Douthat’s Mendacious Meritocracy Myth

William K. Black
December 8, 2018      Bloomington, MN

The funeral services for President George HW Bush triggered Ross Douthat’s nostalgia for the “aristocratic virtues of the old WASP establishment, and a disappointment with the meritocracy that has risen in its place.”  This column ignores his nostalgia and alleged virtues and discusses briefly his bizarre assumption that a “meritocracy” runs America.  Given the 2008 Great Financial Crisis (GFC) and President Trump, I thought that the meritocracy fantasy was dead.  We are far closer to anti-meritocracy (a kakistocracy).   

Douthat provides a combined dissolution/creation myth in a single sentence that constructed four falsehoods.

But then the WASPs themselves decided to dissolve their own aristocracy, and transform their once-Protestant universities into a secular mass-opportunity system — a more democratic way of education, in which anyone with enough talent could climb the ladder, and personal achievement and technical expertise would be prized above all else.

No, the WASPs did not “dissolve their own aristocracy,” they did not transform “their once-Protestant universities into a secular mass-opportunity system,” did not create an educational system “in which anyone with enough talent could climb the ladder,” and did not create an economy that “prized above all else” “personal achievement and technical expertise.”

The GI Bill did not open the “Protestant universities” to everyone – and a WASP suicide pact to “dissolve their own aristocracy” did not get the GI Bill enacted.  The GI Bill became law in 1944.  It provided benefits for veterans that included education, health, housing, and unemployment.  The political and economic context was the fear of recreating the shameful treatment of World War I veterans and widespread fears that the end of World War II would likely produce a severe recession that would be very bad for WASP elites.

The bill was bipartisan and veterans’ groups made its passage a political necessity.  WASP politicians, had they tried to kill the bill, would have been driven from office.  The controversial provision of the bill provided additional unemployment benefits to veterans.  Conservatives opposed it as supposedly incentivizing shirking work.  The reality was that veterans applied for only a tiny percentage of the unemployment benefits that the GI Bill provided.

The GI Bill provided benefits to female veterans, but World War II veterans were overwhelmingly male.  The GI Bill did not exclude black veterans, but it left implementation of the law overwhelmingly to local officials.  This led to comprehensive discrimination against black veterans in both the North and the South, particularly in terms of the housing and educational benefits.

Segregated education was the norm in the U.S., so relatively few black veterans had strong college-preparatory high school degrees essential to admission to universities, much less elite “Protestant universities.”  The GI Bill’s educational benefits were not limited to “universities.”  They included technical training.  More veterans used the law’s educational benefits to attend vocational training classes than to seek university degrees – and a mass of predatory for-profit schools and colleges arose to prey on veterans.  The GI Bill sparked the first great epidemic of educational fraud by for-profit schools that predated on the “greatest generation” by specializing in providing more expensive, exceptionally poor quality, technical training to veterans.  (The Trump administration weakened rules meant to protect veterans from for-profit school predation.)

Elite Protestant universities changed their policies much later as they lost more top students to public universities that surged in quality.  Elite Protestant universities maintained discriminatory admission programs against Jews, blacks, and women for decades after World War II.

Our elite financiers led the fraud epidemics that drove the savings and loan debacle, the Enron-era frauds, and the GFC.  Their patrons chose them to hire and promote because of their lack of merit, particularly ethics and competence.  Economists largely prosper in the academy and employment by chanting myths and recommending policies that recurrently produce failure.  Our most honored corporations, GE, Sears, Enron, WorldCom, VW, and Siemens are “control frauds.”  Predation turns out to be the dominant business model in UK, U.S., and Australian finance.  Our elites are literally destroying the planet’s ability to sustain life.  Productivity and wage growth for the mass of workers in ‘highly developed’ nations has been pathetic for decades.  We have the most corrupt administration in our history.  It is a sick joke to continue to spread the myth that a failed meritocracy runs America.

We live under an elite system that hates and fears merit.  They fear we will have the merit to look through their lies and call our elites what they are – ideologues using the myth of meritocracy to hide their shameful lack of morality and empathy, their soul-destroying fixation on personal wealth, status, and power, and their recurrent failures.

Douthat agrees that our current elites are horrific, but his metaphor shows that he does not understand their true nature.  “[T]he typical meritocrat is born on third base, hustles home, and gets praised as if he just hit a grand slam.”  No, the typical ‘hyper-meritocratic’ CEO is born on third base and has a corporate fixer who receives a bonus for bribing the pitcher to throw a wild pitch.  The CEO saunters (not ‘hustles’) home and uses ‘his’ corporation’s PR department to induce Andrew Ross Sorkin to write a Deal Book column in the New York Times extolling the CEO’s genius, risk-taking, and flair in ‘stealing’ home plate.   The CEO then causes ‘his’ corporation to pay him a $10 million bonus for his extraordinary performance (leading to another Sorkin hagiographic ode about how modern executive compensation incentivizes the hyper-meritocracy to produce stellar results).

2 Responses to Douthat’s Mendacious Meritocracy Myth

  1. Andrew Anderson

    We live under an elite system that hates and fears merit. They fear we will have the merit to look through their lies and call our elites what they are – ideologues using the myth of meritocracy to hide their shameful lack of morality and empathy, their soul-destroying fixation on personal wealth, status, and power, and their recurrent failures. Bill Black [bold added]

    Which is all the more reason that the financial system be founded on such principles as equal protection under the law. Instead, we have government privileges for private credit creation and these favor the banks themselves and the rich, the most so-called “worthy” of what is then, in essence, the public’s credit but for private gain.

    Moreover why is it with inexpensive fiat, unlike the unethical Gold Standard, that so much credit is needed in the first place? And why it it, except for mere grubby, unsafe, totally-inadequate-for-modern-commerce physical fiat, aka “cash”, that citizens may not even use their Nation’s fiat? But must use bank deposits instead?
    Where is, as someone posed, our right to be free from banks?

  2. Yea, all true.

    Any actual shift to a meritocracy must begin with a sincere national conversation about rewarding all contributions honestly and fairly. In other words, it isn’t solely about allowing those with the highest merits rise to the top, it instead needs to be about providing those at the bottom with a larger share of our collective prosperity and respect. Why, for example, should the CEO of a company which produces harmful products, lets say cigarettes or junkfood and etc., ‘earn’ hundreds of times as much as the those on the long list of workers who make integral contributions. The so-called system, with all of its manipulations, has, via attrition, created a crazy society.