The myth of meritocracy

The Meritocracy Myth, Spring 2004, Stephen McNamee and Robert Miller, University of North Carolina – Wilmington (academic paper)

Appreciation to Diane Torres-Velásquez, professor, Department of Education, Educational Leadership and Educational Policy, College of Education, UNM, Albuquerque, NM, for telling me about this paper. I thought it might be supportive for busy people, to try to boil down and summarize the 9 pages of academic writing and footnotes.

 “There is a gap between how people think the system works and how the system actually does work. We refer to this gap as  ‘the meritocracy myth,’ or the myth that the system distributes resources – especially wealth and income – according to the merit of individuals.”

  • While merit does affect who ends up with what and who owns what, the ideal of “The American Dream.” vastly overestimates the impact of merit.
  • A number of non-merit factors create real barriers to individual access and mobility.

It is widely reported in America today,  income and wealth are unequally distributed. Let’s define “income” and “wealth.”

  • Income comes from wages and salaries – from jobs and work.
  • Income also comes from non-work – capital gains, interest, dividends, government assistance, rental property, …
  • Wealth is not an income stream, it is assets owned: cars, houses, businesses, real estate, stocks, bonds, trusts, …
  • The more wealth one owns, the more likely significant income is created from these owned assets.
  • Many assets also appreciate in value, contributing to more income and more wealth.
  • (Much) More income arises from owned assets than from individual achievement/jobs/work.

In today’s America, lots of current data show income and wealth being concentrated at the top of the system. A large number of non-merit factors cause and perpetuate this state of affairs:

  • Intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, reflects individual capacity and environmental influences or experience.
  • Experience is enhanced through access to greater income and wealth.
  • Really big money comes from owning assets which requires little expenditure of effort, while really hard work or physical effort is often poorly paid
  • Attitudes –  it’s not clear whether certain attitudes cause success or rather success causes certain attitudes.
  • “Poor people” tend to adjust ambition and outlook according to their assessments of their more limited life chances, not “deviant or pathological values.”
  • “Present-oriented” or “short-term gratification” can be a function of not knowing where a next meal is coming from or whether to buy food or gas or kids clothes or medications with this paycheck.
  • The economically successful are not more honest or ethical than the rest of us – examples: Enron, WorldCom, Bernie Madoff, The London Whale, white-collar crime, insider trading, tax fraud, LIBOR, pay-to-play …
  • Where we start out in life has the greatest effect on where we end up; inheritance of wealth, position, access and connections, health care, comes first; merit comes second.
  • Most jobs becoming available in the past twenty years have been in low-wage and service sectors.
  • Geography matters – for the same job, economic opportunity and wages are greater in New York City or Los Angeles than in Albuquerque, Las Cruces, or Farmington.
  • For poverty rates, it’s just the reverse.
  • Unequal education matters; the quality of schools and educational opportunity vary according to where one lives, and where one lives depends on family economic resources and/or race.
  • Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Starbucks type businesses have shut down uncounted small businesses and entrepreneurial opportunities.
  • Corporate off-shoring of manufacturing has eliminated uncounted decent paying jobs.
  • Finally, merit is often neutralized or trumped by race, religion, age, physical disability, physical appearance, sex, and region.

Individual  “Merit” is not the myth.

The myth is the idea that social, financial and career resources and opportunities are distributed on the basis of individual merit.

The rich and the poor have always been among us, but exalting the rich and condemning the poor is not based on a complete situational assessment.

(My personal feeling is, such exalting and condemning moves us as a community and society, towards a less live-able and less fulfilling environment.)

To read the full paper, click here

To get a copy of their book, revised in 2009,  Click here.

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