The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, by Daniel Markovits (Penguin Press, 448 pp., $30)

In 1958, the English sociologist Michael Young famously invented the term “meritocracy.” Sixty years later—after a financial crisis, a major recession, record-high inequality, and stubborn racial gaps have led to skepticism about opportunity in America—Young’s formulation is afire. In less than a decade, we’ve seen an outpouring of articles and books on meritocracy’s contribution to America’s ills.  The library includes MSNBC host (and Brown graduate) Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites, Harvard law professor Lani Guinier’s The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, and Cornell economist Robert Frank’s Success and Luck: Good Fortune and The Myth of the Meritocracy; soon to come is Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit.

The Meritocracy Trap, by Oxford-educated, Yale law professor Daniel Markovits, is the latest entry into this crowded arena. Markovits is fully aware of the irony of his resume, given his disgust with the system by which American society chooses its elites, and he’s got lots of company. As economist (yes, Harvard-educated ) Tyler Cowen has quipped: “The best critiques of the meritocracy have come from those with extreme merit.”  I’ll come back to this puzzle later, for it’s one that Markovits’s book, like others in the genre, doesn’t fully explore. 

The current meritocratic system began as an effort to open up a hereditary WASP elite to outsiders—and for a while, as immigrants, minorities, and women earned their way into America’s legacy campuses, writes Markovits, it looked like it was working more or less as intended. In the last few decades, however, the system has morphed into a do-or-die tournament for the prize of an Ivy League degree and a bonus-rich job at a swanky address. Instead of being democracies of talent, Harvard and Yale and their elite cronies are now quasi-exclusive clubs for the children of wealth. Money gives rich parents the means to groom their kids for these clubs as early as infancy with classes, books, and trips to museums meant to enhance kids’ development. They move to wealthy neighborhoods, where schools offer a vast array of (ahem) “enrichment” activities, including test prep and college-essay tutoring. Alternatively, they put their kids through 12 years of $40,000-a-year-plus private schools, whose administrators just happen to be chummy with Princeton admission officers. 

Their efforts pay off for their progeny, but in the harsh competition that is the contemporary economy, they leave everyone else in the dust. Nourished in the hothouse of elite homes and communities, rich children have pulled away from their middle-class counterparts when it comes to academic performance, outscoring them on the SAT by twice as much as middle-class kids outscore poor students. The most elite colleges enroll more students from households in the top 1 percent than from the entire bottom half of the income scale. Those students are first in the pipeline to elite jobs. Top banks go only to the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford for their recruiting.  Top Five law schools are the training grounds for partners at the poshest firms. Meantime, middle-class kids are not only a rare sight on elite campuses; they’re also far less likely to get any college degree. Poor kids do worse still. 

The result, says Markovits, is precisely the sort of dynastic elite that the putatively unbiased SAT was supposed to put out of business. To the dismay of his critics on the left, Markovits is not entirely unsympathetic to the winners of the tournament. The rich used to be indolent, he reminds us. The whole point of wealth was to be freed from toil, while peasants sweated in fields and manor kitchens to serve their betters and eke out a living for their undernourished families. These days, by contrast, the rich work 16-hour days and weekends under immense competitive pressure to close the deal, make partner, and take a conference call with Japanese businessmen. “No prior elite has ever been as capable or as industrious as the meritocratic elite that such training produces. None comes close,” Markovits asserts. Yes, a few actresses and real estate barons try to bribe and cheat their children into the palaces of learning, but most Ivy Leaguers have used their privileged upbringing to make their way into these bastions according to the rules of achievement. Given the expensive grooming required to make it to the top campuses, he implies, a squeaky-clean meritocracy would still favor the rich. 

Much of this is true and valuable, if not entirely new. But Markovits’s worthwhile attempts to understand America’s bifurcated labor market, its soaring inequality, and anemic upward mobility float away into grand theory and emerge as an object lesson in the risks of meritocratic overreach. Markovits attempts nothing less than a revision of Marxist theory to fit a postindustrial economy.  Capitalism’s “classic afflictions,” he argues, have “shifted . . . up the class structure.” Meritocracy has turned the rich into “a superordinate working class” while remaking an ailing middle class into a “lumpenproletariat.” The problem today is not capitalists exploiting labor; rather, the 60-hour-a week rich are “exploiting themselves” and, in the process, “deforming their personalities.” 

It’s impossible to know whether Markovits means to include Ivy League law professors in his psycho-sociology. By focusing on 1-percenters as representatives of the “rich”—Ivy League-trained finance workers, management consultants, and doctors and lawyers in high-end specialties—he advances his theory of a superordinate working class but distorts the reality of contemporary class dynamics.  Most Ivy League graduates are not working at Skadden or McKinsey. Yes, Harvard sees a disproportionate number of its graduates—36 percent, according to a 2017 study—take lucrative finance and consulting jobs. But three-quarters of those students consider those jobs placeholders as they consider what’s next. Over 60 percent chose other paths. If a study of Yale’s Class of 2014 offers insight, the majority of graduates are entering technology—Microsoft is one of the top recruiters at Ivy League schools—Internet startups, sports administration, nonprofits, the arts, and education. Far from exploiting themselves, a good number of these grads seem to be following the popular advice to “find your passion.”

Markovits utters nary a word about the outcomes for graduates of second-tier institutions like Oberlin and Bowdoin (forget Ohio State). Why would he? Few of these folks will be putting $10 million into their kids’ education and enrichments, as he estimates that 1-percenters do. But they also don’t fit into the “middle class” category as evoked by the author. His middle class consists of out-of-work tool-and-die workers and heartland Trump supporters who have no shot at sending their kids to the Ivies. Reading The Meritocracy Trap, you lose any realistic sense of the economic, cultural, and political gap between the educated upper-middle-class and the rest of the country, arguably the country’s biggest divide. It’s the Ivy League-trained 1-percenters against everyone else.

Markovits’s penchant for singlemindedness and ambitious theorizing ultimately makes his book come off as more of a vanity project than a useful addition to the literature on this important topic. By the time the reader is 100 pages in, “meritocracy” has been intoned so many times it attains the status of a mysterious force hovering anywhere and everywhere. It is, apparently, the root cause of income inequality, deindustrialization (“globalization” makes only a rare appearance), automation (which he views as meritocrats’ attempt to protect their own jobs while undermining those of the middle class), Ferraris, concierge doctors, helicopter parents, education-spending gaps, opioid addiction, falling mortality rates, and even political correctness.

Does it occur to the author that meritocratic inequality has also produced The Meritocracy Trap? Whether you find Markovits’s arguments compelling or not, only a small intellectual priesthood of above-average intelligence and learning can grasp them. Like most other works in the genre, this book offers ideas to moderate the harms of our current system for choosing elites; some deserve consideration. Yet no one has a real alternative to academic ability as a filtering device for finding talent in complex analytic jobs. For all his concern about the “near-universal harms” of meritocracy, it’s a safe guess that Markovits himself would seek out a highly ranked cardiologist if he were having chest pains, or the sharpest thinkers if he wanted to edit a collection of essays on, say, what should replace a meritocratic system.

Meritocracy critics are right about one thing: when we use “merit” in this context, we should not confuse it with virtue, wisdom, and common sense. Alas, the eminent professor’s jeremiad only proves the point. 

Photo: vapal/iStock


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