In this post, which I just wrote, I look at the arguments in the new book by Daniel Markovits. It crystallizes a lot of the issues in the current debate about meritocracy and advances the argument in ways I hadn’t considered before. This is not a review of the book but a teaser to get you to read it for yourself. In it I single out some of his key points and give you some of my favorite quotes from the book. Enjoy.
Daniel Markovits on The Meritocracy Trap
In the last year or two, the media have been filled with critiques of the American meritocracy (e.g., here, here, and here). It’s about time this issue got the critical attention it deserves, since the standard account has long been that the only problem with the meritocracy is that it’s not meritocratic enough. Thus the Varsity Blues college admissions soap opera that has been playing in the press for months now, another case of rich people buying privileged access to credentials they haven’t earned the hard way. That’s an old story of jumping the line and cutting in front of the truly worthy.
But in his new book, The Meritocracy Trap, Daniel Markovits makes a more complex, more interesting, and ultimately more damning critique. The problem with meritocracy, he ways, lies at its very core and not just in its slipshod implementation. It’s a destructive force in modern society, which puts people in the lower 99 percent at a severe disadvantage in the pursuit of social mobility and a good life. But – and this is the less familiar part – it is also damaging to the people in the top group who gain the most financial and social benefits from it. It’s a trap for both groups, and both would be better off without it.
In this post, I want to walk through key parts of the book’s argument and present some of my favorite quotes. Markovits, a professor at Yale Law School, is a very effective writer and the story he tells in not only largely compelling but it’s also compulsively quotable. I hope this teaser will convince you to read the book, which is available in the usual places and also in pirated editions online.
Here’s how he sets up the argument:
Common usage often conflates meritocracy with equality of opportunity. But although meritocracy was embraced as the handmaiden of equality of opportunity, and did open up the elite in its early years, it now more nearly stifles than fosters social mobility. The avenues that once carried people from modest circumstances into the American elite are narrowing dramatically. Middle-class families cannot afford the elaborate schooling that rich families buy, and ordinary schools lag farther and farther behind elite ones, commanding fewer resources and delivering inferior educations. Even as top universities emphasize achievement rather than breeding, they run admissions competitions that students from middle-class backgrounds cannot win, and their student bodies skew dramatically toward wealth. Meritocratic education now predominantly serves an elite caste rather than the general public.
Meritocracy similarly transforms jobs to favor the super-educated graduates that elite universities produce, so that work extends and compounds inequalities produced in school. Competence and an honest work ethic no longer assure a good job. Middle-class workers, without elite degrees, face discrimination all across a labor market that increasingly privileges elaborate education and extravagant training.
The meritocracy thus works at two levels, a hyper-intense winner-take-all competition to get the very best education in an extremely stratified system of schooling coupled with a similarly intense competition in the elite sector of the workforce for the positions at the very top with the most extraordinary financial and social rewards.
This system obviously gives a huge advantage to students who bring the cultural, social, and economic capital that comes from being the children of those who are already in the elite sector. That, as I said, is an old story; no surprise there. But he also shows the price paid by the group at the top. As he puts it,
the rich and the rest are entangled in a single, shared, and mutually destructive economic and social logic. Their seemingly opposite burdens are in fact two symptoms of a shared meritocratic disease. Meritocratic elites acquire their caste through processes that ruthlessly exclude most Americans and, at the same time, mercilessly assault those who do go through them. The powerfully felt but unexplained frustrations that mar both classes—unprecedented resentment among the middle class and inscrutable anxiety among the elite—are eddies in a shared stream, drawing their energies from a single current.
Markovits notes that “For virtually all of human history, income and industry have charted opposite courses.” The rich were idle, living off the land and off the labor of others. The poor were the workhorses of the economy. But today,
High society has reversed course. Now it valorizes industry and despises leisure. As every rich person knows, when an acquaintance asks “How are you?” the correct answer is “So busy.” The old leisure class would have thought this a humiliating admission. The working rich boast that they are in demand.
The result is that, in a dramatic historical reversal, meritocrats at the top of the workforce now work longer hours than the middle or working classes.
