Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Faux meritocracy

When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked why his new cabinet had as many women as men, he replied “because it’s 2015”. But as Owen Jones notes, when it comes to the UK and educational background, many people still presume that our leaders should come from the elite universities.

In an ideal world these would be different issues. In a truly meritocratic society those going to elite universities would be doing so on the basis of their abilities rather than who their parents were. In the UK and I suspect elsewhere we are some way from that ideal. Although I am pretty sure the reasons for this largely occur before 18, I also agree that Oxbridge could improve matters greatly if they stopped selecting students on the basis of interviews. It is one of many reasons why Oxbridge interviews reduce social welfare.

Here is a more minor observation which I think is quite revealing. As Owen says a big part of the problem with Oxbridge is that those from many backgrounds are put off from applying because they think it is only for toffs. It isn’t, but sometimes Oxbridge seems to pretend otherwise. For example there is the ludicrous Oxford tradition of making every student dress up in gowns and worse when they take exams. It means that just at the time that prospective students come for open days they are sure to see a large number of students walking around wearing funny clothes. If I was thinking about coming to Oxford it would put me off. It is rather sad that Oxford students keep voting to continue this tradition, but perhaps it tells you something about the wisdom of elites.

Which brings me to what I think is the crucial point: why is there this presumption that we should be governed by a meritocratic elite? Ability in a particular subject does not seem to be critical. No one suggests the Chancellor should have an economics degree rather than a 2.1 in modern history. (In the past even numeracy seemed not to be required.) The idea that politicians are having to deploy skills that you can only develop at university is a little naive. Most do not have the time to think very deeply about anything, and when issues that involve any knowledge arise they take advice. This is why I have no problem with the kind of delegation you get with central banks or infrastructure commissions. The main difference in those cases is that the public get to hear about what the advice is.

People in universities talk a lot about non-subject specific skills, like developing critical faculties, but arguably some of the crucial critical faculties for a politician are better learnt by leaving university and doing a job. Good judgement does not come from intellectual ability: Chris Dillow argues there is little correlation between high IQ and career success. Now I’m not going to pretend that, other things being equal, I would be indifferent to whether my MP had an economics degree or an NVQ in catering. But other things are not equal. We have a representative democracy, and one way to make sure it works well is if the people chosen to represent us are to some degree representative of the population as a whole.

Of course compatibility between democracy and meritocracy, and the merits of a meritocracy itself, are big issues. It is telling that the book that coined the term meritocracy, by the great Michael Young, had difficulty finding a publisher and was not reviewed by any scholarly publication. But I suspect what is going on here, at least in some quarters, is far simpler, and is a reflection of Trudeau’s remark. It is 2015, so it is no longer acceptable in public to argue that we should be governed by people from a particular class or background. For people who would still like to make that argument, the next best thing is to talk about which university (if any) a politician has been to.        

24 comments:

  1. Great post.
    I think there also deserves to be more analysis of the idea that a Bachelor's at Oxford (in PPE typically) qualifies as a unique intellectual achievement in a world where many more people now go to do further degrees.

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  2. There is something of this developing at Prime Minister's questions, in which Corbyn seems to get a gale of public school howls from the Tory back benches, a pack raucousness of the kind Alan Bennett described when he turned up to try to get into Cambridge in the early 1950s.

    People may like the link to Michael Young describing how 'meritocracy' changed from his negative meaning to a Blairite positive in his Guardian article, 'Down with meritocracy', The Guardian, Friday 29 June 2001. It starts:

    "I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair. The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033. Much that was predicted has already come about. It is highly unlikely the prime minister has read the book, but he has caught on to the word without realising the dangers of what he is advocating."




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  3. 1. I quite agree about Oxford interviews.Every study of interviews shows they are a poor method of selection. Interviewing 18/19 year olds is almost useless. My theory about why there is so much resistance to their abolition is that a large number of very able people spend 3/4 days a year conducting Oxford interviews and are, as a result, reluctant to accept that they have been wasting their time. The interviewers really want to believe it is helpful.

