Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite

Rate this book
A revolutionary new argument from eminent Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits attacking the false promise of meritocracy 

It is an axiom of American life that advantage should be earned through ability and effort. Even as the country divides itself at every turn, the meritocratic ideal – that social and economic rewards should follow achievement rather than breeding – reigns supreme.  Both Democrats and Republicans insistently repeat meritocratic notions. Meritocracy cuts to the heart of who we are. It sustains the American dream.
But what if, both up and down the social ladder, meritocracy is a sham? Today, meritocracy has become exactly what it was conceived to a mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. Upward mobility has become a fantasy, and the embattled middle classes are now more likely to sink into the working poor than to rise into the professional elite. At the same time, meritocracy now ensnares even those who manage to claw their way to the top, requiring rich adults to work with crushing intensity, exploiting their expensive educations in order to extract a return. All this is not the result of deviations or retreats from meritocracy but rather stems directly from meritocracy’s successes.
This is the radical argument that Daniel Markovits prosecutes with rare force. Markovits is well placed to expose the sham of meritocracy. Having spent his life at elite universities, he knows from the inside the corrosive system we are trapped within. Markovits also knows that, if we understand that meritocratic inequality produces near-universal harm, we can cure it. When The Meritocracy Trap reveals the inner workings of the meritocratic machine, it also illuminates the first steps outward, towards a new world that might once again afford dignity and prosperity to the American people.

448 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2019

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Daniel Markovits

7 books45 followers

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
517 (28%)
4 stars
676 (37%)
3 stars
433 (24%)
2 stars
131 (7%)
1 star
39 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 298 reviews
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
September 2, 2020
A Sociological Curate’s Egg

Meritocracy is, according to Markovits, the only game in town. It’s a rigged game, of course, in which winners win because they have won before. Thomas Piketty’s analysis of the inevitability of capital concentration applies as much to social capital as it does to monetary and physical wealth. Advantage is given to the advantaged. To those who have will be given more. This is the argument of The Meritocracy Trap. But I think there is a less visible if no less desperate game that is culturally just as important. Not taking this into account makes the book myopic and misleading.

Markovits believes that everyone plays, and that everyone loses in his game. According to him, Meritocracy means “middle-class children lose out to rich children at school, and middle-class adults lose out to elite graduates at work.”But also, “Meritocracy entices an anxious and inauthentic elite into a pitiless, lifelong contest to secure income and status through its own excessive industry.” So that “meritocracy now divides the elite from the middle class. It drives the middle class to resent the establishment and seduces the elite to cling to the corrupt prerogatives of caste.” Merit is a dirty word; it is toxic, lacks virtue, and is politically incorrect.

I think Markovits makes some valuable observations about modern society. But I also think he claims too much for his theory of the Meritocracy and it’s cultural dominance. At the insistence of my wife, I have just spent six months watching the 215 episodes of the US television series The Middle. The Middle is a saga of a middle class white American family, the Heck’s, played out over nine years in a middling sized town in the geographic middle of the continent. It is well scripted, consistently well-acted, sociologically authentic... and entirely tragic. But not as the result of the influence of the Meritocracy.

According to the series, in agreement with Markovits, the middle is not a comfortable place to be. The Heck Family is squeezed between the criminal underclass of the town, by whom they are threatened, and the local petty capitalists, by whom they are employed, and therefore also threatened. Although working (at one point the adults have four jobs), and living in a respectable suburb, the family exists on an economic razor’s edge. Even the slightest perturbation in the routine of the household - a faulty appliance, a loose roof tile, a minor medical emergency - throws it out of economic orbit. When the kitchen sink self-destructs, they do the dishes in the bathtub for several months because they haven’t the funds (or the energy) for repair.

The one word description of their existence is ‘hapless.’ They neither plan nor attempt to anticipate the future. They live on a diet of junk food and short-dated groceries from the local discount store. Mother is affectionately incompetent, Father is emotionally unavailable and resigned, the Children are self-centred, continuously squabbling oddballs who respond, usually too late, to the demands of their own lives by blaming the parents. Both family life and the house itself are in a constant state of chaos. They obey the law, pay their taxes, attend church, and are civil to the neighbours, even the unlikeable ones.

For the most part, the family are effectively alienated from the social and economic competition of modern life. Although the parents have been to university, their attendance at a state-run institution was motivated by convention rather than ambition. Father is content as the manager of a small quarry, Mother as a sometime (incompetent) used-car salesperson and dental receptionist who tries to scam the system in trivial ways, usually unsuccessfully. The children are similarly unmotivated either toward academic advancement or economic improvement. They each have their ‘interests’ but no signs of maturing purpose. Their children, in turn, will have the same attitudes (as revealed in the last episode).

This is multi-generational life entirely outside the Meritocracy. The Meritocracy thinks of the Heck family as the losers, or more accurately since they are not competitors, Meritocracy’s collateral damage, who don’t appear to know that there is a sociological game afoot in which they have no chance of competing much less winning. Their apparent haplessness is really ignorance of how the meritocratic world works. Theirs is a self-perpetuating world of unexpected event and unplanned response. They feel vaguely downtrodden by the system but can’t be anymore articulate about their condition, neither to themselves nor to their children. They know their failure but can’t pinpoint its origin and are not concerned more than that.

These people are objectively disadvantaged but not in terms of the usual genetic reasons - race, gender, physical deformity, ethnicity, or natural gifts. They are marginalised as non-participants who have no experience in the game. Able to ‘get by,’ but unable to hope much less aspire to anything else. As such they are the essential foundation of 21st century capitalism, the modern proletariat. Without them the Meritocracy would cease to function as a coherent society. The race for exam results, certificates, degrees, professional titles, and other credentials goes on in a parallel world around them while they flip burgers, answer phones, and sell plumbing supplies.

“Meritocracy speaks in terms and settings so consistent that they fashion a distinctive language, repeated across contexts, again and again—a form of life, familiar to every citizen of the age,” says Markovits. Well, yes and no. The Meritocracy does speak a language of passion, and personal service, and commitment, and human betterment. This is how players of the game recognise each other. It is the equivalent of the Latin of the medieval clerks who were expected to maintain certain articles of faith and express them in the correct way.

But to non-players, the modern laity as it were, such language is meaningless gibberish. Non-players are interested in a steady job not a vocation. They have little interest in saving the world, just paying for their small part of it. By the time non-players realise that the language actually means something, it’s too late to enter the game. They are trapped outside it as much as the players are trapped inside.

Players strive; non-participants float. Each, or at least some proportion of each group, endures their own sort of hell. The first, various sorts of disillusionments and disappointments; the latter, a fog of cultural bewilderment made bearable by non-brand beer and the rituals of American civil religion. But both are where they want to be. As with the old industrial class structures, there is little miscegenation and a considerable pride in one’s ‘roots.’

So if The Middle does contain important insights into modern sociology (and I obviously think it does), Markovits has made an analytical faux pas. Not everyone has been seduced by the promises of the Meritocracy. And those who haven’t been are perfectly alright with that. They live in a world that is a lottery rather than a contest, in which Providence not Competence is the ruling force. And there is a certain comfort in that, an almost Zen attitude that everything will somehow work out as the dice are rolled over and over again.

I doubt if anyone is in a position to decide which is the superior fate - to be controlled by one’s own ephemeral ambitions or by chance. The significant point is that there are at least two ideologies in operation, two games, not one. This is the source of the obvious political polarisation in America. Each considers the other to be adhered to by losers. Markovits characterises one of these ideologies well but ignores, or perhaps can’t even see, the other which is captured in The Middle.

America has more than one founding myth. Before the Enlightenment Deism of the majority of colonial American leadership, and even before the self-creationist Arminianism of the Methodists of the First Great Awakening, and the Baptists of the Second, the strict Calvinism of Puritanism held that striving for betterment was a blasphemous activity. One’s duty was to play out one’s given hand in obedience to divine directives. The thought that merit could improve one’s lot was a heresy. America was founded as a theocracy, a city on a hill of divine resignation. The Heck family, and, I suspect, many other Red State families, are living remnants of this more ancient American myth.

Markovits seems unaware of these other myths of origin and their continuing effects in modern life. Perhaps his lifelong immersion in Meritocracy, in which grace is self-created rather than doled out without any rationality from elsewhere, has created a condescension toward alternative ideologies that limits his understanding of a tragedy not his own. His book is a curate’s egg therefore - good and bad in parts.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,302 reviews22.1k followers
November 3, 2019
The best of this book is the vast amount of data it provides. There are endless charts, facts and figures and graphs – and I do love a good graph. I think the notion of ‘merit’ is something that really does need to be challenged, since it has striking consequences for our society. Marx says somewhere that the ruling ideas of an age are those of the ruling class. That the ruling class stresses that it rules according to ‘merit’ is a much less modern idea than the author here seems to assume. As Bourdieu says of what he refers to as ‘symbolic violence’ – it isn’t enough for just those who are disadvantaged by how society is organised to believe that those with the most deserve their good fortune – but it is also important that those most advantaged must also believe that they are worthy of their advantages. The author gets to this at one point – that people are much less likely to feel ripped off if they think those with the most have earned what they have – but fundamentally, this book mostly assumes wealth is distributed according to merit in our current society.

