7. The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite
Capital and labor are always in tension. In 2015, the big book of the year was Capital in the 21st Century, which argued that income inequality stems from increased returns on accumulated wealth. Now The Meritocracy Trap argues the opposite, that most of the share of national income from 1970 comes from returns on labor, not capital. If you think of the rich people you know, maybe you will agree as you reflect on how hard—or at least how many hours—they work. Markovits, a professor at Yale Law School, argues that meritocracy has been gamed by the 1% as “a pretense, constructed to rationalize an unjust distribution of advantage.” The book neatly predicts the college admissions scandal by observing that elites have set up their children to out-achieve everyone else by means fair and foul, and then justify their privilege as the fruit of “merit.” This is a deeply disturbing indictment of not just universities but of a hiring system that perpetuates unearned privilege.
So why should advisors read this disturbing book? It offers a new perspective on income inequality, the prospects of the middle class, and the unsustainable advantage of the 1%. And to the extent advisors feel secure serving and even identifying themselves with the 1% in the name of meritocracy, maybe they ought to pause. They may soon find themselves de-skilled into irrelevance. To the extent that middle-class Americans find that the American Dream has passed them by and the future of the children of the 1% has been purchased at the expense of their own children, then the entire edifice may soon crumble as no society can long endure when it cannot live with its conscience. One doesn’t have to agree with every point the professor makes, but every thoughtful advisor needs to be conversant with the arguments Markovits sparks.