Bill Black: Douthat’s Mendacious Meritocracy Myth

Yves here. This 2007 article, Fit v. Fitness, explains why meritocracy is unattainable.

By Bill Black, the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One, an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and co-founder of Bank Whistleblowers United. Jointly published with New Economic Perspectives

The funeral services for President George HW Bush triggered Ross Douthat’s nostalgia for the “aristocratic virtues of the old WASP establishment, and a disappointment with the meritocracy that has risen in its place.”  This column ignores his nostalgia and alleged virtues and discusses briefly his bizarre assumption that a “meritocracy” runs America.  Given the 2008 Great Financial Crisis (GFC) and President Trump, I thought that the meritocracy fantasy was dead.  We are far closer to anti-meritocracy (a kakistocracy).   

Douthat provides a combined dissolution/creation myth in a single sentence that constructed four falsehoods.

But then the WASPs themselves decided to dissolve their own aristocracy, and transform their once-Protestant universities into a secular mass-opportunity system — a more democratic way of education, in which anyone with enough talent could climb the ladder, and personal achievement and technical expertise would be prized above all else.

No, the WASPs did not “dissolve their own aristocracy,” they did not transform “their once-Protestant universities into a secular mass-opportunity system,” did not create an educational system “in which anyone with enough talent could climb the ladder,” and did not create an economy that “prized above all else” “personal achievement and technical expertise.”

The GI Bill did not open the “Protestant universities” to everyone – and a WASP suicide pact to “dissolve their own aristocracy” did not get the GI Bill enacted.  The GI Bill became law in 1944.  It provided benefits for veterans that included education, health, housing, and unemployment.  The political and economic context was the fear of recreating the shameful treatment of World War I veterans and widespread fears that the end of World War II would likely produce a severe recession that would be very bad for WASP elites.

The bill was bipartisan and veterans’ groups made its passage a political necessity.  WASP politicians, had they tried to kill the bill, would have been driven from office.  The controversial provision of the bill provided additional unemployment benefits to veterans.  Conservatives opposed it as supposedly incentivizing shirking work.  The reality was that veterans applied for only a tiny percentage of the unemployment benefits that the GI Bill provided.

The GI Bill provided benefits to female veterans, but World War II veterans were overwhelmingly male.  The GI Bill did not exclude black veterans, but it left implementation of the law overwhelmingly to local officials.  This led to comprehensive discrimination against black veterans in both the North and the South, particularly in terms of the housing and educational benefits.

Segregated education was the norm in the U.S., so relatively few black veterans had strong college-preparatory high school degrees essential to admission to universities, much less elite “Protestant universities.”  The GI Bill’s educational benefits were not limited to “universities.”  They included technical training.  More veterans used the law’s educational benefits to attend vocational training classes than to seek university degrees – and a mass of predatory for-profit schoolsand colleges arose to prey on veterans.  The GI Bill sparked the first great epidemic of educational fraud by for-profit schools that predated on the “greatest generation” by specializing in providing more expensive, exceptionally poor quality, technical training to veterans.  (The Trump administration weakened rules meant to protect veterans from for-profit school predation.)

Elite Protestant universities changed their policies much later as they lost more top students to public universities that surged in quality.  Elite Protestant universities maintained discriminatory admission programs against Jews, blacks, and women for decades after World War II.

Our elite financiers led the fraud epidemics that drove the savings and loan debacle, the Enron-era frauds, and the GFC.  Their patrons chose them to hire and promote because of their lack of merit, particularly ethics and competence.  Economists largely prosper in the academy and employment by chanting myths and recommending policies that recurrently produce failure.  Our most honored corporations, GE, Sears, Enron, WorldCom, VW, and Siemens are “control frauds.”  Predation turns out to be the dominant business model in UK, U.S., and Australian finance.  Our elites are literally destroying the planet’s ability to sustain life.  Productivity and wage growth for the mass of workers in ‘highly developed’ nations has been pathetic for decades.  We have the most corrupt administration in our history.  It is a sick joke to continue to spread the myth that a failed meritocracy runs America.

We live under an elite system that hates and fears merit.  They fear we will have the merit to look through their lies and call our elites what they are – ideologues using the myth of meritocracy to hide their shameful lack of morality and empathy, their soul-destroying fixation on personal wealth, status, and power, and their recurrent failures.

