07 November 2011

The Behavioral Aristocracy?

The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | The Tyranny of Meritocracy

You can argue about why this is--are the upper middle class transmitting real skills, or pull? But does it matter? As an editor at The Economist once noted to me, it's actually rather more worrying if what they're giving their children is a strong education and an absolutely ferocious work ethic. An aristocracy that simply bequeaths money and social position to its children will eventually fall. And aristocracy that bequeaths the actual skills required to earn more money than everyone else is self perpetuating.
This makes no sense to me. At least in light of this intro to this post, which seems to indicate that the existence of an elite is not, in and of itself, a problem.
I don't care about income inequality. I care about the absolute condition of the poor--whether they are hungry, cold, and sick. But I do not care about the gap between their incomes, and those of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. Nor the ratio of Gates and Buffett's incomes to mine. And I'm not sure why anyone should. Other than pure envy, it's hard to see how I could somehow be made worse off if Bill Gates' income suddenly doubled, but everything else remained the same.
If we have an aristocracy that's determined by attitudes I am 100% okay with that. Yes, it is easier to acquire those things if your parents work to give them to you. But you can also get those things on your own through no more than making the right choices. A aristocracy based on "ferocious work ethic" is one any sufficiently motivated person can break into.  One based on inherritance of name or money is not.  (Furthermore, how many screw-ups do you know who have successful parents? I know tons. Tons.  Many of them are related to me. I would not simple assume the ability of the "Top X Percent" to successfully impart the appropriate habits to their children.)

I'm reminded of the feeling I get whenever I see ads for water heaters. They always feature people taking painfully cold showers because their house ran out of hot water. This confuses me because running out of water is pretty much optional for all but the largest households. You want your hot water to last? You don't need to buy new plumbing kit. You just need to make the choice to take short showers. Problem goddamned solved.

(Okay, if you're in a family of eight it's not that simple. Sure. Granted. Similarly if you have some dopaminergic disfunction it's not so simple as deciding to focus on your school work. But if you have a typical family, or a typical neural substrate, it is that simple, so I think it's a pretty decent analogy.)

If the "aristocracy" is limited to people with strong work ethics, that's fantastic. Because anyone can chose to develop the same ethic and join the elite. It might not be easy, but who said it would be?

I am very concerned about an aristocracy based on having the right name, having the right biography, the right superficial phenotype, knowing the right people, etc. But the right attitudes? Bring it on.  That is exactly what I want.

PS I'm hesitating to publish this, because I don't think I understand McArdle point. People say "I don't understand" as a semi-euphemistic way of stating their disagreement, but I mean it literally. I really don't get what her thesis is here. Considering the two bowls of stir fry and four glasses of boxed wine in my body, perhaps I should sleep on this, but I really do not get her point, and I don't think racking out for six hours is going to help. I can always count on McArdle to be remarkably cogent, but right now I'm not understanding her. What does this mean, for instance?

And while I don't want to say that a society cannot last that way--obviously, many have, for hundreds of years--I don't think it's healthy for society. It is hard to get civic engagement, or respect for the law, when the bottom 40% or so feels that the game is rigged.
Is the game rigged or not? If it is, we need to un-rig it. But I don't see her claiming that. If it isn't, we need to convince people it isn't. But I don't see her saying that either.

Ah hell. I'm going back to my boxed wine and Sino-Finish martial arts movie.

PPS Okay, the Sino-Finish movie will have to wait another minute.  Elsewhere in this post McArdle makes a big deal about some mobility statistics.  Like much prose discussion of inherently multi-dimensional data, they seem more than cherry-picked.  The overall trend I remember (and I wish I could find a link right now but hell with it) is that in any quintile you/your children have a 20% chance of moving up and a 20% chance of moving down. (Except the top quintile, which obvi can't move up, and the bottom which can't move down, but still have a 20% chance of switching in the one direction.)  To me, that's a pretty reasonable rate of mobility. You don't want it to be a 0% chance of swapping groups, but you also don't want it to be a 33% chance (ie random) of moving up/down either.  So 20% going each way seems fine to me.  None of the individual statistics cited in this post seemed to contradict that overall system, so I'm left wondering what the evidence for such a big problem is.

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