Meritocracy is bad

“The current system of social hierarchy in the United States is of course not a perfect meritocracy (nothing is ever perfect), but it’s genuinely pretty successful on its own meritocratic terms. The problem is that those terms are bad. American society will not get better if we try to make it more genuinely meritocratic along any dimension of possible understanding of what the term means. What we need to do is relax our level of ideological investment in the idea of meritocracy and be more chill.”

“If you want a story about the problem with meritocracy, I would read Dylan Scott’s recent article about what researchers have found about the consequences of private equity takeovers of nursing homes:
“The researchers studied patients who stayed at a skilled nursing facility after an acute episode at a hospital, looking at deaths that fell within the 90-day period after they left the nursing home. They found that going to a private equity-owned nursing home increased mortality for patients by 10 percent against the overall average.

Or to put it another way: “This estimate implies about 20,150 Medicare lives lost due to [private equity] ownership of nursing homes during our sample period” of 12 years, the authors — Atul Gupta, Sabrina Howell, Constantine Yannelis, and Abhinav Gupta — wrote. That’s more than 1,000 deaths every year, on average.”

Why do private equity takeovers kill so many people? It’s not because the Wall Street boys are dimwitted. The people who work in private equity are very smart. Their job is to look for companies that, for whatever reason, are not being managed in a way that maximizes shareholder value. Then they take them over with borrowed money and rejigger operations so as to increase profits. In the case of nursing homes, it turns out that basically, if you give patients more drugs, you can get away with lower staffing levels, and then you can drain the resources that are freed up by that in various ways”

“The healthcare sector poses these kinds of questions in droves. To become a medical doctor, you generally need to get into a good college, have decent grades there, get a good score on a pretty hard standardized test, and then put in a bunch of time into a challenging graduate education program. So doctors are quite a bit smarter than the average American, which seems reasonable. Nobody wants a dumb doctor. But you also don’t really want a shrewd doctor who is putting his smarts to use figuring out how to take advantage of his asymmetrical information vis-a-vis his patients to buy unnecessary services. You want healers who, yes, earn a comfortable living, but also comport themselves according to a code of honor and offer legitimate medical advice.
But this concept of honor and virtue is consistently at odds with the merit principle.”

“The whole point of George Washington isn’t that he had penetrating insights into public policy — it’s that he provided character and ethical leadership under circumstances that lead a lot of countries to become military dictatorships. You don’t want people who are extremely stupid running everything. But in both government and the economy, it’s just not the case that putting the “best and brightest” in charge of everything is a good idea. And crucially, that’s not because the “best and brightest” secretly aren’t really the best and brightest. It’s because just assigning all power and responsibility and economic reward to the best and brightest is a genuinely bad idea.”

“Back in 2019, Rafael Nadal earned $16 million in prize money playing tennis. Gael Monfils, in ninth place, earned $3 million.
These are the kind of sharp income disparities that lead Elizabeth Warren to say the economy is rigged. But of course pro tennis isn’t “rigged” in any normal sense. Fair, tournament-style competitions just tend to produce this kind of outcome where modest differences in ability lead to wild disparities in earnings. It’s honestly just more fun that way. We like to see high-stakes competitions, and we also like to see ability win out, and that’s what you get.

For the purposes of generating an entertaining spectacle, there’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, there’s a reason why pro-inequality people almost always use examples that involve rich athletes or entertainers since it helps you get around questions of system-rigging.

But the basic reality is that it is not great for material resources to be distributed so unequally. The marginal dollar taken out of Nadal’s hands and given to someone in need will greatly increase human flourishing. There are lots of valid questions to ask about the macroeconomic impact of various kinds of taxes and the optimal design of welfare state programs. But the benefits of an egalitarian economic order are clear, real, and don’t fundamentally hinge on the idea that Nadal or anyone else did anything “unfair” to get where they are.

It takes hard work to be the champion, of course, but it’s equally obvious that the vast majority of people would never be as good as Nadal no matter how hard they tried. Almost everyone who’s successful works hard to get where they are. But they have also lucked into abilities that most people don’t have. And beyond that, they have meta-lucked into being alive at a time and place where the abilities they lucked into are valuable. Apparently, the highest-earning distance runner is just the one who happens to be American. An American can get better sneaker endorsements than a Kenyan or Ethiopian whose results are as good or better.