Douthat agrees that our current elites are horrific, but his metaphor shows that he does not understand their true nature.  “[T]he typical meritocrat is born on third base, hustles home, and gets praised as if he just hit a grand slam.”  No, the typical ‘hyper-meritocratic’ CEO is born on third base and has a corporate fixer who receives a bonus for bribing the pitcher to throw a wild pitch.  The CEO saunters (not ‘hustles’) home and uses ‘his’ corporation’s PR department to induce Andrew Ross Sorkin to write a Deal Book column in the New York Times extolling the CEO’s genius, risk-taking, and flair in ‘stealing’ home plate.   The CEO then causes ‘his’ corporation to pay him a $10 million bonus for his extraordinary performance (leading to another Sorkin hagiographic ode about how modern executive compensation incentivizes the hyper-meritocracy to produce stellar results).

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  1. Summer

    Douthat was the guy that also wrote about how the incels may be entitled to get laid.
    My response to that was that incels weren’t interested in sex, they were interested in power over women – especially young women. This became even more evident lately with their bizarre “plan” to report sex workers to the IRS.

    So this tortured logic he’s now produced is no surprise.

    1. Stelsewhere

      Really, is there a blood test for incels? For wanting power over women? How do you know for certainty what is motivating what? One is wary of these board generalizations. Stephen Pinker has said much the same thing as Douthat, and is in a better position to state what WASP’s did or didn’t do, then Bill Black. This is about sociology not economics. For the record I read carefully what Bill Black says.

      1. Summer

        My comment was about Douthat’s sociology (tortured logic) yours was about Black’s.
        You probably know Black as well as I do Douthat.

        And I stand by my opinion that much hysteria of incels is about lack of power.

        This is all about power.
        Who has it and who doesn’t.

      2. Summer

        And I am talking about the online gatherings of incels.
        Every involuntary celibate is not participating in what’s been described there…I’m well aware.

  2. JEHR

    “We live under an elite system that hates and fears merit. They fear we will have the merit to look through their lies and call our elites what they are – ideologues using the myth of meritocracy to hide their shameful lack of morality and empathy, their soul-destroying fixation on personal wealth, status, and power, and their recurrent failures.”

    For me that quote tells it all.

    1. Tvc15

      Agreed and add this sentence as well.

      “We are far closer to anti-meritocracy (a kakistocracy).”

      The system is rigged and real change won’t come by playing by their rules within the system.

      1. Tomonthebeach

        Those who do advance see a meritocracy. Those who do not see a rigged system.

        As I mentioned in an earlier post in this series, meritocracy does not occur in a totally-just world, nor does it occur on an even playing field. We all enter the playing field of careers with handicaps and unique abilities. For many, it seems that no matter what they do, they fail to advance. For them seeing a meritocracy is tough.

        Rules (rigged systems) mark out the playing field and limit one’s play options in any given situation such as 1st and 10 on the 20 yard line. Thus, success means developing effective strategies to succeed within the parameters of the “rigged” system. Once you have possession of the responsibilities ball and start to run with it, you still face competitors who are bigger, better-connected, more tenured, whiter, maler, etc., situated to impede your success. Thus, strategy, allies, and timing are relevant to success. Sometimes you fail, but you learn from that failure for the next time – or you chose to change playing fields (a career building strategy too often ignored).

        If Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, can be 1st-gen of Indian descent; Ken Chenault of AMEX can be of African-American descent; Mary Barra, the CEO of GM can be a female in the super-macho auto industry, etc. there is a meritocracy at work somewhere in our neolib capitalist rigged system. As I see it, the problem is that too few people are taught how to work the rigged system, and the system is rigged in a way that for too many people it is needlessly harder than necessary.

        1. Ape

          So you’re saying that a class system that has some mobility is a meritocracy instead of a class system?

          And then there’s some noise about education / learning to work the system yadda yadda yadda?

        2. Alex V

          Um, the question is what do Pichai, Chenault, and Barra do with their power, once they have it. How they worked the system to get there is irrelevant in comparison. A more diverse elite that abuses the rest of humanity is still an elite with too much control.

