In a world of “pay to play”, Meritocracy is a costly Lie

Elites, Education, and America’s bold-faced Entitled bullshit

Kira Leigh
Apr 9, 2019 · 12 min read

I’ll never forget my first introduction to the broader world of the “pay to play” economy.

I was attending the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston as an Art Education undergrad, and opted to take a political history class called The Politics of Power.

Our professor was an older gentleman who reminded me of George Carlin, which is to say he was devastatingly intelligent, and cussed a lot.

He’d consistently go on passionate rants about things that initially sounded like conspiracy theories to me.

He’d talk about ‘the system’ and ‘the man’ as though they were real people I could pop my head out of the classroom to look at and scrutinize. That’s hardly realistic.

To a shell-shocked freshman from a low-income home with a nest-egg from a violent parental divorce, juggling several 5 hour classes, who knows how many hours of homework, hours of commuting daily, and working my ass off for scholarships…of course they’d sound like tin-foil hat shenanigans.

As I got older, the words of my father — who is probably the last person I’d say has any business talking sense these days — came back to me multiple times, in different flavors.

I’ve sat at my favorite Ramen restaurant contemplating just how hard the hosts and waiters worked, and wondered if they had ever had dreams other than cleaning up tables for prickly yuppies who ordered Spicy Miso Ramen and complained about how spicy it was.

“Nice guys finish last” was a flavor of entitlement my father gave out often, as he was neither nice nor entitled to kingship because he thought he was.

It doesn’t mean I didn’t sit there and think about it while sipping my broth.

My partner and I always tip well, knowing many of these young people went into college for the love of a field, and left with the brutal reality of capitalism breathing down their necks.

When we were all moving towards college, we were told some things that ended up not panning out. Of course adapting and overcoming is how we make it through, but financial anxiety lingers for what we thought would happen, and did not.

Young people are chained to astronomical amounts of student loan debt, of course financial anxiety is a thing.

New findings from the New York Federal Reserve reveal that millennials have now racked up over $1 trillion of debt.

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I’m struck by this data, personally.

The fact that people of older generations have more mortgage debt versus student loan debt doesn’t make me swallow the entitled millennial narrative, and it never will.

It makes me swallow the bitter coffee-tinged brew of knowing just why this schism exists: millennials aren’t buying homes, and don’t want more debt on top of what they had to “pay to play” in current economic times for career mobility.

Millennials are ‘killing’ certain industries, like the Diamond Industry or Applebee’s or something, because we just can’t afford to engage with them.

That’s just reality. If you don’t want to believe it, I’m not stopping you from gumming your misinformation like a high-calorie lollipop with low-nutritional value.

My partner has 100k+ in student loan debt. I got off far easier, as I rationed my nest-egg and slammed into every available scholarship so I didn’t have to communicate with a narcissist.

Neither of us had the luxury of taking outside internships, be it because we had to actually work a job, or because we were working the college system to whittle down tuition to an impossibly low number.

I knew when I was in college that economic stuff would go south. I’m not sure how, but it was a feeling in my bones, so I climbed mountains to owe the least amount of money possible.

I remember not sleeping very much, and I remember being in a constant state of financial anxiety. Boston had a high cost of living, and it’s even worse now.

I didn’t have the benefit of rich parents greasing the wheels so I could attend a top college, neither did he.

He was well aware of how much debt he’d end up saddled with, but he was determined that it was worth the risk.

I don’t think he thinks that anymore.

For me, I think it would’ve been smarter to go into business with a slant towards marketing, instead of teaching kids how to express themselves creatively.

But one felt more important to society than the other, and still does.

Even as a small business owner who has toiled via the hustle and does understand the concept of working my ass off to survive in a capitalist society, I find one more inherently valuable.

One matters more. Money is a means to survive. As someone who consults for businesses, I’ll still always think knowledge should be free.

It isn’t.

When the news broke about the scandals surrounding affluent parents buying their kids through the college system…I wasn’t really surprised.

On Tuesday, court documents alleging a major college-bribery scheme described some outlandish behavior on the part of wealthy parents looking to give their children an edge in the admissions process. Allegedly, the parents were open to falsifying learning disabilities, athletic accomplishments, and grades on their children’s behalf, as well as paying millions of dollars in bribes.

