Posted in Culture, Higher Education, Inequality, Meritocracy, Wokeness

Michael Lind — The New American Elite

This post is a lovely essay by Michael Lind, which was recently published in Tablet magazine.  Here’s a link to the original.

In this piece, Lind provides a rich analysis of the history of the American elite.  The key to this story is that the elite used to be plural — a set of local elites in cities across the country.  They shared a white, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon (or at least Northern European) culture, but they often emphasized different components of this culture and worked hard to develop a distinctive local literary tradition and upper-class accent.  In contrast, the new elite is a cosmopolitan national entity with its own distinctive identity markers.  If a listing in the Social Register was the badge of membership for the old elite, ownership of an advanced degrees from one of the Ivy + universities serves this role for the new elite.

This analysis pushes back against the myth of America’s egalitarianism in its earlier years and also revises the current wisdom about the nature of what he calls today’s “overclass.”

In short, a historical narrative which describes a fall from the yeoman democracy of an imagined American past to the plutocracy and technocracy of today is fundamentally wrong. While American society was not formally aristocratic it was hierarchical and class-ridden from the beginning—not to mention racist and ethnically biased. What’s new today is that these highly exclusive local urban patriciates are in the process of being absorbed into the first truly national ruling class in American history—which is a good thing in some ways, and a bad thing in others.

The good part is that, “Compared with previous American elites, the emerging American oligarchy is open and meritocratic and free of most glaring forms of racial and ethnic bias.”  However, “Like all ruling classes, the new American overclass uses cues like dialect, religion, and values to distinguish insiders from outsiders.”  Here’s how he explains these cultural cues:

Dialect. You may have been at the top of your class in Harvard business school, but if you pronounce thirty-third “toidy-toid” or have a Southern drawl, you might consider speech therapy.

Religion. You may have edited the Yale Law Review, but if you tell interviewers that you recently accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior, or fondle a rosary during the interview, don’t expect a job at a prestige firm.

Values. This is the trickiest test, because the ruling class is constantly changing its shibboleths—in order to distinguish true members of the inner circle from vulgar impostors who are trying to break into the elite.

More and more Americans are figuring out that “wokeness” functions in the new, centralized American elite as a device to exclude working-class Americans of all races, along with backward remnants of the old regional elites. In effect, the new national oligarchy changes the codes and the passwords every six months or so, and notifies its members through the universities and the prestige media and Twitter.

The new American elite, therefore, is distinctive in being national rather than local and grounded in badges of academic merit rather than proper birth.  But, in common with Mrs. Astor’s 400 Families (which dominated New York society in the bad old days), it is also defined by a rapidly shifting set of orthodoxies that distinguish us from them.

Constantly replacing old terms with new terms known only to the oligarchs is a brilliant strategy of social exclusion. The rationale is supposed to be that this shows greater respect for particular groups. But there was no grassroots working-class movement among Black Americans demanding the use of “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves” and the overwhelming majority of Americans of Latin American descent—a wildly homogenizing category created by the U.S. Census Bureau—reject the weird term “Latinx.” Woke speech is simply a ruling-class dialect, which must be updated frequently to keep the lower orders from breaking the code and successfully imitating their betters.

Mrs. Astor would approve.

Lind Pic

The New National American Elite

America is now ruled by a single elite class rather than by local patrician smart sets competing with each other for money and power

BY

MICHAEL LIND
JANUARY 19, 2021

In the third decade of the 21st century, the Social Register still exists, there are still debutante balls, polo and lacrosse are still patrician sports, and old money families still summer at Newport. But these are fossil relics of an older class system. The rising ruling class in America is found in every major city in every region. Membership in it depends on having the right diplomas—and the right beliefs.

To observers of the American class system in the 21st century, the common conflation of social class with income is a source of amusement as well as frustration. Depending on how you slice and dice the population, you can come up with as many income classes as you like—four classes with 25%, or the 99% against the 1%, or the 99.99% against the 0.01%. In the United States, as in most advanced societies, class tends to be a compound of income, wealth, education, ethnicity, religion, and race, in various proportions. There has never been a society in which the ruling class consisted merely of a basket of random rich people.

Progressives who equate class with money naturally fall into the mistake of thinking you can reduce class differences by sending lower-income people cash—in the form of a universal basic income, for example. Meanwhile, populists on the right tend to imagine that the United States was much more egalitarian, within the white majority itself, than it really was, whether in the 1950s or the 1850s.

Both sides miss the real story of the evolution of the American class system in the last half century toward the consolidation of a national ruling class—a development which is unprecedented in U.S. history. That’s because, from the American Revolution until the late 20th century, the American elite was divided among regional oligarchies. It is only in the last generation that these regional patriciates have been absorbed into a single, increasingly homogeneous national oligarchy, with the same accent, manners, values, and educational backgrounds from Boston to Austin and San Francisco to New York and Atlanta. This is a truly epochal development.

In living memory, every major city in the United States had its own old money families with their own clubs and their own rituals and their own social and economic networks. Often the money was not very old, going back to a real estate killing or a mining fortune or an oil strike a generation or two before. Even so, the heirs and heiresses set themselves up as a local aristocracy. Like other aristocracies, these urban patricians renewed their bloodlines and bank accounts by admitting new money, once the parvenus had served probation and assimilated the values of the local patriciate.

These regional urban patriciates were similar demographically, at a time when the racial caste system that divided whites from nonwhites was accompanied by an ethnic caste system among whites. Within the white population, Anglo American Protestants, preferably Episcopalian or Presbyterian, were at the top, followed by Anglo Americans belonging to more vulgar denominations like the Methodists and Baptists. German and Scandinavian Americans could be honorary Anglo Americans. But Irish American Catholics, Jews, and Italian and Polish Americans occupied a lower rung. Mexican Americans occupied an ambiguous position. In some areas they were discriminated against as Blacks were, in others they were treated as the equivalent of low-status whites. Black Americans and Asian Americans were excluded.

The Anglo American Protestant patricians in every region and state shared a common Anglo American and Trans-Atlantic culture—but not a common national culture. Instead, they had regional cultures separately based on a common British and European heritage. This is so peculiar that it needs to be explained.

Let us begin with what they shared: Trans-Atlantic culture. From the earliest days of the republic, the wealthy elites of even the most remote and Godforsaken parts of the South and West could afford to vacation in Europe. They would bring back the latest French and British fashions to rural Mississippi or Wyoming. Before the self-consciously regional Prairie Style of Frank Lloyd Wright, there was never any indigenous American architecture, just wave after wave of faddish European styles: Palladianism, Greek Revival, Gothic, Romanesque. The relics of these transient Europhile fads litter the United States in the form of courthouses and other old public buildings from coast to coast.

In contrast, local patriciates tried to boost their own authors at the expense of those in other American regions. My maternal grandmother, a schoolteacher for part of her career, belonged to the minor Southern gentry. She saw to it that my brother and I were introduced to the literary canon as educated white Southerners of the early 20th century conceived of it: A British substrate, consisting of Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, overlain by Southern writers like Sidney Lanier, whose “The Marshes of Glynn” introduced me to the wonders of verse. The equivalent New England literary canon ran directly from Shakespeare and Milton and Pope and Scott and Tennyson to Emerson, Longfellow and Whittier and the other “Fireside Poets” (Whitman, Hawthorne, and Melville only acquired their present status later, thanks to mid-20th-century academics).

In short, for two centuries there was a double competition among regional American oligarchies. On the one hand, the local notables, particularly those from the newly settled regions, had to prove they were not backward bumpkins, but were just as up-to-date with regard to European fashions as the patricians in New York and Boston and Philadelphia. On the other hand, some of them dreamed that the city they ran, whether it was Atlanta or Milwaukee, would become the Athens or Renaissance Florence of North America, and favored local writers, poets, and artists, as long as their work was in fashionable styles and did not inspire seditious thoughts among the local masses. The subnational blocs of New Englanders, Southerners, and Midwesterners fought to control the federal government in order to promote their regional economic interests.

The status of Harvard and Yale as prestigious national rather than regional universities is relatively recent. A few generations ago, it was assumed that the sons of the local gentry (this was before coeducation began in the 1960s and 1970s) would remain in the area and rise to high office in local and state business, politics, and philanthropy—goals that were best served if they attended a local elite college and joined the right fraternity, rather than being educated in some other part of the country. College was about upper-class socialization, not learning, which is why parochial patricians favored regional colleges and universities. If your family was in the local social register, that was much more important than whether you went to an Ivy League college or a local college or no college at all.

American patricians of earlier generations would have been surprised that rich people, many of them celebrities, would scheme and bribe university officers to get their children into a few top universities. Scheming to get into the right local “society” club—now that would have made sense.

Upper-class women were the chief enforcers of local “society.” Anybody who thinks that women are somehow naturally more generous and egalitarian than men has never encountered a doyenne of high society. Mrs. Astor’s 400 families in New York had their counterparts throughout the United States, from the Mainline elite in Philadelphia to the Highland Park set in Dallas.

As in the novels of Jane Austen, the daughters of the local ruling class had to be married to a young man from a good family, if the dynasty was not to fall into disgrace. Until recently (and to this day, in some circles) a young woman’s debut in society was, if anything, more important than marriage itself, since the debutante ball helped to define her eligibility for a high-status marriage.

When I explain all of this to friends from other countries, they tend to be surprised, if not suspicious of my account. What about frontier egalitarianism? Wasn’t America dominated by the just-folks middle class in the 19th and 20th centuries? Isn’t America in danger now, for the first time in its history, of becoming an Old World style hierarchy?

The egalitarianism of the American frontier is greatly exaggerated. Some of the myth comes from European tourists like Alexis de Tocqueville, Harriet Martineau, and Dickens. For ideological reasons or just for entertainment, they played up how classless and vulgar Americans were for audiences back in Europe. On their trips they mostly encountered the wealthy and educated, who might have been informal by the standards of British dukes or French royalty, but who were hardly yeoman farmers. If these famous tourists had spent their time in slave cabins, immigrant tenements, miners camps, and cowboy bunkhouses, they might have gotten a different sense of how egalitarian America actually was. Elite Americans might have been more likely than elite Brits to smile politely when dealing with working-class people, but they were no more likely to welcome them into the family.

The Western frontier was not entirely a myth, to be sure. My great-great-grandfather proposed marriage to my great-great-grandmother by handing her a letter from horseback before riding north on a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas, and a distant uncle was murdered by outlaws on the road outside of Austin in the 1880s. But the Wild West or boomtown era everywhere was brief. The first white settlers in a region may have been trappers or small farmers or ranchers or outlaws or pirates, but once Native Americans had been removed to reservations and the railroad was in place, the area was rapidly gentrified. The rich moved in, bought up the good land, built mansions and the local opera house in the current European style and drove the frontiersmen and their families out.

White poverty in the United States today is concentrated in greater Appalachia, because the Scots Irish settlers, often illiterate squatters, were priced out of other areas and ended up in the hills of Appalachia, the Ozarks, and the Texas Hill Country. As soon as the affluent discover the scenic views in those areas, they will be forced to move once more, just as old-stock families are already being priced out of the Texas Hill Country by rich refugees from California, bringing with them their cultural heritage of trophy wineries and boutiques, New Age spirituality and organic cuisines.

Because there was no single national American elite, there was never a single Western frontier. New Englanders moved west in a band to the south of the Great Lakes, and then moved eastward and inland from ports on the Pacific Coast. While the Scots Irish followed the hills, the Southern planter class acquired cotton-friendly soil from Virginia along the Gulf of Mexico to central Texas, where the coastal plain collides with the southernmost part of the Great Plains. As the historians David Hackett Fischer and Wilbur Zelinsky have pointed out, these parallel bands of east-to-west settlement brought separate Anglo American cultures, reflected in everything from codes of honor to town layouts (town planners in greater New England laid out village greens with churches and schools, while Southern towns tended to be centered on the courthouse).

In short, a historical narrative which describes a fall from the yeoman democracy of an imagined American past to the plutocracy and technocracy of today is fundamentally wrong. While American society was not formally aristocratic it was hierarchical and class-ridden from the beginning—not to mention racist and ethnically biased. What’s new today is that these highly exclusive local urban patriciates are in the process of being absorbed into the first truly national ruling class in American history—which is a good thing in some ways, and a bad thing in others.

Compared with previous American elites, the emerging American oligarchy is open and meritocratic and free of most glaring forms of racial and ethnic bias. As recently as the 1970s, an acquaintance of mine who worked for a major Northeastern bank had to disguise the fact of his Irish ancestry from the bank’s WASP partners. No longer. Elite banks and businesses are desperate to prove their commitment to diversity. At the moment Wall Street and Silicon Valley are disproportionately white and Asian American, but this reflects the relatively low socioeconomic status of many Black and Hispanic Americans, a status shared by the Scots Irish white poor in greater Appalachia (who are left out of “diversity and inclusion” efforts because of their “white privilege”). Immigrants from Africa and South America (as opposed to Mexico and Central America) tend to be from professional class backgrounds and to be better educated and more affluent than white Americans on average—which explains why Harvard uses rich African immigrants to meet its informal Black quota, although the purpose of affirmative action was supposed to be to help the American descendants of slaves (ADOS). According to Pew, the richest groups in the United States by religion are Episcopalian, Jewish, and Hindu (wealthy “seculars” may be disproportionately East Asian American, though the data on this point is not clear).

Membership in the multiracial, post-ethnic national overclass depends chiefly on graduation with a diploma—preferably a graduate or professional degree—from an Ivy League school or a selective state university, which makes the Ivy League the new social register. But a diploma from the Ivy League or a top-ranked state university by itself is not sufficient for admission to the new national overclass. Like all ruling classes, the new American overclass uses cues like dialect, religion, and values to distinguish insiders from outsiders.

Dialect. You may have been at the top of your class in Harvard business school, but if you pronounce thirty-third “toidy-toid” or have a Southern drawl, you might consider speech therapy.

Religion. You may have edited the Yale Law Review, but if you tell interviewers that you recently accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior, or fondle a rosary during the interview, don’t expect a job at a prestige firm.

Values. This is the trickiest test, because the ruling class is constantly changing its shibboleths—in order to distinguish true members of the inner circle from vulgar impostors who are trying to break into the elite. A decade ago, as a member of the American overclass you could get away with saying, along with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, “I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, but I strongly support civil unions for gay men and lesbians.” In 2020 you are expected to say, “I strongly support trans rights.” You will flunk the interview if you start going on about civil unions.

More and more Americans are figuring out that “wokeness” functions in the new, centralized American elite as a device to exclude working-class Americans of all races, along with backward remnants of the old regional elites. In effect, the new national oligarchy changes the codes and the passwords every six months or so, and notifies its members through the universities and the prestige media and Twitter. America’s working-class majority of all races pays far less attention than the elite to the media, and is highly unlikely to have a kid at Harvard or Yale to clue them in. And non-college-educated Americans spend very little time on Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which they are unlikely to be able to identify—which, among other things, proves the idiocy of the “Russiagate” theory that Vladimir Putin brainwashed white working-class Americans into voting for Trump by memes in social media which they are the least likely American voters to see.

Constantly replacing old terms with new terms known only to the oligarchs is a brilliant strategy of social exclusion. The rationale is supposed to be that this shows greater respect for particular groups. But there was no grassroots working-class movement among Black Americans demanding the use of “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves” and the overwhelming majority of Americans of Latin American descent—a wildly homogenizing category created by the U.S. Census Bureau—reject the weird term “Latinx.” Woke speech is simply a ruling-class dialect, which must be updated frequently to keep the lower orders from breaking the code and successfully imitating their betters.

Mrs. Astor would approve.

Michael Lind is a Professor of Practice at the University of Texas at Austin, a columnist for Tablet and a fellow at New America. His latest book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.

Posted in Credentialing, Meritocracy, Schooling, Theory

Karl Marx — The Fetishism of Commodities

This post is a classic piece by Karl Marx, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof.”  It’s the last section of the first chapter in Capital, volume 1.

This analysis had a big impact on me when I first read it in grad school, and it has shaped a lot of my own work.  At the heart of it is the distinction between use value and exchange value.  A product — whether it be flour or a hula hoop — has use value in that it is useful to us.  Flour can be turned into bread and thus feed us.  Hula hoops can provide a form of entertainment.   But a product can also have exchange value, in that we can sell it in the market in exchange for money.  In an advanced exchange economy, nearly all products are produced for sale on the market rather than for consumption by the producer.  

At one level, use value would seem to be the source of exchange value.  People want to buy a product because it’s useful to them.  But the size of the exchange value is not proportional to its utility but to its relative scarcity.  Bread can be critically important for human survival, but it’s also readily available and thus low in price.  Caviar is a nonessential form of food, but it’s very expensive because it’s scarce.  Use value is a function of its usefulness; exchange value is a function of supply and demand in the market.  As a result the two forms of value are potentially quite independent of each other.  

