a good comment, jake chase. It almost makes me want to take back all those mean things I’ve said (well, not really about the last part).

      Life is complex and quite dependent upon luck and circumstance, variables very difficult to control for in experiments or analysis.

      And to Yves, one thing about actual lotteries. They are not necessarily irrational bets. As I like to say, life is not a monte carlo experiment. You just get one roll of the dice. It is not irrational to engage in a low probability, high payoff game just because it would not work out if you had 5,000,000 lives. You have one life, and if you “hit the lottery”, that life (most would say) would be far, far more pleasurable than having a few extra bucks in your pocket (or 9% or whatever). [Please, I am not a “cheerleader” for lotteries. I’m just describing the preference matrix we all face!]

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Go back and think harder about how low the odds of 1 in 5 million are. I think most people’s intuitive understanding of numbers breaks down beyond 1 in 100 or 1 in 1000.

        1. LifelongLib

          It would be irrational for me to play the lottery if I wanted $20,000, because there are much more reliable ways for me to get it. If (for whatever reason) I wanted $20 million, playing the lottery is the ONLY action I could take that has a non-zero chance of getting it. So in a case like that it’s rational (or at least not completely irrational) to play the lottery.

  6. brazza

    Could it be that lotteries exist because most (99%?) are addicted to the rush of adrenalin associated with the possibility of huge windfalls for relatively low risk, and a small number (1%) manipulate this human tendency for personal gain?

    Windfalls are in fact unexpected and relatively infrequent aberrations of normal trends. My prescription would be to educate the 99% to greater self-awareness, the blessings of stoicism, the value of principle. The two forces are counter-weights on a see-saw. Being content with who we are removes 99% of perceived needs. I advocate quitting the game itself rather than demonizing either side.

    1. LeonovaBalletRusse

      brazza, not the motive in USA. Lottery ticket buyers are desperate and poor, staving despair with bets on dreams of deliverance by magic. TRAGIC!

      1. brazza

        Lenora … I think that is true everywhere in the world. In fact, gambling has increased in step with a reduction in living standards in Greece and Italy. We can all agree that it seems illogical given the ridiculous odds of winning. So … who is to blame? Those who offer the bait or those who take it?

        I’m arguing that both are playing in the same paradigm …

          1. brazza

            yes! :) And I’d argue that consumerism itself is an addiction. In fact .. so is capitalism – its a manic-obsessive drive to accumulate unnecessary material .. like collecting stamps.

    2. Susan the other

      Archie Bunker was my guru. In one sentence: “Get away from me Meathead, are you trying to kill me?” Archie rendered me immobile. I peed my pants. He was so funny and so true. But granted, I was young. Still it says something about a thing I have always called family-speak. Maybe others rationalize this sort of undefined rapport as meritocracy, perhaps. Family-speak is clan-speak. If you have it, or you can fake it, you are definitely one with each other.

      Example: I had not seen my maternal cousin (I think it is a maternal communication thing.) for 47 years. He came to town for a conference and called me to see if we could go skiing. I said OK. I waited at the ticket plaza until I saw him. I can’t tell you how I knew it was him because I hadn’t seen him since we were both 10. So then we rode up the lift and immediately he cracked me up and I laughed and liked him for the rest of the day. Like we had never been apart. Clearly, great minds think alike.

  7. nice try

    Right, You people are so wonderful that you are above “performance reviews” or even working your way up a ladder.
    You “deserve” whatever you think you deserve.

    Just who is being “subjective” here.

    More evidence that the readers here are thoroughly detached from reality. Hint: you either start your own business or you work for someone else.

    What is comic here is that the left in actuality believes in near feudal systems where advancement is all about accommodating the Party superiors and towing the line. Liberals want a risk free world where their social superiority is assured by their place in a Nomenklatura.

    Actually pursue liberty and wealthy on their own in the objective world of the marketplace? Never.

    Harvard grads in the Mailroom. It is more than most of them deserve given the claptrap that they teach up there.

