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Meritocracy & the Middle Class

Rusty Reno explains why so many middle class whites are having a populist moment: [1]

The relative success of Trump and Sanders shows that they’re rebelling against both left-leaning and right-leaning political establishments. That’s not because of identity politics. It’s because they’re in the best position to see the new character of our leadership class.


What white middle class voters are waking up to is that their natural leaders are being co-opted by the meritocratic system as well [as minorities’ leaders]. Hillary Clinton may have lived in Arkansas for decades, but she’s a creature of elite education and Goldman Sachs. People talk about the Clinton Machine. But it’s not at all like the machines of ward bosses and patronage jobs as sidewalk inspectors. The Clinton Machine is an interlocking network of very rich donors, high-placed journalists, and political elites. It operates at Davos, not in gritty ethnic urban neighborhoods.

For Christians, the starkest evidence of this is how the Republican Party caved on religious liberty in Indiana and Arkansas [2]as soon as Big Business cleared it’s throat. Add to that the lesson from Rep. Scott Garrett’s isolation [3]; despite being a faithful water-carrier for Wall Street, his apostasy on LGBT issues has made him a pariah among GOP megadonors and (therefore) the GOP Congressional leadership. Reno talks about how the Democratic and Republican elites serve the market above all, whether or not it benefits people further down the hierarchy from the Davos class. As far as that crowd is concerned, mankind will not be free until the last Southern Baptist is clubbed into submission with Bruce Jenner’s severed wing-wang. More Reno:

This gap isn’t just economic; it’s cultural as well. Our establishment is moving toward a post-national vision of the common good, while middle America seems eager for gestures and rhetoric that promises renewed national solidarity.

To a great extent, multiculturalism and other forms of “global consciousness” serve as companions to economic globalization. They promise to teach us how to navigate cultural differences in ways that defuse conflict, promote cooperation, and thus ease the way toward a global marketplace overseen by well-trained, benevolent technocrats from the Kennedy School of Government.

This approach need not be overtly ideological. It’s enough for us to downplay our local loyalties and to adopt a spirit of detachment from our histories. This can be done with plain vanilla relativism. The point is to strip away potentially divisive commitments, allowing us to focus on universal interests we share in common—the universal human desire to get richer, be healthier, and to satisfy individual preferences. This has led to a leadership class that is technocratic in its outlook but has trouble speaking about patriotic loyalties that unify us all.

Thus our volatile political moment.

Read the whole thing. [1]

I saw a “Bernie 2016” bumper sticker on a minivan outside of church yesterday. I’m pretty sure the driver and his wife are quite religiously conservative. There was a time — like, the day before yesterday — when I would not have been able to understand religious conservatives for Bernie Sanders. Nor could I have understood Democrats for Donald Trump. I’m starting to get it now.

From historian Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation [4]:

Indeed, it is crucially important that in the aggregate, people continue to conform to consumerism. No matter what, individuals must be left free to be selfish, because the manufactured goods life is needed to hold Western hyperpluralism together. In a world pullulating with so many incompatible truth claims, values, priorities, and aspirations, what else could do the trick?

What he’s saying is that individualism and consumerism are the only things that keep us from flying apart as a society. Is that going to be enough? What happens when the rising tide fails to float all (or most) boats? That’s what we’re starting to see now.

Serious question: what unites us as Americans? To what are we loyal, beyond our immediate self-interest? It’s not the Christian religion, or any religion. Is it to the principles of the Constitution? That seems quite abstract, in the end. What happens when people come to believe (rightly or wrongly) that the system is set up to prevent people like them from succeeding, or even to punish them?

The “Clinton Machine” is the Democratic version of the Machine. The Republicans are no different. The Democrats pretend that they care about the economic situation of non-elites who vote for them, and Republicans pretend that they care about the social concerns of non-elites who vote for them. What happens when people realize that it’s not true?

There may not be any realistic alternative at the ballot box, at least not now. But at least we shouldn’t deceive ourselves about what’s happening.

106 Comments (Open | Close)

106 Comments To "Meritocracy & the Middle Class"

#1 Comment By KD On February 11, 2016 @ 6:04 pm


I think you would benefit from Peter Turchin’s book on War and Peace and War, as well as from Michael Hudson’s Killing the Host. There is also a good bit of anthropological literature on the history of debt, like Graeber’s work.

