The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Meritocracy? What Meritocracy?

From Saez, Chetty, et al

So, unless you think that genetic potential is that unequally distributed (and can explain eras where this chart did not apply, as in the post-WWII decades), you can pretty much forget “meritocracy.”

Meritocracy is just a way of saying, “We test for the things the middle and upper classes have the resources to prepare for their children.” And that’s before we get to the extra opportunities having wealthier parents gives one simply from network effects.

Fairness and justice are obviously big issues, but just as bad is that many of these people might contribute in a huge way, and are never given the opportunity.

Stephen Jay Gould once said:

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

These days, McDonalds, Walmarts, and Amazon warehouses…

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  1. Just eyeballing this, it’s a statistical straight line. I thus find it extremely improbable. I mean, consider just 2 data segments, 90th income rank and 100th income rank. It will be easy peasy from families in the 90th income rank to pay for their kids college education – they probably won’t even need loans. Yes, even if will be even easier to 100th percentile kids. Meanwhile, if anything, they will likely be less spoiled than 100th rank kids, and thus their expectation is that they will have to work, and do well in college, to succeed, financially. I would thus expect kids from the 90th income percentile to outperform 100th income percentile kids.

    I haven’t researched this, at all, but would invite anybody interested to find other sources of data to either confirm, or disconfirm, what is being presented.

    I’m deeply skeptical.

  2. Yes, even if will be even easier to 100th percentile kids.

    should be

    Yes, even if it will be even easier for 100th income rank kids.

  3. atcooper

    It’s not statistical. It’s a direct relationship, not a distribution. Think velocity, speed over time. Not IQ distribution or what have you.

  4. atcooper

    Correction, distance over time. Been a while since I’ve been in the classroom and a bit tired.

  5. I don’t get your point. The supposedly “real” data points are remarkably close to a straight line. Thus, I referred to them as a “statistical straight line”.

  6. There’s a graph titled “The Distribution of Family Income for 18-to-24-Year-Olds Who Earned a Bachelor’s Degree” @

    The data graphed has the kind of “wiggles” I expect in real data, that hasn’t been “adjusted”, let’s say.

    Unfortunately, you can’t readily compare this with the Saez graph, because, while they’re sort of talking about a similar thing, they’re distinct.

  7. Alex V

    To the skeptics…. you could of course follow the conveniently provided link to the original data and use that to critique the findings. But that would be too difficult.

  8. Hugh

    I think the overall point is valid, but the graph has problems. For example, what is the role of debt in the equation?

    I would note that the y axis is attendance (getting into college), not performance there.

    I would add that the financial component isn’t the only familial one. When I was in grad school, it wasn’t unusual to meet people who became professors whose parents were professors, or who became doctors because one of their parents was.

    I think the Ivies are all about networking and prestige. I found most of their products surprisingly mediocre, but this didn’t stop them from being put at the head of the line in any job search.

    What I find distressing and a growing threat to our society is the classism Ian is talking about. Now most major, and not so major, public universities are beyond the reach of most of the public to attend even in exchange for crushing lifelong debt.

  9. anon y'mouse

    i think you people are getting hung up on the stats and missing the point.

    payment is only the final step in the operation.