          1. Newton Finn

            Amen. If I’m born physically stronger than another person, am I entitled to take what he or she has? Of course not, or at least so our laws supposedly say. But what if I’m born mentally stronger than another, or simply more willfully self-aggrandizing? Am I then entitled to take what the other has? Absolutely, say our current laws, which call this meritocracy. God knows life’s playing field is not level, even for the gifted, and that favoritism and corruption often trump ability. But would meritocracy be a moral system even on the flattest plane?

    2. JBird4049

      Right, saying we live under a meritocracy is implying they have the mandate of heaven, so they have a good reason to screw everyone else. Under the previous class of system of royalty, aristocracy, church, and peasant, unfair as it was, there was an underlying presumption that if God put in a superior position you owed society something, including, if needed, your life. It often was not followed of course, but it was there.

      That’s one of the reasons the European elites had a disproportionately high casualty rate in World War One. The men were obligated to serve, more so than everyone else, as they had been given privileges due to their God given position. A quid pro quo.

      Today, it’s a mark of stupidity, instead of an obligation, for the meritocracy’s children to serve in the wars that they have created.

  3. Stephen Gardner

    Thank you for posting this gem from Bill Black. He is a national treasure and this is one of his best pieces.

    1. leapfrog

      Prof. Bill Black is indeed a national treasure. He’s one of my favorite SMEs on control frauds (along with our lovely humble blogger here, of course!)

  4. Harold

    ╰☆╮“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, to all bravely await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.” – William Henry Channing

  5. jake

    Douthat and Brooks both lament, week after week, the imagined failings of this imaginary meritocracy, they just can’t quit it.

    In the end, it would seem they’re really talking about themselves — by implication, the virtuous meritocracy. It’s good to see at least someone thinks well of them.

    1. jrs

      I don’t even think the average Joe who might believe in meritocracy to a degree (I don’t agree but nonetheless) is even off getting high on whatever crack these people are smoking.

      Because it seems to me when ordinary people talk about people working for and earning their success they might mean education, even up to the graduate level, but they aren’t hung up on Ivys but respect it period even at state U. Or they might mean entrepreneurship and not be focusing on education at all. And they also often mean working hard and advancing at one’s job as well as education etc.. So even when they talk about success being earned, they aren’t talking about whatever these people are.

    2. Tomonthebeach

      This all hinges on how one defines “meritocracy.” Most Americans hold a simplistic, even binary, grammar-school way of looking at merit – who gets the best grade gets the “A” – who runs the fastest wins the medal. regardless of age, race, gender, or outside influences. Of course, moving up one’s career ladder involves a far more complex set of skills, not the least of which is leadership, communication effectiveness, image management, insights, logic, and the ability to detect nuances that can help avoid unintended consequences.

      It is far easier to rationalize one’s lot with remarks like: “It’s not what you know; but who you know.” when in fact, it nearly always involves both things.

      Where Americans have problems with meritocracy is the naive belief in a just world. It takes a level of maturity to take unjust lumps and keep moving, or change jobs because the owner’s son-in-law will get that promotion no matter what you do. As Dean Baker points out, the system IS rigged. But that does not mean merit for achievement – is hopeless. It just means learning how best to navigate that rigged system. That is a form of merit too, I think.

      1. Watt4Bob

        … the system IS rigged. But that does not mean merit for achievement – is hopeless. It just means learning how best to navigate that rigged system. That is a form of merit too, I think.

        My only argument with that is Obama and the Clintons are examples of people who are highly skilled at navigating the rigged system, and look at the damage done to the rest of us.

        Achievement, yes, but at what cost?



      2. a different chris

        What you say is fine and good for us white guys. But women and black men… they need the system changed, they can’t just “navigate” it.

        1. jrs

          image management makes one think plastic surgery (well maybe only if over 40). Can’t plastic surgery away blackness though, though Micheal Jackson tried …

      3. jrs

        You are not wrong on what it takes, PLUS LUCK. But frankly one’s lot needs NO rationalization, so long as there will be losers who will do without basic necessities (and at this point a lot of them), the game may be played, but it’s [family blog]. Because by the nature of the game there must be losers even if everyone was adept at all that.

