Meritocracy and likability

by Rob Horning

14 September 2006


At the American Prospect‘s blog, Ezra Klein and Garance Franke-Ruta combine to refute the myth of meritocracy David Brooks conjured in his NY Times op-ed of September 3. (Elsewhere economists Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein dispense with his specious use of statistics.) Responding to the econo-blogo-sphere debate about income inequality Brooks attempted to buoy the conservative line that inequality (pre-tax) is the natural consequence of differing skills and education, exacerbated by technology (i.e., educated people use computers and get better-paying jobs; poor people fear computers and continue to sweep floors and pick vegetables) rather than any governmental policy (like union-busting, globalization, de facto wage freezes). Arguing that “higher education pays off because it provides technical knowledge and because it screens out people who are not organized, self-motivated and socially adept” and that the “high social and customer-service skills” the well-to-do possess explains the inequalities, Brooks claims that if anything, “the meritocracy is working almost too well.”

Well, not really. As Klein explains, we’re supposed to “believe that the top one percent now gets paid 16 percent of the total income in this country because they developed ‘high social and customer-service skills.’ ” (Brad Plumer has more statistics that illustrate the ludicrousness of this here as well as a good reminder of why this all matters: economic inequality produces political inequality, which reinforces and worsens the economic inequality.) Klein sees Brooksian meritocacy as a transparent alibi for gross inequality: “In Brooks-land, riches come from being likable, and who could argue with that? All of us think of ourselves as likable, or at least imagine we have the potential to become so. And so all of us can clamber atop that massive income gap and become rich. It’s a comforting fiction. To bad it’s so wildly wrong.” Hence he dubs Brooks’s fantasy world “the likability economy,” which is extremely apt considering that much of what goes into “likability” are those aspects which can be used to suppress merit, to thwart the premises of meritocracy—the social and cultural capital that allows merit to become operable, the networks and the habitus of the well-to-do that distinguishes them immediately from the lower classes (which is why mixed income housing is an effective way to reduce poverty—the middle-class habitus rubs off on the poor). Franke-Ruta links to the relevant data in this post, where she argues that “merit is a product of social position”—that is “what America’s powerful institutions today call ‘merit’ is the manufactured product of a lifetime of education, training, and invested social capital, and that what the leaders of institutions prefer is also a product of their own biases. This is especially true when personality characteristics are used as employment criteria.”

So I’m more skeptical than Klein about the usefulness of the likability economy as alibi, of our being able “to imagine we have the potential to become” likable people. We don’t see likability as a means to social mobility unless we already have the social and cultural capital to make it so. Otherwise we just notice how we are inexplicably unlikable to prospective connections and employers. Likability seems a primary way inborn merit is separated from the socially produced version; it’s what is used to strain out those who threaten existing class boundaries without having the discrimination become too overt. The issue, as Reihan Salam gets at in this post, is whether average Americans retain their believe in social mobility despite statistics which dispute it. Part of the problem may be a simple skepticism of economic data, which are often confusing and easily distorted to suit the rhetorical and ideological aims of whoever is using them. Salam suggests that Americans have a “deep-seated bias against zero-sum politics” and rejct the idea that the top one percent’s good fortunes have anything to do with their situation. That seems possible; it would naturally result from an ideology that rejects the interconnectedness of social life and permits individuals that illusion of total autonomy and responsibility; but I don’t think it holds for those who butt up against the likability bias, who discover that no amount of good-naturedness can overcome the ingrained biases of class to protect its own privilege, the values of which reside in their positional and exclusive status.

Update: Read here and here for an elucidation of this kind of nebulous discrimination in action—Ivy League schools’  efforts to avoid admitting too many Jewish and then Asian American students, rejecting them on the basis of their “lacking character.”

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