No longer any masters, but only slaves commanding other slaves
August 20, 2019 12:53 PM   Subscribe

How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition: Piece in the Atlantic on the psychic cost of constructing a meritocracy. "A person whose wealth and status depend on her human capital simply cannot afford to consult her own interests or passions in choosing her job. Instead, she must approach work as an opportunity to extract value from her human capital, especially if she wants an income sufficient to buy her children the type of schooling that secured her own eliteness. She must devote herself to a narrowly restricted class of high-paying jobs, concentrated in finance, management, law, and medicine. Whereas aristocrats once considered themselves a leisure class, meritocrats work with unprecedented intensity."

Other interesting quotes from the article:
"Rich parents in cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco now commonly apply to 10 kindergartens, running a gantlet of essays, appraisals, and interviews—all designed to evaluate 4-year-olds. Applying to elite middle and high schools repeats the ordeal. Where aristocratic children once reveled in their privilege, meritocratic children now calculate their future—they plan and they scheme, through rituals of stage-managed self-presentation, in familiar rhythms of ambition, hope, and worry."

"A recent study of a Silicon Valley high school found that 54 percent of students displayed moderate to severe symptoms of depression and 80 percent displayed moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety."

"In finance, “bankers’ hours”—originally named for the 10-to-3 business day fixed by banks from the 19th century through the mid-20th century and later used to refer more generally to any light work—have given way to the ironically named “banker 9-to-5,” which begins at 9 a.m. on one day and runs through 5 a.m. on the next."

"In his book Oligarchy, the political scientist Jeffrey A. Winters surveys eras in human history from the classical period to the 20th century, and documents what becomes of societies that concentrate income and wealth in a narrow elite. In almost every instance, the dismantling of such inequality has been accompanied by societal collapse, such as military defeat (as in the Roman empire) or revolution (as in France and Russia)."
posted by bodywithoutorgans (51 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is a great article. I’m on “the track” to move up in my position as a technology leader and it’s wild to see “VP” as an actual possibility of the right thing came along and I find myself thinking “do I want it”. I’m at a director level now and this is just...not okay. Not sustainable.

Thank you for sharing, something desperately has to change, because even though I make a great income I’m also fully supporting TEN people on that income, which leaves me personally about the same amount as I made when I was just starting out at 25. The reason for this is that yes I make damn good money but I have essentially filled the gap where government structural support systems have been made to fail, because not everyone gets to survive in a meritocracy and I’m not about to let the people I love starve and end up homeless or worse because the state won’t step in to help anyone anymore.

So I work harder for more money than I ever thought I’d earn and in the end I have the same quality of life as when I was in a space rock stoner band in 1996. It’s absolutely out of balance and not okay at all.
posted by nikaspark at 1:29 PM on August 20, 2019 [59 favorites]


It ensnares the rich just as surely as it excludes the rest, as those who manage to claw their way to the top must work with crushing intensity, ruthlessly exploiting their expensive education in order to extract a return.

Good.

But then again, this is so overwrought and so overstated, it's almost comical. Does anyone blink if they have to search 10 cars for a new car? Why should 'the best' education be any different? An elementary education costs more than a car per year. Does anyone buy that the 'children of the wealthy' don't have time to play? LOL. I guess it's just the great unwashed masses that own beachfront properties and vacation in far off locales then.

Also: it's great that they choose to work endless hours, it's that even they can't internally, emotionally justify their pay at just 40 hours a week. That's progress.

The University of Chicago admitted 71 percent of its applicants as recently as 1995. In 2019 it admitted less than 6 percent. Probably because they are graded on their admissions percentage now, and the lower the better. It doesn't mean they are any less exclusive than they used to be. BTW, I've not seen the stats recently, but during the last recession being a Wal-Mart cashier had a 3% acceptance rate, so UofChicago please try harder.

government structural support systems have been made to fail, because not everyone gets to survive in a meritocracy and I’m not about to let the people I love starve and end up homeless or worse because the state won’t step in to help anyone anymore.
Those at the top of the meritocracy could choose to do something about that, but

Wealthy students show higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse than poor students do. They also suffer depression and anxiety at rates as much as triple those of their age peers throughout the country
See? We don't all suffer equally from this.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:05 PM on August 20, 2019 [3 favorites]


Does anyone blink if they have to search 10 cars for a new car? Why should 'the best' education be any different?

Because satisficing. The top 10 schools are probably all basically the same in terms of outcome. Once you know what basic parameters of car you want (do I want a truck or a car? A sedan or hatchback?) then the models are really all pretty much the same except for esthetic preferences.

IMO these people doing ultra-research are being played and/or are suckers.

If you're in the "elite" already then all the choices available to you in terms of schools or cars or whatever are pretty interchangeable. Competitive kindergarten entrance tests are more a symptom of anxiety than any actual need to have the "best" experience. And are the meritocratic elite anxious? Hells yes. That's the source of like 90% of their problems.

From TFA: No one should weep for the wealthy. But the harms that meritocracy imposes on them are both real and important

I think this is a good point - the rich don't need or deserve anyone's pity. But the meritocratic rate race keeps them anxious and that leads to them actively working to keep others down in a zero-sum mentality. These people need some therapy and reassurance that other people succeeding will not impair their ability to live life well.

Elite universities that just a few decades ago accepted 30 percent of their applicants now accept less than 10 percent.

This is because every kids applies to 3x as many schools, out of anxiety that they'll get into none. It ends up being a waste of everyone's time and money.

The elite should not—they have no right to—expect sympathy from those who remain excluded from the privileges and benefits of high caste. But ignoring how oppressive meritocracy is for the rich is a mistake. The rich now dominate society not idly but effortfully.

