Yale law professor Daniel Markovits says the system that values hard work and promotes the American dream is in itself a sham. He is taking aim at the very structure that made him a success in his latest book, “The Meritocracy Trap.” He joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.
The average ivy lead student receives a $100,000 subsidy (through tax advantages).
It’s a standard assumption in the West: As a society progresses, it eventually becomes a capitalist, multi-party democracy. Right? Eric X. Li, a Chinese investor and political scientist, begs to differ. In this provocative, boundary-pushing talk, he asks his audience to consider that there’s more than one way to run a succesful modern nation.
Earlier this year, economist Yasheng Huang (watch his 2011 TED Talk) sparred with Eric X. Li in the pages of Foreign Affairs on a similar topic to today’s TED Talk. The TED Blog asked Huang to expand on his argument in his ongoing conversation with Li.
Prestige is in our genes. According to biological anthropologist Joseph Henrich, it evolved because we are a cultural species, in the sense that our individual survival depends on acquiring the knowledge that resides in the collective brain. We acquire it through imitation, but we need to decide whom to imitate. Numerous scientific studies have shown that we tend to imitate people who are perceived to have prestige, a sense that develops very early in childhood.
Henrich suggests that this is the outcome of an evolutionary game in which prestige is payment for the generosity with which the prestigious share their knowledge. We share alpha-male dominance with our primate cousins, but prestige – a form of “payment” that predates money, wages, and stock options – is quintessentially human.
While prestige solved a problem that has been with us throughout our evolution, it has had to interact with the technological changes of the past half-century. In particular, the rise of what economists call skill-biased technical change – the reliance of modern technologies on highly skilled workers – has led to growing wage differentials between skill levels.
In his new book The Future of Capitalism, Paul Collier argues that this increased wage inequality has changed the self-perception of the highly skilled: their professional identity has gained greater salience than their sense of themselves mainly as members of the nation. Using a model of human behavior proposed by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton, Collier argues persuasively that the satisfaction conferred by one identity relative to another – say, the profession over the nation – depends on the esteem with which others regard that identity.
As wage differentials grew, and the highly skilled shifted the focus of their identity from nationhood to profession, the value for all others of maintaining their national identity decreased. The low-skilled were trapped in a less valuable national identity.
This dynamic, according to Collier, explains the vote for Brexit in Britain and the rise in right-wing nationalism in other rich countries: it is concentrated among lower-skilled inhabitants of more rural, less ethnically mixed environments where traditional national identity is still dominant. It also explains declining trust in elites: because members of the elite identify primarily with their more global professional identity, they are perceived as caring less about their reciprocal obligations with the rest of the nation. Delegating choices to experts is passé, because experts no longer care about the rest of us.
Rising wage differentials may destroy the equilibrium proposed by Henrich. If the prestigious are already very well paid, and are not perceived as being generous with their knowledge, prestige may collapse. This may be another instance of the incompatibility between homo economicus and community morality emphasized by Samuel Bowles in his book The Moral Economy: the self-interested, transactional behavior that defines the market is not acceptable in the family or the community.
The collapse in the prestige equilibrium can do enormous damage to a society, because it may break the implicit contract whereby society uses critical skills. To see why and how, look no further than what has happened in Venezuela.
In 2002, then-President Hugo Chávez’s left-wing populist rhetoric targeted the national oil company PDVSA. The company was already a state-owned enterprise, so nationalization was not the issue. For Chávez, the problem was PDVSA’s meritocratic culture: to succeed in the company, political connections were of no use. What the company valued most was the knowledge needed to manage a complex organization.
Social barriers to entry at PDVSA were low, because Venezuela had a 50-year history of free university education and decades of generous scholarships to study abroad, especially in oil-related fields. But once in, advancement was merit-based. A similar culture developed in the power sector, the central bank, universities, and other entities that were critical for state capacity.
The populist revolt equated knowledge with privilege and threw it out the window. When the merit culture was threatened, the company went on strike, and more than 18,000 workers – over 40% of the company’s labor force and almost all of its senior management – were fired. As a result, there was a spectacular collapse in the performance of the oil industry and, eventually, in all the other institutions affected by the war on expertise, leading to the catastrophe that is Venezuela today.
The lesson is clear. Given the requirements of today’s technology, dismissing expertise as privilege is dangerous. But because gaining expertise takes time and effort, it is not freely accessible to “the people.” The only way to sustain it is through an implicit prestige market: the experts are supposed to be generous with their knowledge and committed to the nation. Society “pays” them back by according them a social status that makes their position desirable, even if wage differentials are compressed, as they often are in the public sector (and were in Venezuela at the time of the lethal attacks on expertise).
