We need systemic change to our economic system, not self-care for elites

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Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

American elites are an unhappy bunch. We are told this in periodic exposés in The Atlantic or the New York Times. Despite their obvious economic comfort, elites feel constant insecurity and work themselves to the bone. Then they have children, who develop the same psychotic work ethic as they’re shepherded into elite educational institutions. In 2016, over half of the student body of 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 pieces often admit, the ruling class shouldn’t be our primary object of sympathy. As Daniel Markovits wrote in his new book, The Meritocracy Trap (an excerpt of which ran in The Atlantic, naturally), “No one should weep for the wealthy.” 

But, they say, the human costs of our economic system to folks occupying its upper echelons are considerable — and an opportunity for reform. “[The meritocracy] ensnares the rich just as surely as it excludes the rest,” Markovits insists, “as those who manage to claw their way to the top must work with crushing intensity, ruthlessly exploiting their expensive education in order to extract a return.”

Exploring the pathologies of the upper class is undoubtedly valuable, but most investigations into the elite’s misery miss the mark. The defining abuse of the elite experience isn’t the relentless milking of one’s own human capital at the expense of leisure. Rather, most economic elites maintain their status through the exploitation of other people. The status of the rich and powerful does indeed harm them, but not because they fail to establish a “work-life balance.” American elites inflict moral injury upon themselves through their participation in unjust economic and social arrangements. They don’t need to relax — they need to repent. 

In an excellent review of “The Meritocracy Trap,” author — and University of Maryland alum — Malcolm Harris details how Markovits mangles the academic literature on economic inequality in ways that obscure the role of private capital. For Markovits, the main driver of inequality is vast differences in incomes among workers, stemming from unequal access to elite educational institutions. In reality, the wealthiest of Americans are those who own businesses and other capital assets. These folks’ job is to squeeze as much surplus out of their workers as possible. Below them are those at the top of the labor market — Goldman Sachs analysts, management consultants, etc. These are primarily people whose job it is to help capital owners maximize profit; that is, screw over less successful workers. 

It’s remarkably difficult to be an economic elite in this country and keep one’s moral core intact, whether you’re the rich capitalist trying to make your workers more productive or the well-compensated management consultant assisting the capitalist in those efforts. The winners of the American economy do material harm to the losers — and, in so doing, inflict damage on their souls. Take, for example, a college senior who is deeply stressed out about upcoming interviews with various big-name investment banks. The problem here isn’t the stress — it’s the plan to enter a rotten industry. Any economy in which people participate in a brutal race to the top, and then, upon arriving there, exploits those below them and cries out for fundamental overhaul. 

I want to be precise about why I think the “rich people are miserable because they work furiously” narrative is so pernicious: It’s quite easy for American elites to read such critiques and invest in a self-care routine 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 admissions classes to elite universities or higher taxes for companies that pay big salaries. But one can easily imagine a tech CEO or a corporate lawyer reading Markovits’ Atlantic piece and downloading a meditation app instead of, say, signing up to volunteer for Bernie Sanders. 

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey has been vocal about his discovery of spiritual and dieting practices — but still hasn’t done much to change how he runs his website. It’s possible that one reason American elites are so unhappy is that they, consciously or unconsciously, feel shame. The world of high-end self-care may just numb its devotees to the consequences of their behavior and the immense suffering required to maintain their social stations. 

So people in the upper class should be shamed into repentance before they’re told to take more time for themselves. That is, of course, spiritual advice and not a policy recommendation. Ruling classes don’t tend to surrender privileges of their own volition, even though doing so would be to their own moral benefit. At the end of the day, we’re just going to need to take their money.

Max Foley-Keene is a senior government and politics major. He can be reached at maxfkcap2016@gmail.com.

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