Dr. Fiona Hill

Is the (dis)United States a meritocracy? Reasonable people can disagree, but put Fiona Hill down as a definitive “yes”.

“Years later, I can say with confidence that this country has offered for me opportunities I never would have had in England. I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement. This background has never set me back in America.”

The Age of Self Promotion

When a person’s image and/or reputation is inflated, sometimes people lament, “Big hat, no cattle.” A lot of people today, like the President of the United States, excel at promoting themselves more than anything else. Thanks to the public’s allegiance to valueless media, we’re making a mockery of merit.

A case study. My July morning routine entails working out, eating breakfast, making a green tea latte, and then settling in to the day’s Tour de France stage which I spend about thirty minutes fast forwarding through.

This year there are three cyclists from the U.S. in le Tour, meaning about 1.5% of the total peloton. One of the U.S. riders is barely surviving the mountain climbs, just making the maximum time cuts. But because we’re living in the Age of Self Promotion, that same rider is starring on the U.S. television coverage, dropping daily broh-heavy “behind the scenes” video segments that add nothing to the event. He seems likable enough because of a goofy personality. And maybe the fact that both of his parents were professional cyclists and he’s bounced back from a horrific accident a few years ago contribute to some of his faux-fame as well.

But even accounting for those extenuating circumstances, the fact that he’s in damn near last place would only matter if we were in an Age of Meritocracy, but we’re not. Increasingly, we’re surrounded by people with really, really big hats. Which makes it tough to see the front of the race.

What I Got Wrong About Professional Golf

I grew up playing golf.

My first job was parking golf carts and picking up range balls at Los Alamitos Golf Course. One benefit of that job was practicing and playing for free. The guy I played behind in high school, Mike Miles, is playing in the US Senior Open right now. Once, another teammate, who just happened to be wearing his golf shirt on an off-day, an act that required serious chutzpa in the pre-TWoods era, told our substitute teacher we had a match and had to leave our 11th grade English class early to warm up. That day we got a few extra holes of practice in on account of her naivete. Who knew at the time we’d both end up being college administrators.

Growing up I used to think that playing professionally would be la ultima. Traveling to exotic places, being on television, being pampered by tournament committees, making mad money, basically living large.

Fast forward to the US Open where I watched a new wave of rookies like Cheng Tsung Pan and Cameron Smith methodically go about their business. With their swing coaches, sports psychologists, nutritionists, and fitness trainers. Pan grew up in Taiwan, spent a chunk of his youth in a Florida golf academy, and starred at the University of Washington. Smith is a 21 year-old Australian who finished fourth after nearly making a “2” on the par 5 18th. On the practice range their ball flight is so consistent it’s mesmerizing. On the greens, their strokes are so silky smooth it’s stupifying. To say these guys got game is an understatement.

The thought I couldn’t shake was that the Tour is like a life saving dinghy floating in the open ocean. For every Pan and Smith that makes it on, two other guys have to be tossed overboard, most likely journeymen in their 40’s. Approximately 500-1,000 guys around the world make a decent living playing professional golf, but at least 50,000-100,000 are seriously pursuing the dream on driving ranges, courses, and tours in Asia, Australia, Europe, South Africa, South America, and Canada. Then throw in NCAA college golf and the Tony Finau’s of the world who bypass college and learn to win on the Web.com Tour and you have a hyper-competitive field of work. Take a breather at your own and your family’s risk.

Every time a PGA journeyman goes to sleep, thousands of guys on the otherside of the world—a younger Pan in Taiwan and a younger Smith in Australia for example—are honing their craft. Professional golf is la ultima, la ultima meritocracy. Every year 90-95% of the players who don’t have any kind of cushion created by victories, have to prove themselves all over again.

The top 50 in the world get a disproportionate amount of the media’s and our attention. Thus, our perspective is grossly distorted. Imagine having a few thousand driven people from all corners of the world strategizing day and night on how to displace you. Then imagine having a family and being on the road two-thirds of the time. Then imagine losing a little confidence with the flat stick (e.g., Michael Putnam, Ernie Els).

It only took me forty years to learn that for the vast majority of journey men and women golfers, it’s an extraordinarily difficult way to make a living.

Chelsea Clinton and the Meritocracy Myth

Yes, I'd be happy to join your board.

After reading a few accounts of Chelsea Clinton’s recent appointment to the Board of InterActiveCorp (IAC), a company that runs sites including Match.com, Ask.com, and Dictionary.com, here’s what I think we’re supposed to conclude.

There’s one winner and one loser.

The obvious winner? C-squared herself. The Wall Street Journal explains. Ms. Clinton will receive an annual retainer of $50,000. In addition, she will receive a $250,000 grant of IAC restricted stock.  

IAC’s stock is up 41% this year. Say she serves for ten years. With stock appreciation that will be well over $1m in income for attending what I suspect are quarterly meetings. Winner, winner, several very nice chicken dinners. She’s currently working on a Ph.D at Oxford. Sure hope they reimburse her for her airfare.

The loser is actually losers. From Alyce Lomax in Daily Finance:

This new appointment is a big — and possibly bad — deal for IAC shareholders.

Boards of directors are charged with protecting shareholder interests, whether many investors realize it or not. These days, plenty of corporate problems — such as out-of-control CEO pay — can be correlated with dysfunctional or flimsy boards that have nothing near an independent spirit that’s willing to challenge management teams.

Now 31, Chelsea Clinton was in her teens during the dot-com bubble and only about 20 years old when it burst, for example. That was a make-or-break time for companies like IAC, but she was probably still pretty preoccupied simply with the process of growing up.

GMI’s Nell Minow commented on Clinton’s appointment on PBS’sNightly Business Report, arguing that the best directors have decades of achievement to speak for them. She also pointed out that IAC’s Diller has a tendency to populate his board with “cronies,” which is just one reason The Corporate Library gives that company a near-failing “D” grade for its corporate governance.

In addition, Diller supported both of Clinton’s parents’ campaigns, which gives shareholders no reason to believe this is the kind of independent director that helps make a robust boardroom. In fact, she sounds a bit dependent on her parents’ careers at this point.

Name-dropping “important” or “known” appointees instead of adding truly experienced directors indicates weak corporate governance and madly waving red flags for shareholders. 

The unreported loser is the notion of meritocracy that the right loves to trumpet. This is the idea that the relative work ethic of U.S. citizens determines their success instead of the color of their skin, their gender, or their parents’ connections. Ironic that a first family of the left disproves one of the right’s foundational ideas.

C-squared’s appointment proves the playing field, that is life in the U.S. in 2011, isn’t level, the starting line of life is staggered, and an individual’s personal capital sometimes trumps others’ smarts and work ethic.