As such, this book is very much written from the inside the meritocracy myth. So much so that it takes us until the end of the book before he begins to question the ‘merit’ of meritocracy. Throughout he stresses that the elite earn their breathtaking fortunes. He says that this is due to the fact that production has changed, that firstly, the elite now work – unlike the rich from an earlier phase of capitalism (symbolised throughout by reference to Bertie Wooster) – and they work hard. That is, work has fundamentally changed. The major change – and he provides data for this throughout – is that the elite now work absurd hours, while ‘the working class’ and the ‘middle class’ (terms he never really defines at any time throughout – which becomes a bit annoying, but I’ll get to that later) now work less than ever before. This is something Bauman discusses at length in his ‘Work, Consumerism and the New Poor’, a book I highly recommend. The problem is interesting because it clearly represents a change in how capitalism works. For most of its history, capitalism involved extracting as much labour from people as was humanly possible and doing so from as soon as people were able to work – so, children down mines, 16-hour days, and 6-day weeks. My parents both left school at 14, for example – someone leaving school at 14 today would be unlikely to ever work, rather than work until they were in their 60s. People are also expected to train themselves to meet the needs of the changing workplace, often involving unpaid leave from work, going back to finish a degree or something of the sort – there are no ‘jobs for life’ anymore – and everyone needs to be a ‘project’ so that they become ‘life-long learners’. Even so, the collapse of middle-class jobs means even if you do seek to keep up with the changes, you are unlikely to succeed, and may end up on the scrap heap by the time you are 50, after only getting into the labour market by about the age of 25.

Counter to this is the elite – again, nowhere fully defined – but those at the top of the pecking order. They now make a fetish of work and as such work at rates that compare with the hours once only worked by the exploited workers of early industrial capitalism. This is ‘self-exploitation’ in the book’s terms. These people no longer live off the exploited labour of others (something that made me gasp each time it was said), but rather from the exploitation of their own incredibly valuable labour power.

This is the major sense of what the book means by ‘meritocracy’ – that is, these people are highly trained (much of the book is an elaborate discussion of the US education system as dedicated to training these superstars of the business world and their children). As such, they bring unsurpassed value to what they do and therefore deserve to be rewarded commensurately – if beyond normal notions of ‘value creation’. This has been the story of the last 4 decades or so – where such people have been in receipt of the vast majority of the wealth and income from the US economy. In this book, this is situation is fully deserved.

As such, this book isn’t really saying that the meritocracy is bad because it is based on a lie – it takes for granted that meritocracy is based on people being appropriately rewarded for the skills they have. His argument is that how we have structured society on ‘merit’ punishes everyone in society – not least the supposed ‘winners’ in this game. And that we ought to think of ways to restructure society so that more people can share in the work and also the rewards of society, given that the current structure is straining to breaking point the social contract.

There were a few things that annoyed me about this book. The first was that I’ve read quite a few books over the years that are about meritocracy, often books with ‘merit’ in the title – and not one of those books is mentioned in this book. This can often be the case with ‘the great divide’ – you know, books published in the UK or Europe not being read in the US and vice versa. But I’ve also read quite a few books on meritocracy published in the US and they aren’t referenced here either. The lack of referencing doesn’t just stop at books with meritocracy in the title. The only sociologist really discussed is Veblen, and really, there’s been quite a lot of sociology since him. And a lot of that covers much of the same ground that this book seeks to cover – and I think a lot of that provides important insights into how meritocracy works.

There has been some fascinating sociology written that considers the shift in how labour and capital interact in our post-industrial era – I mentioned Bauman above, but I would also mention books such as The Global Auction and The Mismanagement of Talent. It is surprising that none of this work is referenced here, literally when he is covering exactly the same ground. I actually think he is making a statement by doing this. However, it is an odd sort of statement – I never trust anyone who pretends their ideas have sprung sui generis – when, in fact, their genealogy ought to be at least as important as anything new the author has to say. Even if he was ignorant of these ideas, I think more sociology would have served him well here and made his sometimes-tortuous explanations much more straightforward and clear. But, as I said, these were denied him by his insistence that he has sprung fully formed out of the spray of the ocean or the ear of Zeus.

I also assume his using Bertie Wooster is intended as hyperbole – I mean, if Mills could criticise Veblen for taking as universal the attributes of the leisured class, when he was really writing about a particular (and particularly) American phase of capitalism in his book, then surely, Bertie Wooster has to be seen as being to capitalism what Mickey Mouse is to pest control.

At times the elite ‘class’ seems to be defined as anyone who has a university degree. At other times it is defined as people in the top one per cent. At other times still it seems to be those who perform particular kinds of jobs – especially in finance and banking (to associate these with merit after 2008 requires an aggressive form of myopia, I think). My problem with this is that it is all too easy for people to think they know what you are talking about with these divisions of social classes – but really, if you are saying that the middle and working class are changing, and that this has been brought about by a fundamental change in the elite class, then these really do need to be defined. And notice that none of these terms make much sense when added together to make a whole – surely working class needs to be contrasted with leisured class, and middle only makes sense of there is a lower and upper class – and elite has so many connotations in US politics that it might make sense to avoid it entirely, but I’ve just typed into google, ‘what is the opposite of elite’, I was told ‘dregs’ – this book is calling out for a more systematic definition of social class, at times it is quite infuriating.

Like I said, a lot of the data this book provides is very interesting – but honestly, any book that begins with the premise that someone can earn a billion dollars a year and, with a straight face, mean that they ‘earn’ that from their own labour and own ‘merit’ fundamentally needs their head read. A book premised on such an absurdity insults our intelligence from the word go. I would recommend another book by Bauman on this topic – Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All? I’ll let you guess what Bauman’s answer is to that question.

I don’t for a second think that the rich do not work as hard as the author here says they do – it is just that even if they worked ten times harder and a hundred times smarter than they do, it still would not justify the rewards they extract.
Profile Image for Richard Thompson.
1,971 reviews97 followers
October 12, 2019
A couple of days after finishing this book, I'm still not sure what to make of it. A lot of it seemed anecdotally true to me. I went to a fancy college and a fancy law school, where I saw many people slaving away at their studies at levels that hardly seemed enjoyable or even productive, just stress inducing. I then went on to work at law firms where people, including me, worked extraordinary hours based on some combination of work ethic, ambition and social pressure, and where material success seemed like the grapes above the head of Tantalus, always just out of reach because someone else nearby had more. And I see how my peers raise their children to repeat the same cycle. So at first it rang true to me when Markovits says that all of this arises from the new social order of meritocracy that causes the rich to engage in self-objectifying and unsatisfying exploitation of their own labor, creates a new cross generational aristocracy and disenfranchises the middle class.

But then I thought about it more. Won't the rich always find a way to game any system that we establish? Is it really so bad that the working rich now have to work their butts off? Boo Hoo. And somebody has to be in charge, so aren't we better off having smart people in charge than dolts? Plus, I have managed to live in the middle of this culture for forty years while never personally buying into much of it, and I have known many graduates of elite schools who have gotten off the success/ambition/money merry-go-round. Isn't Markovits just grabbing onto some contemporary stereotypes and then using them to paint a picture of society as a whole that makes it seem that we are going to hell in a handbasket and that may or may not be true? To the extent that that the ills that Markovits cites really do exist, are they really the result of the development of meritocracy? Or do they arise from other social forces and the growth of technology, which makes it so easily possible to work 24/7? And in the end, isn't it better than the class system of inherited wealth that it displaced?

Despite my skepticism, I think that Markovits has identified some real problems. Putting smart people in charge can definitely sometimes lead to the development of overly complicated ways to solve business and social problems. I am one of a couple of hundred people on the planet who truly understand complex movie financing structures, but I often wonder whether the world is better off on account of the movies that these structures enable. The same thing is even more true of complex financial instruments like mortgage bonds and other derivatives. And super complex wildly expensive medical technology does not make Americans healthier or longer lived than people in other countries with less sophisticated medicine. I also agree with Markovits that the growing gap between the elite and the middle class is a big social problem. It's not healthy for democracy and not so good for a well functioning society to have classes so widely separated that they cease to speak the same language. So even if Markovits is a bit off in seeing so many ills as the result of a culture of meritocracy, I'm fine with some of his ideas for addressing the problem. By all means let's get elite schools to admit more kids from families in the lower 2/3 of income. Let's create tax incentives for middle class jobs. Let's find ways to crank down some of the high earner culture from excessive overwork to merely hard work, and let's take those rich elitist schmucks down a peg or two for arrogantly thinking that they deserve to be rich because they are so smart and went to such fancy schools. If they were really so smart, they'd realize that a good education is its own reward.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,649 followers
September 14, 2019
When I heard Markovits's Yale commencement speech, I shared it with everyone I knew and I was really excited to read the whole book. The book is a bit of a disappointment from where I thought he would go in the speech. I still give it 5 stars though because it's a really important aspect of inequality that we need to talk more about. The disappointment is that besides the brilliant new theories he puts forward (that meritocracy is the new aristocracy), there is a lot of rehashing of the same "identity politics" and white professors terrified of woke activist stuff that is just so boring now. He also I think undersells how capital is still being passed down even as the meritocracy is upheld by labor. Still, I enjoyed the book and learned a lot.
Profile Image for James Steele.
Author 32 books69 followers
June 20, 2021
[TL;DR: This author tries very hard to convince us that the rich are doing all the hard work in this country and it’s burning them out. That there is no such thing as inherited wealth anymore. That the rich are obligated to justify their status by working extra hard. Their parents give them outrageously expensive educations to compete in this labor market, pricing the poor and middle class out of these uber-skilled job positions. Because the poor and middle class are not working in these hyper-skilled in-demand fields, this leaves the rich to work extra hard to make up for the work everyone else is not doing. But the only careers this author mentions are hedge fund mangers and bankers and lawyers. Are we to believe these are the skilled laborers the job market demands? I think it's a flimsy argument made by somebody who hasn't stepped outside his ivy-league walls in 30 years.]