    You are assured of nothing in the world, nor does it “owe you” a place that you think you “deserve”.

    Though Davidson, like every other hack at the NYT, is deplorable by their very nature, he is not off the mark here. If it is true that he actually gave that hag Warren some trouble then it is to his credit.

    You people are quite removed from anything approaching the real world. It will be amusing to watch you grow old and learn that your high regard for yourselves is not shared by others and the the real powers of the Left do not care if you live or die.

    More self-serving, pseudo-intellectual Leftist cant from NC.

        1. Eclair

          Give nice try a break. Perhaps he/ she has the mental picture of poor exploited worker “towing the line” on a ponderous canal barge, a la Erie Canal.

          Fits in with the world view of “Manchester circa 1840.”

    1. Woodrow Wilson

      “More self-serving, pseudo-intellectual Leftist cant from NC.” –

      Amusing that you believe it matters whether people are “Leftist” or “Rightist”.

      Some of us actually can’t stand either side of the aisle and come here for information. We don’t have to agree with everything Yves and others write, but to shut off well thought alternate views, opinions and maybe even facts is fairly ignorant.

    2. YankeeFrank

      I love you whoever you are. You’re a big man. I’m a little man. The way you see through “us” with your powerful vision… you remind me of someone I’ve read about… could you be Superman? No, no. Wait. Could you be John Galt? Silly me. Of course not. Sir Galt has a million more important things to do than attempt to insult people on a pathetic “Leftist” blog. Well, whoever you are, I dream of shining your shoes, or polishing your powerful automobile. Could you please hit me up with some more of that insightful insult? Please? I’ve got a whip if you prefer… whatever you do just don’t leave… stay and treat me bad. It gets me hard baby.

      1. LeonovaBalletRusse

        YF, I’ve lately begun to think that Ayn Rand was a student of Blavatsky and even Crowley. I’d been wondering *who sent her and why*. X-Greenspan and *God’s work” on the Dark Side. What a racket! (and free sex).

    3. F. Beard

      Actually pursue liberty and wealthy on their own in the objective world of the marketplace? nice try

      With stolen purchasing power via loans from the government enforced/backed counterfeiting cartel, the banking system?

      I am NOT a socialist yet so long as we have a money system that benefits the rich at the expense of the poor, I support all the socialism the poor need though I greatly prefer it just be in the form of cash handouts.

    4. Skippy

      Self aggrandizing blather.

      Skippy… Ex – brown people reduction squad member that first read Marx on top of an plywood OP on the DMZ, still voted republican that year.

      PS. There is a difference between growing old and growing wiser. Knowledge, all of it.

    5. James Cole

      I can’t even tell what this comment is criticizing, because it sure isn’t (a) the original post or (b) anything else NC could be seen as standing for.

    6. bulfinch

      What are you talking about? You either didn’t read the piece, or you did so in haste — hustling through it so you could use the comments section as a forum for venting spleen about lefty and his candy ass’dness. Yves never argues against meritocracy, she is suggesting that it is a myth, as evidenced by things like the glass ceiling.

      I suspect there is someone out there well and truly deserving of your loathing, and it’s truly a waste that you should be depriving them of it by misfocusing here.

    7. SR6719

      But I read NC, yet I’m not detached from reality! About a year ago, I had to take a cab in New York City and the driver was listening to NPR. Yes, I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been avoiding those left-wing radicals ever since they failed to run any stories on single-payer during the health-care debate.

      But there I was, *trapped*, and for the next 10 or 15 minutes had to sit there and listen to Robert Siegel and a “terrorism expert” fretting over al-Qaeda. You know those 100 al-Qaeda that we’ve got 100,000 troops searching for in Afghanistan. For a moment I was afraid I might be subjected to one of those radical far left anti-war messages, and that I’d have to stop the cab, and exit, but thank god at least these two liberal wackos had enough sense to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as future wars in Libya, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iran. So it could have been worse.

