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How meritocracy changed our lives into an endless competition
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"The Meritocracry Trap"

How meritocracy changed our lives into an endless competition

In an exclusive interview for Atlantico, Dr. Daniel Markovits explains the concept of meritocracy and its effets on society. Dr. Daniel Markovits has just published "The Meritocracy Trap" (Penguin Press).

Daniel Markovits

Daniel Markovits

Daniel Markovits est professeur de droit Guido Calabresi à la Yale Law School. Il travaille sur les fondements philosophiques du droit privé, de la philosophie morale et politique et de l'économie comportementale.

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Atlantico : You explain in your book The Meritocracy Trap that the meritocratic ideal has gone mad. Can you briefly remind us of the success story of this political and economic concept? What are the reasons for this success? 

Daniel Markovits : Meritocracy was introduced to the United States self-consciously as a way of opening up an effectively hereditary elite to ambitious and talented outsiders. (Although meritocracy’s early history also includes efforts to deploy it as a tool of racial exclusion, as Asher Price has recently discovered was done at the University of Texas). For example, at my own university, Yale, President Kingman Brewster—declaring that he did not “intend to preside over a finishing school on Long Island Sound”—replaced aristocratic with meritocratic admissions and, by this means, dramatically reduced the share of students who were sons of alumni and dramatically increased the share of students who had attended public rather than private high schools. The same changes made equally dramatic improvements in the Yale students’ academic capacities. By 1970, the median Yale student’s score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (which figures prominently in college admissions) would have reached the top 10 percent for the class of 1961, and the class of 1970’s grades at Yale were the highest in the school’s history.

Similar changes transformed all of America’s most elite institutions—not just universities but also professional firms and even corporations. An elite that had remained, through the middle of the 20th century, effectively an aristocratic leisure class, possessing no special skills, special work ethic, or special ambitions, was replaced with a new meritocratic elite, constituted through its training, effort, and accomplishments.

In your opinion, is this ideal at the root of the growth of inequalities in the Western world? How does that disqualify him? 

Rising economic inequality plagues virtually all the rich nations of the world. In the United States, the top one percent now captures roughly twice the share of national income that it did 50 years ago.  

Three causes of rising inequality are especially worth noting. First, fraud or some other form of cheating. Second, capital’s rising domination over labor. And third, elite, or superordinate, workers’ domination over middle-class workers. All these mechanisms appear in virtually every country, but the balance among them differs dramatically from place to place. 

In the United States, the first two causes are familiar and real, but their effects are simply too small – much too small – to account for the enormous increase in top incomes. The shift of income from labor to capital, for example, can explain only about a quarter of the increase in the U.S. top 1 percent’s income share.  The remaining three quarters come from the third cause--an income shift within labor, away from middle-class workers in favor of superordinate workers.

This is where meritocratic inequality comes into play. As elites have become more intensively trained, harder-working, and more competitive, they have also captured increasing incomes and a growing share of national income. A cardiologist, for example, made about 4 times a nurse’s income at the middle of the 20th century but makes over 7 times as much today. At mid-century, a partner at an elite law firm made 5 times a secretary’s income, while a partner makes 40 times as much as a secretary today, and a law firm now exists whose profits-per-partner exceed $5 million per year. In 1960, a CEO made about 20 times the median wage, compared to about 250 times as much today, while the five highest-paid employees of the S&P 1500 (so 7500 managerial workers overall) might collectively take home income equal to 10 percent of the earnings of the entire S&P 1500. Finally, midcentury finance workers were not better paid than the rest of the private sector workforce. Today, they are extravagantly better paid: Goldman Sachs recently established a bonus pool of roughly $10 billion, or $500,000 per professional employee.  And whereas David Rockefeller received a salary of roughly fifty times a typical bank teller’s income when he became chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank in 1969, Jamie Dimon, who now runs JPMorgan Chase, last year received a total compensation equal to about a thousand times as much as today’s banks pay typical tellers. 

Meanwhile, the top jobs draw workers almost exclusively from the most elite colleges and universities. Top bankers, an ethnography of Wall Street observes, are recruited “only from the Ivy League and a few comparable schools like MIT and Stanford;” and four fifths of the partners at the most profitable law firm in America graduated from a law school ranked in the “top five.” More broadly, just 1 in 75 high school dropouts and just 1 in 40 workers with a high school education only will enjoy lifetime earnings equal to the median professional school graduate.

