Meritocracy and Brain Drain

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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Groucho Marx, the famous Jewish-American comedian, once said:

"I would never want to belong to a club which would accept me as a member."

We are in the wake of the downfall of all the major ideologies of the 20th century - Fascism, Communism, etc. The New Order, heralded by President Bush, emerged as a battle of Open Club versus Closed Club societies, at least from the economic point of view.

All modern states and societies belong to one of these two categories: meritocracy (the rule of merit) or oligarchy (the rule of a minority over the majority). In both cases, the social and economic structures are controlled by elites. In this complex world, the rule of elites is inevitable. The amount of knowledge needed in order to exercise effective government has become so large that only a select few can attain it. What differentiates meritocracy from oligarchy is not the absolute number of members of a ruling (or of a leading) class: the number is surprisingly small in both systems. The difference between them lies in the membership criteria and in the way that they are applied.

Granted, in both systems the elites are protective of their turf and they reject, exclude, and punish individualistic mavericks and non-establishment pioneers. While in the past, the elites claimed to be in possession of the sole truth (example: religious institutions) – today they merely monopolize the methodologies of approximating the truth or aspiring to it asymptotically. Thus, universities act as guardians of the scientific method and politicians as the custodians of democracy (or the party). Outsiders are ignored, penalized, ostracized, or even framed.

Still, the meritocratic elite are an open club because said club satisfies four conditions:

  1. The rules of joining it and the criteria to be satisfied are publicly known.
  1. The application and ultimate membership procedures are uniform, equal to all and open to public scrutiny and criticism (transparent).
  1. The system alters its membership parameters in direct response to public feedback and to the changing social and economic environment.
  1. To belong to a meritocracy one needs to satisfy a series of demands.

Whether he (or she) satisfies them or not - is entirely up to him (her).

In other words, in meritocracy the rules of joining and of membership are cast in iron. The wishes and opinions of those who happen to belong to the club at a given moment are of no importance and of no consequence. In this sense, meritocracy is a "fair play" approach: play by the rules and you have a chance to benefit equal to anyone else's. Meritocracy, in other words, is the rule of law.

To join a meritocratic club, one needs to demonstrate that he is in possession of, or that he has access to, "inherent" parameters: intelligence, a certain level of education, a given amount of contribution to the social structure governed (or led, or controlled) by the meritocratic elite. An inherent parameter is a criterion which is independent of the views and predilections of those who are forced to apply it. All the members of a certain committee can disdain an applicant. All of them might wish not to include the candidate in their ranks. All of them could prefer someone else for the job because they owe this "Someone Else" something, or because they play golf with him. Still, they will be forced to consider the applicant's or the candidate's "inherent" parameters: does he have the necessary tenure, qualifications, education, experience? Does he contribute to his workplace, community, society at large? In other words: is he "worthy"?

Granted: these processes of selection, admission, incorporation and assimilation are administered by mere humans. They are, therefore, subject to human failings. Can qualifications be always judged "objectively, unambiguously, unequivocally"? and what about "the right personality traits" or "the ability to engage in teamwork"? These are vague enough to hide bias and bad will. Still, at least the appearance is kept in most of the cases - and decisions can be challenged in courts.

What characterizes oligarchy is the extensive, relentless and ruthless use of "transcendent" parameters to decide who will belong where, who will get which job and, ultimately, who will enjoy which benefits (instead of the "inherent" ones employed in meritocracy).

A transcendent parameter does not depend on the candidate or the applicant.

It is an accident, an occurrence absolutely beyond the reach of those most affected by it. Race is such a parameter and so are gender, familial affiliation or contacts and influence.

To join a closed, oligarchic club, to get the right job, to enjoy excessive benefits - one must be white (racism), male (sexual discrimination), born to the right family (nepotism), or to have the right political (or other) contacts.

Sometimes, belonging to one such club is the prerequisite for joining another.

In France, for instance, the whole country is politically and economically run by graduates of the Ecole Normale d'Administration (ENA). They are known as the ENArques (=the royal dynasty of ENA graduates).

The drive for privatization of state enterprises in most East and Central European countries provides a glaring example of oligarchic machinations.

In most of these countries (the Czech Republic and Russia are notorious examples) - the companies were sold to political cronies. A unique amalgam of capitalism and oligarchy was thus created: "Crony Capitalism" or Privateering. The national wealth was passed on to the hands of relatively few, well connected, individuals, at a ridiculously low price.

