Meritocracy Mythologizing

You’d think a publisher with this many names could check for glaring errors in its books: “Currency, Crown Publishing Group, Penguin Random House LLC.” And you’d be right. So this isn’t an error. It’s a lie accepted as a desirable myth:

“Today it’s widely accepted that meritocracy and aristocracy have become one and the same. The lords of the universe are not sitting on trust funds. . . . [M]ost of the new lords achieved perfect or near-perfect scores on their SATs at age sixteen or seventeen. . . . We now live in a world where the highest-IQ people earn the greatest financial rewards.”

The author is Rich Karlgaard. The book is an otherwise perfectly reasonable one called Late Bloomers. Its topic is the United States, so the word “world” quoted above should not be taken literally. The book is chock full of criticism of how SATs are used. But the statements quoted above are not satirical. They are meant quite straightforwardly, and they are false. They are presented without any footnotes or citations. So, here are some:

As Karlgaard is the publisher of Forbes, let’s start there with “Why The Secret To Getting Rich Isn’t Being Smart.” An excerpt:

“‘The higher your IQ, the greater the probability you will earn more than average.’ Like many people, I have believed this common money script to be true. It seems to make sense that the smarter you are, the more likely you are to succeed financially. Many of us assume there must be a correlation between higher incomes and high cognitive abilities as measured by IQ tests. I was surprised, however, to learn that this is not the case. A study published in November 2016 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that a high level of innate intelligence is no indicator of financial success. A December 2016 article in Bloomberg cited one of the co-authors of the study, economist James Heckman. When he asks how much of the difference between people’s incomes can be tied to their IQs, most people guess between 25% and 50%. The actual number is about one or two percent.”


Smart Enough to Inherit Wal-Mart Profits.

A study claims that 45% of billionaires are among the smartest 1 percent, but all it means is that they attended elite universities, with no indication of whether they were admitted based on merit. We know from Forbes that young people in the United States are heavily limited to the educations attained by their parents. And 45% is not “most” of anything. As far as I know, nobody knows the SAT scores of most billionaires, much less the SAT scores of most 1 percenters in wealth. We do know that being born into the family profiting from Wal-Mart requires little ability of any sort. We also know that most of the 33 million people in the top 1 percent of intelligence in the United States, by whatever measure of intelligence, cannot possibly be in the group of 263 people who make up 45% of U.S. billionaires or even in the 585 total U.S. billionaires. And if 45% of billionaires supposedly being of top intelligence is a high mark, the implication is that something less that 45% of the top 1% in wealth are among the top 1% in smarts. This means that the majority of the wealthiest are NOT the smartest, and vice versa.

The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty, to cite Karlgaard’s alma mater, ranks the most well-off countries in terms of labor markets, poverty, safety net, wealth inequality, and economic mobility. The US comes in last of the top 10 most well-off countries, and 18th amongst the top 21. In particular on economic mobility, “When compared to 24 middle-income and high-income countries, the U.S. ranks 16th in the amount of intergenerational earnings mobility.” So it’s not true that “meritocracy and aristocracy have become one and the same.” It’s also not true that they are becoming the same, since the trend is in the other direction.

What Karlgaard means to say — and to some extent the rest of his book actually helps to explain this — is that a tiny handful of super smart and wealthy people can give the false impression of a meritocracy, as long as you avoid the larger picture. This is the same deception as imagining that the United States has better policies because its president is of a different race or sex or sexual orientation or political party. This is tokenism. This is not thinking. And yet I’m willing to bet that some of the smartest of the smarties are willing to fall for it.

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