Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Myth of A Meritocracy

A recent “Letter from Washington” in The New Yorker profiles Obama’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag. Mostly a ponderous piece describing fairly Byzantine policy machinations, it does reiterate nevertheless a common assumption about Orszag’s rise to power. Pronounced throughout is the conviction that this climb is the result of sheer brilliance, just one more reflection of the US as meritocracy.

In the opening section of The New Yorker piece, Orszag's resume is listed: Exeter, Princeton, London School of Economics, Clinton White House. This article promotes this rather recognizable track as extraordinary, a feat of great intellectual achievement. Born and raised in Britain I take a different tack. I see Orszag as yet another privileged person following a well-connected circuit. Neither The New Yorker or indeed the many articles on the new Budget Director think it worthy to note that Exeter is a very elite school where fees are now almost $40,000 a year for boarders and a feeder school for top universities in the US. Neither does the article mention that Orszag’s father Steven Orszag was a professor at Princeton, yes the same Princeton that Orzag the son attended. So, if I get this right, this guy attends an incredibly expensive private school, goes on to an incredibly expensive elite private university where his Dad is a professor, and then uses his many connections to hustle up the Democratic hierarchy. This is not to say that Orszag is neither bright nor hardworking. There are lots of people with his background that do not end up as Budget Director. But there are also lots of hard working and bright people who do not end up as Budget Director.

What all the recent pieces on Orszag seem to share is an assumption of meritocracy: that where you get to in the US is through hard work and smarts. The unspoken contrast is with the old Europe with its supposed entrenched class and hierarchy where merit is not rewarded. In fact, as many recent studies attest, social mobility is not any greater in the US than in Western Europe. Now there are enough “outlier” narratives in the US--and of high profile outliers at that--take the cases of Clinton and Obama, for example, that tell of meteoric rises. These narratives feed the illusion that we live in a pure meritocracy. In fact the US is only mildly meritocratic. The best way to ensure success and wealth, in the US as in most countries, is to be born to successful and wealthy parents. And as long ago as 1956 C. Wright Mills reminded us of the dominating influence of what he called “the power elite”.

Wright’s ultimate conclusion of a permanent power elite was never popular in the US; it does not jibe with the ideology of an aspirational society or the bedrock of individualism that assumes we are where we are in the society because of our own efforts. Sadly, we are where we are largely through the accident of birth and fate. We are not prisoners of our life circumstances, but neither are we freed from them. Success does have a recipe: brilliance and hard work are the dough but the yeast that raises the dough is the added mix of being born to wealth and privilege with advantageous family connections.