Friday, April 19, 2019

On Demeritocracy

Meritocracy is in practice what you defensively claim to be living in, when you can't face the cold hard truth that your recruitment process is an afterthought and perhaps worse you operate on a system of Cronyism or Nepotism or some shit, because you don't actively test for the merits you claim.

So where it exists, it's probably by accident, not design, because things that work tend to win out in the long run, because that's what it means to work.

But I have no problem with meritocracy as an ideal to be aiming for, rather than a legal defense of corrupt systems.

So definitions, definitions. Meritocracy is formally defined on the interwebs as a system of governance based on ability or something. I'm going to define it less formally and more expediently to me as a system where individuals advance based on positive action.

Basically a merit system is were people do something good, you get recognized for that, perhaps even advanced.

Which allows me to define Demiritocracy a word that doesn't exist but nevertheless is I feel an informal system of governance we often intuitively employ. It's a system whereby individuals are penalized based on positive actions.

A demerit system is where if you do something bad, you get recognized for that, perhaps degraded.

I don't see why the two systems can't simultaneously exist and in some cases probably do. Where a system of law works largely as a demeritocratic and say the military is meritocratic so a soldier advances to General before they are brought before a military tribunal for war crimes and she is dishonorably discharged and remanded to a military prison.

And both systems could simultaneously fail, where for example a statesman is elected to an executive position without demonstrating any merit at all, then escapes account despite taking actions worthy of demerit.

But it's interesting to me, just because while I don't think and don't personally experience living in a demeritocracy but that's probably because I have no merit to lose, but there's a perception that the cost of nuance has risen steeply in recent years. A gutting of the middle position, where one can only be pro multiculturalism or a racist etc.

Moreover, my interest is usually in mental health outcomes, and this is how I got onto the idea of Demeritocracy. I don't really know what is going on with the far right, alt-right or whatever. I can take a guess that it involves not pride but a very negative emotional state and as Masha Gessen said of Trump 'He feels perpetually like he's being screwed and therefore justified in screwing people over.' I mean, upon reflection, scapegoating isn't really a psychoanalytical rubik's cube. As homer said 'Sure we can blame ourselves, but it's even easier to blame Ned.'

And I guess it's interesting to observe that basically anyone that does attempt a nuanced opinion complains of being cast as an alt-right or alt-right-adjacent while identifying as a liberal.

So I feel an inclination to say it's from the left-pole that the hollowing out is happening because the left is advancing a demiritocracy.

I'm still searching and conversing to find the piece of information I lack that allows me to get on board with progressives, but beyond pleading ignorance, there's also belief systems I subscribe to that basically prevent me from jumping on board.

For example, I really struggle to understand discussion of 'The Patriarchy' not because the concept is unintelligible to me, but because it runs against the grain of what one of my core role models instructs:

The way for a young man to rise, is to improve himself every way he can, never suspecting that any body wishes to hinder him.
Which was written by Abe Lincoln. Where much discussion of the patriarchy seems to be the exact opposite of this advice. Restating it as 'The way for a young woman to stagnate, is to degrade herself every way she can, always suspecting that everybody wishes to hinder her.' or something.

We could get into an intelligible debate where one discounts Abe's advice to young men, because the suspicion that they are being hindered would qualify as paranoia given that the Patriarchy doesn't hinder them, but does women. Countered by the observation that both in Lincoln's time to present day, the vast majority of men enjoy neither esteem, status or power and feel quite frustrated in their ambitions and hence Lincoln's advice could be considered generally valid. Then countered by arguments that even low status men enjoy relative esteem, status and power over other group identities...

But that's irrelevant, what is relevant is what Mr Lincoln had to say about meritocracy:

 I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.

Which is to say, the Union Army selected it's leadership on a meritocratic basis (or at least tried to) and did not operate as a demeritocracy. Which is to say, Ulysses S Grant was charged with being a Whiskey Drinker and thus allegedly questioned in his fitness to command troops. Lincoln is either making a correlation-causation error, but more likely is pointing out that the drinking habits of his best performing general are irrelevant so long as he performs.

