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January 06, 2005

End of Meritocracy in America - I think not!!!

The Economist is one of my favorite magazines.  I try to never miss an issue.   That is why it disappointed me to read their special survey on meritocracy in America.   Registration is sometimes required to access the article so for those who cannot access it, the Economist makes the following points:

  1. Income inequality has reached levels not seen since the Gilded age
  2. Past few presidential candidates have been "dynasty" candidates
  3. Percentage of people who move from the bottom fifth of society to the top fifth has declined

And they end the piece with this conclusion:

In his classic “The Promise of American Life”, Herbert Crowley noted that “a democracy, not less than a monarchy or an aristocracy, must recognize political, economic, and social distinctions, but it must also withdraw its consent whenever these discriminations show any tendency to excessive endurance.” So far Americans have been fairly tolerant of economic distinctions. But that tolerance may not last for ever, if the current trend towards “excessive endurance” is not reversed.

I feel they have made quite a few leaps of logic to make this conclusion:

  1. Income inequality is by itself not an indicator of lack of meritocracy.  If meritocracy means that people are rewarded on the basis of merit that unless we all had the same merit, we should get rewarded differently.  In fact rise of income inequality might actually signal more meritocracy because we have figured out better how to reward merit and punish non-merit!!
  2. Looking at Presidential candidates to make a conclusion is the kind of anecdotal arm chair analysis that you don't expect of the Economist.  Better statistics to look at are the stats for congressmen and senators as well as the stats for city and state seats.  In the last 10 years the percentage of women in politics has gone up considerably in America.  If you look at anecdotal evidence, Louisiana elected two Asian congressman in 2004 (one Asian Indian and one Arab American).  That's anecdotal progress
  3. Percentage of people moving up from the bottom to the top is not meaningful unless we also know some thing about their ability or merit.  Meritocracy does not mean musical chairs.  It means society rewards people based on their merit rather than based on their race/class/pedigree. 

From a personal standpoint, I find the Economist article very off base.  Every week I meet close to approximately 10 companies looking for money and more than half of them have been founded by entrepreneurs who are immigrants or folks from modest backgrounds.  Of the five companies I sit on the board of, 3 are founded by immigrants who came to this country with no money and no connections. I am sure my experience is not dissimilar from other venture capitalists.

My Economist correspondent you are wrong with your conclusion and if you don't believe me, just head down to Silicon Valley and check out some of her startups.

Posted by Venky Ganesan at 08:47 AM in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink

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Comments

Ok, so you worked your way up and you think you deserve the merit that you have. Great. What particular career did you use to leverage yourself into that merit? That career path is gone now. Oh, kids will still take that path, but the smart ones, the ones that will be exemplers of merit in twenty years, won't travel that path. They will have to do something else.

Posted by: David Locke | Feb 2, 2005 2:57:11 AM

Oh dear.... now even The Economist is suspect if you're a conservative?

Posted by: Bob | Apr 20, 2005 10:02:06 PM

"From a personal standpoint, I find the Economist article very off base. Every week I meet close to approximately 10 companies"

Could someone please translate "close to approximately 10" for me? I have no idea what this means.


Could the author also please tell us how many of the half of the "close to apporixmately 10" founders CAME to the US with college degrees?

Is this too much to ask?

Posted by: niblo | Apr 20, 2005 10:05:35 PM

Dear Niblo:

Thanks for placing a comment without actually leaving your actual contact info. Great to see that you are actually open and honest. Also thanks for correcting my grammatical error and while we are on the topic perhaps you would not mind if I mention you misspelled approximately . . .

Posted by: Venky Ganesan | Apr 21, 2005 9:34:29 AM

Sorry, bud, but sarcasm is not an adequate response to my question.

As for misspelling, you might have noticed that I did spell "approximately" correctly the first time I used the word, and might therefore have concluded that the second - incorrect - spelling was a typo.

So, that said, how many of those "close to approximately 10 company founders" had college degrees when they came to the US?

BTW, I didn't correct a grammatical error, I only pointed out that the sentence in question defies comprehension. I'm still waiting for you to explain what you meant.

And the more important question isn't meritocracy but mobility. I have yet to see one study conducted in the US that shows mobility is increasing, or even remaining steady.

Posted by: niblo | Apr 21, 2005 12:25:44 PM

Its fair to ask what I meant - I meant that I meet close to 10 companies every week and around half of them are founded by immigrants. Of these immigrant founders I would say more than 75% had college degrees before coming to the US. The rest probably came to the US and then went to college.

There is a difference between mobility and meritocracy. I think we care most about making sure that people who are meritorius have a chance to move up. Lack of mobility by itself is not sufficient to show that meritocracy does not exist in America

Posted by: Venky Ganesan | Apr 21, 2005 1:20:14 PM

My point was that immigrants who come to the US with college degrees (like myself) would be expected to succeed anyway. They already have the skills to achieve mobility.

My complaint - if that's the right word - is that the best universities are closed to working-class students because they can't afford to pay for it. Many of my community college students could never afford the tuition at an Ivy League college, event though they deserve the opportunity. Scholarships aren't the answer, as they are few in number and those wo get them are themselves the children of wealthy parents.

We need to ask ourselves whether we want to live in a society where inherited wealth is a surrogate for meritocracy.

I say no on this.

Posted by: niblo | Apr 21, 2005 2:22:09 PM

27 annuity sell

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