Rich-People Problems? The Summer of Elite Discontent

Why should one group have a monopoly on meritocracy?

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This has been a summer of elite discontent.

First there was the feverishly debated essay by Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter about the inability of privileged professional women like her to “have it all” — career stardom and family fulfillment. Then Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen asked why so many of his HBS classmates have lived lives without purpose or integrity. Now comes a damning book by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, The Twilight of the Elites, which indicts the nation’s leadership class for self-dealing self-centeredness — inciting many in that class to self-justifying self-analysis.

(MORE: Judith Warner: We Have to Stop Talking About ‘Having It All’)

It’s somewhere between poignant and pitiable that educated overachievers seem only lately to be realizing that they (we — who am I kidding?) aren’t guaranteed happiness or esteem. But the real problem today isn’t that things are stressful for the most affluent and credentialed 20% or 10% or 1%; it’s that for the rest of the country social mobility has all but disappeared. Meritocracy may be a grind, but for those outside the upper-middle class, it’s simply ground to a halt.

Consider that in the U.S. today the strongest predictor of a child’s future wealth is now the wealth of his or her parents. Forty percent of people in the bottom quintile — and the top quintile — are destined to stay there, a level of class stickiness that feels un-American. The ability to do better than one’s parents is now lower here than in class-bound Britain and other industrialized nations.

Mobility in a literal sense has also slowed. People are moving less, and those who do tend to be more affluent. They are moving to cities of the so-called creative class and to clustered neighborhoods of similarly educated people. The net result is that segregation by privilege is taking root in countless insidious ways.

(MORE: Charles Murray: The New Upper Class and the Real Reason We Dislike Them)

Some might ask what the problem is. After all, the meritocracy we have today, which centers on test scores and college degrees while being attentive to diversity, is more fair and inclusive than the WASP old boys’ club. But here’s the reality. Today’s system has created a constant scramble to get into the right preschool/high school/college/dating pool. And as Hayes astutely notes, once people think they’ve made it, their tendency is to ensure their heirs and allies do too — by deploying accrued advantages on their behalf or by rigging the game outright. Call it the cultural contradiction of meritocracy: hard work and fair play lead to privilege, which then undermines hard work and fair play.

The deeper problem is that merit itself is misunderstood. Merit — that is, talent plus hard work — is meaningless without opportunity. And opportunity is now more concentrated and monopolized than ever. Today it remains the case that a star can come from anywhere. See President Obama. But it is not the case that talent is rewarded wherever it comes from. See your local high-poverty school.

We’ve got to do three things to reverse this. Invest more in opportunity, with a front-loaded focus on early learning and life-skills mentoring initiatives like Year Up. Recycle opportunity, through progressive and estate taxation, so that opportunity monopolies can’t metastasize. And create more shared experiences — like national service — where we have the opportunity to be equal citizens.

The opportunity gap doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. Opportunity Nation, a coalition that includes senior Republicans and Democrats, proves that. But the issue has to matter to the elite more than their own afflictions or short-term interests. Ultimately, there’d be no better proof that meritocracy works than if today’s meritocrats gave themselves more competition.

MORE: Jon Meacham: The American Dream: The Perfect Idea for Dark Times?

120 comments
Surfboat Dan.
Surfboat Dan.

Meritocracy when the masses are unclothed is one thing.  Meritocracy when people are awash in clutter is a different thing.   WE recycle cars with the tires on for crisesakes.  Once most peoples needs for food clothing and shelter are doubly met it is hard to create jobs. 

Money has fundamentally changed in meaning.  Once Globalization is admitted: the boat got bigger and so did the holes in the boat.  Do you save the gold or patch the holes?  If you patch the holes who now owns the gold? 

