An Animated Michael Sandel Explains How Meritocracy Degrades Our Democracy

Imagine if governments and institutions took their policy directives straight from George Orwell’s 1984 or Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” We might veer distressingly close to many a literary dystopia in these times, with duckspeak taking over all the discourse. But some lines—bans on thinking or non-procreative sex, or seriously proposing to eat babies—have not yet been crossed.

When it comes, however, to meritocracy—a term that originated in a 1958 satirical dystopian novel by British sociologist Michael Young—it can seem as if the political class had taken fiction as manifesto. Young himself wrote in 2001, “much that was predicted has already come about. It is highly unlikely the prime minister has read the book, but he has caught on to the word without realizing the dangers of what he is advocating.”




In Young's historical analysis, what began as an allegedly democratic impulse, a means of breaking up hereditary castes, became itself a way to solidify and entrench a ruling hierarchy. “The new class has the means at hand,” wrote Young, “and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.” (Wealthy people bribing their children's way into elite institutions comes to mind.) Equal opportunity for those who work hard and play by the rules doesn’t actually obtain in the real world, meritocracy's critics demonstrate—prominent among them the man who coined the term “meritocracy.”

One problem, as Harvard’s Michael Sandel frames it in the short RSA animated video above, is an ancient one, characterized by a very ancient word. “Meritocratic hubris,” he says, “the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success,” causes them to “forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way.” Accidents of birth are ignored in a hyper-individualist ideology that insists on narcissistic notions of self-made people and a just world (for them).

“The smug conviction that those on the top deserve their fate” comes with its inevitable corollary—“those on the bottom deserve theirs too,” no matter the historical, political, and economic circumstances beyond their control, and no matter how hard they might work or how talented they may be. Meritocracy obviates the idea, Sandel says, that “there but for the grace of God or accidents of fortune go I,” which promoted a healthy degree of humility and an acceptance of life's contingency.

Sandel sees meritocratic attitudes as corrosive to democracy, describing their effects in his upcoming book The Tyranny of Merit. Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits, another ivy league academic and heir to Michael Young's critique, has also just released a book (The Meritocracy Trap) decrying meritocracy. He describes the system as a “trap” in which “upward mobility has become a fantasy, and the embattled middle classes are now more likely to sink into the working poor than to rise into the professional elite.”

Markovitz, who holds two degrees from Yale and a doctorate from Oxford, admits at The Atlantic that most of his students “unnervingly resemble my younger self: They are, overwhelmingly, products of professional parents and high-class universities.” Once an advocate of the idea of meritocracy as a democratic force, he now argues that its promises “exclude everyone outside of a narrow elite…. Hardworking outsiders no longer enjoy genuine opportunity.”

According to Michael Young, meritocracy’s tireless first critic and theorist (he adapted his satire from his 1955 dissertation), “those judged to have merit of a particular kind,” whether they truly have it or not, always had the potential, as he wrote in The Guardian, to “harden into a new social class without room in it for others.” A class that further dispossessed and disempowered those viewed as losers in the endless rounds of competition for social worth.

Young died in 2002. We can only imagine what he would have made of the exponential extremes of inequality in 2019. A utopian socialist and tireless educator, he also became an MP in the House of Lords and a baron in 1978. Perhaps his new position gave him further vantage to see how “with the coming of the meritocracy, the now leaderless masses were partially disfranchised; a time has gone by, more and more of them have been disengaged, and disaffected to the extent of not even bothering to vote. They no longer have their own people to represent them.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Economics 101: Hedge Fund Investor Ray Dalio Explains How the Economy Works in a 30-Minute Animated Video

Want to know how the economy works? It “works like a simple machine," according to Ray Dalio, who explains its mechanisms in the 30-minute video above. The presentation is “simple but not simplistic,” says the site Economic Principles, a research arm of Dalio’s company Bridgewater Associates. The lesson packs in most of the major boldfaced concepts in the average overpriced college economics textbook, “such as credit, interest, rates, leveraging, and deleveraging.” And it does so in that most engaging means of learning things online, an animated video, narrated by an expert.

All that’s well and good, but can we really understand such a volatile beast as “the economy”—an abstraction that sometimes seems like a cruelly rigged game and sometimes like a not-particularly-benevolent (to most people) deity—in only half an hour? Should we trust Dalio to summarize its complexity? The billionaire hedge-fund manager did, he tells us, manage “to anticipate and to sidestep the global financial crisis.” And he has made quite an impression on people like Forbes Senior Contributor Carmine Gallo with his “7,500-word LinkedIn article titled 'Why and How Capitalism Needs to be Reformed.'”

