Conservatives presume meritocracy, while liberals lament its absence. But is meritocracy even a good thing? (More)

Pop Quiz – Which two of these three items belong together?

  1. Socket Wrench
  2. Potato
  3. Knife

If you answered 1 and 3 – because both a socket wrench and a knife are tools, because both are made of metal, or because neither is edible – then congratulate yourself for your intelligence. A meritocratic society should reward you with a high-paying job and the respect you deserve.

If you answered 2 and 3 – because you can use a knife to peel a potato, but there are no obvious common applications for a potato and a socket wrench or a knife and a socket wrench – then you’re an ignorant tribal African or you’re as ignorant as a tribal African. Either way, a meritocratic society doesn’t need you and you really shouldn’t breed, first because we’ll have to support your kids, and second because we already have plenty of stupid in the gene pool.

If you’re a conservative, you know that our society is already meritocratic: rich people are rich because they’re smarter than the rest of us, unless they’re women or people of color, in which case they got rich through affirmative action.

If you’re a liberal, you lament that our society is not really meritocratic: most rich people are rich because their parents were rich or at least upper-middle-class, and too many smart people (like you) just don’t get enough breaks.

But what if the ideal of meritocracy is a self-dealing scam?

“A terrible time to not be brainy”

That’s (almost) the thesis of an article by The Atlantic’s David Freedman that begins:

As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory. IQ wasn’t a big factor in whom you married, where you lived, or what others thought of you. The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along – bosses didn’t routinely expect college degrees, much less ask to see SAT scores. As one account of the era put it, hiring decisions were “based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics.”

The 2010s, in contrast, are a terrible time to not be brainy. Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.

The article is worth reading in full, but I’ll try to put it in a nutshell because squirrels like things in nutshells.

Freedman cites evidence that people with below-average IQs earn less, are more prone to suffer from obesity, heart disease, and brain damage from traumatic injury. They are also more likely to spend time in prison. He then writes:

Rather than looking for ways to give the less intelligent a break, the successful and influential seem more determined than ever to freeze them out. The employment Web site Monster captures current hiring wisdom in its advice to managers, suggesting they look for candidates who, of course, “work hard” and are “ambitious” and “nice” – but who, first and foremost, are “smart.” To make sure they end up with such people, more and more companies are testing applicants on a range of skills, judgment, and knowledge. CEB, one of the world’s largest providers of hiring assessments, evaluates more than 40 million job applicants each year. The number of new hires who report having been tested nearly doubled from 2008 to 2013, says CEB. To be sure, many of these tests scrutinize personality and skills, rather than intelligence. But intelligence and cognitive-skills tests are popular and growing more so. In addition, many employers now ask applicants for SAT scores (whose correlation with IQ is well established); some companies screen out those whose scores don’t fall in the top 5 percent.

And yes, most of the top-earning career fields – such as medicine, law, finance, and information technology – do require a threshold of intelligence. But “higher IQ” does not equate to “better employee”:

But even as high intelligence is increasingly treated as a job prerequisite, evidence suggests that it is not the unalloyed advantage it’s assumed to be. The late Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris argued that smart people can make the worst employees, in part because they’re not used to dealing with failure or criticism. Multiple studies have concluded that interpersonal skills, self-awareness, and other “emotional” qualities can be better predictors of strong job performance than conventional intelligence, and the College Board itself points out that it has never claimed SAT scores are helpful hiring filters.

“Not so much how smart we are as how modern we are”

More’s the point, “higher IQ” does not really mean “more intelligent,” as Malcolm Gladwell explains in a brilliant article on the ins-and-outs of IQ testing:

If what I.Q. tests measure is immutable and innate, what explains the Flynn effect – the steady rise in scores across generations?

One Saturday in November of 1984, James Flynn, a social scientist at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, received a large package in the mail. It was from a colleague in Utrecht, and it contained the results of I.Q. tests given to two generations of Dutch eighteen-year-olds. When Flynn looked through the data, he found something puzzling. The Dutch eighteen-year-olds from the nineteen-eighties scored better than those who took the same tests in the nineteen-fifties – and not just slightly better, much better.

Curious, Flynn sent out some letters. He collected intelligence-test results from Europe, from North America, from Asia, and from the developing world, until he had data for almost thirty countries. In every case, the story was pretty much the same. I.Q.s around the world appeared to be rising by 0.3 points per year, or three points per decade, for as far back as the tests had been administered. For some reason, human beings seemed to be getting smarter.