      But still, it was annoying, as I got the impression they didn’t *really* support the wars, but were only going along with them in that fussy way that liberals have.

      Boy, was I glad to get out of that cab!

    8. chasd00

      Actually, they hit the nail pretty much right on the head. To make it you’re really going to have to work and work hard. I don’t mean just showing up I mean actively pursuing and competing and there’s a lot of luck involved too. It’s a simple fact.

      Having said that, failing has to be allowed (no bailouts), kleptocracy has to be crushed, and the corrupt have to be punished.

    9. nonclassical

      I can think of one Yale grad we all would have been better off had he been sentenced to the mail room…

  8. Thomas


    Why not read his email, and if it’s worth replying to, post it in your comments with your own reply?

    1. Foppe

      Because it is considered rude to publish private correspondence, whereas it is not considered rude (since you’re not allowed to mention it) to send people offensive emails. Isn’t etiquette great?

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Because I don’t want to engage in a private conversation for reasons stated above, and the odds are high that I’d get sucked into one.

  9. Jack Jonsom

    “for instance, a woman I know who majored in dance and had gotten hired as a ballerina had to turn to stripping to pay off her school debts”

    Or could have turned to flipping burgers.

      1. LeonovaBalletRusse

        Foppe, how many *babes* in universities are *paying tuition* and *expenses* by selling their eggs to creeps, running the Call Girl ropes at night, engaging in pole dancing, lap dancing, escort services, and quick *hooking*?

        It used to be “posing for Playboy” – now, maybe porn and *snuff* films.

        “Whatever the MARKET will bear! USA!USA!”

  10. Jon Smith

    Gone for a job flipping burgers recently?

    Competition for unskilled positions is fierce, with a lot of people forced to take low-hour and no-hour part-time contracts and competing viciously for extra shifts.

    Difficult to pay off your school debts (or, in fact, live) when you’re in one of those jobs…

    1. LeonovaBalletRusse

      JS, since prostitution is legal in Germany, *healthy* women are OBLIGED to go into prostitution (“It’s a legal job”), rather than apply for welfare–this is what I read a few weeks ago.

      1. scraping_by

        I’ve always thought that was the hidden agenda of bashing single moms on ADC. Other than the covert racism, of course.

        In more paranoid moods, I’ve wondered about the obsession with sending teenage boys into prisons for petty status crime. After all, the Red Cross blood screening test asks about being in lockup for more than 72 hours. As in getting the virus from being punked. As in, training…


  11. JIm Sterling

    In every horse race, there is a fine race horse whose ancestors are among the greatest winners in racing history, that has been fed and trained with the utmost care and hope by experienced owners and trainers, none of whom are fools or wasters of money. And that horse comes last, because all the horses could say the same. It’s unjust, but it’s okay for a sport to be unjust to the losers, so long as there is fairness to all.

    It’s not okay for a civilization to be unjust. Life is not a sporting entertainment. The rich say it’s “unfair” that the poor should ask for higher wages, or lower rents, or help in time of trouble. But it’s okay for civilization to be “unfair” to winners, so long as there is justice for all.

  12. liberal

    Great post.

    I’ve long wondered why anyone would think it’s easy to create performance metrics.

    Student evaluations of teaching at universities are another example. Putting aside the question of to what extent those influence tenure and promotion decisions, my personal impression (and IIRC research shows) that the evals are heavily influenced by how easy the grading is. But no one ever thinks to “regress out” that effect…

    1. LifelongLib

      When I was in college (lo these many decades ago) I felt and still feel that I was quite capable of evaluating my professors’ teaching skills. It was plain after sitting through one of their lectures that many had no teaching skills at all — hopefully they were better at research. It had nothing to do with the difficulty of the material and everything with the clarity with which it was presented. Luckily I also had a number of professors who could teach even obscure material brilliantly.

  13. Kristin

    Am I the only one who didn’t agree that the point of Adam’s article was to excuse the lottery system? Quite contrary to Yves when I read it I thought it was a perfectly even-toned *criticism* of the system. I am surprised not everyone read it that way?

