Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fortune Favors the Ambitious

by Dr. Ellen Brandt

At least we hope it does, because we have broad-ranging and ambitious plans for the Bring Back the Meritocracy! project. As promised, here's a progress report on the baby steps we've taken so far and what we hope lies ahead over the next several months.

Project Landing Page

Our first step was to set up a project landing page at Google+. We did so, because this blog is based at Blogger, and because we like the ease of setting up Communities at Google. We've established 6 of them: Research, Foundations, Venture Capital, Job Creation, Political Action, and Media Initiatives. We've also set up a Bring Back the Meritocracy! Group at Linked In, an omnibus Group meant mostly as an observation post for those who wish to keep their eyes on the project, before deciding to join one of the Communities.

If you have not yet visited this landing page, please do so as soon as you can and follow its links to the Communities, if you're interested:


Persuading People to Get Involved

As the project Founder, I've just finished a mailing to those in my large (and superb) Linked In network, established over many years, after conscientiously revisiting everyone's profile and trying to figure out which Communities they might most enjoy becoming part of.

So far, the big winner is Venture Capital, probably because its stated mission is the easiest to understand. I want to remedy that with this blog post, further explicating what we're hoping to do in the other Communities, although in some of them - like Foundations - the agenda is necessarily "open" at this point and will take more concrete form based on the decisions of its participating members.

Please note that because this is an extremely serious and ambitious project, we need to make sure that every participant is, first of all, human - no Bots or Avatars - and someone whose background and experience will allow them to contribute intelligently to a collaboration which will begin with universities, on the one hand, and a top-tier group of researchers, venture capitalists, foundation managers, and company Founders, on the other.

For this reason, I hope that all those wishing to participate will first connect with me at Linked In, which has a rigorous and aboveboard process for ensuring that people's university credentials are real and where the full-connection linking process - as opposed to the less reliable followers/followed or friends/non-friends kinds of links - can enable me to vet you via those with whom you are associated.

I fully understand that this project is not for everyone. But its purpose and its agenda do resonate with a very large, significant, and important group of U.S. and world citizens, many of whom, we hope, will join with us as the project evolves.

The Communities and Their Agendas

Once we have large enough core groups of participants in the 6 Communities, we can begin to collaborate via those Communities on Discussion-into-Action agendas for the Bring Back the Meritocracy! project.

Since some readers seem to remain a bit baffled about what we are hoping to accomplish, here's a rundown on how each Community might wish to proceed:

Venture Capital

I'm starting with Venture Capital, since that's the one most current participants do understand.

What we hope to do here is begin work on establishing brand-new venture funds and the mechanisms to run them, geared to the target groups of Founders and early-stage Entrepreneurs over age 50 and Founders and early-stage Entrepreneurs from top-tier university backgrounds.

We are not talking about crowdfunding, nor other kinds of non-traditional venture funds, at this point. We are, in fact, talking about target groups which were favored by traditional and successful venture capitalists long, long ago - i.e. 10, 15, or 20 years ago - before the current trend to fund only very young Founders took hold (with, some believe, a corresponding bias against the well-educated and experienced, especially in areas like gaming and other "apps").

One real advantage of once more supporting mature Founders in their "prime of life" years is that it may allow venture investors to tap more successfully into the so far elusive Baby Boomer marketplace, representing fully 1/3 of the populations of the U.S., the rest of the developed world, and China. We think Boomers overwhelmingly believe they've been sorely neglected by marketers, who not only don't know what they want, but don't seem to have the faintest idea who they are.

Similarly, new funds geared towards supporting Founders who are graduates of top-tier universities in the U.S. and abroad should encourage more "Best and Brightest" graduates to opt for entrepreneurial careers. They will tend to hire their fellow "Best and Brightest" grads, just as Boomer entrepreneurs will tend to hire more of their fellow Boomers than non-Boomer entrepreneurs do. The add-on effect of increased job creation for these groups should be jump-started effectively via these "new" kinds of funds - which until recently were the historical norm.

Job Creation

We are just as excited about the possibilities for the Bring Back the Meritocracy! Job Creation Community - and we hope this blog post will get others excited as well.

