Tuesday, June 8, 2021
Recently, I finished two similar books on problems with extreme meritocracy in the United States: The Tyranny of Merit by Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel and The Meritocracy Trap by Yale law professor Daniel Markovits. Law schools and entry level legal jobs tend to be intensely meritocratic. The more competitive entry level legal jobs rely very heavily on school rank and student class rank. Once in a private firm, billable hours seem to be the main metric for bonuses and making partner.
Sandel describes at least three problems with meritocracy: (1) people are not competing on an even playing field in the US "meritocracy" (e.g., children of top 1% in income are 77x more likely to attend an Ivy League school than children of bottom 20%); (2) even if there were an even playing field, natural talents that fit community preferences would lead to wild inequality in a pure meritocracy and those natural advantages are not “earned,” (3) a strict meritocracy leads to excessive hubris among the “winners” and shame among the “losers” who believe they deserve their place in society.
Markovits hits a lot of the same notes, but pays more attention to how the elite “exploit themselves” trying to keep themselves and their children in the shrinking upper class. While the $50,000/year competitive preschools Markovits describes are mostly limited to NYC and Silicon Valley now, the expenditures on the education and extracurriculars of children of the wealthy seems to be increasing exponentially everywhere. He also notes the lengthening work hours for the “elite” and the increasing percentage of wealth tied to labor. For example, Markovits points out that the ABA assumed that lawyers would bill 1300 hours a year in 1962 (and 1400 in 1977). As legal readers know, many firms now require 2000+ billable hours a year (which means working 2500+ hours in most cases).
Both Sandel and Markovits do a thorough job explaining the problems of meritocracy, but are fairly brief on proposed solutions. Sandel thinks meritocracy could be made more fair through elite schools eliminating SAT/ACT requirements (that tend to track family income), engaging in more aggressive class-based affirmative action, and using a lottery to admit baseline qualified students. He thinks the last suggestion would reduce the hubris of those admitted to elite schools, and acknowledge an element of luck in their selection. Sandel also suggests more government expenditures on training and retraining programs, as most economically advanced countries spend a much higher percentage of GDP on these programs (0.1% vs. 0.5% to 1.0%). He also suggests using the tax system to reward “productive labor” by, for example, “lower[ing] or even eliminat[ing] payroll taxes and rais[ing] revenue instead by taxing consumption, wealth, and financial transactions.” (218).
Markovits proposes that private schools should lose their tax-exempt status if at least half of their students do not come from the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution. Markovits also suggests promoting more mid-skill production; by, for example, reducing regulation to allow more work to be done by nurse practitioners (rather than doctors) and legal technicians (rather than lawyers.) He suggests uncapping payroll tax (so that the wealthy pay more of their share), introducing wage subsidies for middle class jobs, and raising the minimum wage.
As Ivy League professors, I think they overestimate the role of their schools in shaping the rest of the country, though they may be right about their influence among certain segments of the wealthy. And while their solutions are rather thin, I think they raise issues with meritocracy worth addressing. As Henri Nouwen acknowledged more than 50 years ago in his book Reaching Out, “people are in growing degree exposed to the contagious disease of loneliness in a world in which a competitive individualism [ a/k/a "meritocracy"] tries to reconcile itself with a culture that speaks about togetherness, unity, and community as the ideals to strive for.”