The Meritocracy Myth

Why do most people think success if mostly due to merit?

rose-colored-glasses-world-view

Robin Hanson explains the prevalence of the Rosy View Bias:

A rosy view is that success is mostly due to merit, while a dark view is that success is mostly not due to merit, but instead due to what we see as illicit factors, such as luck, looks, wit, wealth, race, gender, politics, etc.

Over a lifetime people gain data on the relation between success and merit. And one data point stands out most in their minds: the relation between their own success and merit. Since most people see themselves as being pretty meritorious, the sign of this data point depends mostly on their personal success. Successful people see a rosy view, that success and merit are strongly related. Unsuccessful people see a dark view, that success and merit are only weakly related.

In addition, successful people tend to know other successful people, and people tend to think their associates are also meritorious. So the other data points around people tend to confirm their own data point. The net result is that older people tend to have more data on the relation between merit and success, with successful people seeing a rosy view, and unsuccessful people seeing a darker view.

Since the distribution of success is quite skewed, most older people see a darker view. However, that dark majority doesn’t get heard much. Most of the people who are heard, such as reporters, authors, artists, professors, managers, etc., see rosy views, as they tend to be both older and successful.

This seems reasonable enough. While lots of very successful people will acknowledge that luck played a large role in their success, most will point to the real merit that got them to where they are. They worked harder, were more persistent, delayed gratification, and otherwise behaved more admirably than their peers who were less successful. And, for the most part, they will be right on those scores while overlooking the extent to which luck also factored in.

Of course, defining “merit” and “success” will be controversial here, with reasonable and intelligent people disagreeing, sometimes quite broadly, as to what they mean. Several of Hanson’s commenters, for example, treat possession of extreme talent, even “genius,” as evidence of merit when it’s  just as easily dismissed as luck. It’s not obvious why being extremely smart is any less a matter of happenstance than being pleasingly tall or attractive. Indeed, our appearance is much more within our control—through diet, exercise, grooming, and the like—than our intellect.

For that matter, even the qualities that I identified earlier as more obvious signs of merit—hard work, persistence, and delayed gratification—are highly influenced by factors outside our control. A substantial amount of those attributes are hard wired through some combination of genetics and early nurturing. How much credit should be then give those who possess them?

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    They worked harder, were more persistent, delayed gratification, and otherwise behaved more admirably than their peers who were less successful.

    HAHAHAhaahaahahaahaa…. I have yet to meet a rich man who worked half as hard in a week as I did every day. They don’t know what hard work is. That said, there are successful people who did do all of the above. But none of them are rich, without a heaping bucketful of luck thrown in. For most, “comfortably well off” is the best they can hope for, and even then I wonder how close to the edge of the abyss most are.

    The best way to get rich is still the old fashioned way: Inherit it. For the rest of us, marry it.

  2. Mikey says:

    For that matter, even the qualities that I identified earlier as more obvious signs of merit—hard work, persistence, and delayed gratification—are highly influenced by factors outside our control. A substantial amount of those attributes are hard wired through some combination of genetics and early nurturing. How much credit should be then give those who possess them?

    Take a look at siblings. They generally grow up in very similar circumstances–the same parents (which means the same sources of genes and nurturing), the same homes, the same neighborhoods, the same schools, etc. Yet for many the differences in achievement could hardly be more stark. Merit is certainly at work in those instances.

    At the same time, though, there are broader categories for which external factors are very much at play. I’m thinking race in America is a pretty big one. With rare exceptions, being born white in America is an instant leg up.

  3. Rafer Janders says:

    @Mikey:

    Yet for many the differences in achievement could hardly be more stark.

    Actually, usually not. “for many.” This is a myth. There are very few siblings, statistically speaking, where one is in the top 1%, say, while the other lives at poverty level. While there are always exceptions, the general rule is that poor people have poor siblings, and well-off people have well-off siblings.

    Merit is certainly at work in those instances.

    If there’s a very stark difference, it’s usually mental illness, drug addiction, or other health issues that are at work.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    Given a choice between believing their success is due in no small part to the birth lottery and luck or to their own hard work and virtue; almost everybody, unsurprisingly, goes for the “I’m so special” option. See also Just World Fallacy and George Lakoff’s Strict Father Model.

    This, of course, explains most of conservative politics. If one felt that many people were poor because of luck and the birth lottery, one might feel he should do something about it, and we can’t have that.

  5. gVOR08 says:

    @Mikey: By far the best predictor of someones wealth is the wealth of their father.

    I’ve seen conservatives argue that this is not true. As an example they cite George W. Bush, who has not inherited any money from his parents. Is there anyone who really believes W would have risen above mediocrity had he not been H. W.’s son?

  6. Mikey says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    There are very few siblings, statistically speaking, where one is in the top 1%, say, while the other lives at poverty level.

    Well, that’s pretty much a truism, because by definition there can be very few people statistically speaking who are in the 1%.

    But this is just as James said–simply getting people to agree on what constitutes “merit” and “success” isn’t going to be easy.

  7. bill says:

    A substantial amount of those attributes are hard wired through some combination of genetics and early nurturing.

    so it doesn’t “take a village” then?! wow, who knew?

  8. Mikey says:

    @gVOR08: @Rafer Janders: Thinking about this a bit more, I realize I may be biased by personal experience–I have six siblings, and there are pretty significant differences in achievement between all of us, ranging from business owner to upper-middle-class professional to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But of course such a range of difference could be a big exception to what usually happens.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08: “Just borrow money from your parents and start your own business.”

  10. Rob Prather says:

    James, you’re perilously close to stepping on American folklore here. President Obama made a rather banal point in 2012 with the “you didn’t build that” language and conservatives went ballistic. As I said, it’s mostly folklore.

  11. Tony W says:

    @Mikey: Family wealth is not a perfect predictor, but conversely, a huge majority of financially successful people had strong family financial support along the way. Quick access to even moderate amounts of money keeps small problems from becoming big ones – and those are often fork-in-the-road moments that define our lives, particularly when we are young.

    It is very uncommon to have an Obama/Clinton type story – growing up in poverty and becoming rich and famous.

    We want to feel like our actions matter, like there’s hope for great wealth when we are working so hard – but mobility is really hard and very uncommon. We are bad at math and worse at statistics, which makes the situation worse.

  12. Mikey says:

    @Tony W:

    Family wealth is not a perfect predictor, but conversely, a huge majority of financially successful people had strong family financial support along the way.

    That’s indisputably true–but at the same time, I didn’t. I’m not 1%, but I’m in the top 5%, and I had pretty much zero family financial support. Not to mention for a fair chunk of my early adult life I was down in the bottom quintile.

    But as I said to Rafer and gVOR above, it’s hard for me not to be biased by my own experiences. I don’t discount the luck I’ve had–being born a white guy with a decent level of intelligence are things over which I had no control–but still, I know I’ve also worked pretty hard to get where I am.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Mikey: But just because siblings have the same parents doesn’t mean they have the same talents and temperament.

    @Rob Prather: Obama made the point less artfully than did Elizabeth Warren, as I pointed out in a posting a couple years back.

    What’s interesting to me is that I pretty much agree with Obama’s claim here, as well as the more explicated version of it that Elizabeth Warren trotted out in Massachusetts almost a year ago, and still side with the general Republican response.