Some criteria are difficult to classify. Does money belong to the first (inherent) or to the second (transcendent) group?

After all, making money indicates some merits, some inherent advantages.

To make money consistently, a person needs to be diligent, hard working, to prevail over hardships, far sighted and a host of other - universally acclaimed - properties. On the other hand, is it fair that someone who made his fortune through corruption, inheritance, or utter luck - be preferred to a poor genius?

That is a contentious issue. In the USA money talks. He who has money is automatically assumed to be virtuous and meritorious. To maintain money inherited is as difficult a task as to make it, the thinking goes.

An oligarchy tends to have long term devastating economic effects.

The reason is that the best and the brightest - when shut out by the members of the ruling elites - emigrate. In a country where one's job is determined by his family connections or by influence peddling - those best fit to do the job are likely to be disappointed, then disgusted and then to leave the place altogether.

This is the phenomenon known as "Brain Drain". It is one of the biggest migratory tidal waves in human history. Capable, well-trained, educated, young people leave their oligarchic, arbitrary, countries and migrate to more predictable meritocracies (mostly to be found in what is collectively termed "The West").

This is colonialism of the worst kind. The mercantilist definition of a colony was: a territory which exports raw materials and imports finished products.

The Brain drain is exactly that: the poorer countries are exporting raw brains and buying back the finished products masterminded by these brains.

Yet, while in classical colonialism, the colony at least received some income for its exports - here the poor country pays to export. The country invests its limited resources in the education and training of these bright young people.

When they depart forever, they take with them this investment - and award it, as a gift, to their new, much richer, host countries.

This is an absurd situation: the poor countries subsidize the rich. Ready made professionals leave the poor countries - embodying an enormous investment in human resources - and land this investment in a rich country. This is also one of the biggest forms of capital flight and capital transfers in history.

Some poor countries understood these basic, unpleasant, facts of life. They imposed an "education fee" on those leaving its border. This fee was supposed to, at least partially, recapture the costs of educating and training those emigrating. Romania and the USSR imposed such levies on Jews emigrating to Israel in the 1970s. Others just raise their hands up in despair and classify the brain drain in the natural cataclysms department.

Very few countries are trying to tackle the fundamental, structural and philosophical flaws of the system, the roots of the disenchantment of those leaving them.

The Brain Drain is so serious that some countries lost up to a third of their total population (Macedonia, some under developed countries in South East Asia and in Africa). Others lost up to one half of their educated workforce (for instance, Israel during the 1980s). this is a dilapidation of the most important resource a nation has: its people. Brains are a natural resource which could easily be mined by society to its penultimate benefit.

Brains are an ideal natural resource: they can be cultivated, directed, controlled, manipulated, regulated. It tends to grow exponentially through interaction and they have an unparalleled economic value added. The profit margin in knowledge and information related industries far exceeds anything exhibited by more traditional, second wave, industries (not to mention first wave agriculture and agribusiness).

What is even more important:

Poor countries are uniquely positioned to take advantage of this third revolution. With cheap, educated workforce - they can monopolize basic data processing and telecommunications functions worldwide. True, this calls for massive initial investments in physical infrastructure. But the important component is here and now: the brains. To constrain them, to disappoint them, to make them run away, to more merit-appreciating places - is to sentence the country to a permanent disadvantage.

Comment on Oligarchy and Meritocracy

Oligarchy and meritocracy are two end-points of a pendulum's trajectory. The transition from oligarchy to meritocracy is natural. No need for politicians to nudge it forward. Meritocracy is a superior survival strategy. Only when states are propped artificially (by foreign aid or soaring oil prices) does meritocracy become irrelevant.

So, why did oligarchs emerge in the transition from communism to capitalism?

Because it was not a transition from communism to capitalism. It wasn't even a transition to proto-capitalism. It was merely a bout of power-sharing: the old oligarchy accepted new members and they re-allocated the wealth of the state among themselves.

Appendix: Why the Beatles Made More Money than Einstein

Why did the Beatles generate more income in one year than Albert Einstein did throughout his long career?

The reflexive answer is:

The Beatles were unique: there were few bands as creative and innovative as the Beatles.

But, on second reflection, Einstein was at least equally as unique as the Beatles. He is justly considered the greatest intellect of all time.

