Tyler Cowen on meritocracy

As economist (yes, Harvard-educated ) Tyler Cowen has quipped: “The best critiques of the meritocracy have come from those with extreme merit.”  I’ll come back to this puzzle later, for it’s one that Markovits’s book, like others in the genre, doesn’t fully explore.

That is from Kay S. Hymowitz, reviewing a new book critical of meritocracy.


"Markovits attempts nothing less than a revision of Marxist theory to fit a postindustrial economy"
Oh gosh... I work for an incredibly successful company, and I don't know ONE graduate from an Ivy league school. NONE.

I am convinced that these people are simply so rich and successful that they are bored out of their minds.You have to be seriously bored to keep going to Marx time and time again...

These theories hold up.

Oh sure. After all, they have never been really tried right?

Marx has been tried. It’s called Denmark. And Sweden. And universal healthcare.

Denmark and Sweden aren't "marxist" or "socialist". They do have large inefficient governments that have made their societies much poorer.

These are examples of Marxism in action.

"They do have large inefficient governments that have made their societies much poorer."

Hahaha. As opposed to the ghettos and Appalachians that our system made rich.

The typical yearly income for a West Virginian(~43K 2017 USD) isn't that from that of Sweden(~42K 2013 USD) and Denmark(~51K 2013 USD). For the typical American it's about 60K in 2013 USD.


But their health care is free.

No more yellows. End the Asian invasion.

LOL! How does the comparison look for overdose deaths, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, domestic abuse, life expectancy, chronic illness and obesity, broken homes, maternal and infant mortality, and happiness? Or do capitalist strictures religiously prohibit you from uttering these other meaningless metrics of human life?

By those measure capitalist countries like the USA, Sweden and Denmark all did much better than the socialist states of the 20th century(E. Germany, Poland, Mongolia). In the 21st century they are still outperforming the few remaining Marxist-Leninist governments(China, Vietnam, Laos).

I am glad to know the Appalachians are killing themsleves with opioids because they are so prosperous and free.

Scandinavians don't do that well regarding suicide either. I'm not sure what your point is anyway. More socialism=less suicide? Is there an actual link.


My point is, to quote Wikipedia, "Though all areas of Appalachia share problems of rural poverty, inadequate jobs, services, transportation, education, and infrastructure, some elements (particularly those relating to industry and natural resource extraction) are unique to each sub-region." Not to say nothing about Blacks. We should be ashamed that those things atill happen in the richest nation in the history of riches. We need action.

Sure. But . . .
1) You're overstating how severe the issue is.
2) The main solution isn't socialism, its actually more capitalism.
3) The other solution is to just get people to move from decaying places to thriving ones.

We need to act. Those problems won't solve themselves.

Capitalism decided industrious Mexicans and Chinese are more economically valuable than Appalachians. More capitalism won't fix the fact that they would be overpaid for what they do.

Drug deaths a poor focus if one seeks to glorify the Scando systems - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-48938509. Worst in the EU, on a national scale (though not in the SNP gets Scottish independence and EU accession. Yay!).

>Oh sure. After all, they have never been really tried right?

I'm referring to the theories posited by the poster concerning the boredom of Ivy League graduates, you super-dope.

The continuing popularity of Marx among academics is like the continuing popularity of astrology among the proletariat. We're still waiting for the stars to align when the contradictions of capitalism will be resolved so that we can all "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner...without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic."

Yup... but as you can see in the comments above, I guess you have to actually go through it to really believe it, sometimes up to a fault. That's how we got Ayn Rand...

One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer. That's more valuable than all the bleats out of the lemmings, er, self-anointed intellectuals.

To wit, Yuengling Beer is 190 years old: great American beer brewed by great Americans.

"In 1958, the English sociologist Michael Young famously invented the term 'meritocracy.'"

I think this group divides between those pre- and post- dating. It's surprising. I grew up thinking the meritocracy was somewhat more ancient ..

Other than that, it seems very Mad Magazine Spy vs Spy. Or jeremiad vs jeremiad.

