Friday, January 16, 2009

Anthony Bourdain on the Decline of Meritocracy

I don't usually recommend television shows, but Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" is just too good to keep to myself. When I first saw Bourdain's show, I couldn't stand him. Fortunately, Bourdain is a quickly acquired taste, and by the second show, I couldn't get enough. Some people see Bourdain as a snarky alcoholic who gets paid to go around the world and eat for a living. Others, however, see him as confident America personified--unafraid of the foreign, friendly to all, direct, irreverent, and eager to socialize (preferably where alcohol is involved).

If you, like author Chuck Thompson (Smile When You're Lying), are disenchanted with the sanitized media, check out "No Reservations." In one of his best shows, Bourdain travels to Columbia. In between bites, we are treated to stories about Pablo Escobar, a local rap group, and the evolution of Columbia itself. (Other fans praise the Vietnam show as his best, but I haven't seen it yet.)

Bourdain's funniest moments seem to take place in cold weather. In Sweden, after a night out on the tundra, Bourdain goes on a hilarious 30 second monologue about how he wants to be called "Giver of life," because his cigarette lighter provided fire for his crew. In Iceland, Bourdain is looking forward to an annual party, and when it's nothing like promised, he gets drunk and proceeds to mock everything about the event. At one point, he busts out his lighter in tribute to an Icelandic a capella group. Later, he names a horse Sarah Jessica Parker (she has a long face).

Mr. Bourdain also has a blog.

Bonus: here is a fantastic 2006 interview with him. My favorite excerpts are below:

On Bourdain's intense dislike for Rachael Ray:

Q: Will we see you in a year saying, "Oh, I had drinks with Rachael Ray, and actually, she's all right"?

A: Yeah, right. "After the hot-tub incident, I've changed my mind." You know, listen, like I said, I could be wrong. Unlikely. But maybe she's nice to puppies...[Anyway,] If I ever saw her getting trashed on Old Crow, pistol-whipping a vegan after a bar crawl, I would think, "That's an interesting woman. I would like to know her.

On immigration:

Listen, in 25 years, I don't remember ever seeing an American-born kid of any income level walk into my restaurant, or any restaurant owned by any of my friends, and ask, Do you have a dishwasher job, or a prep job, or a job for a kitchen porter? We're not willing to do it. If somebody else wants to come over here and do it, that's fine with me...

I also like the idea of people from other places coming to our country and multiplying. It makes for better food, higher expectations, more diversity and cuter people. Foreigners should come to our country and have sex with our womenfolk.

On how laws, P.C., and regulations are driving Americans apart and reducing merit-based values:

I think it's great that kitchens are maybe the last meritocracy, the last workplace where men and women can speak to each other honestly, however offensively that might be, where your value is only in how well you do your job and how well you can talk shit back at somebody. I see that as an admirable quality. I don't like the idea of tiptoeing around each other. I think that if you say something stupid and offensive, somebody should get right up in your face and say, "That was incredibly stupid and offensive, and f**k you too!" Once you enforce it, bring in the human resources department, everybody goes home to their own neighborhoods, and we never really talk.

[More on kitchens as meritocracies here (Judy Joo, 1/22/09, WSJ, "Out of the Fire, Into the Frying Pan").]

Author's note: Bourdain's paragraph above really appeals to me. I am usually non-confrontational, so it's hard to tell my stance on most issues. However, despite my generally flexible nature, I am steadfast when it comes to the idea of meritocracy. Judging people based on their work, not their beliefs, should be the norm, not the exception. As a lawyer, for example, I don't care what a judge's political affiliation is, as long as s/he reads the pleadings. I don't even care if I lose, as long as the rationale makes sense. But give me a judge who's lazy, who got his/her job through charisma rather than hard work, and who relies entirely on law clerks, and it's all I can do not to have a Tourette's "incident" during oral argument and an anger-induced aneurysm afterwards.

Unfortunately, many judges, because of the political nature of the appointment process, got their jobs through charisma rather than a widely-acknowledged work ethic. Once on the bench, judges are given highly trained staff who prepare advisory
legal memos on each case. Because of these law clerks--who initially have more overall substantive legal knowledge than the judge--the incentive to read litigants' pleadings is removed. Predictably, most judges lapse into a titular position, where they rubberstamp their clerks' opinions or memorandums of law.

In fact, if you were to put a camera above most judges during oral argument, you'd see only a legal memo prepared by a law clerk. The judge usually doesn't open any of the case files, unless an attorney specifically mentions an exhibit or particular page. Also, a judge knows that if s/he changes a law clerk's proposed opinion, either the clerk or the judge must spend time drafting a brand new opinion. As a result, changing a clerk's proposed opinion creates work (and trouble) for everyone. In this way, the "memo" system fundamentally changes oral argument and the legal system. Rather than seek the truth or a just result, the judge's job becomes corralling the attorneys into the confines of the law clerk's memo.

