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The Great Inequality Debate
The Meritocracy Delusion

A new study on university careers calls into question the entire foundation of our social order. In the Washington Post, Henry Farrell argues that academia does not function like a meritocracy because the prestige of your program often (if not usually) matters more than the quality of your work. Farrell summarizes an article in Science Advances that looked closely at the data on “academic career paths in computer science, business and history.” Here’s what it found:

Academics’ career success largely depends on the prestige of the department where they did their PhD. Second, the system is so skewed in favor of academics who came from prestigious departments that it’s really hard to explain this by just saying that they are better than people who went to less prestigious departments. The evidence suggests “a specific and significant preference for hiring faculty with prestigious doctorates” even aside from differences in their productivity (which are also more skewed than one would expect if the differences were based on merit alone). The system is also significantly skewed against women in both computer science and business, although there’s no evidence that they’re discriminated against in history.

Other evidence confirms this analysis. Take, just for example, the role partying plays in advancing people’s career prospects. Being able to afford the “right parties” where you meet the “right people” gives you a enormous networking advantage over bright and hardworking students who might not be able to afford them. Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (which we’ve discussed previously here)  illustrates how rich undergraduates with good connections end up in a good place after college while less fortunate students sink under the stress and debt they accumulate while trying to navigate the networking/party scene. And it’s not just undergraduates, either—a recent piece in Bloomberg found that important networking for MBA students happens on social trips they take around the world. Building key social capital that way can cost as much as $18,000 a year.

But, as Farrell himself notes, the truth about Ph.D. prestige raises questions about more than just academia. It illustrates a real problem for our whole society, in which rank and privilege is increasingly associated with “meritocratic” credentials and competition. If meritocracy is a fraud, just what kind of a society have we been trying to build for the last 50 years?

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  • dfooter

    Elites have always been able to perpetuate themselves at the expense of the others in a society. They are able to adapt to new systems much more rapidly and institutionalize their advantages. Individuals can creatively subvert the system (Silicon Valley in the 70s through the 90s) but eventually the new elites create their own barriers to entry (Silicon Valley today). The blue model perpetuates the inequality by introducing stasis and, most gallingly, forcing the non-elites to foot the bill. However, an increasingly personalized society pushes against the stasis, so there is hope that as institutions (universities, governments, unions, etc.) become less powerful, individuals will undermine the ability of the institutionally-sustained elites to perpetuate their power.

  • Anthony

    “The Meritocracy Delusion brings to mind that socialization into orthodox values of American culture is achieved not only by indoctrination but also by economic sanctions designed to punish contrariness while rewarding class interests (economic, social, political); this consequence is generally true of the training and advancement of lawyers, doctors, journalist, engineers, corporate officers, bureaucrats, and academicians. To get along in one’s career, one learns to go along with things as they are and avoid the espousal of views that conflict with the dominant economic interests of one’s profession, institution, and society.

    Now how does concept of “merit” square with the above. Again, merit and its societal connotations may mean different things under different circumstances; that is, the very process of selection (merit) allows the cultural and political biases and class interests of the selector to operate as a censor.

    So to the query inferred in post, has there been actual merit compliance lo these last 50 years; a answer is elitism and equal opportunity remains ever thus. Similarly to the extent that the meritocratic criteria that ordinarily applies (intellectual achievement and aptitude – for sector being discussed here) is purposed to see that meritocratic justice prevails, the agencies of the ruling class culture (media, schools, politicians, and various others) and their lens remain determinative. Necessarily, which person, which criteria, which version of measured factors shall be decisive vis -a-vis merit worthiness are prefigured means to an expected end. And in that regard, the basis of qualification for entrance into PHD programs referenced or elite arenas generally becomes not solely meritorious but arranged to benefit a socialization into…

  • Fat_Man

    “If meritocracy is a fraud, just what kind of a society have we been trying to build for the last 50 years?”

    One where the coastal elite that controls the financial system, the government bureaucracy, the judiciary, the media, and the schools runs every aspect of American life down to the food you eat.

    One where the elites use “environmentalism” to destroy mining, farming, and manufacturing so that the working class is unemployed, impoverished, and drug addicted.

    One where the elites keep African Americans on welfare, demoralized, drug addicted, and as political serfs for the Democrat Party.