But obviously if we were serious about meritocracy we'd seek to level primary education, and break the dynastic Darwinism of rich parents "deserving" better schools than those bad, bad, poor people.

Says the person who supports dismantling Stuyvesant.

When poor kids test well but are the wrong color it’s “shut down the schools.”

Meanwhile the funding for your “bad, bad poor people “ schools is over 50% higher than the schools for your “rich parents” schools.

So you’re entirely factually wrong. Not that it’s ever stopped you.

Parti(-san) on my dude.

Poor Asians horde their money and pay for test preparation classes.

That’s not meritocracy it’s racism. The only reason these Chinks are at Stuyvesant is that their parents bought the ticket.

We shouldn’t allow this.

This "anonymous" had never heard of Stuyvesant.

And this claim?

Meanwhile the funding for your “bad, bad poor people “ schools is over 50% higher than the schools for your “rich parents” schools.

I don't believe it.

In Most States, Poorest School Districts Get Less Funding.

Because, duh.

I’m wrong in truth but right in righteousness.

As long as chinks don’t get to make their own schools, I’m good.

I STAND with Carranza. No yellows. Warren would never allow this many yellows.

Nobody really claims that meritocracy is fair/evenly distributed w.r.t. the birth lottery. Parents who provide a more nurturing environment, will in fact produce humans with more merit, something that is incredibly obvious but perhaps distasteful to some.

The fact that any parent may read to their child, or provide a nurturing environment, levels that one out somewhat. It might also be a fair accommodation under the US system that public schools should be equal, but private schools, tutors, and test prep, are still an option.

Or: Harvard-trained. (Time to renew my subscription to the Journal of Post-Secondary Training.)

If not a meritocracy then what? Do you want your surgeon to be someone whose only ability was their gender or race so they were given the job of a surgeon?

Quite likely, even if my short life depended on it, I could find a qualified and competent and skilled surgeon who NEVER attended Harvard.

From my provincial perspective, Harvard is far too talented a post-secondary school at churning out Pompous Asses, no matter what (other) credentials they acquire: and I would never want a pompous ass operating on yours truly.

There's a awesome paper by Flynn (of the Flynn effect) on the intrinsic flaw and impossibility of a meritocratic system, but sadly I'm forgetting the name

Ahh.... 2 drinks down and memory starts to find its way. It's "Searching for Justice" by James Flynn written for the American psychologist

Flynn writes,
"I refer to the meritocracy thesis, which runs as follows. The closer we come to environmental equality, the more all talent differences become caused by genetic differences. The more we eliminate privilege, the more we have total social mobility, and good genes for talent rise to the top and bad genes sink to the bottom. The tendency to marry those of similar IQ produces mating couples whose social status correlates with genetic quality. The result is an elite class whose children replicate their parents' high status, because of luck in the genetic lottery, and a large immiserated underclass whose children, handicapped by their bad genes, cannot escape low status. How little this vision will appeal will
vary from person to person... "

He further writes,
"The case against meritocracy can also be put sociologically: (a) Allocating rewards irrespective of merit is a prerequisite for meritocracy, otherwise environments cannot
be equalized; (b) allocating rewards according to merit is a prerequisite for meritocracy, otherwise people cannot be stratified by wealth and status; (c) therefore, a classstratified
meritocracy is impossible."

There’s no such thing as genes for IQ or talent. This has been proven dozens of times through peer reviewed sociology papers.

Science disagrees with the racist take.

Warren 2020: No Chinks

No, that's factually incorrect. While the ability to perform well on g-loaded tasks appears to be strongly polygenic and the degree of heritability measured varies somewhat by study, it has generally come in non-zero and usually circa 50%. Standard caveats apply, heritability is a measure of the impact on variation, so environmental effects still matter, and "talent" is an ambiguous term that covers various different sorts of intelligence.

"Intelligence in the normal range is a polygenic trait, meaning that it is influenced by more than one gene, specifically over 500 genes.

