Liberate the Meritocrats—From Their Bosses

This week, we share two posts discussing The Meritocracy Trap by Professor Daniel Markovits. In his 2019 book, Professor Markovits argues that meritocracy is a straightforward mechanism of class reproduction and wealth concentration—and that it is making life worse for everyone, elites included. The Meritocracy Trap has generated productive conversations about the causes and implications of wealth inequality, and what this means about potential movements to upend the present hierarchy. Because the book centers the gap between elite and nonelite labor as today’s most salient class division, critics have been quick to push back. In particular, some have challenged the book’s downplaying of the role of capital in its class analysis, as well as its optimism about elite cooperation in any project aiming for economic justice. While these are crucial parts of the debate around the book, we want to avoid rehearsing those arguments here.

By examining the social and political valences of a seemingly neutral quantitative system, The Meritocracy Trap touches on several questions at the core of law and political economy. Today on the blog, Marshall Steinbaum and Andrew Hart argue that Professor Markovits omits capitalists from the story in part by relying too heavily on the flawed theory of human capital. Tomorrow, Jeff Gordon turns our attention to the book’s argument that industrial policy contributed to the technological innovations that over-reward elite workers at the expense of the poor and working class, and that industrial policy will be essential to build a fairer economy.

This is the first post in our series discussing The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits. Click here to read all posts in the series. 

Andrew Hart and Marshall Steinbaum

There’s a big difference between the first Gilded Age and the second. Historically, rich people earned income from their capital and everyone else earned income from their labor, under the direction and control of the capitalists. This time around, the rich don’t just own capital; they also work. Daniel Markovits’s book The Meritocracy Trap is about just how hard they work, and what it says about them.

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The Uneasy Case Against Occupational Licensing (Part 1)

Frank Pasquale & Sandeep Vaheesan–

Obama-era technocrats and Trump cronies may not agree on much, but they have made common cause against occupational licensing. That focus undermines important social objectives while obscuring far more important problems in the labor market. In this post, we cover the basics of licensing, and then reframe current attacks on it. In our next post, we will explain why licensing’s mix of consumer protection and labor market stabilization is a legitimate policy option for a wide range of occupations.

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Is “the Market” the Enemy?: Racial Exploitation in Bailey v. Alabama

Noah Zatz –

vote communist

“In our current moment, anticapitalism and struggles against state violence and incarceration tend to be separate movements.” So wrote renowned historian Robin D.G. Kelley recently in a new preface to his classic book Hammer and Hoe, which examines the largely Black Communists of early-mid 20th century Alabama. Kelley’s protagonists, in contrast, saw struggles against economic inequality and exploitation and also against specifically racialized state violence as “inextricably bound together.” This same milieu produced the groundbreaking 1911 case of Bailey v. Alabama. There, the Supreme Court struck down under the Thirteenth Amendment Alabama’s use of criminal law to hold Black workers in peonage.

This post extends my prior treatment of Bailey. My focus here is on Bailey as a case study in “racial capitalism”, and I want to challenge specifically the common conflation of all things “economic” with the outcomes of “markets,” even markets understood in Legal Realist fashion to be structured by laws of property and contract. Like Kelley, I do this with one eye on the contemporary, and in particular on the separation between critiques of “precarious work” in today’s labor markets and those aimed at our racialized carceral state.

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Thinking Intersectionally About Race and Class in the Trump Era


Noah Zatz –

More than a year after the 2016 election, progressive analysis and strategy continue to be limited by the ping and pong of class-not-race and race-not-class accounts, and recriminations they provoke. Understanding what happened and charting a way forward require an alternative, a thoroughly intersectional analysis of race and class. On such a view, taking race seriously is necessary to understand how class works, not to diminish its importance.

“Intersectionality” risks depletion with its rise as a buzzword, but I mean to invoke specific insights animating the pathbreaking work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and other feminist scholars of color. In particular, they argued that understanding race and racial oppression requires an analysis of how race is gendered and gender is racialized. As Sarah Haley argues in a recent tour de force in this tradition, “gender is constructed by and through race.” So, too, we cannot understand and respond to the racism on display in the 2016 election and since without understanding its intersection with class, and how class is constructed by and through race.

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