Yep. Thus at every turn I tell well-to-do people to chill the hell out and not obsess over getting the best in everything.
posted by GuyZero at 2:17 PM on August 20, 2019 [6 favorites]


I think looking at this as "LOLBANKERS" and as fodder for schadenfreude is really missing the point. These people's lives are what the economy, the entire system, defines success as. Do your best and get lucky, and you can be just like them. That's something I think more people should understand. People claw and backstab each other for fractional advantage in getting up the ladder, often—in my experience, anyway—with a totally warped, rose-colored view of what "success" is.

If more people understood what the life of, say, an I-banker is like, maybe fewer people would strive so hard for it, and the treadmill would slow down a little. (In fairness, I think at this point it's pretty well known that bankers' lives tend to suck, and the people who are going into it are doing so knowing that, so good luck to the dumb fucks. But there are plenty of jobs that suck people into terrible work-life balance.)

But the critical thing is that the system isn't built to ever let you get off the treadmill. Even if you're pushing on a million dollars a year from selling your own labor, you can easily find yourself unable to just stop. The path to get to that income level contains lots of little snares that are difficult to back out of. And so those people have to keep going, and in doing so exploiting others, even if their heart isn't especially in it. Hell, right up until they put a gun in their own mouths in some cases. That's how thoroughly the system can lock you in: you can get to a point where death feels like an easier out than trying to wind down the business you've built around yourself.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:20 PM on August 20, 2019 [43 favorites]


The University of Chicago admitted 71 percent of its applicants as recently as 1995. In 2019 it admitted less than 6 percent.

Recall that Chicago went test-optional in 2018, a fashionable way to make it appear that there's less pressure on applicants while ensuring just this kind of outcome.

Also, Chicago was relatively unknown outside of academic-insider circles until quite recently ("Oh, Chicago State?") and probably isn't a very representative example of anything.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 2:36 PM on August 20, 2019 [3 favorites]


These people's lives are what the economy, the entire system, defines success as.

No, it actually isn't. What we tend to look at as the "meritocratic elite" is what Michael O. Church defined as E4/E3 in his social class structure - not actually in the elite, but instead in classes defined as being the handmaidens of the elite. To those outside of the class, they may seem as such, but their internal rat race shows the truth - they know that they serve at the pleasure of those in E2/E1. And the very few who ascend to those ranks - say, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg - clearly no longer worry about "merit", for them or their family.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:38 PM on August 20, 2019 [29 favorites]


I thought the first 2/3 or so was pretty good, but the last section where he tries to present answers was almost laughable. Ah, yes, take away some tax advantages and stop limiting "exotic financial engineering". That will surely solve this massive social problem that's been steadily accreting over the last 30 years and whose mindset has totally infected almost the entire middle and upper classes.
posted by Copronymus at 2:49 PM on August 20, 2019 [6 favorites]


This piece from a month back illustrates the point - you have the collision of old money elites with meritocratic newcomers - and in the end, the former reminded the latter of their place.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:54 PM on August 20, 2019


I definitely remember when I was applying to colleges (2002), people referred to the University of Chicago as "the place where fun goes to die." We were nowhere near Chicago, but it apparently had enough of a reputation that the really intense kids in this suburban DC school really wanted to get in as a marker of how intense they were. I don't know anyone who actually went there, but I disliked the intense kids anyhow. Definitely anyone who didn't consider themselves intense didn't apply there, so a 71% acceptance rate does not necessarily mean 71% of you, me, and Joe Schmo.

I guess what I'm saying is, this kind of behavior is not new. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was written in the 1970s and is all about how we ought to step off the treadmill/opt out of the rat race/insert metaphor here. Go back a century and you have the Arts and Crafts movement urging people to get out of the factories and the sweatshops, to stop with the Gilded Age fashion for MOAR THINGS and return to nature and "honest work." I mean, Jane bloody Austen satirizes parents who dote on their idiot children and will do anything to secure them a place in society, often at the expense of others.

Perhaps what is new, this time around, is that the upper middle class is vocal about its fears in a way it never was before, and whenever you perceive too few resources (good schools, e.g.) you're going to get Grabby McGrabberson trying to take as much as he can now, just in case the house of cards comes tumbling down. The real solution, of course, is to improve schools across the board, so that there is no longer perceived scarcity, but, like universal health care and the elimination of food deserts, that requires a degree of political will and community feeling that doesn't exist anymore. Perhaps never did.

These mixed metaphors are brought to you by that now-empty bottle of sauvignon blanc, a proud sponsor of Basalganglia Explains It All.
posted by basalganglia at 3:09 PM on August 20, 2019 [30 favorites]


I guess it's just the great unwashed masses that own beachfront properties and vacation in far off locales then.

I think you're missing a big point of this article which is how exclusionary the meritocracy can be. And it's not because the non-elite have decided that it's too much stress to be rich.

Now that I think about it, these two points in the article are a bit hard to reconcile i.e. "the meritocracy makes it very difficult to enter the elite" and "being elite sucks." They both have some merit, but I think the first point is more broadly true.

This reminds me of that joke from Annie Hall: two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort and one of 'em says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know, and such small portions."

Those at the top of the meritocracy could choose to do something about that, but

Yeah, if everyone at "the top" got together and agreed to set aside competition. But this is not realistic. Most individual members of the elite have very little power to actually revolutionize Western society (which is what this would take) - even the most powerful people could not do this alone.

And the people at the very top of the pyramid are the ones with the least incentive to do so. The whole concept of "elite" is very relative. Someone in the upper middle class might be very dissatisfied with the system but have no real power to change it. So they make the best of a bad situation and compete like hell with each other.

Also, Chicago was relatively unknown outside of academic-insider circles until quite recently ("Oh, Chicago State?") and probably isn't a very representative example of anything.

