Monday, July 11, 2016

Readings on meritocracy

Per the Arts & Letters Daily, which I scan regularly in search of interesting items, today I found a link to a piece from the Hedgehog Review, a triennial publication that "offers critical reflections on contemporary culture."  Their current issue features three short articles on "Meritocracy and Its Discontents," one of them by Robert Frank, with whom I am co-teaching the NYU inequality colloquium late this fall.

Another of the three short articles, and the one linked by the Arts & Letters Daily, is by Helen Andrews, a researcher (not previously known to me) at a conservative and pro-free market Australian think tank.  It contains the following provocative passages that, given their concise crispness, I am thinking I should quote from, in one of the two opening chapters of my literature book on high-end inequality:

"Meritocracy began by destroying an aristocracy; it has ended in creating a new one. Nearly every book in the American anti-meritocracy literature makes this charge, in what is usually its most empirically reinforced chapter. Statistics on the decline of social mobility are not lacking. In 1985, less than half of students at selective colleges came from families in the top income quartile; in 2010, 67 percent did....  [Data show the] growing tendency of the members of America’s cognitive elite to marry each other, live near each other in “Super Zips,” and launch their children into the same schools, and thence onto the same path to worldly success.... 'Our new multiracial, gender-neutral meritocracy has figured out a way to make itself hereditary.' ....

"[Yet n]ot since the Society of the Cincinnati has a ruling elite so vehemently disclaimed any resemblance to an aristocracy. The structure of the economy abets the elite in its delusion, since even the very rich are now more likely to earn their money from employment than from capital, and thus find it easier to think of themselves basically as working stiffs. As cultural consumers they are careful to look down their noses at nothing except country music.... 'It is as if the new elite are saying, ‘Look! We are not some exclusive club. If anything, we are the most democratized of all groups.’”

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