Wednesday, May 26, 2010

13 Meritocracy Myth

We have been focusing on the myth of the American frontier, but this week I want to begin with another myth that has immense power in America: the myth of meritocracy. Meritocracy is the belief that people with talent will be rewarded with positions of power. Each of us probably knows some very smart person who has not gotten the chance to rise to the job she or he deserves, but despite the counter-examples in our own lives, most of us still believe that America is an equal-opportunity employer. We keep getting shocked to discover lingering sexism, racism, age-ism (it's harder for older people to get hired), weight-ism (it's harder for fat people to get hired), old-boy-networking, and other structural prejudices.

America is a country of immense opportunity, but in America's past, some time-periods have offered more opportunities than others. That is why, I think, there is so much interest in the early gold rush, when any hardworking person with a shovel could hope to find gold, instead of the later gold rush, after 1854, when only large corporations with access to immense capital could afford the technology required for hydraulic mining. The idea of meritocracy is part of what's appealing about the whole frontier myth, what Turner called "the opportunity for a competency" available to anyone willing to work hard on America's wide-open land.

In California, the post-World-War-II period was a second gold rush. It was a time of immense growth, a time when an outsider like Carl Karcher could work his way to the top, despite being born to a sharecropper and dropping out of school in 8th grade. Schlosser starts his book with the success stories of outsiders like Carl Karcher and Ray Krok; it's an appealing way to draw readers in. But by this week you have also read about the long hours, limited power, and less-pleasant labor conditions for the teen workers at fast food restaurants. Those are conditions some of you know first-hand. What do you think: is there anything that makes these hardworking teens different from a young Ray Kroc or a young Carl Karcher? Is America's fast-food industry still a meritocracy, where hard workers can rise to positions of power and wealth?

What if Ray Kroc or Carl Karcher were a franchisee, those with $1.5 million to invest but still drastically limited control over their businesses? In chapter 4, the story of Dave Feamster is not as positive a story as the stories of chapter one. Chapter 5 begins with the success story of potato-farmer J. R. Simplot, who made a fortune in the 1940s and 1950s by making smart decisions that got him on the upward-moving escalator of the same expanding (and government-subsidized) postwar economy that helped Karcher and Kroc rise to wealth -- but what about a small farmer today? What about the ranchers we meet in chapter 6, forced to take second jobs, struggling with economic and environmental and political forces that are pushing them towards what Schlosser calls "endangered species" status. Is it a meritocracy for them?

What about the migrant workers in Greeley, Colorado, whom we meet in chapters 7 and 8, living in sparse conditions, working dangerous jobs whose high turnover means that many workers never get health insurance or vacations: can any of them rise to executive status? And what do you think of Schlosser's argument that the government subsidizes corporate meatpacking, both by giving corporations taxbreaks for which they're ungrateful, letting them off the hook of corporate responsibility, and then also picking up the slack of healthcare, housing, schooling, and more that corporations shirk?

Part of the way that Schlosser finds depth in the superficial McDonald's hamburger is by tracing these economic and political ties, introducing us to everyone whose labor goes in to our 99-cent meal. He also draws consistent connections between economics and government. You might assume that cultural studies is limited to studying the culture only, analyzing just the artwork on a Happy Meal container -- but good cultural studies consistently thinks about economics and government and issues of power that are always intertwined with our culture.

So for this week, my major cultural question is about meritocracy. If Ray Kroc or Carl Karcher were born today, do you think they would be able to start a wildly successful restaurant chain? Are the frontier-like economic possibilities still as open as they were for Kroc and Karcher in the 1950s?

Of course, there are many other issues to discuss in the chapters you read this week. I hope you will bring up other issues on our discussion board -- I simply wanted to point out to you that cultural studies has an important economic dimension, that frontiers aren't the only American myth we can question, and that Schlosser's book has changed tone considerably since the first chapter.

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