I'm not so sure about that. I was well-aware of its reputation in the nineties when I had an opportunity to go. Never went, but I considered it.
posted by Edgewise at 3:22 PM on August 20, 2019


Welcome to Singapore and Taiwan. Enjoy the rise in student suicide along with your working hours!
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:33 PM on August 20, 2019 [5 favorites]


We can agree to disagree, or maybe we're in agreement with each other, but my experience is that most people do not realistically aspire to be Zuckerbergs or Bezoses. I mean, sure, there may be the odd weirdo who thinks they're going to make it that big even when they're young, but I think if you asked even people who are on track at 25 to be at $1MM p.a. when they're 40, they're not actually expecting to get Mark Zuckerberg wealthy. Zuck and Co. are understood to be aberrations; exceptions, not the rule.

But the American meritocratic system does basically promise that you can become moderately wealthy if you just try hard enough and are clever enough, through the sale of your labor. E.g. that you could be—or could have been, past tense, if you'd done things a bit differently—the partner at the law firm, the MD with their own practice, the franchise owner with three restaurants, whatever. Which is to say two things: (1) those end-states represent success, and (2) that success is broadly achievable.

Whether or not most people actually believe that, I'm not sure; they sure behave like they do, though.

There has been a lot of ink spilled trying to educate the public that point 2 is untrue, and that in fact even that limited definition of "success" is actually achievable to anyone who isn't effectively born into it. I'm of the opinion that the people who are likely to be convinced, have been convinced, and those that aren't, probably aren't exactly open to novel arguments.

I found the article interesting because it seems to dig at point 1. Some people may not find this interesting or enlightening, but I think there's value in it. Encouraging people to define their own success, and having a plan to get off the economic treadmill when they've achieved or can achieve it, seems like something our culture does poorly and we could do better at. I think that would be a net positive in general.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:59 PM on August 20, 2019 [10 favorites]


Elizabeth Currid-Halkett's book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class basically summed this up a few years ago:
There is no “leisure class.” The restructuring of the global economy prizes a meritocracy, who own the means of production through their minds, not land ownership. These labor market elites (many of whom are members of the aspirational class) believe in upward mobility and want the same for their children. Their dominant ethos— working hard and acquiring knowledge— is also the dominant cultural hegemony and spills over into all walks of life. Jonathan Gershuny observes that the relationship between work and leisure in contemporary society suggests that those who earn a lot of money work very hard to attain and maintain it, thus leisure time is the scarcest resource of all. He also observes that much of that leisure time is increasingly filled with consumer activities and to possess more leisure time paradoxically requires more work. Today’s labor market elites, particularly those in the aspirational class, devote money to freeing up that time and making the best of it through paying dearly for child care, housekeeping, gardeners, and luxury holidays. Finally, and most importantly, material consumption (particularly post-Recession) is less valuable than investing resources into the consumption that counts, like education, retirement, and health care, all of which price-out ordinary people but are critical conduits in the reproduction of aspirational class position and further separating the rich from the rest.
Her book is a great read because it talks about the impact of acquired cultural capital as one of the key aspects of reinforcing who's in the meritocracy and who's not, and it outlines how this kind of aspirational consumption, the myth of meritocracy and increasingly stratified classes in the U.S. (helped along by assortative mating) are really nuking any sort of social mobility in the modern U.S.

Plus it's eminently more readable and amazingly well-sourced. The essay in the FPP is a tiny bit of a slog.
posted by sobell at 4:01 PM on August 20, 2019 [22 favorites]


I feel like lots of people are ignoring the article to beat on their own personal hobby horses.

The article was about psychic cost borne even by the "winners" and lots of the reaction here is dismissal because those people got money in return. Is there any other context where Mefites would consider pain and suffering to be so fully and obviously compensated by a monetary payoff, that suggesting otherwise would be grounds for mockery?

And most of the psychic cost isn't to the "winners" at all, but to their kids. Who didn't make the choice, and whose payoff is, while statistically significant, extremely unpredictable at an individual level.

But yeah, they probably grew up always knowing where their next meal would come from. So fuck 'em. No sympathy. Even if the stress drives them to suicide, we'll joke about it. Even if recognizing the universality of some harm might help us find a way to stop it, we will stand firm in denying compassion to those people.
posted by bjrubble at 4:16 PM on August 20, 2019 [30 favorites]


While economic success absolutely does not “trickle down,” in an amusing turn of events, suffering does.

Chuckle all you want, the system inflicting misery on these people is the same system that is grinding the rest of you into a smooth paste, and their misery is one of the power sources for that system.

A system that requires them to behave like that to maintain their success is also a system that will ensure you cannot have success.
posted by aramaic at 5:27 PM on August 20, 2019 [24 favorites]


I’ve known quite a few lawyers. Every single one of them was miserable. One was on track to be very successful but the hours and soullessness ground him down and so he quit and became a criminal lawyer for Legal Aid in an effort to give back. Eventually even that was too much and he decided that he hated the law. Now he is a part time garbage sorter down at the waste recycling plant and the rest of the time he pursues his passion, underwater sea photography. By all accounts he’s much happier that everyone else I know who stuck with the law. You have to wonder what it’s all for.
posted by Jubey at 6:48 PM on August 20, 2019 [9 favorites]


I made someone at work mad this week by saying I don’t see why finance workers should make so much - aren’t they just the janitors of capitalism? We incent people to do the wrong things. And sometimes we incent the wrong people to do the right things. For example I’m not sure we want people going into medicine because it’s a sweet deal once you get through the fratty hazing of med school and residency work expectations.
posted by freecellwizard at 6:58 PM on August 20, 2019 [8 favorites]


Articles like this make me almost glad that I was born dirt poor, almost made it because I was great at test-taking, still missed the boat, and am currently living in the boonies and working as a night security guard/freelance digital artist.

No kids, just dogs. No luxury holidays, but I don't worry about much.

Just turned 40. Too late to change things now. Tonight? Drawing, walking dogs, and watching Endgame with my brother. I could do 20 more years of this, since cancer seems to claim everyone in my family at age 60.

