David Brooks wrong about meritocracy

David Brooks is a national embarrassment. It is still stunning to me that the New York Times allows him to write articles totally devoid of any sort of fact checking. It is one thing to make some ideological point or talk about how something strikes you. It is another to make claims about things that exist in the world. We can check those kinds of claims, but Brooks never does.

Take today’s column in which Brooks just baldly asserts that our system of higher education is meritocratic as a basis to make further tepid, boring, standard points about policies that may alter the particular income distribution of this historical moment (or I mean the natural income distribution that is the result of natural economic laws and not political choices, which is how I suspect Brooks imagines it).

Brooks writes:

One of the features of the Obama years is that we get to witness an enormous race, which you might call the race between meritocracy and government. On the one side, there is the meritocracy, which widens inequality. On the other side, there is President Obama’s team of progressives, who are trying to mitigate inequality. The big question is: Which side is winning?

First, there is our system of higher education, which is like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks up some of the smartest people from across the country and concentrates them in a few privileged places. Smart high school students from rural Nebraska, small-town Ohio and urban Newark get to go to good universities.

As Elias Isquith points out, at no point does Brooks try to substantiate this claim. He words it in a weasely way, and so maybe he thinks that has him covered. But if he seriously believes that elite educational institutions are sucking up the smartest kids regardless of background, he is totally ignorant. In addition to the problems Isquith raises, consider this graph from The Century Foundation:

That’s right: a solid 74 percent of students at top universities come from the richest quarter of households, just 3 percent from the poorest quarter. Also consider this report from Educational Testing Services which found that “about 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at America’s highly selective colleges are white teens who failed to meet their institutions’ minimum admissions standards.” These students are largely gaining “admission through their ties to people the institution wanted to keep happy, with alumni, donors, faculty members, administrators, and politicians topping the list.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg as well. There is so much research on this sort of thing, it boggles the mind that Brooks is not required to account for it in some way. Obviously he is unaware of it. He is clearly not someone who bases his view of things on facts and evidence, but someone at the Times is surely aware of it. And they should hold him accountable for saying things that are directly contradicted by the facts.

That David Brooks is permitted to write utter garbage in the New York Times — and is apparently paid quite handsomely to do so — is the strongest evidence yet presented that the meritocracy he so often writes about does not exist. He is a living refutation of meritocracy, a beautiful real life example of performative contradiction.