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David Brooks’ Bogus “Meritocracy” Definition

David Brooks column today, “The Meritocracy is Ripping America Apart“, rightfully calls out the impact of the “savage exclusion” of what he calls “the exclusive meritocracy”. Here is his definition:

In the exclusive meritocracy, prestige is defined by how many people you can reject. The elite universities reject 85 to 95 percent of their applicants. Those accepted spend much of their lives living in neighborhoods and attending conferences where it is phenomenally expensive or hard to get in. Whether it’s the resort town you vacation in or the private school you send your kids to, exclusivity is the pervasive ethos. The more the exclusivity, the thicker will be the coating of P.C. progressivism to show that we’re all good people.

As US News and World Report rolls out its annual report “ranking” colleges and universities, it is ironic to read that David Brooks has accepted their definition that “…prestige is defined by how many people you can reject”… Before US News and World Report adopted that as a proxy for “quality” colleges did not even keep track of that data point but since it became a variable that colleges could control they’ve gone overboard in encouraging as many people as possible to apply so that they could tout their rejection rate as evidence of their “excellence”. What passes for “merit” in our era of Big Data and standardized testing is what can be measured easily, cheaply and quickly.

And Mr. Brooks also rightfully notes that the highest wage earners from “exclusive meritocracy” work ungodly hours to accumulate their wealth:

People in this caste work phenomenally hard to build their wealth. As Daniel Markovits notes in his powerful new book, “The Meritocracy Trap,” between 1979 and 2006, the percentage of workers in the top quintile of earners who work more than 50 hours a week nearly doubled.

What Mr. Brooks fails to mention is that this hard work has the effect of the “meritocrats” justifying the requirement that everyone else work equally hard to earn a living. Consequently, they often have little sympathy for the individual who works more than 50 hours a week at two part-time jobs neither of which offer them health benefits, vacation, or leave time.

It might be a better world if the “meritocrats” shared their work load as well as their largesse. It’s possible that corporations who spend millions to retain these 50+ hour/week “meritocrats” could spend less on having multiple individuals performing the same tasks for less money– say $125,000/year– and less time– say 30 hours per week. The human resources are out there. The money is out there. We need to look at hour we spend time and allocation resources in order to improve the lot of our workforce.

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