This guy’s central argument is as follows:

Once upon a time, the rich were idle. They lived off inherited wealth and land and gave little if anything back to society. Since the 20th century, however, a revolution against the idea of a nobility whose status is based on birthright forced a change. What if people got to the top because of their own deeds rather than by who their parents were?

Now the rich are obligated to prove their industriousness in order to justify their wealth and status. This has created a race to the top for education. Children of rich parents are now being schooled to death, hogging all the best resources to get their SAT scores as high as possible to quality for a place in the most prestigious grade schools, high schools, and universities in the country (such as Yale and Harvard). The competition for education has become so great, and the rich are pooling more and more resources into their own education to such an extreme it is taking resources away from the middle class’s education and crowding them out of high-paying careers and leaving the poor and middle class idle.

The rich are now hoarding all the advanced education and elite skills necessary to be productive in society, leaving the poor and middle class with subpar skills and thus no way to compete on the job market. This has pushed the poor and middle class out of what were once the best jobs in the country, leaving the rich to work harder to compensate for the labor the middle class is no longer doing.

The author’s main argument is that the rich are pulling all the weight in this country because the very idea of meritocracy is pricing the poor and middle class workers out of the education and labor markets. It is idling most of America’s workers while placing the burden of labor onto a tiny group of wealthy elites, and this is causing the class divides we now see.

Um, Mr. Markovits, nobody goes to Yale to get some uber-skill that makes them invaluable in the job market. Yale and Harvard pump out lawyers and professional managers, not people who do all the hard work in the country. Unless you really believe lawyers, hedge fund managers, and CFOs are the most skilled and productive people in the world.

The book is, in essence, about how hard the rich have it, being pressured into an education and then to work and work and work nonstop in order to justify and maintain their (family’s) social status. This pressure forces the rich to lose themselves in their work, becoming little more than an inhuman portfolio full of skills and talents to use on the job market, constantly worried about whether or not those skills are good enough to compete with others. Rich managers and other white-collar workers have no choice but to keep up with their fellow workers for fear of losing ground in the fierce competition for the best positions, giving up their personal lives to their work. They are not allowed to pursue their interests, rather are pressured to go into a handful of fields that generate the most money but require giving up more and more of themselves in exchange. To that I have to say: welcome to a poor person’s life. Poor people have been working like this since forever, but it’s not making all of them rich, so I am not convinced the rich have it hard.

The author proposes that now the rich themselves are participating in Marx’s key critiques of capitalism: the rich are now exploiting themselves. By believing they must work harder and harder to justify their position, they are the victims of their own exploitation. Give me a second to find my violin, oh wait, I can’t afford a violin despite working 50 hours a week...

Okay, snark aside, the author is describing the working world and what this constant pressure to succeed is doing to people, but the author’s assertion that the race to the top is pricing people out of the education and labor market is absurd because he implies that the rich are the only ones working themselves to death to try to get ahead.

The author ignores so many other things that have caused the shrinking labor market and the devaluing of the college education. To propose that the rich are now forced to do all the hard work in this country as a matter of meritocratic mindset makes me laugh. Nobody goes to Yale to become some uber-advanced engineer. Nobody goes to Harvard to become a software developer. The author seems to portray investment bankers and the like as the real super-skilled laborers doing all the hard work in the country, and the source of the wealthy person’s money is their excessive amount of labor within these ultra-skilled professions which they have to acquire at uber-universities in order to compete in the job market that only hires people based on merit—that the rich are just working so much harder than everyone else and it’s because of their elite education crowding out “ordinary” Americans from such careers. I just don’t buy it. The poor and middle class only receive passing mention in this discussion; the rich are the real victims here.

The author does mention the post-WWII blurring of class lines. In eras past, the rich owned different things, ate different foods, and went out of their way to distinguish themselves from everyone else. After the second world war, at least in America, that changed. The Middle Class owned much of the same things as the rich, but thanks to this new meritocracy consuming the rich, the class distinctions have returned. No mention of the 90% marginal tax rate on the richest Americans in that era? The author lays the blame on this competition for education and skills as the cause of the working world being like this and class distinctions coming back, as if it just happened on its own rather than rich people sponsoring politicians to change things in their favor. They were doing this long before a meritocratic mindset swept the working world.

He does devote a section to how big money is corrupting politics, but the roundabout logic needed to connect this to a system of competition over the best skills and highest-paying jobs made me realize if you replace the numerous instances and derivatives of the word “meritocracy” with “capitalism,” you’d get pretty much the same book. Over and over the author states meritocracy is causing this and that, but replacing the word with “the rich” would suffice. The author argues that this system of pumping out lawyers and hedge fund managers who feel the need to work and work and produce more profits for their company in order to justify their social class is creating the massive wealth that is corrupting politics. Fair point, but this isn’t a fault of meritocracy as a concept. Wealth has always corrupted the state. This is classism and a devaluing of productive work in favor of finance and investment. Meritocracy has nothing to do with that—wealthy elites are not mindless automatons working within this unquestioned system of merit; they are in a position to create this system.

Yeah, not even out of part 1 and I couldn’t take this argument seriously.

Well, in part two, the author condemns the wealthy of prior generations who used their inherited position to extract labor from subordinate human beings. No mention of the capitalist class who preyed upon the labor of others and achieved an identical life of luxury? Capitalist exploitation of the poor doesn’t seem to exist in Mr. Markovits’ worldview; everyone lives in a system of merit, where only the people with the best skills can compete in the workforce. Oh, the author cries, but the argument of exploitation falls apart when looking at the lawyer who works a hundred hours a week; see people are earning their wealth nowadays and everybody has to work therefore their wealth is a reflection of this effort, self-destructive as it is.

Indeed, it is almost as if meritocratic inequality were specifically designed to defeat the arguments and the policies that once humbled the leisure class and declared war on poverty. The meritocratic transformation entails, bluntly put, that equality’s champions must justify redistribution that takes from a more industrious elite in order to give to a less industrious middle class. This makes meritocratic inequality difficult to resist.

The author seems to think it’s a communist conspiracy to make the rich man feel guilty about his wealth and to justify redistributing it to others but now that engine has produced the very inequality it was supposed to defeat. I get subtle Ayn Rand vibes from this book even as it acknowledges the wealthy of prior centuries did not earn their wealth, but the current generation of 1%ers obviously have, and it’s burning them out because the pool of the nation’s most productive workers is now concentrated in the 1% rather than across the entirety of the American working class. The author acknowledges this is the real problem: that the brunt of skilled labor now rests of the shoulders of the upper classes, and the only solution is to distribute not the wealth but the labor back onto the the rest of America.

No one need weep for the wealthy. But ignoring how oppressively the rich now work is equally misleading.

I do not believe for a second the rich are rich because they work harder. I do not believe this army of lawyers and investment bankers is “working” at all. They may be putting in lots of hours, but a teacher putting in 100 hours a week is not the same as a banker putting in 100 hours a week. Both professions have similar levels of education, but find me a millionaire teacher. To equate all labor is insulting, and to assert that wealth is the result of hard work makes me vomit. Is it really that much of a stretch to realize that we are all being exploited? That even the rich kids who go through this author’s elite university are being exploited to support an upper class that does no work?

The Rich do not have a set of super-elite skills that allow them to get the best jobs in the employment market. They just have the best connections to get them into professions that make the most money. Connections they forged in elite universities, where systems of cronyism still reign, so that’s where people get management positions—not by merit but because of these personal connections. Professions that do not encourage “work” but rather investment. People in high income brackets may be working harder than ever before, but that doesn’t mean their labor is more valuable, or more skilled, and it doesn’t mean the poor and middle class are just sitting around with their thumbs up their asses. It just means that playing games with the money system makes more money than doing actual work, and the rich themselves have created this bias because it suits themselves.

The author seems to think the old system of living off inherited wealth and the work of others died the day someone decided to switch on the machine of meritocracy, so now everyone has to work to prove themselves worthy. Buddy, we still have an upper class of rich elites who live off the work of others. They may be managing firms or hedge funds or giving keynote addresses in front of the general public to reveal their PS1-inspired vehicles, but that is not “work” compared to being in a factory 50+ hours a week.

I kept reading to find out what his solution is. What is the answer to the idling of the poor and middle class and the resulting increased industriousness of the wealthy elites?

