Are We Prisoners of Technological Fate?

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

Daniel Markovits –

 The Meritocracy Trap’s account of the relationships among elite education, skill-biased technical change, and rising economic inequality is, in my mind, one of the book’s most important arguments, even as it is undoubtedly one of the least discussed. I’m therefore delighted and grateful that Gordon chose to focus his attention on these matters.

Gordon rightly emphasizes that The Meritocracy Trap combines two positions that are typically (but not by any necessary facts or logic) opposed—to embrace what Gordon calls a “materialist” theory of income inequality while rejecting what he calls a “determinist” theory of technological development. First, the book argues that, in Gordon’s words “technology has a predominant influence on social and economic structure.” Innovations have biased work in favor of a certain set of narrowly elite skills, and this bias accounts for the bulk of rising high-end economic inequality. And second, the book rejects what Gordon calls “the pervasive myth that technological change is natural, self-directing, or inevitable.” Rather, the innovations behind rising inequality are themselves produced by meritocracy, as the distribution of training influences the path of innovation and superordinate workers stimulate the demand for their own skills. This places policy that “guide[s] the course of technological change,” or as Gordon calls it, “industrial policy,” at the center of efforts to combat rising inequality.

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Are the Rich Rentiers or Superordinate Workers?

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

Daniel Markovits –

I am grateful to the LPE Blog for hosting this exchange about The Meritocracy Trap. Today’s post will take up Hart’s and Steinbaum’s post and focus on facts, and tomorrow’s will turn to Gordon’s post and take up values.

Hart and Steinbaum claim that The Meritocracy Trap fails to recognize deep “differences between rich professionals and the ultra-wealthy capitalist class.” They also propose that the book exaggerates meritocratic inequality’s economic rationality, that “[i]t is not the meritocrats’ skills that bring in their high salaries.” In short, Hart and Steinbaum propose that the rich are not superordinate workers paid on account of their enormous productivity but rather are rentiers who exploit their capital to extract rents.

Hart and Steinbaum suggest that The Meritocracy Trap overemphasizes the rising labor incomes of the merely very rich and underemphasizes the exploding capital incomes of the super-rich. But in fact, although the past half-century has seen a shift of income against labor and in favor of capital, this shift is much too small to account for rising top income shares. Instead, rising economic inequality is principally caused by a shift of income within labor’s share, away from middle-class and towards superordinate workers.

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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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Student Debt Cancellation: It’s Actually Good

Luke Herrine-

Whenever talk of student debt cancellation, or even of a “student debt crisis,” gets too loud, there is a bevy of pundits ready to tut-tut. Don’t you so-called progressives know that most student debt is held by young professionals? That the young professionals with the biggest debt loads are unlikely to default on their debt because they have leveraged their education into high-paying jobs (or at least have well-off family who can pitch in)? And so don’t you see that cancelling student debt would mostly just be a subsidy to already comfortable people? And you call yourself progressive? Shame! Go think about what you’ve done. Let the professionals take care of the policymaking.

Now that the Levy Institute has published a report on the likely macroeconomic effects of student debt cancellation and some left politicians have taken up the idea, David Leonhardt at the New York Times saw fit to rehearse the arguments he and others have made multiple times before (apparently not having read the arguments against his position in that selfsame report). Here’s why he’s wrong again.

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There is no necessary trade-off between good work and more work

Frank Pasquale – 

Mainstream economists tend to frame employment policy as a series of tragic trade-offs. If policymakers raise the minimum wage, they are told, employment will inevitably fall, perhaps precipitously. Requirements for vacations, too, might crash the job market. (Never mind that dozens of other prosperous countries mandate paid vacation time.) Technocrats of the center left complain about employer-sponsored insurance as a dreadful distortion of the labor market. Sick pay, family medical leave, maternity and paternity leave—all have been blasted by one economist or another as a drag on economic growth and employment levels. “You are only hurting the people you are trying to help,” labor activists are told, again and again.

Such models are intuitively plausible, thanks to what James Y. Kwak has called “economism:” simplistic perspectives resulting from mechanical applications of supply and demand models to complex social phenomena. In general, the more costly something is, the less consumers will demand it. That reasoning leads, in turn, to more sweeping claims about the need to deregulate labor markets. If there is one policy issue most likely to consolidate bipartisan consensus among economically minded technocrats, it is a suspicion of barriers to entry in the workforce, including occupational licensure and “credentialization.” They lament the former as a paradigmatic example of state power hijacked by private interests to enrich themselves. Credentialization is framed as a market failure: The unjustified preference of bosses for workers educated in ways not directly related to the tasks they will be performing at work.Supply and Demand diagram. Demand has negative slope. Supply has positive slope. further explained below

The bottom line of this economism is grim. To the extent the state requires certain qualifications of workers, or workers themselves demand time off or other entitlements, there will be fewer jobs. Economist Tyler Cowen asks whether “whether workers might not enjoy ‘too much’ tolerance and freedom in the workplace.” While cash wages are taxed, “perks” are not, so employers will be tempted to oversupply perks at the expense of wages (or, even more troublingly to neoclassical diehards, at the expense of shareholders).

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Understanding the Political Economy of Academia Through the Tax Bills

Alyssa Battistoni

Paying for corporate tax cuts with revenue raised from grad students and universities sounds like a parody of a Republican tax bill. Unfortunately–like many seeming parodies these days–it was all too real. The tax bill that originally passed the House would have taxed both graduate student tuition waivers and university endowments above a certain level, measured per-student.

free yale pic

The tax on tuition relief wasn’t in the version of the bill that passed the Senate, and has been dropped from the bill entirely in the reconciliation process—thanks largely to grad students and their unions, who led a wave of protests against the provision. The endowment tax, however, remains intact despite the best lobbying efforts of university administrators.

Understanding the various versions of the bill in relation to both grad students and endowments provides a valuable window into the political economy of contemporary academia. In particular, Congressional Republicans have unintentionally revealed the ways in which the labels of “school” and “student” are only partial descriptors of contemporary universities and the people who study at them.

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