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The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite Kindle Edition
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“An imaginative new book that will prompt endless debate in the faculty lounge, the country-club tap room, and the family dinner table. . . a book that will jolt and provoke the reading public . . . Markovits produces shocking figures about the yawning wealth gap on leafy campuses.” — The Boston Globe
"The Meritocracy Trap defines a central issue of our age: the rise of new elites who, unlike their aristocratic forebears, seem to have the moral high ground. The system is rigged in a different way, but it’s still rigged all right." – Sunday Times
“We’ve been waiting for the Big Book that explains America's wrong turn. Daniel Markovits has supplied it. The Meritocracy Trap is a sociological masterpiece – a damning indictment of parenting and schools, an unflattering portrait of a ruling class and the economy it invented. Far too many readers will recognize themselves in his brilliant critique, and they will feel a rush of anger, a pang of regret, and a burning desire to remake the system.” —Franklin Foer, author of World Without Mind
“Provocatively weighing in on growing inequality, Daniel Markovits weaves a disturbing tale of merit and social division. Pulling no punches, he warns us that meritocracy is a trap, fetishizing certain skills and endless assessments. Markovitz shows – in exquisite detail – the perverse link between an upper class education and elite jobs and how together they enrich the few, while devaluing and demoralizing the rest.” —Jerry Brown, former governor of California
“At once wide-ranging and rigorous, subtle and penetrating, Markovits’s book is revelatory both in its particulars and in its big picture. Anyone who wants to argue about the merits of meritocracy must take account of this book.” —Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and Law, NYU and author of The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity
“Daniel Markovits has written a bold, brave critique of the meritocracy-backed version of inequality that prevails today. He argues persuasively that meritocracy is destructive and demoralizing for winners and losers alike. Challenging conventional wisdom, Markovits shows that technological change is not a fact of nature that happens to increase the value of highly credentialed workers; instead, the prevalence of credentialed elites calls forth technologies that bias the labor market in their favor and hollow out the middle class. This is a splendid book that should prompt soul-searching among meritocrats.” —Michael J. Sandel, author of What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
“The system is rigged. And the culprit, Daniel Markovits argues, is meritocracy—the same ideal that was supposed to promote fairness. Brilliant, lucid, and urgent, The Meritocracy Trap exposes a national catastrophe.” —James Forman Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Locking Up Our Own
About the Author
- ASIN : B07MGDKDQN
- Publisher : Penguin Books (September 10, 2019)
- Publication date : September 10, 2019
- Language : English
- File size : 5937 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 442 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #165,244 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Markovits's thesis is simple. The elite are not just hoarding all the wealth, but also all the opportunity as well. From the 50's to the 70's, Americans lived in what economists called The Great Compression. This was a time when economic inequality was markedly small and wealth was distributed fairly evenly across the American social classes. What is most significant, however, isn't the economic dimension, but the cultural dimension. As Markovits finds in Chapter 2, Americans across all economic strata lived in the same cultural world. They consumed the same food, watched the same TV shows, and vacationed in the same places. College graduates were distributed remarkably evenly across cities, towns, and hamlets across the country. Those who didn't have college diplomas enjoyed good incomes and their employment was protected by strong unions. Though this period was marked by civil unrest due to the injustice inflicted upon the black community, opportunity was fairly dispersed among the upper, middle, and lower classes.
This is no longer the case.
Today, wealth inequality is approaching Gilded Age levels of inequality. Though unemployment is at its lowest in years, millions of working-class Americans feel "locked out" from opportunity. Though the towns that dot the heartland and across the west are not under direct attack, there is an inexplicable feeling of unrest and even fear that a rot is eating away at these once-vibrant local communities. Meanwhile, in cities like New York, Seattle, and DC, wages are rocketing for the wealthy whom have access to the incredible skills and education necessary in order to even be considered.
Markovits's analysis of the transformation of the values and character of the elite is the most insightful part of the book. For most of human history, the aristocracy which ruled over society looked down upon work. Work that did not involve your passion but instead industry was seen as something only the lower classes ought to do. The wealthy derived their money from rent from owning capital; sources such as land, factories, etc. This is no longer the case. The wealthy now primarily derive their money from income. The "working rich" not only make more, but work many, many more hours than the lower classes. It is now common practice for bankers to work 12-14 hour days, when years ago a banker would've worked below 7. The minimum number of billable hours for a lawyer to be considered for partner is as high as 2300 hours per year, when decades ago it was around 1400 hours. This new generation of elite is what Markovitz calls the "superordinate worker;" people who not only make more, but work harder than everybody else. This has led to not only money hoarding, but work hoarding as well, as the compounding effects of a professional class that works incredibly harder; the creation of jobs only people from select, elite universities can have access to; the development of increasingly complex technology that has made many middle-class and lower-class jobs redundant; and the outsourcing of the remaining jobs to third-world countries have all worked together to siphon opportunity from mid-income communities across the country. While wages have not decreased for those not among the professional class, a culture of despair and discontent has taken hold, as millions die from opioids and millions more grow up in broken families and decaying communities.