Twin studies of adult individuals have found a heritability of IQ between 57% and 73% with the most recent studies showing heritability for IQ as high as 80%and 86%."


"luck in the genetic lottery"

There is no such thing as "luck in the genetic lottery" because the parents make that so. When the outcomes are heavily skewed it is not luck. The phrase is invented by the "elites" to gain votes from the deplorable suckers and make them vote against the elite "elites". Either way the deplorable suckers are always at the bottom. Period.

Charles Murray said the same thing about assortitive mating, about ten years later. But CM thinks that if we just embrace libertarianism with sufficient enthusiasm, everything will revert to the Iowa of his childhood, where the owner of the factory only made a couple of times what the factory workers made.

Also, I wonder if this comment will be deleted, like my comment about slavery in India last week.

Many of the best critiques of IQ testing and IQ as a concept have also come from those who seem to have very high IQs.

I've noticed this as well. As someone who isn't all that bright I take IQ very seriously. You have to when your's isn't that high and you live with it every day.

I'd be curious to understand what these people who criticize meritocracy think of Trump. I say that because I see a lot of people trying to have it both ways with Trump: he's an idiot but he is also the personification of how corrupt our system is. Well, it has to be one or the other. He's either a smart guy that knows how to exploit the system, or an idiot that got lucky and therefore shows that the problem is not "too much meritocracy", but actually not enough!

Here’s where we stand. No chinks.

Warren will fix this. She has a plan!

Everybody comes in to the ring with a plan. Then they get punched in the face.

I suspect that since "merit" here probably means "status within the academy that will allow TC to entertain their ideas somewhat seriously", this is somewhat a circular comment.

"Meritocracy" is likely emphatically rejected on just as sound a basis by many more people who TC does not listen to.

The author continues the fiction that test prep and good schools are the primary way that the top students obtain good scores. In fact, as the Harvard anti-asian suit shows, for both whites and asians, test scores often take a back seat to non-academic achievement, connections, sports, etc. It is this conflation of an unearned place in the meritocracy and punishment of the children of the middle class and of immigrants who have played by the rules but lose out to less qualified elites (whether the rich legacies or the pet minorities and athletes who get in through the patronage of guilty administrators) that makes the claim of meritocracy so meritricious.

I would only add a following speculation that I am willing to wager is true: The children of corrupt Chinese politicians and billionaires are more likely to get into HYP than the children of higher scoring, unconnected Asian Americans. As a Chinese friend says, if a rich kid in China fails the exams to Beijing and Qinghua, he starts looking at the Ivy League.

How many Indians go to Beijing U or Chinese go to IIT? I'd be interested in hearing about inter-Asian transfers between elite universities. The competition must be incredible given the shear numbers.

Helen Andrews' critique of meritocracy is more thorough, or at any rate, more amusing.


It's interesting how Troll free the link to the Tyler post from 2012 was. Mostly a civil discussion of the topic.

"Meritocracy has turned the rich into “a superordinate working class” while remaking an ailing middle class into a “lumpenproletariat.”

That's ridiculous. Inequality is a problem, but can be dealt with without having to froth at the mouth. Meritocracy, be it a myth or hope or whatever, is a goal still worth pursuing. The last thing we need is to throw out founding myths or goals. We need to live up to them. Personally, I'm for a 100% inheritance tax based upon principles articulated by Buchanan and Nozick. However, there are a number of things we could do well short of that which would help ease inequality, with some basic commitment to compromise.

It would surprise me very little if people who have gotten rich off their merit oppose meritocracy -- just like people who get rich off capitalism tend to embrace Big Government.

They both hate competition from similarly-minded, competent folk.

I see it differently. The Harvard and Yale crowd oppose meritocracy because they see unearned privilege all around them - wealthy people, pledges, athletes and diversity students get into Harvard not based on their abilities but on their connections or non-academic characteristics, and once they graduate have a huge leg up on others based on their degree and not their merit.

Perhaps we should ask people who came from nothing and rose up anyway, and see if they think merit has anything to do with it or if they just consider themselves lucky for some reason.