  14. Winston

    Just would like to note that the A’s haven’t finished in the top two for 8 seasons running ;) (only applicable timeline would be ’99-06). I, like you RE The Big Short, take issue with Lewis’ storytelling.

  15. Jim A

    Psychologically, those who have made it to the top of the pyramid want to believe that the system is a meritocracy, while those marooned at the bottom want to believe that it is a lottery. It’s about whether you want to get the credit for success or blame for failure. Of course live is a mixture of the two, but which one believes is more important often depends on where you’re standing.

  16. Jack Straw

    Although I love music, during most of my drive-time, I listen to either NPR or ESPN radio. I may be the least sport-sy listener ESPN has – I barely understand how fantasy football works, and would never do it because it seems like yet low-reward another job – but it’s still a fascinating area. I am also fascinated by sports gambling and by professional gamblers I know who make a living at blackjack* or poker, and then lose their winnings betting on football. I loved “Moneyball,” but I have been struggling to figure out the nuances of it. A large point, IMO, is how people involved in (or watching, or managing, etc) competition frequently don’t get how artificial the competition is, and make wildly wrong assumptions about what the game “is” that is to be “won.” Some people do get it, however, and some people always have, but they don’t talk about it because their whole strategy is in gaming the rules. That’s Moneyball. This is the American legal system, too, and perhaps THE reason why lawyers have such a high dissatisfaction with their profession. And, why they are not particularly highly-regarded – because in a sense process is everything that rank-and-file lawyers get paid for.

    It’s also interesting that American Idol and things like it became so popular (are these shows still popular post-meltdown?). I haven’t watched it (them) in a few years, but when I did, it seemed like winning was not necessarily the best career move. Trump’s “Apprentice” seemed particularly absurd as a “competition,” but it kind of worked, and made me think a bit differently (more positively) about Trump himself, at least.

    * That card-counting (skillful play) is considered “cheating” in blackjack has never been adequately explained to me. But I do think it is an excellent example of artificiality. It’s cheating because the house says it is.

    Competition is like common sense. Everybody thinks they understand it, but not that many people do. Being involved with my kids’ activities has led me to ask myself whether anybody actually understands it. In my experience, people’s attitudes about competition and fairness etc. dwarf everything else in intensity when their kids are involved.

    1. LeonovaBalletRusse

      JS, you must be *inside the game* to know the rules overt and covert, and how to play them. Most people are ignorant of the fact the the *raison d’etre* of football, esp. NFL televised football, is *Sports Betting*.

      It came as no surprise to discover Henry Kissinger’s involvement in Sports Betting. He is inside every game, since his lust for “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Clearly, he never could play the Cock of the Walk on his looks.

      Guys, has anyone done a study of how many physically repulsive men arrive at the *top of the heap* in one enterprise or another, and why? How many dolts are CEO’s of major corporations, and why?

      Didn’t leading roles come by way of the *casting couch* for *surplus talent*?

      This means of climbing the ladder to success ended badly in America:

      Revisit “My Own Private Idaho” — from decades ago. Read “METHLAND.”

  17. chris m

    the notion of merit based compensation is a salve egoists employ to assuage their guilty consciences

    give away everything you value and watch what happens

  18. john smith

    I could be wrong, but I actually think that Yves and Adam are not on opposite sides here. I read the “That’s the spirit of meritocratic capitalism!” lines as deeply sarcastic.

    I am also curious what his email says.

    I think this may simply be a failure to pick up on sarcasm early in the piece.

    The illogic of juxtaposing “That’s the spirit of meritocratic capitalism!” with an essay hinged solely on a lottery example makes me think my initial reading of the line as sarcastic is the right one.

    1. Foppe

      It seems to me that once you get past the 4th or so paragraph Davidson shifts from his skeptical/sarcastic tone to a “best of possible worlds”-tone.

