Saturday, December 28, 2019

THE MERITOCRACY TRAP by Daniel Markovits

The concept of rewarding a person for their effort versus rewarding a person for their familial origins sounds correct. Merit-based scholarships. Merit-based college admissions. Merit-based promotions. Merit-based happiness. Right?

The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits reveals that the effect of a merit-based system that we think is fair is not fair at all. Not for the affluent elite. Nor for the poor. And increasingly not for the middle class.

It's like this. From the time a baby is born, middle class parents who connect the value of getting that baby into a prestigious college in order for that child to have a shot at a comfortable life motivates the parents to hyper-train and hyper-prepare that baby to get into that college. Which means they first need to get that child into the best kindergarten in order to prepare her for the best elementary and middle schools, which will prepare the adolescent to enter the best high school. Expensive tutors and supplementary prep courses are sought to help the student achieve not only a stellar GPA but demonstrate her well-roundedness. And then there's the training for the SAT. And achievement in sports. And in the arts. And in community leadership. And if all that expensive training still feels iffy, even the super affluent will find a way to hedge their bets. Even fraudulently (e.g., Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin).

The parents are stretched to work, work, work, so that they can earn, earn, earn so they can pay, pay, pay for all the hyper training.

Assuming the child graduates and lands a job at a prestigious company, there's never-ending pressure to work a crazy amount of hours to get the next promotion. So they can afford to pay for the hyper-training of their own kids.

Ironically, Markovits shows that this type of miserable lifestyle ... of constantly being busy is what signals to the world that the busy human is part of a rising relevant class. In other words, to say "I'm busy working" is viewed as being more prestigious than saying "I'm relaxing" or "I'm thinking" or as Jenny Odell would point out, "I'm doing nothing."

How all this relates to our current polarized national climate is that meritocracy increases the divide between the middle class and the poor. As the middle class is hanging on with exhaustion to earn their way up, the poor are being left behind:

"Meritocracy makes the whites whom it leaves behind into nativists by allowing them literally no place else to go. A white middle-class voter in Indiana, reflecting on Donal Trump's appeal recently explained that "the whole idea" of white privilege irritates whites outside the elite "because they've never experienced it on a level that they understand. You hear privilege and you think money and opportunity and they don't have it." The meritocratic suggestion that a white man who cannot get ahead must be in some way deficient stokes this anger ... Furthermore, meritocracy naturally produces not just nativism but also populism --a deep and pervasive mistrust of expertise and institutions."

Populism is what led to Trump. It is also what could lead to an extremist "progressive" version of Trump.

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