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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Meritocracy Trap’: The rich and the rest

But despite the one-in-a-million, up-from-the-bottom stories we all know and love, equal opportunity was never real. We’re not united by this new system any more than we were under aristocratic rule.

Newland Archer, the lead character in Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Age of Innocence,” belonged to the Gilded Age New York aristocracy of the late 19th century, a milieu which did not dirty itself with industry, but made leisure an occupation. Who’d be sitting with whom at the opera was a pressing concern, and familial proximity to a divorcee was cause for anguish. Newland “worked” as a gentleman lawyer at what would today be a big-name firm, for which he did need a degree. He showed up a few hours a day a few days a week, where his frequent absence was not missed. Whatever billable hours he accrued seem to involve intra-familial affairs. Labor, among Newland’s class, defined subordination.

For admission to Harvard in 1935, a young John F. Kennedy only had to exert himself to respond in five sentences to the question, “Why do you wish to come to Harvard? (“To be a ‘Harvard man,” he wrote, “is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain.”) His breeding ensured him a place.

Today Harvard still gives a leg up to legacy applicants, but even a Kennedy, Bush, Vanderbilt or Roosevelt must submit extensive essay questions — preferably edited by professional writers — stellar SAT or ACT and subject test scores, exemplary AP test scores, a perfect grade point average from a competitive high school, and a host of supplementary materials that are required. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and 13 other elite schools accept less than 10% of applicants.

The lawyers — along with financiers, doctors, consultants and top business management — might have been born on another planet than Newland Archer. They’re never not at the office, and their kids are never not preparing to join them there. Their club, the meritocracy, has replaced and improved on aristocracy.

This system, writes Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits, author of “The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundation Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class and Devours the Elite,” divides American workers into two categories. The meritocrats get the “glossy” jobs — shiny and lucrative, but only superficially satisfying — and the rest of us must take “gloomy” ones, through which workers are deprived of respect, remuneration or status with nothing to look forward to. Everyone’s suffering, and no one’s actually winning.

Goldman Sachs’ “human capital management” is the name for what used to be that elite firm’s personnel department. Human capital itself explains why Markovits sees merit as an equal-opportunity destructive force. Like overworked racehorses who embody the wealth of their overlords, meritocrats will go, go, go unless and until something gives. Their bodies are money. On the flip side of the human capital coin, the gloomy workers don’t just lack skills and education; they lack humanity. If work is about value extraction, those who can extract less value from themselves are, well, less than.

But we’ve grown up putting a proud, patriotic gloss on “meritocracy.” It aligns with our self-image as the land of equal opportunity. But despite the one-in-a-million, up-from-the-bottom stories we all know and love, equal opportunity was never real. We’re not united by this new system any more than we were under aristocratic rule. Meritocracy forces us further and further apart. It ensures both that most people will not measure up, and that the ones who do will feel perpetually insecure about losing their status.

Meritocrats suffer from an unrelenting competition to stay ahead and rear children to be similarly fierce competitors. They find themselves expected to respond to work emails on vacation and are the last arrival to the trading desk at 7 a.m. Sixty-hour weeks sound decadent when 100-hour workweeks are de rigeur. Ten minutes of “quality time” with children squeezed in before bed is the norm, and family dinners a quaint relic. Stories of rescheduling family members’ funerals and of missing weddings and other milestones are a dime a dozen in the meritocratic work world. Physical fitness, on the other hand, confers status, and so companies outdo each other with on-site workout facilities.

Actual wellness is, however, elusive. Office-bound Silicon Valley workers suffer from, of all things, vitamin D deprivation, in a state where the sun’s nearly always shining. Eighty percent of men and 90% of women who work over 50 hours per week state that they’d prefer to work fewer hours. Monetary compensation cannot make up for what they miss out on, or how the hours beat them to a pulp. One unnamed young professional, in Markovits’ telling, compared his income package as, “making three million dollars to fight Mike Tyson.”

