Saturday, November 22, 2014


A recent  piece in the New York Times Jason Weeden and Robert Kuzban tells us that self-interest influences political views.  Along with some uncontroversial examples, there was one that caught my attention:
"Those who do best under meritocracy — people who have a lot of education and excel on tests — are far more likely to want to reduce group-based preferences, like affirmative action."  This didn't sound right to me:  if it were true, universities, especially elite universities, would be centers of opposition to affirmative action.  

Since "affirmative action" can mean a different things to different people, I looked for questions that asked directly about test scores.  There were't many, but I found one in a CBS News/60 Minutes/Vanity Fair survey from 2013.   It asked "Which phrase comes closest to how you would describe the SAT tests that are used for college admissions in the United States:  a successful equalizer, a failed ideal, a waste of time, or a necessary evil"?  The first answer can be regarded as positive, the second and third as negative, and the last one as neutral.  Using this classification, here is the breakdown by education:

                     Pos        Neg    Pos-Neg
less than HS          33   43   23     +10
HS                    25   40   35     -10
Some college          22   44   34     -12
College graduate      21   48   31     -10
Grad School           17   44   39     -22

So people without a high school degree have the most favorable opinions, and people with graduate education are the least favorable.  You get a similar pattern with income:  people with incomes under $30,000 are the most favorable and those with incomes of over $250,000 (admittedly a small group) are most unfavorable.  

Of course, the general point that a lot of opinions have a straightforward relation to self-interest is valid, but as this example shows, there are exceptions.

PS:  I promised an examination of own vote vs. predicted winner in my last post.  Own vote predicted 31 states correctly (that is, there were 31 states in which a majority of the sample said they would vote for X and X won), while the predicted winner actually won in 29 states.  So it was a slight advantage for own vote, but not decisive.    

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]


  1. There is much that is (predictably) ill-informed in that NYT piece, but just to focus on the item that caught your attention, the casual equating - defining, really - of "those who do best under meritocracy" with "people who have a lot of education and excel on tests" is an assertion that requires a deal more substantiation than the authors' ipse dixit.

    Assuming that academia is a meritocracy (and I'll defer to you on the validity of that proposition), it may be the only one where those who succeed are regularly those with lots of education and high test scores. Even setting aside sports and entertainment, where the equation of meritocratic success with academic credentials is obviously false, the examples of successful CEOs who attended West Winnemac State U. and rose through the ranks at their companies are so frequent as to be a cliché. As has been widely reported lately, Google and comparable companies famously downplay academic credentials in their hiring in favor of demonstrated or demonstrable accomplishment (though I suppose it still never hurts to have gone to Stanford).

    A more rigorous definition of meritocracy is surely needed before concluding that those who succeed under a meritocratic system either oppose or support affirmative action, or any other public policy.

    1. I was interpreting them as saying that people who got good grades and did well on tests would think that grades and test scores were a good measure of ability.

      Despite the exceptions you mention, test scores predict earnings to some extent, even after controlling for education. Whether that's a matter of merit is a more difficult question. Maybe Donald Trump would know ("Let me tell you, I'm a really smart guy. I was a really good student at the best school in the country.")