        Maybe what needs A LOT of rationalization is a game where this happens. We know it’s immoral really that people go homeless, hungry and without healthcare just because they aren’t “winners”. But we have to try to justify it somehow.

      4. rob

        if in “navigation” you mean knowing who to give “favors” to and demean any sense of self worth,; to defile oneself in the process. then by all means, meritocracy. It takes a special kind these days to bend over for those who will get you higher up the ladder. Those people are truly special., but not in a good way. And it is nothing to be proud of.
        To be meritorious in this atmosphere, is in itself a disgrace.
        Really anyone who thinks “good” fits anywhere in the apex of corporate power and success, is admitting they have a dysfunction in distinguishing right from wrong.. And are just the meritorious type wall st and the academic elite are looking for.

        1. Newton Finn

          Yes, character, which includes empathy and compassion, is a liability, not an asset, for “success” in today’s society. So often is genuine intelligence and creativity, as opposed to shrewdness and conformity. Human nature remains the same with its upsides and down. It’s the socio-economic environment that enhances or dampens one side or the other.

      5. Ape

        Nope – the naive view ay the individual level is a bigger problem. The fact that the sieve allows n people to pass though it does not imply that by cleverness yadda yadda yadda n+m can pass. No it only increases the competitive pressure for similar results collectively.

    3. rd

      I am still a bit baffled by the meritocracy thing as it is not clear to me how it is scored. As best as I can make out, the one with the most dollars is the most meritorious. Instagram hits or political power are temporary scores but must be converted to dollars to count in the long run.

      So by this methodology, it would be fair to say that van Gogh was a mere nothing hack artist while Thomas Kinkade was one of the most meritorious painters of our age.

      1. Herclitus

        I think that meritocracy in education at least is scored in large part on IQ. The SAT is a proxy IQ test. At Yale, the legacy students–those whose parents’ were alums, have shown a willingness to contribute financially to Yale (or other Ivies), etcetera–actually have higher SATs than typical students.

        Ross Douthat criticized Harvard and other Ivies for taking so few poor, rural white kids, and as a consequence, I believe, there is a formerly homeless girl from Shelby, NC, who is set to graduate next spring. Or so I think–after the initial articles about her in the Charlotte Observer, she has kept a low profile.

        I suspect that Ross Douthat’s and David Brooks’ ideas of meritocracy are informed by three books: ‘The Bell Curve’, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, ‘Coming Apart’ by Charles Murray, and ‘The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy’ by Christopher Lasch. All these books discuss the rise of IQ as a proxy for merit. Lasch actually makes the point that the new meritocracy has all the vices of he old aristocracy, but none of their virtues. Unfortunately, Lasch and Herrnstein died before they could defend their ideas. It has been left to Murray alone to shoulder the burden.

        I think that the Bell Curve has a graph that shows the average IQs of attendees of various schools. The smartest are definitely at the Ivies, the not quite as smart were at the Amhersts, Swarthmores, etcetera, right down to the public universities. This was not always the case. In the late ’40s, the difference in IQ between a freshman at Harvard and a freshman at state U was about two points. Now it is at least twenty points, a huge distance in IQ world. This is because they’re not just catering to New England elites anymore, they’re taking brilliant kids from across the country. This is good for Goldman Sachs, but bad for the places these kids left.

        I used to walk through Harvard yard every day on my way to work. The job posters were extraordinary. McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, every power player in corporate life seemed to want students to come work for them in the summer or after graduation. What remarkable opportunities, that you don’t get at state U.

        1. EoH

          Stephen Jay Gould took apart the arguments, the logic and the misuse of data in, The Bell Curve, in several critical essays and in an earlier work, The Mismeasure of Man. His criticism is another good place to start when critiquing the supposed meritocracy we live in.

        2. KLG

          Long day away from nc. EoH beat me to it regarding the Bell Curve. And to see Richard Herrnstein and Christopher Lasch mentioned in the same sentence makes my heart hurt.

          1. Heraclitus

            The arguments in the two books, which were almost published contemporaneously, were virtually identical.