Predictably, the training centers for tomorrow’s meritocrats are seeing epidemics of anxiety and depression. Markovits’ young Yale students: “shatter under the intense competitive pressures to achieve that dominate their lives. They are neither dissolute nor decadent, but rather tense and exhausted. . . . They seek meaning that eludes their accomplishments and regard the intense education that constitutes their elevated caste with a diffidence that approaches despair.”

I know a high school junior who is already fully immersed in this world. He just scored 1440 on his SAT, has earned a consistent 4.7 GPA, and racked up an impressive list of extracurricular activities, all to prepare for admission to the Naval Academy, the acceptance rate of which is lower than Harvard’s. His mom tells him she just wants him to be happy.

“Mom,” he responds, “I’ll be happy when I’m retired.”

Middle-class workers’ suffering, on the other hand, is material and existential. They find themselves no longer needed or wanted, shunted further aside with every technological advance that’s touted by everyone else as progress. My immigrant grandfather’s New York taxi business comfortably supported my mother and her sisters in the 1940s and ‘50s. Today he’d be underwater, summarily replaced by Uber and Lyft. My 90-year-old uncle’s membership in the electricians’ union provides him a pension, but these days union membership is at an all-time low.

Markovits says the middle class is experiencing “enforced idleness” along with underpay, lack of status and all the deprivations that derive therefrom.

I’m guessing that the average schoolteacher, nurse, social worker or gig worker with three jobs might not identify much with “idleness.” It’s also not at all clear where the working class, middle class and elite divisions fall economically in Markovits’ view, and I could point to dozens of exceptions to the rules of his core argument.

But though I don’t see much evidence of idleness among the non-elite workforce, I do see the other consequences, especially in many of my former working- and middle-class students from Monument Mountain Regional High School. After leaving the college prep high school track, the majority went straight to work. About a third either attended college briefly or graduated from non-selective schools. The college-goers are now deep in debt, working long hours as line cooks, receptionists, daycare workers, waitresses, bartenders and landscapers, jobs that do not allow them to rent a decent apartment, much less buy a house, in South Berkshire County. If they haven’t left town yet, they are counting the days until they can.

Good jobs in unionized factories, the skilled trades or small family businesses would have been waiting for their grandparents and great-grandparents after high school, some training for which they could receive for free in high school. If not, companies offered extensive on-site training programs. Today even the kids we don’t prepare for college are made to believe they’re preparing for college, because we offer no alternatives. In the meritocracy, there’s the meritocratic way or no way. “It was college or nothing,” is how one of my students viewed his post-high school choices.

If you had taken the college prep high school track, were 23 and, say, working full-time and still crushed by veterinary debt, car payments and college loans for a degree you’re not using, if you had to share a bedroom with your grandparents, how would you feel about yourself?

Well, since we’re the “land of equal opportunity” where “you can be anything,” you’d probably feel pretty bad. Our message is that those who fail to take their piece of the American Dream pie must have failed by virtue of their own shortcomings. Why can’t you pull yourselves up by the bootstraps like you’re supposed to? (In early 2017, the Facebook page for Occupy Democrats featured a few telling comments in this vein.)

Image courtesy Occupy Democrats

The internalization of these messages just might be fatal. The greatest increases in our rising mortality rates are among uneducated, middle-aged white men and women. They die “deaths of despair” through suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol-fueled accidents.

American economic inequality now exceeds that of India, Iran, Ukraine, Vietnam and Morocco. Fairfield County, Connecticut, is more unequal than Bangkok, Thailand. In the 1950s, the average CEO was paid 20 times as much as a line worker. Now that CEO makes more than 300 times as much.

Power and money are concentrated at the top, as are our aspirations and ambition. We don’t have a language for or vision of what a good life might look like outside of what the meritocracy says it is. “Whereas the middle class dominated the mid-century imagination . . . Meritocracy now exiles it from the heart of economic and social life.”