    2. I doubt the fancy dress makes much difference. The physical appearance of the place does (and there isn't a lot Oxford and Cambridge can do about that).

    3. "some of the crucial critical faculties for a politician are better learnt by leaving university and doing a job"

    I am sure this is true, but a different problem. Politics is a career just like any other. It is naive to think that you can leave University, go off and do something else for 15 years, and then go into politics. That world has gone.

    Labour is now completely dominated by career politicians, SpAds, who went into politics after leaving University. the Tories are dominated by the independently wealthy playing politics (Cameron and Osborne are emblematic). That is more of a problem for a party calling itself "Labour".

    Corbyn is a throwback to an earlier age. He, of course, has no degree from anywhere and has done nothing but politics for 40 years (without any notable achievement in that field),

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    1. "Corbyn is a throwback to an earlier age."
      What the hell kind of argument is that? Plenty of young people, myself include, support Corbyn.
      Blair and the Labour Right are a throwback to a previous age.

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    2. My point was about who Corbyn is and his life experiences. In that regard he is quite different from MPs who have been recently elected.

      (I also think he is a throwback in the sense of being a ludicrous late 70s Trot of the kind lots who remember the era recognise, but that was not the point I was making.)

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  4. Quite frankly, it is imperative that the Chancellor has at least an undergrad degree in Economics. And neither PPE nor E&M count for that.

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    1. Having taught and externally examined economics degrees in many universities before coming to Oxford, I can honestly say that the average undergraduate doing PPE or E&M ends up knowing as much economics as those doing economics elsewhere. The main reason is simply that Oxford students get hugely better staff contact hours.

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    2. Although you might dismiss this as anecdotal (and I'd argue you'd be wrong to do so due to the relatively large sample size), my experience (at an economics consultancy) interviewing and working with graduates of PPE, E&M and Economics strongly indicates otherwise.

      Indeed, it is generally the case that PPE and E&M graduates' understanding of theory, intuition, and empirical analyses falls markedly short of that from other universities such as Cambridge, Warwick and the LSE. The issue is most severe for those that took PPE.

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    3. Interesting. I wonder if others have any view, or better still some objective benchmarks.

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    4. Perhaps it is to do with the path through PPE I took, the college I attended and the economics-heavy world I have gone to afterwards, but I have certainly found that many PPEists are more than qualified when it comes to an understanding of economic theory. On the other hand there are of course people who drop economics after the first year, and still more who do it in their second and treat it as secondary to either politics or extra-curricular. I suspect the word "consultancy" in your business name helps attract many of the Oxford economists who never took economics very seriously.

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    5. Hmm. Interesting point. It is possible, but we tend to weed those out at the CV review stage - i.e. we would require them to demonstrate having taken further economics modules (i.e. they would need to show that they have not dropped it in the first year) before they would even get to the interview stage. As such, it's not clear that that would explain the difference to a meaningful degree.

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  5. Because budding authoritarians. Here is an example:
    https://notesbrokensociety.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/the-university-walk-and-the-abandonment-of-childhood/

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  6. Lack of a degree from an elite university didn't do John Major's political career any harm.

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  7. I agree with all of this, in particular the tradegy that is students continuing to vote for subfusc and the grim trashing ritual that goes along with it. For one thing as well, the economics teaching at Oxford is atrocious. One lecturer in particular seemed to spend far more time on jumper selection and beard grooming than lecture preparation.

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  8. " We have a representative democracy, and one way to make sure it works well is if the people chosen to represent us are to some degree representative of the population as a whole."

    Sometimes I really wonder whether we wouldn't be better off doing representative democracy the Greek way - by randomly selecting members of the public as our representatives. Maybe Douglas Adam's was right - anybody who wants to rule over us isn't qualified for the job.

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  9. While I agree with your premise, it's ironic that you begin your article on meritocracy by quoting Justin Trudeau. Notwithstanding any accomplishments in his life, Mr. Trudeau has a pedigree and good looks that likely contributed at least as much to his success as merit.