    One where the elites refuse to enforce the borders and the immigration laws so that the country is flooded with peasants from Latin America who undercut the wages of African Americans and the White Working Class.

    One where the elites use their control of the schools and the media, to blacken the reputation of their Country, and to mock chastity, sobriety, piety, and patriotism.

    I could go on but I have to do the dishes.

    Absolutely the worst elites any where and any when.

    • FriendlyGoat

      Reading this, one would think that there are no kids from right-wing families in the social hierarchies of the Ivy League, that no red-blooded corporations benefit from the labor of illegal immigrants, that there have never been any conservatives in statehouses, that most of the effective lobbyists are not hired by conservatives, that no stock-exchange listed companies have ever contributed to culture decline, and that five Catholic Republican males have not been running the Supreme Court for nearly a decade.

      When you get the dishes done, come back and “go on”. The more detail you add, the better we can understand why you’re spinning a line of bull.

      • Tom

        Reading this, one would think that Fat Man believes are all elites are leftist, that conservatives believe corporations are pure as the driven snow, that the states actually run things in this country, that the Left never achieves its goals, that media groups are not on the stock exchange, and that Anthony Kennedy always votes with Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito.
        Please. You’re hearing dog whistles that aren’t there.

        • FriendlyGoat

          Fat Man DOES appear to believe all elites are leftist. That’s the whistle I heard and you did too.

          • Tom

            Nope. I heard elites. There was left and right in there, if you read without ideological blinders. Fat Man went on a populist rant.

          • Fat_Man

            Tom: Goat is a troll. please do not feed him.

          • Tom

            He is a troll. And I am a gruff.

  • Harry Allan

    I’d be interested in a comparison with careers where subjective performance appraisals and networking seem less important. The STEM occupations might provide an interesting contrast, or maybe they wouldn’t.

    • Fat_Man

      Engineering tends to burn out people by the time they are 35, and advancement into management after that is purely subjective. Medicine uses subjective evaluations to allocate med school admissions, residencies, and jobs.

      • Harry Allan

        I appreciate your thoughtful response.

      • Peter Henderson

        ‘Subjective’ doesn’t mean unfair. Also, what logical mistake do I make by regarding it as a merit that somebody is my type of guy, belongs to my crowd, helps us maintain a way of life we hold dear? Are you guys all Jacobins now?

  • LarryD

    The last thing the elites want is a meritocracy. What they do want is an aristocracy, where status and wealth are inherited. Of course they know that they can’t get away with admitting that, so they lie.

    Big government provides lots of sinecure positions for them, and lots of opportunity for crony favors. So naturally they are all statists.

    • Anthony

      Concise and pertinent LarryD; though, they may not all be aspiring statist.

    • FriendlyGoat

      We have more aristocratic “elites” on the political right relying on inherited status and wealth than on the left, you know.

  • GS

    In science it is meritocratic to a great extent: the daimyos [the “great names”, aka the desirable mentors] have their pick of students – and so they select them. This selection, if not perfectly meritocratic, is rather seriously meritocratic.

  • dankingbooks

    The academy is turning into a winner-take-all profession. It’s like playing basketball. The very best players make millions, while those only slightly inferior can’t make a penny. There just aren’t enough slots to place all the people who are nominally qualified, and so arbitrary distinctions are made.

  • Peter Henderson

    It’s not as if either we are a meritocracy or we aren’t. Meritocracy comes in degrees – no pun intended. Also, different folks have different notions of what constitutes merit. Trying to socially engineer a society where everyone is rewarded according to ‘merit’ would require no less massive supervision than one where everyone is forced into ‘equality’ according to somebody’s metric. A free society cannot guarantee equality of opportunity, let alone equality of outcome. What a free society can do is refuse to let the law and the public sector succumb to cronyism. It cannot stop private-sector cronyism, but it can refuse to subsidize it, and allow the victims of cronyism to band together and create alternative spaces that they find to be fair. (On this point we see the merits of decentralization.) As with the theory of the free market, those who ignore merit in order to exercise favoritism will pay a price for this luxury, and over time will tend to lose the advantages that allow it. That women are under-represented in computer science is a suspicious finding that can be asserted only after making due allowance for the fact that women are less fascinated with computers than men. Finally, let us remember that having a good life is more important than having a life neither better nor worse than anyone else’s.

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