Is meritocracy a myth? Let's see...

Mona Eberhardt

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I found this article on the belief in meritocracy, and I think it's worth a read.

 

Innula Zenovka

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I'm reading this at the moment, which is absolutely fascinating and covers the same sort of ground



A great deal of our thinking on this, and on many other topics too, is apparently skewed by the ways we have evolved to receive and process information and come to decisions. These are very efficient but do leave us liable repeatedly to make the same errors of interpretation or judgment for much the same sorts of reasons optical illusions work.


Researchers measure the strength of relationships by a correlation coefficient, which varies between 0 and 1. The coefficient was defined earlier (in relation to regression to the mean) by the extent to which two measures are determined by shared factors. A very generous estimate of the correlation between the success of the firm and the quality of its CEO might be as high as .30, indicating 30% overlap. To appreciate the significance of this number, consider the following question:

Suppose you consider many pairs of firms. The two firms in each pair are generally similar, but the CEO of one of them is better than the other. How often will you find that the firm with the stronger CEO is the more successful of the two?


In a well-ordered and predictable world, the correlation would be perfect (1), and the stronger CEO would be found to lead the more successful firm in 100% of the pairs. If the relative success of similar firms was determined entirely by factors that the CEO does not control (call them luck, if you wish), you would find the more successful firm led by the weaker CEO 50% of the time. A correlation of .30 implies that you would find the stronger CEO leading the stronger firm in about 60% of the pairs—an improvement of a mere 10 percentage points over random guessing, hardly grist for the hero worship of CEOs we so often witness.
The idea of meritocracy also, of course, has a powerful ideological component (which is one reason I am so impatient with people who complain about unfairness in economic relationships, since the workings of the capitalist economic system has no more to do with fairness and merit than do the ocean tides or the weather).
 
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danielravennest

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As they say, nobody succeeds on their own. I had parents and teachers, scholarships, etc. just to reach the point I could get a job in my field. Jeff Bezos has 1.3 million people at Amazon making him richer. If he had to pack and mail books by himself (which he did at the start), he would only make a modest income.
 

Innula Zenovka

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As they say, nobody succeeds on their own. I had parents and teachers, scholarships, etc. just to reach the point I could get a job in my field. Jeff Bezos has 1.3 million people at Amazon making him richer. If he had to pack and mail books by himself (which he did at the start), he would only make a modest income.
And also, Jeff Bezos wouldn't be so rich if he hadn't been so lucky.

Certainly he had some great ideas -- in particularly, the insight at the time e-commerce was only just becoming a possibility that books were a physical commodity people would be prepared to buy online -- and pursued them with great success, but his success has depended on lots of things not fully under his control going right, and has depended even more in other things completely outside his control not going wrong.
 

GoblinCampFollower

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And also, Jeff Bezos wouldn't be so rich if he hadn't been so lucky.

Certainly he had some great ideas -- in particularly, the insight at the time e-commerce was only just becoming a possibility that books were a physical commodity people would be prepared to buy online -- and pursued them with great success, but his success has depended on lots of things not fully under his control going right, and has depended even more in other things completely outside his control not going wrong.
building on this... trying to predict where technology is GOING to be in a few years is always dumb luck. Mark Twain went broke because he invested so heavily in a technology that immediately went obsolete... that wasn't him being dumb, it was bad luck.
 
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And also, Jeff Bezos wouldn't be so rich if he hadn't been so lucky.
Amazon went without net profits for a long time after they went public (and before!). If its investors got shaky at any point during that time...
 

Innula Zenovka

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I returned, and saw under the sun, 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.
Ecclesiastes 9:11
 

Innula Zenovka

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Thinking about meritocracies, here's a counter-example from real life.

My ex's grandfather was the last hereditary vizier to the king of Bhavnagar, part of what is now the state of Gujarat in western India. Gujerat was never formally part of British India, and is separated from much of the rest of India by the Rann of Kutch (very inhospitable desert), so it has its own language, culture and history.

The setup there was that members of this particular family always brought up one of the sons at court, working alongside his father and learning exactly how everything worked and who everyone was, and how to be head of the civil service/chief economic advisor/finance minister. It wasn't a particularly grand position. It came with a family house in the middle of town, but nothing special -- not a palace or anything like that.*

That's apparently pretty much how it still works today in the Gulf States and Saudi, too, with which Gujarat shares a lot of history, and in Gujarat it seemed to have worked reasonably well -- it was always a prosperous place, barring droughts.

*ETA: I realise it sounds like the Arabian Nights, but to look at it from a comparable perspective, when I was part of the family, so only one generation after Independence, back in Bhavnagar the family were all upper-middle-class professionals, civil servants and managers. Successful and comfortably off, yes, but not wealthy.
 
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Kamilah Hauptmann

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The setup there was that members of this particular family always brought up one of the sons at court, working alongside his father and learning exactly how everything worked and who everyone was, and how to be head of the civil service/chief economic advisor/finance minister.
You make it sound like a system of hereditary apprenticeships where the future people in power being taught the role and responsibilities from a young age is somehow in any way workable.

🤪
 
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Innula Zenovka

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You make it sound like a system of hereditary apprenticeships where the future people in power being taught the role and responsibilities from a young age is somehow in any way workable.

🤪
There was a powerful incentive to do well, after all, because if you screwed up and got fired, that was it for future generations. That's part of the law of karma, and here it was in practice for your descendants.

Think of the English upper middle classes and professionals, like Sir Humphrey. The hereditary deep state (Grandad apparently got a horse from the royal stables on which to ride to work, rather than a government car, and his father used to get the use of one the royal elephants while the kingom still had them).

ETA: I think I remember, from what my father-in-law told me, All India Railways ran on similar lines, so you spent your whole life learning how to be the signalman at a particular set of signals, or station master at a particular station, working alongside your father, and then passing those skills on to your sons in turn.
 
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Amazon went without net profits for a long time after they went public (and before!).
They began in 1995, went public in 1997, and first turned a profit in 2001.
 

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ETA: I think I remember, from what my father-in-law told me, All India Railways ran on similar lines, so you spent your whole life learning how to be the signalman at a particular set of signals, or station master at a particular station, working alongside your father, and then passing those skills on to your sons in turn.
Stability over upward (or possibly downward,too) mobility. There's a price to pay for either choice.
 

Innula Zenovka

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Stability over upward (or possibly downward,too) mobility. There's a price to pay for either choice.
Sure, and I'm not recommending it. However, from the king of Bhavnagar's point of view, though, or from that of All India Railways, at least you knew you were getting very well-trained, motivated and loyal staff.

I think, too, the jobs tended to be hereditary inside the extended family -- we tend to distinguish much more clearly between siblings and cousins than they do in India, I think, particularly in the more rural areas, where extended families all live in the same house or compound, and all the kids are brought up together, so if someone was a clear no-hoper for the job, or really wanted to do something else, one of the other brothers or cousins (sometimes sisters, too) would take it on.

I mentioned it simply as an example of a very non-meritocratic system that's still how things work in much of both India and the Gulf States and Emirates (and probably many other places too).