Posts Tagged ‘Meritocracy’

Asian-Americans, Jews and Ivy League admissions

December 10, 2012


Degrees from the Ivy League colleges — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and their peers — are passports to elite positions on Wall Street and in Washington.  This month’s issue of The American Conservative carries an important article by its publisher, Ronald K. Unz,  making the case that the Ivy League admissions process is corrupt and arbitrary, and that their student bodies are neither the best and the brightest, nor representative of the nation as a whole.

december-2012Unz, himself a Harvard graduate, said the admissions process at Ivy League universities is a subjective process, based largely on interviews supposedly to determine whether the applicant is a well-rounded person.  This system came into existence as a covert means to cap the numbers of Jewish students without setting explicit quotas, he wrote; now it is used to cap the numbers of Asian-Americans.

A century ago, students of the Ivy League were predominantly the sons and the white Protestant upper class, who attended as much for social life and sports as for academics.  Unz said applicants from such backgrounds, the children of distinguished alumni or large contributors to the college endowment funds, still get in as a matter of course.   Some provision is made to help black and Hispanic students.  The losers are Asian-Americans and non-Jewish working-class whites.

I am uncomfortable with sweeping generalizations about broad racial, religious and ethnic categories.  Each consists of sub-groups which differ from each other, and each group and sub-group consists of unique individuals with a wider range of traits than the averages of the different groups.  You can’t tell anything about an individual’s intellectual attainments, or anything else, based on their demographic characteristics.  But unfortunately, race, religion and ethnicity matter in American life and simplifications and generalizations are necessary for understanding.

The following tables show the relative rise of Asian-American students and the relative decline of Jewish students in high school math and science competitions.



f3-largeThe charts above indicate that Asian-Americans don’t get a fair shake, based on their intellectual attainments.  They indicate, more surprisingly, that average Jewish intellectual attainment has crashed.   The percentage of Jewish high school students who win science competitions has declined dramatically in the past couple of decades, but not the high percentage of Jewish admissions to Ivy League universities—in sharp contrast to admissions to California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where enrollment seems to be based more on intellectual merit or at least on test scores.   Asian-Americans stand in the same position in American academic life that the children of Jewish immigrants stood 75 years ago.


The implication of the data is that the reason for large numbers of Jewish students currently at Ivy League colleges is not that so many of them are hard-working, intellectual super-achievers as in previous generations, but that so many of their parents are members of the upper classes.

asians-largeThe Asian-American population is increasing, but their enrollment in elite colleges—except for Caltech—is not.  The most obvious explanation is that there are quotas—explicit or informal—that are holding them back.

I’m uncomfortable with Unz’s article and the information in these charts, especially the implications concerning Jewish enrollment in Ivy League universities versus white Christian working-class people—implications which will be welcomed by racists and anti-Semites.  But facts and logic are the best guide to truth, not my comfort level.

Ron Unz

Ron Unz

One criticism of Unz’s article is that he counts people in different ethnic groups based on their last names.  This may not be valid, especially when so many Americans are of mixed heritage.   My name is Phil Ebersole.   During my lifetime, many people have made wrong assumptions about my race, religion and ethnicity, based on my name and appearance.

Another criticism is that Unz’s claim of declining Jewish intellectual attainment is based on declining high school science prizes, and this doesn’t take into account attainments in literature, philosophy and scholarship.  Maybe Jewish intellectual interests have shifted from the sciences to the humanities.  Maybe smart Jewish students all flock to Harvard, Yale and Princeton and smart Asian-American students flock to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Caltech.

I think both these criticisms have merit, but do not invalidate Unz’s conclusions.  I’ll be interested to see more commentary on his article.  I’m surprised there has been so little criticism so far.   I will have more to say in my next post.

Double click on the charts to enlarge them.

Click on The Myth of American Meritocracy  for Ron Unz’s full article.   All the charts above are from this article.

Click on Paying Tuition to a Gigantic Hedge Fund for a sidebar by Ron Unz claiming that Harvard University is more of an investment fund than an educational institution.

Click on Quantitative Sources and Methods for Ron Unz’s documentation of his claims.

For rebuttal, click on Meritocracy, Jews and the Liberal Arts by Samuel Goldman.

For more comment, click on The Myth of Affirmative Action by Dan McCarthy.

