THE MERITOCRACY TRAP by Daniel Markovits


How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite
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How the myth of achievement through merit alone has created a schism between the wealthy and the middle class.

Markovits (Law/Yale Univ.; Contract Law and Legal Methods, 2012, etc.), founding director of the Center for the Study of Private Law, responds to the much-debated issues of income inequality, middle-class discontent, and the rise of angry populism by mounting an impassioned and well-argued attack against meritocracy: the belief that talent and ambition lead to wealth and status. “The meritocratic ideal—that social and economic rewards should track achievement rather than breeding—anchors the self-image of the age,” writes the author. But that ideal, he counters, championed by progressives as a solution to inequality, is “a sham,” creating “aristocratic distinctions” that separate the rich from the increasingly frustrated middle class. Nor does meritocracy serve the rich, instead consigning elite workers to the “strained self-exploitation” of long hours at relentless, inhumane overwork that leads to an impoverished “inner life” and “destruction of the authentic self.” Markovits, who was educated and has taught at elite institutions, offers compelling evidence that despite gestures toward diversity, wealthy students make up the majority of admissions, producing “superordinate workers, who possess a powerful work ethic and exceptional skills.” These workers, who take “glossy” jobs, have displaced mid-skilled, middle-class workers, who are relegated to dismal, “gloomy” jobs that lead to income stagnation. Meritocracy, asserts the author, “debases an increasingly idled middle class, which it shuts off from income, power, and prestige.” He offers two far-reaching solutions: taking away private institutions’ tax-exempt status unless they expand opportunities for higher education to a broad public, making admission open and inclusive; and payroll tax reform and wage subsidies that would impel businesses, including the health care industry, to hire the “surging supply of educated workers” coming from newly accessible colleges. In medicine, for example, hiring nurses and nurse practitioners could make health care more accessible than hiring a few specialist doctors. Sure to be controversial, the author’s analysis and proposals deserve serious debate.

Bold proposals for a radical revision of contemporary society.

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-7352-2199-4
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Penguin Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2019