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Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes
Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy

quilty, June 7, 2012

I read the article in The Nation adapted from this book today and highly recommend reading it.

My reaction was to try to understand the problem and some possibilities, and hope that others will find my thoughts useful.

My impression is that part of the problem is measureability. Things that can be measured in well-defined units become the focus of competition by the elite, with money being the prototypical measure. Since competitiveness is heavily based on practice, those who want to become part of the elite of a system spend all of their time practicing (in the preparation and occupational activity senses).

This time spent decreases the ability to understand alternative information, to comprehend other goals, especially if they are not easily measurable. Your elites are competitive and anxious about maintaining high standards of performance. So when pressed to address things that they are not highly skilled at, they become defensive and seek to reduce cognitive dissonance about their quality of performance and self-perception as an elite person in two ways.

First, by dismissing the importance of the activity they are not skilled at, which is easier when it is not very measurable. They further reduce anxiety by focusing harder at what they are skilled at, creating a feedback loop that reinforces the perceived importance of their skill and diminishes their perception of the thing that they are not good at.

Second, they interpret messages that ask them to think about other things as attacks motivated by negative perceptions of the elites, especially envy. They further label the source of the question as lazy. Questioning an elite person who devotes all their time to a specific activity becomes a personality flaw of the questioner, who presumably could increase their abilities by hard work, at least to the maximum level of their intelligence.

So the question becomes one of trying to determine how to measure things currently difficult to measure, like empathy and happiness, but also one of trying to link certain things that are easy to measure but aren't taken seriously to an important criterion - your corporate lawyer will think of how spending 3 hours taking their kid to a movie in terms of loss of 3 hours of work, but will not keep a tally of how many hours they spend with their children. This is presumably because the impact of the hours of work is quantifiable in income loss whereas time spent with children is not linked to something quantifiable.

But is it possible to reverse perceptions, such that something such as time spent with children is the unit of measurement for the child's happiness, or that time spent doing volunteer work is a unit of measurement for empathy?
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