        3. jrs

          smart kids from across the country no matter how poorly funded the school or how high the rate of poverty in the area, even if the school can’t afford textbooks, who needs textbooks anyway, smartness alone ought to suffice textbooks or no textbooks …

          1. jrs

            and that assumes that the “smart kids” even apply there even if they could get in, but if noone they know has went to college they don’t, or they apply to University of Phoenix, or maybe a bit wiser but not knowing about what funding is available even if they wanted it they apply to the community college (nothing wrong with that just not in the prestige running). I mean if noone you know goes away to college even if you go to college, you go to the community college or state U and live at home (and maybe you work as well, because your an adult and what choice is there). If you don’t know about any other funding options then public colleges are what you might swing.

        4. Sol

          Thank you for the comment. V. thoughtful points. IQ is such a complex subject. Let me add to the complexity by injecting that the Flynn Effect seems to have reversed.

          With IQ possibly decreasing, the notion we live in a meritorious age of wonder seems rather suspect. We might just have built a better echo chamber and decided – in the absence of evidence we refuse to see – that the pinnacle of human society is where ever the kings of the mountain decided to stop climbing.

          1. skippy

            There is the possibility that the more stringent methods we have been striving to develop have actually opened our eyes to recognize a plain fact: viz., that the “laws” of economics are not very accurate in the sense of a close fit, and that we have been living in a dream-world of large but somewhat superficial or spurious correlations. – Trygve Haavelmo

  6. allan

    “The CEO then causes ‘his’ corporation to pay him a $10 million bonus for his extraordinary performance”

    But it’s even worse than this. Any number of CEOs have crashed and burned their companies,
    destroyed shareholder value or been involved in illegalities
    and yet walked away with 8 or 9-figure departure packages.

    United CEO Jeff Smisek presided over terrible labor relations and customer service
    during the merger with Continental, was forced to step down because of Chris Christie-associated
    criminal sleaze at the Port Authority of NYNJ,
    and for this extraordinary performance walked away with $28,000,000 severance package.

    Marissa Meyer crashed and burned Yahoo and was paid $239,000,000 for her extraordinary performance,
    culminating in a $23,000,000 severance package.

    Etc., etc. etc.

    1. howseth

      “Marissa Meyer crashed and burned Yahoo and was paid $239,000,000 for her extraordinary performance,
      culminating in a $23,000,000 severance package.”

      What? No! Really? Color me naive, but what were the Board of Directors doing at Yahoo, besides throwing away share holder money – and getting paid to do it? I mean Marissa looks kinda attractive from the photos I’ve seen… but c’mon… She bewitched them?

  7. Polar Donkey

    Strange that perhaps the most merit based system we have is professional sports, but they have collective bargaining.

    1. Jonathan Holland Becnel

      Speaking of the NFLPA, looks like Malcom Jenkins et al sold out Eric Reid and Kaepernick and all the anthem kneelers for 90 million $$$.

      Fn sellouts takin da money.

      Shoutout to Reid, who attended LSU, my alma mater…

    2. Summer

      Is professional sports merit based for C.K?

      Navigating professional sports can be alot about who you know as well and that world is aboit more than what takes place on the field. Non-athletes work in very good jobs in sports.

      And what about family sports dynasties? Not just talking about owners. The right last name can get you in a game.

      We can talk about the same thing in the entertainment world.

      1. human

        I have a friend whose son was up and coming in the WWF. This was some decades ago. He got out when he decided that he did want to get further involved in the sex, drugs, and politics.

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      No see Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. Pay and promotions in baseball were not remotely meritocratic. I discuss that in the article I linked to at the top of the post.

  8. Susan the other

    “The Kakistocrats!” Thank you Bill Black. We need a good punchline for all our unfunny situation comedies.

    1. Summer

      It’s the kind of alt reality nurtured by a culture of denial – of even their own problems most likely.

    2. John Wright

      The NYTimes editorial page is performance art, they want to balance conservatives, liberals and various religions.

      Here is an old article from Trump’s son-in-law’s paper, The Observer, that may give some idea of the forces behind the editorial page.

      This has the statement:

      “One current Times staffer told The Observer, “Tom Friedman is an embarrassment. I mean there are multiple blogs and Tumblrs and Twitter feeds that exist solely to make fun of his sort of blowhardy bullshit.”

