The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite

Penguin Pr. Sept. 2019. 448p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9780735221994. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780735222007. SOC SCI
Markovits (Guido Calabresi Professor of Law, Yale Law Sch.) ascribes the troubling trends of a shrinking American middle class, the stratospheric incomes and unholy working hours of the economic elite, the rise of enraged populism, and attendant absence of mutual understanding and sympathy to a mid-20th-century shift from hereditary to merit-based advancement in education, wealth, and power. Meritocracy assumes a level playing field, but only the rich have the means to train for competitive colleges and high-skilled jobs, to which they devote all their attention, minus time spent preparing their children for the same. Meticulously documented, this work makes a provocative argument about the roots of growing economic inequality and offers bold solutions. These include tying universities’ tax-exempt status to expanded, diversified enrollment; eliminating the income cap on payroll tax and providing wage subsidies; and bending technological innovation to benefit midskilled work. In places, the text is rather dense and repetitive, with examples of comparative data piled on to illustrate points.
VERDICT Though it might have been more effective at half the length, this is an important contribution to the debate on economic inequality and of note to policymakers, activists, and scholars.

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