Meritocracy, Intelligence & Education

“…we need to dismantle meritocracy.

DeBoer is skeptical of “equality of opportunity”. Even if you solve racism, sexism, poverty, and many other things that DeBoer repeatedly reminds us have not been solved, you’ll just get people succeeding or failing based on natural talent…

…One one level, the titular Cult Of Smart is just the belief that enough education can solve any problem. But more fundamentally it’s also the troubling belief that after we jettison unfair theories of superiority based on skin color, sex, and whatever else, we’re finally left with what really determines your value as a human being – how smart you are. DeBoer recalls hearing an immigrant mother proudly describe her older kid’s achievements in math, science, etc, “and then her younger son ran by, and she said, offhand, ‘This one, he is maybe not so smart.'” DeBoer was originally shocked to hear someone describe her own son that way, then realized that he wouldn’t have thought twice if she’d dismissed him as unathletic, or bad at music. Intelligence is considered such a basic measure of human worth that to dismiss someone as unintelligent seems like consigning them into the outer darkness. So DeBoer describes how early readers of his book were scandalized by the insistence on genetic differences in intelligence – isn’t this denying the equality of Man, declaring some people inherently superior to others? Only if you conflate intelligence with worth, which DeBoer argues our society does constantly. 

-Scott Alexander, “Book Review: The Cult Of Smart
Summary and commentary on The Cult Of Smart by Fredrik DeBoer
.” Astral Codex Ten. February 17, 2021.

There’s a lot going on in this review. I’d highlight that Fredrik’s DeBoer’s blog has an RSS feed, which you can add to your RSS reader. I’m looking forward to reading more of his commentary.

Open Question: Is education an unqualified good?

I recently had an online discussion with someone who, in broad strokes, seems to agree with the above position, i.e., if we only had enough education, we would solve much of society’s problems. I think this is a standard U.S. liberal stance, which positions educational attainment as the means for advancement into the middle class.

Education is the great lie of U.S. liberal politics. Lest you think I’m a conservative trying to own the libs, let me first talk about the great lie of U.S. conservative politics in order to draw parallels.

The great lie of U.S. conservative politics is that you can have a global war-fighting capability and small government. The U.S. conservative lie is easy to grasp. There’s obviously a tension between government size and the ability to fight any war, much less a capability that involves nearly a thousand foreign military bases and nearly a trillion dollars of military spending every year, more if we include the debt servicing for past wars.

But, how is education like war? Isn’t education an unqualified good? The similarity is that just as small government caps one’s ability to fight wars, there is a demand limit on education. Most education is vocational instruction. People go to school in order to get a credential that gives them a better chance of getting a job. The education is, in large part, a secondary effect to the real demand for better employment opportunities.

It’s also possible to juice this demand. For example, I know of one university, and I imagine it is a feature of most universities, where jobs that used to employ people straight out of high school now require a university degree. The university, by implementing this requirement, increases demand for its product. But, does being an administrative assistant in the university organization really require this level of training? Does one need a Bachelor’s degree in communication, business, English, etc. in order to answer the telephone, write a Word document or navigate an Excel spreadsheet? Aren’t these skills acquired in the high school curriculum these days (and if not, shouldn’t they be)?

And you can see this happening at a broader scale as university administration has become professionalized. Instead of professors running university business in addition to their teaching, professors teach and the university business has been outsourced to administrators.

And, it’s not just universities. The same phenomena is happening across industries. It’s true of every level of government. It’s true of most industries, but particularly those that are tied closely to government. Look through the top industries by GDP in the United States: healthcare, durable goods manufacturing, food & travel, retail, etc. Almost everywhere you look, advancement implies management.

So, people go to school to learn a vocation. You get in the door, and then, in order to advance, no matter what industry you are in, you need to get into management. Leaving us to wonder, what exactly is vocational education for? Further, how large is the real need for managers, as opposed to front-line workers?

If you think it through, it is obviously a con, no different in its contradictions than talking about small government and global war. Management, by definition, has to be small. So, no amount of education is going to improve the lot of people getting educated to qualify for those relatively few positions. The only way that education works is if there are paths of advancement that actually require an education and aren’t management.

