Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Great Plain Drain

Meritocratic winners debate whether the world is getting better and better,
or whether it is getting worse and worse.

Tomorrow's anticipated World Series opener between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees carries an interesting twist. The starting pitchers, C.C. Sabathia for the Yankees and Cliff Lee for the Phillies, each won Cy Young awards* in 2007 and 2008, respectively, while playing for the Cleveland Indians.

In other words, if you're a Cleveland baseball fan, you probably want to kill yourself.

I'm struck by how similar this situation is to a more widespread and more consequential phenomenon in our country. I witnessed it as a student at Penn, a university which boasts an acceptance pool from all fifty states and many countries besides.

People entering Penn may come from all over, but graduates are not nearly so far-flung. They tend to congregate in the major metropolitan areas of the Northeast and of the West Coast. My dear friend Ben, who returned to his native Minnesota for law school in Minneapolis, is by far the exception.

The result is what some have called the "Problem of Meritocracy:" the nation's smartest are drawn from all over to the coasts, leaving the "flyover states" desolate of leaders and thinkers with perhaps the highest potential. This article puts it aptly, likening the SAT to strip mining:
For the meritocratic system is a method that uses impersonal technology (e.g., the SAT) to help us identify valuable natural resources (bright kids), and then pitilessly removes them from their ecological contexts (local communities), never to return them, thus creating cultural landscapes just as ravaged as the denuded mountainsides of Kentucky coal country.
I am not sure what I think about this issue. If you ask me, the principal advantage in going to the University of Pennsylvania compared to the much-cheaper Penn State University, where one could ostensibly learn the same facts and study the same subjects, is in being surrounded by brilliant friends and classmates. This grouping would not have been possible had we not been brought from hither and yon to the same twelve square city blocks.

In addition, my primitive understanding is that the "knowledge-based economy" into which the United States continues to develop requires collections of really smart people. Take a company like Google for example, whose achievements have made significant improvements in daily life for just about everyone who uses the Internet. Those achievements were all developed by groups of very smart people who likely came from all over.

Yet I also know that a great deal of this coastal congregation amounts to selfish gain rather than the greater good, as a large stack of currency trading books I saw today reminds me. The University instills certain values, but duty and responsibility are not among them, nor anything that acknowledges anyone is responsible for students' success but themselves.

Perhaps the great danger in meritocracy lies here, in the easy bridge it offers to entitlement. Those who have conquered meritocratic establishments do so by definition according to their own achievements. That is probably a better system than the old standby of heredity, but it hides the many factors that students have no control over yet which play crucial roles in their successes.

Since students are led to feel entitled to their standing, nothing inhibits them from adding to that privilege rather than sacrificing for others' benefit. Notable losers in this exchange may be the communities which poured their resources into raising these children to begin with, or anyone not blessed with the same kind of golden ticket.

I have pride in my hometown of Phoenixville, which is doing just fine without me, but to which I would love to contribute meaningfully someday. I know there are countless other locales which are not so lucky, and which could be enlivened greatly by the devoted attention of their native sons and daughters.

Make no mistake. I will be rooting for Cliff Lee to absolutely topple the Yankees hitters, while I hope C.C. Sabathia is himself toppled by the Phillies' bats. But lurking in the back of my mind, as I watch the game with many friends who are lucky in the same way I am, will be a feeling of loss for the Cleveland fans and the large swaths of America which they represent.

*The Cy Young award is given annually to the American League pitcher and the National League pitcher deemed to be the best in his respective league.


LH said...

Nicholas, thanks for pointing me in the direction of your blog post. Pride of place is important, and every community should strive to be as welcoming as possible to as many different kinds of people as possible. However, I have no problem with people moving around, even if it means you have vast disparities between high-agglomeration places and low-agglomeration places. In fact, from an economic development standpoint, I think it is important to not discourage either mobility or clustering, and rather to figure out ways to encourage both: mobility makes for more efficient labor markets (connecting people looking for work with places where that work is needed), and clustering has an exponential effect on productivity in today’s knowledge economy (the top 100 metro areas in the US account for 12 percent of land area and 78 percent of GDP).

We are finishing up some work for a part of the Commonwealth called the Pennsylvania Wilds. Some of the most beautiful nature in all of the US are located in these 12 counties in the north-central part of the Commonwealth. But relative geographic isolation has proven to be a huge disadvantage as we have shifted from a manufacturing-oriented economy to a mechanized and information-based one: these 12 counties account for 23 percent of the Commonwealth’s land area but only 4 percent of its population, 2 percent of its income, and 0.2 percent of its GDP.

That doesn’t mean these places aren’t viable places to live and work; far from it, as many who do so do so out of choice, and enjoy an incredibly rich quality of life. People can choose to live and work wherever maximizes their happiness, and some choose relatively rural places. But when their kids decide they don’t particularly like that lifestyle, and want to go somewhere more urbanized, where there is more economic, social, or educational opportunity, that may be a loss for that rural place (in terms of that young person’s talent and intellect being exported to some other part of the world) but it is a gain for that young person. If it wasn’t a gain for him or her, he or she wouldn’t move away.

Now sometimes, someone decides to return to a place that’s struggling; pride of place has caused him or her to forgo a more attractive lifestyle somewhere in order to return home to make it better. This is very commendable, and it should be particularly common for Christians of all people, given our willingness to practice “downward mobility” for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Consider Nehemiah, who pined for a Jerusalem that was now in disrepair, or Moses, who preferred to suffer with God’s people over all the riches in Egypt. So there is obviously nothing wrong and in fact very much right about people who decide to come back home to a place that the modern economy has largely passed by. But neither is there anything wrong with people making choices to participate in that modern economy, and in doing so find more opportunity to make their maximum contribution to society via their talents and the ways in which aggregating those talents with the talents of others makes for even more productivity.

Wesley said...

Nick: The meritocracy collecting in a central location and abandoning the countryside is a very old phenomenon. Just review how Paris has dominated France in every aspect or London of the British countryside. Not to speak of Rome! I'm not sure the effect in the US is quite as severe as stated as the population shift has been as much to the "sun belt" as to the coasts. There are some dynamic inland cities like Dallas, Denver, Austin, Atlanta, Charlotte, etc. People go where the jobs and the life style are. On balance that means people are leaving New York and Philadelphia for greener pastures elsewhere. Unlike many countries the US is not dominated by a single capital like Lima, Buenos Aires, Lagos or Dacca. There are numerous centers of power in economic and cultural terms and the political center, at least before Obama, played second fiddle in the national economy and culture. In the internet age people will increasingly find possible to be linked to the globe while enjoying a quiet rustic scene. All hail cloud computing! So I don't think the history has yet been written and our society remains pretty much in flux.