Click on Harvard as Hedge Fund: Harvard’s Reply for Harvard’s rebuttal and Ron Unz’s additional comment.

For more rebuttal, click on The claim that Harvard admissions discriminate in favor of Jews? I don’t see it by Andrew Gelman.  [Added 2/16/13]

Ron Unz was born in 1961 and grew up in California.  He earned a bachelor of science degree in physics from Harvard and studied advanced physics at Stanford University but didn’t get a doctoral degree.  He started a software company called Wall Street Analytics which was bought by Moody’s Investors Service in 2006.  He was active in California politics, and founded English for the Children, an organization opposed to bilingual education.   He became publisher of The American Conservative in 2007.

Click on This Man Controls California for a 1999 profile of Ron Unz in The New Republic

Click on Ron Unz – Writings and Perspective | Views, Opinions and Notes for his web log.

The illusions of meritocracy

July 30, 2012

Christopher Hayes in his widely-discussed new book, TWILIGHT OF THE ELITES: America After Meritocracy, tries to connect three important things—increasing concentration of American wealth and power, diminishing opportunity for average Americans to rise into the elite, and the manifest and growing irresponsibility of people in elite positions.

What ties these three things together, Hayes wrote, is the notion of meritocracy—that people get into elite positions solely because of their superior ability and effort, and they therefore owe nothing to anyone else.

The problem, as I see it, is not with the concept of rewarding merit.  Thomas Jefferson believed that the hereditary aristocracy of his time should be replaced by a “natural aristocracy” based on individual ability.  His idea of the natural aristocracy was that it is good for society as a whole if important positions are held by people best qualified to hold them.  Officerships in the British Army in the 18th century could be purchased by wealthy aristocrats; Jefferson’s idea was that you will have a better army if promotion is based on meritorious service.

What we have now is the idea that society should sort people into winners and losers, that both winners and losers by definition deserve what they get, and that the only consideration is that the contest be fair.  You can’t have a good society on that basis.

An army couldn’t function if the officers believed that they were winners, the enlisted ranks were losers and nobody owed anything to anyone else.  Officers are paid more because they exercise more responsibility, not because the enlisted ranks deserve to be punished for lacking the ability to become officers.

Of course the military is not and should not be a model for a free-enterprise economy, but the principle still holds true that competition should serve the good of the whole.  In a well-functioning free enterprise system, entrepreneurs compete to determine which can best serve the needs and wants of the public, and the one who does best reaps the greatest reward.  The trouble with the winners-and-losers model is that merit is measured solely by who accumulates the most money—whether the means are beneficial to society, irrelevant to society or harmful.  The evil of the Hunger Games was not so much that the competition was unfair (although it was); it was that young people had to be subjected to this competition in the first place.

Hayes pointed out that people in elite positions, no matter how many advantages they have, manage to convince themselves that they did it all by themselves.  Gov. Ann Richardson of Texas said of the first President Bush that he was born on third base, and thought he had hit a triple.  Christopher Hayes thinks that is true of the elite generally.  His book describes ways in which members of the economic and social elite tilt the system in their favor and that of their children.  College admissions based on educational testing was supposed to provide a level playing field, but now there are many consultants who, for a fee, can teach you how to score higher on a test than your knowledge warrants.  The playing field becomes increasingly tilted, but the winners retain their sense of entitlement.

Inequality in the United States has become what Hayes called “fractal.”  Americans in the upper 10 percent income bracket get about half the national income, but the top 1 percent get half of everything the top 10 percent get; the top 1/10th of 1 percent get half of everything the top 1 percent get; and so on with the top 1/100th of 1 percent, which is a few hundred people.  This makes income inequality is an issue for almost everybody, no matter what bracket they’re in.  Hayes is encouraged by this.  I’m not so sure myself.  I think it is perfectly possible to resent those above you on the income scale while fearing those below you.

We Americans historically have believed that inequality is all right so long as there is a rough equality of opportunity.  The problem with this, as Hayes pointed out, is that great inequality in wealth and income generates inequality of opportunity.  We Americans think we have more opportunity to rise than Europeans with their welfare states, but statistics indicate that it is harder for us to rise out of the social class in which we’re born than it is for them.

