The Sciences

Calcification of the merit castes

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJun 24, 2012 3:38 AM


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After ragging on Chris Hayes for a week I decided to check out the conversation above between Hayes and Mike Konzal about his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. As Mike suggested the book does seem more nuanced in its take than the piece in The Nation which highlighted the role of high-stakes testing at Hunter College High School. In the conversation above Hayes supports his suppositions that test-prep was excluding blacks and Latinos by asserting that that is what the teachers themselves believe. I wouldn't dismiss this out of hand, but it certainly isn't enough to make me accept that portion of Hayes' argument. People have all sorts of weird misconceptions.  That being said, there are many descriptive and positive elements of Hayes' narrative which I can agree with. By this, I mean that I do agree that phenomena such as the "iron law of oligarchy" do exist, and are pervasive. Additionally, I also accept that merit-based systems eventually tend toward corruption, as the measuring-sticks become not the means toward ascertaining productivity, but the ends toward which one optimizes. I'm not a Leftist, so my prescriptions would be different from those of Hayes, but I see much of the same reality he does (I am not an egalitarian in the way that any progressive, liberal, or Left-of-center person would recognize, first of all). But there's one aspect which I'm always wondering about, which I think gets neglected: the fact that the nature of the human capital stock itself is shifting. For example, in Hayes' book there is one reference to genetics, where he is quoting someone else (thanks Amazon "look inside"!). A point I have made repeatedly is that in an efficiently operating meritocracy where the sorting process (selection) is effective you would eventually see a convergence toward a static equilibrium. As smart people marry other smart people, their children will inherit their smarts. As one transitions into a genuine meritocracy the first generations will see a great deal of class church, social mobility if you will. But eventually the smart lower class people will have descendants who are in the upper class, while the shiftless upper class individuals of earlier generations will have descendants who move down the class hierarchy after exhausting their inheritances. At that point the amount of churn will be due to stochastic processes, rather than expected shifts in individual life status due to mismatch between human capital and social status. Assortative mating is a major driver of this process. I recently read that inter-class is rarer today than it was in the past. Why? Modern communication and mobility allows for greater self-segregation, but one factor may be the educational and professional advances of women. With a larger pool of educated female professionals it may no longer do for male professionals to marry their secretaries or nurses, as was not uncommon a few generations ago. But in the process males may now be narrowing their mating pools.

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