System Failure: What David Brooks Doesn’t Get About Meritocracy — And Why He Never Will

David Brooks’s latest, this one on the meritocracy, is a good example of how all the right questions and smart anaylsis in the world is not going to make up for a totally wrong premise — and how totally wrong premises are often the result of lazy, ideologically constrained thinking.

Here’s the premise:

One of the features of the Obama years is that we get to witness an enormous race, which you might call the race between meritocracy and government. On the one side, there is the meritocracy, which widens inequality. On the other side, there is President Obama’s team of progressives, who are trying to mitigate inequality. The big question is: Which side is winning?

So it’s a little subtle, I guess, but right there in that opening paragraph Brooks is making a bunch of assumptions. And they’re not banal assumptions but rather highly political ones that will have everything to do with how one supposes the problem of inequality should be solved — or whether it’s a problem at all. Chief among them is the idea of the meritocracy actually being on the level.

Trying to explain the meritocracy and how it works, Brooks goes straight to its beating heart — America’s most exclusive (and expensive) private colleges and universities:

First, there is our system of higher education, which is like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks up some of the smartest people from across the country and concentrates them in a few privileged places.

Hmm. So while it’s undoubtedly true that many or even most students in the top-tier schools are there because of their skills and wit, it’s also unquestionable that less inspiring things like nepotism and money-grubbing play a significant role. A 2011 Harvard report, for example, found that the children of alumni — who are, incidentally, more likely to be white and wealthy — were seven times more likely to gain acceptance. What’s more, there’s reason to believe that the best students from lower incomes don’t even botherto apply to the top-end schools anyway! Other than that, though, Brooks is so far doing just fine.

He uses the wiggle word “some” when referring to the best and the brightest gobbled up by the Ivies. But the problem is that Brooks’ whole argument rests on the idea that not “some” but most or all of the best kids from around the country are heading off to these upper-echelon schools. Because he’s ultimately trying to make an argument about how a whole generation of one percenters become so alienated from the rest of the country, both socially and economically. If it were just happening to “some” kids, it wouldn’t matter much, would it?

What Brooks sees, instead, is a much larger process of acculturation, in which

Smart high school students from rural Nebraska, small-town Ohio and urban Newark get to go to good universities. When they get there they often find a culture shock….They may have been raised among people who enter the rooms of the mighty with the nerves of a stranger, but they are now around people who enter the highest places with the confident sense they belong.

This is an old and thus comfortable American story, the naive but brilliant bumpkin who has to learn to sink or swim in the crazy, kinetic world of the Big City. My sense is that it’s not as prevalent as it used to be — maybe because folks have noticed that, almost always, there’s a barely sublimated subtext of racial and ethnic anxiety undergirding the entire narrative…? — but I could be wrong. What’s less unclear is that as familiar as the story is, it’s wrong. At least for understanding the present day.

Nowadays, as a fascinating and deeply depressing recent story from Brooks’ own New York Times reported, the (few) diamonds in the rough that (try to) make it to the top schools don’t last long — and it’s not because of “culture shock” either. Or at least not primarily or even especially significantly. The reason these kids fail is because, even with federal and private loans, they quite simply cannot afford to go to college without working on the side. And in hyper-competitive environments full of students who need not worry about their finances (unless their parents are trying to teach them some abstract moral lesson about self-reliance) working on the side can be enough to ruin a future.

Whether it’s out of ignorance or mendaciousness, Brooks recognizes none of this. After the initial culture shock, he insists, these students find that:

[T]he system works. In the dorms, classrooms, summer internships and early jobs they learn how to behave the way successful people do in the highly educated hubs. There’s no economic reason to return home, and maybe it’s not even socially possible anymore.

The best way to understand how it is, exactly, that Brooks manages to get so much wrong in so few words is to look at that first sentence. The system works. That’s supremely important to a guy with Brooks’ politics, a guy who likes to think of himself as a “national greatness” conservative. Politicians may be craven; bureaucrats may be self-interested; and voters may be selfish and short-sighted. Brooks’ll grant all that. But the system — well, it’s likeMacArthur’s the corps. It cannot fail; it can only be failed.

And if protecting that fundamental belief requires David Brooks to get the workings of his beloved meritocracy almost 100 percent wrong, so be it. The system will be fine. It always is.

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24 thoughts on “System Failure: What David Brooks Doesn’t Get About Meritocracy — And Why He Never Will

  1. Great piece Elias. I usually take great pains to argue with something you’ve written. But all I can say is you took the words right out of my mouth (or the words that would have come out had I your penchant for staying on topic, getting to the point, and all-around incisivity).

