The Meritocracy Trap is the most exciting book I have read since at age 16, Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class introduced me to the concept that our society is run by people committed to conspicuous consumption. Definition: “ expenditure on or consumption of luxuries on a lavish scale in an attempt to enhance one’s prestige.”
See potlatch: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potlatch
Meritocracy author Daniel Markovits is a Yale law professor who despite his seemingly off-putting academic credentials can and does write clearly and convincingly. M asserts correctly that overly well-educated rich and arrogant individuals (who immolate themself in work—spending long hours never smelling the roses) truly run our world.They do a rotten job of it much as the Harvard mafia in their seeming brilliance a generation earlier than Baby Boomer mine gave us the War in Vietnam.
M’s frequent reference to Veblen serves as a form of catnip for me, present in my recent architecture column. For the past ten years, under a permissive married team of architects, I have been publishing (as a paraplegic now 72 years old) the necessity of global architects to build the built environment for the disabled and elderly who live in it.
In my trashing the work of prominent NYC architect Stephen Holl ( famous for designing a museum in Europe that actually is a museum) Holl’s $41.5 million extravagance is a sin. I take particular exception to New York Times architect critic Michael Kimmelman who praises the beauty of a structure that is library in no meaningful sense of the word. Holl’s Hunters Point Queens library is inaccessible to children and adults in wheel chairs and to fat people.
Again my decades’s long Veblen obsession again reappears:
“ The New York Times’ powerful architecture critic Michael Kimmelman ( who should know better) has dangerously embraced conspicuous consumption ( the wealthy spending of public money on luxuries to enhance social position; namely, an ostentatious ‘library’ that may make the place look good but violates its function ).
“ When praising Steven Holl’s design in September, Kimmelman took special note of the library’s panoramic views—the best of which are not wheel chair accessible. The praise continues, praise for which he remains unrepentant despite the federal law suit which details the architect’s failure to make the library accessible to the disabled.
“Kimmelman continues: “With its sculptured geometry — a playful advertisement for itself — it’s even a little like the Pepsi sign. Compact, at 22,000 square feet and 82 feet high, the library is among the finest and most uplifting public buildings New York has produced so far this century.’”
When The Meritocracy Trap appeared to blow my consciousness, I did what any 16 year old dressed in adult clothing does, began writing long emails to the author. I recommended he read W.H. Auden’s The Managers:
In the bad old days it was not so bad:
The top of the ladder
Was an amusing place to sit; success
Meant quite a lot – leisure
And huge meals, more palaces filled with more
Objects, books, girls, horses
Than one would ever get round to, and to be
Carried uphill while seeing
Others walk. To rule was a pleasure when
One wrote a death sentence
On the back of the Ace of Spades and played on
With a new deck. Honours
Are not so physical or jolly now,
For the species of Powers
We are used to are not like that. Could one of them
Be said to resemble
The Tragic Hero, The Platonic Saint,
Or would any painter
Portray one rising triumph from a lake
On a dolphin, naked,
Protected by an umbrella of cherubs? Can
They so much as manage
To behave like genuine Caesars when alone
Or drinking with cronies,
To let their hair down and be frank about
The world? It is doubtful.
The last word on how we may live or die
Rests today with such quiet
Men, working too hard in rooms that are too big,
Reducing to figures
What is the matter, what is to be done.
A neat little luncheon
Of sandwiches is brought to each on a tray,
Nourishment they are able
To take with one hand without looking up
From papers a couple
Of secretaries are needed to file,
From problems no smiling
Can dismiss. The typewriters never stop
But whirr like grasshoppers
In the silent siesta heat as, frivolous
Across their discussions
From woods unaltered by our wars and our vows
There drift the scents of flowers
And the songs of birds who will never vote
Or bother to notice
Those distinguishing marks a lover sees
By instinct and policemen
Can be trained to observe. Far into the night
Their windows burn brightly
And, behind their backs bent over some report,
On every quarter,
For ever like a god or a disease
There on earth the reason
In all its aspects why they are tired, and weak,
The inattentive, seeing
Someone to blame. If, to recuperate
They go a-playing, their greatness
Encounters the bow of the chef or the glance
Of the ballet-dancer
Who cannot be ruined by any master’s fall.
To rule must be a calling,
It seems, like surgery or sculpture; the fun
Neither love nor money
But taking necessary risks, the test
Of one’s skill, the question,
If difficult, their own reward. But then
Perhaps one should mention
Also what must be a comfort as they guess
In times like the present
When guesses can prove so fatally wrong,
The fact of belonging
To the very select indeed, to those
For whom, just supposing
They do, there will be places on the last
Plane out of disaster.
No; no one is really sorry for their
Heavy gait and careworn
Look, nor would they thank you if you said you were.
W.H. Auden 1948, ‘The Oxford Book of Work’ 1999
Professor Markovits replied:
The reference to “The Managers” is inspired. Thanks especially for that.”
Having, as a writer, been paid by the word, I should now rest on my laurels and insert a
No. I am here in rural central Pennsylvania in a residential hotel where my neighbors are construction workers and those who risk their lives in the shale oil fields. I have come to know well the maids, desk clerks and maintenance people whose talent and knowledge of the real world enhances my life.
My mother insisted frequently that it is a sin to waste talent, Here in Lycoming County that sin is rampant. My talented staff are forced to work in a society that functions deliberately to keep talented workers in less than $7 an hour minimum wage poverty. Ill-educated in schools contemptible by Third World standards, suffering from inadequate health and dental care, these workers continue to evince talent.
It is Markocits’ must read thesis that the meritocracy trap has robbed us of the creativity that rich, entitled whiz kids and whiz adults— products of superb private schools, Ivy League schools, graduate and professional schools lack: The creativity that would lead us out of the mess we have made of our society.
Denny, the toothless sixty year old maintenance worker who supplements his income by delivering newspapers, has the talent to deliver us from our malaise. As does Lydia, the hauntingly beautiful, graceful and smart weekend maid who has a two year old illegitimate daughter and is completing her last year in high school twice.
Let us join with Professor M and say, Amen.
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