For example, if Dragon Naturally Speaking has taken over all the transcriptionist jobs, if Level 5 artificial intelligence has taken over from the teamsters, if 3D printing technologies have reduced the number of people working at construction sites, if fast food can become a largely automated process, etc., what will become of those people doing those jobs?

The most likely outcome is that there will be a compression of people into low skill jobs, driving down wages for everyone. There will be some people that will move into positions of managing machines. Someone will have to check on the artificial intelligence drivers, to make sure the results are as intended and to intervene when it starts to become very Sorcerer’s apprentice. But, the net is less jobs for people and more jobs for machines.

And, this is where the education argument starts to look plausible. People can be trained and are needed to supervise and inspecting the work of machines. In some ways, we are already preparing for that world, where people in low skill jobs are treated as if they are machines. For example, see some of the discussion about the conditions in Amazon warehouses and how that is breathing new life into the labor movement.

But, in the end, there is limited demand for education. Most people go through the process of getting an education credential for the vocational dividends that pays. But, it is clear that the university model and the push for education doesn’t deliver on its promise. And, when people are sitting on a mountain of debt and cannot find work, are they going to sell the educational dream to their children?

Another detail worth consideration, did the COVID-19 pandemic finally show that the promise of MOOCs are not something that can be delivered using the university model and university price points? At the very least, the focus on education and how it is delivered needs to be completely rethought. And, as DeBoer points to a deeper problem, our society’s focus on intelligence and expanding it through education is a fundamentally flawed project, as bad as small government and global war-fighting.

Job Descriptions

A good job description has the following:

  • A clear, concise summary of what the company does
  • A clear, concise summary of what you would be doing in this job
  • Clear, reasonable qualifications for the position / work
  • Clear, reasonable responsibilities listed for the position
  • No mentions of traits or qualifications that are not concrete (e.g. sense of humor, perseverance, determination…)

A bad job description doesn’t have the above.

“Don’t settle for bad jobs.”

Michael Vinh Xuan Thanh, “How to Spot Toxic Software Jobs From Their Descriptions.” Medium. August 28, 2019.

How Do You Prepare for a Job Interview When You Have a Criminal Record?

“In this observational short documentary, the Québécois filmmaker Nicolas Lévesque places the viewer inside training sessions for three men preparing for job interviews following their release from prison. Forced to confront their pasts in this stressful setting, fragments of stories, including their hopes for and apprehensions about the future, begin to emerge. Unvarnished yet empathetic, the film offers a sobering account of the overwhelming challenges that ex-convicts face when re-entering society.”

How Do You Prepare for a Job Interview When You Have a Criminal Record?

The Work vs. The Job

“Many people conflate your work with your job, but they are completely different things.

Your job is the daily tasks you are assigned to complete. Many people think checking these boxes off in a timely manner is their only responsibility…

…Work is all the tangible and intangible things that happen while people are performing their job…

[For example, managing your boss is work.] Your boss pays you to handle setbacks; she doesn’t need to know about every single setback or hiccup. Constantly bringing up negative developments makes you a Bad News Bear.

So what should you do instead?

Fix the problem. Resolve the issue. Mitigate the damage. And then, once the storm has passed, work into a conversation how a setback happened and you resolved it. This way your boss sees only sunny skies.

Also, on the flip side, all good news travels up…Everyone likes to hear good news. Especially good news that they can then give to their boss.”

—Kyle, “#RealWorkTalk: Work vs. Job, Part I.” Capital Hill Style. March 27, 2019.

Strikes me as true of everyone, not just bosses. No one wants to hear about your trials and tribulations. Handle it, and be the little ray of sunshine in everyone else’s life when you’re up for it.

Are you angry, frustrated, sad or feeling some other strong emotion other people may not like? Channel your anger into motivation. Personally, I favor running until exhaustion and sleeping. Or for downer emotions, just going straight to sleep.

No one wants to hear about your problems or listen to you complain. Everyone has enough of their own issues to deal with. Bringing them up only when you need help means you’re more likely to get the help you need.

F*ck [Fuck] you. Pay me.


