The Competence Bubble

Scott’s epic article Increasingly Competitive College Admissions: Much More Than You Wanted To Know, went viral. At the end, this passage stood out:

I became interested in this topic partly because there’s a widespread feeling, across the political spectrum, that everything is getting worse. I previously investigated one facet of this – that necessities are getting more expensive – and found it to be true. Another facet is the idea that everything is more competitive and harder to get into. My parents’ generation tells stories of slacking off in high school, not worrying about it too much, and knowing they’d get into a good college anyway. Millennials tell stories of an awful dog-eat-dog world where you can have perfect grades and SAT scores and hundreds of hours of extracurriculars and still get rejected from everywhere you dreamed of.

Indeed. Both sides can agree that society has become increasingly competitive and difficult in recent years, whether it’s a much more competitive labor market or getting into a good college or grad school. But also, much more expensive, too, adding to the difficulty. It’s like “why can’t average, able-bodied people of good moral character get good-paying jobs and have a decent middle-class lifestyle without needing a bunch of degrees and debt.”

The media and pundits often push a narrative that society is ‘dumbing-down,’ regressing, or that standards are being lowered, and maybe to some degree they are depending on where one looks, but we also see evidence of increased competitiveness and higher standards. Cramming for AP courses and SATs have become the norm for an increasingly large number of high schoolers. High-stakes testing is also common for New York’s elite public and private primary and secondary schools. A high school grad who gets high AP and SAT scores and a 4.0 GPA is demonstrably smarter and more competent than someone than from generations ago without such scores and credentials.

Right now I think we’re in something of a ‘competence bubble’ of sorts, where competence is valued more than ever as measured by social prestige, wealth, and wages, with ‘social skills’ and ‘people skills’ being less important. This is also related our post-2008 results-orientated economy, in which quantifiable results have become more important than agreeability, as part of the push by corporations towards greater productivity and efficiency. Smart people, because they tend to be more competent, are especially suited for America’s competitive economic and social environment that prizes quantifiable, individual results over ‘collectivist’ traits like social skills.

Of course, one can also ague that diversity initiatives and so-called ‘woke capital’ are examples of corporate policy that punishes competence; however, job positions are still extremely competitive, as are top grad schools. Rather, what is happening is, companies increasingly want employees who are way overqualified, which is good for productivity (because smarter employees learn faster and make fewer mistakes), but possibly makes for boring work.

This can explain why inflation-adjusted economic growth in the US has been so strong since 2009 relative to all other countries, with the possible exception of China. Foreign countries don’t have the same combination of “capitalist-individualism” and a culture that values competence, that is unique to America. Germany, due to high-IQ, is competent, but culturally, it is more collectivist.

I have always rejected the narrative of dumbing-down, because the empirical evidence simply does not support it. Yeah, if you spend your time on Twitter arguing about the latest outrage, yeah the world will seem pretty dumb, but there’s still a lot of intelligence if one seeks it out. Look at the recent headlines about the first ever photograph taken of a black hole. The story behind it is pretty fascinating, and runs counter to supposed dumbing-down.

The passage about the history of medical school and the legal profession, is further demonstrative of increased competence and higher quality (but at the cost of credentialism, and higher prices for consumers):

Anyone who wanted could open up a medical school; profit-motive incentivized them to accept everybody. Medical-schooling was so profitable that the bottleneck became patients; since there were no regulations requiring medical students to see patients, less scrupulous schools tended to skip this part. Dissection was a big part of the curriculum, but there were no refrigerators, so fresh corpses became a hot commodity. Grave robbing was a real problem, sparking small-scale wars between medical schools and their local towns. “In at least 2 instances, the locals actually raided the school to obtain a body. In 1 case, the school building was destroyed by fire, and in another, 2 people, a student and a professor, were killed.” There were no requirements for how long medical schools should last, so some were as short as nine months. But there were also no requirements for who could call themselves a doctors, so students would sometimes stay until they got bored, then drop out and start practicing anyway. Tuition was about $100 per year, plus cost of living and various hidden fees; by my estimates that’s about half as much (as percent of an average doctor’s salary) as medical school tuition today. This situation continued until the Gilded Age, when medical schools started professionalizing themselves a little more.)


Or suppose you wanted to be a lawyer. The typical method was called “reading law”, which meant you read some law textbooks, served an apprenticeship with a practicing lawyer, and then started calling yourself a lawyer (in some states you also needed a letter from a court testifying to your “good moral character”). Honestly the part where you apprenticed with an practicing lawyer was more like a good idea than a requirement. It’s not completely clear to me that you needed to do anything other than read enough law textbooks to feel comfortable lawyering, and then go lawyer. Most lawyers did not have a college degree.