What we hope to initiate via this Community's efforts are not one, but several, new entities - new companies, new non-profits, new divisions within established companies and non-profits - whose major purpose is matching the now immense talent pool of the "Highly-Educated But Under-Employed," especially those over age 50, with all those "Unmet Needs" throughout the world that every development conference talks about, but which no one ever seems to make a real dent in. These "Unmet Needs," which exist in both developed and less-developed countries and regions, include projects in infrastructure, manufacturing, healthcare, education, and services of all kinds.

Efforts, many of them government-related, which seek to develop such projects via work forces which are volunteer or very low-paid are not what most in the "Highly-Educated But Under-Employed" talent pool want or need.

They need to earn decent pay for the superior work they have been educated to do or which, in the case of the older "Highly-Educated," work which they have in fact been doing, perhaps for many decades.

The people we are talking about are experienced, intelligent, talented, and creative professionals and managers. They are engineers and scientists and teachers and IT professionals. They're lawyers and doctors and nurses and journalists. They are agriculturists and resource specialists and inventors and small business innovators.

They did not suddenly lose their talent and intelligence and creativity and zeal for hard work, because they passed a certain birthday and suddenly became dispensable. Nor should their exceptional skills and experience be scorned, because they forfeited much or most of their life's savings to the extraordinary economic tumult of the past 30 years: wave after wave of downsizing, outsourcing, managerial shrinkage, housing crises, market crashes, and the "hollowing out" of both manufacturing industries and Main Street small business.

Exceptional People. "Unmet Needs." Does that not sound like a Match Made in Heaven? Then let's work towards coming up with ways to wed them. That will be the basic work of the Job Creation Community.


Many of us feel one important reason the "Highly-Educated But Under-Employed" have become well-nigh invisible, even as their numbers have grown and grown, is that there's been a dearth of major research projects focusing on this group, just as there have been way too few research studies focused on at-risk Baby Boomers.

In the case of the latter group - again, 1/3 of the population in the U.S., the rest of the developed world, and China - the fault lies partially with extremely skewed statistics. Boomers have been thought to have remained a "wealthy" generation because their large numbers have made their aggregate wealth look impressive compared to generations with fewer individuals. They are known to have inherited assets from their thrifty parents' generation. And they have made up a very high percentage of homeowners, particularly in the U.S.

We think future research studies will prove that much of that supposed wealth has disappeared into thin air - or Dark Pools - with the tumultuous economic events outlined above. We believe that the wealth-skewing phenomenon which has gifted the vaunted One Percent with more and more of the planet's assets, while everyone else has lost out, will be shown to apply in more, not less, stark outline within the Baby Boom generation itself, with an immense gulf having opened up between the relatively few Boomers in superb financial shape and the very many Boomers teetering on the financial brink - one or two crises away from economic extinction.

And the "Highly-Educated But Under-Employed" of all generations, we believe, may be shown to be more, not less, financially vulnerable than the rest of the developed world's population, because they have tended to make up a very large proportion of those groups hit hardest by economic dislocations: investors, homeowners, managers, professionals, and small business owners.

In any case, there is fertile ground here for talented and determined researchers willing to investigate the current status and ongoing trends specific to the "Highly-Educated But Under-Employed," without bias and with the expectation that such studies should prove immensely useful.

The Bring Back the Meritocracy! Research Community will encourage and support such efforts among researchers working within universities, think tanks, political groups, and companies, as well as those working independently.


The Bring Back the Meritocracy! Foundations Community has an open-ended agenda, because we want the experienced non-profit managers and consultants who choose to become involved in the project to have as much scope as they wish, coming up with initiatives to support the "Highly-Educated But Under-Employed" in creative and productive ways, either within well-established foundations or in new non-profit entities yet to be formed.

Research-oriented foundations may wish to offer grant stipends to institutionally-based and individual researchers studying this cohort.

Education-focused foundations may want to match the "Highly-Educated But Under-Employed" talent pool with existing or new educational development projects, where they can act as teachers, trainers, or administrators.

Foundations whose mission is economic development may participate in some of the "Terrific Talent-Unmet Needs" match-up work of the Job Creation Community.

Some foundation-based projects may focus on the topic of Meritocracy per se: why certain political cadres have been propagandizing against it, how such attacks undermine a core tenet of the American Dream, and what we can do to encourage open discussion and turn the tide.