He’s great at what he does. He’s the beneficiary of dumb luck. It’s both, not either/or, and the sooner we accept that everything is like this, the saner we can be.”

“My read on a lot of what’s happening in elite cultural institutions in the United States is that we are currently living through a desperate scramble to make certain kinds of social justice goals and egalitarian commitments fit into a fundamentally unsound meritocratic framework.
What you need to do is actually change the framework — have a society that’s less based on sorting and ranking, and more based on equality.”

“The facts are pretty clear that poor ethics can frequently be rewarded. To have a healthier society, we need more emphasis on fair play, “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” and creating an atmosphere in which people would be ashamed to tell their parents that their well-paid finance job involves identifying ways to make patient care worse. That’s not a simple switch we can flip. And while it obviously includes a regulatory component, it’s fundamentally not a regulatory issue. It’s a question of social values and getting away from celebrating tournament winners and being “the best,” and a shift to celebrating other kinds of virtues including humility, restraint, fairness, and a belief that some things just aren’t worth it.”

Can Americans Inhabit Parallel Political Universes Without Compromising Freedom?

“Last week, I argued that President Donald Trump’s own behavior—rather than a vast nationwide voter-fraud conspiracy—caused his election defeat. I’m used to all types of angry responses (and even had ones over the years that required police intervention), but many of the responses have left me more fearful about the nation’s future than I’ve been in a while.

The comments’ tenor were not the problem. Almost everyone who contacted me was remarkably civil, including those who believe that yours truly is a blithering idiot. Differences of opinion are what makes the world go round, but I am worried about the vast differences in the sources that people rely upon—and by the fundamental lack of trust that many people have in the nation’s institutions.”

“Let’s look at how debates should work. For example, I’ve repeatedly railed against income-tax hikes. I argue that the state should get its spending in order before taxing us again and taxes depress economic growth. In response, tax supporters argue that the rich don’t pay their fair share. We then look at the numbers and argue over what they mean. We draw different conclusions but accept the premise even if we pick nits with some of the data.

Now imagine having that taxation argument with someone who claims (without a scintilla of evidence) that the Department of Finance is rigging the numbers and that none of its data can be trusted. Or with a person who believes that poor people pay the bulk of state taxes. What if upon seeing evidence to the contrary, that person accuses me of ignoring the TRUTH!!! and directs me to a brilliant but unknown economist Grandpa found on YouTube?

You can see the problem. Regarding the Trump voter-fraud conspiracy, many of us rely on the 38-plus judicial rulings that have thus far rebuked the president’s arguments. We trust the nation’s elections system, which—despite its obvious flaws—has been one of the world’s democratic triumphs. If the president had evidence of systemic fraud, we figure most of that would emerge in the courts.

The ensuing debate would center on specific legal cases and judicial findings. What happens, though, when large numbers of people believe that the entire court system, election process, and federal government are essentially in on the scam? As a libertarian, I’m fully aware of flaws in every political and governmental system, but still believe that sufficient checks and balances exist—and that our system is fundamentally legitimate.

What happens when people believe that most journalists are establishment tools who refuse to report that the election was stolen—perhaps by Venezuelan communists who rigged the electronic-voting software? That particular allegation can be disproven with hand counts, but never mind such petty details. It only proves that I’m listening to “lamestream” media sources rather than seeking out the real truth-tellers.”

“What can you say when a major political movement (Trumpism) finds it easier to believe that every major American institution is potentially corrupt than it is to think that a president with a history of telling whoppers is being dishonest again?”

“I used to think the proliferation of sources—including access to primary source material—would save our democracy by empowering people to go around gatekeepers. The biased media system used to limit our voices, after all. In our newly democratized media world, however, Aunt Ethel’s post from some errant numbskull is as credible as a well-researched report in The Wall Street Journal.

A 2018 report from Rand Corporation refers to the situation as “Truth Decay,” which results in “the erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions, and uncertainty over national policy.” That’s putting it mildly. If Americans cannot figure out how to agree on basic facts and restore trust in our institutions, then how long will we remain a peaceful and free society?”