      1. john smith

        My point was that I believe that Yves’ assessment that “The lottery analogy, which Davidson uses through the entire piece, is wonderfully, nails-on-the-chalkboard screechingly at odds with his claim: ‘That’s the spirit of meritocratic capitalism!'” is simply a misunderstanding due to missing the humor and tongue-in-cheekness of the statement she hones in on.

        Taking it in the context of the whole paragraph, you can see it very clearly is not a serious statement. From Davidson:

        “I’m not talking about the fortunes lavished on extremely good looking people; no, I mean the economic system that compels lots of young people to work extremely hard for little pay so that it’s possible to lavish fortune on the good-looking people. That’s the spirit of meritocratic capitalism!”

        And I don’t get a best-of-possible worlds in the latter half of the piece, either. More a resigned, well-it’s-better-than being-in-the-mailroom sentiment.

        The cornerstone of this post is an assumption that Davidson is serious about his meritocracy line, when clearly (based on the previous line) it is not meant to be serious.

        I suspect that is what Davidson’s email to Yves said as well, had it been read.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I have run your thesis by a professional editor and two academics and they don’t agree at all. Two of the three of them have been reading Davidson longer than I have and say that irony is not part of his style. One remark:

          That’s ridiculous. Guy probably thinks Obama is well meaning, too

          And look how he uses his lottery metaphor on jobs with low odds of getting a lot of money like acting versus those where everyone does at least pretty well (big law firm jobs, big consulting firm jobs) unless you are an abject screw up. To try to imply that elite job paths are a lottery is pretty offensive.

          1. john smith

            If the “That’s the spirit of meritocratic capitalism!” line is serious and not sarcastic, than the sentence that precedes it must be serious, too.

            I find it hard to believe that Davidson would say, without an ounce of teasing involved, that “the economic system that compels lots of young people to work extremely hard for little pay so that it’s possible to lavish fortune on the good-looking people.”

            And I do not think a lottery metaphor for elite jobs is offensive. Despite what bulge-bracket firms/elite job path-goers would like the outside world to believe, as someone who worked within that system for a long time, those inside are often lottery winners: of privilege. Just because it requires an Ivy League or equivalent degree to get you there, doesn’t mean it’s not a lottery. Who goes to Ivy league schools? Those fortunate enough to have the schooling required to get them admitted in the first place, and a small handful of folks who pulled themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps and were lucky enough to land scholarships.

            And for the record, I am as disillusioned with Obama as anyone. But thanks.

  19. Mark Stevens

    I don’t think poor people spend money on the lottery as a form of entertainment, or because they are addicted to the rush of gambling. I think it is because they know they have zero chance of ever earning much money, but there is small chance they could win the lottery. Even a very small chance seems big compared with zero.

  20. diptherio

    I believe it’s called the “fallacy of self-appellation;” ascribing a random outcome to personal virtue/vice. When something bad happens, you think “what did I do to deserve that?” When you’re successful you think, “gee-whiz I’m great!”

    As my under-grad adviser liked to point out, most of what people think they “earn” as their wages, are really just returns to location, returns to the random chance of having been born in the US. However, most of us assume that we have “earned” our wages by our effort and ability. This creates unjustified egoists on the up-side of the wage gamble and blameless self-accusers on the down.

    The wage or profit returns that you, or I, or anyone receives are influenced by many more factors than just our ability and work-ethic. This seems obvious, and any econometric analysis of income distribution that took into account only skill and luck variables would be laughable. It would be interesting to perform such an analysis, which could take into account, and tease out the significance of, many non-skill variables such as social position and income of one’s parents, university attended, race, gender, sexual orientation, even physical attractiveness. My guess would be that even with these and many more variables the result would still carry a large error term.