La-di-da.
posted by Chronorin at 7:00 PM on August 20, 2019 [13 favorites]


Yeah, if everyone at "the top" got together and agreed to set aside competition. But this is not realistic.

Maybe the rest of us should get rid of the top.
posted by Reyturner at 7:15 PM on August 20, 2019 [8 favorites]


Rich parents in cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco

Wait, Boston's on the list to now? Shit, got to pack the kids up. We're moving to Pittsburgh. I thought Boston would be safe from this insanity.
posted by ocschwar at 7:54 PM on August 20, 2019


It's almost like professional class workers are still workers; and they, too, are exploited under capitalism (just in different ways).
posted by eviemath at 8:00 PM on August 20, 2019 [11 favorites]


Good.

But then again, this is so overwrought and so overstated, it's almost comical. Does anyone blink if they have to search 10 cars for a new car? Why should 'the best' education be any different? An elementary education costs more than a car per year. Does anyone buy that the 'children of the wealthy' don't have time to play? LOL.


Let me counter some of your "screw the richies" smarm. Hating the 1% misses the point that "the 1%" doesn't remotely run the show - it's the oligarchs of the .001% making all the decisions, setting the government policy and having their way with the world. There is a reason Barack Obama kept Bush's entire economic team when he became president and it's not because those guys were so good at their job.

And the problem is not that rich people are self-absorbed idiots. The problem is that the economic stakes across the board have been pushed higher and higher in lockstep with any economic rewards. So someone might take a job making $250k at Google and feel like they've made it... but guess what, EVERYTHING is scaled upward: housing, schooling ,medical bills, food, etc. "Ok, I will scrimp and save then leave the madness in a few years." This works great until you have a family - suddenly, the choice is to move somewhere random and get paid 50% less. "I would make that choice," you think. Some people do this, but good luck convincing your partner to cut their salary too, and also leave your friends and contacts behind.

You seem to think these expensive schools are all cream of the crop, but most of them aren't exactly better. Mostly you are paying for their rent and the rents of the teachers. Across the board rich kids are being raised by nannies and sports leagues because both parents are working late to pay for everything, so a lot of the kids end up poorly behaved and bullying is pretty vicious and rampant, even at an early age. Plus all these "high performing" schools dump tons of academic stress onto students so they can keep their ranking and make more money/get more funding. I was just talking to a mom in NJ about her daughter who didn't want to go to summer camp because she wouldn't have enough time to do all her school homework. In the summer.

We aren't talking about kids who roll into Harvard with straight C's because Daddy Warbucks paid for the new library - that isn't the 1%, that is the .001%. All these stresses look a lot like good ol' middle class stresses, but amped up to 11. So the 1% looks an awful lot like the new, narrow middle class while everyone else is buried in debt or under the threat of it. The point is there is no "winning" in the modern economy. It's like most people are sitting around losing money at $2 craps all day and you somehow get bankrolled to sit in at the $200 craps table. Your odds of going home a winner are just as bad, but everything is more terrifying and the table is full of people just like you, hoping they can somehow cash-out after a hot streak.
posted by lubujackson at 8:13 PM on August 20, 2019 [27 favorites]


Now he is a part time garbage sorter down at the waste recycling plant and the rest of the time he pursues his passion, underwater sea photography. By all accounts he’s much happier that everyone else I know who stuck with the law.

Well, being independently wealthy must help with that?

My public-interest legal job has always been important to me, and never more than now, but I find it very stressful to know that my choices are basically it--which covers my daily expenses fine, I'm not complaining, but leaves me worried about the future in a real way--forever and leaving for some crazed 60-hour-a-week madness, which does have certain benefits (you can't do your best work as a lawyer working normal hours, but I refuse to do more for the pay I'm getting), but...60 hours a week.
posted by praemunire at 8:47 PM on August 20, 2019 [9 favorites]


And the problem is not that rich people are self-absorbed idiots. The problem is that the economic stakes across the board have been pushed higher and higher in lockstep with any economic rewards. So someone might take a job making $250k at Google and feel like they've made it... but guess what, EVERYTHING is scaled upward: housing, schooling ,medical bills, food, etc. "Ok, I will scrimp and save then leave the madness in a few years." This works great until you have a family - suddenly, the choice is to move somewhere random and get paid 50% less. "I would make that choice," you think. Some people do this, but good luck convincing your partner to cut their salary too, and also leave your friends and contacts behind.

I'm sort of in that situation. Not 250K at Google, and I'm in Boston, but as Mrs. Ocschwar points out, we could sell our house here and move closer to her family in Ohio, and buy a larger house cash on hand in a "good" school district. With no mortgage, and with all 5 members of Clan Ocschwar accustomed to Yankee living, I could find much humbler work and keep them all comfortable. San Francisco is much the same way. Your salary goes to your landlord. The numbers look high but you don't really get to live in the lap of luxury.

BUT:

1. While we have not gone crazy trying to credential our children (we made the choice outright to do what it takes to get them educated, but for credentialing they are on their own), Ocschwar 2.1 is autistic, and Massachusetts and Ohio might as well be different countries when it comes to how his education would go over there.

2. Tap water that tastes like slow suicide. (Seriously, Ohioans, tell your farmers to lay off the atrazine. It's foul.)

3. The materialism. Everywhere I've gone in Ohio, except in Cleveland (Cleveland proper), I've seen this general expectation that my mode of dress and model of car dictate whether I've proven myself worthy of respect. Meanwhile here in Boston, Nobel laureates stand in line at Starbucks with the rest of us, nobody trying to put on airs. Boston might be perceived as elite, but to witness elitism, go around suburban Columbus. The madness is certainly to be found in Boston, but as lubujackson put it, in both places you're at a seedy craps table watching your money ebb away.

