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The Merit Myth


Jeffrey Goldberg’s claim that the ability to write 10,000-word cover stories — we can imply charitably that he means excellent 10,000-word cover stories — is rare among American journalists, and that this ability is especially rare among women journalists, because their appropriate journalistic muscles haven’t been exercised enough (block that metaphor, please), got a lot of more than deserved blowback.

I want to focus on how this sort of claim is part of a much broader set of assertions, that I’ll call the merit myth.

The essence of the merit myth is this: that talent is in short supply. Way back in the day, in one of his early Baseball Abstracts, Bill James pointed out that the belief that talent was in short supply was the underlying justification for all kinds of dumb status quo-regarding decisions by major league teams.

Is Doug Flynn your second baseman, even though he can’t hit his way out of a paper bag? Too bad — you have to keep playing him, because talent is in short supply.

James pointed out that in fact the ability to play baseball is normally distributed in the population as a whole, which means that the major league talent pool consists of the extreme right edge of the distribution, which in turn means that there many times more players somewhere close to the major league replacement level than there are “average” major league starters, let alone superstars.

This means that sticking with a MLB starter who is at or near the replacement level, when there are almost surely better options if you just use a little intelligence and creativity, is a sign of fear, laziness, and stupidity, which of course were even more rampant among MLB decision makers 35 years ago than they are today (the situation is better today in large part because of the analytics revolution James helped pioneer).

Let’s get back to Goldberg. The difference between professional sports and life in general is that professional sports are very unusual enterprises, in that player performance can be evaluated with a high degree of objectivity, because the object of the game is both well-defined and unusually amenable to consistent measurement.

Yet even in professional sports, the myth that talent is in short supply has pernicious effects, as James pointed out. In life in general, where performance is almost far more difficult to quantify in any even loosely objective way, that myth is far more corrosive. ETA: Karen in comments:

I often think of the practice in symphony orchestras of auditioning players behind screens. After blind auditions, suddenly women became much better musicians.

The merit myth exists to justify the maintenance of extremely hierarchical anti-egalitarian social structures. If there are 10 or 100 or 1000 times as many people who have the ability and desire to, say, write cover stories for prestigious magazines, or to attend hyper-elite colleges, or to be captains or at least lieutenants of industry, or to be good Supreme Court justices, or to star in a Hollywood movie, or to write the Great American novel, as there are social slots available for people to fill these roles (and there are), then you’ve got to create sorting mechanisms that give the impression that these slots aren’t being handed out arbitrarily, or worse yet on the basis of pre-existing social privilege.

That’s where Jeffrey Goldberg and his search for ultra-rare gynecological journalistic muscles comes in.

Goldberg’s mission, as he understands it, is to perform the extraordinarily difficult job of finding people who can write good Atlantic cover stories. He thinks this job is hard because there are so few such people. It is a hard job — but for exactly the opposite reason. There are enormous numbers of extremely gifted hard-working creative etc. American journalists out there, many of them working for nothing or close to it, for reasons that are too obvious to belabor.

All this applies equally to actors, writers, aspiring disrupters of the market for whatever, potential HYPS undergraduates, and so forth.

It’s a big country. So what to do? The answer is you come up with a bunch of largely phony metrics for sorting out sheep of supposedly unicorn-like rarity from the vast multitudes of goats.

These include things like whether somebody has a degree or preferably degrees from super-elite educational institutions; whether somebody is related to somebody already in the business; whether somebody seems “polished” enough to make clients comfortable (see Lauren Rivera’s essential book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs); and whether somebody knows somebody who can vouch for somebody in an otherwise unnavigable sea of everybodies.

Check out, for example, this funny yet horrifying story published in, of all places, the Atlantic, about the mad scramble among the parents of children already attending one of the nation’s most prestigious private high schools, to make sure their special snowflakes have a leg up in the vicious fight for places at the very most elite prestigious door-opening undergraduate programs.

This kind of thing is inevitable in a society that talks itself into thinking that “merit-based” (which of course ends up meaning to a significant extent class-based, see Rivera supra) decision-making is a substitute for even the most minimal commitment to some sort of egalitarianism.

And that’s how you end up with the Jeffrey Goldbergs of the world believing that they’re performing some actual merit-based gate-keeping function, when in fact their real job is to perpetuate the existing hierarchy, largely via conscious, and semi-conscious — and, most often of all, conveniently unconscious — self-replication.

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