    One of the un-addressed underlying problems of the meritocratic hypothesis is that space at the top is severely limited. In order to claim that our society is meritocratic, one must assume that the distribution of human abilities in our society mirrors the distribution of roles in the social hierarchy. However, my experience in various work-settings has been that many of my co-workers could have filled a managerial role; many more than there were managerial roles to be filled. One essentially has to argue that 90% of people are lazy morons, while the top 10% (or 1%, .01%, whatever) are super-productive, super-efficient, super-geniuses, thus justifying their out-sized rewards. As the wealth-gap continues to increase, the meritocratic apology for capitalism will begin to wear very thin, so thin that a lot more people may soon start to see right through it. Let’s hope.

    1. Wendy

      well said, especially the last paragraph. there is not sufficient discussion of this last point, out in the world. it is simply assumed, cream always rises. but there is only so much room at the top, and that room, and what defines the top, varies greatly between fields.

    2. LeonovaBalletRusse

      diphterio, so true. As to the *space at the top* – it must reflect the *pyramid* of Capitalism and every other Autocracy.

    3. LifelongLib

      Many years ago I saw a study that tried to correlate income with various factors like the ones diptherio suggests. Unfortunately I don’t have a link, source, or recall the methodology, but IIRC the result was that about 30% of income variability could be accounted for.

  21. Ransome

    Hollywod is not a lottery, it is a beauty contest where the judges are looking for people to make the judges rich. The contestants know this comes with a price.

    The majority only work for sufficieny which is why an economy needs a wide range of jobs. Plan B jobs are the majority’s plan A. The driven minority look down on the majority as defectives or lazy. The minority may look at life as a lottery as a justification.

  22. ep3

    “When it comes to bias, it seems that the desire to believe in a meritocracy is so powerful that until a person has experienced sufficient career-harming bias themselves they simply do not believe it exists.”

    this is one powerful quote, yves. Everyone seems to say “if u just work hard, u will be successful”, “if you will just save your money, u can be rich too”. But those people never mention ‘well, my dad left me $2 million that my uncle knew how to invest properly’ or the plain fact that being born at the right time (anyone with a pulse during the late 40s thru the 70s) could just buy anything and it went up tremendously in value. Sure those old people like to say “me and grandma lived in a small one bedroom apt when we first got married”, while they are sitting on the porch of their 4k square foot home on lake michigan. But did they have 100k in student loan debt? Did they have a car? Where did they work? Oh, the employer wasn’t walmart. And they worked there 30 years and never had an interruption in employment or lack of insurance during a medical crisis.

  23. LeonovaBalletRusse

    YVES, you nailed reality to the board, as usual. Thanks for clear insights and destruction of neo-propaganda.

    As for those derivates salesmen who *hate* their jobs and would *haul garbage* IF it paid anything like what they were making spinning Pie in the Sky, 2 points:

    1) This is what most streetwalkers, call girls/guys, and Chicken Ranch hookers and their *Madams* say. What keeps the *sex industry* and *sex tourism* in Bangkok alive? That’s where the money is, right?

    2) Dr. Maria Montessori suggested that garbage haulers, and others with the *most unpleasant* jobs *most necessary* to functioning society should be paid more highly than the extractive C-suite guys.

  24. Hugh

    In class war to defend kleptocracy and the elites, merit is just part of the con. The elites got to where they got through “merit”, and the rest of us did not because we lacked “merit”.

    The truth is that as wealth inequality has increased, social mobility has decreased. A results based approach to our elites, that is how they have improved the lives of the 99% and not just their own, would result in their complete elimination.

  25. Jesper

    “And unlike the mail runners who never get their break, the downside for people in banks or professional firms who don’t make it to the very top are usually very handsome.”

    Is that indicating a belief that there is meritocracy in banks and professional firms?
    How many promotions from an entry level position are needed to get a handsome pay working for them?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Did you read the piece? Despite having lifted a quote, your comment otherwise suggests you didn’t.

      Davidson is calling law firms, etc. “lotteries” when even the losers (the ones who don’t become partner) do very well, in some cases BETTER than the people who make partner. In a real lottery, the overwhelming majority of participants (like the mail room guys) lose. He is conflating elite career tracks with the career tracks for everyone else and trying to make them sound equally risky.