Imagine if you will an alternate history where the Nazi's Blitzkreig was advancing across Western Europe annexing the Netherlands and Belgium with blinding speed and the chambers of the British parliament were calling into question Chamberlains competence and promoting Churchill as his replacement, and Churchill stood before the house of Commons and said 'That little fag Hitler must be stopped at all costs!' and having misread the room was greeted with jeers and boos. 'Go home you homophobic dunce! Or would you have us round up all the gays and put them on trucks like Hitler!'

And sure, maybe, maybe Britain had numerous candidates lined up behind Churchill adequate to the task of steering Britain and the Allies to victory. My position would be though, When faced with a significant external threat, it's not the time and place for demeritocracy.

This though, is the low hanging fruit, an idea I was first exposed to when participating in an annual strategic review for a non-profit organization where a guy leading one of the sections was relaying his experience of consulting for an environmental organization that was in the process of attempting to recruit an accountant to do their bookkeeping, and they were advertising a requirement that the successful applicant would be 'passionate about the environment and environmental causes' to which he asked them 'is that actually important?' not to the organization, but to the position.

So yeah, obviously it is bad to demerit people on criteria that is irrelevant to their performance. Perhaps an argument can be made that a homophobic leader might jeopardize war efforts, or that the optics of having an employee turn up to work in a humvee and toss the styrofoam packaging of their takeaway breakfast straight into a storm drain before heading upstairs to balance the books might be counterproductive to the organizations ability to generate positive press etc. But arguments from accident aside, there are a lot of roles and functions in our society that don't require good people but competent people.

As management expert Peter F Drucker puts it:

 An employer has no business with a man's personality. Employment is a specific contract calling for a specific performance... Any attempt to go beyond that is usurpation. It is immoral as well as an illegal intrusion of privacy. It is abuse of power. An employee owes no "loyalty," he owes no "love" and no "attitudes"--he owes performance and nothing else. .... The task is not to change personality, but to enable a person to achieve and to perform.

Now realisty, Drucker's dream that a man not be judged by the content of their character but the output of their efforts is no more realized today than MLK's dream that one might not be judged by the color of their skin, but content of their character. Furthermore, I would not be able to take Drucker's hardline stance, their are roles clearly where performance and personality go hand in hand, roles basically where the work is being judged by employees personality - customer service, sales, public relations, moral leadership etc.

And Drucker who invented the concept of the 'Knowledge Worker' the employee who's chief labor was to think, spent a lot of time studying Japanese organisations and how the Japanese managed.

If anything is an example of what I concieve a demeritocracy to be, it exists in Japan. As testified to by Miyamoto Masao in his enlightening book 'Straightjacket Society':

Someone once summed it up this way: 'The greatest task of a bureaucrat is to survive without having his feet pulled out from under him by someone else.'
The context was Masao's 'Three Great Principles of Life in the Japanese Bureaucracy' which are: 1. Don't be late. 2. Don't take time off. 3. Do no Work.

The first two relate to presenteeism, which though interesting is a sideroad here, the 'Do No Work' is more pertinant and more interesting. I'll let Masao explain:

Suppose for example, you know a certain policy will definitely benefit the people. If you try to implement it on your own, you're bound to stir up opposition. If you push it through anyway and it should happen to fail, you will of course be called to account. The Japanese bureaucracy operates on the demerit system; people seldom receive credit on their work record for any positive changes they may have brought about. Therefore, the smart smart thing to do is to lie low and try not to accumulate any black marks against your name. This is the quintessential bureaucrat. Once you have a black mark, your career is in jeopardy.
So perhaps for clarity, a demeritocracy is a system where you get punished for mistakes to a far more significant degree than you get rewarded for your victories. This needs to be distinguished from game theory strategies like 'tit for tat' which could be characterized I guess as a demerit system, but strictly speaking is training it's opponent to keep taking positive social actions through negative reinforcement. And while it's a highly effective game-theory strategy it isn't as effective as 'tit for two tats' which is more forgiving and can avoid a retaliatory death spiral. I guess the true demerit system in game theory would be 'grim trigger' where once the opponent doesn't cooperate, the strategy never cooperates again.

The Japanese system sort of manifests on my social media feed, in a manner I can personally validate. So when a horrific crime committed by men against women occurs in my home city, I will see men post their actually policy statements, though they may not be consciously doing so - of what they believe has caused this and similar instances and what needs to be done to address it. These policy statements often include things like 'men staying silent' or 'men denying...' some aspect or other of sexism. My point being, horrible that I am, I often qualify as someone these men claim they as men have to address, call out etc.

