A “Superordinate” Elite
The Meritocracy Trap

A “Superordinate” Elite

Yale law professor Daniel Markovits explains – using telling statistics and hard-nosed analysis – how meritocracy in the United States is not as democratic as it appears and how it excludes the vast majority of workers.

The yawning wealth gap”

Author Daniel Markovits, a professor at Yale Law School, understands that belief in merit as the basis of success is as American as apple pie. But meritocracy, he insists, is not as democratic as people presume. He maintains that those who get into top schools – like Yale – and go on to high-income jobs benefit from intense grooming only the privileged can afford.

Markovits’s fascinating treatise centers on the fact that middle- and lower-class people pay a high – and often invisible – price for living in a so-called meritocratic system. The New York Times Book Review found his book, “ambitious and disturbing…” The Boston Globe reports that Markovits, “produces shocking figures about the yawning wealth gap…”

Elite exceptionalism

Americans regard meritocracy as a democratic process for achieving success and status, but – and this is Markovits’s central thesis – elite exceptionalism at school and work excludes the middle class from opportunity. The author offers the counterintuitive but inarguable insight that in the past aristocrats valued leisure as a symbol of wealth. Now busyness equals status, so only underemployed middle-class people have excess leisure time.

The top 1% of households now captures about a fifth of total income and the top one-tenth of 1% captures about a tenth of total income. Daniel Markovits

Markovits notes that the income of the top 1% has doubled since the 1950s. For the top tenth of 1%, income share tripled.

Education excludes

People who succeed through the meritocracy systematically transfer status benefits to their children by training them to outperform poor and middle-class kids. Students with median scores for Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, Markovits shockingly discloses, comes from the 95th-and-above income percentile, and 25% of students are in the 99th percentile or above. Most students at these schools and their counterparts come from wealthy families who invest in tutoring and preparation. Only 10% of the student body, Markovits explains, qualifies for subsidized lunches and comes from families with incomes of $45,000 or less.

Markovits offers another surprising insight: The income gap between the top and middle classes is much greater than the gap between the middle class and the poor. To underscore the narrowness of America’s earning elite, Markovits reveals that 50% of high-ranking US corporate executives, 60% of leading financial sector executives and half of those holding top jobs in government attended only 12 different colleges. The highest-paid workers – making $50o,oo0 a year and more – make up what Markovits deems a “superordinate” class of professionals.

“Gloomy” and “Glossy”

Gloomy jobs, Markovits writes are low-status, with no path to advancement. Glossy jobs look good, but the author maintains, hide their self-exploitation.

Meritocratic inequality makes personal and economic security into markers of eliteness.Daniel Markovits 

To illustrate this concept, Markovits recounts that in the mid-20th century, McDonald’s franchises each employed 70 to 80 workers who handmade the food. McDonald’s invested in employee training to help its workers advance. The author points to Ed Rensi, who cooked burgers in 1966 and became CEO in 1991.

Now, the median McDonald’s wage is $9.15 hourly, and today’s corporate training focuses on franchise owners, thus creating another elite. The CEO of McDonald’s made $175,000 yearly near the end of the 1960s, around 70 times the salary of a full-time minimum wage employee. In the 1990s, the CEO made more than 250 times the typical employee’s earning. Now, Markovits points out, McDonald’s CEO makes around $8 million, more than 500 times the earnings of a minimum wage worker.

Work versus leisure

Markovits holds that technology does not raise all boats. He stresses that it suppresses wages for subordinates and raises wages for superordinates. Jobs that once required layers of management have collapsed into a new framework with fewer managerial employees using technology to oversee many workers. Managers break decisions down into procedures that lower-skilled workers carry out under the coordination of superordinates.


Into the late 1970s, middle-class people saved 5% to 10% of their annual income. Now, Markovits recognizes that the middle class relies increasingly on borrowing to fuel consumption. The author evokes a dangerous cycle in which households use debt to pay for necessities they can’t stretch their wages to cover.

Meritocracy replicates itself

Today, Markovits laments, the United States has a caste society. Racial prejudice divides people just as class provides a social fault line. The rich live in a different social world. Markovits harkens to earlier societies – such as those evoked in Jane Austen novels – in which meritocratic successes organize their marriages and households “around the competition to preserve caste.”

Markovits asserts that how high Americans climb depends increasingly on the social place of their birth. He does not believe the American truism that each subsequent generation will be better off, and he rejects the parallel sunny ideal that everyone has an equal opportunity to get ahead.

Expanding access

Markovits notes that Germany and the United States are the only nations with populations of more than 80 million and per capita GDP of $50,000. But in the United States, investment in education focuses on a narrowing elite. German education, Markovits contrasts, is public, with no emphasis on elite students. And, tellingly, it supports vocational training.

Meritocratic inequality undermines social solidarity and corrupts democratic self-government. Increasingly, meritocracy fails even to deliver economic growth.Daniel Markovits

The author urges reforms that would require schools to pull 50% or more of their students from lower-income groups. United States’ economic policies, he says, should favor products that middle-tier workers make and services that they provide.

A bleak view

It’s worth noting that Markovits teaches at one of the most elite universities in the United States. He shows rare courage in breaking down the very system that supports him. His thoughts, while insightful, terrifying and a necessary read, prove more descriptive than prescriptive. The author’s suggestions for reform are broad-based and workable, though in the social, economic and political climate he describes so well, their enactment seems unlikely.

Markovits’s other popular book (he also wrote a law school textbook), A Modern Legal Ethics: Adversary Advocacy in a Democratic Age, addresses the adversarial legal system and is not germane to this topic. Worthwhile ancillary readings might include The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J. Sandel and the best-selling Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.

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