Monday, June 05, 2017

Our American Demeritocracy

Preamble: You're going to be inclined at first to think this is mean-spirited. As is often the case, I urge you to set aside any kneejerk reactions and think about what I'm saying here.

After batting practice one afternoon I took my 16-year-old grandson to Burger King, where we encountered a queue of cars that stretched well back beyond the drive-through, clogging the entrance to the adjacent strip mall. This struck me odd, as it was 2:45, not normally a peak time in the land of fast food. The reason became clear, however, once we'd inched our way to that familiar first window where the money changes hands. The young man in charge of the transaction stuttered so badly that it took him fully five minutes to confirm our order—one burger, fries—and narrate the exchange of funds. He spent an eternity on the word “bacon” alone. (It was not unlike that classic scene in My Cousin Vinny, where the alternate defense attorney struggles to get through his opening statement, faltering on every consonant.) But there was no mirth in this, even to my normally lighthearted grandson, whose brows just knitted in confusion. Behind us, more cars joined the procession. I wondered if the lad ever worked the dinner shift.

My answer came the following week, on a day when my grandson and I got a later start. We swung by at 5 and the line was twice as long, the same young man clearly recognizable at his post. "So, you want to try Taco Bell?" asked my grandson.

One perceives the wholesome motivations that result in such ill-advised pairings between job and job-holder, but to me, this largess suffers from at least two major flaws. The first is an arbitrariness in our distinctions between disability and inability. Burger King would not likely keep on an employee who spoke flawlessly but dispensed money in a seemingly random manner. To the afflicted, though, a math impairment can be as palpable a hindrance in life as a stutter. We are all limited by our limitations. Indeed, suppose the boy who stutters is a natural at calculus—unlike millions of kids, my grandson included, who require extensive tutelage. Although I don't think anyone would propose granting my grandson special admission to MIT in accommodation of his math struggles, we will fill customer-service slots with employees who cannot deliver adequate customer service (and may even send patrons to competitors). It seems illogical to privilege one deficiency over another simply because it has a name and formal diagnosis.

The larger point is that my drive-through experience is a minor but memorable indication of a meritocracy that has lost its way. Amid our national obsession with “inclusionary” thinking and “being respectful to all,” we are abrogating our duty to uphold and reward excellence as a way of life. Once, excellence was what we were supposed to seek and admire—vocationally, behaviorally, in every sense. America was never a perfect meritocracy, as there was always too much advantage accorded certain classes of people. But at least we had a consensus understanding of which attributes were “optimal” in any given setting, and we incentivized and reinforced such attributes. No longer.

The damage goes far beyond the world of the drive-through. Teachers at all levels face enormous pressure not to fail students (nor merely assign the mediocre grades many earn). This applies even in college, where I teach. The rationale is that we don't want to ding their GPAs for resumé purposes. Few colleges want a reputation for being institutions where students are graded severely (that is, honestly). Grade schools are disinclined to suspend or even discipline the unruly student, lest they be accused of compassion deficit and/or stigmatizing children.

Hence, too: social promotion, diversity-mania, trophies for winners and losers. HR policies are rewritten to enable unmotivated millennials to remain unmotivated and hold their jobs.

In setting after setting, we rethink obvious explanations for dysfunction in order to wash away the stain of failure or worse. The mass-incarceration trope inverts the traditional view of crime by putting the onus on society. Pop culture celebrates out-of-wedlock pregnancies and other infelicitous circumstances that predispose a non-excellent life for most everyday folks outside zip code 90210. The more than one-third of Americans who are clinically obese are exhorted to “love your body,” no matter their weight's impact on their health or the health system itself.

This is why there's much to be said for the Darwinism of pro sports. If you are the best at what you do, you get a job. I hear no call to place short people in the NBA just to be fair, and shortness of stature—unlike stuttering—isn't fixable. If your dream is to play in the NBA and you are 5-foot-3 and not named Muggsy Bogues, you are effectively disabled.

In our zeal to help people like the boy with the speech impediment, we're being unhelpful not only to the folks in line, but to other job seekers who might enable the business to run more like the well-oiled machine Coolidge envisioned in his timeless line, “The business of America is business.” I do not champion a society without compassion. I'm saying that each of us needs to pursue excellence in our individual way, based on the skill set we were given. I would urge a more objective, dispassionate lens on abilities and disabilities in the broadest sense, with no “approved” categories of disability beyond those needed as a safety net for those simply incapable of excellence.

We are all uniquely abled and disabled. The key is to figure out where each person's mix best fits, thus promoting maximum benefit to the individual and society.


Sharona said...

I'm a big fan of teenagers working, but it will be very difficult for this young man to excel in any business if he doesn't seek speech therapy; I hope he will someday. This story was a little heartbreaking.

Steve Salerno said...

I don't disagree about the heartbreak, Sharona, but reality is reality. Business is business, and the general level of customer service is bad enough as it is.

I originally sent this out to my usual newspaper outlets (the WSJ, USA Today) as an op-ed but there were no takers, partly because it sounds "insensitive" (and very un-PC) and partly because in the original version I also referenced a McDonald's in San Diego, where I used to live, that once hired a girl with Down Syndrome in a similar capacity. She's actually the basis for the line in the current story about a math-impaired worker who gave out random amounts in change. The girl had to be fired after a week, and when I asked the owner why, he told me there had been cases where she handed customers $20 bills on a sale where the change should've been mere pennies...this, despite the fact that the register did all the actual math for her. You can't run a business like that.

Jenny said...

My heart breaks a little reading this, too. Is good to hear a little "back story" about the original version. I dislike very much that we are such a business-oriented society. Of course, the so-called bottom line is important and a business will certainly suffer when (for whatever reason) it loses customers. In the case of this Burger King, however, I might be more inclined to tolerate the wait if I had time. But there's the rub: A person who is in a hurry to get somewhere else expects a stop for fast food to be just that: fast. A person who gets in the express lane at the grocery store expects to move through quickly. I get your point, Steve, and yet your disclaimer might not matter to some people who are quick (in a hurry?) to pounce on an alleged discriminatory attitude. Lots to think about here. Thank you for sharing your writing again. This isn't exactly related, but it kind of is – Why We Are Driven to Search for the Truth.

Anonymous said...

It's Rodg again Steve, I agree with you wholeheartedly. The business of America is business. Before Jenny and others attack me for being a callous SOB, as you point out there are certainly jobs for people who don't quite measure up in one way or another so there's no reason to put unqualified people into positions where they can't execute. If you stutter you are unqualified to work the drive-up line. If you can't be understood or speak clear English you should not be working customer service phones, as in those horrid experiences we've all had trying to get satisfaction during IT calls to CSRs based in India or Pakistan. I also read your comment about the girl with Down's syndrome and it's mind blowing. So in the interest of being "good guys" we put intellectually disabled people in jobs where they're set up to fail and give away profits? How does that help anyone!

pinkpearl said...

Jesus Christ. No wonder America is going down the shitter. If America had a decent healthcare and education system, that kid would have had speech therapy YEARS ago. His stutter would have been gone by the time he was a teenager. THAT is the problem, not too much self-esteem and accommodation. Frankly, it's not a good look on YOU that you couldn't get past your own pre-occupations and figure that out.

Steve Salerno said...

Fair comment, Pink. But I've also seen enough of this to know the back-story here.