A few months ago I wrote a post about Thomas Piketty’s idea of a wealth tax, and why it is necessary to prevent the natural acceleration of wealth disparity in a capitalist system. This post explores the assumptions of merit that justify that system, and how the principles of equality and opportunity are also being “gamed” to produce economic and social disparities. In doing so I’m drawing from the work of Daniel Markovits and his book The Meritocracy Trap. 

Although Markovits is primarily concerned with American meritocracy, some of the symptoms are also present in Canada.

What is Meritocracy?

“Merit is an artificial construction, built to valorize the exploitation of human capital, and, in this way, to launder an otherwise offensive distribution of advantage.” (73)

I think everyone wants to live in a meritocracy. I mean, what’s not to like about a world where your reputation, achievements, and compensation are based strictly upon your ability? A world where you didn’t have to worry about the impact of gender, race, religion or sexuality upon your career trajectory or earning potential?

In terms of equality of opportunity, we already live in that world. Technically, anybody can become a doctor or an astronaut. Technically, any child could get a scholarship to Harvard. Technically, any Johnny or Jasmine could end up with a credit card that’s got no limit, a private jet with a bedroom in it…and a lucrative job in finance on Wall Street.

Technically, I could win a point off Serena Williams in a game of tennis, IF I was only given the opportunity.

However, everyone knows that equality of opportunity is different than equality of outcome. Just because every child has the opportunity to go to Harvard doesn’t mean that every child has the brains to go to Harvard, or the money to go to Harvard, or the support and situational stability to apply to Harvard. There are prerequisites to the pursuit of opportunity that are not equal and will never be equal, and, to some degree, that’s simply part of life.

I mean, it’s deeply unfair to the rest of the NBA that Lebron James has a body that seems genetically engineered for basketball dominance, yet we don’t force Lebron to play with ankle weights. 

It’s also deeply unfair to his political competitors that Prime Minister Trudeau is movie star handsome, yet we didn’t force him to grow a beard.

It’s A Trap

Jokes aside, Markovits ignores genetic inequity in his book. He argues that it’s largely peripheral to education in predicting professional outcomes. Instead, Markovits proves that the growing economic inequity in the United States is not caused by meritocratic differentiation, but instead by the subordination of middle class and working class Americans to a small minority of elite professionals with incredibly specific skill sets. He defined “elites” as the one percent of households that capture incomes from $500,000 a year upward, as well as another 5-10% of professionals who work in the same social and economic spheres. These elites are the best and the brightest according to very narrow criteria, and work far harder than the average to justify both their extreme levels of compensation and their elite status. 

This might seem like a fair bargain at first blush, yet Markovits argues the system is broken in two critical ways. First of all, entry into the elite workforce requires elite education, which is increasingly obtainable only by the children of the elite because of its rigour and cost. These barriers are quickly turning a “meritocratic” system into one which perpetuates a hard-working, but hereditary, class of elite social and professional overlords. Second,  the elite workers aren’t delivering on their promise to make the system better for everyone. Instead, the economy is being engineered to increase the importance and productivity of elite workers at the expense of the other workers, which doesn’t increase the net efficiency and productivity of the system. For example, the revolution in financial manipulation which preceded the 2008 financial crisis produced incredible value in a sector largely populated with super-educated elites who had “won” the meritocratic competition, yet did incredible damage to the rest of the economy and failed to make the markets safer or more stable.

“Merit itself has become a counterfeit virtue, a false idol. And meritocracy – formerly benevolent and just – has become what it was invented to combat. A mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations” (Markovits, x)

The Harvard Example

But let’s get back to Harvard. Technically, Harvard embraced academic-based admission (rather than status-based) in the middle of the 20th century. Technically, Harvard’s admission process is three times as competitive as it was 20 years ago. Technically,  Harvard has a $30 billion endowment making more than 10% return per year (according to Piketty), and promises to provide scholarships to students who can’t afford the steep tuition. Logically, this should mean that only the best and brightest are being accepted, and the economic barriers to their entry are being removed.

So why is it at Harvard that more students come from households in the top 1% of income distribution than the entire bottom 50%? Why is it, as Markovits writes, that there are more students at Harvard with a parent who is a medical doctor than all students with a parent who works any blue-collar job?

It would seem that the children of rich people are simply smarter than the rest. Rich children drastically outscore their poorer contemporaries on the SAT (a universal college admissions exam in the US), meaning that far fewer children from middle class or poor backgrounds achieve the scores necessary to attend elite universities like Harvard. According to Markovits, the academic gap between rich and poor  kids in the US is currently larger than the gap between black and white students in 1954 when schools were first forced to desegregate. This is creating a new kind of segregation – between elite universities accepting only elite (and generally rich) applicants, and non-elite institutions accepting everyone else. And, as we all know, just as education is the gateway to opportunity, it can also be used to strictly enforce social and economic class.