And the killer of course is that there is no turning back. You can't cash out a house in OH to get a down payment for. a house in MA. It's a bigger risk than coming to Boston with just a suitcase to try starting a career.
posted by ocschwar at 8:54 PM on August 20, 2019 [17 favorites]


Praemuniere, my friend is definitely not independently wealthy. I’m not sure why you think that’s the case. Legal Aid lawyers get paid a pittance and so do waste management workers. Plus, his fancy job was decades ago and short lived. This is simply a person who decided that he didn’t want to spend his life jailed to a desk. Now he’s single and lives frugally (no choice, really.)
posted by Jubey at 9:20 PM on August 20, 2019


It is okay to attend regular public K-12 schools. It is okay to attend a public university. There are other jobs besides doctor, banker, lawyer, and finance. There are other places to live than NYC, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:16 AM on August 21, 2019 [7 favorites]


Several different ideas in here and all of them are interesting. I think he’s a little confused about his argument and evidence though. On the basic point, those of us in the US don’t actually live in a meritocracy, so it’s more that the idea of the US as a meritocracy is wrong. If the SAT scores are skewed by income/gender/race, then they aren’t measuring raw intelligence, obviously. They are measuring something, and it’s something apparently valued by US society, but it’s not “merit.” On his point about college admissions, that’s more demographic than anything else. I didn’t have a hard time getting into a semi decent college with medium level grades and scores, because I was part of a demographic trough, whereas any millennial had a significantly different experience. My kids are likely to be part of a similar demographic trough to mine, so I’m not sure they will require this level of concern/ anxiety. Another quibble, Republicans don’t hate college because it’s a meritocracy, they hate it because reality (education) has a liberal bias.

On meritocracy as an ideal, I used to believe (like a lot of other people) that a meritocracy was an ideal thing, but then you have to consider that not everyone can have “merit” in our economy, but every human deserves to have a decent life, so any hierarchical system breaks down quickly if you desire equality among humans.

I’m part of this “elite” he describes, but I would define it as a certain anxious professional class (who is certainly benefiting from the value our society applies to academic credentials). Personally I try to escape the hedonic treadmill for ourselves and our kids (I am more interested in social emotional development than academic for them). My focus is saving enough money to create some options for ourselves outside selling 60 hours a week of labor. I agree the system doesn’t work for the 1% either, we are all working to benefit the actual elites - Bezos and Zuckerbergs of the world. That seems unsustainable to me.
posted by rainydayfilms at 6:04 AM on August 21, 2019 [3 favorites]


My sister and I are both from a middle-class home. I have generally chosen to find meaningful, decent-paying work, along with my husband's very stable corporate but not too high-flying career. My sister and her husband have chosen to move to the US and maximize their income, putting themselves firmly in the 1%.

What I find interesting at midlife is that our choices for our kids and even ourselves are remarkably similar but at entirely different scales. I have helped my son apply to a specialized program in a public high school that I think will be really great for him; she has enrolled her child in a very swanky private school that costs about my salary. I've stretched our budget to support my children's extra curricular interests (martial arts, art); she's stretched her budget to provide private tutors and riding lessons and potentially lease a horse for my niece. I bought a home I could afford which is a modest 3-bedroom post-war bungalow; she has built a 4,000 sq ft nicer-McMansion (down in size from their previous executive homes). I bought a used minivan; they have pretty spiff but also relatively practical vehicles. We both have #2 positions in companies, but hers is a massive corporation you've heard of, mine is a scrappy small business.

The scale of my budget for major life items is generally speaking close to hers...but hers often has an extra zero on the end, or is at least twice the cost.

My niece will inherit more wealth than my kids for sure. I feel like her wealth should cushion her future career, whatever it is, more than my kids' choices will be, and I think my kids are much more likely to end up with some student loan debt although I am saving and planning as much as possible. Because my kids are in Canada they have some cushion although that's eroding. My niece is more likely to be beheaded the revolution but I think my boys are more likely to suffer the consequences of not being wealthy during a period of intense climate crisis.

So...who's to say really? Stay tuned. But it really hit me on this visit that although our external trappings make us both look very different, we both have enough, and our behaviours are really similar.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:06 AM on August 21, 2019 [12 favorites]


Meritocracy rewards sociopaths. Not a very good argument for it.

I have absolutely benefited from the meritocracy, particularly through undergrad and for a few years after, but especially after studying education, I want to smash it. I'm very good at some things, but I don't want to run them from on high, and I definitely don't want to line my pockets with the labour of others who do those things. (This last doesn't compute for a LOT of people.)
posted by wellred at 7:03 AM on August 21, 2019 [4 favorites]


I recently read a famous book by a hedge fund magnate who's been praised for running his business like a meritocracy.

I was pretty little cynical about the praise, because of course the magnate wants a meritocracy in his ranks. It means he's getting the greatest value out of his people. The value is being generated benefits the firm, not to others for playing politics. That's not exactly something to be praised.

I couldn't help but wonder if the "pure meritocracy" aspect applies to the hedge fund magnate himself. Of course not, he's not going to give up his business, even if there's a better leader reporting to him. His "pure meritocracy" assumes he'll always be at the top.

That's the problem with the push for meritocracy. Those who are in the rat race give it their all, and those at the very very top are happy to profit from it.

I wish I had a solution... maybe technology assisted socialism?
posted by Borborygmus at 8:19 AM on August 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


A top executive at a major firm, interviewed by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild for her book The Time Bind, observed that aspiring managers who have demonstrated their skills and dedication face a “final elimination”: “Some people flame out, get weird because they work all the time … The people at the top are very smart, work like crazy, and don’t flame out. They’re still able to maintain a good mental set, and keep their family life together. They win the race.”

From the article... this is exactly what I am seeing, as a meh middle manager. The people who rise the corporate ladder are those who are mentally and emotionally sharp. (They also Never. Stop. Talking. Shop.) Like elite athletes, they fire on all cylinders and just don’t trip themselves up... it’s like they have no inner demons (in that arena at least, their home lives could be turd!)