In that piece, the “voracious learner who studies narrative and communication… turns an enormously complex subject into a simple, compelling narrative.” He also makes it clear right in the title that by “the economy” he means a capitalist economy. It’s a point largely taken for granted in the animated explainer but an important one nonetheless given the underlying assumptions of the theory. Serious critiques of capitalism seem much harder to condense because they’re tasked with unpacking all those assumptions.

Marx’s Das Kapital spans three volumes, though he only lived to publish the first one, itself a monster of a read. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is maybe a little breezier, at 696 pages (though if you let The Economist read it for you, they can sum it up in four paragraphs). By contrast, Dalio offers a comprehensive primer in brief for those of us who skipped that macroeconomics course, or who never got the chance to sign up for one. But elsewhere he has matched capitalism's biggest critics with his own best-selling book Principles: Life and Work, a huge and highly-praised look at economic crises of debt, gross inequality, stagnant wages, etc. See him describe the book, in five minutes, on 60 Minutes, just above.

Capitalism's best-known critics, even those who want to see the current system swapped out for a more equitable, sustainable model, have known they must begin by learning how the current system works, or how it doesn’t. Dalio himself isn’t setting out to build a worker’s paradise or to make financiers like himself obsolete, but he does have some trenchant thoughts on capitalism’s failures—and they are many, in his estimation. Still, he believes he knows how it can be reformed “to produce better outcomes.” Learn more in his compellingly-written essay here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Buckminster Fuller Rails Against the “Nonsense of Earning a Living”: Why Work Useless Jobs When Technology & Automation Can Let Us Live More Meaningful Lives

We are a haunted species: haunted by the specter of climate change, of economic collapse, and of automation making our lives redundant. When Marx used the specter metaphor in his manifesto, he was ironically invoking Gothic tropes. But Communism was not a boogeyman. It was a coming reality, for a time at least. Likewise, we face very real and substantial coming realities. But in far too many instances, they are also manufactured, under ideologies that insist there is no alternative.

But let’s assume there are other ways to order our priorities, such as valuing human life as an end in itself. Perhaps then we could treat the threat of automation as a ghost: insubstantial, immaterial, maybe scary but harmless. Or treat it as an opportunity to order our lives the way we want. We could stop inventing bullshit, low-paying, wasteful jobs that contribute to cycles of poverty and environmental degradation. We could slash the number of hours we work and spend time with people and pursuits we love.




We have been taught to think of this scenario as a fantasy. Or, as Buckminster Fuller declared in 1970—on the threshold of the “Malthusian-Darwinian” wave of neoliberal thought to come—“We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery…. He must justify his right to exist.” In current parlance, every person must somehow “add value” to shareholders’ portfolios. The shareholders themselves are under no obligation to return the favor.

What about adding value to our own lives? “The true business of people," says Fuller, "should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.” Against the “specious notion” that everyone should have to make a wage to live--this "nonsense of earning a living"--he takes a more magnanimous view: “It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest," who then may go on to make millions of small breakthroughs of their own.

He may have sounded overconfident at the time. But fifty years later, we see engineers, developers, and analysts of all kinds proclaiming the coming age of automation in our lifetimes, with a majority of jobs to be fully or partially automated in 10-15 years. It is a technological breakthrough capable of dispensing with huge numbers of people, unless its benefits are widely shared. The corporate world sticks its head in the sand and issues guidelines for retraining, a solution that will still leave masses unemployed. No matter the state of the most recent jobs report, serious losses in nearly every sector, especially manufacturing and service work, are unavoidable.

The jobs we invent have changed since Fuller’s time, become more contingent and less secure. But the obsession with creating them, no matter their impact or intent, has only grown, a runaway delusion no one can seem to stop. Should we fear automation? Only if we collectively decide the current course of action is all there is, that “everybody has to earn a living”—meaning turn a profit—or drop dead. As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—echoing Fuller—put it recently at SXSW, “we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem…. We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work.”