What Flynn discovered, as Gladwell reports, is that IQ tests measure a very specific kind of ‘intelligence’:

The best way to understand why I.Q.s rise, Flynn argues, is to look at one of the most widely used I.Q. tests, the so-called WISC (for Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children). The WISC is composed of ten subtests, each of which measures a different aspect of I.Q. Flynn points out that scores in some of the categories – those measuring general knowledge, say, or vocabulary or the ability to do basic arithmetic – have risen only modestly over time. The big gains on the WISC are largely in the category known as “similarities,” where you get questions such as “In what way are ‘dogs’ and ‘rabbits’ alike?” Today, we tend to give what, for the purposes of I.Q. tests, is the right answer: dogs and rabbits are both mammals. A nineteenth-century American would have said that “you use dogs to hunt rabbits.”

“If the everyday world is your cognitive home, it is not natural to detach abstractions and logic and the hypothetical from their concrete referents,” Flynn writes. Our great-grandparents may have been perfectly intelligent. But they would have done poorly on I.Q. tests because they did not participate in the twentieth century’s great cognitive revolution, in which we learned to sort experience according to a new set of abstract categories. In Flynn’s phrase, we have now had to put on “scientific spectacles,” which enable us to make sense of the WISC questions about similarities. To say that Dutch I.Q. scores rose substantially between 1952 and 1982 was another way of saying that the Netherlands in 1982 was, in at least certain respects, much more cognitively demanding than the Netherlands in 1952. An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.

Turns out I didn’t invent that example about the socket wrench, potato, and knife:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement – that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?

“Society needs a real economic solution for that worker”

What the fuss is all about, simply, is the seductive ideal of meritocracy. If our society rewards intelligence – or would, if only we leveled the playing field – then it matters whether it’s ‘correct’ to pair a socket wrench and a knife because both are tools, or to pair a potato and a knife because you use them together. Choosing one of those answers makes you “more intelligent” and thus more deserving in a truly meritocratic society. Choosing the other answer makes you “less intelligent” and thus less deserving in a truly meritocratic society.

But what if the ideal of meritocracy is simply one of those abstractions adored by ‘modern’ intelligence … an idea that socket-wrench-and-knife-choosing people congratulate each other for idolizing, and cite as a reason to take ever-larger slices of our economic pie?

The Washington Monthly’s David Atkins explains:

Policymakers are well aware that many less skilled jobs are being eliminated by automation and offshoring, while acknowledging that there’s little one can do about the latter and even less about the former. Thus the mad rush to push everyone into creative class “information” jobs that are thought to better be able to withstand the economic onslaught, and the insistence on trade deals that double down on absurdly stringent copyright laws so that industrialized nations can protect their new “information economies” from piracy.

But there are, of course, two problems with this. The first is that the not even information jobs will be safe from the ravages of an automated and globalized world: China and India will produce the plurality of college graduates by 2020 (mostly in STEM fields), even as increasingly sophisticated efficiency software and big data solutions eliminate large numbers of jobs from middle management to radiologists to stockbrokers.

The second and most important is that not everyone can become information sector workers with college degrees – and they shouldn’t have to in order to be guaranteed dignity and security in our economy. One of the most infuriating aspects of our record inequality is that the country has more than enough wealth to take care of all of our citizens. It’s just that the wealth is unfairly distributed on a scale that most people fail to comprehend. Talk about inequality and most people think of poor urban neighborhoods or rural trailer parks compared to nice upscale McMansions. But that’s not where the biggest inequality truly lies. The biggest inequality is between those in the top tenth of one percent of incomes, and just about everyone else.

And that “everyone else” includes people of below average intelligence in precarious jobs that used to guarantee a middle-class lifestyle. They deserve economic answers, too, that don’t involve market-based non-solutions like retraining programs and adult education. To paraphrase one lawmaker recently, a 55-year-old coal worker today is not going to be the solar engineer of tomorrow. Society needs a real economic solution for that worker.

“A society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel”

Specifically, society needs to recognize that the person who pairs a knife with a potato because one is used with the other is employing a very concrete, real-world kind of intelligence. So is the person who knows how to repair your car or washing machine, or how to hang curtains or a new door, or how to weld, as Mike Rowe described in his testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation:

Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it’s getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They’re retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them.

Alabama’s not alone. A few months ago in Atlanta I ran into Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture. Tom told me about a governor who was unable to move forward on the construction of a power plant. The reason was telling. It wasn’t a lack of funds. It wasn’t a lack of support. It was a lack of qualified welders.

In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it.

In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of “higher education” to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled “alternative.” Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.

Yes, a “good” plumber will probably be more successful than a “bad” plumber. But the difference between them probably will not boil down to characteristics that we think of as “intelligence.” It will be something more.

Our society does need “smart” people. But we don’t need only “smart” people … and people who think so probably are only “smart” in the ways that matter to other “smart” people. It’s time to stop letting them define what everyone must be.


Photo Credit:


Good day and good nuts