      Being proven wrong by subsequent history is not a threat to a Times’ op-ed writer’s or reporter’s employment.

      See Iraq war run-up and Chris Hedges, who was opposed to the war, was removed, while the war boosters survived.

  9. skippy

    The Rise of the Meritocracy is a book by British sociologist and politician Michael Dunlop Young which was first published in 1958.[1] It describes a dystopian society in a future United Kingdom in which intelligence and merit have become the central tenet of society, replacing previous divisions of social class and creating a society stratified between a merited power-holding elite and a disenfranchised underclass of the less merited. The essay satirised the Tripartite System of education that was being practised at the time.[2] The book was rejected by the Fabian Society and then by 11 publishers before being accepted by Thames and Hudson.[3]

    Meritocracy is the political philosophy in which political influence is assigned largely according to the intellectual talent and achievement of the individual. Michael Young coined the term,[1] formed by combining the Latin root “mereō” and Ancient Greek suffix “cracy”, in his essay to describe and ridicule such a society, the selective education system that was the Tripartite System, and the philosophy in general.[2]

    The word was adopted into the English language with none of the negative connotations that Young intended it to have and was embraced by supporters of the philosophy. Young expressed his disappointment in the embrace of this word and philosophy by the Labour Party under Tony Blair in the Guardian in an article in 2001, where he states:

    It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.[2]

    Journalist and writer Paul Barker points out that “irony is a dangerous freight to carry” and suggests that in the 1960s and 70s it was read “as a simple attack on the rampant meritocrats”, whereas he suggests it should be read “as sociological analysis in the form of satire”.[4] – snip


    As noted in the Black post … the ability to hire PR marketing firms to re-image negatives as positives is a python skit in its own league, bit of a mishmash between wheres the tiger and organ donor, full of self serving platitudes. Best bit is they have to hire or pay for this service and the so called meritocrats don’t have the ability in of themselves e.g. “they have to pay to look good”.

    I think the plaster before me works on this concept, bragged about making 5K in a week and everyone thought goodo… funny thing is it one of the worst jobs I’ve seen in a long time. So I had to fix everything along with curve balls thrown in for good measure. Off to the land of fixing others lack of ethics in reno land ….

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Before naming Bill Black as Treasury Secretary I would appreciate if he were named Attorney General and ran a large, carefully selected, and well-funded task force to do a little house cleaning beginning with the staff in the Attorney General’s offices followed by extensive house cleaning in the Banking System, the Finance Cartels, and the government including our Homeland ‘Security’, DoD, and any other departments, agencies, or organizations in the government where there’s cleaning to be done.

  10. RUKidding

    I’m an older WASP.

    My understanding is that Douthat is Roman Catholic. I could care less, but back in the day – the “golden era,” apparently that Douthat yearns for – Douthat would not have been part of the “in” crowd as he is now. He would not have been invited to all of those swanky parties and such, nor would he have been given the opportunities that he has been given in this day and age.

    Irony… how does that work?

    1. EoH

      He’s a Catholic convert, which stereotypically would make him more Catholic than the pope. He is also a Harvard magna, former Crimson editor, and he shot through NYC print media, landing in the most expensive media real estate in town at age thirty (in 2009) – an opinion column reserved for “conservatives” at the NYT.

      His writing suggests that there was a fair amount of princely predestination – aka wingnut welfare – to that rise. I don’t find his writing or the background knowledge he brings to it impressive. He was too young for that gig, but I suppose the tiring David Brooks needed company. The Times, entering the dawn of the Obama era, probably also wanted to beef up its conservative portfolio.

      IMHO, both Douthat and Brooks are a waste of media real estate. Like Brooks, Douthat adds a scholarly patina to resolutely conservative positions that aren’t really built to withstand much scrutiny. Imagine the opportunity cost the Times foregoes by paying these two. Imagine, for example, the medical or consumer debt the Times could buy and forgive at a common multiple of 100-to-1.

  11. knowbuddhau

    And this years award, for best use of myth and metaphor in a coon’s age, goes to Bill Black! It’s great to see that it can be done.

    Or, How to bust a despicable myth, in real time, without underestimating its immense soft power. Like others, really like the bit about WASPs hiding behind the myth.

