Book: The Meritocracy Trap

If this were bread I would say it was over-risen and under-baked. The same ingredients with better process would yield a far better product.

In this post I am focusing on criticisms. The book presents a lot of good and useful data, though I’m not certain any of it is unique to this book.

Facts of the author clearly enter into the problems present. The author is a Yale Law professor and it shows in many ways. My opinion based on the specifics of the arguments he does and does not present about meritocracy, and dismissal of certain criticisms of it, lead me to believe that his goal is a “kinder, gentler meritocracy” that leaves in place many problems with it that happen to not affect him.

Structurally the text has some important notes about accessibility and purpose. I won’t call these defects because they are intentional choices. It simultaneously employs two rhetorical conventions.

The first is an academic writing style that comes off as repetitive (and it is) to those who are not familiar with it but I describe as more cyclic. The first and last sentences of paragraphs tend to restate the same point but with language that is different in specific ways. This is a deliberate convention of the academic domain for many reasons, stated and unspoken. To be frank, an unspoken reason is to be able to divide the audience on the basis of that arcane knowledge and dismiss criticism from those who have not had the training. Yes, this is a cynical take, but one based on observing how it is used to justify glib dismissal of criticism. To be direct: it becomes that the critic doesn’t know how to speak that particular dialect then they are presumed to be too uneducated to offer anything of value.

Second, the author is not researching but prosecuting meritocracy, and in a way of wanting it to do a short sentence in Club Fed: wanting a conviction but one that is not as severe as it might be possible to obtain. Simultaneously this means that a full interrogation of meritocracy is not undertaken while there are data points used to support an argument which have important counter-arguments which are absent.

An example of that last point: an argument advanced is about social changes in the US during the third quarter of the 20th century, and a critical data point in the argument is the large increase in the divorce rate in a multi-decade period ending with 1980. Divorce rate rose rapidly in that period, but the biggest driver was the creation of legal no-fault divorce. The first no-fault divorce law was in California, signed by Ronald Reagan when he was Governor, and went into effect for 1970. Other states rapidly adopted the same law (today all US states have no-fault divorce, though the last was passed well into the 21st century.) This meant a lot of couples who previously could not divorce – including some who in past decades would have permanently separated but remained married – now could and did. This isn’t to say the data is completely wrong, but using it without any examination of the one-time inflation aspect of that policy change is simply dishonest.

The book sets up “elites,” approximating the top few percentage households economically, and the “middle class,” which is effectively treated as everyone else for most purposes. Actual middle class is compressed into a monolithic concept. He does acknowledge poorer classes, but only barely and woefully unresearched when he does. For example, when discussing work versus “leisure” (his term.) Leisure appears to include things like sleeping and labor in the home. Work is defined as in-office hours. Matters such as the labor required between the two are ignored. Thus poor are viewed as having much more leisure than the middle class professionals, but that only works if one considers things like lengthy public-transit commutes as leisure. Further, this apparently assumes that part-time schedules are regular in the way professional schedules are. I intentionally do not simplify the latter as “full-time” for a reason – my own roommate has a full-time position that may mean arriving home at midnight or going in to work at 4 A.M. on various days.

The discussion of higher education warns of a bias: few colleges and universities are covered other than the obvious elite private ones like Yale. Public universities are barely mentioned. The Seven Sisters Colleges are a glaring omission.

The author virtually ignores tech fields, which frequently claim to be meritocracies while failing in many ways that have been heavily researched. Instead he points to success of Instagram as a case of it succeeding and discusses it little more.

In part this is motivated by a particular bias against progressives (again, the author’s term.) He dismisses criticism of meritocracy by that faction by asserting that they only care about it when it affects minorities and support it against men. This is the most malicious point of the book: progressives generally recognize that it hurts everyone, but note that the relatively low amount of success (advancement, etc.,) available in it disproportionately distributed in ways that cannot be sufficiently described by the level of work committed by the individual.

This is a point where tech has some research, such as the response time to pull requests with obviously gendered names. The direct statements combined with the complete absence of any willingness to interrogate these additional failure modes of meritocracy lead me to believe that the author has no desire to see meritocracy fully prosecuted, only enough to return to a state that was more favorable to people like himself and allow ignoring any further failings. This is an argument that exists in the broader scope. When discussing experiences I had where my ideas and code were dismissed by management but then men in the department could “discover” them – sometimes literally finding my code a few weeks later – present those ideas or code as their own, and it would be accepted, I am often told that this has nothing to do with meritocracy and constitutes discussing in bad faith on the topic.

The author presumes the skills from university education are critical to success in the field in a way that can be fully justified. While this is definitely true of some fields, it is not of others, and again tech presents a good example. For large portions of tech employment there isn’t truly a related degree in terms of skills taught. The situations are numerous, like requiring a bachelor’s degree for a non-renewable three month contract position doing rack-and-stack work (physical work of installing the hardware.) A particularly common defense of the requirement of a degree in any major for a job remains “it proves that you can set a goal and stick with it, and that you won’t abandon something just because it gets hard.” But, in reality, it proves you had certain socioeconomic benefits at your disposal. Enforcement of the degree requirement is often capricious: some candidates my be refused on the basis while the candidate hired may not meet the same requirement. Corporate reorganizations frequently put people into positions where the job description lists a degree required that they do not have. This usually means being expected to be able to perform the job at the same level regardless, though simultaneously may not mean access to the same pay scale. I know of situations where a person who used to be in that position and voluntarily left, thus has documented ability to perform it, was not re-hired because of the degree requirement.

Finally, a proposed solution of making university tax-exempt status depend on improving admissions of those with less access, is frighteningly simplistic. I have no doubt that both universities and industries are fully capable of the task of finding a new way to differentiate in such a system, and then use that to devalue the degrees by those they see as undeserving. This has already happened with associates-level degrees and with public schools.

I purchased the Kindle edition of this book, reading it for a book club.