Why would this distinction be important for someone like me, who studies education?  Because education also exemplifies the two forms of value.  It’s a use value, because what we learn in school can be very helpful to us in negotiating life in a complex society, where we need to be able read, write calculate, analyze, persuade, and understand how the world works.   But it’s also an exchange value, because we can exchange educational diplomas for access to a good job and the chance to live a prosperous and healthy life.  

As with other commodities, the exchange value of an educational credential is less a function of the learning acquired in school than of its scarcity in the credentials market.  The more advanced the degree — and the more exclusive the institution that awards it — the fewer people have it and the more it’s worth.  In a market economy in which educational credentials control access to jobs and status, the exchange value of education is king.

Under these circumstances, then, the focus of schooling becomes the acquisition of grades, credits, and degrees more than learning useful knowledge and skills.  The latter may be helpful to you on the job, but the exchange value is what gets you the job in the first place.  The result is that schooling can turn into an exercise in formalism, pursuing merit badges over learning, form over substance.  Here’s how Marx puts it:

As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.

I love that last sentence, which continues to resonate with me.  When a product like education becomes a commodity, then educational relations are no longer a matter of “the social relations between individuals” at school — teaching and learning in the classroom — “but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.”

Commodified schooling creates a situation in which there is a material relation between teacher and student and a social relationship between credentials and jobs.  The teacher is there to provide you with credits toward a degree and the employer offers you a job based on your degree and not your person.  Degrees thus become the central currency of the job market, and your value as a person becomes measured by the scarcity of your degree.  Form and substance separate, and the educational process revolves increasingly around its form.  Sounds a lot like the system of education we live with, doesn’t it?

Marx Commodities

SECTION 4

THE FETISHISM OF COMMODITIES

AND THE SECRET THEREOF

Karl Marx

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.

The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value. Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value. For, in the first place, however varied the useful kinds of labour, or productive activities, may be, it is a physiological fact, that they are functions of the human organism, and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or form, is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, &c. Secondly, with regard to that which forms the ground-work for the quantitative determination of value, namely, the duration of that expenditure, or the quantity of labour, it is quite clear that there is a palpable difference between its quantity and quality. In all states of society, the labour time that it costs to produce the means of subsistence, must necessarily be an object of interest to mankind, though not of equal interest in different stages of development.[27] And lastly, from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labour assumes a social form.

Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself. The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility. This division of a product into a useful thing and a value becomes practically important, only when exchange has acquired such an extension that useful articles are produced for the purpose of being exchanged, and their character as values has therefore to be taken into account, beforehand, during production. From this moment the labour of the individual producer acquires socially a twofold character. On the one hand, it must, as a definite useful kind of labour, satisfy a definite social want, and thus hold its place as part and parcel of the collective labour of all, as a branch of a social division of labour that has sprung up spontaneously. On the other hand, it can satisfy the manifold wants of the individual producer himself, only in so far as the mutual exchangeability of all kinds of useful private labour is an established social fact, and therefore the private useful labour of each producer ranks on an equality with that of all others. The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract. The twofold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in every-day practice by the exchange of products. In this way, the character that his own labour possesses of being socially useful takes the form of the condition, that the product must be not only useful, but useful for others, and the social character that his particular labour has of being the equal of all other particular kinds of labour, takes the form that all the physically different articles that are the products of labour. have one common quality, viz., that of having value.

Hence, when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.[28] Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language. The recent scientific discovery, that the products of labour, so far as they are values, are but material expressions of the human labour spent in their production, marks, indeed, an epoch in the history of the development of the human race, but, by no means, dissipates the mist through which the social character of labour appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves. The fact, that in the particular form of production with which we are dealing, viz., the production of commodities, the specific social character of private labour carried on independently, consists in the equality of every kind of that labour, by virtue of its being human labour, which character, therefore, assumes in the product the form of value – this fact appears to the producers, notwithstanding the discovery above referred to, to be just as real and final, as the fact, that, after the discovery by science of the component gases of air, the atmosphere itself remained unaltered.

What, first of all, practically concerns producers when they make an exchange, is the question, how much of some other product they get for their own? In what proportions the products are exchangeable? When these proportions have, by custom, attained a certain stability, they appear to result from the nature of the products, so that, for instance, one ton of iron and two ounces of gold appear as naturally to be of equal value as a pound of gold and a pound of iron in spite of their different physical and chemical qualities appear to be of equal weight. The character of having value, when once impressed upon products, obtains fixity only by reason of their acting and re-acting upon each other as quantities of value. These quantities vary continually, independently of the will, foresight and action of the producers. To them, their own social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them. It requires a fully developed production of commodities before, from accumulated experience alone, the scientific conviction springs up, that all the different kinds of private labour, which are carried on independently of each other, and yet as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour, are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. And why? Because, in the midst of all the accidental and ever fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour time socially necessary for their production forcibly asserts itself like an over-riding law of Nature. The law of gravity thus asserts itself when a house falls about our ears.[29] The determination of the magnitude of value by labour time is therefore a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities. Its discovery, while removing all appearance of mere accidentality from the determination of the magnitude of the values of products, yet in no way alters the mode in which that determination takes place.

Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him. The characters that stamp products as commodities, and whose establishment is a necessary preliminary to the circulation of commodities, have already acquired the stability of natural, self-understood forms of social life, before man seeks to decipher, not their historical character, for in his eyes they are immutable, but their meaning. Consequently it was the analysis of the prices of commodities that alone led to the determination of the magnitude of value, and it was the common expression of all commodities in money that alone led to the establishment of their characters as values. It is, however, just this ultimate money form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers. When I state that coats or boots stand in a relation to linen, because it is the universal incarnation of abstract human labour, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident. Nevertheless, when the producers of coats and boots compare those articles with linen, or, what is the same thing, with gold or silver, as the universal equivalent, they express the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society in the same absurd form.

The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities. The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production.

Since Robinson Crusoe’s experiences are a favourite theme with political economists,[30] let us take a look at him on his island. Moderate though he be, yet some few wants he has to satisfy, and must therefore do a little useful work of various sorts, such as making tools and furniture, taming goats, fishing and hunting. Of his prayers and the like we take no account, since they are a source of pleasure to him, and he looks upon them as so much recreation. In spite of the variety of his work, he knows that his labour, whatever its form, is but the activity of one and the same Robinson, and consequently, that it consists of nothing but different modes of human labour. Necessity itself compels him to apportion his time accurately between his different kinds of work. Whether one kind occupies a greater space in his general activity than another, depends on the difficulties, greater or less as the case may be, to be overcome in attaining the useful effect aimed at. This our friend Robinson soon learns by experience, and having rescued a watch, ledger, and pen and ink from the wreck, commences, like a true-born Briton, to keep a set of books. His stock-book contains a list of the objects of utility that belong to him, of the operations necessary for their production; and lastly, of the labour time that definite quantities of those objects have, on an average, cost him. All the relations between Robinson and the objects that form this wealth of his own creation, are here so simple and clear as to be intelligible without exertion, even to Mr. Sedley Taylor. And yet those relations contain all that is essential to the determination of value.

Let us now transport ourselves from Robinson’s island bathed in light to the European middle ages shrouded in darkness. Here, instead of the independent man, we find everyone dependent, serfs and lords, vassals and suzerains, laymen and clergy. Personal dependence here characterises the social relations of production just as much as it does the other spheres of life organised on the basis of that production. But for the very reason that personal dependence forms the ground-work of society, there is no necessity for labour and its products to assume a fantastic form different from their reality. They take the shape, in the transactions of society, of services in kind and payments in kind. Here the particular and natural form of labour, and not, as in a society based on production of commodities, its general abstract form is the immediate social form of labour. Compulsory labour is just as properly measured by time, as commodity-producing labour; but every serf knows that what he expends in the service of his lord, is a definite quantity of his own personal labour power. The tithe to be rendered to the priest is more matter of fact than his blessing. No matter, then, what we may think of the parts played by the different classes of people themselves in this society, the social relations between individuals in the performance of their labour, appear at all events as their own mutual personal relations, and are not disguised under the shape of social relations between the products of labour.

For an example of labour in common or directly associated labour, we have no occasion to go back to that spontaneously developed form which we find on the threshold of the history of all civilised races.[31] We have one close at hand in the patriarchal industries of a peasant family, that produces corn, cattle, yarn, linen, and clothing for home use. These different articles are, as regards the family, so many products of its labour, but as between themselves, they are not commodities. The different kinds of labour, such as tillage, cattle tending, spinning, weaving and making clothes, which result in the various products, are in themselves, and such as they are, direct social functions, because functions of the family, which, just as much as a society based on the production of commodities, possesses a spontaneously developed system of division of labour. The distribution of the work within the family, and the regulation of the labour time of the several members, depend as well upon differences of age and sex as upon natural conditions varying with the seasons. The labour power of each individual, by its very nature, operates in this case merely as a definite portion of the whole labour power of the family, and therefore, the measure of the expenditure of individual labour power by its duration, appears here by its very nature as a social character of their labour.

Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual. Everything produced by him was exclusively the result of his own personal labour, and therefore simply an object of use for himself. The total product of our community is a social product. One portion serves as fresh means of production and remains social. But another portion is consumed by the members as means of subsistence. A distribution of this portion amongst them is consequently necessary. The mode of this distribution will vary with the productive organisation of the community, and the degree of historical development attained by the producers. We will assume, but merely for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities, that the share of each individual producer in the means of subsistence is determined by his labour time. Labour time would, in that case, play a double part. Its apportionment in accordance with a definite social plan maintains the proper proportion between the different kinds of work to be done and the various wants of the community. On the other hand, it also serves as a measure of the portion of the common labour borne by each individual, and of his share in the part of the total product destined for individual consumption. The social relations of the individual producers, with regard both to their labour and to its products, are in this case perfectly simple and intelligible, and that with regard not only to production but also to distribution.

The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labour to the standard of homogeneous human labour – for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion. In the ancient Asiatic and other ancient modes of production, we find that the conversion of products into commodities, and therefore the conversion of men into producers of commodities, holds a subordinate place, which, however, increases in importance as the primitive communities approach nearer and nearer to their dissolution. Trading nations, properly so called, exist in the ancient world only in its interstices, like the gods of Epicurus in the Intermundia, or like Jews in the pores of Polish society. Those ancient social organisms of production are, as compared with bourgeois society, extremely simple and transparent. But they are founded either on the immature development of man individually, who has not yet severed the umbilical cord that unites him with his fellowmen in a primitive tribal community, or upon direct relations of subjection. They can arise and exist only when the development of the productive power of labour has not risen beyond a low stage, and when, therefore, the social relations within the sphere of material life, between man and man, and between man and Nature, are correspondingly narrow. This narrowness is reflected in the ancient worship of Nature, and in the other elements of the popular religions. The religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature.

The life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan. This, however, demands for society a certain material ground-work or set of conditions of existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development.

Political Economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely,[32] value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour time by the magnitude of that value.[33] These formulæ, which bear it stamped upon them in unmistakable letters that they belong to a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him, such formulæ appear to the bourgeois intellect to be as much a self-evident necessity imposed by Nature as productive labour itself. Hence forms of social production that preceded the bourgeois form, are treated by the bourgeoisie in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions.[34]

To what extent some economists are misled by the Fetishism inherent in commodities, or by the objective appearance of the social characteristics of labour, is shown, amongst other ways, by the dull and tedious quarrel over the part played by Nature in the formation of exchange value. Since exchange value is a definite social manner of expressing the amount of labour bestowed upon an object, Nature has no more to do with it, than it has in fixing the course of exchange.

The mode of production in which the product takes the form of a commodity, or is produced directly for exchange, is the most general and most embryonic form of bourgeois production. It therefore makes its appearance at an early date in history, though not in the same predominating and characteristic manner as now-a-days. Hence its Fetish character is comparatively easy to be seen through. But when we come to more concrete forms, even this appearance of simplicity vanishes. Whence arose the illusions of the monetary system? To it gold and silver, when serving as money, did not represent a social relation between producers, but were natural objects with strange social properties. And modern economy, which looks down with such disdain on the monetary system, does not its superstition come out as clear as noon-day, whenever it treats of capital? How long is it since economy discarded the physiocratic illusion, that rents grow out of the soil and not out of society?

But not to anticipate, we will content ourselves with yet another example relating to the commodity form. Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange values. Now listen how those commodities speak through the mouth of the economist.

“Value” – (i.e., exchange value) “is a property of things, riches” – (i.e., use value) “of man. Value, in this sense, necessarily implies exchanges, riches do not.”[35] “Riches” (use value) “are the attribute of men, value is the attribute of commodities. A man or a community is rich, a pearl or a diamond is valuable…” A pearl or a diamond is valuable as a pearl or a diamond.[36]

So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange value either in a pearl or a diamond. The economic discoverers of this chemical element, who by-the-bye lay special claim to critical acumen, find however that the use value of objects belongs to them independently of their material properties, while their value, on the other hand, forms a part of them as objects. What confirms them in this view, is the peculiar circumstance that the use value of objects is realised without exchange, by means of a direct relation between the objects and man, while, on the other hand, their value is realised only by exchange, that is, by means of a social process. Who fails here to call to mind our good friend, Dogberry, who informs neighbour Seacoal, that, “To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by Nature.”[37]

Posted in Institutions, Meritocracy, Politics, Professionalism

Jonathan Rauch — The War on Professionalism

This post is an wonderful essay by Jonathan Rauch, The War on Professionalism.  It was published in the current issue of National Affairs.  Here’s a link to the original.

This essay is a celebration of professionalism, in a populist period when to call someone professional seems seems slanderous.  Here’s how he sets the context for his argument:

Trump’s presidency can be described in many ways, but one accurate description is as a relentless, continuous war on professionals and professionalism. Trump and his cronies have menaced, circumvented, and denigrated professionals both within and outside of government. The president himself has smeared law-enforcement professionals as treasonous, sidelined scientists in the policy process, called his top military officers “dopes and babies,” excluded the relevant Central Command general from a decision over whether to withdraw troops from Syria, and claimed weather forecasters were out to get him.

But the Trump era could also be described in a more positive light: as demonstrating the determination of professionals to hold their ground under intense pressure from the president and his enablers. In fact, in many of the instances described above, professionals asserted their integrity against the president and in defense of American governing norms — often successfully.

He links professionalism with institutions, another concept now under attack.  An institution is a powerful set of cultural expectations that shape a critical arena of social life, spelling out the rules for how one should act in this arena.  Examples are family, church, military, school, and the professions.  Institutions are places where people are formed, where they learn to become something they previously were not — a mother, a Christian, a soldier, a student, a doctor. 

The American presidency is an institution, which over the years has shaped the people who assumed the role as much as they shaped it.  We recently found out what happens when the incumbent refuses to be formed by the role he assumed.  That’s when we learned how inadequate law alone is in shaping behavior.  A president can follow the law and still violate every expectation we have for how a president should act.  Institutional norms are essential forms of constraint, but they only work if you choose to follow them.  Usually norm violators snap back when someone points out their misbehavior, shaming them into compliance.  But when a president has no shame, this technique doesn’t work.

Rauch makes a useful distinction between professionalism and elitism.

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

A key difference is that professionals have been formed by the process of becoming professionals.  The role comes with responsibilities that restrict your actions.  If you fail to carry out these responsibilities, you can be drummed out of the profession.  

Rauch argues — and I agree — that we would be better off with professional politicians than with amateurs.  Professionals in Congress are formed by the institution, inducted into a role where their job is to legislate.  Too often the current rank of politicians see Congress as a place to perform in order to gain attention and promote themselves.  The institution is just a means to an end, not a place, like the nation’s capitol building, to be held in respect.  On January 6 we saw what the  disrespect for institutions can come to.

I hope you find this essay as thought provoking as I do.

The War on Professionalism

 

Jonathan Rauch

On June 17, 2017, President Donald Trump directed the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Instead, McGahn packed up his belongings and prepared his letter of resignation, telling the White House chief of staff that the president had told him to “do crazy shit.”

Initially, Trump backed off. But about six months later, through the White House staff secretary, he ordered McGahn to create a file memo denying accurate news reports that Trump had demanded Mueller’s firing. McGahn refused to create the false record. Finally in the Oval Office, the president personally pressured McGahn to deny the story. McGahn again refused.

Other events from the headlines tell similar tales: The president falsified a hurricane forecast and pressed the National Weather Service (NWS) to repudiate its own forecasters. Days later, the agency’s inspector general announced an investigation into the event, noting that it “call[ed] into question the NWS’s processes [and] scientific independence.” On another occasion, the president alleged that the FBI had launched an improper investigation of his 2016 campaign. In response, the Justice Department’s inspector general conducted a detailed review and, though it found flaws in the investigation, firmly repudiated the president’s “witch hunt” story. And in August 2019, an intelligence professional reported behavior by the president that appeared bizarre, alarming, and abusive, at no small risk to his own career. Four months later, the president was impeached.