I have one foot in a community like the one Markovits describes and the other on a college campus attended by children of the professional elite. The culture of working oneself to death which Markovits claims to be so common is 100% true. If you ask one of us how we're doing, the most common response is "so busy." In a meritocratic culture in which the only way to earn respect from ones peers and success is to work harder than everyone else, it is a race to the bottom. It is no coincidence that the Ivy League universities have flat out "F" ratings from mental health associations because of how rampant depression and anxiety are. But, nonetheless, we can't stop. Because if we drop any one of our activities or classes, there's a feeling of guilt; that we're committing the cardinal sin of sloth, and not living up to our potential. We fall behind our peers and "waste" our education doing leisure. So we keep working harder than everyone else. And, as Markovits points out, for many of the professional elite, this rat race won't end until we're dead. Not only do the middle and lower classes suffer, but also the upper classes.
Gone are the days of the idyllic aristocrats, who can live content knowing their high station is solely derived from who their parent was. Now, your spot is not secure. It is only as secure as the amount of hours and tears you put into your job. Anxiety and depression are rampant among the wealthy classes. And we will subject our children to the same fate. Markovits comments that since your spot is not secured by virtue of inheritance, but by your merit, you are fighting for your spot among the elite from day one. It isn't uncommon for parents to apply to as many as ten kindergartens for their children -- who are four years-old at this point! This is all so that they can build a foundation to apply for the most elite middle schools, and then high schools. Along the way, these children are supported by a cadre of sports coaches, music teachers, and elite tutors who inculcate into them the skills necessary to even be considered a worthy applicant to these schools and beyond. Students in these elite middle schools on average spend "three hours" a night on homework, and "five hours" a night in high school. From there, they get into an elite college, which preps them for an elite job, and beyond. At all points, they are constantly evaluated and analyzed for how they can improve. This will continue until they either retire (hopefully early) or die.
This sounds nuts. But the worst part is, these students are the "best and the brightest" by virtue of their parents being able to afford these resources for them. If you are middle or lower-class, it is extremely doubtful your parents have been prepping you for this generational meritocratic tournament, and thus you are almost certainly locked out of the best jobs.
Overall, as someone who lives in two worlds — the former being the alienated lower-class communities increasingly left behind by meritocracy, and the latter being that of the world of the elites who have all the opportunity in the world — this is an excellent assessment of what exactly is wrong with today's current system. I would recommend this book to anybody wanting to learn more about the problems in meritocracy. It works well for the folks who are indeed the best and the brightest insofar as it supplies them the opportunities and privileges due to them. But what if you're not among the elite? What if you don't desire to reside within that class? If you don't "contribute" as much as the elite, then meritocracy owes you nothing, and you are consigned to the outskirts of civilization. The solutions are few and far between, but for all our sakes, we ought to find one soon.
Where the author loses me, a bit, is when decides to group specialist physicians with the elites in finance, law, and management. It is hard to make the case that the utilization of elite skill has been a negative in medicine. The outcomes in almost every area where elite skills have been deployed in healthcare show otherwise. Note the vastly improved outcomes in orthopedics, ophthalmology, and cardiology over the last forty years. These are the areas where elite skills and technology have most taken hold. Yes, the specialists in these fields "exploit" their hard-earned personal capital, but this is to the great benefit of society and personal fulfillment of most practitioners. (Full disclosure- I am a specialist physician who trained at elite institutions).
The author points out correctly that healthcare costs in the US are out of line with the rest of the world. He also notes there is inequality within medicine, but does not quantify it. I can help there. A specialist physician earns about 20 times the lowest paid healthcare worker and approximately five times the average NP and PA. This inequality is not new and is nothing like that seen in elite finance, law, or management.
The author’s “cure” for excessive US healthcare costs and inequality within medicine is to replace physician specialists with NPs and PAs. This will do very little to control global healthcare costs and will increase inequality between specialist physicians and other providers. The only area where NPs and PAs can decrease costs is by having them replace primary care physicians. And because primary care physician services are just a fraction of total healthcare costs replacing them with these mid-level providers will have very little impact on total healthcare spending. NPs and PAs are cheaper than primary care physicians. But, on a per hour basis this savings is only about 20%. Replacing every single primary care physician with an NP or PA would yield a onetime cost savings of about 2% of global healthcare spending. And remember PAs and NPs are categorized as employees so they can unionize, are paid by the hour, and get time and a half for overtime, and large pay differentials for weekend and nights. I would predict in short order an all NP and PA primary care workforce would likely increase total healthcare spending.
The reason why NPs and PAs are already being extensively utilized is they allow specialist to concentrate on areas where their elite skills are more fully utilized and highly reimbursed. Examples of this are dermatologists utilizing NPs for routine skin care so they can concentrate or Moh's surgery or cosmetic procedures. Or having a PA free up an orthopedic surgeon from office visits and hospital rounding so they can concentrate on operative procedures. Thus, the utilization of NPs and PAs tends to increase the income of specialist physicians- further exacerbating the income inequality in medicine the author decries.
Overall I really enjoyed the book. But, I would recommend the author consult experts in healthcare before creating the false equivalence between specialist physicians and other elites.