It’s a funny thing about journalism these days – it goes in cycles. Some guy writes a book about the inequality of meritocracies. It gets reviewed, and those reviews are recycled. Somebody else rewrites the thesis in their own words, and before you know it my Zite page is filled with near-identical articles about the perils of meritocracy.
What is this new idea that has the Left so excited? Briefly, Chris Hayes’ argument in The Twilight of the Elites is that America is suffering from an increase in the social distance between the meritocratic elites that run America, and the working class that makes up most of the country. This meritocratic elite, which controls the vast majority of wealth in the country, is betraying the working class from whence they came. Having climbed the ladder to prosperity, the meritocracy is pulling it up behind them.
As their wealth increases, the distance between the meritocracy and the working class both culturally, and in terms of incentives, prevents our cultured elite from making decisions that help the wider populace. They’re no longer “embedded” in wider America. They don’t want the poor to succeed, at least not badly enough to make it happen.
Hayes et al paint a compelling picture, but like many great narratives it is far too simplistic to describe the true nature of our society. A favourite book of mine that covers many of the same issues is The Lights in the Tunnel by Martin Ford.
In his book, Ford argues that the main problem facing our current society is not so much that the upper classes have betrayed the working class, but that many people in the working class are simply not economically productive anymore. Ultimately, the machines will replace all the workers, leading to a leisurely paradise for all. But for now they’ll just replace some workers, creating a hellish world of unemployment and inequality.
To quote another favourite book, A Farewell To Alms, “there was a class of workers in the preindustrial economy who, offering only brute strength, were quickly swept aside by machinery. By 1914 most horses had disappeared from the British economy, swept aside by steam and internal combustion engines, even though a million had been at work in the early nineteenth century. When their value in production fell below their maintenance costs they were condemned to the knacker’s yard.”
Where once, this argument applied only to physical labour, it now applies to many examples of simple cognitive labour. Google Drivers will replace taxi drivers. AI will allow one security guard to do the work of many. The sheer bulk of taxi drivers, parking attendants, data entry workers, help desk operators, sales assistants and janitors that have been or will be replaced in the coming decades is staggering.
Up until now, our economy has continued to recycle them into new, more intellectually demanding jobs, even as their wages are further eroded by information technology. But this cannot continue forever.
A century ago, basic literacy and numeracy was considered enough education for the working class. Fifty years ago, a high school diploma was considered more than sufficient. Today, a bachelor’s degree barely gets you into the job market, and a masters is becoming the price of entry into the middle class. Average people are being competed out of the labour market.
This system is now creaking under the weight of years of non-productive studentship. Cries are heard that all this education is mere credentialism, that students are leaving barely more intelligent than they started. Our education system isn’t preparing students for the working world even when they engage with it, let alone when they buy their term papers online.
That fact is, education is only as useful as the underlying intelligence of the student. Some students will never have the IQ to be a productive PhD student. If you haven’t made a big scientific discovery by your 30s, it’s probably not going to happen. If you’re not designing new widgets as a teenager, you probably never will.
The above linked article on credentialism advocates creating systems that are more like airline pilot recruitment, where workers prove themselves through years of apprenticeship in military and civilian aviation. However even this proposal ignores the 50% scrub rates in military flying academies, and similar numbers of pilots that linger for years in poverty-wage general aviation jobs. The fact is that increasing numbers of people can’t make the cut in the modern world, with or without an expensive education.
Making matters worse, IQ is largely hereditary. Smart people tend to have smart kids, and they provide them with more stimulating environments, further improving their natural advantages. The result is a large underclass, unable to compete economically with increasingly capable machines and the knowledge-workers that run them. Why do the top 20% of Americans hold over 80% of private wealth? Like it or not, the answer is increasingly because they produced it.
Inequality is not some conspiracy against the poor. It is simple economics. First the working class was replaced by immigration, then by offshoring, and finally by machines. Ask the millions of workers that will be made redundant in China, starting with a half-million at FoxConn.
The question is not how to save the working class. It is how to deal humanely with the sheer mass of non-productive workers that we will face in the future. I’m not very hopeful.