The solution is to end the tax havens that elite universities and private schools now enjoy. Production and education should focus on skills that are not finance or investment based and should return to that of useful goods and services which benefit the middle class. He also proposes to remove the caps on high-income earners for social security and the like, policies already proposed by progressives like Bernie Sanders. In short: education should be open and free for all, not available to the highest bidders.

Again, we had a marginal tax rate of 90% on the highest earners in the 50s and 60s. Going back to that would deter such extreme wealth and might curb the excesses we see today, but no mention of something that extreme. No mention that rich elites themselves sponsored politicians to get rid of such tax rates, and this was after merit allegedly became the sole measure of the upper classes.

Not certain how any of this will end the cult of work and meritocracy, but that’s all the author proposes. Buddy, friend, brother, things are not that simple. Emerge from your cocoon of a wealthy elite university and gain a larger perspective. Step outside your ivy-covered walls once in a while and maybe you’ll see a bigger picture.
Profile Image for Athan Tolis.
312 reviews602 followers
February 12, 2020
At first glance, the main thesis of this book seems plausible:

a super-skilled “meritocracy” of hyper-qualified Ivy Leaguer types has ascended to the top of American society by mixing unsustainable amounts of its own labor with its phenomenal skills, but in doing so has both usurped the middle class and condemned itself to a super-skilled version of modern slavery; moreover, to address the problem that the necessary skills to maintain its position at the top of the societal pyramid are not automatically transmitted from generation to generation, this super-skilled meritocracy is furiously building an educational moat around its progeny, by investing even more of its own labor (to say nothing of its children’s childhood) in imparting on its children the same educational advantage that affords it its position at the top of the meritocracy.

This situation is billed as disastrous, because it is the reductio ad absurdum of what started as a justified revolution against the idle aristocracy described by Veblen and F Scott Fitzgerald and currently enjoys the full support of society’s norms, much as it tears society apart, taking away from the poor the chance they once had to move up. It is an aristocracy in all by name, because it is transmitted by the accident of birth, with a special twist: even the aristocrats are miserable.

Statistics and charts galore are offered, which appear to support the author’s tragic findings.

If I’ve ever read anything so dumb, I can’t remember. I can tell you, however, that I’ve never read anything so wrong over 300 pages, supported by so many graphs and endorsed by serious people like Michael Sandel. This is truly some type of record…

Here’s how things really are:

1. there are exceptions to every rule, of course, but business is first and foremost about sales; and sales has terribly little to do with education

2. the super-skilled guys, the ones who went to Stanford and Harvard and Yale, they are but a praetorian guard around the C-students like Henry Kravis who actually run the planet with their wits;

3. OF COURSE the masters of the universe surround themselves with the most expensive lawyers and the hardest-working bankers, but the guys pulling the all-nighters are not the same as the guys who are pulling the strings: it’s one or the other

4. nobody cares about college degree anymore; this is 2019! Education now continues all the way till you die, you keep a file of it online and if you are in a field that entails skills, you’d better keep updating them; what Microsoft started a couple decades ago with its accreditations is the future of education; a candidate who last updated their education when they graduated college is a candidate who’s never going to be able to change jobs

But all of that is by-the-by. The main refutation of this twisted theory comes if you take a moment to reflect: finance, law and accounting are PRECISELY where they were 100 years ago; the services where all these hyper-educated products of the “meritocracy” toil have not advanced in any way shape or form.

It’s one thing to say that to get to the top of the pyramid in physics you need to do the ten years of work that will lead you to string theory, all while Einstein could once get the Nobel from the comfort of the Swiss patent office, making shrewd observations on other people’s work; it’s quite another to think that anything resembling that accumulation of skill and knowledge exists in finance, the law or accounting. The proletariat of rocket-scientists who do charts for people like my friends who run hedge funds are just that: people wasting their brains doing useless crap, hoping that one day somebody senior will quit to join another fund and they’ll get a chance to flip a coin like he used to.

So there’s nothing to this theory, zilch, nada.

The epitaph to the story is actually rather sad: The superskilled masters of the universe all sunk in the storm of 2008. Go online and you’ll find thousands of “complicated” Patek Philippe’s on sale. Not your run-of-the-mill Calatravas, proper complicated pieces. They’re definitely not getting passed on to the next generation. The super-skilled meritocracy was a bust.

Oh, and that middle class you’re crying about? Save your tears! You wait, the machines are coming for the white-collar meritocracy. We’re only getting started. Maybe those kids are not studying enough, if you ask me. Their parents’ jobs aren’t going to be around for them to take, no more than those assembly line jobs were a generation ago, at any rate.
Profile Image for Naia Pard.
544 reviews84 followers
April 26, 2022
This was a gorgeous read.
However, the book was gloomy enough to require an explanation from my part of why I am calling its contents gorgeous (as I am neither a sleazy uncle nor an exhausted fangirl, tired out by her own fan base).

I am praising it because the writing was very well put together. This has been one of those rare non-fiction books that made me keep reading until the end, without letting it go, in favour of a fiction book.

The rhetoric of the text rings true with the author's profession (professor at Yale Law School---which could come as a surprise as this book entitles itself as a dispeller of the meritocratic myth that the richest of the richest have nurtured for decades in places as Yale--High profile Universities).

This book comes as a warning to a trend that does not seem to recede anytime soon. A trend that manifests its consequences in the elite education system of the United States of America, the place where a good portion of the 1% have passed by. (If you feel left out---don`t worry, the inequality is sure to catch on and add you to the mix, sooner or later).

The first part tries to explain why the 2016 Presidential elections had that result that it had. The 2016 elections' result was not a trigger point for something new, but rather the consequence of a long time boiling problem found at the level of the society.
It talks about the impressive wedge that has been formed between the a middle class family and a rich one, all of that on the basis of inequality distribution of income (and even between the rich there are gradients).

But, rest assured, in this game of mouse and cat, no one gets to be the cat. As even the elite has to suffer alongside the middle class (albeit, in different manners):

”Meritocracy entices an anxious and inauthentic elite ito a pitiless, lifelong contest to secure income and status through its own excessive industry.” (p.xi)

One of the main points made by the book is that the value of the old aristocracy (land, imobiliarias, property) has been exchanged on human capital—through education, by raising the value of a skilled professional and hence making the respective person their own valuable commodity.

However, that comes with tricks in the books, because meritocracy is a beautifully wrapped myth that fosters in its insides truths that are much more sobering.

The majority of those that want to enter the meritscene have to be able to play the entrance ticket.

”Meritocrats may be made rather than born, but they are not self-made” (p.144)

I am not the right person to even try to make a summery to this book. I have no studies in the subject. That is to say, do not let my review influence your decision into trying this book.

On the other hand, neither feel unprepared or undeserving of flipping through it because the language is accessible enough and the explanations are exhaustive.

Instagram\\my Blog\\
January 27, 2020
I give up. This book fucking sucks and here’s why:
By the authors own admission, he is from a “middle class” (rich) family, spent his 20s dicking around the Ivy League and getting degrees and is now a law professor at Yale. He talks about how the “middle class” (rich people) are being put under so much pressure to succeed and become “elites” (doesn’t have a clear definition. Could be anywhere from the top 5% of income earners to the 1%). The “elites” get paid enormous sums of money but it’s also sad because they are socially conditioned to work 70+ hour weeks. He blames this on “meritocracy” (late stage capitalism) but then everything he says about meritocracy means it’s NOT a meritocracy. “Equality of opportunity” bitch WHERE? You spend the entire fucking book talking about how equality of opportunity doesn’t even exist because the “middle class” (rich people) can’t complete with the “elites” (richer people).

Are you wondering when he’s gonna y’all about poor people and poverty? Surprise! He doesn’t! We aren’t people apparently. He DOES however, throw in some statistics about how the lowest earning section of the population works less hours than previous generations which... I dunno.... might have something to do with the fact that NO ONE HIRES FULL TIME HOURLY ANYMORE? This book pisses me off so much. I hate rich people so much it’s unreal and i want the hours i spent listening to the BS back.
Profile Image for Sheri.
1,233 reviews
December 19, 2019
So I read Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy a few weeks ago and was not entirely convinced by his satirical argument that the Meritocracy is really all that bad. Markovits presents a much stronger argument (in part because it is an actual concrete application of the US system), but unfortunately his recommendation for change is less than inspiring.

First, a short personal aside. I grew up in what I refer to as "upper white trash". My parents are both drug addicts, I recall not having enough money for groceries upon occasion, and we didn't have dental care. I was also scared of some of the people who came around my house. We were never homeless though and despite the frequent calls from collection agencies, we seemed to get by okay. Now, I hold a master's degree, live in a house that I own, have taken my kids on vacations around the world (Dubai, Italy, Greece, Fiji, and multiple trips to the Caribbean), and own a successful "business" that is really just a job created for myself and my husband. We very clearly match several of Markovits markers for "elite". However, I specifically dropped out of a PhD program (arguably the best in the country for my chosen field) because I did not enjoy writing and didn't want to face the publish or perish life of academia. I also did not join a more corporate setting because I wanted to spend time with my children (and have been able to control my work hours to do that). I like the meritocracy; but I agree that the structure relies on individuals setting their own limits and that many do not, will not, or cannot (do not have the power) to do that. And so it is a failure on many levels. Personally, though, it is has worked well for me.