I was reminded of this talk recently. Thought it was worth adding since the advice is timeless, even though it is relatively old. The only thing I don’t like is the use of the word, “fuck,” and the cutesy obscured spelling of it. Here’s an idea, if the word “fuck,” is inappropriate, don’t use the word. But, it is most definitely appropriate here. Get rid of the asterisk. [Hey, just realized that asterick is from the Greek aster, meaning star, which is also in disaster. Don’t know why I never thought of that before.]

If someone asks you whether you are willing to do something for free for the “exposure,” “experience,” or some other line of nonsense, tell them, “No.” If you want to volunteer your skills in your community, fine. But, don’t volunteer to work jobs for free. Doing so implies you do not believe what you do has value. Everyone does work of value. Get paid for it.

Oh, and Mike Monteiro has a new book out for pre-order via Amazon, the only way you can get it.

The Abolition of Work—Bob Black

“You are what you do. If you do boring, stupid monotonous work, chances are you’ll end up boring, stupid and monotonous. Work is a much better explanation for the creeping cretinization all around us than even such significant moronizing mechanisms as television and education. People who are regimented all their lives, handed off to work from school and bracketed by the family in the beginning and the nursing home at the end, are habituated to heirarchy and psychologically enslaved. Their aptitude for autonomy is so atrophied that their fear of freedom is among their few rationally grounded phobias.”

—Bob Black, “The Abolition of Work and Other Essays.” Port Townsend: Loompanics Unlimited, 1986.

Eternal Employment: Do Whatever You Want in a Swedish Train Station Forever

“In 2025, applications will be accepted for the job of a lifetime—literally. A fair starting salary, with annual wage increases that match those for Swedish government workers, vacation time, even a pension, and the job is yours for as long as you do it. So what’s the job? Anything you want.

Each morning, the chosen employee will punch a clock in Korsvägen train station, currently under construction in Gothenburg, Sweden, which will turn on a bank of bright fluorescent lights. Other than that, “the position holds no duties or responsibilities besides the fact that the work should be carried out at Korsvägen. Whatever the employee chooses to do constitutes the work,” reads the job description. The employee can also choose how publicly visible or anonymous they would like to be while on the clock.”

—Noor Al-Samarrai, “Atlas Job: Do Whatever You Want in a Swedish Train Station Forever.” Atlas Obscura. March 4, 2019.

What would you do?

If You’re Over 50, Chances Are the Decision to Leave a Job Won’t Be Yours — ProPublica

“Through 2016, our analysis found that between the time older workers enter the study and when they leave paid employment, 56 percent are laid off at least once or leave jobs under such financially damaging circumstances that it’s likely they were pushed out rather than choosing to go voluntarily…When you add in those forced to leave their jobs for personal reasons such as poor health or family trouble, the share of Americans pushed out of regular work late in their careers rises to almost two-thirds.”

—Peter Gosselin. “If You’re Over 50, Chances Are the Decision to Leave a Job Won’t Be Yours.” ProPublica. December 28, 2018.

The Case Against Education | RadioWest

“Bryan Caplan says our higher education system is a waste of time and money. Caplan is a Princeton-educated, tenured professor of economics at George Mason University. He argues though that while a degree has become indispensable for competing in the job market, college isn’t actually teaching applicable skills or even teaching people how to learn. And worse yet? Many graduates are deep in debt and still not getting a great job.”

Listen to the Interview.

The Human Cost of the Ghost Economy

 “To think of The Ghosted is to think of injustice, a cataloging of fist-fights, tuberculosis, detention centers, scabies, crabs, lice, roaches, hot plates, Section 8 housing, laborers hiding under blankets in the backs of trucks, children lying stiff against the tops of trains, assembly lines in windowless heat-filled rooms — a type of economic violence many consumers try to close their minds to. We do not want to think of them because of what it says about us…

…the people working in the warehouses, and the landfills, and construction sites, and digging ditches, we will all one day be dead, or injured, or humiliated, or imprisoned, or abandoned. All of our needs outsourced. Benefits and overtime and healthcare and pensions and retirement and workers comp and unemployment, no longer. Planning no longer. Stability no longer. College no longer. Health no longer.”

–Melissa Chadburn, “The Human Cost of the Ghost Economy.” Longreads.com. December 2017.