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Merit & Myth

by Aaron Carter

If it weren’t for academic scholarships, I would have joined the army. This is a foundational myth in my life; an encapsulation of how merit allowed me to transcend the limits of my given circumstances. One reason the notion has such power for me is that it perfectly dovetails with the American ideal of meritocracy: that "the system distributes resources—especially wealth and income—according to the merit of individuals," write sociologists Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr. It's certainly a belief that Mike in David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People subscribes to: he transformed from hoodlum to doctor by dint of intelligence and hard work. The only problem with my story is that it's not remotely true. Or rather, it's exactly as true as that larger American myth. What is true: my parents dropped out of college to get married; I was raised in a trailer park whose residents circulated a petition to prevent my mixed-race family from moving in; my father was regularly laid off from his factory job; we took government handouts. What else is true: I worked hard; I was an obsessive student; I won scholarships for both my absolute academic merit, and my relative academic merit as a person of color. What is inconveniently true: I could have taken student loans like my brother; I could have gone to state or community schools; I was raised in a university town; my friends' parents were professors; my mother went back to school after the divorce and now holds a Master's; both my parents demanded excellence in school; I had transformative teachers—thank you Mrs. Rucker and Mrs. K. In their book The Meritocracy Myth, McNamee and Miller take aim at the notion of meritocracy. Their argument has two parts. First, that "the impact of merit on economic outcomes is vastly overestimated by the ideology of the American Dream." Second, they identify a number of "nonmerit" factors that counteract the "effects of merit and create barriers to individual mobility." McNamee and Miller offer evidence that intelligence, talent and attitudes only account for a small percentage of income variance. IQ scores, for example, only account for 10 percent of differences in income. One of their most eye-opening arguments is that if merit is equally distributed in society, creating a bell curve in which there are "small numbers of incompetent people at the lower end, most people of average abilities in the middle and small numbers of talented people at the upper end," then income should be similarly distributed. A 2002 study found that "the richest 1% of households account for nearly a third of all available net worth while the bottom half of households account for only 2.8% of all available net worth." McNamee and Miller conclude that merit, if indeed distributed normally, "cannot be the direct and proportional cause of something with such skewed distributions." The Meritocracy Myth by Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr. Share of Total Available Household Net Worth, 2001* Wealth Group Share of Net Worth 99-100th percentile 32.7% 95-99th percentile 25.0% 90-95th percentile 12.1% 50th-90th percentile 27.1% 0-50th percentile 2.8% Total 100.0% *Source: Kennickell, Arthur B. 2003. A Rolling Tide: Changes in the Distribution of Wealth in the U.S. 1989 - 2001. Washington, DC: Federal Reserve Board. In the second part of their argument, McNamee and Miller identify a number of nonmerit barriers to social mobility. They refer to these collective barriers as "social gravity"; forces that "tend to keep people in the places they already occupy, regardless of the extent of their individual merit." Chief among these forces is inheritance, "broadly defined as the effects of initial class placement at birth on future life chances." Inheritance bestows advantages such as high standards of living; gifts from parents at the critical life moments of college graduation and marriage; insulation from downward mobility; and opportunities to "have merit identified and cultivated." The argument dismantling the meritocracy myth is further bolstered when you consider social and cultural capital as part of inheritance. As McNamee and Miller put it, "Everyone has friends, but those born into privilege have friends in high places with resources and power." These observations seem familiar, I suppose, when one considers a person born into wealth versus a person born into poverty. But the myth of meritocracy is hard to shake, and I still want to apply it to people born into similar circumstances. When I think about Mike and Margaret in Good People, it's tempting to define the difference in their fates as due to merit. Mike worked hard, applied himself in school and became a doctor. Margaret dropped out of school, was chronically late to wage-slave jobs and has backed herself into a corner. Both were born into the same social gravity of Southie, and it was only Mike's merit that allowed him to achieve escape velocity. But in a summary of their book, McNamee and Miller make a crucial observation: "Inheritance provides numerous cumulative nonmerit advantages that are available in varying degrees to all those born into at least some relative advantage, excluding only those at the very bottom of the system." This notion of a scale of inheritance suggests that despite both being born into Southie's working poor, Mike and Margaret started with some very critical differences. Mike had the support and moral guidance of parents and teachers was identified as academically gifted. He had a few key pieces of social capital that Margaret lacked. And that, you could argue, made far more difference than Mike’s talent and hard work. As Margaret so succinctly puts it, Mike was lucky. As formative as my personal myth has been, experiencing Good People and researching meritocracy compels me to offer a revision: If it weren't for the support of my parents, free access to a good education, genetic luck, academically motivated peers, dedicated teachers and the financial support of the government and private foundations, I would have been forced to take out large student loans and study something more practical than theater. It might make for a less dramatic story, but it is far closer to the truth. It's a little longer than my original myth, too. I bet Margaret, with her characteristic blunt attitude, could shorten it. She'd probably just say that I was lucky to be surrounded by good people.