Saturday, October 19, 2013

Meritocracy = Hierarchy, Not Equality

Why should it matter? Ultimately, because of the ways skills and knowledge have been utilized - or not - in the aggregate and over the long run. Suppose meritocracy were in operation in a primitive small village. Certain individuals were given the capacity to use their minds to a greater degree than others, but others remained responsible for their keep. Somehow, the ones free to use their minds had to make sure everyone else remained engaged in ways that contributed to their own survival. That's the problem with meritocracy now, in that it hasn't been easy as of late to keep everyone else productively engaged. Hierarchies can be easy to maintain, so long as extra resources continue to flow. What happens to the more valuable skills, when that is not the case? Is it still possible to maintain valuable knowledge with equality in time use?

As long as skills use and expertise are capable of contributing to the bigger picture for societal goals, populations remain perfectly happy to exonerate and otherwise pay homage to knowledge as a component of wealth. But when knowledge as a whole starts to seem superfluous in certain important aspects - or worse, problematic for the "powers that be", look out. One historical example suggests itself in Napoleon's demise. Are we are drifting towards a rationale - on the part of nations - of charting out the near future in Napoleonic terms?

Perhaps it wouldn't be too far off the mark to imagine we've forgotten Napoleon's mistakes. Like Shane Parrish (Farnam Street), I'd never read a book about Napoleon before, but some books really need to be read . In this post about the book "Napoleon: A Life" he speaks of Napoleon's fatal mistake, and in a follow up summary, adds:
He promoted people for their ability to carry out orders with precision. When things changed, as they tend to, these men were left waiting for instructions, having long forgotten how to think for themselves.
While Shane emphasized the correlation for organizations, I have to also consider the comparison for society in general. Today, as greater efficiencies are sought for stretched budgets, less thinking for individual circumstance or need will apparently be required. That in turn means more "following the rules" and of course additional laws and surveillance state. Plus, whatever remaining meritocracy needs to be rewarded, the more that efficiencies (cutbacks in skills use) come into play elsewhere, to account for the budgets to cover everyone who still seeks government defined product. Mmm, can we really do that?

How did we move so quickly from the perception of knowledge use as wealth, to knowledge use as negative? What's more, how does meritocracy fit into this picture? As long as knowledge use readily contributes to the valuations of hard assets and commodities, it gets incorporated into other ongoing economic realities, and there's plenty of room for meritocratic reward. Before the Great Recession this was indeed still the case. Meritocracy remains lulled by linear reasoning that assumes "it will always be this way", which of course makes sense for long stretches of time...

However as an old boss used to tell me, "Don't assume anything!" and - argh - I've learned my lesson well. What's more, Tyler Cowen "had" to make space for Tyrone in a post this morning. Once upon a time I didn't "get" Tyrone, but he makes a bit more sense now. It does seem that the earlier admonishment on the part of my old boss, is also behind a Marginal Revolution post that could only make me smile, scary though it might be in its implications. Arnold Kling also made the point earlier in the week that the Tea Party, in spite of what one may think about the "crazies", involves a greater number of well educated and monied than one might imagine.

Yep, we may think that Washington is eventually going to come to its senses, but we would certainly be remiss if we don't diligently prepare for the distinct possibility that it does not (not much of that preparation going on yet, by the way). What's more, the "crazies" are counting on our not figuring out a better way of survival than the options they would eventually leave us with. That means they can be just about as silly as they want in the meantime - and possibly get away with it, a la Tyrone. Clearly, some members of the meritocracy remained convinced that they will continue to have the work of their minds "safeguarded" even if many among the masses don't get that option...

Even as meritocracy is supposedly about "the best of the best", sometimes it is simply a present to the privileged, all nicely wrapped up and tied with a bow. When this is the case, the compensation (or societal valuation) becomes more important than the capacity of mind which lead to excellence in knowledge use. In a spirit reminiscent of the above paragraphs, Chris Dillow in a post titled "Managerialism and the Culture War", is concerned that effectiveness is gradually winning out over excellence. What is especially interesting to me, however, is the fact he realizes some balance is actually needed in this regard.
There is a grain of justification for the imposition of managerial values. Without them, we might get a futile perfectionism in which nothing gets finished. Leonardo da Vinci might have benefited from a bit of management. And the pursuit of excellence can be a mask for self indulgence or even idleness.
When Dillow wrapped up his post, stressing how professions have a tendency to exaggerate their value systems, his thoughts (below) reminded me of what Shane Parrish emphasized about Napoleon:
This can be aggravated by a selection effect; managers recruit people in their own image, which causes managerialism's "punitive quantification" to spread...If we're being less kind, we could call this a form of totalitarianism - the attempt to impose a single value system or ideology upon society, to the exclusion of alternative cultures. 
Resource use in the best of possible worlds, provides a balance for the knowledge use that any society can reasonably back in monetary terms. Sometimes when resource use is especially abundant, this is reflected in the knowledge that a society is also willing to support. If resource use appears less certain, potential knowledge use may become less certain as well. But then, we run into the danger of a society which has forgotten how to think for itself, as efficiency seeks to dictate reliance on previous measures of knowledge use which served society well, earlier on. At this point, meritocracy faces the risk of becoming simply a changing of the guard.

Consider for a moment what the use of meritocracy means at the most basic level. We are underlining the capacity of certain individuals and maximizing their return to society (or at least institutional sustainability) at the same time. However, in order to do this, the time use of others needs to be diminished in some capacity in order for that to happen.  When excess resource capacity can no longer make up the difference in time valuation, the best option we have for continued growth is to reconsider the unequal time element for knowledge use, which caused so much redistribution in outside resources to begin with.

No "living wage" will ever provide adequate time use measure, in relation to those granted the additional time value which markets consequently structured product to represent. Where the Tea Party utterly fails in their logic, is their own complicity in the ways so many of these markets were structured. Much of today's wealth remains defined in terms which are neither accessible to the lower income levels or government redistribution, for that matter. Yet, no one has made headway in Washington with realistic alternatives for product redefinition, in vital areas.

The government hand which feeds a rich healthcare establishment, nonetheless pulls back a bloody stump from the bites it has received from many in that same establishment. Seriously, how can conservatives not know that the healthcare they would stop government in its tracks to prevent, is a plan which reflects many of their own core beliefs how healthcare should be carried out? Have they really thought through, what they seek to take away?

It would be great if people could be rational and logical, when they see that a much needed commodity or product is not as widely available as before. But I've been watching an excess of squirrels (bumper crop of pecans last year) and they are not being rational at all about the puny pecan crop which has developed this year. They are getting scared and destroying this year's pecans before the crop is even ready. Somehow that seems oddly familiar...

Our time scarcity - were we allowed to manage it on our own - has the capacity to be the best balance between excellence and efficiency. But before we can find that out, we have to be able to use time equally, coming out the starting gate to economic access and production potential. There are countless resources apart from ourselves that can be used as additional reward for our own initiative. But there are only so many hours in the day that we can work to compensate anyone else, for the work that they might elect - or not - to provide for us.

Some hierarchies work quite well, for the management of multiple resources which are actually separate from ourselves and the use of our time. But when we deny one another the value of our own limited time sets, others will ultimately clamor to limit the knowledge we would use to help ourselves and one another, by whatever means possible (yesterday's wars, today's robots). That's why it's so hard to use meritocracy in the long run to take time value away from one another, because no institution can fill the holes that are left by the unequal division left between us, even if they want to. No institution should have to. But before extremists take away the ability for government to fill the holes representing our collective time, they need to get real about to the part they invariably play, in what those holes are all about.

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