Monday, December 17, 2012

The Meritocracy? My Foot.

By Tom Kando

How often have you heard companies, universities and other organizations justifying their CEOs’ and  administrators’ extravagant salaries on the grounds that this is necessary to compete for,  and to attract,  talent. We live in a  meritocracy, right? The better you are, and the more useful your contribution to society is, the more money you make, right?
Maybe not. George Bernard Shaw (allegedly) said, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” To which one could add:  “Those who can’t even teach become administrators.”  (Now don’t you  administrator -friends of mine all get huffy. Remember, I just quoted  the famous dig at teachers by George Bernard Shaw, and I am a teacher. What I added to it was just a variant of the Peter Principle).

But let me continue. I   ask you: who earns the most, in any organization - those who DO the job for which the organization manifestly exists, or the “auxiliaries?”  Don’t administrators  make more than teachers? Don’t middlemen and advertisers  make more than those who actually produce the merchandise?

Society’s hierarchical  reward system often seems inverted: Jobs that are more essential, are frequently lower on the reward scale: For example, college professors are paid more than primary and secondary school teachers, yet in a fundamental sense,  the latter are more basic and necessary than the former.

Or take  the medical profession: Again, who are the people most essential to  societal  survival - general practitioners or specialists? The former, obviously. But it’s the specialists who rake in the big bucks. And nurses do even more essential work than GPs,  and they earn even less. 

No job in human society is  more essential than the actual picking and harvesting of  the food that ends up on your table. Yet most farm workers live in poverty.

Then you have the secondary sector - manufacture. Making cars, clothes,  refrigerators and houses is almost as important as producing food. But the blue collar working class is  also struggling.

Of course, America and much of the  Western  world have become  service economies.  Farming now makes up 2% of our labor force, and manufacture  less than  13%. We have become de-industrialized. The Industrial Revolution made  (Western) Europe  and the United States the factories of the world. Then, we became the office of the world. And that really pays well. But white collar work is fundamentally less important for human survival than those economic sectors which provide physical survival.

What about the jobs at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs - music, movies, the arts, philosophy?  Self-actualization is essential, but there is no meritocracy here either: While mediocre Hollywood blockbusters and Grammy-award winning songs  rake in millions for studios and for a few superstars, quality movies and quality music get little recognition. Popular culture and mass culture - most of which is bad - are immensely more lucrative than good culture.  Again, the same sort of  inversion. The bad drives out the good.  Public radio and public television  barely stay afloat. That’s your free  market at work.

So my shocking generalization/hypothesis today  is that, on the whole, the more useless and mediocre  you are, the more money you are likely to make. The correlation is inverse from what the meritocracy stipulates.
Actually, I’m piggybacking on the late great Paul Goodman (Growing Up Absurd). His insights have the brilliance which only a true 60s radical could possess.  Goodman was more concerned about  meaningful work, and he noted that schools and society encourage young people less and less to seek out meaningful  work. So I think that I am in good company.

I hope that you  have a sense of irony. When George Bernard Shaw said, “those who can, do, and those who cannot, teach,” he was offering  an insight, a grain of illumination. He was not dismissing the entire teaching profession. The French anarchist  Proudhon said “property is theft.” Most of us probably find this statement absurd, but it too, lingers.

My hypothesis today is in the same spirit. Think about it. leave comment here