Sunday, February 21, 2010

How an Unstable Meritocracy Has Failed America

David Brooks’ interesting NY Times Op-Ed column points out that while American society has become more fair and open, the level of trust and respect of our institutions has plummeted. The male WASP, blue-blood establishment of the past has given way to a new establishment in which religion, family, race, and gender are no longer as important. People get into the top schools largely based on intelligence and academic achievement, and after they graduate they move into positions of power in government, business, and academia. This can be seen as a triumph of meritocracy, a system in which people are promoted and reach leadership positions based on ability. Isn’t that a good thing, something that generations of Americans have longed for, something that harks back to the anti-aristocratic heritage of the American Revolution?

Brooks points out that this meritocratic establishment is lacking in several respects. One is that it’s based on a narrow (academic) definition of talent. This definition lacks context and empathy, two important factors for good decision making. In recent years, members of the political and economic elite have made some poor decisions that have severely harmed American long-term interests.

Another problem with the current meritocracy (a point which was made by the authors of The Bell Curve) is that members of it live almost entirely separate lives from everyone else. They go to their elite schools, work in a rarefied environment, live in gated communities, and marry and socialize with other elites. They could care less about ordinary people.

Another problem is that solidarity among elites is weaker. The socially connected, inbred WASP elite may have competed with each other, but didn’t fight an all-out war, as elites do today. Is it in the best interests of the country that Democrats and Republicans can’t agree with each other on anything?

A related problem is that our society is too transparent. No one knew at the time that JFK was having various love affairs, because certain topics were considered off-limits to reporters. Was it in the best interest of the country that Bill Clinton was impeached for sexual indiscretions?

The most important problem with meritocracy is that it is unstable and based on short-term thinking. The WASP elite could trace their lineage back generations, and this family-centric perspective encouraged long-term thinking. The 1960’s revolution and its aftermath swept away the WASP elite, but didn’t put any stable social structures in its place. The U.S. has been a very unstable country since this revolution. This instability occurs at every level of society, from the family breakdown, drug abuse, and crime in the inner cities, to the reckless gambling of Wall Street elites that led to the current Great Recession. Schools and infrastructure have declined as our political leaders put special interests over the interests of the country as a whole.

Brooks doesn’t offer any solutions to this problem. While we can’t go back to the 1950’s, I think that we need to start rolling back some of the reforms that have led us to our present dire situation. We need to regain our appreciation for social stability and social structures, for family connections, and for long-term thinking. Creative public policy ideas that involve such an appreciation need to be formulated and implemented.

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