This article is so biased tho, as if the only path is up. It’s totally ok to coast, put in your hours and go home. Making work your passion as a goal is capitalism in disguise. We can just be satisfied with what is.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:05 AM on August 21, 2019 [7 favorites]


See the article even acknowledges this:

For example, the health-care system should emphasize public health, preventive care, and other measures that can be overseen primarily by nurse practitioners, rather than high-tech treatments that require specialist doctors. The legal system should deploy “legal technicians”—not all of whom would need to have a J.D.—to manage routine matters, such as real-estate transactions, simple wills, and even uncontested divorces.

But, like who are these “legal technicians”? The article presents as though they are someone else! It’s clearly writing from the POV of people who are still climbing up, or trying to. It’s prescribing the wrong pill, and doesn’t see the true poison.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:11 AM on August 21, 2019


maybe technology assisted socialism?

Back in the weird world of early 1980s Canadian BBS systems, folks batted around a loose theory under the banner of "technosocialist libertarianism". Basically trying to figure out how to establish a Star Trek economy wherein everyone was given an acceptable basic living, including food, clothing, a dwelling, furniture etc., and the right to live more or less however they wanted. Anyone wanting more than that would have to figure out how to make or barter for it, as there wasn't going to be any monetary system (iirc) but The System wouldn't stop people from making up their own economic exchange systems if they wanted.

...the downside, naturally, was total machine surveillance and a world ruled by algorithms. So, break a social rule (e.g., beat someone up) and suddenly your house will never let you go outside again. If you're already outside nothing will let you in, everyone will know exactly where you are until you either die of exposure or give up and go back inside to be punished. Murder someone and maybe your house stops delivering food while also locking you inside, and so on.

Of course, the real attraction of the proposal was found in the endless arguments about how to design the system for maximum reliability while also avoiding the Alpha Complex problem (I think the discussions predated the publication of Paranoia, but I always found Alpha Complex to be a useful shorthand). Just endless endless endless discussions of how to handle whole-system checksums, entire replica computer systems built solely to check the work of the primary system, or act as tie-breaker between the main system and the checker system, etc. etc. etc.

Really quite amusing in retrospect.
posted by aramaic at 11:17 AM on August 21, 2019 [3 favorites]


Hating the 1% misses the point that "the 1%" doesn't remotely run the show - it's the oligarchs of the .001% making all the decisions, setting the government policy and having their way with the world.

Ok, the 1% run the world in that 'neoliberal' sense that everyone hates. But the lower group does run your city government, your school board, and every level that you actually interact with. That's kind of important too?

You seem to think these expensive schools are all cream of the crop, but most of them aren't exactly better. No I don't think that at all. I just point out that choosing a school is not something that is particularly onerous nor picking among many choices outrageous. And since there is the default choice (look up your address and find your nearest public school) that takes about 15 minutes, well I don't feel much sympathy for the time allocated to make that choice.


but guess what, EVERYTHING is scaled upward: housing, schooling ,medical bills, food, etc.
Stop with this. You think the median income in SF is anywhere close to $200k? Stop presenting the dilemmas of the 10% as real problems. And stop with the 'move to the midwest' nonsense. Oh I could, but since I wouldn't be able to rule the midwest like a barron, then I don't want to. Fine. Statistically, nobody wants to move to the midwest, as median home prices are about 2.5X median income and falling. Not wanting to move to the midwest doesn't make you special. You can just live in SF or Boston, or wherever as a normal person, like the other 80% of the people who live there.


You can't cash out a house in OH to get a down payment for. a house in MA
ORLY? Do they use different money between Boston and Ohio? Did Boston Brexit? The median home price in Columbus Ohio is about $200k. The median in Boston is $600k, so you get approximately a 30% down payment if you cash out of Ohio and move to Boston. The median down payment in Boston is not $200k but rather about $75k. And it's not like the top 10% in Ohio are living in $200k houses.

I get that it's about the psychic cost - but like Johnny Rotten said you can just stop. The world that is being imagined here as the only choice isn't actually the only choice. If you don't want to stop, well that's on you.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:24 AM on August 21, 2019 [5 favorites]


But, like who are these “legal technicians”? The article presents as though they are someone else! It’s clearly writing from the POV of people who are still climbing up, or trying to. It’s prescribing the wrong pill, and doesn’t see the true poison.

I think the legal technicians could just be people with JDs (or without, it seems in the article) who have other things to do with their lives than work 60+ hours a week, so maybe they work 40 hours a week on basic stuff and then go home.

Which leaves the high powered group to work on 'important stuff' which is admittedly undefined but there is no way that anyone who actually works in business thinks that the top few managers and financiers working 60+ hours a week are actually creating business value with their time- they are hoarding basic business decisions that could be made farther down the line as much as they are hoarding money, education, status, or whatever.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:29 AM on August 21, 2019 [5 favorites]


Right, I understand who it is - my point is that the article has so much bias to people who are already running the rat race (4 hour work week! Just get other people to do your work for you! Who are those other people? Who cares! It’s not you! Keep running!). It never questions the base assumption, who cares if you “get ahead” or not. What is this “getting ahead” business and why do you care so much?

Because, aren't those legal technicians trying to get ahead? A better legal technician spot? Are they “just” worker bees? At some point even you Mr. Fancy Degree is also just a worker bee, someone else’s “just get someone else to do it” There’s no end to it.

The article doesn’t get at the inherent problem - the desire to win the rat race.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:50 AM on August 21, 2019 [1 favorite]


I’m not sure why you think that’s the case.