Mere rarity or scarcity cannot, therefore, explain the enormous disparity in remuneration between the Beatles and Einstein.

In economics, it is common to say that income disparities reflect differences in productivity. Highly-productive people get better remunerated.

But, are bankers, pop-singers, politicians, and athletes truly more productive that, say, construction foremen and biologists? Bankers and politicians actually destroy wealth more often than not and yet they are by far the best paid professionals!

Then let's try this:

Music and football and films and politics and banking touch upon more lives and affect more people than, say, cosmology. These disciplines are more easily grasped and the barriers to entry are lower. Very little effort is required in order to master the rules of sports, both as a practitioner and as a spectator-consumer. This ready access also accounts for the mass appeal of entertainment - and its disproportionate revenues. In turn, mass appeal translates to media exposure and the creation of marketable personal brands (think Beckham, or Tiger Woods).

The rule seems to be: the higher the number of people affected – the bigger the compensation. Pop singers intrude on the lives of millions, so they make millions.

Yet, surely the Internet is as accessible as baseball, as ubiquitous as banking, as pleasurable as any form of pop art, and as influential as politics. Why did none of the scientists involved in its creation become a multi-billionaire? Why did only youthful entrepreneurs benefit from it?

This is because science and scientists are a special case. By all rights the inventors of the transistor, the universal computer, the hyperlink, the World Wide Web, the polio vaccine, the semiconductor, and relativity and quantum theories (to name but a few) should all have been rewarded handsomely for their earth-shattering – and highly practical – discoveries. Yet, they weren’t. Many of these luminaries struggled to make ends meet throughout their academic careers and lives.

This is because scientists are secretly hated by the multitudes.

People resent the elitism and the arcane nature of modern science. This pent-up resentment translates into anti-intellectualism, Luddism, and ostentatious displays of proud ignorance. People prefer the esoteric and pseudo-sciences to the real and daunting thing.

Consumers perceive entertainers, bankers, politicians, and athletes as "human": they are just "like us", we say. We feel that there is no reason, in principle, why we can't become instant and well-remunerated celebrities, just like they are. Given a modicum of talent and effort, anyone can become a pop singer, a banker, a politico, or a sportsman, the thinking goes. TV shows like “American Idol” encourage these grandiose fantasies.

Not so with science. There are numerous obstacles and barriers to becoming an Einstein, or even an average physicist.

Consequently, science has an austere, distant, inhuman, and relentless image. The uncompromising pursuit of truth provokes paranoia in the uninitiated. Science is invariably presented in pop culture as evil, or, at the very least, dangerous (genetically-modified foods, cloning, nuclear weapons, toxic waste, and global warming come to mind).

Egghead intellectuals and scientists are treated as aliens. They are not loved - they are feared. Underpaying them is one way of reducing them to size and controlling their potentially pernicious or subversive activities.

The penury of the intellect is guaranteed by the anti-capitalistic ethos of science. Scientific knowledge and discoveries should be instantly and selflessly shared with colleagues and the world at large. The fruits of science belong to the community, not to the scholar who toiled  to yield them. It is a self-interested corporate sham, of course. Firms and universities own patents and benefit from them financially - but these benefits rarely accrue to individual researchers.

Additionally, modern technology has rendered intellectual property a public good. Books, other texts, and scholarly papers are non-rivalrous (can be consumed numerous time without diminishing or altering) and non-exclusive. The concept of "original" or "one time phenomenon" vanishes with reproducibility. After all, what is the difference between the first copy of a digitized tome and the millionth one?

Attempts to reverse these developments (for example, by extending copyright laws or litigating against pirates) usually come to naught. Not only do scientists and intellectuals subsist on low wages - they cannot even augment their income by selling books or other forms of intellectual property which are their mainstay products.

Thus impoverished and lacking in future prospects, their numbers are in steep decline. We are descending into a dark age of diminishing innovation and pulp "culture". The media's attention is equally divided between sports, politics, music, and films. One is hard pressed to find even a mention of the sciences, literature, or philosophy anywhere but on dedicated channels and "supplements". Intellectually challenging programming is shunned by both the print and the electronic media as a matter of policy. Literacy has plummeted even in the industrial and rich West.

In the horror movie that our world had become, economic development policy is decided by Bob Geldof, the US Presidency is entrusted to  B-movies actor Ronald Reagan , our reading tastes are dictated by Oprah, and California's future is steered by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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