Trump’s presidency can be described in many ways, but one accurate description is as a relentless, continuous war on professionals and professionalism. Trump and his cronies have menaced, circumvented, and denigrated professionals both within and outside of government. The president himself has smeared law-enforcement professionals as treasonous, sidelined scientists in the policy process, called his top military officers “dopes and babies,” excluded the relevant Central Command general from a decision over whether to withdraw troops from Syria, and claimed weather forecasters were out to get him.

But the Trump era could also be described in a more positive light: as demonstrating the determination of professionals to hold their ground under intense pressure from the president and his enablers. In fact, in many of the instances described above, professionals asserted their integrity against the president and in defense of American governing norms — often successfully.

If anything, the Trump era has shown the need to understand and more fully appreciate professionalism — an often taken-for-granted concept in American public life. What is it? How does it relate to elitism? What are the consequences of its erosion? And how might we think about strengthening it?

PROFESSIONALS, INSTITUTIONS, AND INTEGRITY

As a child, I asked my father, a lawyer, what the word “professional” meant. He replied, “it means you do something for a living.” He contrasted it with the term “amateur,” meaning someone who works for pleasure.

My father’s definition has merit. I recall it whenever I tell interns that, to me, professionalism means performing a job to the highest standards, even when I don’t feel like doing it at all. One might think of the doctor who shows up for emergency surgery on Christmas Eve, the journalist who takes care to verify every fact mentioned in a report, or the concert pianist who gives the audience the best he is capable of night after night, even on nights when he would much rather be doing anything else.

That concept of professionalism is a good starting point, but we can dig deeper by drawing on the work of the American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin. In his book A Time to Build, Levin explores the role and meaning of institutions. Institutions, he says, are — or, when they function well, should be — forms, training and shaping people to work together toward a larger goal. The military is a classic example, as are churches and schools. These “structures of social life” provide the durable arrangements that frame our perceptions, mold our character, and delineate our social existence.

When institutions do not or cannot perform those shaping functions, they collapse into something more like platforms — stages upon which individuals perform in order to build audiences and self-advertise. He locates the collapse of trust in institutions — and the resulting public sense of anomie and disconnectedness — in the conversion of many institutions from places where people are formed to places where people perform. Thus a self-promoting real-estate magnate can become a self-promoting reality-TV host and then a self-promoting presidential candidate, hopping from one stage to the next, all while putting on pretty much the same show.

As institutions have drifted away from shaping us and toward displaying us, they have lost both efficacy and legitimacy. And we, in turn, have naturally lost confidence in them. Moreover, Levin argues, institutions have been taken for granted for so long, and yet are neglected so generally, that we have lost even the vocabulary for talking about what they are supposed to be doing. We don’t realize what we are missing, although we acutely feel the void.

Something very much like that has happened with professionalism. A combination of institutional absence, lazy thinking, and populist politics has collapsed the idea of professionalism down to the much flatter notion of elitism.

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

That distinction gestures toward a fuller definition of professionalism, one that implies commitment to personal standards, social norms, and expert knowledge in furtherance of a mission or an institution. That is, professionalism defines a right way of doing things — a notion of best practices — that is grounded in dedication to a mission or an institution rather than personal advancement or partisan loyalty. As Levin says, professionalism “tends to yield a strong internal ethos among practitioners. In uncertain situations, a professional asks himself, ‘What should I do here, given my professional responsibilities?’ And his profession will generally have an answer to that question.”

As Levin notices, institutionalism and professionalism are cousins. Both institutions and professions organize individuals to accomplish missions, they seek to inculcate norms and guide behavior, they assemble and transmit knowledge and best practices across generations, they cultivate reputational capital over long spans of time, and they draw and enforce boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

Almost invariably, the gatekeepers and guardians of professionalism are institutions. Groups like the American Association of University Professors, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the News Leaders Association promulgate ethical codes, set occupational and educational standards, issue credentials, organize conferences and social events, provide continuing education, confer prizes, and sanction bad actors. When Trump insisted that Don McGahn violate legal ethics, McGahn had his professional standing as an attorney to think about. He might have had in mind the fact that although Bill Clinton survived impeachment, his law license was suspended.

That said, professionalism and institutionalism are not completely congruent. Since many institutions cater to amateurs, professionalism is a narrower category than institutionalism. Families, churches, unions, and volunteer groups may all be examples of institutions, yet each is made up largely of non-professionals, and some institutions — families, for example — are intentionally not professionalized. At the same time, professionalism is also a broader category than institutionalism, since we understand professionalism to be an individual trait as well as an organizational one.

In fact, every professional is a kind of microcosmic institution — an institution personified. You do not need to be a member of a formal profession to display professionalism; we can say of a high-school educated stonemason or carpenter “he’s a true professional” and know exactly what is meant. Whether we praise the professionalism of a concrete pourer, a hairdresser, or a clarinetist, what we mean is that we rely on this person to approach a task according to the accepted standards of the profession and with integrity toward its mission.

Professionalism overlaps with both merit and expertise — after all, one cannot properly call himself a professional without them. But it implies something different from either — namely, a commitment to a correct approach to personal conduct that transcends individuals’ knowledge and character. Professionals are distinguished not just by the knowledge they possess, but by the traditions and practices they represent. With years of inculcation and reinforcement, professionalism becomes not just a choice or even habit, but a matter of personal identity. It teaches us what we mean by the term “integrity.”

PROFESSIONALS AND PREDATORY ELITES

Since professionalism is characterized by boundaries between right and wrong ways of doing things, our professional identities manifest in what we do. However, a professional may also be someone who chooses not to do certain things, such as cutting corners to serve convenience, or self-interest, or partisan loyalty. Indeed, professionals often define integrity in large measure by the conduct they disallow — in themselves and in others. A professional intelligence analyst does not spin his findings politically. A professional journalist does not invent sources. A professional scientist does not monkey with data. A professional accountant does not allow a CEO to cook the books. A professional police officer does not allow a partner to plant evidence. A professional lawyer does not permit a client to break the law.

And they are indignant when they see violations of such standards. After Trump doctored the weather report, senior National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials seemed to back the president. In response, the agency’s acting chief scientist called their reaction “very concerning” and vowed to pursue these “potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity.” That is how indignant professionals sound. Or they might say someone is trying to “do crazy shit.”

Professionals are thus the first, and often the only, line of defense against predatory elites who seek to abuse or circumvent institutional safeguards. That is why demagogic populism is, among other things, fundamentally a war on professionalism. It is why opportunists and rogue operators are so keen to push professionals aside. It is why devaluing and corrupting professionalism is a profound danger to a democracy.

That is always true, but it is especially true when the president of the United States is someone who batters every norm of professional government. The ethos of such a president is in every way the opposite of professionalism: He makes the rules. Integrity means service to him. As Trump himself put it, “I have Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” Such a figure will not only be enraged but also bewildered when a professional says, “you can’t do that.” His retort will be, “try to stop me.” And without the barriers to caprice and corruption that professionals provide, “stopping him” becomes a great deal harder. An important example is from politics, where the assault on professionalism has had baleful results.

THE CASE FOR POLITICAL CAREERISM

In his classic 1962 book The Amateur Democrat, political scientist James Q. Wilson described technocratic reformers’ assault on Democratic Party political machines in three cities. The machines, Wilson noticed, were run by political professionals — committeemen, ward heelers, and the like. But these men were usually drawn from the non-professional classes: They worked their way up through the ranks of the party apparatus; they viewed politics as a trade and tended to be in it for the long term; they sought extrinsic rewards like jobs, pork-barrel spending, and promotions for themselves and their loyalists. As Wilson wrote, their rewards were “power, income, status, or the fun of the game.”

Wilson watched with misgivings as what he called “political amateurs” attacked and ultimately demolished the machines. By “amateurs,” he meant people who usually came from the elite educated classes and whose commitments were ideological and idealistic. They viewed politics as a hobby or a crusade, and they tended to have other day jobs. “An amateur is one who finds politics intrinsically interesting because it expresses a conception of the public interest,” he wrote. “[T]he amateur asserts that principles, rather than interest, ought to be both the end and the motive of political action.” For amateurs, “compromise” is a dirty word; every issue should be settled purely on its merits. Transactional politics — the politics of bargaining and negotiating — is thus inherently distasteful to the political amateur, who views “each battle as a ‘crisis,’…each victory as a triumph and each loss as a defeat for a cause.”

Amateurism plays an important role in politics, of course, but it presents hazards as well. Because amateurs organize their political activities around issues, they will, if necessary, manufacture issues, and even manufacture crises, to build solidarity and advance their cause. Polarization and hyper-partisanship are often in their interest. Whereas professionals tend to stick around year in and year out, amateurs tend to be fitful arrivistes and self-promoters, people like the Democratic presidential candidates Tom Steyer and Marianne Williamson, or Republican candidates Herman Cain and Donald Trump. George Washington Plunkitt, the so-called “sage of Tammany Hall” and a great (and colorful) proponent of transactional politics, famously loathed progressive reformers, referring to them as “mornin’ glories” who “looked lovely in the mornin’ and withered up in a short time,” disappearing and disapproving when the hard work of governing needed to be accomplished.

Plunkitt understood himself and other Tammany hacks not as elites, but as anti-elites. And it was true; the machine was famous for welcoming working-class and lower-class immigrants at the docks, showing them how to participate in politics (and, of course, whom to vote for), and promoting the most loyal and capable up through the hierarchy. As political scholar Amy Bridges has written, “machine politics must be judged a veritable school of politics for working-class and minority voters,” who often fared better in machine-run cities than under the meritocratic regimes of high-minded reformers. In fact, the early-20th-century progressives loathed Tammany precisely because it empowered the unwashed, especially the despised Irish. They proposed reforms that reduced participation and favored the educated, and even tried to disenfranchise working-class voters — with the support of the New York Times, business interests, and Theodore Roosevelt.

A return to the likes of Tammany Hall today would not be possible even if it were desirable. Still, we need to remember what political machines and parties did well in their institutional heyday: They recruited, shaped, tested, and promoted political aspirants, and they assembled the coalitions necessary for governing. They were forms, ensuring that most politicians — even corrupt ones — understood their coalitions, knew something about governing, and had the connections and the loyalty to work well with others. Today, by contrast, the parties are more like platforms, which political aspirants and outside groups exploit for self-promotion.

The consequences of that change have been far reaching. Until about 10 years ago, it was taken for granted in American politics that party professionals would have an important, and often decisive, influence on who reached the party’s ballot for president, Congress, and other leading offices. That influence was exerted initially through party control of nominations and later through what was called the invisible primary, in which party insiders directed endorsements, money, and media coverage toward preferred candidates.

In 2016, by contrast, professionals in the Democratic Party barely managed to prevent a man who was not by any meaningful standard a Democrat from seizing the party’s nomination. Professionals in the Republican Party, meanwhile, stood by helplessly as a man who was not by any meaningful standard a Republican successfully seized the nomination and took over their party. Four years later, Democratic Party professionals were powerless to stop a billionaire dilettante from buying his way onto a debate stage, where he was joined by a celebrity lifestyle guru and a publicity-hungry Silicon Valley entrepreneur — none of whom had experience in governing. Only by the skin of their teeth did party regulars, with an assist from the African American voters of South Carolina, manage to nominate a mainstream Democratic candidate against a socialist insurgent.

The parties, or at least the Democrats, have recently sought to reclaim some influence — by exerting more control over who can appear in presidential debates, for example. But they are up against the fact that, in many circles, “political professional” has become a term of abuse. To most of the public, amateurism is a mark of authenticity, while professionalism is a mark of corruption. That is a hazardous notion. Without professional input, the primary system is easily manipulated by factional, self-promoting, and even sociopathic candidates equipped with personal wealth or celebrity or demagogic skill — or, in Trump’s case, all three.

The point is not that amateurs should stay out of politics and leave it to their betters. Not at all. The point, rather, is that professionals and voters, like air-traffic controllers and airline passengers, have different roles to play, and both roles are essential. Pushing aside party professionals and assuming that increased participation will solve every problem is like coping with airport gridlock by firing the controllers while packing the planes with more people.

The Brookings Institution’s Elaine Kamarck, University of Massachusetts Amherst political scientist Ray La Raja, and I have suggested changes that would re-empower professionals in politics. But leaving these specific ideas to one side, the overarching lesson to remember is that the Constitution was the brainchild of political professionals, and it entrusted most governmental decision-making to political professionals. The democratization of politics since then was for many years a positive development — until it reached the point of turning professionals into spectators relegated to observing their own parties from the sidelines.

Plunkitt and Wilson would be sad, though not surprised, to have been proven right. In 1962, Wilson issued this warning about the “amateurization” of politics:

The need to employ issues as incentives and to distinguish one’s party from the opposition along policy lines will mean that political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party’s ability to produce agreement by trading issue-free resources will be reduced.

The chaotic results of political amateurism were predictable, and predicted. The American political system is designed to combine professional and popular elements; it will not work without both.

THE DECLINE OF THE PROFESSIONAL LEGISLATOR

Another example of the devaluation of professionalism, and of its unhappy consequences, cuts to the heart of our constitutional order: the transformation of the Constitution’s premier institution, the U.S. Congress.

During the mid-1980s, I cut my teeth covering congressional budgeting. I got to know staff directors and economists and analysts at places like the budget committees and the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. From the directors at the top to the junior analysts at the bottom, they considered themselves professionals. And they were all tasked with different versions of the same job: providing the information and expertise to keep Congress within the bounds of reality and the law.

I was especially fascinated and impressed by the professional culture of the House Appropriations Committee. The committee — much more powerful in those days than it is now — was run non-transparently by then-chairman Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, who had been in Congress since before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Almost as influential was the so-called College of Cardinals — the 12 powerful appropriations subcommittee chairmen (yes, all men). Whitten was famous for knowing and exploiting every nook and cranny of appropriations law, but always quietly, behind the scenes. “Keep quiet while you’re working,” he said in a rare interview he granted me in 1986. “Up here, if you talk about it, you can’t do it. You build up all the opposition.” He bragged of never having held a press conference.

Indispensable to Whitten’s wiles was the committee staff, a clique of secretive professionals who had done the work of appropriating for years, often decades. The appropriators and their staff were not always fair or transparent, but they passed the annual spending bills on time every year, because that was their job. They were expert at knowing what the members and leadership needed, brokering the necessary deals and somehow fitting everything into the budget (give or take a few supplemental appropriations). Though they were more monkish than most in Congress, they typified the professional culture that prevailed on Capitol Hill.

Then a couple of things happened. First, when the Republicans took over the House in 1995, they and their Senate counterparts took an axe to Congress’s professional and support staffs, reducing House staff by a third and Senate staff by 16%. They also abolished Congress’s internal technology think tank. They and their successors in both parties stripped committee-based professionals like Whitten of much of their discretion, shifting power to leaders who imposed decisions from above. Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards of the Washington Monthly called it Congress’s “Big Lobotomy.” The result was a reduction of professional capacity and intellectual capital within the legislative branch.

Second, the nature of the job changed. Candidates and voters began to see Congress less as a workshop where lawmakers painstakingly craft and pass laws, and more as a platform on which they can raise their profiles and polish their personal brands. As Levin writes,

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

As a result, a whole generation of people within and outside of Congress have no experience of the institution operating as a functional, professional legislative body. They know little about the exacting processes of drafting legislation, building coalitions, amassing political capital, or trading political favors — jobs that the Constitution expects Congress to do, jobs that no other institution of government can do. The predictable result has been to cripple Congress as a legislative entity and, in turn, to distort and disrupt the entire constitutional order.

In our constitutional system, Congress speaks by legislating. It can hold hearings, issue subpoenas, and pass the odd non-binding resolution, but those activities are sideshows. If it fails to pass laws, it is effectively silent. With Congress derelict, power and decision-making flow to the executive, the courts, and the administrative agencies, none of which can match Congress’s legitimacy and representative nature.

A recovery of the system would involve rebuilding the legislative branch’s legislative professionalism — its culture as a place where people view their job as crafting law, where they know how to do their job, and where they aspire to do it well. Much ink has been spilled suggesting how we might accomplish this — by an American Political Science Association task force, by Congress’s own Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, and by the American Enterprise Institute’s Kevin Kosar in these pages, among others. The harder question is whether Congress itself has the will to re-professionalize in our populist era.

ENDING THE WAR

Harder still, yet perhaps even more crucial, will be rebuilding public respect for professionalism in politics and in government. That would mean, for example, making a term like “career politician” or “bureaucrat” less of a dirty word and making “inexperienced” and “amateur” less synonymous with “authentic” and “uncorrupt.”

The road ahead is long, and the gradient is steep. But the first steps can involve reminding ourselves to think twice before indulging the knee-jerk populism that denigrates professionals as obstacles to democratic politics. It will also help to remember that denuding professionalism is easy, whereas building and sustaining it is difficult.

And it will help to keep in mind that the war on professionalism leads to chaos, corruption, and predation — what White House counsel McGahn so aptly described as “crazy shit,” and what, in recent years, we have seen far too much of.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. This essay is adapted from a lecture delivered at a symposium of the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, on February 6, 2020.