    the wealthier one is, the more one can give to their child to make them college-capable and able to utilize their natural intelligence (whatever that is. IQ is bunk, as far as i am concerned) to succeed in THIS CULTURE NOW. from intelligent toys, access to tech, to fancy pre-school and safe neighborhoods. poverty becomes a brain disease (and contributes to personality disorders through coping mechanisms one develops to deal with it. but this is my personal theory from having lived it), and then wrecks your chance for the future by making it certain that whatever you might have developed is spent just securing basic needs–you become an adult and never have time to go to school because you are barely earning enough to stay in place and are too weary to attend to your studies. even living in more crowded, noisier homes (probably with unsafe pipes and lead paint, but not necessarily) has an impact on school achievement, much less access to inadequate (in all ways–quantity and nutrients) food. the Uppers like to describe this as a “cultural” issue of non-emphasis on learning, when really it is mostly the side-effect of poverty or even relative poverty. notice i haven’t even discussed the fact that Public schooling in this country has been degraded to the level of just passing kids through so the local bureaucrats can continue to get their handouts from the resentful taxpayers (who mostly send their kids to 5figure/yr private schools), and then no automatic provision of trade school (a nice compromise for those places which had it when they did have it–England, for a time but no more from what i have been told). and then you have to compete with even a middle class child whose parents DID give them some of this for jobs. and then they tell you that in order to answer phones and open mail and do data entry, you need a Bachelor’s degree (keeps the lower orders out. nice screening process you have here…). yeah, then people wonder why the lower classes are pissed. because you patronizing “folk” think we should sit down and shut up because we have plenty of polyester clothing and a smartphone (plus rigged contract), or drive a car (necessity in this country. try to work without it in any place but the most urban).

    after 18-20 years of this, it almost doesn’t matter if the poor people were suddenly “given” the money to go to school. hence our mobility issue (worse here than in the Old Countries our ancestors fled from for some of the same reasons–entrenched aristocracy owned everything and wouldn’t let go), and our competing myths of Meritocracy and constant “Rags to Riches” fairy tales. and yes, it’s NOT just the “1%”. it’s the classes immediately above us who had some of these things and judge us because we don’t “measure up”. we dont’ measure up because we did not have those things, and were unable to develop our talents in many cases. and some of you expect that because a small percentage of us had the skill, determination, ability and strength (physical, mental & emotional) to work a job AND get a degree, and somehow succeed in the end, because “it is possible”, then those of us who do not are failing. some of us just don’t have the strength beyond survival.

    **my “you” is not directed at anyone specific, nor am i attempting to straw man anyone. just speaking in generalities of what i have experienced in my life. when people find out what i do for a living, they are ALWAYS shocked: “can’t you get into something better? you don’t seem to belong there…” most people (i am prepared to say all, but some of you think that there are those of us who are “better” than others and thus deserve more because they earn it by being better) do NOT BELONG THERE.

  10. To the non-skeptics: Here is a link, to wikipedia’s “replication crisis” page, which should make anybody skeptical about non-skepticism towards sciency sounding claims.

    IMNSHO, we live in a deeply manipulated society. My ‘classical’ example is that of the CIA corrupting the world of abstract art, which, frankly, most people don’t give a hoot about, anyway. Leave no stone unturned, to make the world safe for capitalism! Apparently, no stone was left unturned!

    The first post (or close thereto) I ever made in cyber space was about the lack of substantive political issues on billboards. Is this really just an oversight on the part of groups, across the political spectrum, who have money to spend on their various causes? One can understand bans on controversial issues in broadcast media, especially nowadays, as they might invite boycotts by people of the opposite persuasion, on the media provider.

    But billboards?? How does one boycott entities related to a billboard? (So as to suppress a message you don’t like, by targeting entities that don’t have a stake in the outcome.)

    Gee whiz, it’s almost as though somebody made a decision to keep the public commons apolitical, lest the little people start to make inconvenient demands. Sort of reminds me how facebook, twitter, and google are overtly repressing politically oriented voices, no longer being satisfied with more passive methods like shadow-banning. The cat’s out of the social media bag, but it’s not like the tech giants aren’t complicit in doing their damnedest to put the cat back where it ‘belongs’.

    I think the lack of political billboarding is related to corruption even of the world of abstract art. No, I can’t prove it. But I remain proudly skeptical.

  11. ponderer

    I’m sympathetic to your conclusion but I don’t think the data presented is related. College attendance doesn’t show merit. Meritocracy implies that people in positions of influence and power are there by virtue of their abilities to produce optimum outcomes. Education in the US has more to do with societal control than learning. If the majority of our policy makers went to Ivy league schools does that guarantee good outcomes for their policies? I’d have a hard time coming up with even a mediocre policy outcome compared to previous periods. The state of the economy and foreign relations are only superior to previous periods if you manipulate the numbers (like dropping people off of unemployment rolls). Only crime is down afaik, and with a 1/4 of the worlds prison population it’s hard to say that its an optimal situation.