Yet no one has a real alternative to academic ability as a filtering device for finding talent in complex analytic jobs.

Maybe that statement is true but how does it advance her argument? Or, for that matter, that of Markovits? Talent in "complex analytic jobs" is developed in many other educational institutions. The real advantage in attending Harvard rather then Texas El Paso is the people to meet and perhaps befriend: the connections that can be made that can be used to advance careers and projects. The American meritocracy has created its own myth about that meritocracy.

Truthfully, within Texas, I'd give A&M the edge over Harvard in that regard. Not necessarily an endorsement, merely a statement of fact.

I don't think anyone does very much but muddle issues when they talk about meritocracy - I'm unconvinced it means anything within a market or without. It's the right's version of the left's obsession with the similarly meaningless desert - as in who deserves to be rich or poor. Market success entails some number of features - invention, process, story-telling, demand discovery, intuition, luck, timing, available resources or capital, and so on. Is "merit" some kind of aggregation of these things? How do you add them up? Who cares? Why do we need a story about the worthiness of the producer in discussions about market outcomes? We all know it's lots of things, and no, people on the left, not all or mostly luck - but yes people of the right some amount of luck. I don't know what the left means when the carp that nobody "deserves" a billion dollars. It has always seemed like a concession to a false premise when the right counters "of course, the outcome emerged in a meritocracy". Neither of those things make any sense. A thing that had some amount of consumer value was delivered at some amount of scale and the ability to replicate that is either easier or harder. That's not "merit". It's not nothing, but it's not merit.

'Meritocracy' is generally, yes, a poor overarching label for many things.

The most clear form of the use of the term, is where 'Meritocracy' in politics is usually proposed, today, as an alternative to democratic selection through popular election.

This is a non-starter; merit in politics, at the level where decision making exists, is one and the same with accountability, tax morale, and replaceability.

They cannot be too big to fail and encourage build superstructures around them which depend on their talent (the 'Good Emperor' problem), make the populace question why they should pay tax to people who are not their representatives ("No Taxation Without Representation"), and they cannot be encouraged to become corrupt and kleptocratic representatives of themselves of their class alone through a lack of a popular removal mechanism.

Bright shining superstars selected through essay writing, or SAT performance, as much as the essay-writing, SAT performing class may argue for them, and then given effective "tenure" in politics, checked only by their peers, clearly fail on all these points of political merit relative to elected party delegates.

Other uses of 'meritocracy' tends to be less precise, but are really better framed as more about

1) income and wealth inequality and distribution questions, for which claims abound in social studies and economics. this is often the point where you get the pro-elite right wing headbangers coming in and talking about how "meritocratic" distributions of income and wealth must be favoured for reasons of moral right, even if they are less optimal for growth, etc, to which the left centre and populist right issue a collective groan about the dubiousness of all aspects of their claims. or

2) elite overproduction and excess intra-elite competition, which Peter Turchin talks about, how this leads to culturally parochial, paranoid elites chasing the last bit of marginal productivity that will give them an edge or get them "admission" and obtain them some positional good, to the neglect of intra-elite and elite-general cooperation and a rounded perspective.

The meritocratic bias in America might be addressed by borrowing from the wisdom of the East, specifically, the tried and true, proven by time, Hindu jati system, with some minor tweaks. To kick it off, everyone (by lottery) will be IQ tested, then assigned to an IQ group, regardless of race or other social markers (other than biological sex) based on the result of that test. They will then be free to enjoy their natural right to select a reproductive partners from within a group that is the inverse of their own with respect to the distribution. For example, Harvard graduates and other brainiacs can only marry tards. Brainiacs will be prevented from forming an interest group favoring arrogant eggheads. Dull average people can only marry other dull average people, the type you'd never meet at Harvard, and so on. This will also go a long way toward promoting social justice and economic efficiency. People would not waste as much time in pursuit of inappropriate reproductive partners. Obviously, they will also be occupationally restricted, or privileged (if you prefer that term).
I admit I'm not sure this would work in America but it is worth a try.

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