Dare to Imagine
For many years I wrote about financial markets and wealth. I interviewed a lot of multimillionaires and billionaires, and if I had a million dollars for every .01-percenter who told me, “The best way to make a lot of money is just do what you love and you’re good at,” I’d be in their league.
Right, if what you love to do is exploit inefficiencies in the markets so that you make a fortune while others lose, you are going to do very, very well while having fun. It’s a tad harder to achieve this kind of perfect balance if what you love to do and are good at is write — or teach children, or nurse the sick, or conduct humanitarian missions in emergency zones. All by way of saying that this is one of many ways in which our much-celebrated meritocracy falls short, according to a new book by Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
We’ve known for decades that in the U.S. you can make it by being good at something — as long as you’re white and your parents can afford to send you to an elite college, or you’re exceptionally good at a highly marketable skill. But what Sandel says that is worth pausing and cringing over is this: even if we had a level playing field in our meritocracy so that everyone truly had an equal shot, the bigger problem is with rewarding what we define as “merit” itself.
Imagining we’ve made it on our merit pretty much guarantees hubris among the winners and humiliation and resentment among the losers. That makes certain people susceptible to voting for the populist con man who told them it’s not your fault, it’s the fault of people of color, of immigrants, of the liberal elites. The illusion of merit allows the .01 percent to look down on me — if I were as smart as they are I’d be as rich as they are. And it allows me, a middle class white person who grew up in a home with book-lined walls, to look down on a certain segment of the population, adding my sarcastic comments when their photos make the rounds of my (educated, progressive, global) Facebook network. People who sport nearly toothless smiles beneath MAGA caps. The Great Unmasked holding signs that say things like “Honk if you question coronavirus.” A deplorable-looking white couple at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally wearing almost nothing but pro-Trump body paint.
I’m guilty of seeing them as people without taste, schooling, merit, etc. And that’s where the subtitle of Sandel’s book comes into play. Is there any common good left that works for everyone in the U.S.? It’s crucial that we find some semblance of this. Otherwise the meritocracy, as it operates today, is mostly a filter that disproportionately rewards those whose work produces capital while leaving other important contributions behind. Sandel points out that casino mogul (and Trump megadonor) Sheldon Adelson makes thousands of times more than a nurse or a doctor; how did we get to the point that the contributions a nurse’s aide who is saving lives while being exposed daily to coronavirus makes to society is less valued than those of a casino mogul? Moreover, the meritocracy system allows us to tell any Americans who lack college degrees that their work is not valued and it’s all their fault. This is partly about money, but it’s also about feeling like a respected member of society.
There’s so much to undo in this society where gross domestic product (GDP) is our only measure for the common good — and that has come from the center-left as well as the free-market conservative view — all I can say is “Dare to Imagine.”
I try to think of what I have in common with the Trump supporters I call deplorables and yahoos, and it’s easy — economic insecurity. Imagine if we started by doing away with that. What if we made sure everyone had enough to get by whether they’re talented or not — or whether or not they’ve grown up in circumstances that allow their talents to flourish? Sandel asks” “Is having (or lacking) certain talents really our own doing? If not, it is hard to see why those who rise thanks to their talents deserve greater rewards than those who may be equally hardworking but less endowed with the gifts a market society happens to prize.”
Imagine if we started by admitting that there is a very stratified class system in America. Then honor all occupations that contribute to the common good — through popular culture messages but also through a living wage, or if we can’t bring ourselves to narrow the gap, maybe a sliding scale when you pay for housing, groceries, cars and transportation, even recreation. At the same time, create a system of lifelong education that costs little or nothing. Sandel notes that in previous centuries there was plenty of civic education in factories. I’m thinking of education so that people can train in the tech skills they really need for the 21st century, but equally so that anyone can study literature, art, foreign language, philosophy, subjects that will broaden their view of other cultures and what’s possible, a chance to escape into brain food instead of guns and opioids. Would MAGA people ever submit to going to adult classes and listening to new ideas? From my biased perch, I imagine it would take a long time, maybe a few generations, but I’m hopeful that America is full of marketing talent that can sell anything to anyone.
When author James Truslow Adams coined the term that pervades our meritocratic consciousness, “the American dream,” in his less-well-known 1931 book The Epic of America, he defined it as not just a dream of having things, but of a social order in which everyone is recognized for what they are. He also wrote of the U.S. Library of Congress general reading room as a place where you could find all strata of society, calling it “a concrete example of the American dream — the means provided by the accumulated resources of the people themselves, [and] a public intelligent enough to use them,” and expressing a wish that this example be carried out throughout our national life. We’re about as far from this scene of accumulated resources and an intelligent public as we’ve ever been, so time to start those marketing engines…