  12. Alex V

    Metamars, that’s great! I’m also a skeptic to “sciency sounding claims”! But the best way to debunk them is to look at the data they present and then refute them.

    Ian was nice enough to provide a path to the evidence he’s using, if you follow the link at the top of the page, and look at the bottom of that post. You ask for more data without even having looked at the original data, interpreting the chart essentially on gut feel.

  13. nihil obstet

    Meritocracy confuses the issues of who should do what and who should get what. I want the best brain surgeon to do brain surgery, but I don’t want him to run my life. Sorry, Ben Carson! Also, I don’t want Ben Carson and/or his children to have access to lots more resources than anybody else and their children.

    Meritocracy is all about concocting a rationale for authoritarianism and inequality.

  14. Think of all the talented writers who probably would never have written on a regular basis, or even much at all, were it not for the internet and the likes of blogging
    …and who probably will never see a penny for their aptitudes and online efforts
    …and whose online material most likely gets buried in the shuffle due to the magnitude of materials produced online overall.

  15. Willy

    I would’ve thought that: richest + best connected = todays typical scientist, would’ve been a pretty good science skeptic argument.

  16. Stirling Newberry

    Meritocracy – things the rich people need but don’t have. Just remember, you get a PhD to work for a billionaire who needs your mind, to screw things up.

  17. mago

    Ah, all the Shakespeares and Van Halens we’ll never know.

  18. Herman

    We should just dump the concept of meritocracy entirely. Most people don’t realize that the late Michael Young, the author who popularized the term, meant it to be a satire of a dystopian future, not something to actively promote as a good thing. Young later regretted that most people failed to understand this.

    See Young’s opinion piece from 2001 on the issue:

    Additionally, a meritocratic society is probably not possible without something approaching totalitarian levels of freedom suppression. Chris Dillow has made this point in several blog posts.

    Finally, even if you think we are living in a true meritocracy or that we should aim to live in a true meritocracy in the future, I don’t see how that would justify massive social inequalities. You cannot control your genetics or your early childhood upbringing so even if inequality reflected genetics and parenting instead of wealth and connections it still wouldn’t justify massive amounts of inequality because your status in life would still be determined by who your parents were so basically it would still be based on luck.

    This is why I don’t find genetic determinist arguments by people like Charles Murray to be all that convincing. It is interesting to see conservatives and even some neoliberals make those sorts of arguments since they demolish the “study hard, work hard” bootstrapping ideology. How can someone bootstrap themselves into a higher income bracket if they are genetically determined to be less intelligent and talented? No amount of hard work will fix that. In that case the poor really are not at fault for their plight, which is the opposite of what most conservatives and neoliberals seem to think.

  19. The fit of the points is not surprising, and doesn’t point to a problem with the data. However, in my opinion the graph is somewhat deceptive.

    This is not a scatter plot. The points are aggregates, not samples, so they average out. They are like bars on a histogram. There is every reason to expect that the relationship between the variables, whatever it is, is smooth. If you roll and 3d6 and don’t get a bell curve, that only means you didn’t roll enough times. Similarly, if the points here produced a discontinuous curve, that would indicate that the source data was bad or insufficient.

    Before looking at any data at all, we could expect a smooth curve. The question is what kind of curve, and with what parameters. This graph shows a straight line, and a steep slope. Is this accurate? If there was a flaw with the methodology, we should still expect a smooth curve. So the fit of the points doesn’t tell us much.

    This is why I say that the graph is deceptive. By looking like a scatter plot, it takes advantage of our intuition that a good fit indicates a strong relationship, increasing confidence in the result. Here, it is the slope that indicates the strong relationship. The points are a misleading distraction.

  20. Hugh

    Meritocracy is a fiction and a lie to justify or hide a two-class system. If you are a have, it’s all about merit. If you are a have-not, it’s about your lack of it.