The above are simply suggestions. The Foundations Community is meant to become a launching pad for a wide range of non-profit initiatives and may inspire the formation of entirely new foundations focused on the "Highly-Educated But Under-Employed" - who they are, what they need, how to help them.

Political Action and Media Initiatives

We conceive of the last two Bring Back the Meritocracy! project Communities, Political Action and Media Initiatives, as service Communities, assisting the other four Communities in their work, while possibly also launching sub-projects of their own to aid the overall effort.

Political Action's main task is communicating the project's aims to both major political parties in the U.S., major parties in other nations, and interest groups and activists across the political spectrum.

We wish to stress once more that Bring Back the Meritocracy! is completely non-partisan. In U.S. terms, its agenda is equally Centrist, Conservative, and Progressive, because Meritocracy per se is a basic tenet of American thought, central to the concept of democracy and to the ideal of the American Dream.

Moreover, assisting the "Highly-Educated But Under-Employed" is a goal which every part of the political spectrum should share, as should specifically helping those in the "Highly-Educated" group who are part of the vast Baby Boom generation, whose dwindling economic prospects pose a serious threat to the U.S. and world economies.

Meritocracy, as we have shown, is also closely connected to the concept of higher education, the future of top-tier universities, and their continued ability to contribute to the nation's and the world's store of shared knowledge.

Note, too, that Bring Back the Meritocracy! does not and will not seek government funding at any level, which should appeal to every prudent legislator and activist. We hope that Bring Back the Meritocracy! will benefit hundreds of millions of people, beginning with those who become active in the project. But it will depend solely on the goodwill, hard work, and focused attention of those who choose to become involved.

The Bring Back the Meritocracy! Media Initiatives Community will likewise play a helping role to the project as a whole.

Its job is to encourage favorable coverage of the project in all forms of media and to report the progress of the various Community agendas as they evolve.

We're hoping the core participants in this Community will include Communications and Alumni Affairs adminstrators at all eight Ivy League schools and other top-tier universities throughout the world.  Getting the higher education establishment on board will, we believe, ensure the success of the overall project and encourage those from other realms to jump on the bandwagon.

So that's where we are right now. We hope this summary has encouraged you to consider joining with us whenever you feel comfortable doing so. By our next progress report, we expect several of the standing Communities will be working on their Discussion-into-Action agendas and that word of the project and its purposes will have reached a much larger audience.

A bit more housekeeping in the next blog. Then on to discussions of why top universities have such a crucial stake in preserving and protecting Meritocracy as a cornerstone of their influence and viability and why, in different ways, political Centrism and the Baby Boom generation have become lightning rods in the Meritocracy debate.        

Friday, May 9, 2014

Meritocracy Has Eleven Letters, Not Four

by Dr. Ellen Brandt

It takes some pretty convoluted anti-logic to turn the term Meritocracy into something less than wholly admirable. But that's exactly what some political activists have done recently, with motives ranging from sincere-but-poorly-conceptualized to downright retroactive and thuggish.

Let's start by explicating the term Meritocracy. Choose any standard dictionary or thesaurus, and you'll find a definition along the lines of "a system in which able and talented persons are rewarded and advanced" (thefreedictionary.com) or "leadership whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on privilege or wealth" (dictionary.reference.com).

Not very controversial, is it?

In fact, until very recently, the concept of Meritocracy was acknowledged as a central tenet of modern democracies, tied closely to the goal of a class-free society, in which every citizen should be granted an equal opportunity to survive and thrive based on her/his education, experience, intelligence, talent, and hard work.

A Meritocratic system supports education, especially higher education, as a means of unleashing and developing one's natural intelligence and talents.

A Meritocratic system favors those who continue to learn and perfect their skills and talents throughout their lives, acknowledging that most worthwhile accomplishments do not come easily and may require many years of effort and experience to reach fruition.

A Meritocratic system respects and values those citizens, workers, and creators who have taken the time and made the effort to develop their skills and talents, for their own satisfaction and for the greater good of the society in which they live.

Yet there are now various political cadres claiming to be either Progressive or Conservative - with strong emphasis on the "claiming" - who don't like the idea of Meritocracy one bit. That's because deep down, they don't really want a society in which experience, accomplishment, education, and hard work are properly valued. They prefer a society that rewards people who belong to certain groups over people who belong to other groups - although their definitions of which groups to reward vary greatly, based on which biased prisms they're looking through.

