The Zero-Sum Economy [2]  Meet the Winners

The House Always Wins

We met the zero-sum economy losers last time. Let’s meet the winners this week.

The winners are the best of the best and have the best of the best in cultural, logistical, financial, and other kinds of support. They were tapped for economic competition before preschool. They’ve been groomed for it all their lives. But they pay a ridiculous price — the stress of training and competing is unreal. And when it’s time for college and beyond, only a handful stand on the podium. No wonder their ascent has been tainted with scandal

They’re the children of the new Meritocrats — the economic top 1%. They complete in the X Games of economic competition, and it’s killing them. That description is from Yale law professor Daniel Markovits — a Meritocrat himself, and the author of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (just out, on Sept. 10, 2019).  Prof. Markovits previewed his book in a recent article that begins as follows:

“Two decades ago, when I started writing about economic inequality, meritocracy seemed more likely a cure than a cause. Meritocracy’s early advocates championed social mobility. In the 1960s, for instance, Yale President Kingman Brewster brought meritocratic admissions to the university with the express aim of breaking a hereditary elite. Alumni had long believed that their sons had a birthright to follow them to Yale; now prospective students would gain admission based on achievement rather than breeding. Meritocracy—for a time—replaced complacent insiders with talented and hardworking outsiders.

“Today’s meritocrats still claim to get ahead through talent and effort, using means open to anyone. In practice, however, meritocracy now excludes everyone outside of a narrow elite. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale collectively enroll more students from households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from households in the bottom 60 percent. Legacy preferences, nepotism, and outright fraud continue to give rich applicants corrupt advantages. But the dominant causes of this skew toward wealth can be traced to meritocracy. On average, children whose parents make more than $200,000 a year score about 250 points higher on the SAT than children whose parents make $40,000 to $60,000. Only about one in 200 children from the poorest third of households achieves SAT scores at Yale’s median. Meanwhile, the top banks and law firms, along with other high-paying employers, recruit almost exclusively from a few elite colleges.

“Hardworking outsiders no longer enjoy genuine opportunity. According to one study, only one out of every 100 children born into the poorest fifth of households, and fewer than one out of every 50 children born into the middle fifth, will join the top 5 percent. Absolute economic mobility is also declining—the odds that a middle-class child will outearn his parents have fallen by more than half since mid-century—and the drop is greater among the middle class than among the poor. Meritocracy frames this exclusion as a failure to measure up, adding a moral insult to economic injury.

“Public anger over economic inequality frequently targets meritocratic institutions. Nearly three-fifths of Republicans believe that colleges and universities are bad for America, according to the Pew Research Center. The intense and widespread fury generated by the college-admissions scandal early this year tapped into a deep and broad well of resentment. This anger is warranted but also distorting. Outrage at nepotism and other disgraceful forms of elite advantage-taking implicitly valorizes meritocratic ideals. Yet meritocracy itself is the bigger problem, and it is crippling the American dream. Meritocracy has created a competition that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.

“But what, exactly, have the rich won? Even meritocracy’s beneficiaries now suffer on account of its demands. It ensnares the rich just as surely as it excludes the rest, as those who manage to claw their way to the top must work with crushing intensity, ruthlessly exploiting their expensive education in order to extract a return.

“No one should weep for the wealthy. But the harms that meritocracy imposes on them are both real and important. Diagnosing how meritocracy hurts elites kindles hope for a cure. We are accustomed to thinking that reducing inequality requires burdening the rich. But because meritocratic inequality does not in fact serve anyone well, escaping meritocracy’s trap would benefit virtually everyone.”

How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition:  Meritocracy prizes achievement above all else, making everyone—even the rich—miserable. Maybe there’s a way out (The Atlantic, Sept. 2019).

The rest of the article details the lives of the winners, and is well worth reading. (For a long and thoughtful critique of the book, see this NewYorker article.)

Next time, we’ll look further into “escaping the meritocracy trap.”