A Tyrant Named Performance

The corona crisis seems to intensify the fading of the American dream.

What the United States is and what it stands for makes for fruitful controversy. But one thing is largely undisputed: The United States is an achievement-oriented society, a meritocracy. Whoever works hard enough will make their way to the top in the United States. From rags to riches is a truly American theme: “Only in America.”

But today the American Dream is beginning to crumble and the term “fading American Dream” has emerged. The rapid economic growth that followed the Great Depression (1929 to 1939) allowed generation after generation of Americans to earn more than their parents. However, this dynamic has slowly come to a standstill over the course of the last decades. Only half of the children born in 1980 are making more than their parents did. “It’s basically a coin flip as to whether you’ll do better than your parents,” said American economist Raj Chetty. A coin flip deciding between success and failure? That doesn’t sound very American.

Essential Workers Are Hit Especially Hard by the Pandemic

The coronavirus crisis seems to have accelerated this tendency, even though the respective figures regarding the crisis are arriving in only dribs and drabs. Inequality regarding health care, education, living situation and employment relationships result in vastly different consequences from the pandemic for different U.S. citizens. Essential workers, whom we heavily rely upon during the pandemic—and who are frequently praised, not only by U.S. politicians—are hit especially hard.

If it weren’t for the daily commitment of workers in grocery stores, transportation, nursing homes, warehouses, etc., the system would collapse under the strain of the virus. Yet, these workers have seen little to no reward. They are hit full force by unemployment, through no fault of their own, and by the gaps in the American health care system and the country’s economic downturn.

Against this backdrop, the works of American philosopher and Harvard Professor Michael J. Sandel are becoming newly relevant. He is not a typical professor but more of a rock star of philosophy, who doesn’t just fill lecture halls—he fills whole soccer stadiums. Or at least, he did until the pandemic began. And he describes the picture of a different America, most recently in his 2020 book “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?”. At Princeton and Yale universities, for example, more students come from families in the top 1% in terms of family income than from families in the bottom 60% of the United States. And this isn’t due to some individuals managing to get their children into the country’s elite educational institutions through means of bribery and corruption.

Systemic Inequalities Remain in Place

Yes, these cases exist. But Prof. Sandel talks about systemic inequalities which remain in place even when all the rules are followed, because children from wealthy families have a clear advantage: They have more stimulating conversations at home, receive private tutoring, go to excellent schools and kindergartens, are able to take trips abroad, etc., etc., etc. All of those things constitute invaluable advantages in the struggle for a coveted place at one of the elite universities later in life.

According to Sandel, successful people like to believe that this success is solely the result of their own hard work. And of course, success is often the result of hard work. But wouldn’t it be possible to look at success through a different lens, for a change? Is it maybe possible that not just a person’s performance but also their fortune of being born into favorable circumstances play into this? Aside from performance ethics, could there be space for modesty ethics as well?

Strictly dividing the world into winners and losers and holding both groups fully responsible for their respective destiny must inevitably lead to anger and frustration. Both wealthy and poor parents in the United States use the same rhetoric with their children regarding climbing the ladder: “If you only try hard enough, you will achieve your goals.” However, due to the system’s logic, one of the groups has incomparably better prospects of success than the other.

During a speech in Nevada, President Donald Trump once said, “I love the poorly educated.” And he knew how to appeal to this voter segment. The frustration of these voters isn’t conjured up, though. It has a very real background: Today, workers in the United States who have undergone only compulsory schooling earn—measured in real wages—less than in 1979!

Against this backdrop, Sandel warns against “meritocratic hubris” and follows Martin Luther King Jr. rather than Trump: “One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity,” said King during a speech in Memphis in 1968, two weeks before he was assassinated.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of these words, giving Prof. Sandel’s observations new relevance: “To eat a little humble pie” would sometimes do us all good. With or without coronavirus.

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