Hayes thinks income inequality would be less if taxes were higher (total U.S. taxes from all sources are about 26 percent of GDP, he reported, down from about 30 percent in 2000) and if there were more public services, such as libraries and parks, that are open to all on a equal basis.

Twilight of the Elites has a chapter to what Hayes calls the “social distance” between the elites.  Jacob Riis, writing at the turn of the previous century, remarked that “half the world doesn’t know how the other half lives.”  Right now the upper 1 percent are so insulated they have no idea how 90 percent of the fellow Americans live.  As a minor example, I read how Senator Richard Russell, a powerful leader in the 1950s and 1960s, loved baseball and would go to games and sit in the bleachers; nowadays somebody in his position would watch from a skybox provided by some lobbyist.   Military service once brought men from all classes of society together.  Now the upper crust shun military service.

I think that’s why the police can be so savage in clamping down on Occupy Wall Street and other protest groups.  The upper crust hate and fear having their space invaded by the rabble.  Hayes thinks things might be different if “social distance” were less.

The root of the problem, as I see it, is a moral and philosophical one—the false idea that whatever provides the highest financial return is best for society, and therefore the impersonal workings of the free market can be a substitute for individual ethics.  The case for a competitive free market is that it is more efficient and less oppressive than central economic planning.  It can never be a substitute for standards of ethics and professionalism.  Today the most trusted institution in American society is the armed forces.  The professionalism and code of honor of the military meritocracy is not measured by mere money.

If any form of society that is likely to exist, some people are going to have more wealth and power than other people.  That would be true even if there were less inequality than there is now.  The problem is when there is a lack of accountability—when members of the elite do not feel accountable to any internal or external standard for the way in which they exercise their power, and we the people do have have or use the means to hold them accountable.

Click on Why Elites Fail for an excerpt from Christopher Hayes’ book, which gives the essence of his argument in his own words.

Click on The Age of Illusion: an Interview with Chris Hayes for an interview of Hayes for Jacobin magazine.

Click on The Cult of Smartness: How Meritocracy Is Failing America for a critical review of the book by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

Click on Trickle-Down Distress: How America’s Broken Meritocracy Drives Our Nation’s Anxiety Epidemic for an excellent article by Maura Kelly in The Atlantic about the harmfulness of believing that life is fair and that what you get is what you deserve.


New links: Wikileaks, meritocracy, etc.

July 1, 2012

If you find my posts interesting, you should find the articles, blogs and web sites in my links menus even more interesting.

Here are the latest additions to my links menus.


What exactly is Obamacare and what did it change?   The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is an extremely complicated law.  This is an objective, detailed and understandable rundown of what is in the law.  I intend to leave this article in the Articles menu for as long as I need it as a reference.

Sergey Brin’s Search for a Parkinson’s Cure.  I’ve posted about dangers of abuse of data mining, but this article from Wired tells how data mining can be used to speed up life-saving medical research.  Hat tip to Bill Hickok.

Dear America: You Should Be Mad As Hell About This.  Working for Gannett newspapers taught me how charts and graphics could be used to present facts and figures.   This post from Business Insider is a great use of charts and graphics to illuminate the U.S. economic plight.

The Age of Illusion: an Interview with Chris Hayes The author of Twilight of the Elites (which I haven’t read) told how the illusion of meritocracy blinds the wealthy elite to the consequences of their actions.   Hat tip to SB.

Articles of lasting interest

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language.  George Orwell in this classic essay described how obfuscation in language leads to political hypocrisy and deception.

Dimitry Orlov: the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the USDimitry Orlov is a Russian-born American who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In this slide show, he compared the present-day United States with the old USSR.


WikiLeaks: the Forgotten ManThis documentary, aired on Australian television June 14, gives good background on the Bradley Manning case and how it ties in with the U.S. government’s fight against WikiLeaks.  It is 45 minutes long, but worth watching.

Notable posts

End game for Julian AssangeThe saga of WikiLeaks shows what happens to individuals when they interfere with the reign of secrecy and arbitrary power.   Julian Assange’s fate matters, and I’m going to update this post for as long as it is in the links menu.

How white people can stay in the majority U.S. Census reports say that non-Hispanic whites will cease to be the majority of the American population within the next few decades.  I hope this will lead to a decline in racial / ethnic prejudice, but I think what probably will happen is that the definition of the majority group, which once was limited to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), will broaden out even more.