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book review

In ‘The Meritocracy Trap,’ a sobering look at what it takes to get ahead

President Clinton came from a middle-class background but now the Clinton family is part of the American elite.
President Clinton came from a middle-class background but now the Clinton family is part of the American elite.ap file photo/AFP/Getty Images

The 42nd and 43rd presidents contrasted in many ways. Bill Clinton was middle class from a single-parent family, George W. Bush was part of the American patrician class with a formidable intact family. Clinton was introspective and complex, Bush breezy and unburdened by nuance.

But for all their differences, they had remarkably similar childhoods in an especially sunny passage of American life, and it would not be difficult to imagine them in the same fourth-grade class, on the same junior-high basketball team, or in line, in grimy shorts and soiled T-shirts, at the same soft-serve ice cream stand.

“Clinton and Bush were both born fully members of an American society that was more economically integrated than it had ever been before,” Daniel Markovits argues in an imaginative new book that will prompt endless debate in the faculty lounge, the country-club tap room, and the family dinner table. Skip ahead 31 pages in “The Meritocracy Trap,” and you will find an even more remarkable, and telling, paragraph:

‘’None of the Clinton or Bush children has ever lived in a middle-class setting. And just as Bill Clinton and George Bush exemplified midcentury America, so the younger Clintons and Bushes reflect their generation and the new age: they are typical of the elite today, at most an extreme case of a broader trend and not in any way exceptional.”

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A generation ago, a Yale Law School professor, Charles Reich, wrote a book on the virtues and significance of the counterculture, “The Greening of America,” that transformed the American conversation. Markovits, himself a product of Yale College, the London School of Economics, Oxford, and Harvard, is in some ways Reich’s lineal descendent, with a book that will jolt and provoke the reading public and those who are exposed to the book’s thesis on morning television or during the evening commute.

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Markovits argues that “meritocracy” — the notion that people get ahead in a society of social mobility principally on the strength of their efforts and abilities — is America’s “foundational myth,” and that meritocracy is a blight not only on the middle class that is left behind but also on the elites that have thrust ahead.

The idea that the system is “rigged” for the rich, amply argued in these pages, is a hardy perennial of American life, prominent in the Progressivism of the post-Gilded Age, in appeals for justice for the middle class from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, and especially in Franklin Roosevelt’s rages against the “economic royalists” of his time. (“New kingdoms,” FDR said in his 1936 presidential nomination acceptance speech, “were built upon concentration of control over material things.”)

But the Markovits argument is far more complex. He melds the economic-royalist critique with an insightful new analysis: The new elites are being injured by their very elitism.

Part of this is not new. It is well known that it is nearly impossible to get into Harvard and Yale, that the levels of anxiety on college campuses has reached epidemic and unprecedented rates, and that the jobs that these graduates win after graduation on Wall Street and in top law firms are unforgiving in their demands, though generously rewarded in prosperity and prestige.

“Meritocratic jobs require elite adults to work with grinding intensity, ruthlessly exploiting their educations in order to extract a return from these investments,” argues Markovits. “Meritocracy entices an anxious and inauthentic elite into a pitiless, lifelong contest to secure income and status through its own excessive industry.”

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Moreover, this modern elite, Markovits argues, is fundamentally different from the elites of the past, whose denizens basically did nothing and either went home early, lingered for cocktails at the club after work, or were found on the back nine on Thursday afternoons. (Here he omits the contribution of the British elite, which though burdened by execrable food, at least populated Parliament and had an empire to run, with fully nine graduates of both Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, ascending to Downing Street.)

In short, the old elites inherited money and mostly sat around. The new elites compete like mad at Princeton, work their tails off at white-shoe law firms, and are exhausted when they get home to their families, which is usually late in the evening. Then they shove their children onto the same treadmill, reinforcing if not widening the distinctions between the classes that once were meaningless and now mean everything.

The wealth gap, powered by the education gap — Markovits produces shocking figures about the yawning wealth gap on leafy campuses, mostly in the East — is a metaphor for many other gaps, and in the course of this argument he places a single sentence in the middle of a paragraph on page 223 that, in a reference to a storied Napa Valley restaurant, may be the most shocking, and the most telling, of all: “Taco Bell and the French Laundry do not use a single ingredient in common.”

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For what it’s worth, I checked, and the prix-fixe meal at the latter begins at $335. There was also a $125 up-charge for diners who wanted the mac-and-cheese appetizer, which included Parmesan “Mousseline” and Périgord Black Winter Truffles, whatever those are. Mac-and-cheese used to be the great equalizer. Now it is the great separator.

And while this example, and this book, may be unappetizing, “The Meritocracy Trap” is stout food for thought for a country in transition — and in crisis.

THE MERITOCRACY TRAP: HOW AMERICA’S FOUNDATIONAL MYTH FEEDS INEQUALITY

by Daniel Markovits

Penguin, 448 pp. $27


David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.