Yale law professor Markovits presents a reasonable but confusingly structured argument that what in the U.S. “is conventionally called merit is actually an ideological conceit, constructed to launder a fundamentally unjust allocation of advantage.” The elite maintain their status, he writes, not through the possession of merit but through fetishizing their own labor and skills, and sending their children to elite schools that people with less money can’t afford, entrenching a rigid class system. As such, the problems the meritocracy narrative causes are both emotional (especially for the underemployed and out of work) and political (because inequality breeds political divisiveness). Meanwhile, chances for advancement for those who aren’t already rich have dried up drastically in the last 50 years: the system, Markovits argues, consists more and more of “gloomy” and “glossy” jobs—those at the very bottom of the ladder, and those at the very top, with few rungs in the middle. Automation has reduced the number of middle-class jobs on offer, and, in industries such as finance and retail, the disparity between the pay received by higher-income and lower-income workers has grown drastically. Markovits makes some astute observations about this fundamentally American dogma, but in a frequently verbose and repetitive style. Nevertheless, those seeking insight into the landscape of contemporary income inequality will find much of value in his analysis. (Sept.)
Ambitious and disturbing. . . Markovits forcefully interrupts the comfortable bath of self-flattery in which our well-graduated professionals pass their hours.” – New York Times Book Review
“An imaginative new book that will prompt endless debate in the faculty lounge, the country-club tap room, and the family dinner table. . . a book that will jolt and provoke the reading public . . . Markovits produces shocking figures about the yawning wealth gap on leafy campuses.” — The Boston Globe
"The Meritocracy Trap defines a central issue of our age: the rise of new elites who, unlike their aristocratic forebears, seem to have the moral high ground. The system is rigged in a different way, but it’s still rigged all right." – Sunday Times
“We’ve been waiting for the Big Book that explains America's wrong turn. Daniel Markovits has supplied it. The Meritocracy Trap is a sociological masterpiece – a damning indictment of parenting and schools, an unflattering portrait of a ruling class and the economy it invented. Far too many readers will recognize themselves in his brilliant critique, and they will feel a rush of anger, a pang of regret, and a burning desire to remake the system.” —Franklin Foer, author of World Without Mind
“Provocatively weighing in on growing inequality, Daniel Markovits weaves a disturbing tale of merit and social division. Pulling no punches, he warns us that meritocracy is a trap, fetishizing certain skills and endless assessments. Markovitz shows – in exquisite detail – the perverse link between an upper class education and elite jobs and how together they enrich the few, while devaluing and demoralizing the rest.” —Jerry Brown, former governor of California
“At once wide-ranging and rigorous, subtle and penetrating, Markovits’s book is revelatory both in its particulars and in its big picture. Anyone who wants to argue about the merits of meritocracy must take account of this book.” —Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and Law, NYU and author of The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity
“Daniel Markovits has written a bold, brave critique of the meritocracy-backed version of inequality that prevails today. He argues persuasively that meritocracy is destructive and demoralizing for winners and losers alike. Challenging conventional wisdom, Markovits shows that technological change is not a fact of nature that happens to increase the value of highly credentialed workers; instead, the prevalence of credentialed elites calls forth technologies that bias the labor market in their favor and hollow out the middle class. This is a splendid book that should prompt soul-searching among meritocrats.” —Michael J. Sandel, author of What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
“The system is rigged. And the culprit, Daniel Markovits argues, is meritocracy—the same ideal that was supposed to promote fairness. Brilliant, lucid, and urgent, The Meritocracy Trap exposes a national catastrophe.” —James Forman Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Locking Up Our Own
How the myth of achievement through merit alone has created a schism between the wealthy and the middle class.
Markovits (Law/Yale Univ.; Contract Law and Legal Methods, 2012, etc.), founding director of the Center for the Study of Private Law, responds to the much-debated issues of income inequality, middle-class discontent, and the rise of angry populism by mounting an impassioned and well-argued attack against meritocracy: the belief that talent and ambition lead to wealth and status. "The meritocratic ideal—that social and economic rewards should track achievement rather than breeding—anchors the self-image of the age," writes the author. But that ideal, he counters, championed by progressives as a solution to inequality, is "a sham," creating "aristocratic distinctions" that separate the rich from the increasingly frustrated middle class. Nor does meritocracy serve the rich, instead consigning elite workers to the "strained self-exploitation" of long hours at relentless, inhumane overwork that leads to an impoverished "inner life" and "destruction of the authentic self." Markovits, who was educated and has taught at elite institutions, offers compelling evidence that despite gestures toward diversity, wealthy students make up the majority of admissions, producing "superordinate workers, who possess a powerful work ethic and exceptional skills." These workers, who take "glossy" jobs, have displaced mid-skilled, middle-class workers, who are relegated to dismal, "gloomy" jobs that lead to income stagnation. Meritocracy, asserts the author, "debases an increasingly idled middle class, which it shuts off from income, power, and prestige." He offers two far-reaching solutions: taking away private institutions' tax-exempt status unless they expand opportunities for higher education to a broad public, making admission open and inclusive; and payroll tax reform and wage subsidies that would impel businesses, including the health care industry, to hire the "surging supply of educated workers" coming from newly accessible colleges. In medicine, for example, hiring nurses and nurse practitioners could make health care more accessible than hiring a few specialist doctors. Sure to be controversial, the author's analysis and proposals deserve serious debate.
Bold proposals for a radical revision of contemporary society.
Markovits (Guido Calabresi Professor of Law, Yale Law Sch.) ascribes the troubling trends of a shrinking American middle class, the stratospheric incomes and unholy working hours of the economic elite, the rise of enraged populism, and attendant absence of mutual understanding and sympathy to a mid-20th-century shift from hereditary to merit-based advancement in education, wealth, and power. Meritocracy assumes a level playing field, but only the rich have the means to train for competitive colleges and high-skilled jobs, to which they devote all their attention, minus time spent preparing their children for the same. Meticulously documented, this work makes a provocative argument about the roots of growing economic inequality and offers bold solutions. These include tying universities' tax-exempt status to expanded, diversified enrollment; eliminating the income cap on payroll tax and providing wage subsidies; and bending technological innovation to benefit midskilled work. In places, the text is rather dense and repetitive, with examples of comparative data piled on to illustrate points. VERDICT Though it might have been more effective at half the length, this is an important contribution to the debate on economic inequality and of note to policymakers, activists, and scholars.—Janet Ingraham Dwyer, State Lib. of Ohio, Columbus