The Flaw in American Meritocracy

Not for the first time, Brad DeLong introduces a framework for understanding the various ways in which we humans can add value to society. And it is a very useful framework indeed…

“Humans used to have five ways of creating economic value: through backs, through fingers, through routine control, through smiles, and through creative insight:

    1. Strong backs (usually those bathed in the steroid testosterone) could do the heavy lifting.
    2. Nimble fingers could do the fine manipulating.
    3. Cybernetic control loops could keep the lifting and manipulating on their proper tracks.
    4. Smiles—in fact, an entire universe of human social interactions—could keep us as a group all pulling in roughly the same direction, playing positive-sum rather than negative-sum economic games, and could also provide the personal services from which we derive so much of our human well-being.
    5. Genuine creative insight could think up new ways of doing things and new things to do that would be useful: luxurious or convenient, and over the course of time could transform conveniences into necessities, luxuries into conveniences, and invent yet new dimensions of luxury.”


“Up until 1750 or so practically all of capital and technology were strong complements with all four modes–with human backs, fingers, brains, and smiles. The only possible exceptions were draft animals, which substituted to a degree for backs but were strong complements with fingers, brains, and smiles. Starting in 1750 or so the steam engine and what followed became strong substitutes for backs–but strong complements for fingers, brains, and smiles. Starting in 1910 or so the assembly line and what followed became, increasingly, strong substitutes for fingers–but strong complements for brains and smiles. And now the twenty-first century is bringing us information and communications and control-loop technologies that promise to be better as cybernetic control loops for both blue-collar machine-handling and white-collar information-sorting and routine-decision-making processes than brains. Soon, if not already, computers will be strong substitutes for brains–leaving only smiles and genuinely creative ideas as the only modes left in which human beings are complements to technology and capital, and indeed where human beings can add value.”

There are a number of things that this framework is good for. Let me explore just one, in this post:

Temporal birth lottery luck

DeLong has touched on this before. Beyond having the sense to pick the right parents, I was also born into the right era, where my lack of physical tools did not matter so much, and I could instead employ my brain as my central money-making faculty. The usefulness of one’s various skills varies hugely by the technology presently available—strong backs are amazingly useful up until 1750, nimble fingers until 1910, and brains remain so but not for long. That realization makes it harder to argue that even the spoils of a meritocratic society are fully “fair,” as even modern liberals presume

A belief in a meritocratic society that doesn’t need or want social insurance is a sort of odd, myopic, intense and unwavering focus on the present. If we include a time variation in the veil of ignorance, it significantly strengthens the case for a Social Contract. 

It is not historically aware to fail to consider that 150 years ago, I quite would have liked to have been “covered” in some sense by those with strong backs. And it is not forward-looking to fail to consider that in 150 years, the cognitive advantages that I might enjoy today and be paid for will largely have been made obsolete by the continuing forward march of technology.

Just as tractors destroyed the value of strong backs in the field, it is not a stretch to imagine that robots equipped with sufficient machine learning capabilities will destroy the value of my mind in coming up with incrementally better ways of pushing paper today. And next it will be the people with the smiles who will soak up most of the remaining value… 

The meritocratic society gets one thing right—it is wise, a priori, to set up a society in which:

a) your talents are fully realizable by way of equal opportunity. 

I would argue that it is also wise, as we advance from one age to the next and with no say as to when we are born, to set up a society in which:

b) if your talent-type cannot deliver at the apex of value in a given era, that those whose talent-type is presently “correct” will cover for you and make life reasonably comfortable and enjoyable anyway (with the understanding that you would have done, or will do, the same for them / their ancestors / their children in a different era).

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Jordan Bell-Masterson is an MBA candidate at the University of Chicago.

Previously, Bell-Masterson worked as an analyst in Research and Policy for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, where he provided support for the department's research programs and initiatives.

He also worked on SEO solutions for, an online college search and matching-engine based in Highland Park, Ill., and served his senior year as station manager for the Grinnell College radio station KDIC 88.5 FM.

Bell-Masterson graduated from Grinnell College in 2012 with a dual BA in English and economics, with honors.