He does use lots of data to support the individual segments of his argument, but overall the book is just theoretical and it is loose in a few places. I think my biggest complaint about Markovits argument is how blurry he is with regards to the "middle" and the "elite". Sometimes "middle class" means non college educated, sometimes it means some college, and sometimes it means not Ivy league graduated. He contrasts "middle" with "elite", but his grouping of "elite" is larger or smaller depending on the convenience of the moment.

I also was not entirely convinced that technology and innovation follows the labor market. He argues that a large labor market led to jobs requiring lots of workers (in the industrial age), but then argues that the rise of the superordinate worker led to technological innovation that creates more of these glossy/gloomy jobs. The argument felt circular, non-falsifiable, and tautological to me.

Another example of the loose play of theory was with regards to the elite and marriage. Yes, assortative mating exists and is well documented and yes, I understand his criticism about the difference between households with two college educated parents and those with one or none. However, he neglects to point out that the difference in one vs two college educated parents between now and 1960s is also likely attributable to the HUGE INCREASE in female college graduates since 1960s. Elites didn't marry well educated women (as often) in 1960 simply because there weren't very many well educated women as there are now. Similarly, the divorce rate is higher for low income families in part because not having money causes a strain on a marriage. Yes, he is correct to note that divorce decreases resources as well, but the relationship is a correlation and bi-directional, not causal.

Ultimately, his argument is pretty good and I liked the historical context. There were many details (for example the extent to which companies like McDonalds, IBM, and Kodak provided in-house training) that I did not know and I agree that education is the key to change. I am less sure about his off the cuff (and rather glib) policy recommendations (just tax schools and change the way we structure payroll taxes) as providing real pathway to change, but I do like his overall framework and am less convinced in the beauty of meritocracy now than I used to be.
Profile Image for Emily.
687 reviews633 followers
March 29, 2021
This book by a Yale law professor contains a few points that struck a eureka chord with me, and one observation that he tries to hammer home but which I didn't buy.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty describes two avenues to wealth: being a rentier or a supermanager. A rentier is just an old-fashioned rich person who owns something (real estate, say) that they can use to collect money from others with minimal effort. A supermanager is someone who earns large amounts through their present-day work. If I recall correctly, Piketty doesn't go into much depth about these categories, how they might expand or interact--probably because it's different in various countries.

Markovits, in this book, is specifically describing the 21st century American supermanager (although this is my connection and phrasing, not his). Markovits describes meritocracy as a novel form of wealth growth and transference. Meritocrats don't make money by collecting rents off their holdings; instead they earn super-sized wages through their jobs which require massive amounts of rarified training. Their investment is into the education and training; they are the first cohort of rich people characterized by overwork instead of idleness, because work is the only way they can capitalize on their asset. Moreover, whereas the aristocrats of old passed their wealth onto their children at death, today's meritocrats can only pass on their privilege through expensive and time-consuming parenting and education practices that allow their children to gain the requisite training to become meritocrats themselves. Meritocracy was originally billed as a form of opportunity, but has ossified into a system that can only be operated by previous winners.

All this, Markovits describes, happens against a backdrop of extreme poverty having been successful confronted. Measured in things like having air-conditioning or a washing machine, the poor have largely caught up with the middle class, just as the ultra-rich are leaving them all behind. This increases the pressure on meritocrats to constantly escalate their parenting practices, lest their children fail to land in the same social class.

One particularly incisive observation (pp. 60-61) is that bigotry and racial prejudice are the failing that most incenses meritocrats as uniquely unacceptable because it chips away at the self-justifications of their privilege, whereas middle and working class Americans may see prejudice as just one form of personal failing among many. Meritocracy reframes good grades and jobs as the only virtue worth having, which is a sad view of life. This book is depressing when read with a political lens, since meritocracy seems like an engine that will keep revving faster, concentrating the elites in ever smaller and richer pockets of the country, completely disconnected from the rest of America as rich meritocratic politicians from nominally opposing parties fail to actually change things.

In addition to the Piketty connection I mentioned above, I felt this book provided a stronger account than Excellent Sheep (which is also by a Yale prof) about the choices of college students. Excellent Sheep struck me as a bit unfair towards the students who--if they have chosen to be non-risktaking or uncreative--have surely done so under the influence of adults. But why? I suggested the widening gap between the middle class and elites, and that's exactly the point Markovits works here.

When discussing the workaholism of meritocrats--even among elites who profess to want to live another way--Markovits points repeatedly to the impossibility of living on the steep slope between the elite and the floundering middle class. Once you have the training, he implies, you have no choice but to pursue long hours and family sacrifice. This was the argument that I did not believe, because this "impossible" sweet spot seems to be exactly where much of my circle lives. Probably the most common jobs among my friends are "lawyer who doesn't work at a law firm" and ER doctor/hospitalist (i.e. medical specialties with fixed schedules). For myself, I haven't followed my education with a truly meritocratic career, but since I don't have children who need to be expensively launched on that path, it works out well enough for me. Markovits wants to convince you of the imperative of breaking meritocracy, so he can't concede the point that watered-down accommodations with it are possible.

I usually skim through other Goodreads reviews before posting just to make sure I haven't forgotten anything I wanted to address, and I was struck by how many negative reviews have a completely different understanding of Markovits's goals than I did. There is no doubt that this is a book by a meritocrat (a Yale law prof with a named chair!) for meritocrats, but I also understood the author to be criticizing not just the overwork of elites (which he acknowledges to be unsympathetic!) but also the stagnation of middle class families and towns, the hoarding of opportunity among elites which punctures the fundamental claims of meritocratic education, and the political exploitation of inequality by cynical politicians. Maybe I was spotting that because I happen to agree.

Despite the author's attempts to connect his argument to concrete details--like a calculation of how much the "inheritance" of an elite childhood and education is worth--this book still reads somewhat like the first draft of an idea, hence only four stars. I enjoyed it because it provided so many connections across phenomena that are treated as separate, such as "why don't we have a four-day work week as was predicted in the early 20th century?"
Profile Image for Dustin.
98 reviews4 followers
November 13, 2019
The crux of this book's thesis is very interesting and in fact may provide many readers a paradigm shift. However, the book is very poorly written and the thesis is too all-encompassing. It's rather high brow and *extremely repetitive*, making it inaccessible to a lot of people. It shouldn't be more than 100 to 200 pages long. The entire thesis can be explained with an introduction and maybe one chapter. Publishers clearly think they cannot sell shorter books.
Profile Image for Camelia Rose.
674 reviews93 followers
December 21, 2020
The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (Hardcover) is an interesting read. The phenomena described in the book do exist: the shrinking size of middle class and mid-skilled jobs, the enlarging financial gap between middle class and the rich, the fierce competition for getting into elite universities, the rich's extraordinary investment in their children's education, the long hours and intense pressure for working in highly skilled jobs, etc...

My problem with this book is the lack of clear definition in key terms such as elite and middle-class. In one chapter the elite class is equivalent to the superrich or working-rich, in another Ivy league graduates, in another everyone with a Bachelor degree. Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are self-made superrich elites, but to lump every computer engineer together with their bosses is a bridge too far.

I agree that "merit" is not fix and can be socially constructed--i.e. a merit in one social setting may not be so in another. A merit can become obsolete and new merits can emerge. However, many merits share deep roots in civilization and biology. The appreciation of hard work is not a modern, meritocratic invention of the West. Ancient aristocrats were required to work hard to defend their status and fortune. Chinese have always appreciated hard work throughout the history, disregard of the class. Using Bertie Wooster, a fictional character, as a sole symbol to explain the no-working ethics among pre-WW2 rich class is flawed. It is true that super-refined baseball skills are meaningful only within the baseball field, but the basic skills underneath--the physical strength, the speed, the quick judgement--are shared across all sports and can be traced back to our hunter gatherer ancestry. Better schooling and intense exam preparation can improve test scores, but the students' general intelligence matters too. I don't think that merits alone are the problem. It is more to do with the narrow definition of merits and the merits-only reward system.

The author does not clarify the relationship between innovation and meritocracy. Has he just criticized the industrial revolution because it made millions workers losing their jobs? I've read other books that analyze the consequences of industrial revolution from the point of climate change and sustainable development. It's an interesting angle -- shifting the exploitation of humans to nature then back to humans. He takes the example of modern finance to denounce of the meritocratic innovation (the meritocrats invent jobs that befit their skills). However, he fails to mention many other modern innovations: Internet, medical science, Space Programs and clean energy, to name a few. It's hard to tell if he is against the existing scientific and technological innovation in general. Not that because industrial revolution and tech innovations have happened therefore must not be questioned, but the author's argument is incomplete.

Food for thoughts: the author's analysis of how meritocracy makes identity politics triumph economic class among liberals, at the same time unintentionally contributes to the rise of Trump's populism.

Although not convinced of all his analysis, I do agree most of his prescriptions, such as tax reform (for better economic equality) and education reform. America's lopsided focus on higher education instead of primary and secondary education needs to be changed. The fierce competition for getting into elite universities need to be stopped.
Profile Image for Christopher Turner.
18 reviews7 followers
October 16, 2020
Probably one of the single best books I have ever read on income inequality and the counter intuitive logic that contributes to those inequalities. In a simple and elegant model, Markovitz's well-researched book accounts for the vast majority of the current ills within America from the resurgence of xenophobia, nativism, and fascism to the destruction of the middle class and the hollowing out of America's cities.