TubifexWorm
TubifexWorm

Too often this debate about income distribution is based on personal opinions about worthiness and entitlement--not so helpful.  This debate would be better framed in terms of what leads to social stability, a value from which the most advantaged benefit the most.  If I were one of the wealthy, I would be happy to provide basic health care, free cable TV, free spectator sports and low-cost beer and marijuana to everyone--not because the poor are ENTITLED to these benefits but rather because doing so would keep me in power and protect my position of privilege.  Social instability arises not because of income disparity but rather when the poor lack basic necessities and/or come to feel impoverished under the social contract.  The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the rise of the National Socialist Party in pre-World War II Germany show the unpleasant consequences for the rich when their sense of personal entitlement trumps the practical necessity of maintaining social stability.     

coralrefe
coralrefe

The reason young "meritocrats" create opportunity monopolies in this culture is because they have nothing to slow their momentum except their own lack of willpower. All they need is motivation and a self-feeding reward loop forms to get them moving into the stratosphere, whereas most Americans are weighed down by real world obligations and dealt a deathblow when they see the futility of competing with the hyper-efficient elites.

Mark Lee
Mark Lee

"Forty percent of people in the bottom quintile — and the top quintile — are destined to stay there"

So in other words, SIXTY percent of people at the bottom move up and SIXTY percent of the top move down. That's not "mobile" enough for you? What do you want the entire nation to just switch from the top 1% to the bottom 1% and vice versa every generation? Please be serious.

hapeegirl61
hapeegirl61

After reading through this news story, I'm not sure the math adds up.  You say that we now live in a time where our ability to do better than our parents is lower than at any other time and lower than in 'class-bound Britain'.  You go on to say that 40% in the top quintile and lower quintile are bound to stay there.  With a US population of 313M, that means 40% of the top and bottom quintile is 6.26M each.  That still leaves room for 297.35M to create their own financial future....good or bad.  2% of the top and 2% of the bottom population 'seem to be bound' to their destiny.  That, however, leaves 96% of the US population to knock it out of the park, if they so desire.  I'll take those odds! 

4n0njm0u5
4n0njm0u5

Great article, Eric! This is so true.

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

Right Mr Liu.  When we smash the current culture -- which took 300 years to develop -- let's MAKE SURE to get there before the greedy ones do!!!   Didn't people in China do something like you're suggesting and call it "the cultural revolution?"  Worked fantastically well -- for those who got there before the greedy ones did.   Still working well -- for those who were ruthless enough to seize control.  Seems I remember the first step was to "neutralize"  everyone with an education.  Are you proposing we start there Mr. Liu?  Just how WILL we smash the existing meritocracy and keep out of the Putin trap?  The China trap?  The North Korean trap?   Easy to destroy ... got any plans for building?  Didn't think so.

drorbenami
drorbenami

if you look at old movies like "topper" and it "happened one night" you can see that being rich and happy was always a problem for certain people....most rich people are happy, certainly happier than poor people....

poor people don't have more meaning in their lives, they just have less time to think about how meaningless life appears to be sometimes...

Albert Vargas
Albert Vargas

The idea of "paying it forward" is misplaced. As a parent, I do not see any fault in those individuals transferring that wealth and power to their subsequent generations.  It my duty as a parent to teach and show my children about what it takes to maintain and grow their worth. It puts the onus on individuals who for the most part have overcome the odds to become financially independent and socially powerful.  Many took advantages of systems that the government placed to help them along the way. Those same systems have been decimated and it has become extremely difficult to become upwardly mobile.

The result is that there is a HUGE gap that someone in the lower 20% has to move through in order to become a part of the upper class echelon. This gap is now called the Middle Class, where you are too poor to actually afford things like a home or support a family on one income but simultaneously too rich to receive the many lines of support the government gives you.  The middle class aren't necessarily uneducated and are (for the most part) employed in some professional capacity but their economical (along with their social) power is fast becoming a thing of the past. 

SixSixSix
SixSixSix

The insane failure to finance education so that it is being priced out of reach of the traditional working and middle classes is a disaster in the making. Romney Capitalism, "just ask your parents, yuck, yuck, for $10 million to start "your" own business",  is leading us to the exaggerated world of the Hunger Games, which apparently Mitt loved, as well he should. Run away Financial Capitalism == Feudalism.

