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Wannabe Elites

The last few months I’ve read about a couple of ideas that I found interesting.

Michael Sandel argues that meritocracy has a dark side: If all doors are open to you, but you’re poor, it’s your fault. The center-left parties, in their embrace of meritocracy, have left behind the working class electorate they used to cater to.

I’ve read some arguments around these points before, but Sandel is the first I’ve heard that sees meritocracy itself as the problem, so clearly. In his TED Talk he argues for re-attaching dignity to labor. I definitely agree, though I don’t see why meritocracy is necessarily at odds with dignified labor. Sandel has a book out that I imagine will offer more nuance.

Peter Turchin has coined the term elite overproduction. There is a new demographic of people with all the right credentials who have not made it to the elite. This FT article argues that the new élite manquée clarifies both Brexit and Trumpism. The alliance of the ignored working class with the resentful sub-elites who want their turn at the top.

The article holds that the current brand of right-wing populism can’t last long. Once the populists are in power, they find it is not possible to govern in favor of both the working class and the sub-elites.

But in this little post I don’t want to delve more into the political points. Rather, I want to comment on behavior I’ve seen close at hand, from the vantage point of meritocratic hubris and elite overproduction.

A few years ago, a childhood friend of mine protested loudly on social media that he had seen a job offer for a plumber, and the salary was higher than what he was making, with his electrical engineering degree. He declared that Spain was a shitty country. I suppose the implication was that in a proper country, he’d make more money than a plumber.

This reminds me of the adage that in the current brand of capitalism, profit is private, but losses are socialized. You just know that these people who blame their country for not giving them the job they deserve, would find the merit entirely their own if they were to become successful.

Every now and then, some wannabe-elite person, say, a journalist who hasn’t made it, complains publicly that a cashier may have a similar or higher salary, or better contractual conditions. I wonder if these people would be happier if the cashiers had a lower salary, because then they could tell themselves they’re elite.

A few years ago there was a debate in Spain around unpaid internships, after it was reported that most of the highest rated restaurants in Spain depended on unpaid interns.
One side of the debate held that this was fine. Invaluable experience for those interns. Lessons in life, etc. The other side protested that unpaid internships excluded people who needed to support themselves. If the only way into an industry is via unpaid internships, then only rich kids can get in.
For their part, many of the restaurateurs protested that without unpaid labor, their restaurants were not viable.

One has to wonder about that situation. Highly rated restaurants are being subsidized by the families of the unpaid interns. And for those families, it is probably a source of pride to declare that one of the children is working at El Bulli or whatever. Much better than getting an actual salary for work in a lesser known restaurant. Or on some other sustainable venture.

In a more humorous note, I’ve heard that as skiing is taken up by more and more middle class families, there is much chagrin among the families who were “already skiing in the eighties”.

Leave it to South Park to write a song for this, in their Pee episode.

There are too many minorities (chorus: minorities)
At my waterpark (chorus: my waterpark)
This was our land, our dream (chorus: our dream)
And they’ve taken it all away
They just keep coming and coming (chorus: minorities)
I tried just goin’ and tell the police
But even the authorities
are minorities at my waterpark