Posted in Inequality, Meritocracy, Welfare

Agnes Callard — A More Perfect Meritocracy

This post is a piece by Agnes Callard, A More Perfect Meritocracy, which was published in Boston Review on December 21, 2020.  Here’s a link to the original.

As you know, if you’ve been following this blog, I’ve long been wrestling with the idea of meritocracy.  In particular, I’ve been focusing on its dysfunctions and pathologies, with special attention to the role that higher education plays in creating this situation.  The core problem is that our meritocracy values the success of some at the cost of the failure of others —  lavishing material rewards and social respect on those who emerge from the best colleges and move into the best jobs while at the time punishing those who don’t make the grade academically with material want and social disrespect.  

In this essay, Callard reviews two books that critique the meritocracy — Fredrik deBoer’s The Cult of Smart and Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit.  (The second I have discussed here.)  

What I find intriguing in her analysis is the way she seeks to rescue the reward side of meritocracy while seeking to banish the punishment side.  It’s ok to reward people for high achievement, she ways, even if much of this is the result of birth advantages, as long as we don’t punish those who aren’t the most accomplished scholars or athletes or professionals, often because of lacking those birth advantages.

She seeks to reconcile a basic tension in human desires, in which we both want to belong and to achieve greatness, to cooperate with others and to rise above the crowd. “People want to stand out; people do not want to be alone.”

First, people are driven by a need for belonging, and a consequent motivation both to benefit the group and to be recognized as full-fledged members of it. Some positive words for this drive are “cooperative” and “selfless”; some negative ones are “conformist” and “sheep.” Second, people are inclined to hold themselves apart from the group, to stand out from it. When we approve of this inclination we describe it as “the pursuit of excellence” and call such a person “extraordinary” or “independent”; when we dislike it, we use words such as “uncooperative” and “egotistical” and accuse its bearer of “competitiveness” or “greediness.” Switching between positively and negatively charged terms is one of the ways we artificially fit these warring drives into one social order.

What we need is to do, she says, is to embrace the kind of asymmetry that both deBoer and Sandel reject.  They want us to attribute both success and failure in the meritocracy to factors over which people have no control.  This means honoring the poor by demeaning the rich.  Here’s how she puts her perspective.

Depriving someone of the basics needed to live a decent life is a form of punishment, and arguably no one—except perhaps one guilty of grievous wrongdoing—deserves that. You can think that everyone deserves a decent life and also think that some people deserve more than that, in virtue of what they have achieved. And—this is what comes of accepting the asymmetry I’ve been arguing for—you can think that person A deserves material or social rewards for achievements that person B had no chance to produce (say, for genetic reasons, or due to sexism, or pure bad luck). The fact that chance played a role in A’s success does not invalidate our rewarding him for it. But the fact that we can and should reward A does not entail that we are permitted to punish B for her lack of success. B deserves a decent life, even if she never earned the rewards we (justifiably) give only to A.

The key problem here, she says, is not just sociological but also ethical.

The question of who we praise and who we blame is not a scientific question, but an ethical one; there is no way to answer it except by deliberating seriously about the kind of society we want to live in.

The example she gives really brings it home for an academic like me.

People rarely, if ever, deserve to fail, but people typically deserve their successes. To prove that this asymmetry is coherent, consider the ethos among a group of striving friends. When one of my academic friends faces a professional setback—a paper rejection, a fruitless job search, being denied tenure—the rest of us respond with sympathy and compassion.  We do not say, “This was your fault for not working hard enough.” Except under truly extraordinary circumstances, we do not take ourselves to be in the business of blaming, faulting, and condemning our friends. But when that same person achieves some triumph, we would typically congratulate her for the fruits of her efforts. We credit her for her accomplishments without blaming her for her failures. One should not assume that this situation must boil down either to amiable exaggeration of someone’s role in her triumphs or to well-meant but deceptive downplaying of her responsibility for her failures. There need be no white lies involved in our response, because it is ethically correct to respond asymmetrically to the role of chance in success and failure. The simple fact is that you can praise a student for his A without blaming him for his C. And this is, in fact, usually how you should act.

Here’s her conclusion:

Constructing a non-punitive meritocracy is not at all straightforward—any more than constructing a non-racist or non-sexist meritocracy, or one that is not biased in favor of the rich. But it is a worthy project, because a non-punitive meritocracy holds out the prospect of combining—not merely in words, but in reality—our desire for cooperative communitarian harmony with our commitment to individual excellence and achievement. Sandel and deBoer urge us to sacrifice the latter at the altar of the former. But that wouldn’t be necessary if we could achieve both goals. A kinder, more compassionate, more progressive—which is to say, less punitive—meritocracy would give us the best of all worlds.

Her argument really resonates with an idea I’ve been mulling for years.  Social inequality is not necessarily a social evil all in itself.  The existence of billionaires doesn’t hurt me in any particular way.  If you have enough money to live on comfortably and provide for your children, if you have good health insurance and a decent pension, you are in good shape.  Under these circumstances, you don’t need a fancy degree or fabulous wealth in order to have a good life.  A well funded welfare state can therefore be tolerant of a relatively high degree of social inequality that provides outside rewards for super achievers, even if they started with special advantages.  The problem with the social structure in the US may not be its high ceiling so much as its low floor.  

See what you think. 

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A More Perfect Meritocracy

Two new books take aim at the moral failures of meritocracy. But we can advocate for a more just society without giving up on merit.

AGNES CALLARD

The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice
Fredrik deBoer
All Points Books, $28.99 (cloth)

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
Michael Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (cloth)

We have some say in how our lives go, and yet our lives are also subjected to forces outside our control. Which part of this story do we emphasize? Conservatives tend to see the glass as half full, stressing both agential control over outcomes and personal responsibility for them. Progressives are more likely to highlight the causal role of outside factors—even when those factors are in some sense “internal,” such as one’s genetic makeup—and to caution us to err on the side of withholding blame for poor outcomes.

Educator and essayist Fredrik deBoer argues that there is one domain where this political pattern breaks down: in conversations about academic achievement. In the introduction to his new book The Cult of Smart, deBoer articulates the puzzle by drawing on blogger Scott Alexander’s memory of having been praised for getting A in English but blamed for getting a C- in calculus:

Every time I was held up as an example in English class, I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. I didn’t do it! I didn’t study at all, half the time I did the homework in the car on the way to school, those essays for the statewide competition were thrown together on a lark without a trace of real effort. To praise me for any of it seemed and still seems utterly unjust.

On the other hand, to this day I believe I deserve a fricking statue for getting a C- in Calculus I. It should be in the center of the schoolyard, and have a plaque saying something like “Scott Alexander, who by making a herculean effort managed to pass Calculus I, even though they kept throwing random things after the little curly S sign and pretending it made sense.”

Why, Alexander wonders, should praise and blame track what is clearly innate? “The compassionate, sympathetic, progressive position,” he observes, is to deny that peoples’ drinking problems—or obesity, or depression, or kleptomania—are up to them: we should not blame people for mental or physical illness by insisting that they can be overcome with sufficient effort. But, deBoer notes, “this thinking is anathema” among the same progressive circles “when applied to academic aptitude.” Why do the very people who want to avoid blame for hereditary conditions treat academic success as though it were purely a matter of hard work?

DeBoer suggests that part of the explanation is a too hasty progressive repudiation of scientific work on intelligence. Confronted by the dark legacy of scientific racism, progressives are anxious to deny claims of group-level IQ differences, but in the same swoop they end up denying science that shows that individual IQ is at least 50 percent heritable. Both Alexander and deBoer think this is a mistake. They propose that we can be consistently sympathetic and progressive only by facing up to the implications of hard-wired individual IQ differences: academic success and failure are no more “earned” than mental health or illness, and it is cruel to treat them as though they were.

For deBoer this argument is not only important in its own right. It is central to his book’s critique of our meritocratic educational system. Written with the persuasive authority of a seasoned educator, The Cult of Smart is a “prayer for the untalented,” as he calls it, focusing on both their “plight” and the plight of those who teach them. He makes an impassioned plea for realism both about what intellectually ungifted and scholastically unmotivated students can achieve and about what the school system can do to solve society’s ills. DeBoer is a Marxist who hungers for a fully egalitarian society, lamenting the inequalities of privilege and wealth that characterize our own, but he does not believe that the educational system is the lever by which equality will be effected. The imposition of “higher standards” serves only to lower graduation rates, he argues, as well as to punish schools that lack the luxury to kick out struggling students. “Tell me how your students are getting assigned to your school,” he writes, “and I can predict your outcomes.”

DeBoer opens the book with a discussion of 2019’s Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel does the same in his new book The Tyranny of Merit. Both authors use this event to make the case that college admissions has become the fulcrum of our society’s meritocratic machine: your social “worth” is so deeply predicated on the college you attend that rich parents are willing to break the law to secure a slight rise in the tier of college to which their children gain acceptance. And the parents hid their actions from their children because they wanted them to feel they had earned this status.

But both Sandel and deBoer make clear that their target is not this group of lawbreakers. Nor is it parents who legally exchange massive donations for acceptances, or legacy admissions, or the fact that wealthier children are advantaged at every step along childhood’s journey—from prenatal lead exposure all the way to SAT prep courses and expensive, application-padding extracurriculars. The moral problem, for both authors, is not that we fail to live up to the ideal of meritocracy (though we do), but that we take it as an ideal in the first place. Any system that predicates economic and social status on academic performance is intrinsically bad.

Sandel, like deBoer, objects most fundamentally to meritocracy’s moral pretensions: if we believe that our success is up to us, we will credit ourselves for success and blame ourselves for failure. Meritocracy’s ethic of positive self-belief—what Sandel calls a “rhetoric of rising”— produces “morally unattractive attitudes” of hubris among winners and resentment among losers. This, in turn, leads to social strife and undermines social solidarity. Sandel ranges widely over the history and politics of meritocracy, rooting it in the Protestant ethic of work as (epistemic) proof of one’s moral worth. He locates the idea that the more productive should be reimbursed with more money in the classical economic liberalism of F. A. Hayek and Frank Knight and even the welfare state liberalism of John Rawls. Sandel acknowledges that that these thinkers justified their proposed social systems on the grounds of efficiency, explicitly denying any claim that the more productive were “more valuable” or “deserved more.” But Sandel nonetheless sees their views as the evolutionary ancestors of our current moral pretensions: “free-market liberalism and welfare state liberalism open the way to meritocratic understandings of success that they officially reject.”

A crucial step in Sandel’s telling of the genesis of meritocracy is the story of how former Harvard president James Conant transformed the university in the 1940s. By way of “a kind of quiet, planned coup d’etat,” Sandel explains, Conant instituted the SAT and re-imagined public schools as serving a sorting function: instead of being ends in themselves, they would become “reconstructed for [the] specific purpose” of serving as a recruiting ground for a new meritocratic elite. Conant was activating a plan once proposed by Thomas Jefferson, who had described it thus: “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed at the public expense.”

In the present day, Sandel identifies a very wide range of phenomena as either causes or effects of meritocracy: populist political upheaval; helicopter parenting; the rise of globalization, technocracy and anti-immigrant sentiment; the transition to a knowledge economy; the 2008 economic crisis; debates over climate change; cultural differences between Americans and Europeans; rising suicide rates among twenty to twenty-four year olds; rising inequality; the fall of manufacturing in the United States; credentialism. As his discussion wanders over this territory, the guiding thread is the claim that meritocracy organizes society into self-satisfied winners and bitter losers.

Sandel is clearly onto something in claiming that “one of the deepest divides in politics today is between those with and those without a college degree.” But I am not entirely persuaded by his story of a nation divided by hubris and resentment. For one thing, the empirical data he cites in painting a picture of the “winners” do not suggest self-satisfied complacency over having “earned” one’s status: he describes “a mental health epidemic among privileged youth” and “inordinate levels of emotional distress among young people from affluent families,” including those who end up at elite schools and show “unprecedented levels of distress.” That does not sound like hubris. As for the resentment he ascribes to non-elites: resentment is the characteristic attitude of those with less who believe they deserve more. If Sandel were correct that non-elites blamed themselves for their own failure, one would predict that the primary expression of this self-understanding would be shame and depression rather than resentment.

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Humans are given to hierarchy—we measure ourselves against those around us and strive to better our relative position—but we are, at the same time, unhappy that this is true of ourselves. This predicament is the product of two drives.

First, people are driven by a need for belonging, and a consequent motivation both to benefit the group and to be recognized as full-fledged members of it. Some positive words for this drive are “cooperative” and “selfless”; some negative ones are “conformist” and “sheep.” Second, people are inclined to hold themselves apart from the group, to stand out from it. When we approve of this inclination we describe it as “the pursuit of excellence” and call such a person “extraordinary” or “independent”; when we dislike it, we use words such as “uncooperative” and “egotistical” and accuse its bearer of “competitiveness” or “greediness.” Switching between positively and negatively charged terms is one of the ways we artificially fit these warring drives into one social order.

People want to stand out; people do not want to be alone. Sandel and deBoer are arguing that we should let up on the first desire in order to better satisfy the second: less hierarchy in exchange for more solidarity, compassion, and egalitarianism. Their books propose a shift in ideals: down with the language of striving, of opportunity, of individual achievement and self-belief and positive affirmation. They encourage us to see success as being due more to good fortune than earned by hard work, in the hopes that this less aspirational, more fatalistic approach will facilitate more group cohesion. An “ethic of fortune,” says Sandel, “appreciates the dimensions of life that exceed human understanding and control.”

This aim is nowhere more evident than in the concrete changes each book proposes to our current order: deBoer would like twelve-year-olds to be able to choose to drop out of school, and Sandel proposes a lottery for admission at elite colleges. While I do not doubt that each author believes the world would be improved by these proposals, their primary focus in these books is clearly not public policy: their concrete suggestions occupy only a few pages, located near the ends of their books. Rather, their main task is to indicate the direction in which our ideology—first our rhetoric, eventually our values—should shift. We need to learn to accept that some twelve-year-olds simply aren’t cut out for school; we should stop valorizing the selectivity of elite colleges.

What should we make of this project? Cultural shifts in ideology do happen, and Sandel and deBoer may be picking up on a trend: perhaps our society is on the verge of shifting to a less “stand out,” more “fit in” model. Indeed it is striking that Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist, has also criticized meritocracy along very similar lines: “the meritocratic order . . . insists that everything its high-achievers have is justly earned.” But as a philosophical matter, Sandel and deBoer have not made a convincing argument that we have good reason to give up on the rhetoric of “earning” and “achievement” and “aspiration.” This is because, while both authors emphatically insist that theirs is an attack on the concept of meritocracy itself, in fact their target only picks out an accident of our instantiation of it.

Let’s go back to our opening puzzle. Why are people more inclined to hold genetics responsible for (lack of) mental health than for (lack of) academic or intellectual achievement? I think this is less puzzling than deBoer and Alexander contend. There is a significant difference between these two cases. It is a scientific truth that a person’s life outcomes are, in a great variety of ways, a function of her genetic endowment (not just in matters of intelligence, however defined, but in many other behavioral and physical features, too). Nonetheless, the science of genetics cannot tell us what the ethical consequences of this truth are—and more specifically, science cannot tell us that the ethical consequences of this fact are uniform for all traits. So even if, from a genetic point of view, mental health and intelligence were equally heritable, that wouldn’t entail that our ethical responses to those facts should be the same. And in fact they arguably should not be.

Questions of mental health, weight regulation, or substance abuse are normatively bipartite: the relevant outcomes are either normal or abnormal. Achievement, by contrast, is normatively tripartite: it can be subnormal, normal, or supernormal. In the bipartite cases, we are faced only with the need to avoid blaming people for the subnormal condition, whereas in the tripartite cases we want to avoid blaming for subnormality and, in addition, we want to be able to credit and praise supernormality. In the bipartite cases, we get everything we want by ascribing outcomes to genetics—but doing so in the tripartite cases would thwart one of our (ethical) goals.

Let me illustrate with the case of athletics. Everyone knows that athletic achievement has a strong hereditary component, yet it is clear that we do not think of it as “entirely due to genes” or even “due to genes plus luck.” Athletic stars serve as inspirational figures for young people who take them to represent the possibility of making something great of oneself. Nature might give you height or quick reflexes, but athletic excellence also requires years of concerted effort. By dint of this effort, we think of the stars as having earned their accomplishments. There is no tension between thinking that most people are not cut out for athletic accomplishment and thinking that the ones who succeed do so on the strength of their efforts. To recognize and admire and credit the winners, you don’t need to think that an athletic failure—myself included—is to be blamed for insufficient effort. Kindness to athletic losers doesn’t need to be bought at the price of indifference to athletic winners.