    That is, of course nobody got rich totally on their own. Of course the fabled “job creators” rely on the infrastructure we built collectively, whether it be roads and bridges, an educated workforce, relative safety from crime, a reasonably functional judicial system and whathaveyou. But those basic building blocks were in place for those who didn’t get rich, too, so of course those who did deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the fruits of their labor.

    (Dave and I actually depart on this question. In separate postings, as well as numerous conversations on the late, lamented OTB Radio, he’s argued that many of the rich got there either by direct rent-seeking or by indirect government subsidies like intellectual property protection.  It’s an interesting debate, although I think separate from the politics of the Obama quote.)

    Now, aside from the optics and short-term political clashing over all this, the point Warren and Obama are making is interesting from a policy standpoint. To the extent that they’re pushing back against pure Randian nonsense—taxes are theft and all that—they’re right. Not only do successful businesses tend to disproportionately benefit from the publicly created infrastructure but someone has to pay to maintain and update it.

    I fully agree, then, with Ezra Klein who suggests that “The debate we should be having over ‘you didn’t build that’” focuses on these two questions:

    1) What do entrepreneurs owe the society that created the conditions necessary for their success?

    2) What level of public investment is consistent with the maximum amount of new firm formation?

    In that context, though, I think Warren’s formulation (“Nobody got rich on their own”) is more effective than Obama’s (“You didn’t build that”). The former sounds reasonable while the latter, as Obama is finding out, comes across as condescending.

    The problem is that most professional people I know and who are successful do indeed work harder, persist longer, and delay gratification better than peers who are less successful. They have, in a real sense, earned their success. Comparing myself to most of my high school classmates, I’d say the same thing. There’s real merit at work. It’s just that we discount the factors outside of our control, notably our natural talents and good fortune to be healthy, far too much.

    Obviously, all things being equal, it’s better to have rich and loving parents than not. But, even starting from similar social circumstances, there’s wide variation in talent, brains, looks, energy levels, and all sorts of things that are only marginally our own doing.

  14. stonetools says:

    Talent is really just as much a matter of luck as anything else. Albert Einstein was a genius at physics: his father wasn’t, nor his son.
    Where you’re born also counts. Being born in the USA means you’ve hit the lottery: if you’re born in the Congo, you’ve lost big time.
    Also very useful is this Jon Scalzi post:

    I’ve been thinking of a way to explain to straight white men how life works for them, without invoking the dreaded word “privilege,” to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon. It’s not that the word “privilege” is incorrect, it’s that it’s not their word. When confronted with “privilege,” they fiddle with the word itself, and haul out the dictionaries and find every possible way to talk about the word but not any of the things the word signifies.

    So, the challenge: how to get across the ideas bound up in the word “privilege,” in a way that your average straight white man will get, without freaking out about it?

    Being a white guy who likes women, here’s how I would do it:

    Dudes. Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?

    Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

    This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

    That was very controversial, but Scalzi really does nail it here. He has a follow-up post, referencing this:

    A 25-year study followed the experience of nearly 800 children in Baltimore, from first grade into adulthood. Half their families were low income, many with parents who had not finished high school; 40% of those low-income kids were white.

    A couple of relevant points from the article:

    Looking at where these children started in life and where they ended up, the study results are troubling but clear: At 28, hardly any of the children from a disadvantaged background, black or white, had finished college.

    But even without the benefit of a college degree, whites, and white men especially, had vastly better employment outcomes. At every age, the white men experienced shorter spells of unemployment, were more likely to be working full-time and earned more.

  15. gVOR08 says:

    @Tony W: It goes way beyond financial support. Family also provides role models, attitudes, contacts, good schools, etc. down to such basics as good nutrition and health care. I cited the extreme example above, W. Bush. In my own case there wasn’t much money, but there were parents who made it a given that their kids would go to college, although they themselves hadn’t.

  16. Rafer Janders says:

    @Mikey:

    Well, that’s pretty much a truism, because by definition there can be very few people statistically speaking who are in the 1%.

    Well, no. The 1% was an example — I could have used top 10%, top 20% etc. and it would have been equally true.

    And in a world of 7 billion people, there can in fact be tens of millions of people who are in the top 1%……

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @stonetools: I read about a study somebody did where a black man without a criminal record was less likely to be called in for a job interview than a white man with a criminal record. Don’t recall the particulars but I suspect the jobs were blue collar.

  18. Rafer Janders says:

    @Mikey:

    I’m not 1%, but I’m in the top 5%, and I had pretty much zero family financial support.

    But that’s a logical fallacy. No one is saying that no one who had zero family financial suppor can succeed — but we are saying that having family financial support will make you far, far more likely to get in the top 5%.

    It’s like pointing to Oscar Pistorius and saying look, you don’t need to have legs to be a world-class sprinter. Yes, generally you do — someone with legs is at a huge, huge advantage over someone without legs when it comes to running. Random exceptions do not disprove statistical rules of general applicability.

  19. Mikey says:

    @Rafer Janders: Of course I know having family financial support makes it easier to succeed. Hence my beginning the comment with the phrase “That’s indisputably true” and finishing with a paragraph in which I state I am likely biased by my own experience.

  20. Rob Prather says:

    @James Joyner: I don’t find myself disagreeing with anything you said. I just didn’t like the fact that a bunch of rich people in 2012 wouldn’t attribute any part of their success to luck or other exogenous factors.

  21. Dave Schuler says:

    Is there actual evidence that most people think that success is due to merit? Or is it merely that some successful people are convinced that their success is due to merit, their experience is a Pauline Kael-ish “everybody I know thinks success is due to merit”, and consequently they are predisposed to think that most people think that success is due to merit.

    My own view is that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

  22. Rafer Janders says:

    What few people know or understand about the phrase “meritocracy” is that Michael Young, the English sociologist who coined the term in his 1958 book “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” meant it as a satire, a warning about what he foresaw was a growing negative trend. A society that turned into a meritocracy was, he believed, in many ways worse that what had come before:

    It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others. Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education.

    A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education’s narrow band of values. With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before. The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.

    The more controversial prediction and the warning followed from the historical analysis. I expected that the poor and the disadvantaged would be done down, and in fact they have been. If branded at school they are more vulnerable for later unemployment. They can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves. It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.

    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/jun/29/comment

  23. Rafer Janders says:

    More Michael Young:

    The business meritocracy is in vogue. If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get.

    They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.

    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/jun/29/comment

  24. CET says:

    @stonetools:

    Yes – I’m a fan of Scalzi’s difficulty level analogy.

    The thing that I find obnoxious about the rhetoric of ‘privilege’ is the implication that it is something that no one should have. My first response to something like ‘unpacking the knapsack’ by McIntosh is that those privileges are something that everyone should have.

  25. stonetools says:

    One of the more pernicious aspects of a simple belief in the meritocracy myth is the corollary that being poor is a choice and a moral fault, and that we need to shame them into becoming not poor. John Scalzi again:

    One of the things that I’ve come to expect whenever I write about poverty here in the US is that there will inevitably be people in the comment threads who are under the impression that the best thing to do with the poor, if we must be obliged not to let them starve, is to larder the assistance we provide them with an additional heaping helping of shame; the idea being that social opprobation of their condition will inspire them to be poor no longer

    Conservatives are big in the “shaming the poor” business, and also big in the “poor have it easy, living off the rest of us” business. Its a big political winner for them-remember Reagan’s “welfare queens” shtick?

  26. Rob Prather says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I read a story a couple of months ago where a guy named Jose was having no luck getting interviews and he removed the “s” from his name and had much better success.

