Tuesday 30 March, 2021

Which number?

Quote of the Day

”When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President; I’m beginning to believe it.”

  • Clarence Darrow

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Little Village | She Runs Hot for Me


A souvenir of the days when cars were powered by a controlled series of explosions.

Long Read of the Day

Stefan Collini: Snakes and Ladders: Versions of Meritocracy

Marvellous long review essay by a master of the genre, reviewing Peter Mandler’s  The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War and Daniel Markovits’s The Meritocracy Trap.

It’s a joy to read — full of gems. Here are a few:

”Where cliché led, could Theresa May be far behind? ‘I want Britain to be the great meritocracy of the world,’ she declared in 2016, ‘a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.’”

“As usual, there is little mention in all this of the people who don’t ‘succeed’, but the clear implication is that, however grim their fate, they ‘deserve’ it: after all, everyone gets a ‘fair chance’, so it’s nobody’s fault but your own if you don’t take advantage of the ‘opportunities’ presented to you. We are asked to believe in a world in which individual agents are in full possession of undivided selves, unshaped by social determinants, and able to realise outcomes simply by willing them strongly enough.”

“In much recent social science, unmasking the sham of ‘equality of opportunity’ has become a familiar five-finger exercise. Study after study suggests that where people get to in life is largely determined by where they start. But the very fact that it is so easy to assemble the evidence for this truth gives the literature on the topic a slightly tired, stale character.”

“If you feel you are being unfairly discriminated against or are the victim of corruption, you may be angry and resentful, but your self-respect can remain intact – indeed, in some cases it can be enhanced. But in a pure meritocracy the losers, who are the majority, cannot apply that balm: the sense of being written off by the accepted rules of the system festers.”

On David Cameron’s enthusiasm for providing “ladders” up which able boys and girls could climb: “Ladders are confining modes of ascent, which don’t leave much room for choice: there is no overtaking and the direction of travel is fixed, rung by rung. Ladder-speak tends to ignore the fact that ladders are used for descending as much as ascending, and has nothing to say about what happens when someone on the way down meets someone on the way up. And of course there will always be some people who prefer to take the lift.”

“One reason university entry has become such a social flashpoint in recent times is that (wealthy) parents struggle with the fact that they can’t directly exercise the power of the purse at this crucial stage in their children’s education.” ….

On Peter Mandler’s apparent approval of ‘academy schools: “But one could tell the story a little differently by looking at the political economy of a process in which private capital, seizing opportunities created by central government, extracts profit by providing what had been a community service, using corporate power to take over more and more schools, and in some cases legally appropriating public assets and property for private gain.”

“The term ‘meritocracy’ soon slipped its original moorings and became used more loosely to indicate any set of social arrangements in which outcomes were, notionally, determined by ability (effort is a more recent emphasis), not by the traditional mechanisms of rank, nepotism, inherited wealth and so on. Contrary to the spirit of Young’s minatory sketch, it has become an overwhelmingly positive term, bound up with what it is to be ‘modern’. The implicit narrative of progress that the term now encodes has proved to be astonishingly impervious to counter-evidence.”

But to get the full effect you have to read the whole thing.

What We Got Wrong About Uber and Lyft

Remember how Uber & Co were going to solve the urban mobility problem and reduce the numbers of people driving round in their own cars? This interesting NYT piece asks why that didn’t play out so well

Here’s what more research is finding: In the past few years, on-demand ride services have been a major factor in increased traffic in U.S. cities, particularly in the downtowns of big cities. And most research is showing that the ride services have also been a significant reason for declining ridership of public transportation, especially buses.

Uber and Lyft have said that people driving themselves are the biggest sources of traffic. That is true, but it doesn’t explain the surge in traffic that the services have added to cities.

So what went wrong?

The answer is what traffic modelling studies — like the San Francisco one, or the series reported in the Boston Globe are suggesting — that wherever ride-hailing and other on-demand services proliferate, so does urban traffic. Or, as the Globe puts it,

These are just some of the unforeseen and unaddressed consequences of technological innovation. We have a habit of not connecting the convenience on one end — the merchandise arriving on our doorstep at warp speed — with the inconvenience on the other. A scofflaw delivery truck, perhaps. You know the one.

It seems that delivery vans don’t get parking tickets in Boston (by special arrangement with the municipality), even though they often block inner lanes and increase congestion.

Public support for trade unions is increasing — in the US!

Apropos the forthcoming poll of Amazon workers.

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