The Atlantic prides itself on provocative writing that skewers and roasts the sacred cows of the elite progressive class.
While some journalists overdo it to the point of inducing iconoclast fatigue, the most deft inflict psychic wounds that cause the reader to reconsider vulnerabilities in their thought processes.
Daniel Markovits, a Yale Law Professor whose book is excerpted in a provocative piece in the latest Atlantic entitled, "How Life Became An Endless, Terrible Competition," walks the line artfully as he builds the case that the most cherished remedy to inequality is now guilty of perpetuating it, to our collective societal disadvantage.
The social mobility that once resulted from meritocracy has now led to social sclerosis where the wealthy and well-connected leverage knowledge and advantages to play the meritocracy game in a manner that outmaneuvers their lower socioeconomic status peers.
He regales us with statistics intended to make our jaws drop:
- 4 of the most desirable elite universities enroll more students from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%
- children of certain high income households outperform children of certain low-income households by >250 points on the SAT
Markovits' concludes, "Meritocracy has created a competition that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win."
Those falling into the top 1-5% of incomes are still winning at meritocracy (and however uncomfortably we may feel about acknowledging the reality, physicians generally fit this description), but those wins are coming at a steep price.
From Creative To Calculating
Markovits again: "Where aristocratic children once reveled in their privilege, meritocratic children now calculate their future—they plan and they scheme, through rituals of stage-managed self-presentation, in familiar rhythms of ambition, hope, and worry."
Meaning our privileged children are morphing into anxious, depressed and sleep-deprived resume-packing machines in order to maintain the status and privilege we conferred upon them. The ease of online university applications means that admit rates have declined precipitously just as applications to competitive schools have skyrocketed.
Prestige Over Passion
The result? Our kids never sample interests or passions because they understand (thanks to our inculcation) that the most secure paths to wealth and prestige are via finance, management, law and medicine.
Yawn, you say, these have always been the secure paths to wealth and prestige. Yes, but these workaholic jobs are profoundly different than the corresponding leisure class jobs of yesteryear. Your grandfather the lawyer billed half as many hours; your grandfather the doctor did not receive monthly metrics on patient volume or Press-Ganey scores of patient satisfaction.
Nothing Worth Eating In The Executive Fridge
Success is predicated on extreme productivity and consistent top performance, and those who achieve and maintain their status become hollow shadows of the hopes we had for them. Markovits: Meritocracy traps entire generations inside demeaning fears and inauthentic ambitions: always hungry but never finding, or even knowing, the right food.
He notes the recent calls for work/life balance from wealthy elites as one example that those at the top are fed up with what they've had to do and what it means to exist atop the professional apex [CD: Can I get an Amen?].
While he writes for the poor little rich boys and girls who suffer because of their success (us and our kids, my fellow physicians), he realizes that little of the population will feel sympathy for this privileged slice of society.
The Solution? Replace Specialists With Technicians
His solution, the weakest part of his argument, is overly simplistic: use a variety of levers, financial and structural, to open educational and economic access to those at the bottom 2/3 of the pyramid.
There are quick populist votes to be won by saying we need fewer lawyers and doctors who are merely "extravagantly trained children of rich parents," and can be replaced largely with paralegals and nurse practitioners treating bread and butter conditions.
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
Respectfully, my ED volume says otherwise - it's many of those well-intentioned but less trained health professionals whose significantly lower threshold for referring to the ED clogs the safety net with patients that primary care physicians formerly handled in the outpatient arena.
I've heard this argument before from the elite, educated academic or policy-maker who is convinced of the rightness of his reasoning. It's a fascinating intellectual discussion made shortly before I'm asked to contact the concierge physician he uses for his own health care.
Therein lies the weakness of the argument.