    Of course we here in the United States don't have that problem - we have no class! ;-) Seriously, perhaps the most depressing thing about the current state of affairs is how briefly meritocracy reigned in America and how much it was exaggerated to keep people in line. If the system offers hope there's less inclination to change it.

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    1. I don't think Simon Wren-Lewis was arguing for the merits of Trudeau, but for the representativity of his government, at least that is how I read:
      It is 2015, so it is no longer acceptable in public to argue that we should be governed by people from a particular class or background.

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  10. PPE is surely something that provides for a fairly balanced degree. A lack of critical thinking in economics and microfunded fundamentalism is balanced out elsewhere in the degree. The problems are at the post-graduate level when it comes to economics teaching. The Cambridge undergraduate economics degree is basically part of the conveyor belt to Goldman Sachs.

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  11. Oxford produces excellent graduates. How could it not with the Bullingdon Club - they go to the top.

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  12. Saw this at Delongs:
    "We already know that a simple computer with the proper big-data regression underneath it could do a significantly better job at choosing which people to admit as graduate students in economics who are likely to succeed. And the faculty committees we currently hand this task to do not do that good a job. Faculty committees are always struck by stories that resonate with them. And such stories always lead them to place too-high a weight on replicating themselves in the next generation of professors, and giving too high a weight to the recommendations from their friends in their social network. The computer is an intelligence, vast and cool and unsympathetic, that does not suffer from such biases. We have reached the stage where it can crunch the data as well as—better than—I can."
    http://www.bradford-delong.com/2015/11/are-we-approaching-peak-human-the-honest-broker-for-the-week-of-november-9-2015.html#more

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  13. Unfortunately, as a system becomes more complicated, the tolerances for error decline. This is especially the case in a modern economy, where efficiency, because of its greater return on investment, is selected over resiliency. Where real economic inputs are increasing, management is unnecessary. Where inputs are steady state, politicians will suffice. Where the return on energy investment declines sufficiently, real skill and understanding of the system will be required, something even today's economics education doesn't seem provide.

    The proper allocation of resources to maintain the system will become more and more critical, and the profit motive will not provide it, and indeed, will work against it..

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  14. "Good judgement does not come from intellectual ability: Chris Dillow argues there is little correlation between high IQ and career success."

    What Chris Dillow says is true - in fact from what I read the correlation is slightly negative past 120-125. But that need not prove that good judgement is not correlated with intellectual ability -of course, I'd argue that, wouldn't I? But I believe it is true.

    In big organisations, the key to promotion is clearly not speed of intellect. In fact, being too obviously clever can be a sure way to be shunned in leaders' circles. They don't tend to like it when someone is clearly smarter than them.
    Very high IQs tend (there are of course many exceptions) not to be 100% motivated by a rat race. Is that a sign of poor judgement?
    Many high IQ people are perceived to be somewhat different -quite a few will be highly gifted, or Asperger, or both- and that is a big drag on a career. But probably not a sign of poor judgement.
    There is a strong survivor bias on the top layers. People (especially when you select for type A personalities) will take brash decisions without noticing the risks involved, some of them will pay out - they will be the ones who get a sudden promotion. Was identifying the risk a sign of poor judgement?

    All in all, and while I fully agree that speed of thought is not a guarantee for quality of judgement, I would argue that the lack of correlation between IQ and career success is a very poor evidence for that, and if anything rather a sign of the dysfunctionalities of our professional world.

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  15. It should be noted that Michael Young, who coined the term meritocracy, did not believe that a meritocracy would be a good thing, as he pointed out in the Guardian in 2001:

    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/jun/29/comment

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  16. Any focus on the academic background of politicians might be explained by the unexceptional academic performance of the leader of the opposition (EE at A-level, dropped out of North London Polytechnic).

    This may or may not matter, but it's another explanation about why this has now been raised in the press. (FWIW, he did not come from a disadvantaged background).

    It would be interesting if such a focus was raised by the left-leaning commateriat between 1990-7 when John Major was PM (he also had a poor academic record).

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