Matt Miller on the Virtues of Meritocracy
Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; a contributing editor at Fortune; and the host of "Left, Right & Center," public radio's popular week-in-review program. Miller's first book, The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America's Problems In Ways Liberals And Conservatives Can Love, was published in 2003, and was a Los Angeles Times bestseller. His latest book, The Tyranny Of Dead Ideas, was published by Henry Holt/Times Books in January 2009. Miller served as Senior Advisor to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1993 to 1995. He lives with his family in Los Angeles.
Question: Is meritocracy a dead idea?Miller: The way meritocracy, economic meritocracy has played out in the United States I do have a problem with because I think it’s a myth, you know, as I call it. I think it’s a dead idea. In that sense, I think not necessarily among everyday Americans. But I think among the, which I may call the educated class, what I call the lower-upper class in the book, I think there’s a sense that’s build up that people end up economically where they deserve to and that’s a function of the kind of long transition in our culture to the SAT driven system of college admissions, the way the young people, you know, from an early age sort of jump through those hoops. And if they’re successful doing that, they’re successful gaining access to the best colleges, they sort of feel a kind of entitlement to the lion’s share of the material rewards that society has to offer. And I think, you know, put aside the fact that there’s obviously no link between that kind of merit and any kind of dignity or moral sense of worth in society, but I think it’s also true and I think lower-uppers are increasingly realizing that there’s isn’t a link between even merit in that sense, in that narrow sense and who ends up the wealthiest and most powerful in society. You’ve got the rise of the undeserving ultra-rich as I call it in the book. You know, CEOs who end up presiding over the demolition of companies, like Charles Prince at Citigroup or the fellow at Countrywide or all these folks who have walked away with $100 million, $200 million, while not only their companies have decimated and tens of thousands of people end up laid off. But, you know, the subprime mortgage peddlers are all retired to the country club now while the entire country is going through the worst crisis since the depression. So, you know, the question I ask is, you know, how ubiquitous does this kind of undeserving wealth become before it becomes so corrosive in a democracy that it wrongly discredits capitalism altogether. So, I think the lower-uppers looking at that are realizing that money doesn’t necessarily follow merit the way they quite assume and what I think is that they look up and see that. And this is an important segment of society, this couple of million people who are senior vice presidents of marketing, they’re professors, they’re media observers, they’re professionals, lawyers, doctors who have themselves have become to chafe a little bit and see the sort of unimaginable wealth above them when they thought they themselves were positioned to be quite comfortable. And I think that the empathy that may awaken in them for the far greater group that’s below them on the income scale will help them become a constituency for the kind of security and opportunity agenda we need for the country at a time of all this rapid economic change.
Question: How did Americans lose a fundamental sense of fairness?Miller: I don’t think it’s fair to blame one party or another for this and, you know, I supposed it’s tempting to say somehow it’s all a function of parenting. Because somewhere along the line, there was a kind of ethical compass, especially a leadership ethic that got lost. And I think that, you know, when I read the headlines everyday, it’s hard not to think that we’re not seeing a failure of elites in every segment of society. I mean whether it’s, you know, Bernie Madoff abusing the trust, you know, this is a guy who’s chair of the NASDAQ, a respective member of the Wall Street Community, you know, a bastion of the Jewish community. I mean it’s, you know, this kind of stuff is shocking, but, you know, the whole idea that you’ve got CEOs who walk away with gazillions while their company is absolutely going to the tank ought to shock us and I’m actually surprise that there’s not more political upheaval as a result of this. I think if the economic times get worse, I think there’ll be more of a backlash and they ought to be.
The idea that the US has an economic meritocracy is a fallacy, the author says.
"I was so moved when I saw the cells stir," said 90-year-old study co-author Akira Iritani. "I'd been hoping for this for 20 years."
- The team managed to stimulate nucleus-like structures to perform some biological processes, but not cell division.
- Unless better technology and DNA samples emerge in the future, it's unlikely that scientists will be able to clone a woolly mammoth.
- Still, studying the DNA of woolly mammoths provides valuable insights into the genetic adaptations that allowed them to survive in unique environments.
Tracking project establishes northern Argentina is wintering ground of Swainson's hawks
- Watch these six dots move across the map and be moved yourself: this is a story about coming of age, discovery, hardship, death and survival.
- Each dot is a tag attached to the talon of a Swainson's Hawk. We follow them on their very first migration, from northern California all the way down to Argentina.
- After one year, only one is still alive.
Discovered: destination Argentina
Young Swainson's hawks were found to migrate to northern Argentina
The Buteo swainsoni is a slim, graceful hawk that nests from the Great Plains all the way to northern California.
It feeds mainly on insects, but will also prey on rodents, snakes and birds when raising their young. These learn to fly about 45 days after hatching but may remain with their parents until fall migration, building up flying skills and fat reserves.
A common sight in summer over the Prairies and the West, Swainson's hawks disappear every autumn. While it was assumed they migrated south, it was long unclear precisely where they went.
A group of researchers that has been studying raptors in northern California for over 40 years has now established exactly where young Swainson's hawks go in winter. The story of their odyssey, summarized in a 30-second clip (scroll down), is both amazing and shocking.