  27. gVOR08 says:

    @stonetools: Rush Limbaugh’s “Lucky Duckies” who don’t pay income tax.

  28. Mikey says:

    I understand people start from very different places, and for those of us fortunate enough to be straight white men the difficulty setting is “easier” than for others.

    Yet I’m still having trouble wrapping my mind around the apparent assertion success is almost entirely due to factors beyond an individual’s control and merit has next to nothing to do with it. Are we as individuals simply pre-programmed automatons, destined from birth for a specific position in life?

    Perhaps I’m drawing a stronger inference than some of these comments warrant. I’m not intending to build a straw man. This is an issue I’ve put thought into at times but still haven’t been able to reconcile the two positions.

  29. Rafer Janders says:

    @Mikey:

    Yet I’m still having trouble wrapping my mind around the apparent assertion success is almost entirely due to factors beyond an individual’s control and merit has next to nothing to do with it.

    It’s often very, very hard for merit to overcome circumstance.

    Put it this way:a lot of people I know who graduated from law school in the early to mid Nineties became law firm partners. Very very few people I know who graduated law school in the late Nineties/early 2000s became law firm partners.

    Why? Where the ones a few years older smarter or harder-working? No, it was simply due to the fact that the younger ones came up for partner during the financial crisis of 2007-2009, and so many firms were laying people off rather than making them partner. It was a matter of timing, entirely out of their control, and one that overwhelmed the thirty years of work and Ivy League pedigrees that they’d put in up to that point.

  30. michael reynolds says:

    I’ve been saying this for decades and getting beat up for it despite being able to point to myself as a perfect example. You think I’m successful because I did all the right things, kept my nose to the grindstone and worked hard?

    I’m successful because DNA handed me a talent and my environment supported it. Yes, I work hard, but I worked a hell of a lot harder when I was waiting tables and earning 3% of what I make now. I drooped out of school, committed crimes, made no effort whatsoever to even think seriously about writing, didn’t even try until I was 34, and ta da, success!

    Meritocracy is a myth that is necessary to our economic overlords. They need to believe they “deserve” what they’ve got, and the serfs need the illusion that they can get there, too. But DNA determines your possibilities with some help from early environment. Everyone works hard in this country, 1% make it big.

  31. gVOR08 says:

    @Mikey: As with the nature/nurture argument, I don’t think anyone is really saying it’s all luck. I have no doubt that Charles Koch is a very smart, capable, ambitious person. I’ve known a fair number of smart. capable, ambitious people. None of them inherited an oil company.

  32. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds: What happens if you define success as something besides being in the 1%? What if it’s simply middle-class? Or maybe where I am, top 5%? Top quintile? Owning one’s own home? Being able to support a family without a great deal of worry? A combination of some or all of these?

    Again, it goes back to James’ assertion that the definitions of “merit” and “success” will be difficult to agree on.

    You make a whole lot more money than I do, but your talent is in an area that can allow it. Writing is a whole lot more all-or-nothing than information technology. You have imagination; I’m just a geek with a talent for solving problems. And I do OK, well enough to support a family on my income alone in the D. C. metro. For me, that’s success.

    BTW I was out in your neck of the woods for a couple days this week. I don’t know how you handle so much gorgeous weather all the time (although I heard it had been a bit chilly the few days prior). The Bay area is becoming one of my favorite places to visit, even if I have to work most of the time there.

  33. Mikey says:

    @Rafer Janders: No doubt timing plays a huge role–I’ve personally been on both sides, both benefiting from and suffering from getting into telecommunications during the dot-com bubble.

    I’ve heard the field of law is very different now than it was 20 years ago. There must also be a mental burden from putting so much time and $$$ into preparing for and achieving an Ivy League education and basically having little to show for it.

  34. Ben Wolf says:

    In economics this is referred to as a desert argument, that one receives back in equal measure to what one produces. Of course a third of income in the U.S. is derived from ownership of capital and not the owner’s labor, so it’s an argument that doesn’t really hold up.

  35. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: While we basically agree on this, I think you overshoot with both

    Yes, I work hard, but I worked a hell of a lot harder when I was waiting tables and earning 3% of what I make now.

    and

    Everyone works hard in this country, 1% make it big.

    It’s certainly true that people who work demanding physical labor outdoors or who stand on their feet all day toiling in the service industry have jobs that are in many ways harder and in most ways shittier than you and I do. But, even aside from natural talent, sitting down for hours creating something out of nothing is extremely difficult. You doubtless worked a lot more when you were waiting tables; I suspect you work harder now.

    Indeed, you conceded as much in a recent discussion on the publishing industry: the reason a lot of people in your line of work are failures while you’re a tremendous success is that you outwork them. Again, I don’t know how much of that sticktoitiveness and sheer grit is inate and how much of it’s merit. But it’s a real thing.

    Beyond that, I don’t think it’s true that everyone, or even the overwhelming majority, of people work hard. Most people just coast through life, doing the minimum. That’s true in school and the workforce. Now, partly, I work as hard as I do because I enjoy it. (Conversely, when I’ve had jobs that I found unfulfilling, I didn’t work nearly as hard as I do now or else I worked as much as I could doing things that I did enjoy, including writing for OTB.)

  36. Ben Wolf says:

    @James Joyner: What is the mechanism by which individuals are rewarded in proportion to their labor?

  37. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    But, even aside from natural talent, sitting down for hours creating something out of nothing is extremely difficult. You doubtless worked a lot more when you were waiting tables; I suspect you work harder now.

    Again, disagree. The work I do may be more intellectually demanding — but it’s also far more pleasant. I have a lovely office, a secretary and an assistant. I get to go to fancy dinner, lunches and events for free. I get a town car to drive me home at night. I get my meals paid for. I get to wear suits and not a uniform someone else picked out for me. I can set my own hours. I can close my office door and listen to music while I work. I have very wealthy and very influential people calling me up for advice and asking for my opinion every day.

    It’s difficult, sure, it’s stressful, the hours are long and mistakes have consequences — but those of us who work in these fields do a very, very good job of making the work environment as easy as we can.

    Would I rather work ten hours a day in my current office job, or six hours a day waiting tables and being at every customer’s beck and call, even assuming the salary was the same? It’s not even close.

  38. James Joyner says:

    @Ben Wolf: I’m not a Marxist. Labor has value but it’s not the only thing that has value—or even the most valuable thing. I think Michael Reynolds the kid-lit author who works for hours a day on his patio cranking out books read my millions deserves more money than Michael Reynolds the waiter working twelve hours a day did. For that matter, I think Steve Jobs and Bill Gates deserve more than the people who worked for them, whether they were highly talented software engineers who toiled sixteen hours a day or janitors who worked 40. The question is just how much more and I don’t know how to quantify that.

  39. James Joyner says:

    @Rafer Janders: But we’re talking apples and oranges here. Working hard and enjoying one’s work aren’t mutually exclusive; they’re often mutually reinforcing.

    In my line of work, I’ve traded off compensation and benefits for fewer hours, more flexibility, and more autonomy than would have been the case had I gone to law school and opted for firm life rather than grad school and, circuitously, academia. But I nonetheless put in a lot of hours doing work and work-related activity beyond what I strictly have to.

  40. anjin-san says:

    @CET:

    The thing that I find obnoxious about the rhetoric of ‘privilege’ is the implication that it is something that no one should have.

