Desert Theory

Come spirit come, our hearts control.
Our spirits long to be made whole.
Let inward love guide every deed.
By this we worship and are freed. (Hymn, "Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire," 3rd verse)
And our spirits do long to be made whole. Even when we understand that we are whole, the world leaves us often feeling that we aren’t.

It’s the disconnect. We don’t feel connected with our neighbors. The fragmentation in the nation’s public political sphere produces a fragmentation in our psyches. We need to feel part of something we’re all in together. Then we are whole. Yet we have lost the sense that we’re all in this together.

As we approach election day 2022, it’s been six years since the 2016 presidential election rocked our world. That election exposed the powerful disconnect in our country. So many of our fellow Americans saw, and see, things so differently from how most of us did and do. The rising meritocracy, by its nature and design, left many behind and, while maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised, we were surprised at the intensity of resentment about that.

So let's think about deservingness. Let's engage our free and responsible search for truth and meaning (which our 4th principle declares we covenant to affirm and promote), and look into our concepts of who deserves what and when – and what better we all deserve.

Come spirit come – our hearts control. Our spirits long to be made whole.


What is your desert theory? No, I don’t mean your theory about a sweet dish at the end of a meal (though "desert" here is pronounced like "dessert"). Nor do I mean your theory about arid regions (though it's spelled like the word for an arid region). Nor do I mean your theory about leaving or abandoning, like deserting one's post. I’m asking about desert in the sense of just deserts – deservingness.

We very commonly talk and think in terms of who deserves what.
“We say that a hard-working student who produces work of high quality deserves a high grade; that a vicious criminal deserves a harsh penalty; that someone who has suffered a series of misfortunes deserves some good luck for a change” ("Desert," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
An athlete might deserve a prize in virtue of having excelled in a competition. A researcher might deserve our gratitude for having perfected a vaccine against a disease. Someone who acts without any regard for the welfare of others may deserve our contempt. The victim of an industrial accident may deserve compensation from her negligent employer. An employee may deserve a promotion in virtue of evident talent, hard work, and years of valuable service. A candidate for office who is conscientious, civic-minded and shares your values and priorities may deserve your vote. All the ways we use a concept of deservingness reflect our implicit desert theory.

So let’s examine a little bit this idea of deservingness. Desert – deservingness – is a kind of fiction, a social imaginary, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have real potency to make big differences in our lives. After all, money is a fiction, a social imaginary, and it certainly makes a big difference. It used to be a shiny yellowish metal that was too soft to be useful, but an implicit agreement arose to regard it as valuable, and so it was. Then it was just slips of paper, and now it’s even more imaginary – but since we have agreed to share this imagination, we have developed clear procedures for when you have it, and how much. The electrons inside of bank computers keep track of each person’s amount. Desert is this kind of fiction.

How deserving you are, and of what, is not nearly as precisely determined as how much money you have. Yet desert does powerfully shape our lives and the ways we treat each other.

Sometimes we say a person deserves something if they are entitled to it. We might say a customer deserves a refund from a merchant if the customer purchased a product that was sold with a guarantee and then the product turned out to be defective. Being entitled to something is one way to deserve it, but that’s not the only way. Entitled means there are rules in place that say what you are to get, but sometimes our sense of what is deserved doesn’t match up with what the rules say. Suppose a wealthy old man dies, leaving behind two grandsons – one of whom is vicious and never treated his grandfather with respect and one was virtuous and always respectful and caring. We would feel that the virtuous grandson deserved to inherit more of the fortune, but the vicious one would nevertheless be entitled to the greater share if that was what the will stipulated. So you can be entitled to some reward even if you don’t deserve it, and you can deserve something without being entitled to it.

Some things, we say, everyone deserves. Everyone deserves fairness, justice, human rights. Then there are other cases where only one or a few people will get the job, or the promotion, or the win, and we might talk about which person deserves it, or deserves it most.

I think a lot of our desert theory is mostly absorbed from the discourse around us. We hear people talk about what so-and-so deserves, and over time we internalize ways of applying the sentiment. But sometimes we do reason with each other about deservingness. It’s not always just an intuition. It can be reasoned about. This is easiest to see when it comes to what we think everyone deserves, just in virtue of being a person.