    The class system came to my mind yesterday when Michael Cohen got three years. Cohen is a rough and ready schmuck. A sort of everyman crook. And perhaps I am being naive but the only one so far who seems to have had a coming to Damascus moment and has tried to do the right thing, at least in all things Trump. At the same time, you have a retired three star general and national security advisor Michael Flynn who came damn close to committing treason, acted as an agent of a foreign power, conspired or was certainly open to conspiring to kidnap someone (Gulan), an act that could have earned him a life sentence, and prosecutors want to give him a pass, and not just him but as far as I can tell, his son as well. And not just that but they praise him to the skies. Now the media have been saying that Flynn is Mueller and Cohen is the Southern District of New York, and they portray SDNY as real hard nosed, etc., but this is horse hockey. SDNY just signed a non-prosecution agreement with the National Enquirer’s parent company AMI for its role in what Cohen was sentenced for and it had already given a grant of immunity to Chairman/CEO of AMI, NE publisher, and Trump crony David Pecker who was up to his eyelids in it.

    Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with Cohen getting slammed. My point is if he gets slammed, then Flynn and Pecker should have gotten crushed. But they walk and Cohen gets non-trivial jail time.

  21. bob mcmanus

    Meritocracy hell. Even aristocracy.

    Wonder Woman, Lion King, Aquaman, Thor, Black Panther. Obama and Prince Harry.

    The popular delusions of the identity crowd include an re-identification with freaking ROYALTY.

  22. Ian Welsh

    I’m out of the hospital, but still not 100%. (Perhaps 25%). I’ll see what I can do about posting,a nd comment approval should be somewhat faster, but may still be delayed, as I expect to spend a lot of time asleep, etc…

  23. anon y'mouse

    rest up, Ian. don’t sweat the modding. best you just get well.

    i’m sure you are grateful you are in Canada and not here!

  24. Hugh

    Best wishes. If you can post, it sounds like things went OK.

  25. Donna Curtis

    Take it easy, Ian. Just concentrate on recovering. Best wishes.

  26. Herman

    Best wishes, Ian. Take it easy. I hope your recovery goes well.

  27. Covegirl

    I met the smartest people I’ve ever met when I lived out of a backpack and hitch-hiked across the country. Sleeping under train trestles in the back country or way off the beaten track. There are two Phd’s in my family and I work at an Ivy League university for comparison.

    A great many really, really smart people want – and need -no part in our socio-pathic social norms. Indeed, one can make a very good argument that the ones who do participate are deeply programmed to self neuter their emotional and intellectual capabilities. And then there are the “winners”, the “successful.” All of whom I’ve met are deranged, abusive narcissists.

  28. Caoimhín

    As noted, the graph is not a scatter plot. It’s more akin to a Q-Q plot. The relevant questions are what the slope of the line is and whether it shows any departures from linearity.

    In a theoretically perfectly meritocratic system, where likelihood of college enrolment and parental income are entirely unrelated, the plot would be a horizontal line. (“Theoretical” because this would seem to require that college enrolment be unrelated to parental schooling and parental schooling be unrelated to parental income – unlikely in modern economies.)

    The plot in post-WWII decades would look much like the present day plot describing access to high quality education. A more shallowly sloped line at a lower average rate of attendance, with departures from linearity downward at low levels of parental income and steeply upward at high levels (i.e., not meritocratic).

  29. S Brennan

    Don’t disagree with the graph, nor, Ian’s point. However, I do think effort+talent should be rewarded and slothfulness punished, but neither to extreme as espoused/practised today. What’s more, I see no reason to not tax at 50% inheritance over $100,000.00 as was done as recently as the 70’s…but before I blah blah blah on…let me shorten it.

    FDR, a rich, privileged kid, who God crumpled with polio, understood and then executed the most balanced set of economic policies ever seen on this earth.

    The FDR years, [circa 1932-1978], saw millions lifted from hopelessness, a return to his policies would “insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” for the US and it’s allies.

  30. S Brennan

    Ian…not quite clear about what you just spoke ???

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