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Central Planning

December 31, 2010

I’m sure I sounded like a drama queen yesterday – oh boo hoo what’s the use who will publish me.  I have a lot of “rescue fantasies,” like most people: winning the lottery, being “discovered” by some wealthy patron who wants to be a Wagstaff to my Mapplethorpe, and of course having some editor ask me to write an article, rather than the other way around.  I never did deal well with rejection, in any form – best not to try than to risk being slapped down and reminded of my place by some arrogant bastard. 

Especially when rejection takes so damn long that you can spend months getting your hopes up before seeing them dashed.  Someday soon editors will have AIs which will be programmed with their tastes – a database of previously accepted articles or books, with keys to the subject matter, prose style, background and fame of the authors, etc.  We poor authors will then be able to submit our work to a thousand editors at once, and receive instantaneous feedback – no, she doesn’t like that, yes, she might take a look at this, we’ll pass it on to her.  Gone will be the days when “simultaneous submissions” were frowned on – when you had to submit an idea to a single print outlet and wait, and wait, and wait for acceptance or rejection from one gentlemanly establishment before submitting it to another.

All the same, despite the odds, my mind has a life of its own, and while I was reviewing all my Disorderly March postings, I started thinking how I’d organize them if I were to write it all up as an article.  Google’s Marissa Mayer got me going on this whole subject, her hiring/screening process being the absolute outer limit of Transcriptarianism, and what better way to kick off an article than with her and Jim Collins rejecting anyone with less than a 4.0 GPA, with no curiosity as to why this otherwise perfect specimen stumbled in one class, no curiosity about the human story behind the piece of paper.  The question is how to fold my own story (and that of other disorderly marchers like James Marcus Bach) into the overall format.  Many editors hate “me” journalism, for the most part, especially at the sort of publications that might be interested in an article about the limits of metrics as a judgment of a person’s worth.  All the same, I’m not the least bit interested in generating some piece of dry, detached and allegedly “objective” reporting anyway (“When A Reporter asked the congressmen about how many pages he had diddled, the congressman thrashed A Reporter with a cane”).  I’d rather write an article like something by Terry Castle or Elif Batuman if I’m to do it at all.

If I do write it, I’ll have to go back and “rediscover” the roots of Transcriptarianism, which was originally created as a guardian of Meritocracy.  The idea of Meritocracy was to get the “best and brightest” into positions of power in government and industry, replacing the previous selection process, which simply put was based on birth (or what people born rich call “a good background”).  I’m currently reading Austerity Britain, about life in the UK between 1945 and 1951.  There are some holes the story simply doesn’t fill (i.e. the author talks about the decision to devalue the pound in the late 40s but presumes you know enough about economics to already know what that means, why it would be required and what the impact would be), and there are a number of “and that little boy grew up to be” references to people (cricketers, comedians, commentators) we in the US have never heard of.  But the book is well-written, wide in scope and reach, and interesting in many ways.  Take for example the parallels between the election of Obama now and the election of a (really truly) Socialist government in Britain then.  Just as happened to us, many hopes were dashed, as George Orwell noted.

In the social set-up there is no symptom by which one could infer that we are not living under a Conservative government.  No move has been made against the House of Lords, for example, there has been no talk of disestablishing the Church, there has been very little replacement of Tory ambassadors, service chiefs or other high officials, and if any effort is really being made to democratize education, it has borne no fruit as yet.  Allowing for the general impoverishment, the upper classes are still living their accustomed life.

And the advent of “socialized medicine” – the real thing, not the pale copy promised us for sometime in 2014 if no Republican president and/or congress overturns it first – was greeted by conservatives just as it is today.  As NHS architect and Minister of Health Aneurin Bevin said:

‘Pale and miserable lot,’ Bevin called the Tories, ‘instead of welcoming every increase in the health of the nation…they groan at it.  They hate it because they think it spells electoral defeat.’

Nationalized industry, public housing, socialized medicine and the central planners who governed it, willfully ignorant of “facts on the ground” and the needs and wants of the people who had to live with their decisions on a daily basis, were certainly responsible for much of Britain’s economic decay.  But as author David Kynaston notes, much of that decay was also attributable to the “old boy networks” running private industry, often into the ground.  Men of ability were denied promotion because they were Jewish, denied membership in professional organizations because they were “in trade,” and the Old Etonians and Harrovians who were selected as “fit to rule” in boardrooms across the land had received classical educations in Greek and Latin with little or no exposure to science or economics or psychology or sociology.

The story of Pilkingtons glassworks is exemplary.  An engineer named Alastair Pilkington went in search of his roots, as did Sir Richard Pilkington, and thus they met, though they turned out to be no provable relation.  Alastair asked Sir Richard if the company might want to hire an engineer of some intelligence, and after some great Entish debate in the boardroom, it was decided that ‘a member of the Pilkington family, however remote, could be accepted only as a potential family director,” and was thus, and only, hired thanks to his name, and as a “family trainee.”  He then revolutionized the glass-making process, ensuring the future of Pilkingtons, but only because of his “good name.”

At the Courtaulds textile firm, the decision to hire a new chairman was down to P. J. Gratwick, with “long textile experience, much shrewdness, and some enthusiasm for the bottle,” and John Hanbury-Williams, who

knew little or nothing about production technology, despised technical men, remained ignorant of science, and wholly indifferent to industrial relations.

Guess who got the job.

Meritocracy was supposed to ensure that this system was well and truly smashed, and indeed it was.  But in turn it too has grown sclerotic, become an “old boy network” of Ivy Leaguers and math whizzes “wholly indifferent” to the needs and wants of the end users of their products, be those products government programs or software programs. 

So of course the article has to end with a “how to solve this problem” section, in which I can recap a number of the Times’ “Corner Office” interviews with industry titans who use things other than metrics to hire “new blood,” who find a record of at least some failures in life as a key to who you are now, as a sign that you are more flexible, more open-minded, than those who have never failed to ace a test or an interview or an application or a competition. 

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