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with privilege per se, I’ve enjoyed a fair share of it in my life. What I do have a problem with is people who have had the great luxury of privilege sneering at those who have not. Mitt Romney’s 47% diatribe is the classic example.

    Romney is a sad case. His parents struck me as decent people. Their sneering entitlement case of a son, not so much.

  41. Yolo Contendere says:

    @Mikey: I don’t know what’s so hard to wrap your mind around. Say life is a car race, where you draw straws for the car you get. You may feel pretty good drawing a new Impala over someone’s Yugo, until you see the Ferrari pull up. Now, no one’s getting anywhere if they don’t put gas in their car, and maintain it. There’s your hard work. You could beat that Ferrari if they don’t gas it up, or forget to put oil in it. You could even soup up (improve your job skills!) your Impala to beat all the other Impalas. Though someone else’s driving ability could still beat you. But that Yugo’s going nowhere. And no one’s beating the Ferrari as long as that driver does even the minimal necessary.

  42. Dean says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Woo Hoo! I’m an outlier!

  43. Dave Schuler says:

    @James Joyner:

    Those are the easy comparisons, James, and account for, what?, .1% of people? .01%?

    Most of the rest of us are paid the same as people we resemble superficiially and that’s true regardless of how hard we work or how much we produce.

  44. anjin-san says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think Steve Jobs and Bill Gates deserve more than the people who worked for them

    Of course they do. But when you look at how much a CEO earns as opposed to one of his employees in America in the year 2014, and contrast that to say 1955, during what is almost universally considered to be a golden age in our country, you will understand a lot of what’s wrong with America today.

  45. Yolo Contendere says:

    @James Joyner:

    Beyond that, I don’t think it’s true that everyone, or even the overwhelming majority, of people work hard. Most people just coast through life, doing the minimum.

    You will never be a politician.

    Be that as it may, do you think the hard workers tend to be represented more on the fiscally successful side of the scale while the coasters tend to wind up on the unsuccessful side? Or do you think the hard workers and the coasters tend to be evenly distributed? Or (because there are plenty of examples), do the hard workers cluster on the lower end and coasters on the higher end?

  46. anjin-san says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think Michael Reynolds the kid-lit author who works for hours a day on his patio cranking out books read my millions deserves more money than Michael Reynolds the waiter working twelve hours a day did

    I suggest talking to Michael Reynolds and asking him. I think he will say that he should earn more than a waiter. A lot more. I also think he will tell you the waiter deserves to have health care and a decent wage. As a guy who spent a long time in the restaurant industry I know I do.

  47. michael reynolds says:

    My more complete explanation: we live our lives in a matrix formed by four overlapping influences: DNA, environment, free will and random chance. At different times and in different circumstances one may predominate but the others never disappear. And each of these four is itself in part a function of the others. Free will is a function of DNA and upbringing and luck, and upbringing is connected inextricably to upbringing and DNA, etc.

    And then we die.

  48. Just Me says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    This isn’t necessarily true.

    I grew up with a friend whose father and grandfather were worth millions (however I had no clue until my teen years her family was this wealthy-they lived in a modest home no different than my own, she and her siblings didn’t dress in expensive clothes and her parents didn’t buy them cars in their 16th birthdays etc).

    Her grandfather started a plumbing business and her father and uncle worked in the business as well. All three along with their various employees worked as plumbers until retirement. I think there are a lot of wealthy small business owners who absolutely know how to work hard.

    That said I think hard work can earn you success but I think far more people get ahead due to wealth and who they know than pure merit. Just look at who gets into elite colleges and universities-it’s generally those with the money to do what it takes to get admitted and/or knowing somebody who was an alum. Yes poor kids with no contacts get into Harvard et al but it is a small percentage compared to those with money and connections.

  49. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: I’m not understanding the question in relation to the posting you replied to. I do largely agree that “Most of the rest of us are paid the same as people we resemble superficiially and that’s true regardless of how hard we work or how much we produce” but think that “resemble superficially” does a lot of work there. You have to get past various thresholds, get promotions, and so on. There’s an element of talent, luck, hard work, and various other things in all of those steps.

    @anjin-san: I note in that post that I don’t know how *much* more the Jobses and Gateses of the world should make than their workforce; I think it’s entirely possible that they’re overcompensated in relation to what they did. That’s especially true of their successors. That is, it’s hard to run Coca-Cola or McDonald’s; it’s not nearly as hard as creating those companies and building them into world-class brands was.

    @anjin-san: I also don’t disagree that waiters ought to earn a living wage and have healthcare in an ideal world. I’ve increasingly come to believe the latter should be a baseline condition independent of employment. Waiters in nice restaurants tend to make a good living. The best waiters working in the best restaurants make considerably more than I do. I don’t think we’ll ever live in a world where the waitress at Applebee’s or Red Lobster is making a real middle class wage; it’s just too low margin a business.

  50. stonetools says:

    @anjin-san:

    I think the problem here is that thanks to the meritocracy myth, people really don’t like the word “privilege” or the implication that they benefitted from it. Thus the Romneys thought it necessary to retrocon their life story by fashioning a tale of early struggle and disavowing their very privileged start.
    The fact is that progress takes place in an environment heavily influenced by how much privilege you have. Scalzi’s game analogy nails it: the higher your privilege status, the easier the game. The Romneys piled up a lot of points and played the game very well-but they were playing on the easiest level imaginable-and they refuse to acknowledge that -like most conservatives.
    What’s interesting is that the old line conservatives knew that they were privileged but defended the privilege as being rightly and properly theirs as a matter of right-(given by God, deserved because they were white, etc). Now conservatives pretend that they aren’t privileged, even when they obviously are.

  51. James Joyner says:

    @Yolo Contendere:

    You will never be a politician.

    There’s little doubt about that.

    Be that as it may, do you think the hard workers tend to be represented more on the fiscally successful side of the scale while the coasters tend to wind up on the unsuccessful side? Or do you think the hard workers and the coasters tend to be evenly distributed? Or (because there are plenty of examples), do the hard workers cluster on the lower end and coasters on the higher end?

    I think, all things being equal, hard workers tend to be rewarded, doing better in their respective industries than their loafing counterparts.

    A Kennedy, Rockefeller, or Hilton starts out on the high end and has to screw up repeatedly to fail. Sometimes, even that’s not enough. Someone starting out in abject poverty, conversely, has to work like hell and have a lot of things go right to get into the middle class. Which is to say, all things aren’t equal.

    But accounting for starting position, talent, etc. out-working your competition tends to be rewarded. So does schmoozing and a lot of other things.

  52. Mikey says:

    @Yolo Contendere: I get all that. I was referring to the assertion (which may be something I’m inferring more strongly than is warranted) that anyone’s success or failure is entirely a result of factors beyond their control.

    Of course people start with different levels of innate talent/intelligence/privilege,etc. But is there really no room for choice? You’re dealt a hand when you’re born, but how you play the cards is entirely up to you..or does that not matter whatsoever?

    Sure, other people are like the Ferrari. I’m not one–there are plenty of people who are smarter, more talented, better at selling things, whatever. But I try to be the best Impala out there. Occasionally I even succeed.

    As far as the Yugos go, we Impalas and Ferraris should ensure they can at least fill the gas tank and get themselves maintained. That’s a measure of a good society where America too often falls short.

  53. Just Me says:

    Also, I agree that success is going to have a wide range of definitions-and not everyone is going to easily meet everyone else’s definition of success even if they feel they have met theirs.