What's new quite recently is their daring to deprecate Meritocracy - both the word and the concept - outright, in the process deprecating what America and other modern democracies have been all about since their founding.

Sincere But Poorly-Conceptualized

As we said, some of these attacks seem sincere, just poorly-conceptualized, while others are out-and-out retroactive and thuggish.

In the first category, I'd place the brouhaha, heavy with competing propaganda, about Silicon Valley being a "Meritocracy for white men only."

This highly-publicized "conflict" began with a medium-sized northern California company placing a rug in its lobby proclaiming itself a Meritocratic entity. A group of young feminists took exception to this proclamation-by-floor-covering, stating to every reporter who would listen that the company - and by extension, every tech company in the state - had a terrible record hiring, helping, and promoting women and minorities.

If this is so, by all means, work to correct it and campaign to correct it. (And I wish to state here, as anyone who has ever met me certainly knows, that I was a feminist in my mother's womb and believe wholeheartedly in equality of opportunity in employment, education, the legal system, and everywhere else.)

But the phrase "Meritocracy for white men only" is utterly ludicrous. If a company or industry or other entity favors one sex or one race or one ethnic group or one religion or . . . pretty much any other arbitrary criterion besides the Meritocratic criteria of experience, accomplishment, talent, intelligence, and hard work, it is simply not a Meritocracy, period.

If you wish to attack said company or industry or other entity, do so on the basis of its not being a Meritocracy, rather than attacking the concept of Meritocracy per se, which is the ideal you should want them to embrace.

A similar brouhaha arose recently at Stanford University, where a study revealed that "legacy" applicants  - i.e. the children of alumni - were being allowed into Stanford at "three times the rate of acceptance" of non-legacy applicants.

This revelation led to an outpouring of outrage by commentators at a number of publications, large and small, several once again attacking Stanford as a "Meritocracy for the rich and privileged" - the same mistake the Silicon Valley feminist group made. Once more, there is no such thing as a "Meritocracy for the rich" or a "Meritocracy for the privileged." Systems favoring the rich or the privileged are anti-Meritocracies, using standards that should rightly be scorned and criticized.

The Stanford "legacy" brouhaha, like the tech company floor-covering to-do, belongs in the category of "sincere but poorly-conceptualized" for several reasons - the first being simple statistics.

Only about 5 percent of Stanford applicants have been accepted for admission in recent years, a percentage that also has applied at all eight of the Ivy League schools and similar top-tier universities in the U.S. and other developed nations.

So if "legacy" children of alums are being accepted at three times that rate, that  means that only 15 percent of them are being accepted. Put another way, 85 percent of children of alums are not being accepted - a pretty hefty rate of rejection, especially if you consider that aside from genetics (smart parents tending to have smart children) or "privilege" (attending good high schools and being encouraged to engage in enrichment activies like music, art, and sports), children of alums will probably know the ins and outs of university admissions, having likely attended the (generally free) workshops for potential applicants local alumni groups hold.

Stanford is also a special case, even among top-tier schools, because it includes not only very good graduate schools of law, medicine, and engineering, but also one of the consistently top-ranked business schools in the world. "Legacy" children's parents, therefore, include not only those who attended Stanford as undergraduates, but also those who attended one or more of the prestigious graduate schools. You are talking, then, about an exceptionally well-educated group of "legacy" families - although, again, 85 percent of their children are rejected at the undergraduate level.

Quite aside from poorly-interpreted statistics, several commentators on the Stanford "legacy" brouhaha veered off on a tangent-with-an-agenda, accusing the university - and then, by extension, all top-tier schools - of trading admissions slots for cash contributions by alumni parents.

If this accusation can be proven - at Stanford or anywhere else - by any standard, it is a detestable practice, akin to any sort of bribery, which certainly needs to be stopped.

The way to proceed, however, if one believes the above practice exists at a given university, is to do some rigorous and unimpeachable research which proves beyond a doubt that "legacy" families' progeny are accepted or not accepted at said university based on whether or not a family contributes substantial cash to the school.

