Back in March, in response to a discussion that unfolded here at W4, as well as a typically thoughtful essay written by Jim Manzi and published in the dead-tree and digital editions of National Review (though not NR Online), I postulated that the intersection of globalization and our cultural superstitions and taboos about intelligence and education was precipitating a legitimation crisis, in which the downward mobility of the below-average, average, and even many of the above-average would collide with fabulist visions of universal upward mobility in the New Economy. Among other things, I wrote that
As regards the new economy of services, high finance, and god-king CEOs, highly remunerative compensation ultimately correlates with cognitive ability - this was the primary thesis of The Bell Curve, for those who remember - and this fact, operating in tandem with deindustrialization and globalization, both increases the rewards accruing to the cognitive elite and decreases returns to the average, who increasingly find themselves in competition with the average masses of nations at much lower levels of economic development. Education can do nothing to alter this reality, inasmuch as cognitive ability is only marginally malleable under environmental influences, if at all. An emphasis upon educational reform in this connection could actually have perverse effects, such as the devaluation of credentials, leading to market demands for ever more credentialization as a condition of employment, and the erection of additional financial barriers to economic advancement, as the demand for higher education drives up the cost, relentlessly. (Snip)
In the end, the circle cannot be squared, and the dilemmas of globalization still hold. Structural factors dictate the exacerbation of the new inequality, with all that this entails, and this because those structural factors have essentially marketized heritable qualities not amenable to amelioration; simultaneously, those structural factors have developed concurrently with an increasing pursuit of efficiency through arbitrage and labour substitution.
Are we not doing that with some of the people who are in college now? And furthermore, aren't we shortchanging them when we fail to make allowances for them in the kind of economy we're building? A public schoolteacher friend back in the 1990s railed against free trade agreements because she said these agreements did not consider the interests of US workers who made their living with their hands and backs. It's very easy, it seems to me, for the university-educated meritocratic elite to assume that an economic order in which symbolic analysts are the paradigmatic worker to construct in total innocence a "rational" system that favors their interests, at the expense of manual laborers who are by no means dumb, but whose intelligence is not geared toward academic achievement. Indeed, is that not what we have done?
The supposition that makes that kind of economic order seem just is the belief that cognition, and improving cognitive skills, is simply a matter of running people through a diploma mill -- and the conviction that anybody who wants to succeed in school badly enough can. Again, this is what you get when those who have been genetically blessed with cognitive capability -- intelligence, in other words -- don't grasp how unearned their advantages are. (Snip)
What I'm talking about is the taboo we have against admitting that some people are smarter than others, and the contemporary American disdain for the dignity of manual labor, and the gnostic egalitarianism of US culture, which holds that we create our own realities by force of will.
This ideology allows those who have the cognitive abilities to succeed in a meritocratic, information-age economy to disavow social responsibility for those who are not as gifted. This is not to say that the ungifted are to be objects of pity, nor is it to say that they have no responsibility at all for themselves. It is simply, I think, to realize that our ideology prevents us from acknowledging certain truths about the way the world is, and ordering our system around reality, not false idealism that ends up breaking people like Ms. L, and turning people like Prof. X into cynics.
Now, it was assuredly not my intention to post an entry comprised largely of quoted sections of other essays, my own and Dreher's. Rather, it was my intention to post such an entry in order to reiterate that this particular confluence of politics, economics, and contemporary superstition is engendering a legitimation crisis; the contradictions are sharpening, as the distance between the Candy Land rhetoric of the globalizers and the cosmopolitans, and the economic substrate, opens into a great fissure, a San Andreas fault in political economy; the contradictions are sharpening, as the gulf between our romantic/gnostic notions of intelligence, aptitude, and educability, and the pitiless realities of IQ and economic opportunity, opens out upon a fathomless abyss. Such contradictions are always resolved; the only questions concern the timing and the means. An earlier resolution, or even a diminution, is to be preferred, as not even the passage of time and the discharge of copious quantities of evasive verbiage can conform the unalterable realities to the fantasy. As regards the means by which a resolution, or diminution, might be effected - well, as I've argued previously, on occasions too numerous to recount, we could sacrifice the ideological illusions of the establishment to the well-being of our people and the greater stability of our representative institutions, or diminish both in order to perpetuate the myth.
There are no prizes, beyond understanding, for those whose prognostications of the course America will pursue prove correct. Well, understanding and a rarefied aesthetic contemplation of the disjunction between ideology and reality, a sort of stupefied disbelief that our illusions have endured as long as they have, coupled with a bemused curiosity as to how long they can be perpetuated.