The alternative to populism is an arrangement whereby experts demonstrate authentic public spiritedness in exchange for society’s esteem, as often happens with military leaders, academics, and doctors. A well-functioning prestige market is essential to reconciling technological progress and the maintenance of a healthy polity.
The cultural roots of our political problems.
It’s become clear in the interim that things are not in good shape, that our problems are societal. The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis.
College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.
Here are some of them:
Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.
Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing. It was external to me.
The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.
I can make myself happy. This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.
But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.
It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.
Life is an individual journey. This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.
In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.
By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.
You have to find your own truth. This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you!
The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose.
The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.
Female politicians show that rising to power is a group effort.
At the end of this month, Nancy Pelosi will retake her position on the podium behind the president as he gives his State of the Union address. As speaker of a House that is more female and more racially diverse than at any time in American history, Ms. Pelosi on the dais will represent more than just Democratic gains: She will be a visual symbol of a profound shift in how those with power might wield it.
For too long, female power has been calculated using the arbitrary measuring stick of how men exercised authority; women, as a result, largely shaped themselves to these male-determined standards and norms. But the women of the 116th Congress are redefining what it means to be powerful and reshaping some of the most dearly held American fables in the process.
Power, for all of American history, has been white and male, and maintaining that monopoly has required a series of agreed-upon conventions and plotlines. A handful of women and people of color have, in recent years, managed to get a foot in the door, but the definition of what power means, and the male-centered story of how one gets it, remains in place.
According to this script, power is meritocratic; those who earn it do so individually through their own hard work. Power has a particular look and a particular sound: tall and deep-voiced. Power is all-encompassing: a partner and children are the backdrop for a life centered on the pursuit of greatness; family indicates that the powerful person is grounded enough to be trusted, but the family is fundamentally a body that benefits from the powerful person, not a body that benefits him and fundamentally enables his success.
Within this story of meritocracy is the promise that anyone can achieve political power and success if they are good enough and if they work hard enough; that elected offices have for so long so wholly rested in male hands suggests simply that men have long been more worthy of them.
As a result, and by necessity, barrier breakers have largely followed this same script, from the practical to the descriptive to the aesthetic. When women and people of color did gain political power, their ascension was often used to prop up the existing meritocratic narrative: They had achieved, and so anyone can. The subtext: Perhaps the dearth of women and people of color in office meant they hadn’t worked hard enough for it.
This narrative of American political power is pervasive enough to be largely invisible. The women who folded themselves into the existing story were perhaps not so much doing it intentionally as acting according to the script on offer, without much space to imagine something different.
But as more women have entered the political realm, they have created more space for authenticity over self-aggrandizement. This is especially true as politicians come from a wider diversity of communities and backgrounds, each with different norms around authority.
Today’s rising female politicians tell a very different story than “I worked hard, and so I got here by myself.” One by one, they credit those who inspired their success, supported their ascent and cleared the trail so they could walk further still.
What has been less apparent, though, is how harassment and the gender gap are inextricably linked. In fact, management experts and executives say, harassment can be a direct side effect of a workplace that slights women on everything from pay to promotions, especially when the perception is that men run the show and women can’t speak up.
Putting more women into executive ranks where they can have a greater collective voice goes hand-in-hand with making workplaces feel safer and more inclusive
.. “You can’t separate them,” she says. “When women see other women in a position of leadership, it reframes what they think is possible to them.”.. Among women in technical roles, 45% reported experiencing harassment, while 55% of women in senior positions did.
