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April 09, 2012


Jonny R

You've not quite got the full gist of Young there. Young was really pointing out that the concept of 'merit' could be both skewed towards traditional class hierarchy and not reflective of genuine merit at all. The issue wasn't whether people acheived success based on 'merit' but whether that merit was valuable at all.

So, Young was worried about a world in which Oxbridge degrees are seen as more valuable than more blue collar skills. See here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2001/jun/29/comment and
"It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others."

I;m not sure he'd approve of Jedward et al though.

Somewhat ironic of course given that he got his son into one of those institutions based on a technicality. Oh, and Toby Young himself proves his dad's very own point (he has an 'elite' degree and is a cretinous simpleton).

Leigh Caldwell

There are some different phenomena mixed together here.

Overconfident CEOs - are successful because they convince us they _do_ have merit. We can this as a second-order effect; rather than being a direct product of economic exchange it arises from our cognition and beliefs _about_ economic exchange. In order to make decisions about exchange we need to use available signals to estimate what the outcome of that exchange might be. Thus, people have an interest in manipulating those signals independently of their interest in developing absolute merit.

Jedward and Brick on the other hand are successful directly because of their lack of merit; we all benefit from a positional good of kinds by being reminded of our superiority to them. This might even be a third-order good: it's not that they are of direct value to us; or that we think they might be; it's that our perception of their lack of value influences our perception of our own potential value to others.

Boris Johnson and George Galloway on the other hand do have a genuine merit, in that they help people to reveal their identity to themselves. Again this might be a second-order effect, in that it doesn't directly produce anything of value but just influences their audience's perception of its own value - but they do that particular job better than most of the other potential candidates who are available for it.

I guess Chris's argument is that this is not based on any talent they have, but simply on their similarity in merit/value to their mediocre audience. I don't think this is quite enough to explain their success; they also have a genuine skill in communicating this audience's particular prejudices and inanity back to itself.

What binds all these together is that the modern economy is as much symbolic as real; much of the utility in our life experience comes from our guesses about future value, contingent events or other people's happiness, rather than objective physical experiences. In a symbolic world, we cannot fully communicate (and therefore cannot experience the world completely) without symbols that are negative or self-referential as well as positive.


In Econ101, merit is measured by marginal productivity, which is in turn equivalent to wage. It is an elegant model that unfortunately reflects only part of the reality.
The question asked here is whether this part is increasing or decreasing. So what makes reality different from the model?
The first difference is that marginal productivity cannot always be measured, especially for a given individual in a very specific job (like CEOs for example).
The second difference is that productivity is all about supply-side, while most of those examples are about demand. What is at stake is not the ability of those individuals to produce more for a fixed cost, but their ability to increase demand.
Economic growth means that the need for first-necessity goods has since long been fulfilled, and that economic activity is increasingly driven by a demand for entertaining goods or services. Maybe it just turns out that silly journalists are more entertaining than serious ones, or that bad singers have some special appeal that good ones miss. Or it is just that the people have bad taste and are stupid.
Whatever the reason, the model is indeed inadequate.

Account Deleted

As was amply demonstrated by Jeremy Clarkson with his execute strikers jibe, these clowns (that's not a metaphor) are perfectly self-aware. They know that their job, for which they are handsomely rewarded, is to be the lightning rod for wider anger.

It was revealing when Tony Hayward talked of "getting his life back" over the Deepwater Horizon spill, and equally revealing to see senior bankers squirm as their bonuses were publicly discussed. These people do not expect to be in the spotlight. Others are paid to take the flak.

What's depressing is the number of people who took Clarkson seriously, not to mention the amount of free publicity granted to Brick. Meanwhile, Bob Diamond is tiptoeing off with a bag marked swag ...

Frances Coppola

The problem is the definition of "merit". Who defines what "merit" is and how it should be rewarded?


@ Leigh - I take your point, but isn't there a danger of outcome bias here? We see someone with success and infer from this that they have some kind of merit. I suspect this is at work in the Galloway/Johnson cases.
@ Frances - this is surely not a problem at the level I'm considering. It's unlikely that Jedward or Brick have much merit, even in the most elastic sense of the word.
You're drawing attention to an interesting point - that to reconcile a market economy and meritocracy requires a relativistic view of merit - a relativism which some rightists don't always apply in other contexts.

Tim Newman

"It was revealing when Tony Hayward talked of "getting his life back" over the Deepwater Horizon spill..."

It was. It revealed he was patently unsuited to being CEO of a company facing a major, highly-politicised, crisis in the US (or, I suspect, any major crisis anywhere). But what makes a good CEO during a crisis is not necessarily what makes a good CEO under normal conditions (think of Churchill being a war time PM here).

As things turned out, BP's response to the spill was handled very well (a bit of bullshitting about the volumes aside; and I'll not defend their actions which caused the spill). Their response is now considered almost textbook by the oil industry (and I doubt anyone else could have responded better). What did Hayward in was that whilst his company was doing what they should have been doing, his persona on camera did not satisfy the public and the idiot politicians who were asking him brain-dead questions in the congressional hearing. Whilst there is no letting the CEO off the hook for overall responsibility, the CEO is not the best man to manage a crisis, nor to answer technical questions in front of a camera.

But you're right, Hayward didn't expect to find himself in the spotlight. Few geologists do.

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