    My dad was a highly respected optometrist. He was very successful although he didn’t make tons of money (he chose to practice in a couple of rural areas with a lot of poor people and he gave away a lot of glasses far more than I realized until he passed away). He wasn’t super successful if the definition was great wealth but he lived comfortably and held the respect of many. This meant a lot given he was born into a large, poor family and had few opportunities from luck-he does credit the GI Bill will allowing him to college.

    My daughter probably benefited from her gender when she got a full scholarship to a highly ranked university. She is an engineering major which while she was a hard worker probably meant she received this scholarship over some boys who probably had better test scores and comparable or better application enhancements. Sometimes privilege helps and sometimes it helps to be in one of those groups that promote diversity type goals.

  54. Just Me says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think, all things being equal, hard workers tend to be rewarded, doing better in their respective industries than their loafing counterparts.

    I think outside of some professions this is true. Sucking up to the people in charge of promotions or being friendly outside of work can trump hard work but in most occupations a person who works hard and is productive will get rewarded with higher pay and or promotions.

    I work in an occupation though (education) where getting promotions or better positions is tied more to being in good with the administration than doing your job well (as a matter of fact sometimes the best teachers end up pissing off the powers that be and see little reward). I’m not sure if this is related to pay being determined by years in service with effective tenure after 2 years (our state doesn’t call it tenure but once you start your third year you’re all but impossible to fire). Basically rewards don’t come through pay since everyone has the same scale but you can still get rewarded or screwed by what assignments they give you.

  55. anjin-san says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t think we’ll ever live in a world where the waitress at Applebee’s or Red Lobster is making a real middle class wage; it’s just too low margin a business.

    Well, Applebee’s is owned by DineEquity (also the owner of iHop). DineEquity is a publicly traded company who’s stock closed at $92.68 yesterday. DineEquity acquired Applebee’s for 2 billion in 2007. I submit they can afford to pay their waiters/waitresses a decent wage. A 50k salary? No. But a base wage that gives a hard-working waiter or waitress a shot at reaching a entry level middle class wage if they do their job right. And some halfway decent benefits.

    I was in that industry for a long, long time. Many restaurants systematically screw their employees. Waiters in France make a good living. French restaurants generally give their customers an experience that makes what their American counterpoints do look like a very poor joke. Are we just to frigging lame to do what they do?

  56. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    Indeed, you conceded as much in a recent discussion on the publishing industry: the reason a lot of people in your line of work are failures while you’re a tremendous success is that you outwork them.

    But that discounts the fact that there are also many, many authors who outwork Michael who don’t succeed while he does. It’s a logical fallacy — you see only the hard workers who succeed, but you dont see the hard workers who don’t succeed, so you assume they aren’t there. But they are, they exist, and they may well outnumber the hard workers who make it.

  57. michael reynolds says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Indeed. There are writers who work harder than I do and fail; writers more talented than I am who don’t ever make it; writers less hard-working than I am who out-earn me. You can find every variation on that theme. You certainly can’t make an argument for meritocracy based on any of it.

    I think it’s easy to overlook how dangerous this concept is to society as currently constituted. If life is not a meritocracy it argues strongly for redistribution – which is why the idea is poison to the upper classes. “Hard work” is a stand-in for “divine right” and “noble family” and “caste” and all the other earlier rationales for why some eat foie gras and others starve.

    What always amazes me is how many of the serfs buy into it wholeheartedly, as if it was even possible for Bill Gates to work a million times harder than a single mother stocking shelves at Wal-Mart. It’s absurd on its face, but then so is most of what people believe.

  58. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Again, indeed. I make about five times as much for my work today as I did when doing basically the same work 12 years ago.

    Am I working five times harder? I am not. But my firm is more profitable, so we all make a lot more. I certainly don’t work longer hours or put in more effort than I did., and yet I reap a far greater reward.

  59. Ben Wolf says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m not a Marxist. Labor has value but it’s not the only thing that has value—or even the most valuable thing. I think Michael Reynolds the kid-lit author who works for hours a day on his patio cranking out books read my millions deserves more money than Michael Reynolds the waiter working twelve hours a day did. For that matter, I think Steve Jobs and Bill Gates deserve more than the people who worked for them, whether they were highly talented software engineers who toiled sixteen hours a day or janitors who worked 40. The question is just how much more and I don’t know how to quantify that.

    Let me say that my question was not an attempt to trap you into something as I’m genuinely interested in how other people think about such things.

    “Deserve” has been used a number of times in the thread regarding relative income levels: but “deserve” in this context is essentially a normative, or moral, argument. This means there is, to my knowledge, no objective determination of who deserves what. I think every American deserves a living wage and every opportunity to improve themselves and I also think Bill Gates doesn’t deserve a tenth of what he has, as it came from family connections, preferential treatment by government and the labors of thousands who did the actual creating and producing. However from an economic perspective I can’t identify a reason anyone deserves anything beyond what they themselves produce, which is decidedly not what occurs is a capitalist system which gives a worker less than the value of their output and a capitalist more.

  60. steve says:

    I think it is pretty clear that when you make all things equal, those who work harder tend to be more successful, or at least make more money. Take two plumbers with the same training and innate skill sets. Same family backgrounds and supports. The one that works 50 hours a week wiil probably make more money than the one working 20 hours a week. The issue is that people want to think that all things are equal when they are not.

    Steve

  61. James Joyner says:

    @steve: That’s almost exactly captures my sentiment in far fewer words.

  62. michael reynolds says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Yep, that’s the issue. We connect economics to morality in such a way as to make the latter serve the former. We invent a moral structure that justifies what we assume to be economic efficiency. And yet at the same time a good capitalist will argue that they are under no moral obligations whatever. There’s no logic here beyond “I got mine, f–k you.”

  63. stonetools says:

    @anjin-san:

    Of course they do. But when you look at how much a CEO earns as opposed to one of his employees in America in the year 2014, and contrast that to say 1955, during what is almost universally considered to be a golden age in our country, you will understand a lot of what’s wrong with America today.

    what’s interesting is that in 1955 that CEO’s earnings would be taxed at 90 per cent. Yet the 950s were looked on as golden age.
    Today, of course, anyone who suggested that we go back to such rates would be tarred as socialist. It would be easier to justify such rates if we understood that the modern CEOs really weren’t earning these outsized incomes as a matter of merit, which is how conservatives present it.

  64. Eric Florack says:

    people think that success is tied to meritocracy, because for the most part it *is*.

  65. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” — John Kenneth Galbraith

  66. michael reynolds says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Sure. Which is why Barack Obama deserves to be the most powerful man in the world, right?

    And why Warren Buffet deserves to be one of the richest.

    And why Angelina Jolie deserves to make way, way more than you do. Right?

    Come to think of it, Eric, last I heard you weren’t doing very well. So you’d argue you deserve your low social and economic status? Is it that you’re lazy? Or is it your various vices?

  67. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds: Your work as a writer has touched a million more lives than your work as a waiter ever could. You’ve entertained a million more people, helped create a love for reading in a million more young minds.

    I don’t think it even comes down to what you “deserve” in a moral sense, but rather to the value you’ve added to other people’s lives. In that context I can say IMO you’ve certainly earned the money you’ve made.

  68. Rafer Janders says:

    @Mikey:

    I don’t think it even comes down to what you “deserve” in a moral sense, but rather to the value you’ve added to other people’s lives.