Because working part-time in waste management doesn't fund a major hobby of "underwater sea photography," especially when it comes to health care and having a retirement. Your friend's probably living off (in part) some past accumulations, if in no other sense than having adequate retirement savings. Which is not morally bankrupt. I have no student loans and a bit of a cushion from my old private-sector jobs that means I don't have to panic (short-term) if I meet an unexpected expense. It'd be a lot harder to have this job if I didn't. That's part of the problem here.

I recently read a famous book by a hedge fund magnate who's been praised for running his business like a meritocracy.

Ray Dalio by all appearances is a sociopath, though I have to admire him going from apparently trying to prevent the Principles from being distributed at all back in the Dealbreaker days to making money off them.

There are a few problems with the whole "legal technicians" concept, but one of the main ones is that you can't pay your bills, including your loans, with what people are able/willing to pay for those services. Getting rid of the JD requirement might help with the loan burden, but then you're pushing down on the competence level for matters that you really don't want to screw up.
posted by praemunire at 11:56 AM on August 21, 2019 [3 favorites]


I get that it's about the psychic cost - but like Johnny Rotten said you can just stop. The world that is being imagined here as the only choice isn't actually the only choice.

This is not wrong but it's also not complete. From where I sit firmly in middle-middle class land, and having come from that Midwest, I can see very clearly how super super super super super vulnerable just about everyone below me socioeconomically is. Realistically, knock off between one to three "supers" for me, but...putting yourself in the path of the bulldozer is not exactly a great idea. You can decide to live frugally for five years but in the US you cannot control or predict your health care costs in the second half of life.
posted by praemunire at 12:01 PM on August 21, 2019 [11 favorites]


Regarding the Legal Technicians, they're not JD-holders. Oregon has a program; CA is considering one now.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:29 PM on August 21, 2019 [1 favorite]


That's the problem with the push for meritocracy. Those who are in the rat race give it their all, and those at the very very top are happy to profit from it.

I wish I had a solution... maybe technology assisted socialism?


Easy solution. Roman-style proscription of the .1% every ten years.
posted by FakeFreyja at 2:02 PM on August 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


I definitely remember when I was applying to colleges (2002), people referred to the University of Chicago as "the place where fun goes to die." We were nowhere near Chicago, but it apparently had enough of a reputation that the really intense kids in this suburban DC school really wanted to get in as a marker of how intense they were. I don't know anyone who actually went there, but I disliked the intense kids anyhow. Definitely anyone who didn't consider themselves intense didn't apply there, so a 71% acceptance rate does not necessarily mean 71% of you, me, and Joe Schmo.

I worked there as a lab/data manager for a year, managing 8 young research assistants. They were some of the most empty people I’ve ever met in terms of substance and life experience but remarkably intelligent and definitely ambitious for reasons that, when I questioned them, they couldn’t really explain. The faculty that conducted their research out of the lab were similar. It was so bizarre to me to observe, a person who was born into poverty, who managed a few masters’ degrees and also had similar academic ambitions, but definitely lived a lot harder/more due to the way life just happens when you’re not comfortably siloed through an endless tube of one exceptional opportunity to the next. Were they happy? Did any of this matter to them? I don’t even think they questioned it. But by God they were doing it.
posted by Young Kullervo at 3:24 PM on August 21, 2019 [4 favorites]


You can decide to live frugally for five years but in the US you cannot control or predict your health care costs in the second half of life

Yeah, if I wanted to live cheaply I could probably retire right now. BUT a moderate (not even major) health issue could easily erase all my savings (I had a moderate health issue that resulted in a mid-6-figures bill I had to fight for almost a year recently).

It's really hard to come up with a number that makes you "safe" in the US. Probably $10M or more is fairly safe. $1M is certainly not, can trivially be wiped out by health care costs.

This would be different in almost any other "rich" country.
posted by thefoxgod at 3:24 PM on August 21, 2019 [5 favorites]


The materialism. Everywhere I've gone in Ohio, except in Cleveland (Cleveland proper), I've seen this general expectation that my mode of dress and model of car dictate whether I've proven myself worthy of respect. Meanwhile here in Boston, Nobel laureates stand in line at Starbucks with the rest of us, nobody trying to put on airs. Boston might be perceived as elite, but to witness elitism, go around suburban Columbus.

I feel like materialism is endemic in any culture where we conflate consumption with personality, and the big distinction is that materialism is different in cities with varied economic and ethnic populations. The population is heterogeneous enough where different groups have different cultural capital and corresponding consumer status symbols, so it's possible to float along without feeling overtly excluded.

What's been interesting to me wherever I visit is to see how long it takes to detect the distinct status symbols people display to demonstrate their mastery of local cultural norms. In some places, there's been a real flattening effect, but to see when people lean in hard on making sure people know when they don't belong via their material goods? It's interesting to me.
posted by sobell at 5:06 PM on August 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


Self-imposed obligatory post: The United States is not a meritocracy. It never has been. I have serious doubts that it ever will be. There are elements of the article that skirt around this point-- the part where Daniel Markovits points out that children of wealthier parents score higher on the SATs, but does NOT mention "prep courses" or "tutoring" or any other wealth-not-merit based cause for this gap is quite an oversight. Of course, the whole unquestioned premise that SAT scores reflect innate intelligence differences, or any aspect of intelligence AT ALL, is just hanging there too. By the time he referenced the GI Bill toward the end without saying anything about its imbalanced, unequal outcomes I had already given up. The Atlantic article itself contains a link to an older one by Melinda D. Anderson: Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color. Maybe read that one too.

I wouldn't think that anyone would have to go much further beyond the three-word phrase "President Donald Trump" to dismiss this idea wholesale, but meritocracy is one of those recurrent North American myths that needs more direct and upfront challenging. So, consider it challenged.