The question of who we praise and who we blame is not a scientific question, but an ethical one; there is no way to answer it except by deliberating seriously about the kind of society we want to live in. In that spirit, I want to propose a new candidate for what the “the compassionate, sympathetic, progressive position” should look like. First, we should incline toward crediting people for their achievements as being genuinely their own, the justly earned fruits of hard work and diligence, deserving of pride and a sense of accomplishment. Second, we should incline toward explaining away failures on the basis of genes, socioeconomic obstacles, bad luck, and so on—things beyond their control—in such a way to make clear that the attitude called for in response to failure is sympathy and readiness to assist. The successful should be proud of themselves, and when they see others fail, they should think: there but for the grace of God go I.

People rarely, if ever, deserve to fail, but people typically deserve their successes. To prove that this asymmetry is coherent, consider the ethos among a group of striving friends. When one of my academic friends faces a professional setback—a paper rejection, a fruitless job search, being denied tenure—the rest of us respond with sympathy and compassion.  We do not say, “This was your fault for not working hard enough.” Except under truly extraordinary circumstances, we do not take ourselves to be in the business of blaming, faulting, and condemning our friends. But when that same person achieves some triumph, we would typically congratulate her for the fruits of her efforts. We credit her for her accomplishments without blaming her for her failures. One should not assume that this situation must boil down either to amiable exaggeration of someone’s role in her triumphs or to well-meant but deceptive downplaying of her responsibility for her failures. There need be no white lies involved in our response, because it is ethically correct to respond asymmetrically to the role of chance in success and failure. The simple fact is that you can praise a student for his A without blaming him for his C. And this is, in fact, usually how you should act.

I believe we should credit all achievements, including those of the privileged: the talents of the rich do not magically develop themselves. But we should also recognize that when people had to overcome substantial obstacles to get where they are, they objectively achieved more, and deserve to be even prouder of themselves. We can say this without discrediting those who faced fewer obstacles, and of course as a society we should aim to remove as many of those obstacles as possible—while recognizing the truth of Sandel and deBoer’s observation that the playing field will never be fully even, because some of the “obstacles” are internal. Still, respecting the essential unevenness of the playing field is, contrary to what Sandel and deBoer contend, compatible with crediting achievement. It wouldn’t be compatible if crediting achievement entailed faulting lack of achievement. But that would only be the case if achievement were normatively bipartite; in fact, it is tripartite.

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Let me conclude by bringing these philosophical reflections on achievement to bear on our socioeconomic system for distributing material rewards and social status—for it is at this edifice that Sandel’s and deBoer’s objections are ultimately directed. The argument I have given offers a way of separating our answer to the question of how we should distribute pluses such as riches, honors, fame, and recognition from our answer to the question of how we should distribute minuses such as poverty, shame, suffering, and precarity.

Depriving someone of the basics needed to live a decent life is a form of punishment, and arguably no one—except perhaps one guilty of grievous wrongdoing—deserves that. You can think that everyone deserves a decent life and also think that some people deserve more than that, in virtue of what they have achieved. And—this is what comes of accepting the asymmetry I’ve been arguing for—you can think that person A deserves material or social rewards for achievements that person B had no chance to produce (say, for genetic reasons, or due to sexism, or pure bad luck). The fact that chance played a role in A’s success does not invalidate our rewarding him for it. But the fact that we can and should reward A does not entail that we are permitted to punish B for her lack of success. B deserves a decent life, even if she never earned the rewards we (justifiably) give only to A.

Because deBoer and Sandel take aim at the legitimacy of dipping below decency, they do not give any independent argument concerning the desert of those in the upper half of the distribution of outcomes—but that is really where meritocracy resides. Meritocracy is about rewarding success, not punishing failure. Consider the famous “motivational” speech from the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross:

We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is, you’re fired.

All of us feel a jolt between second and third prize. That is the moment when “meritocracy” gets twisted and deformed into something punitive and vile. If our system of distributing meritocratic rewards to achievers depends on distributing degrading punishments to non-achievers, that is a strike against our meritocracy, not against meritocracy itself. Insofar as meritocracy ends up not only determining the extremes of success but also condemning non-achievers as worthless, that is a corruption of meritocracy, to be condemned alongside better-recognized corruptions such as racism and sexism. This is why I say that Sandel and deBoer have conflated an accidental imperfection of one (punitive) mode of meritocracy with a critique of meritocracy itself.

Of course the ethics of success is full of knotty problems. It is not easy to draw the line between what is given only on the grounds of talent and effort, on the one hand, and what belongs to all, regardless of achievement, on the other. The question “how much is enough for a decent life?” is difficult to answer, and on top of the intrinsic difficulty, the answer shifts over time. Education is, and perhaps will always be, a battleground, and one way to interpret Sandel and deBoer’s proposed policy interventions is to see them as disagreeing over where to draw the line in that arena. DeBoer’s suggestion that we become willing to exempt some twelve-year-olds from further schooling is a way of drawing the line relatively low—high school is already “extra”—whereas Sandel’s suggestion of lottery-based college admissions draws the line high: even college education should not be allocated on the basis of talent, promise, or achievement.

Constructing a non-punitive meritocracy is not at all straightforward—any more than constructing a non-racist or non-sexist meritocracy, or one that is not biased in favor of the rich. But it is a worthy project, because a non-punitive meritocracy holds out the prospect of combining—not merely in words, but in reality—our desire for cooperative communitarian harmony with our commitment to individual excellence and achievement. Sandel and deBoer urge us to sacrifice the latter at the altar of the former. But that wouldn’t be necessary if we could achieve both goals. A kinder, more compassionate, more progressive—which is to say, less punitive—meritocracy would give us the best of all worlds.

For both authors the fundamental question is not about how to tinker with our current system at the margins but what kind of ideal we should set our sights on—even if it is not necessarily immediately realizable. DeBoer’s book ends with a panegyric description of a post-revolutionary Marxist “utopia” of which he acknowledges: “Some will, no doubt, call this fantasy. They will say that such a society cannot exist.” But this vision is predicated on a mistake: he assumes that we have to give up on meritocratic rewards in order to free ourselves from the scourge of meritocratic punishment. I say, as long as we’re dreaming, let’s dream bigger.

Posted in Empire, History, Meritocracy, Social status

Craig Brown – Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret

Here’s a challenge to any writer.  How do you write a book about someone famous who never did anything?  Craig Brown found an answer with his book, Nine-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.  

Princess Margaret

In this book, he provides not a biography but a set of impressions of Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister as they were recounted by the people around her.  It’s as if she only existed in her reflection.  And he lays out these impressions in a series of 99 brief but poisonously pleasurable chapters.  The result is a feast for the reader and a model for writers of how to make something out of nothing.

Another thing I like about this book is that it undercuts some of my own critique of the meritocracy, which I frequently belabor in this blog.  Nothing like looking at minor royals to make meritocracy look pretty good.  At least people do something to gain their renown.

Brown says he came upon the idea for this book while researching another one, when he kept finding Princess Margaret listed in a vast array of books about the UK in the late twentieth century.  

It is like playing ‘Where’s Wally?’, or staring at clouds in search of a face. Leave it long enough, and she’ll be there, rubbing shoulders with philosophers, film stars, novelists, politicians.

I spy with my little eye, something beginning with M!

Here she is, sitting above Marie Antoinette in Margaret Drabble’s biography of Angus Wilson:

Maraini, Dacia
Marchant, Bill (Sir Herbert)
Maresfield Park
Margaret, Princess
Marie Antoinette
Market Harborough

The reflections she left in these sources are anything but pretty.  As Brown puts it,

It has been said that history is written by the victors, but, on the most basic level, this is not quite true: it is written by the writers.

Princess Margaret had the misfortune to be surrounded by catty people who were eager to leave a written record of their encounters with her — for consumption by people like me who love to read gossipy accounts about the one percent.

In part these accounts serve as a welcome counterpoint to the typical syrupy stories promoted by the royal family, for example,

The queen mother:

Along with radiance, she emitted delight. Her authorised biographer, William Shawcross, chronicles this trail of delight. Wherever she goes, she delights everyone, and they are in turn delighted by her delight, whereupon she is delighted that they are delighted that she is delighted that … and so forth. If you shut his book too abruptly, you’ll notice delight oozing out of its sides.

But from the age of twenty-five, Princess Margaret was rarely described as ‘radiant’, other than on her wedding day, traditionally an occasion on which the adjective is obligatory, to be withheld only if the bride is actually hauled sobbing to the altar.

Most of the stories follow another arc: the Princess arrives late, delaying dinner to catch up with her punishing schedule of drinking and smoking. At the table, she grows more and more relaxed; by midnight, it dawns on the assembled company that she is in it for the long haul, which means that they will be too, since protocol dictates that no one can leave before she does. Then, just as everyone else is growing more chatty and carefree, the Princess abruptly remounts her high horse and upbraids a hapless guest for over-familiarity: ‘When you say my sister, I imagine you are referring to Her Majesty the Queen?’

At times, the reader feels sorry for the princess serving as everyone’s favorite punching bag.  As a royal, your status is purely at the mercy of birth order, establishing your position in the line for the crown.

How odd, to emerge from the womb fourth in line, to go up a notch at the age of six, up another notch that same year, and then to find yourself hurtling down, down, down to fourth place at the birth of Prince Charles in 1948, fifth at the birth of Princess Anne in 1950, then downhill all the way, overtaken by a non-stop stream of riff-raff – Prince Andrew and Prince Edward and Peter Phillips and Princess Beatrice and the rest of them, down, down, down, until by the time of your death you have plummeted to number eleven, behind Zara Phillips, later to become Zara Tindall, mother of Mia Tindall, who, if you were still alive, would herself be one ahead of you, even when she was still in nappies. Not many women have to face the fact that their careers peaked at the age of six, or to live with the prospect of losing their place in the pecking order to a succession of newborn babies, and to face demotion every few years thereafter. Small wonder, then, if Princess Margaret felt short-changed by life.

Her life was defined by deficit.

She remained conscious of her image as the one who wasn’t, and to some extent played on it: the one who wasn’t the Queen; the one who wasn’t taught constitutional history because she wasn’t the one who’d be needing it; the one who wasn’t in the first coach, and wouldn’t ever be first onto the Buckingham Palace balcony; the one who wasn’t given the important duties, but was obliged to make do with the also-rans: the naming of the more out-of-the-way council building, school, hospital or regiment, the state visit to the duller country, the patronage of the more obscure charity, the glad-handing of the smaller fry – the deputies, the vices, the second-in-commands. Her most devoted friends praised her stoicism for assuming the role of lightning rod. ‘For nearly five decades,’ said Reinaldo Herrera, ‘she bore with great dignity the criticism and envy that people dared not show the Queen.’

But sympathy for her situation is hard to sustain for very long, when she spends so much of her time putting other people down.

Her antennae for transgressions were unusually sensitive, quivering into action at the slightest opportunity. ‘I detested Queen Mary,’ she told Gore Vidal. ‘She was rude to all of us except Lilibet, who was going to be Queen. Of course, she had an inferiority complex. We were Royal, and she was not.’ Unlike her, Queen Mary had been born a Serene Highness, not a Royal Highness. The difference, invisible to most, was monumental to Princess Margaret, who treasured the definite article in Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret. Lacking that ‘the’, her grandmother was in some sense below the salt.

Far more than her sister, she was given to pulling rank. She once reminded her children that she was royal and they were not, and their father was most certainly not. ‘I am unique,’ she would sometimes pipe up at dinner parties. ‘I am the daughter of a King and the sister of a Queen.’ It was no ice-breaker.

Margaret had been born to the King-Emperor at a time when the map of the world was still largely pink. Her sense of entitlement, never modest, grew bigger and bigger with each passing year, gathering weight and speed as the British Empire grew smaller and smaller, and her role in it smaller still.

As a result, she played her role as an awkward mix of princess and bohemian, leaving those around her on edge about whether she was going to go high or go low.

She was of royalty, yet divorced from it; royalty set at an oblique angle, royalty through the looking glass, royalty as pastiche.

She was cabaret camp, Ma’am Ca’amp: she was Noël Coward, cigarette holders, blusher, Jean Cocteau, winking, sighing, dark glasses, Bet Lynch, charades, Watteau, colourful cocktails at midday, ballet, silk, hoity-toity, dismissive overstatement, arriving late, entering with a flourish, exiting with a flounce, pausing for effect, making a scene.

It is languid, bored, world-weary, detached, bored, fidgety, demanding, entitled, disgruntled, bored. It carries the seeds of its own sadness and scatters them around like confetti. It looks in the mirror for protracted periods of time, but avoids exchanging glances with itself. It is disappointment hiding behind the shield of hauteur, keeping pity at bay. ‘I have never known an unhappier woman,’ says John Julius.

Read the book.  You’ll have a hard time putting it down.

Posted in Democracy, Higher Education, Meritocracy, Politics

Jennifer Senior: 95 Percent of Representatives Have a Degree. Look Where That’s Got Us.

This post is a piece by New York Times columnist Jennifer Senior, which was published on December 21.  Here’s a link to the original.

It builds on the argument that Michael Sandel made in The Tyranny of Merit and nicely illuminates some of the issues I’ve been raising in this blog about the problems of meritocracy, the dysfunctions of credentialism, and the political consequences of both.  Past pieces here on the subject are legion, including this, this, this, this, this, and this.  

What I like in particular about her take on the subject is the way she weaves together issues of power, fairness, respect, and community — all of which are pushed in a perilous direction by the new American meritocracy.  And she brings the analysis together by focusing on the effect of college degrees on governing. 

Consider this, that “95 percent of today’s House members have a bachelor’s degree, as does every member of the Senate. Yet just a bit more than one-third of Americans do.”  Does this make us better governed?  Really?

Five years ago, Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke, tried to measure whether more formal education made political leaders better at their jobs. After conducting a sweeping review of 228 countries between the years 1875 and 2004, he and his colleague Noam Lupu concluded: No. It did not. A college education did not mean less inequality, a greater G.D.P., fewer labor strikes, lower unemployment or less military conflict.

I don’t think we needed a study to tell us this, after watching our own government’s dysfunction over the past several decades. 

Then add to this two other facts:  the Democrats have become the party for the college-educated; and most Democrats in congress went to private colleges while most Republicans went to public colleges.  Is educational exclusivity now the brand for the Democratic party?

I hope you find this analysis as interesting as I did.

All these credentials haven’t led to better results.

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

Over the last few decades, Congress has diversified in important ways. It has gotten less white, less male, less straight — all positive developments. But as I was staring at one of the many recent Senate hearings, filled with the usual magisterial blustering and self-important yada yada, it dawned on me that there’s a way that Congress has moved in a wrong direction, and become quite brazenly unrepresentative.

No, it’s not that the place seethes with millionaires, though there’s that problem too.

It’s that members of Congress are credentialed out the wazoo. An astonishing number have a small kite of extra initials fluttering after their names.

According to the Congressional Research Service, more than one third of the House and more than half the Senate have law degrees. Roughly a fifth of senators and representatives have their master’s. Four senators and 21 House members have MDs, and an identical number in each body (four, twenty-one) have some kind of doctoral degree, whether it’s a Ph.D., a D.Phil., an Ed.D., or a D. Min.

But perhaps most fundamentally, 95 percent of today’s House members have a bachelor’s degree, as does every member of the Senate. Yet just a bit more than one-third of Americans do.

“This means that the credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many,” writes the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel in “The Tyranny of Merit,” published this fall.

There’s an argument to be made that we should want our representatives to be a highly lettered lot. Lots of people have made it, as far back as Plato.

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between good governance and educational attainment that Sandel can discern. In the 1960s, he noted, we got the Vietnam War thanks to “the best and the brightest” — it’s been so long since the publication of David Halberstam’s book that people forget the title was morbidly ironic. In the 1990s and 2000s, the highly credentialed gave us (and here Sandel paused for a deep breath) “stagnant wages, financial deregulation, income inequality, the financial crisis of 2008, a bank bailout that did little to help ordinary people, a decaying infrastructure, and the highest incarceration rate in the world.”

Five years ago, Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke, tried to measure whether more formal education made political leaders better at their jobs. After conducting a sweeping review of 228 countries between the years 1875 and 2004, he and his colleague Noam Lupu concluded: No. It did not. A college education did not mean less inequality, a greater G.D.P., fewer labor strikes, lower unemployment or less military conflict.

Sandel argues that the technocratic elite’s slow annexation of Congress and European parliaments — which resulted in the rather fateful decisions to outsource jobs and deregulate finance — helped enable the populist revolts now rippling through the West. “It distorted our priorities,” Sandel told me, “and made for a political class that’s too tolerant of crony capitalism and much less attentive to fundamental questions of the dignity of work.”

Both parties are to blame for this. But it was Democrats, Sandel wrote, who seemed especially bullish on the virtues of the meritocracy, arguing that college would be the road to prosperity for the struggling. And it’s a fine idea, well-intentioned, idealistic at its core. But implicit in it is also a punishing notion: If you don’t succeed, you have only yourself to blame. Which President Trump spotted in a trice.

“Unlike Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who spoke constantly of ‘opportunity’” Sandel wrote, “Trump scarcely mentioned the word. Instead, he offered blunt talk of winners and losers.”