The logic of meritocracy has no answer for this disparity. In fact, it provides these rich students an iron-clad justification for their success, since they wrote the same entrance exams and completed the same application forms as their poorer competitors. Yet that equality of opportunity only applies to the competition itself, and not to the years of training which have made richer students far better prepared for the exam.

As an example, let me tell you the story of Pascal, a fictional child (and eventual Harvard student) whose parents were both lawyers at a prestigious firm in Palo Alto, California. When Pascal was born, his mother delayed a promising career to become a stay-at-home parent, partly because the family could easily subsist on dad’s six-figure income, and partly because she wanted to be personally involved in her child’s first few years of development. Because the median income of Pascal’s neighbourhood is far higher than the American average, it boasts a number of elite education and parenting services. At 4, Pascal is sent to a preschool that costs $45,000 a year and employs full-time French, Spanish, and art tutors. One of the selling features is that a disproportionately high number of graduates from the preschool are accepted by the elite elementary school down the block, which provides a disproportionately high number of successful applicants for the elite middle school a mile away…yada, yada, yada, Harvard.

Pascal is in an elite conduit which has been preparing him since birth to go to an elite school. His parents, as 1 percenters, are far more likely than the average to both be university educated, to stay together, to live longer than the average, and to raise kids in regions with highly-ranked private schools. When Pascal expresses an interest in a hobby, he is provided expert, one-on-one instruction in that hobby. When Pascal needs tutoring, his parents hire elite firms at hundreds of dollars an hour, often staffed  with PhDs. Most importantly, Pascal is part of a pipeline that begins at preschool, continues at Harvard, and will eventually terminate at an elite firm, practice, or institution disproportionately employing graduates from elite schools at incredible salaries; a pipeline that is hell-bent on providing Pascal the skills and abilities to ace the SAT and application and be ready for the rigour of the Ivy League.

Is it any wonder then, that by 18, most “normal” American children can’t compete with Pascal? Or that wealth is more important than any other metric in projecting their educational and professional future?

“Meritocracy’s promise of equality–the theory that anyone can succeed simply by excelling, because meritocratic universities admit students based on academic achievement and employers hire workers based on skill – proves false in practice” (Markovits, 26).

“Meritocracy therefore creates feed-back loops between education and work, in which inequality in each realm amplifies inequality in the other.” (Markovits, 27)

Meritocracy at Work

Since the 1980s, technological advances have shifted centre of production from mid-skilled to super-skilled labour. This means that developed economies are tending to produce corporations with a small mass of highly-educated, super-skilled and over-compensated elite workers in “glossy” jobs surrounded by  a cloud of disposable, low-skilled, and under-compensated service workers in “gloomy” jobs. Think of companies like Amazon, Uber, Instagram, or Google. The current pandemic crisis is showing just  how valuable those service workers are to our economy, yet many of them are at high-risk for automation and elimination in the near future. In gross economic terms, these individual service workers are also infinitely less valuable than the few elite workers at the top of the meritocratic pyramid, a fact used to justify the massive disparities in compensation.

Income Ratios

However, the economic value of individuals cannot be measured in a vacuum. In many industries, the increase in importance, productivity, and compensation for a few elite jobs has been accomplished by decreases in importance, productivity, and compensation for non-elite jobs. As Markovits notes: ““Elite skills can exist and can command elite incomes only by sitting atop massive antecedent economic inequality” (264), and “the best evidence suggests that the elite’s true product may be near zero. For all its innovations, modern finance seems not to have reduced the total transaction costs of financial intermediation or to have reduced the share of fundamental economic risk borne by the median household, for example. More generally, rising meritocratic inequality has not been accompanied by accelerating economic growth or increased productivity” (267).

It seems that many of the most elite “shiny” jobs – in finance, law, management, and medicine* – are the products of political and economic engineering which elevate the prestige of a few skill-intensive jobs at the expense of many other mid-skilled and low-skilled jobs. Markovits uses the parable of a city with both warriors and farmers to describe the situation. If the warrior make work for themselves by inciting wars, do they deserve greater compensation from society just because they’ve created a situation which causes great suffering but makes their specific skills essential?

*Medical services are essential, but health care systems can be organized and implemented in many different ways.

Consequences and Solutions

In the old days, the aristocracy justified their privileged social status through the mystical quality of their nobility. Today, the meritocratic elite justify their “glossy” jobs and massive compensation by being more educated and working harder than the rest. However, the grinding life-long contest necessary to win placement in the best schools at every level, as well as the crushing demands of many “glossy” jobs, is unsustainable. A significant portion of Markovits’ book chronicles the social, emotional, and physical costs the profession elite pay for their status in America. Consequently, Markovits thinks that since the system harms all classes of society, albeit in different ways, a reforming consensus should be easy to create.

