The Meritocrat Who Wants to Unwind the Meritocracy

NEW HAVEN — In 2015, the graduating class at Yale Law School, as custom has it, elected one of its professors to give the commencement address. And when the day came, the speaker, Daniel Markovits, got onstage and told the students, more or less, that their lives were ruined.

“For your entire lives, you have studied, worked, practiced, trained and drilled,” he declared.

And that rat race was far from over, at least if graduates wanted to maintain their, and their children’s, place in the “new aristocracy” of merit.

“To promote your eliteness — to secure your caste — you must ruthlessly manage your training and labor,” he said.

“To live this way,” he continued, “is, quite literally, to use oneself up.”

The speech turned the audience at the most elite of elite law schools on its ear (even if it likely knocked few off their post-graduation paths). And now Mr. Markovits is taking his message to the masses, with a big new book arguing that the meritocratic ideal has not only fed rampant inequality and hollowed out the middle class, but also threatens democracy itself.

It’s also one coming from someone with two Yale degrees, an Oxford doctorate and a tenured job-for-life inside one of the meritocracy’s most rarefied bastions. Which is something more than one enraged reader emailed him to point out after The Atlantic published an excerpt under the provocative title “How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition.”

“Obviously, some people had the perfectly sensible thought ‘Who the hell are you, sitting at Yale Law School?’” Mr. Markovits, 50, said during a recent interview in his office in the school’s hushed neo-Gothic building here.

“But I’m not more virtuous or honorable than anyone else,” he said. “I’m trapped in this system, too.”

One of his key arguments is that today’s wealthy, unlike the aristocracy of old, overwhelmingly work for a living, often in soul-crushing “extreme jobs” that demand 60, 80, even 100 hours a week. By his calculation, about 75 percent of the top 1 percent’s increase in the share of national income from roughly 1970 to the present came from returns on labor, not capital.

The book can been seen as a companion — and riposte — to Thomas Piketty’s surprise best seller “Capital in the 21st Century,” which attributes growing inequality to increased returns on accumulated wealth. But some of Mr. Markovits’s admirers put his book in even grander company.

“I think this as his ‘Kapital,’” said Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale who has known Mr. Markovits since they were graduate students in Britain in the early 1990s, referring to Karl Marx’s magnum opus.

“He’s trying to get political economy and morality lined up with each other in a way that’s surprising and true and useful,” Mr. Snyder continued. “But unlike ‘Kapital,’ he actually finished it. And it’s a much, much better read.”

So far, not everyone is as impressed with how Mr. Markovits tweaks Marxian class analysis. In a sharp critique in The New Republic, Sarah Leonard questioned his downplaying of the power of capital over labor, as well as his faith that demoralized meritocrats might make common cause with the beleaguered middle class in exchange for a saner life.

“Elite professionals know which side their bread is buttered on, and make huge salaries serving the interests of capital,” she wrote.

Mr. Markovits’s book may be perfectly pitched to the contemporary political moment. But friends and colleagues describe him as both down-to-earth and somewhat otherworldly and out of time, starting with his habit of beginning every email by typing out the date and his location (even while onboard a moving train: “Amtrak 2168”), as if writing a 19th-century letter.

During a nearly three-hour conversation about his book, Mr. Markovits — tall and thin, with an intense gaze and a quasi-British mossiness around some vowels — mostly sat perched on a windowsill, crossing and uncrossing his very long legs like a crane in a too-small nest.

He mixed in casual references to Philip Larkin, C.P. Snow, London taxi drivers, a late Arthur Miller play whose title he couldn’t remember and the 19th-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach.

He’s a humanist and also very much a data guy. “The Meritocracy Trap” is full of striking statistics illustrating just how dramatically the meritocratic elite is pulling ahead of the middle class by just about every measure, while the middle class sinks closer to the poor.

Many on the left see the success of the rich is due mainly to fraud or manipulation. But the real problem, Mr. Markovits argues, is that elites have set their children up to out-achieve everyone else, then justify their rewards as stemming solely from “merit.”

“Yes, those things are going on, but they are not the principal part of the problem,” Mr. Markovits said, referring to schemes like the recent college admissions scandal. “They should be shut down, but it’s dangerous to shut them down with a set of ideas that reifies meritocracy. You’re just reaffirming the real evil.”

Mr. Markovits, the son of two law professors, enjoyed what he describes as a version of the kinder, gentler 1980s middle-American meritocratic childhood that has been wiped out by today’s ruthless competition.

He grew up in an intellectual household, speaking German as his first language (his mother is from Germany). But he attended what he said was an un-fancy public high school in Austin, Tex., where he played basketball and had plenty of ordinary, middle-class friends.

Then came his impressive march through the upper reaches of academia: Yale B.A. in math (summa cum laude); British Marshall scholarship; masters in mathematical economics at the London School of Economics; Oxford doctorate in philosophy; Yale J.D.; prestigious federal clerkship; and a faculty position at Yale Law a mere year after graduation.

“This sounds really boring — son of academics becomes academic,” Mr. Markovits said.

Then he remembered an article a friend sent him about the growing number of Major League Baseball players whose fathers also played professional ball.

“Maybe the book is about how the whole damn world is working the same way,” he said.

Yale Law, like many elite institutions, has been wracked with debate in recent years over its role in perpetuating hierarchies of money and power, which reached a fever pitch last fall during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Bret Kavanaugh, a graduate of the school. (Mr. Markovits was among the more than 2,400 law professors who signed an open letter urging the Senate not to confirm Mr. Kavanaugh.)

Its faculty has also been a factory of books taking differing positions on the merits and demerits of meritocracy and elite education.

Amy Chua, author of the best-selling how-to-raise-an-uber-meritocrat memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (and whom Mr. Markovits credits with helping him write for a popular audience), said she loves “The Meritocracy Trap,” even if she takes a more sanguine view of the system.

“I’m an immigrants’ kid, and I’m a huge fan of meritocracy,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of debates.”

Anthony Kronman, a professor and former law dean whose new book “The Assault on American Excellence” calls for elite universities to unapologetically embrace their traditional role as havens for humanist “aristocrats of the spirit,” said he finds Mr. Markovits’s diagnosis “deeply convincing.”

But he’s less convinced of some of Mr. Markovits’s radical solutions, like doubling the number of students admitted to elite universities to render them less elite, and stripping them of their huge tax advantages if they fail to enroll at least half their students from the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution.

I feel strongly these are institutions of rare excellence,” Mr. Kronman said. “They have to be very careful to preserve their own intellectual and academic integrity.”

Mr. Markovits also sees the future of elite universities as precarious, but for a different reason.

He has crunched the endowment numbers (Yale’s stands at about $25 billion), and argues that if growth trends continue, the 10 richest schools will “own the entire country” by the middle of the 22nd century.

Unless, that is, either populist resentment — or even “societal collapse,” as he ominously puts it — destroys them first.

Their dominance “is going to be unwound,” he said. “The question, I think, is whether it will be in a way that’s compatible with the underlying human and intellectual values of these places, or in a way that’s not.”


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