The Meritocracy Trap

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The Meritocracy Trap

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Jeremy Corbyn opened his 2019 general election campaign with a speech that attacked what he called “the corrupt system”. He wants to “rebuild” the state, he told the crowd, which had gathered to hear him in a South London Arts Centre, and do away with the “tax dodgers, dodgy landlords, bad bosses and big polluters”. These people, Corbyn said, “who think they’re born to rule,” are the originators of inequality, a social evil caused by the quasi-aristocratic passage of wealth and privilege from one generation to the next.

The political right, always less worried about inequality, has tended to see it as a fact of life. As Boris Johnson told the Centre for Policy Studies back in 2013, “I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses and so on that it is a valuable spur to economic activity.” If people want to better themselves, all they have to do is get on their bike, get pedaling and soon they can have it all.

But what if left and right are both wrong? What if the system isn’t corrupt, as Corbyn suggests, and yet still leads to rampant inequality? What if some people pedal as hard as they can, and despite what Johnson says, they still can’t get to the top, even though they are intelligent and capable? What if the true cause of the most extreme form of inequality is down to a mechanism that both the left and right welcome and accept – the idea of merit?

That is the question at the heart of The Meritocracy Trap, by Daniel Markovits, a Professor of Law at the Yale Law School, a position that puts him right at the heart of the US’s meritocratic engine room. He specialises in teaching America’s brightest and best, the students who’ve come from the top schools and who will go on to get the top jobs with salaries to match. You’d think someone who spent his days overseeing this cycle of perpetual success would be happy. But he’s not. He’s deeply worried.

Meritocracy, as Markovits explains in this brilliant and deeply alarming book, is tearing society apart. But his focus is not on the poorest in society. As he sees it, the buying power of the very worst-off Americans has increased substantially since the mid-twentieth century, and is still improving. The gap between the broad middle class and the poorest has therefore narrowed.

What worries him is the gap between the middle and those at the very top. It is here that we find the worst and most damaging inequality. It’s the gap between the mid-ranking functionary and the CEO, between the shop owner and the hedge fund manager, the high street banker and the investment banker. While the gap between the poorest and the middle has closed, the gap between the middle and very richest has widened.

For Markovits, the problem is that the people at the top of the income scale – the ones who earn millions, even billions, each year – feel entirely justified in their wealth. They have earned it, they say. They are not aristocrats. They didn’t sit back and let the serfs till the land, while enjoying a life of leisure. No. They didn’t inherit it. They worked for it. They deserve it.

These people aren’t the “dodgy landlords” or “bad bosses” of Corbyn’s imagination. They are often very good, highly intelligent and capable bosses. The landlord who sits back and lets the money drip into his pocket is not the problem. The elite men and women who are driving inequality are a very different kind of beast. They don’t sit back. They are active. They work.

And how they work. This new elite of what Markovits calls “superordinate” workers, has a work ethic worthy of the gulag. “Young investment bankers,” he writes, “now work 80 to 120 hours a week, often arriving at work at 6 am and not leaving until midnight. In a story familiar to anyone in the business, an analyst at an investment bank once reported working 155 hours in a single week, which left him only 13 hours to devote to the rest of his life, including sleep.”

These aren’t cynical bosses, or leisurely aristocrats. These are devotees, monk-like in both their commitment and willingness to shed their former identities. The stock market bell rings out like the call for dawn prayer. Such extreme working hours don’t only apply to novitiates. Markovits quotes a senior executive at Morgan Stanley, who claims to “work 12 hours a day regularly and 20 hours at a stretch on deals, catnapping on his office couch.”

The financial rewards are staggering. The working rich have always done pretty well, but nowadays they do better than ever. In the late 1960s, the CEO of McDonalds might have made $175,000, or 70 times the minimum wage. Now, the CEO makes $8 million, 500 times the minimum wage. The same degree of wage inflation can be found in finance, in the top law firms, in Silicon Valley, the consultancies and across all the largest corporations.

