Yale Professor Daniel Markovits on Economic Equality and Inequality

In his pubic lecture titled “Meritocracy and Its Discontents,” Markovits sets out to discuss the interrelationship of meritocracy and aristocracy. As Markovits argued, both aristocracy and meritocracy foster the same ideological conceit that is an unjust allocation of advantage. Markovits’ argument constituted three points: (1) modern meritocracy has transformed the character of economic inequality; (2) the hyper-meritocracy that has developed in the United States today benefits no one; and (3) merit itself has become a sham.

During a lunch with Dartmouth students on the day of his lecture, Markovits started by describing the prevalence of economic equality in the U.S.

“Things I care about most at the moment include economic equality and inequality,” said Markovits. “Inequality in the market has increased dramatically since 1970 and may begin to happen elsewhere in the world. My intent is to describe the situation we find ourselves in, show why its unsuited to being addressed by traditional arguments about redistribution, and articulate new arguments in the face of changing circumstances.”

According to Markovits, one of the biggest movements away from inequality has been the opening of elite schools to working class children and minority children from any religion or background – but this still has not eliminated inequality from the United States meritocratic structure. A higher share of Yale College students come from the top 1% of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half. The top quarter outweighs the bottom quarter by a ratio of 4:1.

“These universities are almost exclusively filled with children of rich professions,” said Markovits. “The meritocracy itself made these people rich and has become the technology of reproduction of privilege.”

After describing the situation at Yale, where Markovits currently teaches, he turned the discussion to Dartmouth and debated whether or not it is composed of privilege in its culture. Not to his surprise, students responded with anecdotal evidence similar to the circumstances he described at Yale. Markovits supported their claims by citing data that suggest that the university promotion of what percentage of students receive financial aid is not telling at all.

“A two-parent household with an income of $200,000 can still get financial aid, even though they make four times median income in the United States,” said Markovits. “Pricing at these elite schools, however, is so high that it is necessary.”

One student asked Markovits if he believed that, no matter what social structure changes, the economic elite will always find a way to enhance future generations. Markovits responded by citing the iron law of oligarchy: the elite will always manage to capture the greater share of the social share than it deserves and will reproduce this itself. Outstanding schools have in the past and will continue to spend their money and privilege wisely toward producing meritocratic end.

“Once at a dinner party on the Upper East Side, a woman turned to me and said ‘after all, after you pay taxes, 20 is just 10,’” said Markovits. “She was talking about 20 million turning to 10 million. Ideas like these are just one example of the misperception of wealth the elite has in relation to others.”

As Markovits asserted, even if you are at the threshold of the 1%, with an annual income of around $375,000, you are still struggling to find a comfortable family home in areas such as New York, San Francisco, and London. The elite has grown so much that others are pricing you out of this market. The current deal for the elite – work long hours and get paid huge sums of money – is a less great tradeoff for the elite. No one wins as the initial burden of another hour grows as the benefit of another dollar shrinks. This leaves everyone overwhelmed, stressed, and miserable.

The only room for change is if the elite recognize this situation where everyone loses and decide to take an unconventional path instead. Otherwise, as elite income accumulates, there are going to be more and more children of very rich parents and grandparents who are in a position where they don’t need their own income to continue to live very well.

“My biggest advice to anyone at a school like Dartmouth is to find a niche for yourself – time is invaluable,” said Markovits. “I for one never accept meetings before noon because the morning is my own time.”

-Submitted by Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant, Nikita Bakhru ‘17