“This is about power,” says Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn.Org, the nonprofit founded by Facebook Inc.’s Sheryl Sandberg to support women in their career ambitions. “And there is still a dramatic power imbalance in the workplace.”.. One in five women say they are often the only, or one of the only, women in the room or a meeting—and women commonly in those situations are at greater risk of harassment and more subtle forms of discrimination.. “I joke that I chose a career where there’s no line for the bathroom,” says Kate Mitchell.. “Decisions get made in the men’s room,” she says. “Do you follow them into the men’s room? Do you put your ear against the wall? Many times, it was easy to hear and so when they came out, I’d just start up the conversation” where they’d left off... there are signs #MeToo is having an effect. Corporate hotlines have lit up since Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein became the first of dozens of powerful men to be toppled by harassment allegations last October... Microsoft Corp. , Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. have scrapped agreements that forced employees to resolve harassment claims in arbitration hearings rather than in open court... cracked down on a frat-house work culture by banning alcohol in the office... One thing managers spotted and changed was that there wasn’t always a woman on the job-interview team. That could both discourage female applicants and contribute to biased hiring decisions.. To help get the conversation going, Ms. Steinberg told the group how, early in her career at another company, one of the most senior men cornered her in the copy room and groped her breast. Though she told her then-boss, they concluded the man held so much power that she would be better off not pressing the matter.“I think back on it and still feel humiliated,” she says. At Zenefits, “we need to make sure employees know they have a voice.”.. Another frequent question: whether hugging a colleague is still all right... While nearly 60% of men say gender diversity is a high priority at their companies, only 44% of women do. Men are also more likely to worry the diversity focus will make their workplaces less of a meritocracy. In fact, one in seven say they worry that being a man will make it harder for them to advance... That could include efforts as small as highlighting a point a woman made in a meeting if someone interrupts her, or, if a colleague repeats her idea without giving her credit, pointing out that she raised it first.. create succession plans for their positions, and each has to include at least one woman and a person with a minority background. That motivates bosses to make sure those candidates get the experience and support they need to be viable potential successorsIn the past, “everything we did was a program, this thing on diversity or this thing on unconscious-bias training,” Mr. Schlifske says. “I don’t think those are bad, but I just never saw those work if you didn’t add something in the workplace that was more day-to-day kind of stuff.”
Choosing between a focus on race or class is the wrong choice to begin with... There’s a lot of discussion about how far left the Democratic Party should go these days. Is it destroying its electoral chances when its members call for a single-payer health plan or abolishing ICE?
That’s an important question, but the most important question is what story is the Democratic Party telling?
.. As Alasdair MacIntyre argued many years ago, you can’t know what to do unless you know what story you are a part of. Story is more important than policies.
.. The story Donald Trump tells is that we good-hearted, decent people of Middle America have been betrayed by stupid elites who screw us and been threatened by foreigners who are out to get us.
.. Back in the 1980s, the Democrats told two different stories. One was the compassion story associated with Mario Cuomo and Ted Kennedy: Too many Americans are poor, marginalized and left behind. We must care for our brothers and sisters because we are all one family.
.. The other was the brainpower/meritocracy story associated with Gary Hart and later the New Democrats: Americans are masters at innovation. We must use our best minds to come up with innovative plans to solve our problems and head into a new technological century.
I don’t hear those two stories much anymore. The Democrats are emphasizing fighting grit these days, not compassion or technocratic expertise.
Today’s Democrats tell two other stories.
- The first is the traditional socialist story associated with Bernie Sanders: America is rived by the class conflict. The bankers and the oligarchs are exploiting the middles. We need a fighter who will go out and battle concentrated economic power.
- The second is the multicultural story: American history has been marked by systems of oppression. Those who have been oppressed — women, African-Americans, Latinos — need to stand together and fight for justice.
.. Racial justice socialism seems to be the story of the contemporary left. This story effectively paints Trump as the villain on all fronts, and Democrats do face the distinct problem of how to run against a bully like Trump. But is it good politics for the entire Democratic Party to embrace it?
.. no national Democrat has ever fully embraced this story successfully. In fact, Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama went to great lengths to assure people they were not embracing this story.
- .. They did because Americans trust business more than the state, so socialism has never played well.
- They did it because if you throw race into your economic arguments you end up turning off potential allies in swing states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania.
- They did it because if you throw economics into your race arguments you end up dividing your coalitions on those issues.
In brief, Democrats have stayed away from this narrative because the long hoped-for alliance between oppressed racial minorities and the oppressed white working class has never materialized, and it looks very far from materializing now.
.. for 100 years, Democrats have tended to win with youthful optimism and not anger and indignation.
.. The Democrats who have won nationally almost all ran on generational change — on tired old America versus the possibilities of new America:
- F.D.R.’s New Deal,
- J.F.K.’s New Frontier,
- Bill Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century and
- Obama’s hope and change.
If I had to advise on a Democratic narrative I’d start with three premises:
- First, by 2020 everybody will be exhausted by the climate of negativism and hostility.
- Second, the core long-term fear is American decline; are we losing our mojo?
- Third, communities and nations don’t come together when they talk about their problems; they come together when they do something on behalf of their children.
Maybe the right narrative could be rebuilding social mobility for the young: America is failing its future. We need to rally around each other to build the families, communities, schools, training systems and other structures to make sure the next generation surpasses this one. People are doing this at the local level, and we need a series of unifying projects to make national progress.
.. This story pushes people toward reconciliation. It is future-oriented.