Finance is intrinsic to the history of civilization, and its de-stabilization, and there is an expanding academic literature on the subject. It is a public utility, whether or not it is managed for the national interest or private interests.

You can also check out Pierro Sraffa’s contribution to economics, which is increasingly proving to be empirically sound, unlike Samuelson’s.


You could also look at the tradition of value investing. Hudson is basically taking a “value investor” approach to national economy, and apply value investor insights to the international system. Hence why he is a consultant to Wall Street and national governments.

#2 Comment By KD On February 11, 2016 @ 6:07 pm


If you look at the article I linked to you will find a nice graph at the end showing the radical decline in the % of compensation to non-managerial employees since 1964.

“Here we return to the vision of the classical economists — Adam Smith, Ricardo and Marx — who saw the income distribution as the outcome of a historical struggle between capitalists and those they employ, with no “equilibrium solution” possible.”

#3 Comment By KD On February 11, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

“This casts fundamental doubt on the MIT neoclassicals’ method of applying the old platitudes to labor. Once this neoclassical story — where the relative demands for labor and capital are dependent on their relative prices — is “debunked,” to use Paul Samuelson’s contrite term, the competitive market economy no longer contains any necessary mechanism pushing the various wage rates or the profit rate to any determinate level.1

Rather, history and custom, as well as politics, laws and struggle, will determine who gets what. It’s a system of grab what you can.”

#4 Comment By KD On February 11, 2016 @ 6:47 pm

Here is the wikipedia link to the Cambridge capital controversy:


The point of this is that is Sraffa was right, there is no economic equilibrium between wages and returns on capital. The division of the pie is a function of political power, hence, why oligarchy is not benign.

Here is Stiglitz’s discussion of the controversy:

“It is important, for the record, to recognize that key participants in the debate openly admitted their mistakes. Samuelson’s seventh edition of Economics was purged of errors. Levhari and Samuelson published a paper which began, ‘We wish to make it clear for the record that the nonreswitching theorem associated with us is definitely false. We are grateful to Dr. Pasinetti…’ (Levhari and Samuelson 1966). Leland Yeager and I jointly published a note acknowledging his earlier error and attempting to resolve the conflict between our theoretical perspectives. (Burmeister and Yeager, 1978).

However, the damage had been done, and Cambridge, UK, ‘declared victory’: Levhari was wrong, Samuelson was wrong, Solow was wrong, MIT was wrong and therefore neoclassical economics was wrong. As a result there are some groups of economists who have abandoned neoclassical economics for their own refinements of classical economics. In the United States, on the other hand, mainstream economics goes on as if the controversy had never occurred. Macroeconomics textbooks discuss ‘capital’ as if it were a well-defined concept — which it is not, except in a very special one-capital-good world (or under other unrealistically restrictive conditions). The problems of heterogeneous capital goods have also been ignored in the ‘rational expectations revolution’ and in virtually all econometric work.”

#5 Comment By JonF On February 12, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

KD, I apologize– I hit my head today on something this morning and I’ve been a bit stupid today– I don’t see how your replies connect to things I’ve written here.

#6 Comment By Liberty&Virtue On February 12, 2016 @ 8:32 pm

So many of the criticisms of meritocracy/claims that it no longer exists seem to me to be overblown/missing the mark.

First, it’s still very much the case that jobs are rewarded based on merit, understood as the ability to create value for the employer; this is also generally true of academia, though there are notable exceptions (legacies and arguably affirmative action). Political office is an entirely different situation; for one thing, cronyism is par for the course. Consider what isn’t the predominate means of advancement: patronage, heredity, payment. In any case, it is still quite possible and common for people to advance through education, hard work, and perseverance.

What has changed is the ease with which this happens, at least for some segments of society and through certain routes. But this doesn’t mean that “merit” is no longer the standard through which positions are distributed.

Second, and on a related note, I may be imagining it, but it seems that many critics of meritocracy are critical of the notion itself, when what really fuels their frustration is the presence of factors (take your pick: drug war, welfare, history of racist policies in the US, regulations, etc) making it very difficult for some people to advance–not the philosophy of giving positions based on ability and knowledge. Why these critics don’t limit their wrath to these hurdles, but go on to attack meritocracy itself, stumps me.