“We should be excited about automation,” she went on, “because what it could potentially mean is more time to educate ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing in and investigating the sciences.” However that might be achieved, through subsidized health, education, and basic services, new New Deal and Civil Rights policies, a Universal Basic Income, or some creative synthesis of all of the above, it will not produce a utopia—no political solution is up that task. But considering the benefits of subsidizing our humanity, and the alternative of letting its value decline, it seems worth a shot to try what economist Bill Black calls the "progressive policy core," which, coincidentally, happens to be "centrist in terms of the electorate's preferences."

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

To Save Civilization, the Rich Need to Pay Their Taxes: Historian Rutger Bregman Speaks Truth to Power at Davos and to Fox’s Tucker Carlson

Certain economists may have downgraded the labor theory of value, but most of us can agree on the basic moral intuition that no one person is worth millions, even billions, more than almost everyone else on the planet. Yet we live in a society that allows individuals to hoard millions and billions of dollars in cash, assets, and capital gains, without even the presumption that they demonstrate why they should have it--especially to the degree that the top 1% now holds more wealth than 90% in the U.S.

What social contract allows for this situation? I’m not personally interested in the answer from economists, though I imagine there are many excellently accredited proponents. The dominant assumptions in economics come from fantasies like ceteris paribus, “all else being equal,” and the concept of “externalities.” World historical inequality, political instability, and ecological devastation do not seem to pose serious problems for most mainstream economic thinking. But what do historians say? This is, after all, a historical question.




Many similar situations have obtained in the past. Sometimes they have resulted in bloody revolutions, sometimes sacking and pillaging, sometimes redistribution schemes. Noblesse oblige: land grants, endowments, hospitals, museums, universities… these have not only eased the consciences of the rich but have stood out as appeasing acts of public generosity. But the only thing that has really mitigated the conditions for societal collapse under capitalism?

According to Dutch historian and writer Rutger Bregman, it’s high taxes on high incomes and estates. It just so happened, however, at this year’s Davos World Economic Forum, as Bregman lamented in a Davos panel discussion, taxes were the one thing billionaires would not discuss. This was so, he observes, at a conference that features Sir David Attenborough “talking about how we’re wrecking the planet.”

I mean, I hear people talking the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency, but then, I mean, almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich are just not paying their fair share. I mean, it feels like I’m at a firefighter’s conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.

Picturing firefighters hoarding water and refusing to share it while the planet is going up in flames is a sinister image, but maybe the intentions are beside the point. Even where tax rates are high(ish), governments go out of their way to allow companies and individuals to avoid paying them. Surely, many people believe this is necessary to create jobs? So what if those jobs lack security, benefits, or a living wage?

Bregman pulls back from the inflammatory metaphor to concede that one panel did address the issue. He was one of fifteen participants. We have to “stop talking about philanthropy,” he says, “and start talking about taxes,” just like Americans did in the supposedly halcyon days of the 1950s, when under Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower the top marginal tax rate was 91%. He says this to people like Michael Dell, who once asked Bregman for an example of a 70% tax rate ever working.

Oxfam’s executive director Winnie Byanyima substantiates his polemic, noting globally “we have a tax system that leaks so much, that $170 billion” annually ends up in tax havens. This is wealth that is extracted from the planet’s resources, from government subsidies and the labor hours and health of grossly underpaid workers. Then it is disappeared. If you’ve seen this video, you’ve seen the charges of “one-sidedness” lobbed by former Yahoo CFO Ken Goldman from the audience. Byanyima's response rebuts all of his talking points. She deserves her own cheerleading video edit.

Bregman took the same confrontational stance in an unaired interview with Fox’s Tucker Carlson. After Carlson seemed to agree with him, the historian bristled and pointed out that as “a millionaire funded by billionaires,” Carlson has faithfully represented and communicated the interests of his employers for decades, whether that's the brutal scapegoating of immigrants or the defense of unlimited profiteering and huge tax cuts for the wealthy (and tax raises for everyone else). The host ends the interview sputtering insults and obscenities and sneers “I was willing to give you a hearing.” The problem requires more than a condescending pat on the head, Bregman argues.