    If it’s value added to other lives, then a lot of people in business need to start getting paid a lot, lot less….

  69. sam says:

    @Michael

    My more complete explanation: we live our lives in a matrix formed by four overlapping influences: DNA, environment, free will and random chance.

    The notion of merit in the popular imagination, and it’s corollary, desert, as a moral category, is closely tied to the idea of free will. But if I deserve my situation by virtue of my merit, then to the extent that my merit is owing to factors over which I had no control, to that extent my claim to desert is diminished. If we always and everywhere acted as free agents, agents whose actions are not bounded by anything other than our internal catalog of talents, dispostions, and motivations, then the idea of merit as absolutely warranting desert would be unimpeachable. But, as someone said, we all think we have free will without ever once giving thought to the chain of circumstances over which we had no control that brought to the point where we had to exercise what we call “free will”. Someplace in the his writings, Spinoza says that if you were to throw a rock into the air, and at the apogee of its trajectory you were to endow it with consciousness, it would say of itselt that it had free will, that it was following the path of its flight of its own volition, unconscious of the ballistics of its existence.

  70. DrDaveT says:

    @Mikey:

    Yet I’m still having trouble wrapping my mind around the apparent assertion success is almost entirely due to factors beyond an individual’s control and merit has next to nothing to do with it.

    The problem is that the obvious truths at the extremes make people think they understand the middle, when they don’t.

    It is certainly true that being dumb, lazy, and/or ill-behaved enough can be enough to prevent success. If you start poor, any taint of any of those is probably enough. If you start out the son of a billionaire, anything short of mental retardation and/or sociopathic behavior will not prevent you living a very comfortable life.

    It is certainly true that if two people start with the same initial social position and abilities, the one who is less lazy is likely to do better in the end. But it’s hardly certain, and small differences in initial position are probably more important than moderate differences in laziness.

    Luck is not equally distributed across the population. There are important kinds of luck that only the very wealthy have access to. The kinds of luck you can actually experience, and how much leverage they have in your success possibilities, diminish rapidly as you move down the wealth-and-status spectrum.

    I think of it as a random walk. From every situation in life, there are “adjacent” situations you can move to. Which one you get is determined by your choices and abilities, and a roll of the dice. The point being made here, as best I can tell, is nothing more than:
    1. The probability distribution describing where you will end up depends strongly on where you started
    2. The dice matter a lot more than your abilities
    3. Your choices themselves are somewhat a product of your history, and so not purely ‘chosen’

    The classic mistake in trying to study this process is to look at very successful and very unsuccessful people, and see how they got there. The correct approach is to look at a large heterogeneous cross-section of the population as they are starting out, and see where they end up and why.

  71. DrDaveT says:

    While lots of very successful people will acknowledge that luck played a large role in their success, most will point to the real merit that got them to where they are. They worked harder, were more persistent, delayed gratification, and otherwise behaved more admirably than their peers who were less successful.

    No. This is not true. This is part of the myth.

    Bill Gates did not do anything to earn or cause or otherwise determine his exposure to microcomputers at an early age. It was purely a function of where his father worked. There were thousands of kids just like Bill Gates — similar smarts, work ethic, social status and skills — who never got that lucky chance that could be leveraged. There were others who got a similar chance, but it didn’t pan out through no fault of their own. Until you really believe that, you’re still buying into the myth.

    …or do you really believe that Canadian hockey players born in January are significantly more skilled and/or hardworking than those born in November, as a rule?

  72. Mikey says:

    @DrDaveT:

    …or do you really believe that Canadian hockey players born in January are significantly more skilled and/or hardworking than those born in November, as a rule?

    Isn’t that due to players born in January are in the same year group as those born in November in junior hockey, but they’re bigger and faster due to being 11 months older? Or something like that?

  73. Mikey says:

    @DrDaveT:

    1. The probability distribution describing where you will end up depends strongly on where you started
    2. The dice matter a lot more than your abilities
    3. Your choices themselves are somewhat a product of your history, and so not purely ‘chosen’

    I don’t think there can be much argument with 1 and 3. My question is with 2: how much is “a lot more?” How do we even quantify that?

    I mean, I know we can’t discount the dice–hell, if I’d decided to go to the bar around the corner instead of the one I went to one Friday in June of 1990, I’d never have met my wife, and she’s the one who pulled me out of a death spiral of depression and alcohol abuse. That’s certainly an instance that on the surface looks like “my choice” but was really just the best roll of the dice I’ve ever gotten.

    At the same time, though, we’re presented with a range of choices no matter what shows up on the dice, and our abilities factor into how all of them work out.

    Anyway, just more stuff to think about. And thanks for an interesting response.

  74. anjin-san says:

    @Eric Florack:

    people think that success is tied to meritocracy, because for the most part it *is*.

    Well sure. GW Bush, silver spoon baby. John McCain, military royalty, lives off his wife’s money. GHW Bush silver spoon baby. Paul Ryan, silver spoon baby, lives off his wife’s money, career government guy. Mitch McConnell, lifelong government guy. Mitt Romney, silver spoon baby.

    So many self-made Republican leaders.

    Should I go on?

  75. Moosebreath says:

    While I feel much of what I wanted to say has already been said, I just wanted to link to this thread from a long ago discussion at another site. I especially enjoyed Gary Farber’s discussion of merit at July 16, 2007 at 02:56 PM:

    “Michael Ovitz getting $140 million he was paid for 14 months of work as president at Walt Disney? Complete deserved, since he sent Disney’s stock and business into the tank! Merit!

    Top honors go to Gary Smith at Ciena. His shareholders have been virtually wiped out — losing 93% in the past four years. His compensation over that period: $41.2 million.
    Merit!
    Jure Sola, the CEO and chairman at Sanmina-SCI collected $26.4 million during the past four years while Sanmina shares fell 78%. The bulk of Sola’s pay came in the form of a performance bonus of $19.9 million, paid for hitting one recent quarter’s targets.
    Merit! Vision!
    Sun Microsystems paid Scott McNealy, its CEO, chairman and founder, $13.1 million a year over the past four years, even as Sun’s shareholders lost 76% of their money.
    Courage! Ability to see clearly!
    Shares of supermarket chain Albertson’s (ABS, news, msgs) fell 39% over the past four years. Despite this dismal record, Albertsons CEO and Chairman Larry Johnston collected a total of $76.2 million in that time.
    Boldness! Success at losing billions!
    Under CEO Peter Dolans watch at Bristol-Myers Squibb, shareholders have seen the stock decline by 48% over the past four years. Dolan took home $41 million.
    Meritmeritmerit! Who can deny it?!”

  76. charles austin says:

    So much anecdotal evidence and populist rhetoric.

    What are you measuring? Success? Wealth? The two are not synonymous and they are being conflated into the same thing here far too often. The truly wealthy (the 0.01%) usually got it through inheritance or one in a million type combinations of right place, right time combinations. The truly successful are not generally “rich” even if they have income levels that are well beyond average. Most of the professionals I know have good six figure incomes, but to get that they have typically worked harder, have more education, made more sacrifices, took more risks, and if they didn’t get lucky at least they didn’t get unlucky. It grates to use examples of the 0.01% and claim it as a rationale to tax not only the top 1% but the top 10%. The wealthy — who do not get their income primarily from an hourly rate or a salary — do pay less than those who have high salaries or businesses that are performing well. From where I sit it looks as though the productive class, dare I say the kulaks, are being eliminated so that the 99.99% will be equal and ruled by the 0.01%.