While I can't say it is a perfect book, I believe the book will be a seminal critique of class structure and the modern meritocracy for decades to come. My one regret is that the book does not go further in its theories and what it brings to the reader's attention about the present looming catastrophe.
Profile Image for Blair.
122 reviews81 followers
October 2, 2021
“Merit is a sham.”

The book is a little better than this sensational and irresponsible opening sentence suggests. He does explain why inequality in the United States is rising, how the ranks of the elite are effectively closed to outsiders, and what the consequences will be. But while the present system is not nearly as merit based as it pretends to be, do we dispense with the goal of basing employment on merit entirely? This is never made clear. Here is a hint:

“What is conventionally called merit is actually an ideological conceit, constructed to launder a fundamentally unjust allocation of advantage.”

In the “meritocracy” advantage is allocated by level of education. The path to financial success is now channelled through a small number of top universities.

“The intensive training that rich parents give their children produces massive achievement gaps, so that meritocratic admissions themselves skew student bodies dramatically toward wealth, and the meritocratic elite can produce dynasties even without nepotism.”

He points out that this process has a negative result:

“A life subsumed by competition infects students with shallow ambitions and deep and pervasive fears of failure.”

Children who obsessively compete for grades to gain access to elite schools have little time left over to think about anything else. Those who succeed bring the same single-minded attitude to making as much money as possible, with little regard for the consequences of their actions.

Much of this book is based on finance and law. I wonder how representative these two professions really are. As an example, he illustrates how middle class jobs are being eliminated in the banking industry. Mortgages that used to be assessed by the traditional loan officer are now processed by “super-skilled, superordinate workers” and sold to shadow banks and other investors. The loan officer is reduced (along with his salary and opportunity for advancement) to the smiling face of the bank. It is a good description, but while constantly praising the results of elite education (that he personally delivers), he leaves out the detail that the entire economy collapsed because it was inflated on the basis of bad mortgages. These “super skills” yielded rather poor results.

Much is made about how hard the new meritocratic elite works. One gets the impression that these unfortunate people invented hard work. We get stories about a few driven individuals, for example:

“The deified Augustus, to whom the gods vouchsafed more that to any other man, did not cease to pray for rest and to seek release from public affairs; all his conversation ever reverted to this subject – his hope of leisure. This was the sweet, even if vain, consolation with which we would gladden his labours – that he would one day live for himself.”

Oops, wrong book. Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, written 2,000 years ago, is all about how the Roman elite worked themselves to death. Here is the actual reference the modern whining is based on:

“The average total hours worked in households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution grew by 9.5 hours per week between 1983 and 2010. Over the same period, the percentage of households in this elite group whose hardest-working member put in more than fifty hours per week grew by 16 percentage points, rising from 46 percent to 62 percent.”

So more than a third of these elites get away with working less than 50 hours a week. Old Augustus could only dream of such leisure. And speaking of heard this all before, chapter nine explains how this whole book is essentially an update to The Rise of the Meritocracy, written by John Young back in 1958, inventing the word itself as a sarcastic joke.

As for what we should do about inequality, we only get a few suggestions about how to stop subsidizing elite education. Great ideas, but they will not change the fundamental forces that drive the problem.

One might expect that the ten million dollars that the author estimates is the cost of his meritocratic education would have taught him how not to write a repetitive, stream-of-consciousness ramble. I suppose that editors are one of those middle class professions that have been eliminated because the super-skilled elite can do all that on their own now. This some useful material here if you eliminate all the talk about “meritocracy”. However, that was the point of the book. As such, this book lacks merit.
Profile Image for Ronald Barba.
200 reviews66 followers
February 7, 2020
I feel like it's just a recursive cycle of the same arguments, i.e. this could've been a lot shorter.
Profile Image for Lisa.
606 reviews20 followers
September 26, 2021
This book is ruining my life. It is describing something true, but it feels hopeless. The tiny bit spent comparing the US economy to Germany’s feels like it needs more exploration. I think I felt like maybe I shouldn’t be in the business of higher education at all and just tell people to get skilled trades jobs and to lobby for the government to develop policies that don’t widen the gap between the glossy/gloomy jobs but allow for more parity. And those of us in the elite should resist the lure of constant working. Am I pushing my students too much and helping create this constant work economy rather than a more leisure economy?
6 reviews
October 18, 2019
Markovits provides a compelling root cause analysis of the extreme inequality we see in the U.S. He shows how rising into the elite class through merotcratic competition and hard work has been morally unassailable and widely accepted the past 50 years. He also shows how through unprecedented personal investments in education and training, the elite class has begun to lock out the middle class from opportunity to join the elite workforce where wealth is increasingly concentrated. Not only does this disadvantage non-elites, it locks elites into a dehumanizing lifelong exploitation of their own human capital that leaves them well off financially but depleted of the moral and emotional character that leads to human flourishing. This system is failing most everyone.

The analysis is original and compelling. Towards the end of the book, it does devolve a bit into massive lists of academic studies and statistics, and there are times it feels repetitive. But the core insight is so important I think it is worthy of a top rating.
Profile Image for Victoria.
41 reviews
March 14, 2023
It's always harder for me to get into nonfiction but I've been wanting to read this book for years and am glad I finally got to it. I have been passionate about the topic of elite-ism ever since I starting going to an elite private school after 8 years of public schooling. Although my family was still relatively well-off, the mere fact that I went to public school separated me from the vast majority of my classmates who went to feeder private elementary and middle schools. My classmates in private school weren't all that much smarter than my public school peers, the primary difference just seemed to be wealth and privilege. That fact felt extremely unsettling to my 13 year-old self.

I resonated a lot with the author's two central claims: 1 - that meritocracy has caused the skyrocketing inequality we see in capitalist countries today and 2 - that the cycle that produces meritocracy harms both the middle class and the elite that are supposed to benefit the most from it. It may seem obvious that the system is rigged, but it was more eye-opening to realize that the way to fix the system isn't by trying to make things more meritocratic. In fact, the author claims that the hyper-competition to get to the social "top" is poisonous, and the race to always be the best is what brings everyone down.

This quote in particular well describes my gripe with elite-ism: "Elites 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 apart from status."

I have found this particularly true for the US, where there are fewer strong public universities and public schools. Since the best universities in the country are all private with massive tuitions, there are more students at these schools from the top 1% of incomes than from the bottom 50%. Then, these elite students are pressured into going into elite professions that predominately hire from these schools. These students overwhelming accept the easy pipeline to an elite job to maintain their elite status and wealth, and they are able to provide an elite education to their children with this wealth, and the vicious cycle continues. Many of these jobs force people to work all the time, giving them little time to have hobbies or define themselves outside of their job and where they went to school.

This book also aptly explains my experience attending an elite college. I felt like most people were stuck in a rat race of chasing the most elite clubs, social groups, jobs, etc. The school didn't have room for mediocrity. I found myself so often wishing I could just join a recreational running club or theatre group without going through multiple rounds of interviews or auditions. It felt like you had to be the best or you weren't worth anything. If you didn't have an internship or job lined up that paid well, people would judge you and you would begin to think there was something wrong with yourself.

I think the worst part is that people who achieved the "best" thought that it was because of their own merit. The author mentions the fact of luck and that if you're born with a certain talent and wealth, you can often succeed and it's not just from your own hard work. Many of the most "successful" people just had the means to succeed, while a greater many portion of people are born with talent and no money to develop their talents.

I also really liked this quote: "You have to be right that the best society is one where people get ahead by being good at things that are worth doing. And that sounds like a kind of meritocracy. On the other hand, one of the essential features of the sort of meritocracy we have today is intensive competition. … The kind of system that I want is one where social and economic life advantages are given to people who are “good enough” at the thing that they’re doing to be socially useful."

I resonate with the idea of just being "good enough." And I hope to spend my time getting better at things that are "worth doing." The author aptly describes how elite society has failed to make many systems better, such as healthcare, finance, or education. Instead, these professions have gotten more convoluted so that only elite people can succeed at them. I want to spend my life doing things that genuinely are socially useful, without participating in a rat race to be the best. I want to define myself by everything but my job and where I went to school. I also understand it takes a long time to unlearn these things, but I want to spend every day trying and reminding myself that everyone has inner worth that doesn't need to be validated by status, wealth, or a job.
Profile Image for James.
616 reviews15 followers
October 28, 2019
Traps, Delusions, and Madness

I have a daily bike commute that allows me to meditate on any recent preoccupations and a couple of mornings ago I realized that the three books I read in the last couple of weeks all are about the apocalypse of the present. If I re-read them in a decade I will probably find them alarmist. Right now though, I struggle to come to that conclusion. Douglas Murray’s “The Madness of Crowds,” Daniel Markovits’ “The Meritocracy Trap,” and Jia Tolentino’s “Trick Mirror” all take as a given that the way we currently live is unsustainable for the typical psyche, especially the psyche of a twenty or thirty-something. They range from right to left, respectively: Murray, Markovits, Tolentino. But underlying all of them, in a way that Tolentino explores best, is the ubiquity of the algorithm and the metric.
Murray attacks the left for catastrophizing every social issue rather than using a slowly moving, conservative consensus to decide how best to help individuals flourish. He takes great pains to be reasonable; he does not call liberals snowflakes, or suggest that social justice warriors are characteristically flawed. Instead, he argues that technology and a particular kind of Foucaultian neo-marxism (never mind that Foucault strenuously disagreed with Marxism) have invaded public space and encouraged an attitude towards injustice that is both paranoid and viral. The spread of a kind of left consensus operates on what Murray calls the madness of crowds rather than through reasoned debate; it’s why student protesters block conservatives from speaking on campuses and why Clarence Thomas can be called a race traitor but Rachel Dolezal can be referred to as an ally.

