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The Meritocracy Trap (2019), Daniel Markovits

I read Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All over the holidays, which I enjoyed immensely. This led me to Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap in the new year, which delves in the same broad pasture, but adopts a more academic bent and broader brush, surveying history, social science and economics. I’ve tried to summarize what I think the main ideas are, mingling a paraphrasing of the book with a few of my own thoughts, along with some ideas from the first book. Both are well worth your time, imho.

I was recently thinking about why I do what I do, and inevitably, the idea of money crossed my mind. Money incentivizes activity, all kinds of activity – it motivates us collectively and as individuals, to move and then stay in motion. Perhaps much of this activity is not broadly meaningful, but a small percentage probably is, and that is enough to move civilization forward, step by step or large leaps at a time – inventions, ideas, scientific discoveries, processes, systems. As a catalyst for progress at scale, it’s hard to beat. Money is the reason that capitalism, an economic system where production exists to generate profit for the owners of capital, and the basis for the most powerful economy on earth, can exist – it establishes a direct conduit between incentives, action, and reward.

Capitalism in turn, drives the culture of meritocracy that is the foundation for so much of our economy today. My reading of meritocracy: a culture where individuals are explicitly compensated according to actual “value”, or impact on a firm’s bottom line. In a capitalist system based on production, it is contribution to profit and productivity that ultimately accrues the highest rewards, and this explains the extravagant pay of CEOs compared to other employees, made possible by how much technology has amplified the leverage of management within a company. Technology enables scale in many facets of production, and when used with capitalist intent, becomes a key component of today’s meritocracy and an enabler for wealth concentration. In my view, capitalism (money as incentive), technology (and education), and the meritocratic culture amplify and feed each other, a “virtuous” cycle of sorts.

However, Markovits argues that meritocracy is a false virtue, because the impossibly high bars to entry are defined by education and skill (and network) acquisition that only exist within the meritocracy itself. Whereas it was possible to sustain a good life with an “unskilled” job in previous years, today’s economy is heavily biased towards intense training and skill acquisition before entering the workforce, and then continual self-exploitation maintaining one’s place amongst the hyper-competitive elite. Meritocratic dynasties understand that the extraordinary training their young will need to successfully engage with this system must begin from an early age. We see greater and greater inequality, as previously various classes continue to stratify because of the meritocratic feedback loop – the so-called hollowing out of the middle class, eventually leading to just elites and everyone else – the supporting class, if you will, and a tremendous irony, given one would normally associate meritocracy with greater egalitarianism in society.

This propels social change, as the two classes increasingly lead lives in completely different constructed worlds and cultures – unlike life last mid-century, when there was much greater mixing. As life outcomes continue to become more polarized across the classes, and as elite power continues to accrue from greater wealth, middle class loss of status, resentment and dissatisfaction, along with a sort of cognitive dissonance about the sheen of a caste system that is based on merit – isn’t merit earned, after all? – leads to a search for identity beyond merit, tribalism, and lashing out at those perceived as outsiders. On the other hand, merit allows a sort of virtue to be felt by elites, who are not immune from discontent either, but now feel they have the moral right (and skill, not to mention the means) to change and improve an imperfect world on their own terms, all without the discomfort of actual social, economic, and personal change.

All of this drives political change, which we’ve witnessed around the world in recent years. None of this is new. Much like the aristocracy and its eventual decline – only this time with inherited skill instead of birthright – a system with an ostensibly virtuous foundation but an immorally egregious collective burden, cannot be justified or sustained. When we are more equal, we all become more human. Given the incumbent systems in place and forces at play, any change will arrive slowly, but redistribution reforms through more thoughtful tax policy – for example, education and payroll, at the heart of meritocracy – and developing an awareness about the importance of mid-skilled jobs, can be important first steps.