And I know they don't, because I would know if they did, because they oblige themselves to come for me. Leading me to suspect, they don't actually do anything. I would hope it is transparent, that my position isn't adopted purely just to be a shit, but because I genuineness disagree often with the causal chains and especially with the notion of an informal police force.

But consider the potential outcomes of one of these men coming after me; they might persuade me for example to stop listening to the Bloodhound Gang because I enjoy their vulgar lyrics, or disavow Anal Cunt, whose music is... phoned in, but whose track names have brought me literal hours of joy for their sheer vulgar irreverence for taboos. That's arbitrary outcome 1. Another might be that they engage me in conversation, and we disagree. That's arbitrary outcome 2. Lastly we might have a conversation, and they become convinced of my position. That's arbitrary outcome 3.

Here then, we have a situation very similar to a Japanese bureaucrat. You'll have to take my word on it, but in outcome 1 there will be no direct impact on violent crimes committed by men against women and probably no indirect impact either. There's little reward then for their effort because I am just one guy of which nobody is particularly interested in what I do in my spare time while alone. Similarly outcome 2 costs energy and produces no reward. Outcome 3 though, puts this person in a quandary, they now are going to struggle to fit in with the consensus policy of their tribe, they can't publicly revise their own policy because that risks social rejection, they can't enforce their policy either.

The safest thing to do, is say enough to claim your membership, and do nothing because nobody particularly cares about your gains, whereas you are out should you fuck up and fail. This demerit system puts you in the position of Galileo's peers who refused to look through the telescope lest they see the corrupting evidence.

It's not all doom and gloom though, the productive arguments in my experience and suspect more broadly, happen offline. Where if I say something chauvinistic at the dinner table, there is a meritocratic reward awaiting someone who challenges or engages me, furthermore even if I objectively 'win' the argument, you have the protection of confirmation bias, the mother-of-all-biases where the argument will never actually be experienced objectively, and both parties can subjectively 'win' the argument.

Another clue that I live in demeritocracy, at least online, is just politics in general. Australia and particularly our conservative major party has continued to outdo itself in producing a near uninterrupted decline in the quality of leadership. Thus I have friends that online day after day voice their grievances with the leader of our designated country. What I notice is that they don't advance any arguments for the kind of leader they want or demand, the efforts are overwhelmingly focused on tearing down the leaders they are dissatisfied with.

And even before social media made this demeritocracy really bad, the press had been doing it for years largely by running headlines like 'Howard's Backflip' where our democratically elected leaders were criticised for floating some policy that proved unpopular, and then revising their position as if it were some kind of failure of character.

Sure there are some scant examples of policy that may be unpopular but necessary and you want an astringent leader who can ram it through, like say carbon rationing perhaps? But that's a big judgement call. Generally you want your leadership to back down from their mistakes, not regard making a mistake as a mistake in itself.

Which may be the best summation of the problem with a demeritocracy.

But I think demeritocracy is a word that perhaps would be useful to actually have exist, because circumstances these days actually merit action. One key example is the consequences of another myopic Democratic Party primaries. Where the candidate that wins the Democratic nomination is chosen for their inability to offend the democratic base, not their ability to mobilize sufficient numbers to ensure victory in the election, nor their ability to diminish Trump in the eyes of his supporter base and inspire them to stay home. A nomination won rather than lost.

Furthermore the mental health outcomes of a demeritocracy are clear, it's really the soviet nightmare especially when demerit becomes paralegal. All of us, no matter how nobly aligned with the cause are left to live perpetually in a state of fear wondering when we will become opportunistically denounced. For nobody is trying to advance, they are trying to be the last man standing.

Beyond the mental health outcomes of constantly having one eye open for denouncement, are the material outcomes of people opting for the safety of silence, and inaction rather than devising and implementing actual solutions.

Thus, I'd rather hang out with the drunkard, chauvinistic, unrighteous shlubs that care about performance rather than purity.

After all, Lincoln personally reviewed and presided over the largest mass execution in American history. Has America then never produced a truly great leader?

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