By all means, use anecdotal evidence in your study: Sally Smith, "legacy" daughter, whose parents contributed $150 to Stanford's medical school over the past decade, was rejected for admission, despite being valedictorian of her high school; captain of the field hockey, tennis, chess, and debate teams; three-time class president; and an accomplished classical cellist. But Julius Jones, "legacy" son, whose parents contributed $150,000,000 to Stanford's business school over the past decade, was accepted for admission, despite having a C- average in high school, no extracurricular activities to speak of, three stays in drug rehab, and a sealed juvenile justice record.

To be quite frank, I don't think you'll find very many - if any - anecdotal pieces of evidence like the above. Nor do I believe your research is likely to come up with a grand hidden admissions protocol which links a "legacy" family's amount of financial contribution to a top-tier university to the chances of their progeny getting admitted to the school.

But if you do find such a scheme, by all means, reveal it to the world and propagandize about it as loudly as possible. It would be a decisively anti-Meritocratic scheme and would go against the core principles of what a top-tier bastion of higher education should be all about. Alumni and their families would - and should - be angrier about it than anyone else.

Attacks Which Are Retroactive and Thuggish

While the to-dos in Silicon Valley and at Stanford may be classed in the "sincere but poorly-conceptualized" category, some attacks on Meritocracy are blatant, retroactive, and thuggish.

Possibly the most glaring example is occurring right now during the hard-fought and drawn-out Indian election process, in which the concept of "reservations" - or out-and-out quotas - is a major issue among the principal parties.

As its population has become more prosperous and better educated over the past 50 years, India has aggressively embraced Meritocratic principles, favoring its citizens based on their accomplishments, experience, talent, and intelligence, rather than on the circumstances of their birth. And judging by the prominence of Indian nationals in  worldwide academic and entrepreneurial ranks, the concept of Meritocracy has clearly taken hold with a vengeance.

In the past few national elections, however, some prominent politicians have tried to turn Meritocracy into a curse word, claiming that the growing group of well-educated Indians are somehow a threat to the interests of the rural and urban poor and calling for more and more "reservations" - or quota systems - wherever one can put them, in political representation, in hiring, and in academic placement.

In this year's election, the former head of one of India's biggest companies - a company known for hiring and promoting the brightest grads of the best universities - has made front-page headlines, now that he's running for office, by saying he now favors hiring and promoting more people based on their ethnic, religious, and "class" background, rather than on Meritocratic principles.

Being neither Indian nor an expert on Indian politics, I don't wish to comment specifically on whether India is somehow a special case, as this particular politician believes. He told reporters a few weeks ago that, “in India, certain sections of the society, because of historical reasons, were handicapped and thus require a leg up through reservations" - i.e. quotas.

But no matter which country, region, industry, or other entity is in question, I find this kind of thinking extraordinarily backwards-looking and thuggish. Not only does it not promote equality of opportunity, it tends to do exactly the opposite, as groups are pitted against one another, fighting for crumbs, rather than cooperating and seeking consensus on how to grow the economic pie.

Meritocracy, Aye - "Thug-ocracy," Nay

And that may be the real, badly-hidden reason behind every attack on the concept of Meritocracy in recent years: The Super-Wealthy in the vaunted 1 percent - which worldwide is more accurately possibly 1 percent of 1 percent - understand that Meritocracy is an extreme threat to their "Thug-ocracy" of Wealth for Wealth's Sake, just as it has always been.

The "Thug-ocracy" is the main beneficiary, when groups of people within a country, a region, or a world are spurred on to compete with one another, like pit bulls in a dogfight, on the basis of sex versus sex, generation versus generation, ethnic group versus ethnic group, religion versus religion, or tribe versus tribe.

Only when the Meritocratic criteria of education, intelligence, talent, experience, and hard work are properly honored and rewarded does a society have the chance of closing gaps in opportunity, political participation, influence, and income.

That is the goal of a Democracy. And when we forget it, we do so at our very great peril.

After a couple of "housekeeping" posts about the Bring Back the Meritocracy! project and its progress, we'll begin to examine how and why the Baby Boomer generation has become the center of the Meritocracy debate and why helping Boomers regain our financial and professional footing could well be the key to a prosperous world economy for decades to come - as well as the best way to close the worldwide income gap and begin to defeat the "Thug-ocracy" of Wealth for Wealth's Sake.