We have, just in recent centuries, for instance, developed a wide consensus about human rights – as the upshot of a few centuries of discussing and arguing and reasoning about human rights. We now have the UN Declaration on human rights: essentially a statement of what every person deserves. It says that everyone deserves life, liberty, security of person, equal protection of the law, freedom of movement and residence, rest and leisure, education, participation in the cultural life of their community, to have a nationality, to be able to marry and found a family, to own property, to practice their religion, to express opinions, to have a job and be fairly compensated. And everyone deserves NOT to be enslaved, tortured, or subjected to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or arbitrarily arrested. The idea that everyone deserves these things was completely alien to any society 1,000 years ago. The UN declaration on Human Rights is certainly woefully unenforced and widely violated, but that it could be expressed at all, and adopted by official representatives of so many nations, required a lot of discourse and convincing over centuries. Deservingness can be, and sometimes, is argued for, and argued against.


So we come to the argument for meritocracy: that positions of greatest power and prestige should be open to everyone on the basis of merit. The US never had an official aristocracy, but it certainly had an unofficial one: the old-money families got in to the best schools and went out to the best paying and most powerful positions in society. The argument for meritocracy was an argument that people of merit deserved those positions, not people of breeding.

So meritocracy seemed like a great step forward for justice and fairness. Ivy league institutions, from their founding up until about 1960, admitted only white, Christian men, and within this group selected students for breeding. These were schools for the sons of well-established families.

Then in the middle of the 20th century, Harvard President James Bryant Conant and slightly later Yale President Kingman Brewster, choose to abandon their historic role as finishing schools for America’s aristocracy. Daniel Markovits writes:
“Alumni had long believed that their sons had a birthright to follow them to Yale; now prospective students would gain admission based on achievement rather than breeding. Meritocracy — for a time — replaced complacent insiders with talented and hardworking outsiders.”
Surely, a very positive move, right? People with merit deserved to get admitted. People of aristocratic breeding had no special deservingness. By 1970 a fierce merit-based competition had completely replaced the old cordial alliance between the universities and old-money established families.

Today, however, it is past time to reconsider our judgements of deservingness based on merit. We tend to think that merit is the product of talent and effort. We often overlook the importance of a third factor: quality training. Excellence at basketball or ballet, at chess or computer programming, at piano or painting or composing poetry, or at any academic subject is not just a matter of native ability combined with dedication and determination. Whether you spend 4 hours a week or 40 hours a week practicing at a skill, you won’t make as much progress as you will if you also have a skilled and attentive coach guiding your practice.

Further, when it comes to competitive college or professional sports programs, it takes more than A good coach. It takes platoons of coaches AND lots of expensive equipment. I didn’t quite grasp why my university thought it needed to spend $50 million to build a shiny new athletic training facility, but a school apparently can’t be competitive at division I football without it. Resources make a difference.

Because quality training is so crucial, it means that a big part of what admissions departments regard as merit can be bought. So what started out as a move to open up elite institutions to deserving students from the middle- and lower classes now entrenches the advantages of wealth. Expensive private schools pay off.

A typical public high school spends 15 thousand dollars per child per year. Some poorer public high schools spend 8 thousand to 10 thousand dollars per child per year. But the top 20 private schools (as measured by Forbes) average 75 thousand dollars per child per year. This buys results: it buys training, it buys smaller class size and more teacher attention, it buys more talented teachers, it buys careful educational programs. The result is that, while the average middle-class kid’s SAT is 125 points higher than the average score of kids in poverty, the average score of kids whose parents earn more than 200 thousand dollars a year is 250 points greater than the average middle-class kid. Yes, the gap between rich and middle-class is twice the size of the gap between middle-class and poor.

What does your desert theory say about whether the wealthier kids deserve those higher scores?Discounting the few who outright cheated, we can say, yes, they had talent and worked hard. On the other hand, they also had a lot of quality training that wasn’t available to middle- and lower-class kids. The result is that at Ivy league and what are called “Ivy League Plus” schools (the "plus" includes such schools as Stanford, MIT, University of Chicago, Duke, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and Caltech) the proportion of students who come from the top 1% of household incomes is greater than the proportion that come from the entire bottom 50% of household incomes. This comes as the upshot of meritocratic admissions policies that were originally supposed to reverse that very disparity.

