New York Times & the Atlantic have recently covered a previously less discussed aspect of American social class; that in the country’s attempt to equalize society and spread opportunity, we’ve inadvertently worsened equality, creating a new class of people who used their talents and intelligence to “make it” in the world…and then proceeded to enact policy and societal changes making it harder for others not born into their privilege to do the same. This has been summed up in Matthew Stewart’s statement in the Atlantic:
Stewart et al. point out, justifiably, that the more classless a society claims to become, the more gilded and insulated the upper classes become. As the country more and more avidly clings to the notion that you can be anything you want to be if you just put your mind to it, the gap between the richest and poorest citizens is and has been since 1980, rapidly widening. And because of these changes, we are reaching the economic metrics of a second world country.
With college degrees becoming more common, getting into the “right” colleges is ever more important to career success. Just having a degree doesn’t cut it, and students not using their degrees for the fields they studied in is too commonplace. Yet the data consistently shows us that getting into a good school hinges on factors that are often out of the control of the applicant, such as being from the “right” part of the country or being a legacy of the school of choice. If you want to go to one of the best schools in the world, such as something in the Ivy League, you either have to be stellar in your abilities (and the first qualification is as it should be; these schools are for the brightest) or be able to get the good graces of the admissions boards through connections.
You may be asking why this is such a big deal considering that for most of the West’s history, we’ve had an aristocracy with jarring class differences. Well, this is where it gets tricky. For the first time in the West’s history, we have a class of people, roughly 9.9% of the population, according to Stewart, who have unprecedented privilege while simultaneously denying any role other than individual achievement for it. How many times have you heard someone quip something along the lines of “I worked hard for it.”
And hard work is great, incentive to achieve things individually has helped people do and invent wonderful things we’d have otherwise not heard of. But there’s a dark side to individual performance. If you believe your good fortune has mostly been the result of your own choices, you’re far more likely to harbor ill attitudes toward those who don’t share your experiences. The homeless guy you saw on the street as you sip your $8 cup of coffee…oh it has to be his own fault, right? This is America after all; if someone can’t bag their own slice of the ever expanding pie they must not really want it that bad. This is a dangerous way to think, and the more success you achieve, the easier it is to do.
The dangers and ill effects of such self-righteousness are manifestly present in today’s United States. Income inequality has soared, social mobility has decreased, and these changes most ironically accelerated in the early 1980’s, at the onset of the rule of a Republican president who encouraged the chase of meritocratic largess, but not so much the sense of responsibility that must come with power and privilege.
There are a few things we can do to mitigate the situation, but because of the current leadership in the U.S. it will be more than an uphill battle. Firstly, it should be basic common sense that the very rich must be more highly taxed. In fact, rack up the inheritance taxes, hard. They only apply in significant percentage to the very richest of families and not keeping them around encourages dynasties. Heavy progressive taxation is used in almost every other Western nation on earth and the results have for decades been beneficial; the distribution of wealth is more leveled but not to the point where there’s no incentive make money. But as rotten luck would have it, our current “president” has had great success in taking us in the other direction. Expect to see the fallout of this if we can’t reverse it via Democrats retaking Congress.
The next thing we need to do is further diversify the pool of admitted students to the Ivy League and other prestigious schools in ways that affirmative action and federal non-discrimination laws don’t sufficiently address. We need to curb legacy admissions, take in more students that can demonstrate very high intelligence yet may have made mistakes that impacted their grades or other records. A lot of smart people have enormous potential but just didn’t have their heads in the right place during the turbulent teen years. The current academic system punishes people such as this, and we should instead be helping them reach the maximum of what they’re capable of.
The last one, perhaps being more counter-intuitive, is that it’s high time we acknowledge that the US is not a pure meritocracy, nor is it a utopia where anyone can be anything should they just labour hard enough on their dreams. There is a reason it’s called “The American Dream” and not The American Realization. And the dream is getting ever more elusive while we continue to pretend we’re awake. Today’s privileged have largely forgotten about noblisse oblige, as well as the realization that nobody gets ahead in the world without the help of others and without, frankly, good luck. You really “didn’t build that”, at least not entirely on your own. If reality is something that deals with you when you don’t deal with it, accepting this harsh truth would go a long way in developing policies see to it nobody is left behind, especially if they simply can’t help themselves for whatever reason.
The bootstraps people once pulled themselves up by are worn out. In a rapidly changing economy where the job security of many is uncertain and automation will eventually usurp most of the workforce, we need more than ever, to address the issues of social class and see that no one is punished for being in the wrong position in life, be it from being born into a poor family or being born without superb talent. If the US could do that, it truly would merit the title of “the land of opportunity”.