I don’t think anyone who’s been paying attention would be surprised — this doesn’t seem like breaking news.

What is news is that it’s finally come to light in a big way, which is good, but business as usual dictates it won’t shift the system enough to rectify the problem.

Money talks and hard-work mostly just walks — or rather, crawls uphill in the snow, naked.

It’s how it is, and I know it as well as I know that 75% of venture backed Startups fail.

Recently I posted up a poorly planned, low-effort graph on LinkedIn discussing income inequality. I wasn’t expecting any traction, it was a throwaway post.

I was surprised by the responses.

There was a lot of push-back there from people arguing the graph was purposefully misleading.

I concede that it was incredibly low effort, and was probably a bit misleading, but I can’t think people really believe Trickle Down Economics works anymore.

I can’t imagine that humans still think the free market is now functional, and that Late Stage Capitalism is not in full swing.

I can’t imagine that companies bitching about millennials killing industries can be seen as anything more than an unwillingness to adapt to consumer demands.

I can’t imagine that human beings would rather have a wall built than pay into a universal healthcare system — that of which we already have an infrastructure in place for — and are fine ignoring 10 year old children with cancer, because somehow those less fortunate than they are do not deserve the dignity of life.

I can’t imagine that humans still cling to these cruel, strange, nonsensical narratives, so I didn’t see the need to explain it.

I didn’t have, and do not have, the mental energy to argue with people staunching situated in semantics when context for my reasoning takes a dissertation.

I did not, and do not have, the mental energy to explain why even small percentages matter when we’re discussing the entire nation’s wealth.

I did not, and do not have, the mental energy to explain that a metaphorical handful of people shouldn’t have more wealth than everyone else.

I don’t have the energy to slog through Reaganomics.

I don’t have the energy to talk about the decoupling of productivity from wages in the 80s-90s.

I don’t have the energy to talk about how many internships in America are illegal.

I could sift through Indeed, LinkedIn’s job portal, and Glassdoor and spot hundreds of them if I sat my ass down to do it.

I just don’t have the energy.

I don’t have the energy to explain, in the way it all deserves to be explained, how America is in a Late Stage Capitalist quagmire, and “pay to play” education is just one symptom of an illness, while smarter people than I are having a hard time curing this societal disease.

If they even want to do that; I’m not sold on that meal yet. I’m pretty convinced the system works as intended, as I eat my $2 bag of croissants from the convenience store.

These are things I’ve studied, but repeating them over and over again won’t change the minds of people who think their lived experience, singular, can overthrow data, studies, studies by economists, and so on and so forth.

Or change the minds of people who’ve bought what the Plutocracy has sold to them.

I concede that there’s been excellent marketing on that front; the greatest lie the devil ever told was that he simply did not exist.

The second greatest lie the devil ever told was that someone’s neighbor is a Welfare Queen and taking all their money, when we know that was fake news when the concept was concocted.

Somehow it seems real now, when it’s honestly just racism. Corporate Welfare is the real issue…why aren’t we paying more attention?

I just want to imagine that people can do better, are willing to do better, and are trying to do better by those around them. I’m a little too idealistic, I think.

America is sick. It’s sick, and it tastes foul, and I’ve known that as a child of parents who were hippies in the 60s.

It tastes foul, and I knew it when I really took in the lessons from the Politics of Power class I enrolled in.

My worldview then was so narrowed by my own experiences with suffering that I couldn’t possible entertain my own privileges.

When I managed to spit that meal out, I was left looking at very many different plates of food.

Many of which many people are forced to eat because it’s all they have, and working harder for a bigger, better meal was given to them as a solution.

When things like the College Bribery Scheme tell us that some people can get a steak without effort.

Especially now that I’m in tech, and I realize that job referrals can slide someone’s nephew into a Director of Marketing role.

This hypothetical person, that we are all aware of exists, gets to learn on the way and “fail up”.

I’ve seen it, you could say it’s my singular experience, but enough people have seen it to warrant a study to create a statistic.

I’m sure someone with enough energy, who is smarter than I am, will quantify it after I’m flowers in tilled soil, and my tombstone says “Marketing Generalist Guru”.