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  2. I think you set yourself an impossible task, trying to enumerate the bad assumptions that Brooks makes in this article. That smart = academically successful? That the academically successful Nebraskan would feel alienated in a place like Harvard? That the cause of that alienation would be the high caliber of fellow students? That a prospective Harvard student doesn’t have the drive of a successful person, or that he learns that drive in school?

    The only way a person could have written this column is if he truly believed that he was among the best and the brightest. Just for kicks, I checked Brooks’s Wikipedia entry. University of Chicago: fair enough. But the real chuckle is that “In 2013, he will teach a course at Yale University on philosophical humility.” One would be better off sending a peacock to a group of dead chickens to teach them how to be demure.

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  3. Brooks gives away his bias by stating meritocracy increases inequality. Leaving aside he doesn’t define how much inequality is good or bad, there is no reason to think meritocracy would do this. The military is pretty highly meritocratic yet does not have the same level of income inequality as the civilian population. Inequality is driven by many things that have nothing to do with merit such as taxes, gov benefits, inflation, etc, etc. He believes rich people are rich based on their being more wonderful and superior to the rest.

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    • The military is pretty highly meritocratic yet does not have the same level of income inequality as the civilian population.

      The military doesn’t have a market wage system. Income inequality is low because the government decrees that it will be.

      Inequality is driven by many things that have nothing to do with merit such as taxes, gov benefits, inflation, etc, etc.

      Income taxes and government benefits are anti-meritocratic. Obviously you can reduce the income inequality by imposing anti-meritocratic redistribution schemes, but that doesn’t refute the claim that the market wage system is meritocratic.

      It’s also worth noting that “merit” in this context doesn’t refer to any kind of platonic ideal. Rather, it refers to producing goods and services that people are willing to pay for. The idea that the market is supposed to reward people for conforming to your—or anyone’s—personal standards of excellence is a strawman.

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  4. I’ve occasionally thought that Brooks ought to just wear a monocle already so that the caricaturization that he is will be more obvious to folks inclined to think he has anything truly useful or insightful to say.

    I ran across this NYMag piece on his Yale course that’s been all the buzz, and really, what is there to say beyond rolling one’s eyes? Check out the syllabus link. Crikey. Dude’s going [cough] deep:

    Week 1: The Reticence Code (January 15)
    How did American leaders in the 1940s and 1950 conceive of their obligations to their country? We will survey episodes from the lives of George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower and various “Wise Men.” We will pay special attention to those who attended elite prep schools and universities.

    [emphasis mine]

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  5. I think you are focused on the small points of the article and not focusing on the bigger picture that Brooks is painting. He mentions my hometown (Flint, MI) in the article. I can tell you that the city is basically a shell of its former self since most of the auto plants and related industries have closed. Those of us who were able to go to college and get degrees, got out of town. The people who are left are basically stuck. They don’t have the skills or the education to compete in the modern economy. Providing government services and payments might help take some the sting of poverty away, but it won’t necessarily give people good jobs and it won’t restore communities like Flint.

    When Brooks says the system works, he isn’t celebrating the meritocracy. He’s saying that it works in rewarding those who go to college, get a degree and get a good job. But he’s also saying that the system is leaving the underclass behind and there aren’t easy answers to giving them the opportunities to succeed.

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    • I agree with Dennis’ take on the article. Those that enter the higher education system and marry similar people and move into neighborhoods with similar “system” graduates are doing just fine. The political party agendas are not addressing the structural core issues of inequality.

      Obviously I agree with the article that a centralized bureaucracy of the best and brightest progressives gathered in Washington DC will not be able to redesign the system from above in a fundamentally superior way.

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    • I agree with your take on the problem, though I also feel that Brooks has in mind a much more ‘elite versus the rest’ view of meritocracy and inequality. The fact that he ignores much of the structural forces which warp the meritocracy (or at least undermine equality of opportunity) speaks to his myopia with regard to the problem of income inequality.

      I did have a problem with using the affordable care act as example of the type of program that will do these people little to no good. While Brooks sees a program doing little to lift people out of poverty, I see a program which is helping alleviate the problem in multiple ways. Providing (better) health care to children materially improves outcomes and increases opportunity* Difficult decisions and trade off’s can drain a persons psychological reserve and make it harder to make good long term choices, the ACA will go some ways to taking a source of uncertainty and fear off the table.

      To Roger’s point, I think the core drivers of inequality are reasonably well known–technological change, off shoring of jobs/free movement of capital, and, to a lesser extent, loss of unions. Seeing as that, with the possible exceptions of unions, the trends which are causing income inequality are not those most would wish to slow down, how do we react other than to try and redistribute income and benefits to achieve not equality of outcome, but some semblance of equality of opportunity.