As has been well-documented in recent books like Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids” and Paul Tough’s “The Years That Matter Most,” the gap between middle-class and rich families’ spending on their children’s education, including extracurricular activities, tutoring, test preparation, school tuition and other strategic investments in their “meritocratic inheritance” is the Grand Canyon of unfairness.

Putnam pegged the extracurricular “extras” — apart from school tuition — at a modest $200,000. Markovits attempted to put an accurate dollar value on the sum total of all of a meritocratic family’s possible investments, from birth through college, and pegged it at $10,000,000 per child, over and above what a middle-class family invests in a child. Since these “transfers of human capital” take place while the heirs are children, they are exempt from estate or inheritance taxes. In related news, the finance sector has exploded with the rise of the meritocracy, and today’s “income defense industry” has turned tax avoidance and wealth maintenance into a fine-tuned art form, to the public detriment. We are now in full retreat from what was once a unifying, civic agreement: that we all benefit from an educated, well-trained populace.

Meanwhile, a first-class secondary education might get kids over the first hurdle in the meritocratic race, but students are not cultivating deep concentration or a love of learning. These things are, as Markovits puts it, “becoming historical curiosities.” This is true not only at the elite schools he references, such as Phillips Exeter and Hunter High School in New York, but also in our own economically bifurcated high school. Matt Wohl, long-time history teacher at Monument Mountain, co-teaches Fact and Fiction, an honors-level sophomore English and history class. The class has gotten so popular that it’s been split into two sections. It now enrolls over 70 students. But in recent years, Wohl said, the Fact and Fiction students have showed less and less interest in learning or reading or thinking for its own sake. They just want to know what they have to do to get an A.

He said of his top students: “If you ask them to move a pile of two-by-fours from one side of the room to the other and give them a 98 for it, they’d be just as happy doing that. In fact, they’d be happier doing that than reading Faulkner.” (I believe my college prep students would have happily moved the two-by-fours if I promised merely a passing grade.)

But grades are still the key criteria for success, and academic success cleaves more by class today than by race, with the effect of economic class difference as pronounced as that suffered through racial disadvantage in the Jim Crow era.

For meritocrats, in fact, economic class is the last holdout prejudice. While racial-, ethnic-, gender- and sexuality-based biases are anathema, insults of low-status whites are still socially acceptable, and the speaker need not fear being “cancelled” for uttering them. As Markovits puts it, “Political correctness does not denounce calling rural communities ‘backward,’ Southerners ‘rednecks,’ Appalachians ‘white trash,’ and the bulk of the United States ‘flyover country.’” (Think of Barack Obama’s talk of the people who cling to their Bibles and guns, or Hillary Clinton’s fateful “deplorables” comment.)

While meritocratic universities encourage their black, female, gay and transgender students to embrace their own identities, they can’t do the same with their non-rich students. To become a Harvard student, you’re expected to embrace the Harvard lifestyle. “Meritocratic ideals and their business models require elite universities to overwrite their middleclass students’ original identities and make them elite.” (See “The Privileged Poor” for more on the subject of class erasure.)

In the work world, identity politics demand that meritocrats behave with sensitivity, but this fastidiousness does not extend to other aspects of morality. “Elite society forgives, and even ignores, selfishness, intemperance, cruelty and other long-recognized vices.”

On the other hand, white privilege is not a concept that have-not whites can comprehend, as Markovits points out through the words of an Indiana voter. “You hear privilege and you think money and opportunity, and they don’t have it.”

Which brings us to the really bad news about meritocracy. The last Gilded Age died in the 1929 Wall Street crash that ushered in the Great Depression. What will it take this time? Would four more years of Donald Trump be a comparable catastrophe? Maybe. But he might just be a hero to enough Americans to win anyway, with or without Russian help. As Markovits writes of those left out of today’s American Dream, “They will cling to the only ship that acknowledges the storm.”


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