[Plura-list] Quantifying the meritocratic delusion; AOC's WPA-style GND posters

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Sun Aug 23 11:18:58 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Quantifying the meritocratic delusion: "Talent vs Luck: the role of
randomness in success and failure."

* AOC's WPA-style GND posters: A vivid, affirmative vision.

* This day in history: 2005, 2015

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing
projects, current reading


🐛 Quantifying the meritocratic delusion

Our societal narratives are invisible by dint of their ubiquity, but
they are far more important in stabilizing the status quo that all the
cops and jails and domestic surveillance agencies put together.

Take inequality: when a few have much, and the many have little, the
primary means of preventing the many from seizing the wealth of the few
isn't burglar alarms - it's legitimacy.

If you can convince people that wealth is both earned and deserved, you
can save a lot on armed guards, vaults and CCTV cameras.

The aristocracy once used the church to effect this legitimacy: as the
English crown's motto goes, "Dieu et mon droit" ("God and my right").

The aristocratic legitimacy story makes it a literal sin to question

As the aristocracy gave way to merchant princes, society needed a new
stabilizing story: the tale of the market, whose invisible hand
allocates capital to the most deserving.

It's a highly circular form of reasoning, of course: "I am deserving
because I am rich; I am rich because I am deserving."

Naturally, this self-serving logic attracted ridicule.

Notably, the sociologist Michael Young wrote a satirical, dystopian
novel mocking this idea called "The Rise of the Meritocracy."

His coinage, "Meritocracy," was meant to deflate the delusion that
wealth was merit and merit was wealth.

Instead, the term was adopted by the very people it was meant to
lampoon: soon, capitalism boosters and defenders of inequality began to
proclaim themselves to be "meritocrats" and defended the institutions
that had enriched them as "meritocratic." Yeah, it's weird.

At its core, "meritocracy" is eugenics: the belief that some people are
just intrinsically better than others (that's why you often hear
plutocrats boasting of their "good blood" - think of Trump here).

Sometimes it's dressed up with coded language like "self-control" or
"grit," but ultimately, it's about some in-born spark that both demands
that the meritocrat lead the rest of us, and that they be rewarded for
it. You can tell you deserves to rule because they are ruling.

As with all eugenics stories, meritocracy is trivially disprovable
pseudoscientific nonsense.

Stipulate for the sake of argument that there are "meritocratic" traits
that some of us are born with.

One thing we know about hereditable traits is that they follow a normal
distribution - a bell curve. If merit is a heritable trait, then it
should follow that same distribution.

But recall that "merit" is the excuse given for inequality: the market
is a system for uncovering and rewarding merit, matching quanta of merit
with dollars in a precise ratio (Bill Gates's $114b and Jeff Bezos's
$196b tells us that Gates possesses 58% of Bezos's merit).

And unfortunately for meritocracy's coherence, the actual wealth
distribution follows a power-law curve, not a bell-curve. The zottarich
are an order of magnitude richer than the gigarich, who are an order of
magnitude richer than the ultrarich and so on.

Plutocracy is asymptotic to infinity.

And while eugenics fails to account for this distribution there's
another hypothesis that turns out to be a good fit: the rich are lucky.

Enter "Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure," a
paper from a group of U Catatania researchers that proposes a model for
explaining deepening inequality.


A breakdown in MIT Technology Review explains it well. The model assumes
that N people have various talents "around some average level, with some
standard deviation."


"The computer model charts each individual through a working life of 40
years. During this time, the individuals experience lucky events that
they can exploit to increase their wealth if they are talented enough.

"However, they also experience unlucky events that reduce their wealth.
These events occur at random."

After 40 simulated years, the agents in the simulation have a wealth
distribution that looks a hell of a lot like ours.

They run the simulation repeatedly, and get the same distribution every
time. In other words, markets allocate capital primarily by luck, not

However, I'd like to see another version of this experiment that adds in
immorality: a willingness to cheat and steal. Given the state of the
plutocracy, I hypothesize an even stronger correlation.


🐛 AOC's WPA-style GND posters

There's a lot going for AOC: she's a once-in-a-generation gifted orator,
she's got a sharp political mind, she's got the humility and
self-awareness to surround herself with other smart people and recruit
them to advise her.

But even her most ardent admirers tend to overlook the role of graphic
design in her work. From the start - her initial primary campaign - she
has led the field with striking, beautiful graphic design. I framed one
of her posters and hung it my house.


AOC's latest graphic campaign is in support of the Green New Deal, a
visionary proposal for a better future that has been sorely lacking in
visual materials.

(The major exception being Molly Crabapple's animation in "A Message
From the Future," an Intercept video with AOC and Naomi Klein).


The new posters recall the WPA illustrations for the National Park
Service, icons of design that retain remarkable currency nearly a
century later.


There are six in all. The first is Gavin Snider's Flushing Meadows
poster, celebrating the 1939 New York World's Fair, a high water mark
for hope in a moment of crisis.


Next is Scott Starrett's Pelham Bay Park poster, celebrating the Bronx's
most iconic WPA success story, a beloved beach and golf course.


The third poster is Gavin Snider's tribute to LA's Griffith Observatory,
the centerpiece of one of the country's exemplary, beloved and well-used
city parks.


Fourth is Lazarus Nazario's poster celebrating the Plaza Del Totem in
San Juan, Puerto Rico, a symbol of indigenous resilience erected as a
rebuttal to the shameful celebration of the great historic monster
Christopher Columbus.


Fifth is Gavin Snider's poster for Detroit's Hart Plaza, whose monument
commemorates the Underground Railroad in one of America's great
historically Black cities, a city that has been brutalized by white
supremacy and austerity.


Finally, there's Dayi Tofu's commemoration of Boston's Public Garden,
part of the city's "Emerald Necklace" of urban parks.


The posters are a reminder that we are not the fallen remnants of a lost
civilization, no longer capable of visionary collective projects to
secure our future. We have done this before and we can do it again.

We are not atomized individuals, incapable of effecting change beyond
the scope of what one person can do - or what one billionaire can
coerce. We are a society, and we can steer our course.

The posters are union made, 18" x 12", and cost $24 each. You can get
all six in a $90 bundle.



🐛 This day in history

#15yrsago Stormtrooper at Star Wars con mistaken for armed robber

#15yrsago What the fuck is an "open source DRM?"

#5yrsago Car information security is a complete wreck — here's why

#5yrsago Sad Puppies, Rabid Puppies lose big at the Hugos


🐛 Colophon

Today's top sources: Cecil Castellucci (https://twitter.com/misscecil/),
Naked Capitalism (https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/).

Currently writing:

* My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and
reconciliation. Friday's progress: 570 words (50048 total).

Currently reading: Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum.

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 13)

Upcoming appearances:

* The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Censorship Circumvention, Aug 28,

* Keynote for Law Via the Internet conference, Sept 22,

* Writing into an Uncertain Future, Afterwords Festival, Oct 1,

Latest book:

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new
introduction by Edward Snowden:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime,
gender, and kicking ass. Order here:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed
copy here:

Upcoming books:

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

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*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla* -Joey "Accordion Guy"

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