  12. Left in Wisconsin

    Excellent piece. My only beef is that Black, like many other critics of current elites, implies there is, or could be, such a thing as social organization based on merit. Merit is a(n individual) ranking term – relative deservingness. But in a complex society, 1) it is impossible to accurately rank across qualitatively different situations, and 2) virtually all production is collective so there is no (real) individual contribution to assign to an individual anyway (the sports analogy fails because in sports there is considerable individual-measureable output and everyone is playing the same game). Thus all ranking systems turn out to be fraught with measurement problems and rife with personal bias and abuse.

    There is only competence (and incompetence). If you are competent, you should be paid accordingly and society should be able to find something productive for you to do. Lord knows, there is enough that needs doing.

    I am in complete agreement with everything else Black says about control fraud and “anti-meritocracy.” But I think it is important to challenge even the potential existence of meritocracy. Because once you accept it as a possibility, every elite will then be able to personally claim their deservingness. And that the existing social organization is just.

    1. witters

      Totally agree LiW, though to continue the “my only beef” trope, you write: “…I think it is important to challenge even the potential existence of meritocracy. Because once you accept it as a possibility, every elite will then be able to personally claim their deservingness.” The thing is, every elite DOES claim this, simply in virtue of their elite status/power.

    2. Ape

      Very nicely put. Academia is rife with the problem of assigning collective production to individuals in order to produce a global ranking. Clever people are often completely deluded.

    3. skippy

      The original author of the term used it sarcastically and then it got the PR treatment – see my comment.

  13. anon y'mouse

    if merit is predicated upon scholastic achievement, and scholastic achievement is largely an effect of the SocioEconomic Status of one’s parents, isn’t “meritocracy” just a caste system masquerading as Justice by Technocrats(y)?
    anyone who “believes” an IQ or an SAT says much of anything needs to study those things more. it’s about like believing the DSM is more than an insurance billing manual.

  14. David Carl Grimes

    VICE recently had a documentary on the financial crisis. It featured all the usual characters of TBTF: Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner, including Andrew Ross Sorkin. It was probably written by Sorkin himself since he had so much airtime. I got the feeling that they were trying to rewrite the narrative because people could understand why the no strings attached bailouts were justified

  15. Josh Semi

    I only know Douthat from Chapo Trapo House which also discussed his latest wasp apologia. Dr Black may be more cogent, but Chapo’s profane abuse is probably a more appropriate response.

  16. Richard Hershberger

    Back when Douthat was with The Atlantic he was one of the reasons I dropped my subscription of many years. I understand the urge to include a wide range of perspectives, but in practice this meant including perspectives even if they were overtly stupid. If after a diligent search this was the smartest conservative they could turn up, this just shows that that a wide range of perspectives isn’t what it is cracked up to be. I gradually found that about half of any given issue was reliably and annoyingly stupid. Where once the appearance of the latest issue in my mailbox was a cause for pleasure and setting aside whatever else I was reading at the moment, it had become an aggravation. Life is too short. (See also: Megan McArdle.)

  17. JOHN ZAC

    Bill Black is great but the elephant in the room is AI. The overwhelming majority of people are making bad decisions and carry the unfair, excess weight of biases. Half of these people can’t read a paragraph without nodding off and the other half can’t read.
    Now arguing if its the elites that put them there or their own genes and moral code is moot at this point, but moving ahead towards a meritocracy seems impossible at this point as “Fooling the idiot” has no room for them

  18. Indian Jones

    “It is a sick joke to continue to spread the myth that a failed meritocracy runs America.”

    No No No. It is the poison from a mercenary mindfucker. Bill’s too polite (to a fault) to call either Sorkin or Douthat fucking compradors; Bill should admit by now that capitalism depends on ’em.

    Yeah. Bill Black is too fucking polite (to be polite about it.)

  19. brent

    From the linked 2007 article, “Fit and Fitness”:

    Another illustration: When I was at McKinsey (admittedly, years ago), the women who were being considered for partner almost without exception were told in their annual reviews that they had a “style” problem; some were sent
    to Roger Ailes for coaching.

    Oh, no…

  20. Sol

    The implicit analogous relationship between economics and the science of human intelligence is giving me much delight. +100 Subtlety

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