    Personally, I aspire to success and a higher income, but the idea of ever being rich remains very foreign to me. I don’t play the lottery, don’t have any rich relatives, and can’t see my business ever being big enough for me to be rich. Over thirty five years I have have moved many times to follow jobs, worked a lot of unpaid OT, traveled extensively to a lot of non-exciting locales, and eventually left a comfortable corporate position to start my own company — having to borrow a huge amount of money to do so. If things go well, those debts will be paid in another eleven years, I may be able to retire at 67 or 68, and I will have paid a lot of taxes. If they don’t go well, I lose, perhaps big time, but I won’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me or have the government bail me out.

    Oh, and as for the “you didn’t build that,” it is still pernicious nonsense, especially in the context used by Elizabeth Warren. Sorry, but I’m not buying her brand of Marxism. In fact I find it incredibly insulting. Not that I personally claim to have built all the infrastructure, but I damn well have paid the taxes that funded it for almost 40 years now — as well as a lot of government waste and even more redistribution of wealth that really doesn’t look like it has been all that effective. But I digress. Anyway, we all stand on the shoulders of giants who have come before I us, but it is our job to make the best of the circumstances we find ourselves in, prepare ourselves the best we can and take advantage of the opportunities we have when we have them. Some do that well, some do not. Let’s not pretend that it is just luck that separates us.

  77. michael reynolds says:

    @sam: @Mikey:

    I tend to reject the notion that free will is an illusion on the pragmatic grounds that we are incapable of really believing it. Just like we can never know if life is a hologram or a dream. It’s a good dispute for philosophers to pursue as many have and at great length, but that’s all above my intellectual pay grade. I accept that there are limits to my perception and reason, that I am fitted at birth with presuppositions so foundational that no investigation of mine can deconstruct them in any but the most abstract and theoretical way. I am not capable of believing I lack free will – if it’s an illusion it’s one that’s so convincing I am incapable of acting (yeah, paradox alert) on it.

    But I am able to understand and accept that if free will exists it is at the very least heavily circumscribed by and influenced by my DNA and my environment.

    “Deserve” is a freighted word, isn’t it? Deserve according to what authority? The go-to answer has always been God, God as ultimate moral authority. But the paradox God has to deal with is that if he is omniscient and omnipotent and our creator, then neither guilt nor virtue can possibly attach to us. In that scenario God is in effect our DNA and our environment and possesses perfect knowledge as to the outcome, meaning that we are his products and therefore responsibility for our performance is on him, not on us. The only way man can have free will and therefore moral jeopardy is if God is not omniscient or not omnipotent. If he is a tinkerer who didn’t quite know what was going to happen when he started brewing up DNA then he’s off the hook, but if we were essentially the old reliable sugar cookie recipe and he knew in advance precisely what was coming out of the oven, then we can hardly be blamed for having too much vanilla.

    Since I reject the idea of God, I turn instead to civilization – our real world mother and father, the creator of our culture if not our DNA. I posit that life is better than non-existence, something is better than nothing, greater understanding is better than less, and so my “good” is all that advances a human civilization that extends the greatest benefits to the largest number of people while doing the least damage to the individual human. Again that’s just a pragmatic assumption, not something I can go too deep on.

    But, if I take the cause of civilization as my moral compass then I conclude that he who contributes most to that cause deserves a bit more while he who contributes less deserves less and he who attacks civilization deserves least. But I’d weigh that against the hand DNA and environment dealt us individually. By those standards I deserve more than some but less than I’ve managed to get.

    I’d feel worse about that were it not for pretty much everyone at Goldman Sachs.

  78. anjin-san says:

    @Moosebreath:

    My favorite is Alan H. Fishman. He received 19 million dollars for three weeks of work as the CEO of WAMU as it imploded during the 2008 financial crisis.

  79. DrDaveT says:

    @Mikey:

    Isn’t that due to players born in January are in the same year group as those born in November in junior hockey, but they’re bigger and faster due to being 11 months older? Or something like that?

    Right. And so they do better at junior levels, which gets them put on traveling squads and gets them extra coaching, which makes them even more better than those other kids, etc. The distribution of birthdates of professional Canadian hockey players is stunning…

    … and NOBODY NOTICED this until a few years ago, even though it had been going on for decades. A dominant factor in success in a given industry was invisible, pervasive, and entirely random from the point of view of who benefited and who was harmed.

    That kind of thing goes on all the time, in every aspect of life. A claim that success is mostly based on personal qualities is, necessarily, a claim that this kind of thing does NOT happen very often, or only has small effects when it does.

  80. DrDaveT says:

    @charles austin:

    So much anecdotal evidence and populist rhetoric.

    There is a substantial body of economic literature on social mobility, if you prefer systematic and academic to anecdotal and populist.

    The problem is that most luck is invisible. It’s not about winning the lottery; it’s about absence of obstacles.

    In my own case (anecdote alert!), I benefited mightily from
    1. Not being born black
    2. Not being born female
    3. Not being born (or entering the workforce) during a recession or depression
    4. Not dying young of cancer like my aunts did
    5. Not going blind like my grandfather did
    6. Not having a child with expensive and time-consuming health issues, like my brother did
    7. Not being crippled by a workplace accident like my uncle was
    8. Having college-educated parents (unlike their parents)
    9. Stumbling into a field that was about to experience increased demand for PhDs
    10. Failing to get tenure and having to move to where my wife had a job, which just happened to accidentally set me up for a much better job than I’d had…
    11. …where I met the guy who pointed me at the even better job that I now hold, after the first great job got sold out from under the employees.

    Nothing really bad has ever happened to me, and the bad things that did happen (losing a job) were magically followed by new and better opportunities. That’s not my doing; the people around me were not so lucky.

    We agree that some people do a lot more than others to prepare for and take advantage of lucky breaks. I admire and honor those people. But I don’t make the mistake of thinking that the things they do guarantee success, or that anyone who prepares and works similarly will be similarly successful.

  81. anjin-san says:

    @James Joyner:

    talent, etc. out-working your competition tends to be rewarded

    In 2002 I was laid off from a very good job with a major wireless carrier. As I headed down cubical row with my little box of personal possessions on my last day, I was struck by how many people who were less talented and hard working than myself were still planted in their chairs.

    I had dinner that night with a co-worker who was much, much higher up the food chain than I, and I asked him what had happened, and why so many people I considered to be stiffs where still employed.

    “You don’t get it, do you?”, he replied. People like you make management nervous. You ask difficult questions in meetings when vice presidents are sitting in. You always want to try new things. When something goes wrong, you want to get to the bottom of it. They don’t want that. They want people to sit it their cubicles waiting to be told what to do. When they are told what to do, they do it competently, no more. That’s the ideal employee.”

  82. Ben Wolf says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    If it’s value added to other lives, then a lot of people in business need to start getting paid a lot, lot less….

    One of those areas where economics, or morality myths, have done such a disservice to society. Textbooks teach us that capitalism is all about producing goods and services, hence the near-ubiquitous idea that the more one is responsible for producing the more greatly one is rewarded. But it isn’t about production, it’s about accumulation of wealth; most specifically financial wealth. A relative handful of individuals accumulate that wealth via their incomes which reduces the efficiency of the very economy we are told they serve so admirably.

    Rather than adding to other lives the game is to extract.

