How Kevin McCarthy Promotes the Myth of Meritocracy
Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) managed to get a headline on Politico the other day. He was speaking up about American values in response to the MAGA caucus in Congress. The headline? McCarthy responds to MAGA caucus: GOP isn’t party of ‘nativist dog whistles’. The quote that caught my eye?
His statement above from Twitter was quoted by Politico in their article. I’m familiar with the sentiments he expresses in that tweet, and I see them as being fairly standard for any politician. My concern here is that McCarthy is promoting the myth of meritocracy in his first statement. He says that America is built on ideas of equality and success through hard work. He qualified his statement by excluding identity, race, or religion as factors in success or failure.
I am agnostic as to identity, race, or religion when I interact with other people. I am more concerned with how I’m treated by people than I am by any other factor. I can also say that I’m agnostic about politics, too. For the people I love in my family and my friends, I will never “unfriend” them just because we disagree about politics. I have no wish to live in an echo chamber of people who only agree with me. Even when it comes to political views, I am more concerned with character than opinions.
After I read that statement today, I kept thinking about this notion that success is built upon hard work. I think in a general sense that’s true. But I’m still doing the math. I am aware of people in the very state that I live in who are working two and three jobs, more than full time, trying to make a living. I am aware that the minimum wage has not kept pace with productivity. I am even more aware of the fact that if the minimum wage had kept pace with Wall Street bonuses, it’d be $44 an hour. It’s odd how Wall Street never takes a haircut. That doesn't sound like hard work to me, that sounds like collusion.
Or how about the way the drug companies get patents on drugs discovered through government-funded research? During the pandemic, the big pharmaceutical companies received billions in government cash, made bank on the patents earned through their research which was paid for by the government, and they didn’t have to share their findings. The policy choices we made actually slowed the development of the vaccines and drugs used for treating COVID. And the big pharmaceutical companies were exposed to near-zero financial risk because the payoff was almost guaranteed. Was that hard work or did they know someone?
Earlier, I said that there was a myth of meritocracy in America. According to Wikipedia, “Myth of meritocracy” is a phrase arguing that meritocracy, or achieving upward social mobility through one’s own merits regardless of one’s social position, is not widely attainable in capitalist societies because of inherent contradictions. It is often assumed that people achieve success by hard work alone. But little attention is paid to the luck involved in the success of people. that’s an inherent contradiction of America.
“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
― Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History
That’s luck. You can be talented, and you can have great skill with that talent, and never be discovered. In contrast, during the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008, we saw people lucky enough to be wealthy bankers, and dumb enough not to be able to solve a problem they created. Upon the realization that they were going to lose large sums of money, bankers used their money to buy government interference in the market to insulate themselves from the consequences of their mistakes. In the Great Recession, Wall Street received huge bonuses for its error in judgment. It’s odd that I never hear Republicans talk about that. It’s as if consequences are only for poor people.
So when I hear a millionaire member of Congress telling me that America is built on equality of opportunity, I am mindful that the American aristocracy is diametrically opposed to accountability. Some might disagree that we have an aristocracy in America, but I believe we do. Look at the polling of Congress. The latest Gallop poll for approval of the job that Congress is doing shows that only 36% of Americans are happy with the job Congress is doing now. 61% disapprove. The last time Congress had a 50% or better approval rate was in 2003. And yet, according to OpenSecrets.org, the re-election rate of Congress has never dipped below 80% and in 2018, it was 91%. That’s aristocracy.
Another indicator of that aristocracy is that America has more than 600 billionaires, and many of them have multiple billions. Let’s put just $1 billion into perspective here. In 2019, the median wage in America was $39,810. That works out to about $19.90 an hour, and that’s the median wage, which means half are above and half are above. How long would one have to work at that wage just to earn $1 billion? 25,110 years.
Now maybe I got this wrong here, but as far as I know, nobody is 25,000 times smarter, more efficient, or talented than the average wage slave. Nobody. It’s not genetics because the difference between humans and pigs is 1%, and the genetic difference between humans and gorillas is even less. Yes, it’s true that billionaires can work hard to get that money, it’s also true that they didn’t get there without at least some luck. Usually, they knew the right people at the right time. They were born into it, or they had good connections. And even if we were to account for luck, nobody acquires a billion without help from somebody else.
We tend to equate wealth with wisdom, and success. McCarthy would have us believe that hard work equates to success. I am reminded of a story that my dad once told me about China. Some Chinese bureaucrat was showing an American diplomat their work program. The work program consisted of a team of men moving dirt from one pile to another with shovels. And the American diplomat was not impressed. “If you wanted to make work, you should replace their shovels with spoons.”
Saying that success in America is based on hard work alone is like giving a man an excavator and another man a spoon through government policies, and then calling the man with the excavator a success. Wealth in America is largely rigged with dynasties and fiefdoms. Yes, you can get there if you work for it, but first other people have to cooperate with you. And you must be lucky enough to encounter the right people with the right connections for success to happen. Then and only then, can you “make it”.
Kevin McCarthy would have us believe that “success is earned through honest, hard work. It isn’t built on identity, race, or religion.” He would have us believe that the wealthy are self-made when in fact, the wealthy received their wealth with help from all of us, with or without our consent. McCarthy seems to be manufacturing consent for the way that wealth is distributed with his statements, urging the rest of us to buy a ticket in the lottery rather than to question the public policy choices that were made to determine how wealth is distributed. In his world, we’re not supposed to notice that luck and connections are also factors of success. Maybe that’s the dog whistle we’re not supposed to hear.