14.12.19

TODAY'S STAKHANOVITES ARE THE ONE-PERCENTERS.

Four months ago, I professed to be less than impressed with Yale's Daniel Markovits, who apparently clawed his way to the top of the status hierarchy only to complain about the struggles to get there.  I've subsequently acquired and read his The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite.  I don't have much reason to change my impressions (based, as they were, on a shorter article) but will use Book Review No. 12 partially as social science and partially as reminiscence.

Mr Markovits divides his argument into three parts: Meritocracy and its Discontents, where he focuses on the striving and the positional jockeying, rather than the failures of the Best and the Brightest; How Meritocracy Works, where, again, he does more to lament the culture of overwork than to consider the possibility that the worst people are thus incentivized to get on top, and a concluding The New Aristocracy, suggesting that the ways of getting on top rely more on heredity than on effort.


Thus, first, the social science.  I am not sure exactly who the meritocrats are or what their (superficially) glossy jobs are, although a passage at page 87 suggests some combination of attending the ten (or is it twenty or fifty) best universities (with a graduate or professional degree) and living in one of the high-value-added cities and working in law or finance or some areas of medicine or perhaps information technology (but not necessarily in entertainment or pro sports or local politics or higher education, even at one of those ten or twenty or fifty universities).  I'm not sure what the entry tournaments are, although apparently part of the meritocracy "trap" is taking on lots of work (the Stakhanovite reference) and contracting out the raising of the kids to Harvard Prep Day Care and nannies, in order that they, too, can acquire the credentials and have no work-life balance.  Thus, I'm hard pressed to evaluate whether the people so occupied are trapped, or if these are traps of their own making, their own Pursuit of Happiness, if you will, or if there are ways to opt out (such as practicing law or medicine elsewhere in the country or finding work at a regional bank rather than a hedge fund.)

Next, the reminiscence.  Mr Markovits spends some time contrasting St. Clair Shores, Michigan, a real place, with the composite places this meritocracy occupies.  Here, I'm frustrated that he didn't spend more time explaining why that suburb and what personal connections he had.  It's easy enough to find St. Clair Shores from Detroit, go northeast on Jefferson to the lake, where Jefferson becomes Lake Shore Drive, then continue past the Edsel Ford gatehouse at the north limits of Grosse Pointe Shores, and you're back on Jefferson and in St. Clair Shores.  The community might have been a sundown suburb in the past, the use of the Shores locution might be to distinguish it from East Detroit, or, horrible dictu, Warren.  But you're also, dear reader, in Macomb County, as in Reagan Democrats.

Back to the social science:  the author presents the Shores as the perfect American High manifestation of The Affluent Society, populated by The Organization Man who could hire on at an assembly plant right out of high school and screen for machinist or toolmaker by demonstrating sufficient aptitude on the shop floor.  Mr Markovits references both of those books, apparently without recognizing that back in the day, those, along with The Other America or The Lonely Crowd or The Status Seekers were the canonical critical works decrying that suburban conformity.  For extra effect, imagine Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds singing about those little boxes.

Now that it's gone, though, it's mourned.  It's apparently more difficult now to be "steady good" in St. Clair Shores, although Mr Markovits encounters a returnee who tried to make it in Seattle, where the prices of everything were too high.  (Here's where I wish he'd have said more about the people he interacted with: if you want to find a large Michigan State, or Ohio State, or Iowa, or Wisconsin, alumni community to hang out with, you look no further than Chicago.)

In the Shores, though, there might still be ways to be "steady good," although Mr Markovits fails to grasp them.  Consider this passage from page 24.
A middle-class child in St. Clair Shores will attend passable but unremarkable public high schools and achieve undistinguished SAT scores -- almost precisely tracking national averages -- in a world that increasingly concentrates the returns to education in a narrow cadre of exceptional students.  Graduates mostly go on to attend local colleges  -- Macomb Community College (which runs radio and television advertisements that still encourage high school students to enter skilled trades), Wayne State, and Michigan State.  Some students, online message boards reveal, aspire to the University of Michigan.  But there is no culture of high academic or professional ambition in the town, virtually no St. Clair Shores students even apply to the Ivy League or to other really elite colleges, and (residents say) actually attending such a college is so rare that a student who did so might make the local paper.
There's a lot to unpack in that passage, both about Mr Markovits's attitudes, and about the downside of "steady good."  First, where in New Haven do you get your air conditioner serviced; or, in Bethesda, do you get your drop ceiling installed?  Second, that missing culture of academic ambition has long been a feature (perhaps a survival of that industrial era political economy) in Michigan.  I might be generalizing a bit much from my experience at Wayne State, but I do recall a mind-set among Michigan students attending Michigan of "I'm a C student here, but I'd be making all As at Central or Wayne."  Probably not: the principles are the principles.  What I learned in 35 years of professoring was that you could assess on the subtleties, then come up with the right mix of relatively simple and more subtle questions that would separate the clever from the good enough, and still be confident that the good enough were at least clear on the concept.  (Even at that, there would be carping about the class, or the problem sets, or the tests, being too hard.)  The downside, though, is that the more ambitious students lose out: one of our stronger undergraduates at Wayne essayed the graduate program in economics at Michigan, and lamented not being pushed harder in the undergraduate courses.

I fear, though, that in climbing the status hierarchy, Mr Markovits missed a lot of the details of the world the Meritocrats wrecked.  It might be cherry-picking, but I think his characterization of St. Clair Shores giving John Kennedy "an optimistic 25 percentage landslide," (page 70) while Donald Trump's ten percentage point plurality is "angry."  Sorry, not that simple.  First, John Kennedy was running against the macroeconomic torpor and national-security insecurity (remember the missile gap?) of the Eisenhower era.  Maybe there are parallels.  Second, in the intervening fourteen presidential cycles, the Democrats did a number of things that pushed away the residents of the Shores, and drove former residents of Detroit further into Macomb County, to Shelby Township and Clinton Township and the like, where the national media discovered Reagan Democrats.

What, then, do you do with the meritocrats, who overwork themselves and leave ruin on whatever they touch, whether law or finance or government or higher ed?  It's possible that the rules of status sow the seeds of their own destruction: there is a lot in the closing chapters that reads like the final collapse of capitalism from Chapter 23 of Capital.  Perhaps that doesn't surprise, as Mr Markovits studied econometrics at the London School before he pursued the law.  I wish, though, getting back to the social science, that he'd pay more attention to the margin of error.  His "reform agenda," which is not without (intellectual) merit has a lot of "this reform would ..." without contemplating the substitutions people might make to counteract the medicine he would like the body politic to take.

I haven't been swayed from where I stood in August.
Inasmuch as we are all underemployed relative to our great-grandparents, whether those great-grandparents were dirt farmers, robber barons, riverboat gamblers, or the Duke of Braunschweig, in the scheme of things those higher stress levels among upscale yuppie spawn is likely to be self-correcting.
That self-correction, though, will be messy. But that's for another day.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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