(If anyone is thinking of countering with "Well, aside from [insert demographic group/s here] the U.S. is pretty meritocratic," please stop and ask yourself how ignoring my argument's merits in order to get back to your preconceived notions in any way erodes any part of my argument. There's also the post title: maybe don't shove a quote about slavery in the faces of people whose ancestors faced actual slavery [and dispossession and death] to frame a story about the harried modern-day elite and their pitiful decline from the glory days of "mastery"? I'm not offended, exactly, but this is a very target-rich field and this comment is about as diplomatic as I can be.)
posted by tyro urge at 7:37 PM on August 21, 2019 [7 favorites]


The US may not be a meritocracy when analyzed broadly enough, but there are certainly aspects of it that either are, or aspire strongly enough to be that people behave as though it's true. That belief in meritocracy may not actually be enough to create it, but it's certainly strong enough to be a valid predictive model of collective behavior.

Personally I think many of the situations that people attribute to 'merit', the ones left over when you try and remove race, social class, income, parents success, etc. etc., are frequently just luck. Being in the right place at the right time, more or less. Nobody who is invested in the idea of a meritocracy wants to think too hard about that, because if it's all up to luck, then there's no particular justification for why they have so much more than someone else.

The system must perforce be meritocratic, or it instantly loses its legitimacy. The US doesn't have an aristocracy that can justify its existence by being descended from royalty who have the direct line to god, as was the case in the ancien regime; the only justification modern aristocrats have for their wealth is that they somehow earned it by being, or one of their ancestors were, slightly more clever than everyone else.

You can argue that it's not a meritocracy all you want, and I and others might agree, but I don't think it's likely to convince anyone who isn't already open to the idea, because for too many people, their place in the social hierarchy, the basis on which they may well triangulate their entire existence and self-worth, is dependent on the premise that the system is meritocratic, and therefore that the outcomes it produces are just, or at least legitimate.

This is why, IMO, the system comes back with such overwhelming force against anything that seems to undermine, or expose, the lack of merit of those who succeed. E.g. the sturm und drang over the college-admissions scandal, which was wholly disproportionate to the actual harm involved compared to any number of other more serious problems, happened because it threatened to expose (or at least weaken) the credentiallist system, which is part of the (putatively) meritocratic order.

I think we need some sort of graceful unwinding of the hyper-competitive putatively meritocratic order, first because it sucks, but with emphasis on 'graceful', because revolutions and other discontinuous social changes tend to lead to lots of people dying for no reason, and frankly revolutions in particular don't seem to be any better at elevating qualified people to positions of power than market capitalism is. History suggests it's a pretty shit way to choose political leaders.

This is pretty well-trod ground from other threads, but I think there is something of a shortage of narratives providing a plausible alternative to capitalism in the economic sphere, but even more severe is the shortage of narratives providing an alternative to aggressive meritocracy in the social sphere. It's interesting to imagine what the alternative is; I'm not even entirely sure. We're encouraged from such a young age to see meritocracy as the Platonic ideal of 'fairness', and that anything less is simply a flaw in the system to be improved upon (or concealed, whichever happens to be easier in practice), that it's difficult to see beyond it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:09 PM on August 21, 2019 [1 favorite]


maybe don't shove a quote about slavery in the faces of people whose ancestors faced actual slavery [and dispossession and death] to frame a story about the harried modern-day elite and their pitiful decline from the glory days of "mastery"? I'm not offended, exactly, but this is a very target-rich field and this comment is about as diplomatic as I can be

The post title is a quote from Guattari's analysis of capitalism. It's literally about capitalism and its degeneration (i.e., the subject of the post), not about historical slavery-the-institution.
posted by praemunire at 10:34 PM on August 21, 2019 [3 favorites]


...Probably I should say "further" degeneration, it's a pretty degenerate institution.
posted by praemunire at 10:36 PM on August 21, 2019


Capitalism is just slavery with extra steps

/jokes
posted by LizBoBiz at 1:33 AM on August 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Life has become an impossible demand, language has mutated to naturalize buying and selling and capital The language of capitalism colonizing your brain.
posted by The Whelk at 5:13 PM on August 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


Predatory precarity - "Lower the stakes!" :P
In a stratified, liberal capitalist society, the ability to command market power, to charge a margin sufficiently above the cost of inputs to cover the purchase of positional goods, becomes the definition of caste. When goods like health, comfort, safety, and ones children’s life prospects are effectively price-rationed, individuals will lever themselves to the hilt to purchase their place. The result is a strange precariot, objectively wealthy, educated and in a certain sense well-intended, who justify as a matter of defensive necessity participation in arrangements whose ugliness they cannot quite not see. In aggregate, they are predators, but individually they are also prey, and they feel embattled. So long as the intensity of stratification endures, they will feel like they have little choice but to participate in, even to collude to entrench, the institutions that secure their market power and their relatively decent place.

Reforming government contracting, controlling medical costs, breaking up big-tech, opening the professions to international competition, these sound technocratic, even “pro-market”. But under present levels of stratification, the consequences of these things would be a revolution, whole swathes of society accustomed to status and political enfranchisement would find themselves banished towards a “normal” they used to only read about, opiate crises and deaths of despair, towards loss of the “privilege” it has become some of their custom to magnanimously and ostentatiously “check”. Did I say they? I mean we, of course.

But of course, not doing these things means continuing to tolerate an increasingly predatory, dysfunctional, stagnant society. It means continuing deaths of despair, even as we hustle desperately to try to ensure that they are not our deaths, or our children’s. Even for its current beneficiaries, the present system is a game of musical chairs. As time goes on, with each round, yet more chairs are yanked from the game.

The only way out of this, the only escape, is to reduce the degree of stratification, the degree to which outcomes depend on our capacity to buy price-rationed positional goods. Only when the stakes are lower will be find ourselves able to tolerate, to risk, an economy that delivers increasing quantity and quality of goods and services at decreasing prices, rather than one that sustains markups upon which we, or some of us, with white knuckles must depend.
posted by kliuless at 4:16 PM on August 24, 2019 [5 favorites]




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