The opinions expressed in the opinion columns are those of the author.
The American elites are an unhappy bunch. We are told this in periodic exposed in Atlantic or the New York Times. Despite their obvious economic comfort, the elites feel constant insecurity and work to the bone. Then they have children, who develop the same psychotic work ethic when placed in elite educational institutions. In 2016, more than half student body from a high school near Silicon Valley showed signs of depression; the vast majority of students show signs of anxiety.
To be clear, as the authors of these articles often admit, the ruling class shouldn’t be our main object of sympathy. As Daniel Markovits wrote in his new book, The trap of meritocracy (a extract of which ran in Atlantic, naturally), “No one should mourn the rich. ”
But, they say, the human costs of our economic system for those in its upper echelons are considerable – and an opportunity for reform. “[The meritocracy] traps the rich just as surely as it excludes others, “insists Markovits,” because those who manage to find their way to the top must work with overwhelming intensity, ruthlessly exploiting their expensive education in order to secure a return.
Exploring the pathologies of high society is undoubtedly valuable, but most elite misery surveys miss it. The defining abuse of the elite’s experience is not the relentless trafficking of its own human capital to the detriment of leisure. On the contrary, most economic elites retain their status through the exploitation of the other people. The status of the rich and powerful is harming them indeed, but not because they fail to establish a “work-life balance”. American elites inflict moral injury on themselves by participating in unjust economic and social arrangements. They don’t need to relax, they need to repent.
In an excellent review from “The Meritocracy Trap,” author – and University of Maryland alumnus – Malcolm Harris explains how Markovits distorts the academic literature on economic inequality in ways that obscure the role of private capital. For Markovits, the main driver of inequality is the large income differences between workers, resulting from unequal access to elite educational institutions. In reality, the richest Americans are those who own businesses and other capital assets. The job of these people is to extract as much surplus as possible from their workers. Below them are those at the top of the job market – Goldman Sachs analysts, management consultants, etc. These are primarily people whose job it is to help owners of capital maximize their profits; that is, target the poorest performing workers.
It is remarkably difficult to be an economic elite in this country and to keep its moral core intact, whether you are the rich capitalist trying to make your workers more productive or the well-paid management consultant helping the capitalist in these endeavors. The winners of the US economy cause material damage to the losers and in so doing inflict damage to their souls. Take, for example, a high school student who is deeply stressed about upcoming talks with various large investment banks. The problem here is not the stress – it is the project to enter a rotten industry. Any economy in which people take part in a brutal race to the top and then, upon reaching it, exploits those below them and calls for a fundamental overhaul.
I want to be specific as to why I think the ‘rich people are miserable because they work so hard’ narrative is so pernicious: it’s easy enough for America’s elites to read such reviews and invest in one. routine of personal care while continuing to be a malignant force in society. To his credit, Markovits doesn’t just prescribe lifestyle changes – he makes policy recommendations that are mostly laudable, such as bigger admission classes at elite universities or higher taxes. for companies that pay big salaries. But one can easily imagine a tech CEO or corporate lawyer reading Markovits Atlantic room and downloading a meditation app instead of, for example, signing up to volunteer for Bernie Sanders.
Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey opened up about his discovery of spiritual and dietary practices – but still did not do much to change the way it runs its website. It is possible that one of the reasons America’s elites are so unhappy is that they consciously or unconsciously feel shame. The world of premium personal care can just numb its followers in the face of the consequences of their behavior and the immense suffering necessary to maintain their social rank.
So, upper class people should be ashamed to repent before they are told to take more time for themselves. This is, of course, spiritual advice and not political recommendation. The ruling classes do not tend to relinquish their privileges of their own accord, even if it would be in their own moral interest. In the end, we’ll just have to take their money.
Max Foley-Keene is a senior government and political official. He can be contacted at [email protected]