Jeremy Beer has masterfully articulated the ideology of meritocracy and the destruction it wreaks upon the small towns and non-major cities of the nation.  Still, a number of sympathetic readers are beginning to ask: “nice in theory, how to change in practice?”

I think, for many of us, we hope that change will result from a fundamental shift in worldview – particularly what we hold to be valuable, or what we think constitutes “success” or “the good life.”  But, there are other examples taking place right now in our midst, including efforts described in this remarkable article in today’s “Inside Higher Education.”   The article describes philanthropic efforts to encourage talented young people who have completed college – courtesy of a scholarship – to return to their home region,  a coal-mining area of Pennsylvania.  Just these sorts of efforts could be the beginning of a virtuous circle, in which successful businessmen with a strong sense of place and gratitude for what they have inherited will encourage a similar ethic – including the encouragement to the creation of  small, local businesses – thus fostering a similar ethic in a new generation. This was historically the responsibility of the trustees of communities – to bring up the next generation to become good citizens and trustees, some of whom would become the leaders and exemplars of their communities.  At some point, they decided instead that the best thing they could do for their talented young people would be to encourage them to go away.

This new generation has been offered almost NO ALTERNATIVE to embracing a meritocratic, placeless, hyper-mobile, absentee economy and the itinerant “lifestyle” it requires.  These philanthropists may be a catalyst to a fundamental rethinking about what should be valued.   I hope more will pursue avenues to encourage this alternative, whether as a result of theory or practice.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Reframe “meritocracy” to “dollar-ocracy” and you may see why rural areas sell their children for money.

    Devalue the people and replace their value with paper money, then devalue the paper money and replace it with promises.

    The value of people lies in what they can do for the world with their hands and minds, not the money they can make. If we can get back to seeing money as a tool of a side-effect(the economy) of living, then perhaps we can find the value of a person again. The coming Depression may just do that, but it is going to be a hard road to a “world made by hand” when so many have so few thoughts about how their needs are really met. Pushing a button or driving a tractor doesn’t produce food. Hope isn’t a plan and Panic isn’t a solution, but they’re about all we’ve got.

  2. This new generation has been offered almost NO ALTERNATIVE to embracing a meritocratic, placeless, hyper-mobile, absentee economy and the itinerant “lifestyle” it requires. These philanthropists may be a catalyst to a fundamental rethinking about what should be valued. I hope more will pursue avenues to encourage this alternative, whether as a result of theory or practice.

    One might hope that a rise in telecommuting persons who are no longer bound to a desk in an office building might be just the very corrective we’re looking for in this case.

  3. I think this problem is self-correcting.

    The talented flowed into Florida’s “means cities” because they largely went into the fluff industries of the bubble (investment banking, management consuting, dot coms, etc.). Now that the bubble is over, the fluff will go away and the talent will go elsewhere. One of the things you will note is that Florida’s “means cities” tend to have high taxation and considerable regulation. No one is about to build a new semiconductor fab in the Bay Area any more. Much of the manufacturing (especially small companies that are the real source of job creation) are fleeing high cost, high tax places like California for “flyover” places like Utah, Nevada, Montana, and the like. I really think we will see an economic resurgence of “flyover” country.

    Another thing I noticed about my hometown is that people who left it 20 years ago to pursue careers and what not often come back to either buy or start businesses that they would not be able to do had they not left in the first place. Thus, their leaving (and then returning) has allowed them to create more economic value for the place than they would have had they never left. This effect is also not mentioned in the article.

    Instead of simply complaining about “meritocracy”, why not come up with constructive ideas to attract talented individuals to these small town areas? Telecommuting is one. Beefing up the local schools and universities is another. They could get the universities to establish branch campuses (WSU has done this in Washington state) and/or offer coursework through the internet so that kids do not have to leave home to get university education. They can offer inducements and tax breaks for businesses and investment to flow into these region. They could even establish a venture capital fund to attract entrepreneurs to these areas. A possibility is to implement a rural version of Jack Kemp’s “free enterprize zones”. There are many things states and local areas can do to attract capable people.

    Instead of complaining about “meritocracy, why not think up constructive ways to create more opportunities in these places so that talented people don’t have to leave to achieve their full potential. The issue is not one of values, but one of creating the proper incentives.

  4. How about stopping the “robbing the hinterlands” pattern that cities (and city states) have engaged in for millennia? Young people will go where the money is. Decentralize money!

  5. I think a good first step toward reorganizing society is abandoning the public schools. Let’s face it, if you want to seperate children from the community, start by seperating them at an early age from their families and confining them to ugly buildings, often outside of town where nothing of any consequence is happening. Schooling also, by design, asserts that strangers accredited by distant authorities know best how you should spend most of your time. The structure of modern American life is basically that principle scaled up to a national level.

    The homeschooling movement has, unfortunately, had a fierce sectarian streak to it but I believe it’s a viable antidote for the dissociative tendencies of communities. It allows learning to take place in the context of a community beginning with the family than the neighborhood, than the town or city.

    By the way, kurt9, why are Patrick and Jeremy accused of complaining when they carefully analyze the symptoms of a diseased society? Is your doctor complaining if he discusses symptoms of an illness you are exhibiting?

  6. This new generation has been offered almost NO ALTERNATIVE to embracing a meritocratic, placeless, hyper-mobile, absentee economy and the itinerant “lifestyle” it requires.

    I am a perfect example of this generation with no alternative you describe. I was raised in a relatively thriving small town, and did well in school. I can recall no time when anyone (teachers, guidance councilors, even parents) ever suggested that I should take into account “location” when deciding a career path. Only “vocation” ever entered into the picture – the only important point in determining your future happiness was the sort of work you did. So, I chose a vocation (engineering) which inevitably pushed me into the cities where most engineering jobs are.

    Years later, now having kids, I recognize what good life opportunities we’re missing by not living in the town where my father & sister (and her family) now live. I respected my teachers & parents – if they had suggested that “location” might as important as “vocation” in making decisions, I’m sure I would have listened, and I like to think I might have made a different choice.

    As it is now, we’re having to think hard about ways in which I can abandon my career of 10 years, and find ways of making a living in that small town. Would have been much easier to start there in the first place. I hope the work you’re doing here might help some towns & their leaders to reconsider how they teach and what ethic they instill in the coming generations of young people.

Comments are closed.