Finally, rich parents then spend their enormous incomes on extravagant educations for their children. Whereas the old aristocrats lacked both the skill and the inclination to train their children—which is why meritocracy was so effective at breaking up the hereditary elites—the new meritocrats have an almost boundless appetite for education.If the difference between what a typical one-percenter and a typical middle-class family invest in their children were put into a trust fund, to be given to the child on the death of the parents, this meritocratic inheritance would amount to a traditional bequest of roughly $10 million per child. Small wonder, then, that the most elite universities in the United States (including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale) enroll more students from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half.

Meritocracy, conceived as the handmaiden of opportunity, has become the single biggest obstacle to opportunity in the United States today. It is the dynastic technology of choice for today’s one percent.

The practices of nepotism, networking, discredit the meritocratic system without ever destroying it. How can this resistance be explained?

Elites do cheat to get and stay ahead. Nepotism and even outright fraud are real and disgraceful: many American universities give an admissions preference to children of their own alumni; and one family recently allegedly paid $6.5 million in illegal bribes to get a child into Stanford.

But these (real, serious) problems distort a system that is, mostly, meritocratic.The student bodies of the best colleges skew so dramatically to wealth because the extravagant educations that rich parents buy for their children work, producing unusually accomplished applicants.  Students whose parents make more than $200,000 per year have SAT scores roughly 250 points higher than students whose parents make $40,000 to $60,000 and about 390 points higher than students whose parents make less than $20,000. Data released by the College Board suggest that, in 2016, more than 15,000 high-schoolers with a parent who held a graduate degree scored over 750on the SAT’s critical reading test (roughly the Ivy League median), compared with fewer than 100 whose parents had not finished high school. 

At the same time, the student bodies at the top colleges are filled with high achievers: Harvard’s median student scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT. And the five highest-ranked law schools collectively enroll about two-thirds of all applicants nationwide whose LSAT scores were in the 99th percentile. These numbers would look very different if corruption and nepotism alone dominated elite admissions.

You also describe in your book the generalized uneasiness created by the meritocratic ideal. How does this affect all social classes, elites included ? 

In all these ways, meritocracy establishes structural barriers that keep middle- and working-class people from getting ahead.  It then adds a moral insult to this economic injury, framing structural exclusion as an individual failure to measure up.  Many of the most profound difficulties faced by the American middle class may be explained by this combination of injury and insult.  The opioid epidemic and other forms of indirect or direct self-harm that have raised middle-class mortality in the United States—producing what Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair”—reflect the burdens of meritocratic exclusion turned inwards, on those who are excluded. The populism and nativism that infect American politics also reflect meritocratic inequality, as one should not expect middle-class anger to lash out any less virulently than it turns in.

Meanwhile, meritocracy’s pitiliess struggle to get and stay ahead harms even the elite that meritocracy appears to favor.  Even though having rich parents has become almost a necessary condition for getting into an elite college, it is far from a sufficient condition—the competition is simply too intense for that.  Stanford University, for example, now admits only about 1 in 20 applicants.  The strains of this competition increasingly overwhelm the rich children who are press-ganged into it.  In a recent study of one Silicon Valley high school, for example, 54 percent of students displayed moderate to severe symptoms of depression and 80 percent displayed moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.

Graduation, for its part, leads to workplace competition no less intense than the gauntlet that elite graduates have just run.  Elite lawyers bill nearly twice as many hoursper year today as they did in 1960; bankers’ hours — a term derived from the 10-to-3 business day once fixed by banks and later used to refer to any light work — have given way to the ironically named “banker nine-to-five,” which begins at 9 a.m. on one day and runs through 5 a.m. on the next. A person who extracts income from his skills by placing himself at the disposal of others uses himself up.

In The Great Leveler, historian Walter Scheidel describes the four conditions that he believes reduce inequalities: war, epidemics, revolutions, cataclysms. What are the chances of getting out of the infernal circle of meritocracy without going through these dramas? 

It is a fool’s errand to make concrete predictions about the future, but Scheidel’s comprehensive account of the past is absolutely chilling. Nor is it an outlier.  Jeffery Winters’s excellent book, Oligarchy, teaches a similar lesson. Concentrated income and wealth are difficult to unwind, and societies that succumb to them do not usually fare well.

Nevertheless, meritocratic inequality is profoundly different from prior cases of concentrated income and wealth in one important way. Meritocratic inequality does not serve even the elite well. This gives some ground for hope.  If elites can be persuaded that it is in their interest to trade some income and status that they do not need in exchange for recovering freedom and authenticity that they need desperately, then they might become allies rather than obstacles in the battle to unwind economic inequality.  

The interview was conducted by Augustin Doutreluingne

Dr. Daniel Markovits has just published "The Meritocracy Trap : How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite" 

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