  83. Moosebreath says:

    @charles austin:

    “Not that I personally claim to have built all the infrastructure, but I damn well have paid the taxes that funded it for almost 40 years now”

    And so have the rest of us. However, substantially all of the wealth generated in the last few decades has gone to the top 1%, who also did not build that any more than the rest of us did. So why should they get the gains, and not the rest of us?

  84. Marshall_P says:

    @Rafer Janders: There are not many families where one person is in the top 1%, period. Taking the dividing line as 1%—as though nothing can be learned by families where siblings are split between the top and bottom quintiles—is an absurd and arbitrary imposition.

  85. wr says:

    @charles austin: “Not that I personally claim to have built all the infrastructure, but I damn well have paid the taxes that funded it for almost 40 years now ”

    You have paid for an infinitesimely tiny fraction of the infrastructure, which is as it should be. We are better, stronger and richer as a community — as a civilization — than we could dream of being on our own. Why this is painful for some conservatives to acknowledge is something I will never understand.

  86. wr says:

    @anjin-san: “He received 19 million dollars for three weeks of work as the CEO of WAMU as it imploded during the 2008 financial crisis.”

    But he worked really hard for those three weeks.

  87. anjin-san says:

    @wr:

    but I damn well have paid the taxes that funded it for almost 40 years now ”

    So have I. Big deal. I live in an advanced, stable country. The roads go everywhere and the sewers work. I can walk the streets safely. There are nice parks near my home. If I have an emergency of some kind, I make a phone call and people rush to help me. Almost everyone who lived in the history of the world never had the benefit of things like this that we all take for granted every day.

    I think I am getting a pretty good deal.

  88. Grewgills says:

    @CET:

    The thing that I find obnoxious about the rhetoric of ‘privilege’ is the implication that it is something that no one should have.

    It is something that should be recognized and we as a society should work to minimize it and its inverse. The advantages of being a white, heterosexual, Christian man in our society are only problematic in that they mean that others are facing barriers that those lucky few are not. If those barriers are torn down, then white male Christian privilege disappears. So, yes, no one should have it. I say that as one of those lucky few who has had much more support than most to achieve my modest success.

  89. charles austin says:

    @Moosebreath: Maybe that has something to do with punitive tax rates on earned income compared to unearned income sheltered in trust funds.

  90. charles austin says:

    @DrDaveT: I still think rhetoric about the 0.01% is being used to tar about 100 or 1,000 times as many people who are trying to succeed. But the class warfare meant to keep us all poor and stupid gets louder and more shrill every day.

  91. charles austin says:

    @Moosebreath: Really? Almost half the population pays nothing for that infrastructure and you claim they aren’t getting anything for it? The federal government spends a remarkably small percentage of funds on infrastructure. More than half is now the redistribution of wealth, but it’s never enough, is it?

  92. charles austin says:

    @wr: The problem isn’t that conservatives don’t acknowledge it but that progressives think it means that too much is ever enough. Have you noticed just how much federal spending has gone up since Bill Clinton was president? Sorry, but I just don’t sign up to Marxist approaches to punish success and reward lack of achievement — whatever the reason.

  93. Moosebreath says:

    @charles austin:

    ” Almost half the population pays nothing for that infrastructure and you claim they aren’t getting anything for it?”

    The zombie lie rises again. Half the country does not pay INCOME tax. They pay plenty of other taxes.

  94. wr says:

    @charles austin: No, you’ve got yours, and the world can go screw. You don’t have to explain. We all start out with that attitude. Some people develop an awareness of other human beings sometime shortly after moving on from breast feeding. Others become libertarians.

    But as a goverining philosophy, “Mine mine mine mine mine I wannit I wannit I wannit mine mine mine” is really nothing to brag about.

  95. DrDaveT says:

    @charles austin:

    Have you noticed just how much federal spending has gone up since Bill Clinton was president?

    Yes, I did notice that. It happened during the W administration, for the most part, and the Stupid Iraq War and the Stupid Prescription Drug Benefit were the main contributors.

  96. DrDaveT says:

    @charles austin:

    I still think rhetoric about the 0.01% is being used to tar about 100 or 1,000 times as many people who are trying to succeed.

    I’m trying to parse that, but I can’t. I didn’t say anything about the 1%, or the .01%, or any other percent. There’s no magic threshold here.

    …and I have no idea what you mean by “tar” here. There’s nothing wrong with trying to succeed; I wish you and everyone else the best of luck at it. Who is being tarred with what?

  97. Tony W says:

    @wr: Conservatives have elevated selfishness and irrational fear into “desirable” traits. So much for the party of family values.

  98. al-Ameda says:

    We go far and wide to fit our economic results into the meritocracy box.

    It’s hard to argue with the notion that if you’re intelligent and you work hard that you have a good chance of succeeding (by some measure of income and position.) What we like to do is minimize the role that inheritance, luck, legacy, and a “glass ceiling” might play as we progress through our careers.

    Christianity has created nice little syllogisms that avoids the shags of gray inherent in looking at opportunity, success and merit in our work lives. It something like this:

    If you’re rich, then you must be smart, and it’s evidence that God has chosen you. And how do we know who the chosen ones are? It’s simple, they’re the ones with money. All I can say is: play Lotto and Powerball, win and let them explain THAT one.

  99. al-Ameda says:

    @anjin-san:

    My favorite is Alan H. Fishman. He received 19 million dollars for three weeks of work as the CEO of WAMU as it imploded during the 2008 financial crisis.

    My personal favorite is the case of Bob Nardelli, a former CEO of Home Depot, who was dismissed in 2007 after an extended period of declining profits and poor performance. He left with a $210 million severance package. Was his position a difficult one? Of course. Did he deserve $210M in cash, stock options and other compensation? Where was the meritocracy in this instance?

    The fact is, the highest levels of management in every major corporation reward themselves handsomely regardless of company performance. They (advocates of very high corporate compensation) used to explain all of this away by telling us that these were positions under high pressure to deliver profitability to the shareholders, but as we’ve seen, it really does not matter id the company is profitable or not, the compensation packages and the golden parachutes for dismissed CEOs are extremely lucrative.

  100. anjin-san says:

    @wr:

    All through the day, I me mine
    I me mine, I me mine
    All through the night, I me mine
    I me mine, I me mine
    Now they’re frightened of leaving it
    Everyone’s weaving it
    Coming on strong all the time
    All through the day I me mine

  101. Monala says:

    @Moosebreath: Furthermore, only a small number (about 8%) of that 47% never pay income taxes. A lot of them are currently students — i.e., future income taxpayers — or retirees — i.e., former income tax payers.

  102. grumpy realist says:

    @michael reynolds: And a lot of Bill Gates’ success was due to IBM making some really dumb decisions…

    I’m one of those people who jumped off the academic/publishing/tenure track treadmill very early on, partly because of the competition and partly because it just looked so mind-boggingly boring. Many years later, people told me how “fortunate” it was that I hadn’t “wasted time” going through round after round of post-docs and the whole publish-or-perish rat race. (I have a few scientific papers under my belt, which I feel is enough.)

    My major problem is getting horribly bored after mastering a skill and not wanting to put the extra work into becoming a Big Cheese in the field. Which is where the real $$$ is. Which is why I’ve ended up in more entrepreneurial-type activities.

    I guess my version of success at present is “keeping your head above water, enjoying what you do, and not being bored.” Oh, and “having enough capital to start your next project.”

    Whatever works….