Pluralistic: 23 Aug 2020

Today's links

Quantifying the meritocratic delusion (permalink)

Our societal narratives are invisible by dint of their ubiquity, but they are far more important in stabilizing the status quo that all the cops and jails and domestic surveillance agencies put together.

Take inequality: when a few have much, and the many have little, the primary means of preventing the many from seizing the wealth of the few isn't burglar alarms – it's legitimacy.

If you can convince people that wealth is both earned and deserved, you can save a lot on armed guards, vaults and CCTV cameras.

The aristocracy once used the church to effect this legitimacy: as the English crown's motto goes, "Dieu et mon droit" ("God and my right").

The aristocratic legitimacy story makes it a literal sin to question inequality.

As the aristocracy gave way to merchant princes, society needed a new stabilizing story: the tale of the market, whose invisible hand allocates capital to the most deserving.

It's a highly circular form of reasoning, of course: "I am deserving because I am rich; I am rich because I am deserving."

Naturally, this self-serving logic attracted ridicule.

Notably, the sociologist Michael Young wrote a satirical, dystopian novel mocking this idea called "The Rise of the Meritocracy."

His coinage, "Meritocracy," was meant to deflate the delusion that wealth was merit and merit was wealth.

Instead, the term was adopted by the very people it was meant to lampoon: soon, capitalism boosters and defenders of inequality began to proclaim themselves to be "meritocrats" and defended the institutions that had enriched them as "meritocratic." Yeah, it's weird.

At its core, "meritocracy" is eugenics: the belief that some people are just intrinsically better than others (that's why you often hear plutocrats boasting of their "good blood" – think of Trump here).

Sometimes it's dressed up with coded language like "self-control" or "grit," but ultimately, it's about some in-born spark that both demands that the meritocrat lead the rest of us, and that they be rewarded for it. You can tell who deserves to rule because they are ruling.

As with all eugenics stories, meritocracy is trivially disprovable pseudoscientific nonsense.

Stipulate for the sake of argument that there are "meritocratic" traits that some of us are born with.

One thing we know about hereditable traits is that they follow a normal distribution – a bell curve. If merit is a heritable trait, then it should follow that same distribution.

But recall that "merit" is the excuse given for inequality: the market is a system for uncovering and rewarding merit, matching quanta of merit with dollars in a precise ratio (Bill Gates's $114b and Jeff Bezos's $196b tells us that Gates possesses 58% of Bezos's merit).

And unfortunately for meritocracy's coherence, the actual wealth distribution follows a power-law curve, not a bell-curve. The zottarich are an order of magnitude richer than the gigarich, who are an order of magnitude richer than the ultrarich and so on.

Plutocracy is asymptotic to infinity.

And while eugenics fails to account for this distribution there's another hypothesis that turns out to be a good fit: the rich are lucky.

Enter "Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure," a paper from a group of U Catatania researchers that proposes a model for explaining deepening inequality.

A breakdown in MIT Technology Review explains it well. The model assumes that N people have various talents "around some average level, with some standard deviation."

"The computer model charts each individual through a working life of 40 years. During this time, the individuals experience lucky events that they can exploit to increase their wealth if they are talented enough.

"However, they also experience unlucky events that reduce their wealth. These events occur at random."

After 40 simulated years, the agents in the simulation have a wealth distribution that looks a hell of a lot like ours.

They run the simulation repeatedly, and get the same distribution every time. In other words, markets allocate capital primarily by luck, not merit.

However, I'd like to see another version of this experiment that adds in immorality: a willingness to cheat and steal. Given the state of the plutocracy, I hypothesize an even stronger correlation.

AOC's WPA-style GND posters (permalink)

There's a lot going for AOC: she's a once-in-a-generation gifted orator, she's got a sharp political mind, she's got the humility and self-awareness to surround herself with other smart people and recruit them to advise her.

But even her most ardent admirers tend to overlook the role of graphic design in her work. From the start – her initial primary campaign – she has led the field with striking, beautiful graphic design. I framed one of her posters and hung it my house.

AOC's latest graphic campaign is in support of the Green New Deal, a visionary proposal for a better future that has been sorely lacking in visual materials.

(The major exception being Molly Crabapple's animation in "A Message From the Future," an Intercept video with AOC and Naomi Klein).

The new posters recall the WPA illustrations for the National Park Service, icons of design that retain remarkable currency nearly a century later.

There are six in all. The first is Gavin Snider's Flushing Meadows poster, celebrating the 1939 New York World's Fair, a high water mark for hope in a moment of crisis.

Next is Scott Starrett's Pelham Bay Park poster, celebrating the Bronx's most iconic WPA success story, a beloved beach and golf course.

The third poster is Gavin Snider's tribute to LA's Griffith Observatory, the centerpiece of one of the country's exemplary, beloved and well-used city parks.

Fourth is Lazarus Nazario's poster celebrating the Plaza Del Totem in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a symbol of indigenous resilience erected as a rebuttal to the shameful celebration of the great historic monster Christopher Columbus.

Fifth is Gavin Snider's poster for Detroit's Hart Plaza, whose monument commemorates the Underground Railroad in one of America's great historically Black cities, a city that has been brutalized by white supremacy and austerity.

Finally, there's Dayi Tofu's commemoration of Boston's Public Garden, part of the city's "Emerald Necklace" of urban parks.

The posters are a reminder that we are not the fallen remnants of a lost civilization, no longer capable of visionary collective projects to secure our future. We have done this before and we can do it again.

We are not atomized individuals, incapable of effecting change beyond the scope of what one person can do – or what one billionaire can coerce. We are a society, and we can steer our course.

The posters are union made, 18" x 12", and cost $24 each. You can get all six in a $90 bundle.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Stormtrooper at Star Wars con mistaken for armed robber

#15yrsago What the fuck is an "open source DRM?"

#5yrsago Car information security is a complete wreck — here's why

#5yrsago Sad Puppies, Rabid Puppies lose big at the Hugos

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Cecil Castellucci (, Naked Capitalism (

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