Some of what Murray said was nonsense, particularly about feminism. His attack on feminists in the 80’s and 90’s barely brushes on Susan Faludi’s “Backlash” and spends most of its time on Mary Daly because Faludi’s arguments are in fact cogent and useful and he can use Daly as a straw man to try to demolish both of them at once. Fundamentally, women should still be mad about the way developed societies tolerate acquaintance rape, the lack of maternal and paternal leave, and the incredible surfeit of women in power despite their overwhelming representation in colleges. Murray’s neoconservatism doesn’t allow him to recognize that these gaps are social decisions that can be made better through regulation and legislation. He insists that these are basic problems of biology that societies can only solve through excessive social engineering and he is wrong.

However, Murray is incredibly useful on issues of homosexuality, race, and transgender rights. In every case he acknowledges the gains of rights struggles and the gaps that these groups still face. And in each case his attack on the way that rights struggles have been transformed by the internet and by a specific kind of shame and virtue discourse on the internet is valuable. Most straight cis white people on the internet who are hypothetically defending the rights of minorities are actually doing a bunch of virtue signaling. They do not target the deeper causes of inequality such as adoption rights or school segregation or lack of access to medical services. They instead target micro aggressions. Murray has an astonishing array of examples to prove this, and he is most effective on the issue of gay rights where he has some personal stake. The supposed intersectionality of gay rights with the rights struggles of other groups is undermining the acceptance of gay rights which is at a high water mark in the history of developed nations. It’s also devaluing the history of mostly white cis gays and lesbians who fought for equality rather than revolution. Often times these men and women fought alongside trans people and people of color.

But sometimes they didn’t, and that’s not because they were bigots. Current left discourse on the internet has been shot full of both anger and bland platitudes of inclusion in a way that best captures clicks and views algorithmically but explains politics incredibly poorly. Calling this discourse “neo-marxist” is helpful in the sense that like a Soviet era film it is full of propaganda and doublespeak and mainly serves to enrich the elite (the Politburo for the soviets, content aggregators in our current economy) rather than motivate any real political change or reflection. Overall, I think Murray’s on to something about what’s wrong with the left today. His observations often frequently intersect with Tolentino’s and with Markovits.

Tolentino also points out the way the left now catastrophizes social issues. In contrast to Murray she’s a card-carrying member of the left who used this exact discourse at Jezebel and Gawker. But now, in essays such as “The I in the Internet,” “Always Be Optimizing,” “We Come from Old Virginia” and “The Cult of the Difficult Woman,” she attacks social justice discourse for its blinkered and often destructive perspective. The strongest essay is “Difficult Woman,” where she traces how attempts to reclaim or valorize the experiences of celebrity women in the interests of feminism are worse than useless, a simple dopamine hit for frustrated feminists wanting an escape from the hard work of real politics. Even worse, those same tools are now used to justify the decisions of women in Trump’s leadership team, simply because those women are powerful and feminine. The second strongest essay is about the power of the internet to destroy discourse and here she fully explicates what Murray briefly mentioned in “Madness”: it may not be that the politics of social justice are any more extreme than they ever were before, but the internet is a breeding ground for only extreme views and bleaches out nearly every attempt at reasoned, give and take discourse (except for goodreads, I hope).

College-educated people on the internet are constantly trying to optimize their politics and political choices, searching in vain for some metric of virtue. The sheer flood of advice and useless opinion bathes us in its waves while producing an empty, hollowed-out self when the tide recedes. This is why Tolentino is “Optimizing”: the algorithm promises that one day she can be healthy, happy, virtuous, and envied.

Markovits wrote the worst of these three books due to his insistence of meritocracy as an ideology created by elites rather than a system that emerged from elite anxiety, technological change, and the advance of the algorithm and the metric. Markovits’ book is depressingly repetitive and mindnumpingly simple in its thesis: our current system stresses out elites while numbing the middle classes and the poor. No one really wants to optimize all the time. I did find the staggering sums of money that elites invest in their children somewhat surprising, as well as the numbers of the elite who work insane hours.

However, I think this ideology is not a recent invention. Instead, it’s a huge part of American identity that has only recently been allowed to flourish because of the advance of technology. As Markovits even pointed out, the meritocracy is a basically Jeffersonian idea of republican virtue. However, before the algorithm and the metric, our society was relatively limited on how we could measure just how much merit a person had so we reverted to other, more democratic heuristics to determine who would be in charge and who would serve. However, recently technology allows machines and fancy math to make those decisions and thus inequality increases and people who don’t understand machines or fancy math (basically, people who have not been trained with an elite American education) feel justifiably resentful.

On the other hand, Markovits again attacks social justice discourse like Tolentino and Murray do, and here he is possibly the most successful of the three. According to him, social justice discourse obsesses over getting oppressed groups more access to elite institutions rather than attacking the fact that these institutions benefit a tiny group of people by design and more inclusion of oppressed groups within that tiny group will not substantially change the way that group works because of the immense effort required to get into it. In other words, widening the middle class and weakening the grip of the super-educated elite should be our goal, rather than getting more people of color into the elite and attacking the dignity and privilege of white middle-class Americans. I basically agree with Markovits on all of these points.
Profile Image for Lynn.
3,220 reviews58 followers
January 31, 2021
A work that took 10 years to research and write. The author discusses that society that has decided to separate itself on so called merits destroying itself. Americans are increasingly separated into those who are considered to have merit and those who don’t. A smaller percentage of Americans have wealth and attend elite colleges and schools. The larger majority and wealthy minority may never truly meet on any equal terms in work, school and neighborhood. Democracy can’t survive this way but such inequality can’t hold a country together.
Profile Image for Matthew Davidson.
Author 6 books19 followers
July 13, 2020
This is a difficult book for me to review. I agree with much of the premise.

I think that many Americans will be angry when they read this book. The very first sentence is as follows:

"Meritocracy is a sham."

then the book states,

"An entire civilization resists this conclusion."

This goes against popular belief. However, if there was ever a book which might assist in combating this belief, it would be this one.

Mr. Markovits writes very well. I didn't find much in his book which was news to me, but I took heart that he had the humility and courage to say what he does in this book.

I became aware of Mr. Markovits when I saw him being interviewed on "Amanpour and Company," on PBS (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLEvJ...). I was struck with his humility that he felt that there were children who had greater abilities than he did when he was in high school, but that his privilege won out over that fact.

He also stated in that interview that if the current system of purported "Meritocracy" merely was bad and a myth for the middle classes then nothing would change. That is why he spends a good deal of time in the book explaining why the current economic system in America also exploits those at the very top, and in what way.

At first, I thought this book was just a very clever Editorial. But in fact, about a quarter of the book is endnotes, explaining his research, and showing that his 20 years of work is more than just a very clever opinion. The one piece of insight which really sticks out in my mind is as follows:

He discusses, on page 256 and 257, how quite often countries with enormous wealth of resources (e.g. oil, gold, or diamonds) do not achieve a true democracy, nor a true middle class. He states, "...They tend to develop undemocratic and corrupt social and political institutions, designed to protect the private interests of their powerful elites at the expense of the public good." He then goes on to discuss how America's greatest wealth is in human capital, and how the misuse of this tends to "...concentrate wealth and power in an increasingly narrow caste of meritocratic workers, doing glossy jobs, who dominate a large class of subordinate workers doing gloomy jobs."

This, I think, explains the current state of affairs in the United States, and how resentments are fostered through scapegoating, because those people whose resentments are being inflamed, for whatever reasons, either cannot, or do not wish to, see the larger picture of what is going on.

I did feel that it should have been edited down. I felt that it was too long. And while he does offer the possibility of solutions, he also humbly notes that one book is not going to change society.

10 reviews
September 11, 2019
The author makes what might seem to be convincing arguments at first (although even this is questionable) but then throughout the book, fails to substantiate his claim. For example, the author claims that education must become more inclusive in that education at premier American schools should not be open only to those who can afford it, that is, the "elite". This is not hard to buy but then he states that the way in which this should occur is taxing these universities more through changes in legislation. That might seem to make sense but he completely fails to acknowledge the presence of things that might hinder this process, such as lobbying, which will mean that any progress that is made will likely only be a slight concession. And even given that the reforms that authors hopes for pass through, there is no evidence at all to suggest that these reforms will result in the situation he is hoping for. Add this to the fact that the author actually fails to do in-text citations properly for many of his quotes (only adding them after the book is complete in the notes section), makes me wary of believing any conclusion the author has drawn.

