Sunday, February 05, 2012

Meritocracy and Information

Ron Süßkind reports a revealing musing of Larry Summers to the effect that information has probably contributed to inequality by making it possible to pay people what they are worth. I recall a Business Week cover story of a decade or two back which similarly reported that customer service had become so lousy because computers had revealed to businesses just how little our business was worth to them.

If you are the travel scheduler for a major corporation, airlines will anoint your feet with oil and pave your path with gold, but if you are a family travelling with children - not so much. Similarly, the rainmakers of the corporate world are showered with cash, while the faceless worker bots see their salaries driven relentlessly downward.

A meritocratic society, where merit is measured purely by contribution to the profit center, can be a very unequal one indeed. Libertarians say "so be it." Conservatives say "as God intended." Liberals, though, have a more difficult problem - how should the competing demands of liberty and equity - or rather, equality - be balanced?

Pragmatists, like your humble servant, doubt the stability of a strictly meritocratic society where merit is based solely on money - or maybe even of any strict meritocracy. I'm pretty sure computers are not done messing with us yet.