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      • I will add that critics of inequality need to first make their case of what the right level of inequality is, especially considering vastly differing levels of educational investment, hours worked and time preferences.

        Said another way, people who don’t spend time studying aren’t supposed to get the same grades as those who do, are they?

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        • I’m trying not to focus on inequality as a problem itself*, rather, I’m saying there are larger forces causing inequality, a deteriorating standard of living, and, more importantly, a lack of opportunity for some areas and people in this country. And all of these, while theoretically separate, are bound up together and growing in this country.

          So your right, there is no honest way to say we should move to ‘this’ level of inequality. But we can see the effects of these forces in places like Flint, and I think we have a responsibility, as a society, to try an create an environment were, through unemployment insurance and retraining, we help people cope with the effects of free trade, skill biased technological change, etc. That for the kids in these places that are trying to survive this monumental change we try, impossible though it may be, to provide an opportunity for advancement which is even a simulacrum of their more affluent peers. These programs may or may not have an effect on inequality**, but they are aimed at other goals.

          Brooks’ piece, by assuming the meritocracy is running smoothly, seems to miss the game.

          *There is an argument that once inequality extreme levels that support for the political and social system by the majority of people evaporates, though I this tells us basically nothing about your question and I’m not advocating it here.

          **I actually can see an argument for these policies lowering inequality as a side effect. Wealth and opportunity breeds wealth and opportunity, compounding each other over time. The US does surprisingly bad metrics gauging social mobility, and equalizing opportunity is one way to short circuit the latter problem.

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          • Gaelen,

            I find your comments to be excellent. There may be a few areas where I would could pick minor nits but in general I agree with your emphasis. We need a society where people have the opportunity and institutional support and incentives to succeed. I feel we have institutional incentives to fail in some cases and places.

            I did feel though that Brooks would agree with you as well. My take away from his aricle was that the system works for those entering the system, but that boh parties were missing the boat on getting more into the system.

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            • Thanks, and after rereading the essay I think you make a fair point, the system Brooks discusses does seem to be limited to higher ed.

              ” I feel we have institutional incentives to fail in some cases and places.”

              I think this is a great point, and one to often overlooked or ignored in the (liberal) circles I run in. But critical reflection of your policies and priorities is always hard.

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  6. I mean basically all he’s saying is that liberal programs don’t do more than they’re meant on their face to do: mitigate with more or less direct (earmarked) transfers the extremeness of the inequality created by the meritocracy (if you accept that is what drives inequality). He says liberals don’t have much of a plan to even more fundamentally alter the structure of society. He also says the plans they have concentrate power too much in Washington (even though by his own example, all that really happens is a transfer of income from high-income to lower-income places all around the country using a formula maybe or maybe not determined in Washington, okay, I guess ultimately approved in Washington, so okay. But still, that’s actually not really all that central; it moves money from here (Manhattan, Silicon Valley) to there (Flint and Sun City) – not that much of it actually stays in Washington. And the way to get even less of it to would be to make the Pentagon the Triangle or some such. ANYway…)

    So is Brooks saying there’s a way to fundamentally change the inequality structure that lies outside Washington entirely? He says Republicans don’t have that answer, but who cares about them, he’s the one with NYTimes real estate. So David Brooks, do you want to fundamentally alter the path toward inequality you say is cleared by (what I take you to regard as the natural, rightful) meritocractic order by which we currently live? Or not? Cuz you sure as heck raise the question. And if so, what’s your idea for that?

    Sheesh.

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  7. if we take away the confounding of elite with upper class which have their own unique tensions (i.e. anyone these days can grow up to a President or a Supreme Court Justice, as long as they have Harvard or Yale on their resumes), isn’t the overall point correct though?

    Aren’t the small towns and lesser urban centers emptying out for the big metro megalopolises around the country? (unless there’s oil?). Particularly for those with the drive and talent to at least get themselves to the flagship (or second place) state University? Doesn’t the result of that self-selection sorting leave an even higher localized gini coefficient in those places that are proverbially and literally left behind – that the current Democratic establishment has no answer for? (leaving the Republicans an opening to appeal to the ‘bitter clingers’?)

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  8. The “tell’ is in the statement that” Meritocracy increases inequality’, which is deliberate slight of hand. Sociopathic radical reaction (in America, particularly) to the overwhelmingly successful Social Democratic record in virtually every industrialized nations from 1945 through say 1970 is what has caused the tragic re-impoverishment of our citizenry. Cheered on at every turn by this wittering buffoon, whose career arc is itself a sufficient refutation of the shortcomings of “Meritocratic puffery.

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