His solution to massive inequality and unrest, universal basic income, is one that, like high marginal tax rates, once appealed to Republicans. The proposal has a long history, many serious detractors, and it’s also politically ignored. You can hear Bregman’s argument for it above, and against Margaret Thatcher’s ruthlessly ahistorical characterization of poverty as a “personality defect.” If you think UBI goes too far, or not nearly far enough, maybe you’d be interested in other ideas, like a 15-hour workweek and open borders, part of the “ideal world” Bregman says is possible in his book Utopia for Realists. You can download it as a free audiobook if you sign up for Audible's free trial program.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How the Ancient Mayans Used Chocolate as Money

We've had hundreds and hundreds of years to get used to money in the form of coins and bills, though exactly how long we've used them varies quite a bit from region to region. Of course, some spots on the globe have yet to adopt them at all, as anyone who's heard the much-told story of the Yap islanders and their huge limestone discs knows. But the history of money is, in essence, the history of bartering — trading something you have for something you want — becoming more and more abstract; now, with digital crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, it looks like money will ascend one level of abstraction higher. But to imagine what a truly non-abstract currency looks like, just look at the ancient Mayan civilization, the members of which paid their debts with chocolate.

"The ancient Maya never used coins as money," writes Science's Joshua Rapp Learn. "Instead, like many early civilizations, they were thought to mostly barter, trading items such as tobacco, maize, and clothing." Thanks to the work of archaeologist Joanne Baron, a scholar of murals, ceramic paintings, carvings and other objects depicting life in the Classic Maya period which ran from around 250 BC to 900 AD, we've now begun to learn how chocolate took on a major, money-like role in the Maya's economy.




Some images depict cups of chocolate itself, which the Mayans usually enjoyed in the form of a hot drink, being accepted as payment, and others show chocolate traded in the coin-like form of "fermented and dried cacao beans." In many scenes, Maya leaders receive their tributes (or taxes) most often in the form of "pieces of woven cloth and bags labeled with the quantity of dried cacao beans they contain."

Cacao beans eventually became such a valuable currency "that it was evidently worth the trouble to counterfeit them," writes Smithsonian's Josie Garthwaite in an article about the early history of chocolate (a subject about which you can learn more in the TED-ed video above). "At multiple archaeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala," she quotes anthropologist Joel Palka as saying, "researchers have come across remarkably well-preserved 'cacao beans'" that turn out to be made of clay. "Some scholars believe drought led to the downfall of the Classic Maya civilization," Learn notes, and according to Baron, "the disruption of the cacao supply which fueled political power may have led to an economic breakdown in some cases." That may sound strangely familiar to those of us who — even here in the 21st century, among the many who have gone nearly cashless and may soon not even need a credit card — have breakdowns of our own when we can't get our chocolate.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Simpsons Take on Ayn Rand: See the Show’s Satire of The Fountainhead and Objectivist Philosophy

Say what you will about the tenets of Objectivism—to take a fan favorite line from a little film about bowling and white Russians. At least it’s an ethos. As for Ayn Rand’s attempts to realize her "absurd philosophy" in fiction, we can say that she was rather less successful, in aesthetic terms, than literary philosophers like Albert Camus or Simone de Beauvoir. But that’s a high bar. When it comes to sales figures, her novels are, we might say, competitive.

Atlas Shrugged is sometimes said to be the second best-selling book next to the Bible (with a significant degree of overlap between their readerships). The claim is grossly hyperbolic. With somewhere around 7 million copies sold, Rand's most popular novel falls behind other capitalist classics like Think and Grow Rich. Still, along with The Fountainhead and her other ostensibly non-fictional works, Rand sold enough books to make her comfortable in life, even if she spent her last years on the dole.




Since her death, Rand's books have grown in popularity each decade, with a big spike immediately after the 2008 financial crisis. That popularity isn’t particularly hard to explain as an appeal to adolescent selfishness and grandiosity, and it has made her works ripe targets for satire—especially since they almost read like self-parody already. And who better to take on Rand than The Simpsons, reliable pop satirists of great American delusions since 1989?

The show’s take on The Fountainhead, above, has baby Maggie in the role of architect Howard Roark, the book’s genius individualist whose extraordinary talent is stifled by a critic named Ellsworth Toohey (a cardboard caricature of British theorist and politician Harold Laski). In this version, Toohey is a vicious preschool teacher in tweed, who insists on educating his charges in banality (“mediocrity rules!”) and knocks down Maggie’s block cathedral with a snide “welcome to the real world.”

In response to Toohey’s abuse, Maggie delivers a pompous soliloquy about her own greatness, as Rand’s heroes are wont to do. She is again subjected to preschool repression in the clip just above—this time not at the hands of a socialist critic but from the headmistress of the Ayn Rand School for Tots. The domineering disciplinarian tells Marge her aim is to “develop the bottle within” and dissuade her students from becoming “leeches,” a dig at Rand’s tendency—one sadly parroted by her acolytes—to dehumanize recipients of social benefits as parasites.