Harnessing the hawks
A Swainson's hawk, with tracking device.
The team harnessed six Swainson's hawks in July, as they were six weeks old and just learning to fly. The clip covers 14 months, until next August – so basically, the first year of flight.
Each harness contains a solar-powered tracker and weighs 20 grams, which represents just 3% of the bird's body weight. To minimize the burden, only females were harnessed: as with most raptors, Swainson's hawk females generally are bigger than males.
The first shock occurs just one month (or about 2.4 seconds) from the start of the clip: the first dot disappears. The first casualty. A fledgling no more than two months old, who never made it further than 20 miles from its nest.
By that time, the remaining five are well on their way, clustering around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Swainson's hawks usually travel at around 40 mph (65 km/h) but can almost double that speed when they're stooping (i.e. dive down, especially when attacking prey).
There's a strong genetic component to migration. As usual, the Germans have nice single word to summarize this complex concept: Zugunruhe ('tsook-n-roowa'), literally: 'migration unrest' (1). It denotes the seasonal urge of migratory animals – especially birds – to get on their way. Zugunruhe exhibits especially as restless behavior around nightfall. The number of nights on which it occurs is apparently higher if the distance to be traveled is longer.
The birds may have the urge to go south, but genetics doesn't tell them the exact route. They have to find that out by trial and error. Hence the circling about by the specimens in this clip: they're getting a sense of where to find food and which direction to go. Their migratory paths will be refined by experience – if they're lucky enough to survive that long.
Each bird flies solo: their paths often strongly diverge, and if they seem to meet up occasionally, that's just an illusion: even when the dots are close together, they can still be dozens if not hundreds of miles apart.
Panama snack stop
The Central American isthmus is a major bird migration corridor
They generally follow the same route as it is the path of least resistance: follow mountain ranges, stay over land. Like most raptors, Swainson's hawks migration paths are land-based: not just so they can roost at night, but mainly to benefit from the thermals and updrafts to keep them aloft. That reduces the need to flap wings, and thus their energy spend – even though the trip will take longer that way.
As this clip demonstrates, the land-migration imperative means the Central American isthmus is a hotspot for bird migration. Indeed, Panama and Costa Rica are favorite destinations for bird watchers, when the season's right. A bit to the north, Veracruz in Mexico is another bird migration hotspot.
It's thought most hawks don't eat at all on migration. This clip shows an exception to that rule: on the way back, one bird takes an extended stopover of a couple of weeks in Panama, probably spending its time there foraging for food.
So, when they finally arrive in northern Argentina, after 6 to 8 weeks' migration, the hawks are pretty famished. Until a few decades ago, they fed on locusts. For their own reasons, local farmers have been getting rid of those. The hawks now concentrate on grasshoppers, and basically anything else that's edible.
For first-time visitors, finding what they need is not easy. Three of the five dots go dark. These birds probably died from starvation. But two birds thrive: they roam the region until winter rears its head in South America, and it's time to head back north again, where summer is getting under way.
Both dots make it back across the border, but unfortunately, right at the end of the clip, one of the surviving two birds expires.
Harsh, but not unusual
This old lady is 27 years old, but still nesting.
While a one-in-six survival rate may seem alarmingly harsh, it's not that unusual. First-year mortality for Swainson's Hawks is between 50% and 80%. Disease, starvation, predators and power lines – to name just a few common causes of death - take out a big number.
Only 10% to 15% of the young 'uns make it past their third or fourth year into adulthood, but from then on, annual survival rates are much better: around 90%. Adult Swainson's Hawks can expect to live into their low teens. There's one documented example of a female Swainson's Hawk in the wild who was at least 27 years old (and still nesting!)
The Californian population of Swainson's Hawks plummeted by about 90% at the end of last century but is now again increasing well. The monitoring project that produced this clip has been going for about four decades but is seeing its funding dry up. Check them out and consider supporting them (see details below).
Migration trajectory of B95, the 'Moonbird'.
Not all migrating birds shun the ocean. Here's an incredible map of an incredible migration path that's even longer than that of the Swainson's hawks.
In February 1995, a red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) was banded with the tag B95. That particular bird, likely born in 1993, was recaptured at least three times and resighted as recently as May 2014, in the Canadian Arctic.
B95 is more commonly known as 'Moonbird', because the length of its annual migration (app. 20,000 miles; 32,000 km) combined with its extreme longevity (if still alive, it's 25-26 years old now) means its total lifetime flight exceeds the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
As many other shorebirds do, the red knot takes the Atlantic Flyway hugging the coastline and crossing to South America via the ocean.
B95 has become the poster bird of conservationists in both North and South America. A book titled Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) received numerous awards, B95 has a statue in Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay and the City of Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego has proclaimed B95 its natural ambassador.
Perhaps one day the nameless Swainson's Hawks in this clip, fallen in service of their ancestral instincts – against the odds of human increasing interference – will receive a similar honor.
Strange Maps #965
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(1) 'Zug' is a wonderfully polyvalent German word. It can mean: a train, a chess move, a characteristic, a stroke, a draft (of a plan), a gulp (of air), a drag (from a cigarette), a swig (from a bottle), and more.
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