I wish I could say I’m expecting a revolution, and would like to be a part of it.

At this point, I’d honestly just like to grow my business and help train and create success for young people who I know don’t have access to what the affluent have.

Because I didn’t, I recognize it, and so the teacher’s mantle comes on, and we’re here to eat together.

I work with, and have worked for, people who have these Director roles that I don’t understand how to achieve.

I just patently don’t know how to get there without creating the role myself. The hiring process is broken, and ‘culture fit’ seems to be a barrier of entry for a lot of people, whatever that means.

I’m very picky with those I work for, it’s my own version of gatekeeping merit.

As if I get to be the persnickety waitress who denies an entitled yuppie their Ramen, or something equally petty.

Who gets to decide who has more success?

I would love to think hard work gets you the best plate of food, and it has gotten plenty of people excellent meals (that of which I know, and have worked for and with, as I am picky), but the system isn’t built for it.

They’ve gotten here in spite of how the grocery aisles are set up.

I don’t have enough energy to spin up the context behind disenfranchised people of color and discriminatory housing practices, for example, nor do I think it’s appropriate for me to speak for them.

But there’s an added layer there, where I wonder on the flavors of it all, and think on why c-suite employee positions have a dearth of people of color.

I browse these roles I feel simultaneously under-prepared for, and over-qualified for; maybe it’s masochism.

Sort of like a fascination with a meal I can’t eat, because I already went to the wrong store and bought the healthy thing, when I was supposed to magic up a network of schmoozers at an earlier age, and get given a meal that gives me a lifetime supply of Success.

Meritocracy is a costly lie.

But the cost is not in the unfathomable amount of money the affluent parents of these affluent young people have used to give them a head start or even a home-run.

As someone who had a nest-egg in college that I protected like a honey badger in fear of its life, I’m aware it was a boon of privilege.

The dwindling bank account was not the costly lie.

The costly lie is the quality of life, the lack of opportunities, the grit, the grime, the scraping and the ‘hustle’ that everyone else has to go through to get a seat at the dinner table.

While a small handful of people, compared to the greater population, get a free seat built on the funds of their family, which was undoubtedly built at some point on the backs of at the very least exploitative labor...and at the most, extremely dubious means.

The teacher in me is wringing her hands and squinting at this whole sickness as she drinks coffee.

The business person in me is widening her eyes to catch every glimmer of opportunity she can find, like little brownie crisps in a demolished pan of baked goods.

But the human in me, well.

The human in me, really just wonders, how long we’re going to allow our country to operate as a Plutocracy, bolster itself in private interests, accept policies made against the interests of our people, chew on the gristle as we hate our neighbors, blame immigrants, yell at the youth to work harder and for free, turn the other cheek when kids die of cancer because Not With My Money is somehow a righteous sentiment, bend over and take the long dick of a system that has been since sculpted to sponge-up all the wealth to people who would be on Cloud Nine if their lowest-rung workers made $1/hr if they could get away with it.

I’m not sure I can swallow that, even if I lack the energy to fight as I get older.

The only thing that gives me pause to pick a different meal is something radical, and only vaguely rhetorical:

The Hamptons are not a defensible position.

I wonder if we’ll ever have to plate that dish, and if we do, what exactly it’ll look like on America’s dinner table.

Maybe I’ve just watched too many dystopian science fiction movies, or read too many books written by salty, dead Russian authors.

Maybe it’s all the anime I’ve watched about working together to create success for the people around you; as friends, fighting a common foe.

Maybe all the “Tales of” games, with their explicit socio-political undertones (softened by fluffy anime cut scenes) aren’t helping me decouple from the general malaise I feel about where America is.

Maybe it’s engendered in me this exaggerated sense of freedom, justice, humanity, truth and love.

But as I eat my meal today, and think on where so many other people might be right now in their life, how hard they are struggling with their several jobs and their COL not measuring up to what they’re paid, how many Startup hopefuls are busting ass to get ahead, I’m not so sure my headspace is really wrong, persay.

Maybe America’s is.

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Kira Leigh is a snarky marketing nerd, writer, and artist. See her work here and send her a message if you want to work together with her amazeballs team.

Special thanks to for his continued support


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