Readers of Roald Dahl will be reminded of Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull, and the barracks-like daycare, its walls lined with Objectivist slogans, becomes a site for some Great Escape capers. These sly references hint at a deeper critique—suggesting that the libertarian philosophy of hyper-individualism contains the potential for tyranny and terror as brutal as that of the most dogmatically collectivist of utopian schemes.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Diderot Effect: Enlightenment Philosopher Denis Diderot Explains the Psychology of Consumerism & Our Wasteful Spending

In pointing out the clear and present dangers posed by out-of-control consumerism, there is no need for Marxism 101 terms like “commodity fetishism.” Simply state in plain terms that we revere cheaply-mass-produced goods, made for the sake of endless growth and consumption, for no particular reason other than perpetual novelty and the creation of wealth for a few. Everyone nods in agreement, then gets back to scrolling through their social media feeds and inboxes, convincing themselves, as I convince myself, that targeted advertising in digital networks—what Jaron Lanier calls “mass behavior-modification regimes”—could not possibly have any effect on me!

While 18th-century French philosophe Denis Diderot in no way predicted (as Lanier largely did) the mass behavior-modification schemes of the internet, he understood something critically important about human behavior and the nascent commodity culture taking shape around him, a culture of anxious disquiet and games of one-upmanship, played, if not with others, then with oneself. Renowned, among other things, for co-founding the Encyclopédie (the first Wikipedia!), Diderot has also acquired a reputation for the insights in his essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” which inspired the concept of the “Diderot Effect.”

This principle states that modern consumption requires us to “identify ourselves using our possessions,” as Esther Inglis-Arkell writes at io9. Thus, when persuaded by naked lust or the enticements of advertising to purchase something new and shiny, we immediately notice how out of place it looks amongst our old things. “Once we own one thing that stands out, that doesn’t fit our current sense of unity, we go on a rampage trying to reconstruct ourselves” by upgrading things that worked perfectly well, in order to maintain a coherent sense of who we are in relation to the first new purchase.

The phenomenon, “part psychological, and part deliberate manipulation,” drives heedless shopping and creates needless waste. Diderot describes the effect in terms consistent with the tastes and prejudices of an educated gentleman of his time. He does so with perspicacious self-awareness. The essay is worth a read for the rich hyperbole of its rhetoric. Beginning with a comparison between his old bathrobe, which “molded all the folds of my body” and his new one (“stiff, and starchy, makes me look stodgy”), Diderot builds to a near-apocalyptic scenario illustrating the “ravages of luxury.”

The purchase of a new dressing gown spoiled his sense of himself as “the writer, the man who works.” The new robe strikes a jarring, dissociative note. “I now have the air of a rich good for nothing. No one knows who I am…. All now is discordant,” he writes, “No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.” Rather than get rid of the new purchase, he feels compelled to become the kind of person who wears such a thing, by means of further purchases which he could only newly afford, after receiving an endowment from Catherine the Great. Before this windfall, points out James Clear, he had “lived nearly his entire life in poverty.”

Clear gives several examples of the Diderot effect that take it out of the realm of 18th century aesthetics and into our modern big-box/Amazon reality. “We are rarely looking to downgrade, to simplify,” he writes, “Our natural inclination is always to accumulate.” To counter the tendency, he recommends corrective behaviors such as making sure new purchases fit in with our current possessions; setting self-imposed limits on spending; and reducing exposure to “habit triggers.” This may require admitting that we are susceptible to the ads that clutter both our physical and digital environments, and that limiting time spent on ad-driven platforms may be an act not only of self-care, but of social and environmental care as well. Algorithms now perform Diderot effects for us constantly.

Is the Diderot effect universally bad? Inglis-Arkell argues that “it’s not pure evil… there’s a difference between an Enlightenment screed and real life.” So-called green consumerism—“replacing existing wasteful goods with more durable, cleaner, more responsibly-made goods”—might be a healthy use of Diderot-like avarice. Besides, she says, “there’s nothing wrong with wanting to communicate one’s sense of self through aesthetic choices” or craving a unified look for our physical spaces. Maybe, maybe not, but we can take responsibility for how we direct our desires. In any case, Diderot’s essay is hardly a “screed,” but a light-hearted, yet candid self examination. He is not yet so far gone, he writes: “I have not been corrupted…. But who knows what will happen with time?”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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