But the elite’s influence is not confined to the economic consequences of their own working lives. The priority of the superordinate working class is to prepare its children for a life in the workhorse elite. This urge for elite parents to turn their offspring into versions of themselves sustains the high-end private school systems in the US and UK. The huge fees that these schools charge lead to colossal imbalances in education spending. In a poor district of a poor state in the US, a child might receive $8,000 worth of schooling per year. A pupil in an elite private school will receive $75,000.

But even that does not guarantee a place at Harvard, Yale or one of the other top universities. Competition is tough. And, so, the children of the elite are subjected to the same onslaught of work and obligation that their parents face in their professional lives. Not only do children in elite US schools complete between three and five hours of homework every night, but they are increasingly being tutored at home. Their working day never ends.

Tutoring has become big business. The Veritas Tutors Agency of Manhattan, for example, charges $600 per hour for private tuition and a typical elite family will spend around $15,000 each year on tutors. But that’s mid-market. The higher-end tutors in New York City can charge up to $1,500 for a ninety-minute session. But if you want to go ultra high-end, you hire your own full-time private tutor. These individuals command six-figure salaries and, Markovits writes, “are often provided with generous benefits, including transportation, meals, accommodation, and sometimes even personal assistants”. The child with a private tutor is a child who never leaves school, just as an elite parent with three iPhones is a parent who never leaves work.

To burnish the CV, elite parents push their children into the arts, and the private classes mount up in price so that “raising a ballerina can cost a family $100,000 through the end of high school”. If a child becomes “serious” about an instrument, elite families happily spend $15,000 per year on music lessons. In an example so outrageous it has to be true, “one parent reported spending a half million dollars developing her son’s piano skills between the ages of six and ten”.

It’s absurd and laughable, and yet the consequences are so damaging. It is impossible for middle-income families, or even the reasonably well off, to compete with this wild extravagance. As Markovits points out: “The elite’s massive investments in education succeed. The academic gap between rich and poor students now exceeds the gap between white and black students in 1954, the year in which the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education.” This is the ruling that banned racial segregation in schools.

The inescapable conclusion is that meritocracy has become “precisely what it was intended to combat: a mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth, caste and privilege across generations”. In other words, meritocracy has created a new aristocracy.

But this new aristocracy is a very different sort. The landed gent of previous centuries would have regarded work as a terrible, degrading prospect. For him, leisure was a sign of his breeding and status. It was the peasants – and the slaves – who worked. This figure, of the entitled idle aristocrat, is the one whom Corbyn attacks when he talks of those “who think they’re born to rule”. But he attacks an anachronism.

Today’s picture is, in fact, reversed. The new aristocracy is a tribe that conspicuously works itself almost to destruction. To be busy nowadays is a mark of your importance. Idleness, that former aristocratic trait, has become a sign of poverty, of destitution. It is no longer the indolent rich who sleep until mid-day, but the unemployed.

A gruesome irony is that this new aristocracy is partly the product of the progressive instincts of people like Corbyn, who sought to wrest control of society from a ruling class whose only qualification was its breeding. This old aristocratic elite would make way for the men and women who had worked their way up, and who’d got there on merit. “When progressives embraced meritocracy as a remedy for hereditary privilege,” Markovits writes, “they fired the engine that now drives meritocracy’s increase.”

And, so, the elite has won, helped on to victory by the progressives who now detest them. They suck up the best jobs, the biggest salaries and the children of the elite get the best places at the best schools and universities. Their wealth and influence is now so great that it even buys political influence, in the form of lobbyists. (Mick Mulvaney, the Trump Administration’s former director of the Office of Budget and Management recently told the American Bankers Association, “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I don’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.” As Markovits says, archly, “He merely said aloud what everyone in American politics already knows.”)

But why would anybody want to live this elite life? What is the attraction of all that brutally hard work, at school, university and the workplace? The hours are so long and the jobs so all-consuming that the elite individual all but vanishes. If your life has consisted of St Pauls, Harvard and Goldman Sachs, then you become, essentially, “St Pauls, Harvard, Goldman Sachs.” That’s who you are. That’s all you are.