Inevitably, the "memo" system results in a clash between hard-working lawyers and judges who don't read the pleadings. That's because the "memo" system is fine if you're a bad or lazy lawyer--you get treated the same as a lawyer who's spent hours reading every single case cited in the papers and who knows every detail of his/her case. It's like going to a class with a teacher who doesn't prepare for a lecture and who treats all the kids the same--regardless of whether they did their homework perfectly or didn't bothering opening a textbook. If you're a student in that class, you can't help but be upset.

First, your teacher just got paid taxpayer money for showing up unprepared. Second, your teacher is wasting your time because s/he has nothing to offer. You could have spent the day doing productive, money-generating activities, but you can't, because you have to spend time preparing in case the teacher does have questions, and you have to spend time attending the class. Third, even if the best students don't get discouraged, they are less motivated to do their best. Good students like being pushed--lazy ones don't. Fourth, anyone who cares about the schooling system as a whole should get upset. By failing to work hard, your teacher is incentivizing his/her students to be unprepared or to submit shoddy work. Predictably, everyone starts slouching towards mediocrity, because unprepared teachers discourage students who ask questions or who are passionate about a topic. There's no point in having any substantive interaction anyway, because the unprepared teacher's job isn't to get the truth or the proper result--it's to get the students to be quiet and accept the findings in his/her research assistant's memo. (Some teachers, if they're particularly devious, will try to embarrass vocal students by having arbitrary decorum rules. Such rules allow teachers to divert attention from substantive matters when in a tough spot, while also making well-prepared students appear ill-mannered.) Thus, the purpose of the schooling system--to create an environment that encourages achievement and well-informed debate to maximize accurate results--is perverted, all on the taxpayer's dime. Change teachers to judges, research assistants to law clerks, and students to lawyers, and you might have an accurate metaphor for how our current judicial system works.

To be fair, most law clerks are quite good (almost all of them graduated at the top of their class). They're usually sitting in the back of the courtroom, silently viewing oral arguments. In the current judicial system, good lawyers learn that their job is to divine what the semi-invisible law clerk wants, not the judge. There are at least two major problems with this delegation of judicial work:

1. There is no way for an attorney to question the clerks; in fact, one federal court refused to even give me a clerk's name after I protested the court's refusal to have a hearing.

2. Most clerks usually have no law firm experience, so they don't know much about the actual practice of law. This can result in a new or pusillanimous clerk making a credibility determination based on the size or prestige of a firm rather than the merits of the case. It also results in a system that is disinclined to take any risks, no matter how small. (Better to "split the baby" and award something to each side, even if one side is completely correct. No one will protest too much, except perhaps the client--who is mostly invisible until trial.) Good lawyers quickly learn they need to prepare their clients for settlement--no matter how good or bad the case.

As for judges, they continue to have little incentive to read any of the pleadings. For example, I had one case where a judge got the name of my client's supervisor wrong--even though I had quoted her numerous times in my papers, and her testimony was our main source of evidence. Lest you think this was a routine motion, it was a dispositive motion that eventually dismissed my client's entire case. (This judge's colleague once said the judge isn't enamored with "motion work," and prefers to spend his time on trials. That's fine, except if your law clerk is the only one reading the pleadings, s/he decides whether you have a trial.) I've had a case where a judge pointed to my PO Box mailing address on my pleading caption, thinking I didn't have an office address. (After the first page, my papers actually listed my office address.) I could go on, but I'll spare my readers.

In any case, judging people on their work ethic is the clear solution to solving the timeless issues of racism, sexism, etc. I don't mean we should have a nation of Orwellian Boxers--the result counts, too. But make no mistake--without affirming work ethic as our primary value, we will rely on our prejudices and lesser angels to make decisions, leading to a decline in merit-based progress. Down the road, we'll realize that when meritocracy goes, down goes any nation--and by then, it will be too late.

And on that note, here is a paragraph attributed to Bourdain I can relate to, sans the Mary Jane:

I know there's deep inside (me) some lazy hippie who'd be perfectly happy to lay on the couch, smoke weed and watch The Simpsons all day - I'm really afraid of that guy. I don't like him. I don't want him around. And my whole life is kind of constructed to avoid reverting to that guy: Stay busy. Stay focused. Try not to mess up.

Update on February 4, 2009: I forgot an essential element that needs to accompany work ethic--self-restraint. Without self-restraint, having a wonderful work ethic could mean Germany gearing up for WWII.


Anonymous said...

THe Judy Joo article was hilarious! i loved it. thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

I really liked the Judy Joo article about going from the trading floor to the kitchen!!! Hilarious.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Judy Joo is awesome.