      1. Jesper

        You’re making the statement that in law firms etc the losers do very well.

        In the current environment the young ones working exploitative hours might end up getting not much more than a minimum hourly wage during their early career. Then they hope to have learned enough to be promoted to an intermediate level – which might have been outsourced and few positions are available. If they get the positions then the wages are probably not that great, the outsourcing threat again. The handsome pay is probably not seen until promoted to a level so high up that outsourcing is no longer seen as an alternative.

        The way I see it, the young ones today have a lot more competition to beat and more steps to climb to reach handsome levels of pay than previous generations.

        Maybe the odds aren’t completely stacked against them, but I’m fairly confident that the odds are a lot worse today than they were 20 years ago. Maybe the odds are better than lottery odds but I doubt that even a majority will ‘win’ by accepting exploitative hours.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Please do some math.

          Large law firm salaries, even in a bad year for new grads in 2010, were between $145,000 and $160,000. Those are where the lotto winner jobs are.

          I worked in investment banking when I was young and I know how bad a bad workweek is. 75-80 hours a week is the most you can do on a sustained basis (and yes, I did some 110 hour workweeks).

          Assuming 80 hours a week and $145,000 a year and only a 2 week vacation, you get $36.25 an hour, way way above minimum wage.

          I can debunk the rest too but I will serve my readership better by working on new posts.

  26. djrichard

    Romans 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.

    The nexus of above with mafia best practices is the space occupied by all organizations. Organizations need to be self-reinforcing, so they would all argue that they’re all meritocracies. You ever see someone who doesn’t represent that nexus get very far?

  27. Hugo Stiglitz

    Lottery? No way. In the US it’s all about choosing the correct parents and/or socioeconomic circumstances of one’s birth. The previous administration was a shining example of the system.

  28. H. Alexander Ivey


    I must disagree on your use of the word “invest”. An investment outcome means an outcome that is not random, it can be predicted and reasonably expected and it is productive to oneself and to society – usually. A lottery outcome is(hopefully) random, not reasonably expected, and it is not usually productive to the individual nor society. Get rich quick is not a stable or value adding means for people to aspire to.

  29. phil

    As an aside, Sudhir Venkatesh (I believe, and probably others) put forth a reason why the poor might rationally play the lottery when the odds are so long — it provides one of the only ways for them to acquire enough money at one time to make a qualitative change in their life. The nature of the income streams and investment options available to them are such that there’s no other way to finance, say, secure housing in a safer neighborhood and send their kids to college.

    When your only option is home runs, you try to hit home runs.

  30. Dr_Snooz

    I didn’t really think Davidson was trumpeting “lottery” capitalism. He finished up his article by saying that in the ’50s and ’60s, the “lottery” system was surrounded by a functioning blue-collar economy. Those who didn’t win the “lottery” had numerous viable, middle-class alternatives if their lottery play didn’t pan out. In other words, the opportunity costs of playing this lottery weren’t very high. If you didn’t win and make it into the upper crust, a decent middle class job would still be relatively easy to obtain. He mentioned that now, the middle class alternative doesn’t exist. Everything is a lottery. He finished the piece by suggesting that this probably isn’t the best arrangement for either the workers or the companies who employ them. Considering how conservative the Times has become, this was about as much as he would have been allowed to say.

    That was my reading anyway.

  31. Don Pasqueda

    Adam Davidson has a long line of recent work for NPR (Planet Monkey), with ProPublica (NPR partner), and now the SNYT (The prettiest, ugly cousin of the three), which a few critics have been analyzing for some time (Dean Baker, for one). I think an “Adam (Adumb) Davidson Watch” would be quite valuable for NC readers, because many NPR/NYT critics and I are tired of sage comments about bad NPR stories get tritely dismissed, ignored, or worse — purged — when the mainstream, journalistic intelligentsia have heard too much shrill wisdom from the educated rabble. Here’s a challenge to NC readers. Donate to NC instead of your NPR member station. That’s what I do.

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