The super-elite life is an empty one. “Managing directors, CEOs and professional firm partners tell of owning extravagant apartments filled with just a mattress and sleeping bag, because they lack time to take delivery of furniture.” These people lead “lives devoid of anything but work,” and “are almost expected not to have personal lives”. In the 1980s, it was acceptable to leave your desk in Wall Street at night and pick up your messages in the morning. But now, one Goldman Sachs worker is quoted as saying, “if someone sends you a message and you don’t respond in an hour, they start to wonder if you’ve been hit by a car.”

A report by the American Bar Association found that “stories of lawyers closing deals or drafting documents in hospital delivery rooms are disturbingly common”. Even family funerals are shifted to make way for meetings. Elite workers undergo enormous stress and their mental states suffer. Their characters change. Friends who join banks become “snappy… really uncomfortable to be around”. They develop long-term health problems including arthritis, thyroid disorder and Crohn’s disease, on account of their excessive workload. In the super-elite tech workhouses of Palo Alto, the local medical foundation has reported a spike in cases of vitamin D deficiency among elite workers. This is caused by a lack of sunlight. These people live in California.

If an investment banker is determined to work herself half to death for a chalet in Aspen, then perhaps we should let her go ahead and do it. But the consequences of elite overwork are not so confined. Highly-qualified and skilled elites, with ready access to powerful technology, have made middle management obsolete. The new aristocratic elite has effectively hollowed out the jobs market. The mid-level positions in banks and the corporations and in a huge number of other industries have vanished. Take Kodak, for example, which at its peak used to employ 140,000 workers, most of them mid-skilled manufacturers. But Kodak has long since been replaced by a new wave of technology companies, including Instagram. In 2012, when Instagram was sold to Facebook for $1 billion, it employed just thirteen people.

The counter-argument to the charge of “hollowing out” is that elite workers drive innovation – they create new businesses and by association, new jobs. But Markovits disagrees. “The best evidence suggests that the elite’s true product is zero,” he says, concluding that, “the meritocratic achievement commonly celebrated today, no less than the aristocratic virtue acclaimed in the ancien régime, is a sham.” Merit is in fact nothing more than “an ideological conceit,” to excuse the absurdly unfair distribution of advantage. “Meritocracy,” he says, “serves no one’s interests… Meritocratic inequality divides society into the useless and the used up.”

Most of the examples cited in this book are taken from the US, the most extreme example of the meritocratic society. But, as Markovits says, “the brute facts of economic life resemble the United States more closely in Britain than in any other country.” Seventy-three per cent of all bankers in Europe who earn over €1 million work in the UK. Britain is appallingly unequal. It is still run by the same old Oxbridge elite.

As in the US, economic, educational and social division within the UK has deeper consequences than simply the size of people’s bank balances. Differences in levels of education have profound political consequences: “75 per cent of Britons with no educational qualifications supported leave…” the book says, “while 73 per cent of Britons with the highest qualifications supported remain.”

It’s a deeply uncomfortable snapshot of British division, and a UK author would no doubt be called a snob for making that comparison. But Markovits, an American, is stating the facts as he finds them. And what he finds is that the British elite’s world-view is profoundly different to that of the broader populace, even though many of the elite tend to obscure that difference by operating under a kind of class disguise. Most of them tend to identify as “middle class”. This way, Markovits points out, they “enjoy the advantages of their caste without assuming the moral and political responsibilities that, in fact, accompany their true status.”

So, what do we do about all this? The solutions proposed in this book feel a little thin. School and university admissions should be made less competitive, he says, and there should be more investment in technological innovations to benefit middle-ranking jobs. It is uncertain who would make such changes.

But this book is essentially diagnostic, and the diagnosis it gives is both disturbing and convincing. Elite workers are trapped and we are trapped with them. No political solution has been proposed to this quandary and the politicians of the left who want to dismantle the elite fail to grasp that they are implicated in its rise.

As Markovits puts it: “The meritocratic dream of equal opportunity has produced a nightmare that provides no meaningful opportunities for the many and only poisoned opportunities for the few.” If only Britain’s politicians weren’t so damned distracted. Perhaps then they might be able to do something about it.

The Meritocracy Trap: The Tyranny of Just Deserts, is published by Allen Lane, £25.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 89%
  • Interesting points: 95%
  • Agree with arguments: 81%
37 ratings - view all

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