Trump was equally blunt after winning the Nevada Republican caucuses in 2016. “I love the poorly educated!” he shouted.

A pair of studies from 2019 also tell the story, in numbers, of the professionalization of the Democratic Party — or what Sandel calls “the valorization of credentialism.” One, from Politico, shows that House and Senate Democrats are much more likely to have gone to private liberal arts colleges than public universities, whereas the reverse is true of their Republican counterparts; another shows that congressional Democrats are far more likely to hire graduates of Ivy League schools.

This class bias made whites without college degrees ripe for Republican recruitment. In both 2016 and 2020, two thirds of them voted for Trump; though the G.O.P. is the minority party in the House, more Republican members than Democrats currently do not have college degrees. All 11 are male. Most of them come from the deindustrialized Midwest and South.

Oh, and in the incoming Congress? Six of the seven new members without four-year college degrees are Republicans.

Of course, far darker forces help explain the lures of the modern G.O.P. You’d have to be blind and deaf not to detect them. For decades, Republicans have appealed both cynically and in earnest — it’s hard to know which is more appalling — to racial and ethnic resentments, if not hatred. There’s a reason that the Black working class isn’t defecting to the Republican Party in droves. (Of the nine Democrats in the House without college degrees, seven, it’s worth noting, are people of color.)

For now, it seems to matter little that Republicans have offered little by way of policy to restore the dignity of work. They’ve tapped into a gusher of resentment, and they seem delighted to channel it, irrespective of where, or if, they got their diplomas. Ted Cruz, quite arguably the Senate’s most insolent snob — he wouldn’t sit in a study group at Harvard Law with anyone who hadn’t graduated from Princeton, Yale or Harvard — was ready to argue on Trump’s behalf to overturn the 2020 election results, should the disgraceful Texas attorney general’s case have reached the Supreme Court.

Which raises a provocative question. Given that Trumpism has found purchase among graduates of Harvard Law, would it make any difference if Congress better reflected the United States and had more members without college degrees? Would it meaningfully alter policy at all?

It would likely depend on where they came from. I keep thinking of what Rep. Al Green, Democrat of Texas, told me. His father was a mechanic’s assistant in the segregated South. The white men he worked for cruelly called him “The Secretary” because he could neither read nor write. “So if my father had been elected? You’d have a different Congress,” Green said. “But if it’d been the people who he served — the mechanics who gave him a pejorative moniker? We’d probably have the Congress we have now.”

It’s hard to say whether more socioeconomic diversity would guarantee differences in policy or efficiency. But it could do something more subtle: Rebuild public trust.

“There are people who look at Congress and see the political class as a closed system,” Carnes told me. “My guess is that if Congress looked more like people do as a whole, the cynical view — Oh, they’re all in their ivory tower, they don’t care about us — would get less oxygen.”

When I spoke to Representative Troy Balderson, a Republican from Ohio, he agreed, adding that if more members of Congress didn’t have four-year college degrees, it would erode some stigma associated with not having one.

“When I talk to high school kids and say, ‘I didn’t finish my degree,’ their faces light up,” he told me. Balderson tried college and loved it, but knew he wasn’t cut out for it. He eventually moved back to his hometown to run his family car dealership. Students tend to find his story emboldening. The mere mention of four-year college sets off panic in many of them; they’ve been stereotyped before they even grow up, out of the game before it even starts. “If you don’t have a college degree,” he explains, “you’re a has-been.” Then they look at him and see larger possibilities. That they can be someone’s voice. “You can become a member of Congress.”

Jennifer Senior has been an Op-Ed columnist since September 2018. She had been a daily book critic for The Times; before that, she spent many years as a staff writer for New York magazine. Her best-selling book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” has been translated into 12 languages. @JenSeniorNY

Posted in History, Meritocracy, Politics, Populism

Graeme Wood — The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse

This post is a piece by Graeme Wood from the December Atlantic.  Here’s a link to the original.  

It’s a profile of Peter Turchin, a population ecologist who decided to turn his skills in mathematical modeling toward big history — looking for patterns across long expanses of time that help explain the rise and fall of civilizations.  His prognosis for our own is not very promising.  He sees rising prospects for civil unrest.

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of “megahistories,” such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari.

I’m a fan of megahistories, by people like Diamond and Harari and historians like Walter Scheidel and Ian Morris, whom I’ve discussed here.  I’m particularly intrigued by his analysis of the overproduction of elites, which resonates with the critiques of meritocracy that I’ve explored in this blog (e.g., here, here, and here.)

Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction”—­the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites over­produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

When you’re reading the following passage, I dare you not to think about Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.

Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.

See what you think about his take on things.

Turchin Illustration

The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse

A historian believes he has discovered iron laws that predict the rise and fall of societies. He has bad news.

Graeme Wood

Peter Turchin, one of the world’s experts on pine beetles and possibly also on human beings, met me reluctantly this summer on the campus of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where he teaches. Like many people during the pandemic, he preferred to limit his human contact. He also doubted whether human contact would have much value anyway, when his mathematical models could already tell me everything I needed to know.

But he had to leave his office sometime. (“One way you know I am Russian is that I cannot think sitting down,” he told me. “I have to go for a walk.”) Neither of us had seen much of anyone since the pandemic had closed the country several months before. The campus was quiet. “A week ago, it was even more like a neutron bomb hit,” Turchin said. Animals were timidly reclaiming the campus, he said: squirrels, woodchucks, deer, even an occasional red-tailed hawk. During our walk, groundskeepers and a few kids on skateboards were the only other representatives of the human population in sight.

The year 2020 has been kind to Turchin, for many of the same reasons it has been hell for the rest of us. Cities on fire, elected leaders endorsing violence, homicides surging—­­to a normal American, these are apocalyptic signs. To Turchin, they indicate that his models, which incorporate thousands of years of data about human history, are working. (“Not all of human history,” he corrected me once. “Just the last 10,000 years.”) He has been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an “age of discord,” civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced. In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of “megahistories,” such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat had once found Turchin’s historical model­ing unpersuasive, but 2020 made him a believer: “At this point,” Douthat recently admitted on a podcast, “I feel like you have to pay a little more attention to him.”

Diamond and Harari aimed to describe the history of humanity. Turchin looks into a distant, science-fiction future for peers. In War and Peace and War (2006), his most accessible book, he likens himself to Hari Seldon, the “maverick mathematician” of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who can foretell the rise and fall of empires. In those 10,000 years’ worth of data, Turchin believes he has found iron laws that dictate the fates of human societies.

The fate of our own society, he says, is not going to be pretty, at least in the near term. “It’s too late,” he told me as we passed Mirror Lake, which UConn’s website describes as a favorite place for students to “read, relax, or ride on the wooden swing.” The problems are deep and structural—not the type that the tedious process of demo­cratic change can fix in time to forestall mayhem. Turchin likens America to a huge ship headed directly for an iceberg: “If you have a discussion among the crew about which way to turn, you will not turn in time, and you hit the iceberg directly.” The past 10 years or so have been discussion. That sickening crunch you now hear—steel twisting, rivets popping—­­is the sound of the ship hitting the iceberg.

“We are almost guaranteed” five hellish years, Turchin predicts, and likely a decade or more. The problem, he says, is that there are too many people like me. “You are ruling class,” he said, with no more rancor than if he had informed me that I had brown hair, or a slightly newer iPhone than his. Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction”—­the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites over­produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

In the United States, Turchin told me, you can see more and more aspirants fighting for a single job at, say, a prestigious law firm, or in an influential government sinecure, or (here it got personal) at a national magazine. Perhaps seeing the holes in my T-shirt, Turchin noted that a person can be part of an ideological elite rather than an economic one. (He doesn’t view himself as a member of either. A professor reaches at most a few hundred students, he told me. “You reach hundreds of thousands.”) Elite jobs do not multiply as fast as elites do. There are still only 100 Senate seats, but more people than ever have enough money or degrees to think they should be running the country. “You have a situation now where there are many more elites fighting for the same position, and some portion of them will convert to counter-elites,” Turchin said.

Donald Trump, for example, may appear elite (rich father, Wharton degree, gilded commodes), but Trumpism is a counter-elite movement. His government is packed with credentialed nobodies who were shut out of previous administrations, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes because the Groton-­Yale establishment simply didn’t have any vacancies. Trump’s former adviser and chief strategist Steve Bannon, Turchin said, is a “paradigmatic example” of a counter-elite. He grew up working-class, went to Harvard Business School, and got rich as an investment banker and by owning a small stake in the syndication rights to Seinfeld. None of that translated to political power until he allied himself with the common people. “He was a counter-elite who used Trump to break through, to put the white working males back in charge,” Turchin said.

Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.

Turchin’s prognostications would be easier to dismiss as barstool theorizing if the disintegration were not happening now, roughly as the Seer of Storrs foretold 10 years ago. If the next 10 years are as seismic as he says they will be, his insights will have to be accounted for by historians and social scientists—assuming, of course, that there are still universities left to employ such people.

Turchin was born in 1957 in Obninsk, Russia, a city built by the Soviet state as a kind of nerd heaven, where scientists could collaborate and live together. His father, Valen­tin, was a physicist and political dissident, and his mother, Tatiana, had trained as a geologist. They moved to Moscow when he was 7 and in 1978 fled to New York as political refugees. There they quickly found a community that spoke the household language, which was science. Valen­tin taught at the City University of New York, and Peter studied biology at NYU and earned a zoology doctorate from Duke.

Turchin wrote a dissertation on the Mexican bean beetle, a cute, ladybug­like pest that feasts on legumes in areas between the United States and Guatemala. When Turchin began his research, in the early 1980s, ecology was evolving in a way that some fields already had. The old way to study bugs was to collect them and describe them: count their legs, measure their bellies, and pin them to pieces of particle­board for future reference. (Go to the Natural History Museum in London, and in the old storerooms you can still see the shelves of bell jars and cases of specimens.) In the ’70s, the Australian physicist Robert May had turned his attention to ecology and helped transform it into a mathematical science whose tools included supercomputers along with butterfly nets and bottle traps. Yet in the early days of his career, Turchin told me, “the majority of ecologists were still quite math-phobic.”

Turchin did, in fact, do fieldwork, but he contributed to ecology primarily by collecting and using data to model the dynamics of populations—for example, determining why a pine-beetle population might take over a forest, or why that same population might decline. (He also worked on moths, voles, and lemmings.)

In the late ’90s, disaster struck: Turchin realized that he knew everything he ever wanted to know about beetles. He compares himself to Thomasina Coverly, the girl genius in the Tom Stoppard play Arcadia, who obsessed about the life cycles of grouse and other creatures around her Derbyshire country house. Stoppard’s character had the disadvantage of living a century and a half before the development of chaos theory. “She gave up because it was just too complicated,” Turchin said. “I gave up because I solved the problem.”

Turchin published one final monograph, Complex Population Dynamics: A Theoretical / Empirical Synthesis (2003), then broke the news to his UConn colleagues that he would be saying a permanent sayonara to the field, although he would continue to draw a salary as a tenured professor in their department. (He no longer gets raises, but he told me he was already “at a comfortable level, and, you know, you don’t need so much money.”) “Usually a midlife crisis means you divorce your old wife and marry a graduate student,” Turchin said. “I divorced an old science and married a new one.”

One of his last papers appeared in the journal Oikos. “Does population ecology have general laws?” Turchin asked. Most ecologists said no: Populations have their own dynamics, and each situation is different. Pine beetles reproduce, run amok, and ravage a forest for pine-beetle reasons, but that does not mean mosquito or tick populations will rise and fall according to the same rhythms. Turchin suggested that “there are several very general law-like propositions” that could be applied to ecology. After its long adolescence of collecting and cataloging, ecology had enough data to describe these universal laws—and to stop pretending that every species had its own idiosyncrasies. “Ecologists know these laws and should call them laws,” he said. Turchin proposed, for example, that populations of organisms grow or decline exponentially, not linearly. This is why if you buy two guinea pigs, you will soon have not just a few more guinea pigs but a home—and then a neighborhood—full of the damn things (as long as you keep feeding them). This law is simple enough to be understood by a high-school math student, and it describes the fortunes of everything from ticks to starlings to camels. The laws Turchin applied to ecology—and his insistence on calling them laws—­generated respectful controversy at the time. Now they are cited in textbooks.

Having left ecology, Turchin began similar research that attempted to formulate general laws for a different animal species: human beings. He’d long had a hobby­ist’s interest in history. But he also had a predator’s instinct to survey the savanna of human knowledge and pounce on the weakest prey. “All sciences go through this transition to mathematization,” Turchin told me. “When I had my midlife crisis, I was looking for a subject where I could help with this transition to a mathematized science. There was only one left, and that was history.”

Historians read books, letters, and other texts. Occasionally, if they are archaeologically inclined, they dig up potsherds and coins. But to Turchin, relying solely on these methods was the equivalent of studying bugs by pinning them to particleboard and counting their antennae. If the historians weren’t going to usher in a mathematical revolution themselves, he would storm their departments and do it for them.

“There is a longstanding debate among scientists and philosophers as to whether history has general laws,” he and a co-author wrote in Secular Cycles (2009). “A basic premise of our study is that historical societies can be studied with the same methods physicists and biologists used to study natural systems.” Turchin founded a journal, Cliodynamics, dedicated to “the search for general principles explaining the functioning and dynamics of historical societies.” (The term is his coinage; Clio is the muse of history.) He had already announced the discipline’s arrival in an article in Nature, where he likened historians reluctant to build general principles to his colleagues in biology “who care most for the private life of warblers.” “Let history continue to focus on the particular,” he wrote. Cliodynamics would be a new science. While historians dusted bell jars in the basement of the university, Turchin and his followers would be upstairs, answering the big questions.

To seed the journal’s research, Turchin masterminded a digital archive of historical and archaeological data. The coding of its records requires finesse, he told me, because (for example) the method of determining the size of the elite-aspirant class of medieval France might differ from the measure of the same class in the present-day United States. (For medieval France, a proxy is the membership in its noble class, which became glutted with second and third sons who had no castles or manors to rule over. One American proxy, Turchin says, is the number of lawyers.) But once the data are entered, after vetting by Turchin and specialists in the historical period under review, they offer quick and powerful suggestions about historical phenomena.

Historians of religion have long pondered the relationship between the rise of complex civilization and the belief in gods—especially “moralizing gods,” the kind who scold you for sinning. Last year, Turchin and a dozen co-authors mined the database (“records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality”) to answer the question conclusively. They found that complex societies are more likely to have moralizing gods, but the gods tend to start their scolding after the societies get complex, not before. As the database expands, it will attempt to remove more questions from the realm of humanistic speculation and sock them away in a drawer marked answered.

One of Turchin’s most unwelcome conclusions is that complex societies arise through war. The effect of war is to reward communities that organize themselves to fight and survive, and it tends to wipe out ones that are simple and small-scale. “No one wants to accept that we live in the societies we do”—rich, complex ones with universities and museums and philosophy and art—“because of an ugly thing like war,” he said. But the data are clear: Darwinian processes select for complex socie­ties because they kill off simpler ones. The notion that democracy finds its strength in its essential goodness and moral improvement over its rival systems is likewise fanciful. Instead, democratic societies flourish because they have a memory of being nearly obliterated by an external enemy. They avoided extinction only through collective action, and the memory of that collective action makes democratic politics easier to conduct in the present, Turchin said. “There is a very close correlation between adopting democratic institutions and having to fight a war for survival.”

Also unwelcome: the conclusion that civil unrest might soon be upon us, and might reach the point of shattering the country. In 2012, Turchin published an analysis of political violence in the United States, again starting with a database. He classified 1,590 incidents—riots, lynchings, any political event that killed at least one person—from 1780 to 2010. Some periods were placid and others bloody, with peaks of brutality in 1870, 1920, and 1970, a 50-year cycle. Turchin excludes the ultimate violent incident, the Civil War, as a “sui generis event.” The exclusion may seem suspicious, but to a statistician, “trimming outliers” is standard practice. Historians and journalists, by contrast, tend to focus on outliers—­because they are interesting—and sometimes miss grander trends.

Certain aspects of this cyclical view require relearning portions of American history, with special attention paid to the numbers of elites. The industrialization of the North, starting in the mid-19th century, Turchin says, made huge numbers of people rich. The elite herd was culled during the Civil War, which killed off or impoverished the southern slaveholding class, and during Reconstruction, when America experienced a wave of assassinations of Republican politicians. (The most famous of these was the assassination of James A. Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, by a lawyer who had demanded but not received a political appointment.) It wasn’t until the Progressive reforms of the 1920s, and later the New Deal, that elite overproduction actually slowed, at least for a time.

This oscillation between violence and peace, with elite over­production as the first horseman of the recurring American apocalypse, inspired Turchin’s 2020 prediction. In 2010, when Nature surveyed scientists about their predictions for the coming decade, most took the survey as an invitation to self-promote and rhapsodize, dreamily, about coming advances in their fields. Turchin retorted with his prophecy of doom and said that nothing short of fundamental change would stop another violent turn.