As if this were not enough, one of the other reforms the author suggests is to get the current "middle class" to do the same work as that of the so-called "working class" by using tax reform to get businesses to favor what he calls "mid-skilled work" instead of "super-skilled workers" (these terms are not all that well explained- does "mid-skilled work" mean work done by the middle class or work that is less skilled than "super-skilled work"?). And regardless of which definition, unless it is out of necessity (which is extremely understandable), why would someone who can do work that is typically paid more take work that pays less?

If you're looking for a work that looks to tax reform as a silver bullet, then this is the work for you. This work would benefit greatly from confronting the immediate issues present in its argument. That it fails to do that makes it not worth reading (or re-reading), unfortunately.
1,359 reviews32 followers
February 15, 2020
Writes with a flourish and supplements stats on [vast] income inequality and [lack of] socioeconomic mobility with funny or poignant anecdotes, though I'm not sure how far from his desk he wandered to collect those [Yale Law School and its alums show up often].

Got a little repetitive on the "devours the elite" part -- maybe I'm insufficiently sympathetic since by the standards of the lawyers/bankers/hedge fund types he describes I don't make any money, but a little goes a long way for me in relation to "it sucks so much having to work crushing numbers of billable hours to afford my kids' elite prep school tuition and our stellar vacations". Remember, you can always opt out and become a faculty member in a college of arts and sciences.

More generally, nothing wrong with it really, but illustrates two small peeves i have with the book industry:

1. I guess for the sake of marketing you have to proclaim everything as novel -- provocative, radical, brave etc. turn up in the jacket copy and blurbs, but really if you've been to a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren rally you might already have heard that there's a downside to capitalism.

2. To generate impressive scope for these sorts of analyses, you need to show that your big idea explains everything -- I guess Gladwell has a lot to answer for in this respect.

Maybe instead of kvetching i should get in on it, so keep an eye out for my forthcoming 400-page tome "You can't have the rose without the thorn: Everything has a downside". For chapter 1, I'll maybe tweak this book's point that switching from an idle-rich aristocracy to a high-SAT's/private-tutored/80-hours-a-week "merit"ocracy by using non-Yale examples. After that, perhaps a chapter on how basketball is hella fun but most people never make it to the NBA, and away we go. The proposal writes itself!
Profile Image for Brian.
49 reviews8 followers
July 22, 2020
An interesting book, thoroughly researched, and well worth reading if you're interested in how we got here ("here" being broadly defined). Markovits makes a few compelling points, and makes a couple of concrete suggestions that I think have (excuse the pun) merit, e.g., revoking the non-profit status of elite universities that are not invested in educating broader swaths of the American public.

But it's also a book with real shortcomings, most notably because the author seems utterly allergic to basic Marxian class analysis that really seems to clearly explain a lot of what he's seeing, handwaving it away in just a couple of pages--his insistence on viewing Mark Zuckerberg's or Jeff Bezos's empires as the fruits of labour (through the argument that they are the result of founders' shares that imply real work) strikes me as a real stretch; he is more generally just outright dismissive of the effects of capital accumulation, spends precious little time on how even the very idea of "merit" deserves more scrutiny, and I think mischaracterizes the progressive case against "elites". Ultimately, journalist Malcom Harris's Kids These Days looks at broadly the same phenomenon and comes up with a far more convincing explanation.
335 reviews
December 21, 2019
What can I tell you? This book depresses me. How bad is the current system of meritocracy? Think of this book as a nonfiction "The Hunger Games". Everyone loses, victors and victims.

The real culprit is that meritocracy, as practiced by the current elites, leads to widening inequality between the elite and the middle, and extinguishes the promise of equal opportunity for all. On the other hand, to secure a spot for themselves and their children on the privilege side of this chasm, the elites must devote themselves to unrelenting competition from cradle to grave. The have-nots lie fallow in stagnation while the haves reap alienation. This book gives the best diagnosis of our milieu's malaise.
Profile Image for Bill.
33 reviews
October 29, 2019
Like the villagers in Shelly’s Frankenstein, American society must deal with the disastrous consequences of a well intentioned experiment, meritocratic educational opportunity. The disaster is an unworkable caste system dominated by a superordinate caste enslaved and socially isolated by its work and an middle class living stagnant lives of enforced idleness.
Markovits details the history and evolution of our meritocratic system. And he challenges the reader to recognize the problems it has created, including our present day populist discontent. Importantly, he offers some provocative solutions and rationale for why they could be politically viable.
Profile Image for Ericka Clou.
2,192 reviews169 followers
September 21, 2020
Interesting perspective. I would recommend reading "Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World" by Anand Giridharadas first because it's a related threat to democracy and, in my opinion, a better book. But this has a lot of value as well if you have the time to read it. Spoiler alert: you might not have time to read it if you're in the group of elite currently being devoured by over-work.
Profile Image for Amy.
34 reviews3 followers
November 10, 2019
The premise of this book is both fascinating and timely. My biggest criticism is that most data points compare this moment to “mid-century,” but “mid-century” is hardly representative of human wealth distribution over time. I feel that mid-century was the exception, not the rule. At mid-century a Coal miner and a school teacher could have a second home and a small airplane.
Profile Image for Fernando.
46 reviews2 followers
October 16, 2021
I originally thought it was an Economics book written by an economist, but to my surprise, it's actually a political book written by a Yale law professor. The prose style is a bit heavier than what I am used to (not shocking, given the writer's profession) but every word counts and helps to paint the portrait of an ideology that substituted "aristocracy", but continued to disseminate a system of inequality, albeit more veiled and subtle.

Daniel Markovits does a great job in showing who are the losers of meritocracy - not only the poor or the middle class, but also the elites; not only the rural kid in America who will never get into Harvard but also the upper-class kid who does get into Harvard and will work 80 hours a week in a (most likely) meaningless job (high-frequency trading?) to afford private school and fencing classes to its two descendants. In summary, society. It's a much stronger argument than pitting one side versus the other - it's in reality, both sides versus a system, an idea.

It was quite interesting to see the parallels with the work of Martin Ford in Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, where there's an acceptance that middle-class jobs are being eroded, substituted by low-paying, menial jobs at the bottom, and highly-skilled, concentrated jobs at the top. The difference here is that Daniel Markovits argues that these superordinate jobs (opposed to subordinate jobs) were enabled by people who experienced elite education, and therefore, are not truly meritocratic - to be eligible for these jobs, you require elite education, which requires you to already be part of the elite.

And it's not only blue-collar workers that are suffering - but the elites are also worse off from meritocracy (compared to the aristocratic elites). There's no rejection that the elites work hard (very hard) to earn their immense salaries, that their salaries are based on immense skill and keep their jobs in face of intense competition, which is undoubtedly an improvement on the prior customs of elites maintaining their wealth through the use of accumulated (and inherited) land and capital ("Whereas aristocratic inequality was both wasteful and unjust, meritocratic inequality declares itself at once efficient and just"). The justification for doing so is that "the returns on gloomy jobs are so low, on glossy jobs are so high, and there are so few of them", and it's easy to see how minor training mistakes among members of the elite can preclude them from the best schools or best jobs, therefore becoming an unfathomable high tax on their future earnings. But in the end, it's clear that meritocratic merits do not make meritocracy perfect.

Most of the book is focused on explaining phenomenons rather than suggesting solutions, but when it finally does, they do not seem fantastic - rather, they are quite logical, and to a certain extent, reasonable. A two-pronged approach focused on reducing inequality in education and in the labor market would go a long way towards course-correction. The educational reforms he proposes seem a bit far-fetched and simplistic to me (doubling admissions numbers at elite colleges ignores the complexities involved on that and the unintended consequences on the value of degrees, for instance), but even if they fail to materialize completely, any step towards that is a move towards the right direction. The labor reforms are more abstract to me, and I'm not sure I understand all of them in their entirety, but I really like the approach on tax reform - the current regressiveness is long overdue.

In the end, it's a hard book to read, with heavy, charged paragraphs, that maybe extends itself for too long (I frequently found myself reading the same thing written with different words). Maybe it should have been a long read or a series of essays instead of a book, but it's fine. It works as a reference book that you keep coming back year after year. I found myself annotating quotes from the book left and right, such as my favorite: "Merit itself is not genuine excellence but rather - like the false virtues that aristocrats trumpeted in the ancién regime - a pretense, constructed to rationalize an unjust distribution of advantage". Even the book chapters and headers carry immense weight, such as "The meritocracy oppresses the middle class and exploits the elite".
18 reviews
June 30, 2022
Interesting and provocative thesis - that meritocracy is by now a rigged and flawed system - but it was a struggle trying to finish this. He spends the majority of the book pointing of these flaws and it was entertaining and anecdotally true until it got old and repetitive. And he misses out on the two most important questions: how did we get here and what should we do about it? There are about 5 pages on the solutions - get elite schools to admit more from the lower rungs and increase more jobs for mid-skilled labour - which are at best out of touch and at worst a bit stupid. And he also tries to fault today's inequality solely on the failure of meritocracy, which is probably too ambitious. But he does point out some real issues.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 298 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.