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The undeserving poor (and rich)

By Michael J. Smith on Wednesday March 1, 2006 04:20 PM

JSP's post about the Kilgore/Sawicki dustup on TPMCafe.com sent me back to the original sources (it's a tic, left over from my grad-school days). I think I understand the strange incoherence of DLC sachem Kilgore. Let's review the developments:

1. Paul Krugman wrote a Times column in which he pointed out that the "skills differential" -- i.e. more education -- doesn't match up with the patterns of increase in inequality. He sees it as a political process, not a market process, in which a "narrow oligarchy" (his phrase) has found ways to enrich themselves at everybody else's expense, the skilled and the unskilled alike. No flies on ole Paul this time. He didn't use the word "meritocracy," for which we all owe him a vote of thanks.

2. Sawicki wrote a squib on TPMcafe, in which he used "meritocracy," and even more deplorably, "meme". Sawicki's contribution was to take a whack at Clinton's pandering to the "skills differential" theory exploded in Krug's column. Sawicki calls this the "bullshit human capital" (BHC) theory, a phrase I do like. Sawicki also pointed out that Clinton, while he used the BHC theory to explain inequality, didn't try to do anything about it -- by spending on education, say. Which is about as good a capsule definition of Clintonism as you could get: false even to their own falsehoods.

3. DLCer and 33d-degree Cllintonite Kilgore responded to Sawicki with a bizarrely illogical piece of carpet-chewing, ably dissected by JSP in his earlier post.

* * *

So what's the fuss about? I can't explain all the details of Kilgore's random rhetoric -- much of it, I imagine, results from what JSP calls "idees fixes" and the rest comes from the reflexive regurgitation of canned DLC talking points. But I think I know why he's pissed off. He doesn't want the BHC theory exploded, quite simply, because he wants wageniks in both blue collars and white to internalize the causes of their own slippage: he wants the victims to blame themselves. This works out beautifully for the Democrats if you can pull it off, because you can always blame the Republicans for not spending more on the schools.

That's why the notion of "redistribution" flew in Kilgore's window and landed on his nose. This particular neural pathway I think we can trace. Krug's (and Sawicki's) comments raised the specter of social class. Now the canned DLC response to any mention of "class" is to accuse the offender of advocating "redistribution." QED.

There's another angle to this "meritocracy" red herring, though: it appeals to the educated white-collar classes' amour-propre and sense of entitlement, which is quite appropriate for a party whose strategy is to reposition itself as the voice of the professional classes -- the small-time executives and "knowledge workers" who will soon be among the only people dumb enough to vote, along with rapturists and friends of the foetus.

Comments (7)

J. Alva Scruggs:

Sawicki is generally a peacenik, pro-labor economist. His one weakness is defending dummies like David Corn and Marc Cooper. Kilgore is an autocoprophagous cretin who works hard for the kakistocracy and hates us for our freedoms (now mostly gone). I can understand how disagreements might arise. Ironically, when it comes to merit itself, Sawicki is the clear winner. His work in economics is good for the country.

js paine:

strong on high wages (aka human capital)
means strong on
the education-industrial complex

the donk corner stone false claim

to match
the elephant corner stone
false claim

strong on homeland security
means strong on military industrial complex

the diff

the elephants actual
spend more
on their complex

the donks just
promise more


To JAS' point -- everything Sawicki said seemed sensible as far as it went. I had a feeling he was sorta soft on the idea of meritocracy itself -- an occupational hazard of people with graduate degrees. Sometimes I get very tired of merit, and dream of a social order where promotion goes by lot. This is probably because I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a hotbed of relentless strivers, excellers, self-provers, and other bores.

J. Alva Scruggs:

A regard for meritocracy is an occupational hazard for people who work around pyramid hierarchies, where the leadership goes to the most ambitious more often than not. A lottery with rotating responsibility couldn't be worse and might be a lot better.

Most of those DC Dems are narrow hyperachievers, who went from stellar scores on standardized tests to shining at favored universities. It's soothing to think it was all based on merit. Sawicki knows the score better than the rest. That "naderesque" dig shows he got to some of them.

I can't read that TPM blog any more than I can read American Prospect. The truth in things lies out on the fringes, where people have no station to lose or regard for status, not amongst seekers of the happy medium.


merit v privilege

type of contrast that reaches such heights of reification

even my humble dialectic prolly could turn each into its opposite

but i'll spare u all....

max really came thru

whenhe takes to
the offense
the redistributor label
back on the repubs

Tim D:

Not that anyone here will be surprised but, as Ralph Nader recently pointed out in one of his e-mails, "Forty-two percent of those listed have inherited sufficient wealth to rank among the Forbes 400."

The whole concept of meritocracy seems to go back to this Ayn Rand v.s. John Donne (or Rousseau or Marx or even C. Wright Mills) debate. Capitalists/the bourgeois would like to entrench this fantasy that everyone exists individually in a vacuum, that every man /woman is an island. No one ever benefits from their interactions with others, and furthermore the actions of others seen or unseen has no bearing on you or me whatsoever.

Can anyone think of anything more rediculous or easily refutable?

Of course personal responsibility is a real issue, but the consequences for personal mistakes/transgressions are hardly the same for people of different classes.

When the sons of wealthy drug war warriors in the Congress (see Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness) begin to receive the same sentences for trafficking marijuana as those of a single black woman in inner-city wherever, we can talk about personal responsibility (not that that even has to do with creating a level playing field, but you see what I'm getting at).


I personally greatly admire the homeless folk in PDX who built Dignity Village. In the face of relentless scorn and hostility from my City O' Pwogs, they went head-to-head with local government, won themselves an ally or two through a combination of self-respect and cussedness. Then they used that alliance to do what Social Darwinists are always exhorting the unwashed to do: They set up a community where they could provide for themselves with minimal government intervention and minimal private charitable input.

In a recent version of this whole meritocracy arguement, I thought of dropping my admiration for the Dignity Village community like a bomb in the middle of all the prattling about the inate merit of heart surgeons over floor-sweepers and so on. But I chickened out. :o

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