Unfortunately, after describing a deeply entrenched system with complicated incentives over hundreds of pages, his solutions seem trite. He argues that we should make elite schools truly diverse by threatening their tax-exempt status unless they draw half of their enrolment from the bottom two-thirds of society (divided by family income), and that the creation of middle class jobs should be encouraged through financial and systemic incentives. Compared to Piketty’s grand vision of a transforming tax on wealth, Markovits’ reforms seem anemic.

They also fail to address the twin catastrophes of automation and political alienation which are in the process of fragmenting western societies. Markovits astutely notes that elite workers’ progressive ideals make them highly intolerant of prejudice based on identity, but curiously dismissive of economic, political, or moral prejudice. In many cases, the misery of middle class and working class white communities in the US has been attributed to their bigotry, instead of economic stagnation caused by systemic changes which benefited the elites. The idea that Trump won the 2016 election because of the nation’s underlying racism, rather than because of economic desperation in key regions, is an example of this convenient myopia.

“The meritocracy trap has no single face. A genuine but un-winnable competition excludes working- and middle-class adults from the charismatic centre of economic life, denies them the income and dignity that come with earning a good living, and blocks working- and middle-class children from the educations required to get the jobs that their parents are denied. A brilliant vortex of training, skill, industry, and income holds elites in thrall, bending them from earliest childhood through retirement to an unrelenting discipline of meritocratic production that alienates superordinate workers from their labor, so that they exploit rather than fulfill themselves and eventually lose authentic ambitions that they might ever fulfill. And a web of disaffection and mistrust isolates the rich from the rest and entangles both classes in a callous and vengeful politics, in which each side seeks to domino the other and goodwill surrenders to bad faith. In all of these ways, meritocratic inequality produces pervasive discontent and deep-seated anxiety.” (71)

A Destiny Forged in Preschool

I didn’t go to the right preschool…or the right elementary, middle, or high school…or the right university. Consequently, I found Markovits’ book deeply discouraging, since it made me realize how poorly I’ve prepared myself to compete in the academy and the workforce against people who did go to the right schools. Initially, it made me feel like I’d wasted years of my life playing with wooden blocks while my peers did model UN and coded their own robots. However, on closer inspection, I came away from this book with four encouraging lessons:

  1. Markovits doesn’t account for brains in his analysis of the feed-back loop between elite education and elite work because raw smarts don’t seem that statistically significant. In other words, if elite education can enable the average rich kid to outperform more than 90% of the kids from other income brackets, then raw cognitive ability is far less important to academics than most of us assume. It really is encouraging to realize that, given the right tools, almost all of us could have gone to Harvard.
  2. I’ve always found the siren song of meritocratic success to be seductive. I want to be the best in my chosen field, and I want to reap the professional and financial rewards of that success. However, I’ve also been torn by the single-minded dedication and sacrifice that it takes to be the best in fields that encourage increasingly extreme workaholic tendencies. For example, Markovits notes that in 1962, the American Bar Association declared that there were about 1300 billable hours for the average lawyer in a year. Today, truly elite firms might require 2400 billable hours a year to make partner – or 12 hours a day, six days a week…all year. Success isn’t worth that sacrifice; mediocrity seems to provide better avenues to joy. Work Hours
  3. By all the metrics, Canada is far less unequal, both in terms of wealth and educational opportunity than the US. There is a definite class of Laurentian corridor elite in Canada that attended a small set of prestigious schools (U of T, Queens, McGill), but these schools are still accessible by many middle class and lower class Canadians. We have a meritocracy in Canada, but it has not yet coopted our social and political systems to the point where it can self-perpetuate in isolation from the rest of the population.
  4. Markovits’ book alleviates the guilt and shame that meritocracy inspired in people that are not conventionally successful, but also acknowledges the accomplishments of those that are. Achieving a glossy job with 1% levels of compensation takes tremendous work for decades – from preschool through university or graduate school – and requires tremendous commitment and tenacity. There is no doubt (as shown in the above graph), that  meritocratic elites exploit themselves in pursuit of the benefits of their class, even if that exploitation does not compare to the exploitation being suffered by other members of society. Consequently, Markovits is a revisionist rather than a revolutionary; the system is broken, but the underlying rationale for a meritocracy is sound. Fixing equal access to opportunity is a lot easier than trying to build an alternative system of finance or education, and prevents the blatant scapegoating that I think damages most criticisms of societal or economic “elites.” After all, compared to most of the world, everyone I know is a social and economic elite, and we haven’t exactly excelled at using our privilege to meet our obligation to humanity. Why should people who are richer than we are act any differently; why should we hold them to a  different standard than we hold ourselves?

I'm a graduate student at Laurier University in Ontario. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a writer / tennis player / LOTR nerd.

3 Comment on “Merit, Markovits, and the Harvard Effect

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