In 1940, a typical worker in the bottom 60 percent worked nearly four (or 10 percent) more weekly hours than a typical worker in the top 1 percent. By 2010, the low-income worker devoted roughly twelve (or 30 percent) fewer hours to work than the high-income worker. Taken together, these trends shift the balance of ordinary to elite labor by nearly sixteen hours—or two regulation workdays—per week.
What’s going on here is that in the new meritocracy, top positions go to people who prove their worth not only by accumulating the most highly credentialed skills in school but by demonstrating the greatest dedication to the job. The days of bankers’ hours and white-shoe law firms, with genteel professionals working at a relaxed aristocratic rate, are gone. Take the case of lawyers, which Markovits knows best:
In 1962 (when elite lawyers earned a third of what they do today), the American Bar Association could confidently declare that “there are . . . approximately 1300 fee-earning hours per year” available to the normal lawyer. Today, by contrast, a major law firm pronounces with equal confidence that a quota of 2,400 billable hours “if properly managed” is “not unreasonable,” which is a euphemism for “necessary for having a hope of making partner.” Billing 2,400 hours requires working from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., six days a week, without vacation or sick days, every week of the year. Graduates of elite law schools join law firms that commonly require associates and even partners to work sixty-, eighty-, and even hundred-hour weeks.
The issue is that the meritocrats are claiming the top rewards not as owners of property but as workers using their own human capital. “Unlike land or factories, human capital can produce income—at least using current technologies—only by being mixed with its owners’ own contemporaneous labor.” In order to win the competition, they need to exploit their own labor.
People who are required to measure up from preschool through retirement become submerged in the effort. They become constituted by their achievements, so that eliteness goes from being something that a person enjoys to being everything that he is. In a mature meritocracy, schools and jobs dominate elite life so immersively that they leave no self over apart from status. An investment banker, enrolled as a two-year-old in the Episcopal School and then passed on to Dalton, Princeton, Morgan Stanley, Harvard Business School, and finally to Goldman Sachs (where he spends his income on sending his children to the schools that he once attended), becomes this résumé, in the minds of others and even in his own imagination.
As a result,
Meritocratic inequality might free the rich in consumption, but it enslaves them in production…. A person who lives like this places himself, quite literally, at the disposal of others—he uses himself up…. The elite, acting now as rentiers of their own human capital, exploit themselves, becoming not just victims but also agents of their own alienation.
Of course, it’s hard to feel sorry for the people who win this competition, since their rewards are so over the top.
David Rockefeller received a salary of about $1.6 million (in 2015 dollars) when he became chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank in 1969, which amounted to roughly fifty times a typical bank teller’s income. Last year Jamie Dimon, who runs JPMorgan Chase today, received a total compensation of $29.5 million, which is over a thousand times as much as today’s banks pay typical tellers.
So no one says, “Poor Jamie Dimon.” But one fundamental consequence of the long work hours of the new elite is that it helps justify their high rewards. Not only are they better educated than you are, they also work harder than you do. So how are you supposed to cry foul about where you ended up in life? By not simply cashing in on their credentials but also by exploiting their own human capital, they provide the meritocracy with iron-clad legitimacy.
To make matters worse, meritocracy—precisely because it justifies economic inequalities and disguises class—denies ordinary Americans any high-minded language through which to explain and articulate the harms and wrongs of their increasing…. They become “victims without a language of victimhood.”
Markovits also connects the rise of meritocracy and the anxieties in foments to the politics of the Trump era.
Meritocracy is therefore far from innocent in the recent rise of nativism and populism. Instead, nativism and populism represent a backlash against meritocratic inequality brought on by advanced meritocracy. Nativism and populism express the same ideological and psychological forces behind the epidemic of addiction, overdose, and suicide that has lowered life expectancy in the white working and middle class.
The contrast with Obama is instructive: “Obama—a superordinate product of elite education—embodied meritocracy’s triumph. Trump—‘a blue-collar billionaire’ who announces ‘I love the poorly educated’ and openly opposes the meritocratic elite—exploits meritocracy’s enduring discontents.” As he observes, “False prophets gain a foothold…because deeply discontented people care—often most and always first—about being heard and not just being helped. They will cling to the only ship that acknowledges the storm.”