Turchin’s prescriptions are, as a whole, vague and unclassifiable. Some sound like ideas that might have come from Senator Elizabeth Warren—tax the elites until there are fewer of them—while others, such as a call to reduce immigration to keep wages high for American workers, resemble Trumpian protectionism. Other policies are simply heretical. He opposes credential-­oriented higher education, for example, which he says is a way of mass-producing elites without also mass-­producing elite jobs for them to occupy. Architects of such polices, he told me, are “creating surplus elites, and some become counter-elites.” A smarter approach would be to keep the elite numbers small, and the real wages of the general population on a constant rise.

How to do that? Turchin says he doesn’t really know, and it isn’t his job to know. “I don’t really think in terms of specific policy,” he told me. “We need to stop the runaway process of elite overproduction, but I don’t know what will work to do that, and nobody else does. Do you increase taxation? Raise the minimum wage? Universal basic income?” He conceded that each of these possibilities would have unpredictable effects. He recalled a story he’d heard back when he was still an ecologist: The Forest Service had once implemented a plan to reduce the population of bark beetles with pesticide—only to find that the pesticide killed off the beetles’ predators even more effectively than it killed the beetles. The intervention resulted in more beetles than before. The lesson, he said, was to practice “adaptive management,” changing and modulating your approach as you go.

Eventually, Turchin hopes, our understanding of historical dynamics will mature to the point that no government will make policy without reflecting on whether it is hurtling toward a mathematically pre­ordained disaster. He says he could imagine an Asimovian agency that keeps tabs on leading indicators and advises accordingly. It would be like the Federal Reserve, but instead of monitoring inflation and controlling monetary supply, it would be tasked with averting total civilizational collapse.

Historians have not, as a whole, accepted Turchin’s terms of surrender graciously. Since at least the 19th century, the discipline has embraced the idea that history is irreducibly complex, and by now most historians believe that the diversity of human activity will foil any attempt to come up with general laws, especially predictive ones. (As Jo Guldi, a historian at Southern Methodist University, put it to me, “Some historians regard Turchin the way astronomers regard Nostradamus.”) Instead, each historical event must be lovingly described, and its idiosyncrasies understood to be limited in relevance to other events. The idea that one thing causes another, and that the causal pattern can tell you about sequences of events in another place or century, is foreign territory.

One might even say that what defines history as a humanistic enterprise is the belief that it is not governed by scientific laws—that the working parts of human societies are not like billiard balls, which, if arranged at certain angles and struck with a certain amount of force, will invariably crack just so and roll toward a corner pocket of war, or a side pocket of peace. Turchin counters that he has heard claims of irreducible complexity before, and that steady application of the scientific method has succeeded in managing that complexity. Consider, he says, the concept of temperature—­something so obviously quantifiable now that we laugh at the idea that it’s too vague to measure. “Back before people knew what temperature was, the best thing you could do is to say you’re hot or cold,” Turchin told me. The concept depended on many factors: wind, humidity, ordinary human differences in perception. Now we have thermometers. Turchin wants to invent a thermometer for human societies that will measure when they are likely to boil over into war.

One social scientist who can speak to Turchin in his own mathematical argot is Dingxin Zhao, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago who is—incredibly—­also a former mathematical ecologist. (He earned a doctorate modeling carrot-weevil population dynamics before earning a second doctorate in Chinese political sociology.) “I came from a natural-science background,” Zhao told me, “and in a way I am sympathetic to Turchin. If you come to social science from natural sciences, you have a powerful way of looking at the world. But you may also make big mistakes.”

Zhao said that human beings are just much more complicated than bugs. “Biological species don’t strategize in a very flexible way,” he told me. After millennia of evolutionary R&D, a woodpecker will come up with ingenious ways to stick its beak into a tree in search of food. It might even have social characteristics—an alpha woodpecker might strong-wing beta woodpeckers into giving it first dibs on the tastiest termites. But humans are much wilier social creatures, Zhao said. A woodpecker will eat a termite, but it “will not explain that he is doing so because it is his divine right.” Humans pull ideological power moves like this all the time, Zhao said, and to understand “the decisions of a Donald Trump, or a Xi Jinping,” a natural scientist has to incorporate the myriad complexities of human strategy, emotion, and belief. “I made that change,” Zhao told me, “and Peter Turchin has not.”

Turchin is nonetheless filling a historiographical niche left empty by academic historians with allergies not just to science but to a wide-angle view of the past. He places himself in a Russian tradition prone to thinking sweeping, Tolstoyan thoughts about the path of history. By comparison, American historians mostly look like micro-historians. Few would dare to write a history of the United States, let alone one of human civilization. Turchin’s approach is also Russian, or post-Soviet, in its rejection of the Marxist theory of historical progress that had been the official ideology of the Soviet state. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, so too did the requirement that historical writing acknowledge international communism as the condition toward which the arc of history was bending. Turchin dropped ideology altogether, he says: Rather than bending toward progress, the arc in his view bends all the way back on itself, in a never-­ending loop of boom and bust. This puts him at odds with American historians, many of whom harbor an unspoken faith that liberal democracy is the end state of all history.

Writing history in this sweeping, cyclical way is easier if you are trained outside the field. “If you look at who is doing these megahistories, more often than not, it’s not actual historians,” Walter Scheidel, an actual historian at Stanford, told me. (Scheidel, whose books span millennia, takes Turchin’s work seriously and has even co-written a paper with him.) Instead they come from scientific fields where these taboos do not dominate. The genre’s most famous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), beheld 13,000 years of human history in a single volume. Its author, Jared Diamond, spent the first half of his career as one of the world’s foremost experts on the physiology of the gall­bladder. Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist who studies how children acquire parts of speech, has written a megahistory about the decline of violence across thousands of years, and about human flourishing since the Enlightenment. Most historians I asked about these men—and for some reason megahistory is nearly always a male pursuit—used terms like laughingstock and patently tendentious to describe them.

Pinker retorts that historians are resentful of the attention “disciplinary carpet­baggers” like himself have received for applying scientific methods to the humanities and coming up with conclusions that had eluded the old methods. He is skeptical of Turchin’s claims about historical cycles, but he believes in data-driven historical inquiry. “Given the noisiness of human behavior and the prevalence of cognitive biases, it’s easy to delude oneself about a historical period or trend by picking whichever event suits one’s narrative,” he says. The only answer is to use large data sets. Pinker thanks traditional historians for their work collating these data sets; he told me in an email that they “deserve extraordinary admiration for their original research (‘brushing the mouse shit off moldy court records in the basement of town halls,’ as one historian put it to me).” He calls not for surrender but for a truce. “There’s no reason that traditional history and data science can’t merge into a cooperative enterprise,” Pinker wrote. “Knowing stuff is hard; we need to use every available tool.”

Guldi, the Southern Methodist University professor, is one scholar who has embraced tools previously scorned by historians. She is a pioneer of data-driven history that considers timescales beyond a human lifetime. Her primary technique is the mining of texts—for example, sifting through the millions and millions of words captured in parliamentary debate in order to understand the history of land use in the final century of the British empire. Guldi may seem a potential recruit to cliodynamics, but her approach to data sets is grounded in the traditional methods of the humanities. She counts the frequency of words, rather than trying to find ways to compare big, fuzzy categories among civilizations. Turchin’s conclusions are only as good as his databases, she told me, and any database that tries to code something as complex as who constitutes a society’s elites—then tries to make like-to-like comparisons across millennia and oceans—will meet with skepticism from traditional historians, who deny that the subject to which they have devoted their lives can be expressed in Excel format. Turchin’s data are also limited to big-­picture characteristics observed over 10,000 years, or about 200 lifetimes. By scientific standards, a sample size of 200 is small, even if it is all humanity has.

Yet 200 lifetimes is at least more ambitious than the average historical purview of only one. And the reward for that ambition—­­in addition to the bragging rights for having potentially explained everything that has ever happened to human beings—includes something every writer wants: an audience. Thinking small rarely gets you quoted in The New York Times. Turchin has not yet attracted the mass audiences of a Diamond, Pinker, or Harari. But he has lured connoisseurs of political catastrophe, journalists and pundits looking for big answers to pressing questions, and true believers in the power of science to conquer uncertainty and improve the world. He has certainly outsold most beetle experts.

If he is right, it is hard to see how history will avoid assimilating his insights—if it can avoid being abolished by them. Privately, some historians have told me they consider the tools he uses powerful, if a little crude. Clio­dynamics is now on a long list of methods that arrived on the scene promising to revolutionize history. Many were fads, but some survived that stage to take their rightful place in an expanding historiographical tool kit. Turchin’s methods have already shown their power. Cliodynamics offers scientific hypotheses, and human history will give us more and more opportunities to check its predictions—­revealing whether Peter Turchin is a Hari Seldon or a mere Nostradamus. For my own sake, there are few thinkers whom I am more eager to see proved wrong.

This article appears in the December 2020 print edition with the headline “The Historian Who Sees the Future.” It was first published online on November 12, 2020.

GRAEME WOOD is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

Posted in Culture, Meritocracy, Politics, Wokeness

Harris — The Key to Trump’s Appeal

This post is a transcription of a piece by Sam Harris, published in his podcast Making Sense on the day before the election.  It’s the most stunning analysis I have seen about the key to Trump’s appeal. 

I’ve seen some good things about the way he has tapped into the resentments of middle and working class Americans, who feel left behind by the coastal meritocracy.  See my post about Arlie Hochschild’s wonderful book, Strangers in Their Own Land and my post on Michael Sandel’s book, Tyranny of Merit.  So on these issues, I can see how he would look attractive compared to a meritocrat like Hillary Clinton.  But that still doesn’t explain how people could put up with someone whose character is so obviously appalling.

What Harris does here is show that his appalling character is in fact central to his appeal.  For people who feel disrespected by the meritocracy, it’s attractive to have a leader who is himself so unrespectable.  He’s one person who will not and cannot look down on you, because he’s as low as it goes.  Here’s the core of Harris’s argument:

One thing that Trump never communicates and cannot possibly communicate is a sense of his moral superiority. The man is totally without sanctimony. Even when his every utterance is purposed towards self-aggrandizement, even when he appears to be denigrating his supporters, even when he’s calling himself a genius, he is never actually communicating that he is better than you, more enlightened, more decent, because he’s not, and everyone knows it. The man is just a bundle of sin and gore and he never pretends to be anything more.

Perhaps more importantly, he never even aspires to be anything more. And because of this, because he has never really judging you, he can’t possibly judge you. He offers a truly safe space for human frailty and hypocrisy and self-doubt. He offers what no priest can credibly offer, a total expiation of shame. His personal shamelessness is a kind of spiritual balm. 

Compare this to the sanctimony that is coming from the other side of the culture wars, where the woke are wagging their fingers at the deplorables and denouncing them as irretrievably racist, sexist, and colonialist.  People who are the target of a lot of “bad dog” sermons from the cultural left may find it comforting to have a bad dog president who aspires to be nothing more. 

I hope you find this analysis as enlightening as I do.

Trump

The Key to Trump’s Appeal

Sam Harris

Welcome to the Making Sense podcast. This is Sam Harris. Okay. Well, it is the day before the presidential election. And I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to understand this, but you be the judge as to whether this should have been at all hard to understand. As all of you know, I’ve been struggling for years to understand how it is possible that nearly half of American society admires or at least supports Donald Trump.

I’ve spoken with Trump voters in search of illumination, but illumination never came. For instance, I had Scott Adams on my podcast to explain this to me. And he described Trump as a master persuader, perhaps the best he’s ever seen. But the problem for me is that I find Trump to be among the least persuasive people I have ever come across. Whenever I see him speak, I see an obvious con man and ignoramus. In fact, Trump seems to be so unaware of how people like me judge a person’s credibility that his efforts to appear credible, such as they are, always make him look ridiculous and even deranged. So the claim that he’s a brilliant persuader makes about as much sense to me as a claim that he’s a model of physical fitness would, right? In my world, the claim can be disproven at a glance. And yet one thing is undeniable, right? Half the country views him very differently.

Now, until a few minutes ago, I had more or less reconciled myself to never understanding this. But I believe at this late hour on the very eve of the 2020 election, I have discovered a significant part of Trump’s appeal. In particular, I think I finally understand how he is supported because of his flaws, rather than in spite of them. That really is the key. How are all the things I find despicable in him not merely things that people are willing to overlook, but reasons in and of themselves why people support him? That’s what I didn’t understand until this moment.

Now, I have repeatedly described the man’s flaws on this podcast. To my eye, he lacks nearly every virtue for which we have a word:  wisdom, curiosity, compassion, generosity, discipline, courage. Whatever your list, he’s got none of these things, but his supporters know that. And he’s a paragon of greed and narcissism and pettiness and malice, real malice. This is a man who wears his hatreds on his sleeve and he will suddenly revile people who he claimed to admire only yesterday. While he demands loyalty from everyone around him, really above all else, he is an amazingly disloyal person.

All of this is right on the surface, so his appeal has been a total mystery to me, but I believe I have now solved that mystery. Again, I don’t know why it took me so long, because many of these thoughts have been in my head since the beginning. And I’ve certainly heard people describe some parts of this picture, but the whole image just fell into place. It’s like one of those magic eye illustrations where you’re staring at a random dot stereogram forever, and then finally the embedded 3D image just pops out. And this picture of Trump’s appeal is really best understood in comparison with the messaging of its opponents on the left. That’s how you can see it in stereo. That’s how the image finally pops out, so taking the Trump half of this picture.

One thing that Trump never communicates and cannot possibly communicate is a sense of his moral superiority. The man is totally without sanctimony. Even when his every utterance is purposed towards self-aggrandizement, even when he appears to be denigrating his supporters, even when he’s calling himself a genius, he is never actually communicating that he is better than you, more enlightened, more decent, because he’s not, and everyone knows it. The man is just a bundle of sin and gore and he never pretends to be anything more.

Perhaps more importantly, he never even aspires to be anything more. And because of this, because he has never really judging you, he can’t possibly judge you. He offers a truly safe space for human frailty and hypocrisy and self-doubt. He offers what no priest can credibly offer, a total expiation of shame. His personal shamelessness is a kind of spiritual balm. Trump is fat Jesus. He’s grab them by the pussy Jesus. He’s I’ll eat nothing but cheeseburgers if I want to Jesus. He’s I want to punch them in the face Jesus. He’s go back to your shithole countries Jesus. He’s no apologies Jesus.

And now consider the other half of this image. What are we getting from the left? We’re getting exactly the opposite message, pure sanctimony, pure judgment. You are not good enough. You’re guilty not only for your own sins, but for the sins of your fathers. The crimes of slavery and colonialism are on your head. And if you’re a cis white heterosexual male, which we know is the absolute core of Trump’s support, you’re a racist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, sexist barbarian. Tear down those statues and bend the fucking knee. It’s the juxtaposition of those two messages that is so powerful.

Now, I’m sure many of you have understood this before me, but for whatever reason, this image just became crystal clear. Needless to say, everything I’ve said about Trump previously still stands for me. I consider him to be terrifyingly unfit for office, and I consider most of his personal flaws to be public dangers. I think because of who he is as a person, he has harmed our politics and diminished our standing in the world to a degree that might take decades to repair. I sincerely hope we rid ourselves of him tomorrow, but I believe I now understand the half of the country that disagrees with me a little better than I did yesterday. And this makes me less confused and judgmental, less of an asshole probably, which is always progress.

Posted in Meritocracy, Populism, Welfare

Hochschild — Strangers in Their Own Land

This post is a reflection on a book by Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  In it she provides one of the most compelling and persuasive explanation for the turn toward right-wing populism in American politics and the peculiar appeal of Donald Trump.  As she puts it in her subtitle, this is “A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide.”

The book, published in 2016, is based on intensive interviews that she did in Louisiana with people on the populist right, long before Trump launched his campaign for president.  At the time, the political movement was the Tea Party, but her subjects ended up providing her an advance look at at the deep issues that led voters to support Trump.

There is no substitute for reading the book, which I strongly recommend.  But to whet your appetite, I provide some of the key points below and some of the most telling quotes.  You’ll find that a lot or her analysis aligns with the analysis by Michael Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit, which I commented on recently.

Hochschild Cover

Here’s the heart of what people were telling her:

You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored. And to feel honored you have to feel—and feel seen as—moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backward.

As Sandel noted, the meritocracy leaves the uncredentialed with no basis for public respect.  Without SATs and fancy degrees, it’s like you don’t count or you don’t even exist.  This used to be your country and there used to be honor in simply doing your job, going to church, obeying the law, and raising a family, but none of that seems to be true any more.  Respect only now seems to go to those who who are moving ahead in the new knowledge economy, but you and people around you seem to be barely holding your own or falling behind.  