Further, what students get when they arrive on campus is more quality training -- much greater resources being spent on them. And the students and their families don’t even have to pay for most of what they get. There’s an enormous public subsidy that results from universities being taxed as charities, with alumni donations being tax deductible and endowments able to grow without being taxed. Princeton’s tax exemption amounts to a public subsidy of $100,000 per student per year. Rutgers’ public subsidy is less than $13,000 per student per year. Nearby Essex Community College has a public subsidy of $2,500 per student per year. We’re pouring vast public resources into further advantaging the already advantaged. What does your desert theory say about that?

And just as the resources expended at elite high schools matter for preparing the students to get into and succeed at elite universities, the resources expended at elite universities matter for preparing students to get into and succeed at the highest-paying jobs. Many of the top law firms and financial institutions will only recruit at a few elite universities – and rarely hire graduates of an average state school.

So that’s one thing for us to think about: that our intuitions about the deservingness of merit often overlook the vastly unequal distribution of quality training.

Now let’s look at another factor. Our desert theory tends to say that working hard increases deservingness. But don’t we also recognize that there’s such a thing as working too hard? After all, it’s not that the children of the elites aren’t working hard for what they get. In fact, overall, they are working too hard. The pressure on the elite kids to do well is inordinate. As Daniel Markovits writes:
“Elite middle and high schools now commonly require three to five hours of homework a night; epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned of schoolwork-induced sleep deprivation. Wealthy students show higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse than poor students do. They also suffer depression and anxiety at rates as much as triple those of their age peers throughout the country. A recent study of a Silicon Valley high school found that 54 percent of students displayed moderate to severe symptoms of depression and 80 percent displayed moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.”
So what does your desert theory say about whether someone deserves what they’re working for if what they’re working for is a sleep deprived, depressed, anxious, unhappy life?

And it’s only getting worse, as the competition is getting more and more intense, and exclusive institutions are getting more and more exclusive. As recently as 1995, the University of Chicago admitted 71 percent of its applicants. In 2019, it admitted less than 6 percent. It’s getting worse.

Then, notes Markovits,
“the contest intensifies when meritocrats enter the workplace, where elite opportunity is exceeded only by the competitive effort required to grasp it. A person whose wealth and status depend on her human capital simply cannot afford to consult her own interests or passions in choosing her job. Instead, she must approach work as an opportunity to extract value from her human capital, especially if she wants an income sufficient to buy her children the type of schooling that secured her own eliteness. She must devote herself to a narrowly restricted class of high-paying jobs, concentrated in finance, management, law, and medicine. Whereas aristocrats once considered themselves a leisure class, meritocrats work with unprecedented intensity.”
It used to be the poor that worked long hours and the rich were the leisure class. Not that that was a good system, but it’s striking that now it’s more often the rich who are working 70, 80 hours a week.

And they are working at a job they aren’t particularly happy at. One might be tempted to say that this is getting what they deserve -- in the sense that it is the punishment they deserve.

Markovits goes on to say:
“Elite workers find it harder and harder to pursue genuine passions or gain meaning through their work. Meritocracy traps entire generations inside demeaning fears and inauthentic ambitions: always hungry but never finding, or even knowing, the right food.”
Moreover, doesn’t your desert theory suggest that there should be some connection between the income that a given job deserves and its actual contribution to society? Yet that connection has been getting weaker and weaker.

Don’t both the losers and the winners of the Meritocratic rat race deserve better than they are getting? The basic conceit of Meritocracy is that those who succeed deserve to. So those in less prestigious positions in society internalize the message that it’s their own fault that they are less-than. They grow resentful of the elite, and, yes, start voting for populist demagogues who articulate resentment against elites. As Markovits notes:
“demagogues and charlatans monopolize and exploit meritocracy’s discontents. Meritocratic inequality therefore induces not only deep discontent but also widespread pessimism, verging on despair.”
Don’t we all deserve better? We all deserve a society with dramatically expanded access to quality training. We all deserve a society where we all have a chance to contribute meaningfully to the overall social good – and where a person’s income bears some relationship to their real contribution to society. We also deserve a society that affords everyone enough rest and leisure for physical and psychological health.

May all that be so.

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