How do you handle this situation?  Not by playing the victim card; that’s for a different kind of person.  “Like nearly everyone I spoke with, Donny was not one to think of himself as a victim. That was the language of the ‘poor me’s’ asking for government handouts. The very word ‘victim’ didn’t sit right.”  Instead, you take stoic stance, adopting one of three versions of what Hochschild calls the “endurance self.”

I was discovering three distinct expressions of this endurance self in different people around Lake Charles—the Team Loyalist, the Worshipper, and the Cowboy, as I came to see them. Each kind of person expresses the value of endurance and expresses a capacity for it. Each attaches an aspect of self to this heroism. The Team Loyalist accomplishes a team goal, supporting the Republican Party. The Worshipper sacrifices a strong wish. The Cowboy affirms a fearless self. 

Each identity involves holding on in spite of the sacrifices you have to make.  The Loyalist sticks by the Republican Party even though it keeps betraying you time and again, as is so often the case in Louisiana.  They allow companies to pollute your environment and skimp on their taxes, but they’re still all you’ve got.  

The Worshipper keeps the faith even though it means giving up something you really care about.

But sometimes you had to do without what you wanted. You couldn’t have both the oil industry and clean lakes, she thought, and if you had to choose, you had to choose oil. “Oil’s been pretty darned good to us,” she said. “I don’t want a smaller house. I don’t want to drive a smaller car.”

So you hang in there.  The Cowboy understands character as a willingness to take risks and live with the consequences.  You can make it on your own, without having to rely on welfare and special privileges.

To Donny, the Cowboy expressed high moral virtue. Equating creativity with daring—the stuff of great explorers, inventors, generals, winners—Donny honored the capacity to take risk and face fear. He could take hard knocks like a man. He could endure. 

The people she spoke with had a deep suspicion of the state.

“The state always seems to come down on the little guy,” he notes. “Take this bayou. If your motorboat leaks a little gas into the water, the warden’ll write you up. But if companies leak thousands of gallons of it and kill all the life here? The state lets them go. If you shoot an endangered brown pelican, they’ll put you in jail. But if a company kills the brown pelican by poisoning the fish he eats? They let it go. I think they overregulate the bottom because it’s harder to regulate the top.”

For liberals, this stance is hard to fathom, because for them the institutions of the state are the key guardians of the public square, which is central to their values.  And this space is now under threat.

…In the liberal deep story, an alarming event occurs; marauders invade the public square, recklessly dismantle it, and selfishly steal away bricks and concrete chunks from the public buildings at its center. Seeing insult added to injury, those guarding the public square watch helplessly as those who’ve dismantled it construct private McMansions with the same bricks and pieces of concrete, privatizing the public realm. That’s the gist of the liberal deep story, and the right can’t understand the deep pride liberals take in their creatively designed, hard-won public sphere as a powerful integrative force in American life. Ironically, you may have more in common with the left than you imagine, for many on the left feel like strangers in their own land too.

For right-wing populists, the federal government is the biggest threat.  For those in the West, the feds are the ones who seem to own all the land and regulate what you can do with it.  In the South, the resentments runs even deeper.

After the Civil War, the North replaced Southern state governments with its own hand-picked governors. The profit-seeking carpetbaggers came, it seemed to those I interviewed, as agents of the dominating North. Exploiters from the North, an angry, traumatized black population at home, and moral condemnation from all—this was the scene some described to me. When the 1960s began sending Freedom Riders and civil rights activists, pressing for new federal laws to dismantle Jim Crow, there they came again, it seemed, the moralizing North. And again, Obamacare, global warming, gun control, abortion rights—did these issues, too, fall into the emotional grooves of history? Does it feel like another strike from the North, from Washington, that has put the brown pelican ahead of the Tea Partier waiting in line?

And then there’s the last issue:  waiting in line.  Hochschild identifies a deep story that runs through all of the accounts she heard, and at the heart is a sense of resentment about being treated unfairly in the pursuit of the American Dream.  The dream is all about the possibilities for getting ahead, and this means an orderly process of status advancement in which people wait in line until it’s their turn.  The core problem is that suddenly they find other people cutting in front of them in line, and the federal government is helping them do it.

Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You’re following the rules. They aren’t. As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they? Some are black. Through affirmative action plans, pushed by the federal government, they are being given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches…. Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers—where will it end? Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with. These are opportunities you’d have loved to have had in your day—and either you should have had them when you were young or the young shouldn’t be getting them now. It’s not fair.

You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. So you have your guard up against requests for sympathy. People complain: Racism. Discrimination. Sexism. You’ve heard stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants, closeted gays, desperate refugees, but at some point, you say to yourself, you have to close the borders to human sympathy—especially if there are some among them who might bring you harm. You’ve suffered a good deal yourself, but you aren’t complaining about it.

Posted in Capitalism, Higher Education, Meritocracy, Politics

Sandel: The Tyranny of Merit

This post is a reflection on Michael Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?  He’s a philosopher at Harvard and this is his analysis of the dangers posed by the American meritocracy.  The issue is one I’ve been exploring here for the last two years in a variety of posts (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

I find Sandel’s analysis compelling, both in the ways it resonates with other takes on the subject and also in his distinctive contributions to the discussion.  My only complaint is that the whole discussion could have been carried out more effectively in a single magazine article.  The book tends to be repetitive, and it also gets into the weeds on some philosophical issues that blur its focus and undercut its impact.  Here I present what I think are the key points.  I hope you find it useful.

Sandel Cover

Both the good news and the bad news about meritocracy is its promise of opportunity for all based on individual merit rather than the luck of birth.  It’s hard to hate a principle that frees us from the tyranny of inheritance. 

The meritocratic ideal places great weight on the notion of personal responsibility. Holding people responsible for what they do is a good thing, up to a point. It respects their capacity to think and act for themselves, as moral agents and as citizens. But it is one thing to hold people responsible for acting morally; it is something else to assume that we are, each of us, wholly responsible for our lot in life.

The problem is that simply calling the new model of status attainment “achievement” rather than “ascription” doesn’t mean that your ability to get ahead is truly free of circumstances beyond your control.  

But the rhetoric of rising now rings hollow. In today’s economy, it is not easy to rise. Americans born to poor parents tend to stay poor as adults. Of those born in the bottom fifth of the income scale, only about one in twenty will make it to the top fifth; most will not even rise to the middle class. It is easier to rise from poverty in Canada or Germany, Denmark, and other European countries than it is in the United States.

The meritocratic faith argues that the social structure of inequality provides a powerful incentive for individuals to work hard to get ahead in order to escape from a bad situation and move on to something better.  The more inequality, such as in the US, the more incentive to move up.  The reality, however, is quite different.

But today, the countries with the highest mobility tend to be those with the greatest equality. The ability to rise, it seems, depends less on the spur of poverty than on access to education, health care, and other resources that equip people to succeed in the world of work.

Sandel goes on to point out additional problems with meritocracy beyond the difficulties in trying to get ahead all on your own: 1) demoralizing the losers in the race; 2) denigrating those without a college degree; and 3) turning politics into the realm of the expert rather than the citizen.

The tyranny of merit arises from more than the rhetoric of rising. It consists in a cluster of attitudes and circumstances that, taken together, have made meritocracy toxic. First, under conditions of rampant inequality and stalled mobility, reiterating the message that we are responsible for our fate and deserve what we get erodes solidarity and demoralizes those left behind by globalization. Second, insisting that a college degree is the primary route to a respectable job and a decent life creates a credentialist prejudice that undermines the dignity of work and demeans those who have not been to college; and third, insisting that social and political problems are best solved by highly educated, value-neutral experts is a technocratic conceit that corrupts democracy and disempowers ordinary citizens.

Consider the first point. Meritocracy fosters triumphalism for the winners and despair for the losers.  It you succeed or fail, you alone get the credit or the blame.  This was not the case in the bad old days of aristocrats and peasants.

If, in a feudal society, you were born into serfdom, your life would be hard, but you would not be burdened by the thought that you were responsible for your subordinate position. Nor would you labor under the belief that the landlord for whom you toiled had achieved his position by being more capable and resourceful than you. You would know he was not more deserving than you, only luckier.

If, by contrast, you found yourself on the bottom rung of a meritocratic society, it would be difficult to resist the thought that your disadvantage was at least partly your own doing, a reflection of your failure to display sufficient talent and ambition to get ahead. A society that enables people to rise, and that celebrates rising, pronounces a harsh verdict on those who fail to do so.

This triumphalist aspect of meritocracy is a kind of providentialism without God, at least without a God who intervenes in human affairs. The successful make it on their own, but their success attests to their virtue. This way of thinking heightens the moral stakes of economic competition. It sanctifies the winners and denigrates the losers.

One key issue that makes meritocracy potentially toxic is its assumption that we deserve the talents that earn us such great rewards.

There are two reasons to question this assumption. First, my having this or that talent is not my doing but a matter of good luck, and I do not merit or deserve the benefits (or burdens) that derive from luck. Meritocrats acknowledge that I do not deserve the benefits that arise from being born into a wealthy family. So why should other forms of luck—such as having a particular talent—be any different? 

Second, that I live in a society that prizes the talents I happen to have is also not something for which I can claim credit. This too is a matter of good fortune. LeBron James makes tens of millions of dollars playing basketball, a hugely popular game. Beyond being blessed with prodigious athletic gifts, LeBron is lucky to live in a society that values and rewards them. It is not his doing that he lives today, when people love the game at which he excels, rather than in Renaissance Florence, when fresco painters, not basketball players, were in high demand.

The same can be said of those who excel in pursuits our society values less highly. The world champion arm wrestler may be as good at arm wrestling as LeBron is at basketball. It is not his fault that, except for a few pub patrons, no one is willing to pay to watch him pin an opponent’s arm to the table.

He then moves on to the second point, about the central role of college in determining who’s got merit. 

Should colleges and universities take on the role of sorting people based on talent to determine who gets ahead in life?

There are at least two reasons to doubt that they should. The first concerns the invidious judgments such sorting implies for those who get sorted out, and the damaging consequences for a shared civic life. The second concerns the injury the meritocratic struggle inflicts on those who get sorted in and the risk that the sorting mission becomes so all-consuming that it diverts colleges and universities from their educational mission. In short, turning higher education into a hyper-competitive sorting contest is unhealthy for democracy and education alike.

The difficulty of predicting which talents are most socially beneficial is particularly true for the complex array of skills that people pick up in college.  Which ones matter most for determining a person’s ability to make an important contribution to society and which don’t?  How do we know if an elite college provides more of those skills than an open-access college?  This matters because a graduate from the former gets a much higher reward than one from the latter.  Pretending that a prestigious college degree is the best way to measure future performance is particularly difficult to sustain because success and degree are conflated.  Graduates of top colleges get the best jobs and thus seem to have the greatest impact, whereas non-grads never get the chance to show what they can do.

Another sports analogy helps to make this point.

Consider how difficult it is to assess even more narrowly defined talents and skills. Nolan Ryan, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball, holds the all-time record for most strikeouts and was elected on the first ballot to baseball’s Hall of Fame. When he was eighteen years old, he was not signed until the twelfth round of the baseball draft; teams chose 294 other, seemingly more promising players before he was chosen. Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of football, was the 199th draft pick. If even so circumscribed a talent as the ability to throw a baseball or a football is hard to predict with much certainty, it is folly to think that the ability to have a broad and significant impact on society, or on some future field of endeavor, can be predicted well enough to justify fine-grained rankings of promising high school seniors.

And then there’s the third point, the damage that meritocracy does to democratic politics.  One element of of this is that it turns politics into an arena for credentialed experts, consigning ordinary citizens to the back seat.  How many political leaders today are without a college degree?  Vanishingly few.  Another is that meritocracy not only bars non-grads from power but they also bars them from social respect.  

Grievances arising from disrespect are at the heart of the populist movement that has swept across Europe and the US.  Sandel calls this a “politics of humiliation.”

The politics of humiliation differs in this respect from the politics of injustice. Protest against injustice looks outward; it complains that the system is rigged, that the winners have cheated or manipulated their way to the top. Protest against humiliation is psychologically more freighted. It combines resentment of the winners with nagging self-doubt: perhaps the rich are rich because they are more deserving than the poor; maybe the losers are complicit in their misfortune after all.

This feature of the politics of humiliation makes it more combustible than other political sentiments. It is a potent ingredient in the volatile brew of anger and resentment that fuels populist protest.

Sandel draws on a wonderful book by Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land, in which she interviews Trump supporters in Louisiana.

Hochschild offered this sympathetic account of the predicament confronting her beleaguered working-class hosts:

You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored. And to feel honored you have to feel—and feel seen as—moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backward.

Once consequence of this for those left behind is a rise in “deaths of despair.”

The overall death rate for white men and women in middle age (ages 45–54) has not changed much over the past two decades. But mortality varies greatly by education. Since the 1990s, death rates for college graduates declined by 40 percent. For those without a college degree, they rose by 25 percent. Here then is another advantage of the well-credentialed. If you have a bachelor’s degree, your risk of dying in middle age is only one quarter of the risk facing those without a college diploma. 

Deaths of despair account for much of this difference. People with less education have long been at greater risk than those with college degrees of dying from alcohol, drugs, or suicide. But the diploma divide in death has become increasingly stark. By 2017, men without a bachelor’s degree were three times more likely than college graduates to die deaths of despair.

Sandel offers two relatively reforms that might help mitigate the tyranny of meritocracy.  One focuses on elite college admissions.  

Of the 40,000-plus applicants, winnow out those who are unlikely to flourish at Harvard or Stanford, those who are not qualified to perform well and to contribute to the education of their fellow students. This would leave the admissions committee with, say, 30,000 qualified contenders, or 25,000, or 20,000. Rather than engage in the exceedingly difficult and uncertain task of trying to predict who among them are the most surpassingly meritorious, choose the entering class by lottery. In other words, toss the folders of the qualified applicants down the stairs, pick up 2,000 of them, and leave it at that.

This helps get around two problems:  the difficulty in trying to predict merit; and the outsize rewards of a winner-take-all admissions system.  But good luck trying to get this put in place over the howls of outrage from upper-middle-class parents, who have learned how to game the system to their advantage.  Consider this one small example of the reaction when an elite Alexandria high school proposed random admission from a pool of the most qualified.

Another reform is more radical and even harder to imagine putting into practice.  It begins with reconsideration of what we mean by the “common good.”

The contrast between consumer and producer identities points to two different ways of understanding the common good. One approach, familiar among economic policy makers, defines the common good as the sum of everyone’s preferences and interests. According to this account, we achieve the common good by maximizing consumer welfare, typically by maximizing economic growth. If the common good is simply a matter of satisfying consumer preferences, then market wages are a good measure of who has contributed what. Those who make the most money have presumably made the most valuable contribution to the common good, by producing the goods and services that consumers want.

A second approach rejects this consumerist notion of the common good in favor of what might be called a civic conception. According to the civic ideal, the common good is not simply about adding up preferences or maximizing consumer welfare. It is about reflecting critically on our preferences—ideally, elevating and improving them—so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives. This cannot be achieved through economic activity alone. It requires deliberating with our fellow citizens about how to bring about a just and good society, one that cultivates civic virtue and enables us to reason together about the purposes worthy of our political community.

If we can carry out this deliberation — a big if indeed — then we can proceed to implement a system for shifting the basis for individual compensation from what the market is willing to pay to what we collectively feel is most valuable to society.  

Thinking about pay, most would agree that what people make for this or that job often overstates or understates the true social value of the work they do. Only an ardent libertarian would insist that the wealthy casino magnate’s contribution to society is a thousand times more valuable than that of a pediatrician. The pandemic of 2020 prompted many to reflect, at least fleetingly, on the importance of the work performed by grocery store clerks, delivery workers, home care providers, and other essential but modestly paid workers. In a market society, however, it is hard to resist the tendency to confuse the money we make with the value of our contribution to the common good.

To implement a system based on public benefit rather than marketability would require completely revamping our structure of determining salaries and taxes. 

The idea is that the government would provide a supplementary payment for each hour worked by a low-wage employee, based on a target hourly-wage rate. The wage subsidy is, in a way, the opposite of a payroll tax. Rather than deduct a certain amount of each worker’s earnings, the government would contribute a certain amount, in hopes of enabling low-income workers to make a decent living even if they lack the skills to command a substantial market wage.

Generally speaking, this would mean shifting the tax burden from work to consumption and speculation. A radical way of doing so would be to lower or even eliminate payroll taxes and to raise revenue instead by taxing consumption, wealth, and financial transactions. A modest step in this direction would be to reduce the payroll tax (which makes work expensive for employers and employees alike) and make up the lost revenue with a financial transactions tax on high-frequency trading, which contributes little to the real economy.

This is how Sandel ends his book:

The meritocratic conviction that people deserve whatever riches the market bestows on their talents makes solidarity an almost impossible project. For why do the successful owe anything to the less-advantaged members of society? The answer to this question depends on recognizing that, for all our striving, we are not self-made and self-sufficient; finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is our good fortune, not our due. A lively sense of the contingency of our lot can inspire a certain humility: “There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.” Such humility is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.