Rethink_Everything
Rethink_Everything

I don't even understand the mentality of the rich. Why would anyone need more than say, $500k per year? With that you can live very well and the rest is extra, it's extra. Find a way to pump it back into the world doing the most good for your fellow human family. If you don't do that, fine, but don't show up at church on Sunday. Jesus would be disgusted with you. 

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

it's a lot simpler, Americans no longer know nor agree about what is means to be American.

The national identity crisis has been in the making for about 50 years, that is since the death of President Kennedy.

The reason for this is the inability of the American people to affect the political process that dominates the way political decisions are made.

By not being part of it, cause money and corporation  count more, people no longer buy in and so on the long run, they lose the concept of National identity.

The 4th of July feels hollow ... 

The only way to change this trend, which is self destructing, is  to eliminate lobbying, put the people back in position to have a fighting chance in influencing politics.

The problem is, corporations are now people and they will not give back the power they have without  a fight ... if the people want to win, the real people want  to win, they have to do what their grand fathers did, which is fight back. 

Will that happen? I don't know .. but what I know is that it does not look like it will .. but then again ... even a black President was not a option only 5 years ago.

I am moving my family to Japan, so .. good luck America! It has been a fun ride, I will give you that , there is no such thing as boring in the USA.

Lisa M Cara
Lisa M Cara

Look, the bottom 20% do not make enough to cover housing, utilities, food, clothing, and insurance, cost of working (transportation wardrobe, taxes) they often are robbing peter to pay paul-and there are no affordable options.  Bottom line, this story and others point out a certain hopelessness that has been entrenched in the very poor for decades.  The latest meltdowns are contributing to the bottom 40% who quite literallyare living hand to mouth. 

All one needs to realize is that hungry people will do desperate things, which is reason enough to rethink the whole system before we follow this path to it's natural conclusion.  The majority of us already understand how the rich have rigged the system-we just are not desperate enough to go to war,...yet.  I do not think that many will slink off to starve out of sight and mind.  Mind the drought folks, ignore the rhetoric-not one of our leaders is looking out for us.

TimeMagsiWorthless
TimeMagsiWorthless

Why do none of these "studies" ever look at what is studied in College?  Having a degree is a way of upward mobility?  Not if you get a degree in poetry, music, art appreciation, philosophy, communications or any other liberal art (those programs don't deserver to be capitalized).  Poor people that get degrees in Chemistry or Computer Science get jobs that allow them to jump castes - ideally allowing their children to do the same.  Liberal arts are best left as a pursuit of the wealthy.  If you want to be "better off than your parents", then make yourself more valuable to society than your parents.  This is still the best country on earth to do that...

Fatesrider
Fatesrider

Half a year ago I wrote a book about the Great Right-wing conspiracy.  It didn't sell, but highlighted what's wrong with the country.  This guy said it better.  I only used facts.  This guy used common knowledge, which while less supported, tends to ring far truer. 

But he went further by suggesting national service - something I fully support.  EVERYONE, as part of their "birthright", should serve the nation in some capacity.  Maybe then, those who today don't or won't serve others the same manner will understand why whose of us who do rail against the privileged who exploit the system and shut down opportunities for everyone else.  Those who have achieved the American Dream are most responsible for taking it away from the rest of us.

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@TubifexWorm

 
The people at the "top" are about making others conform to their image while simultaneously confirming their own superiority, not providing a desirable outcome that is not concurrent with that image
. The history events you sited are the result of that. I have yet to observe rich people that did not have this pattern to their nature which is true even for the most libertarians (its all about mirroring the top dog) 

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@coralrefe  

It happens because they can it is permitted to happen.


The only reason I want to be a billionaire is so that I can tell the other billionaires to piss off knowing that they only to power and wealth. Ideally, I'd prefer that all rich people come to me for permission (funding) to do anything (ya I know, the Federal Reserve has a bit of a monopoly on that atm).

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@Mark Lee  

I'd like to see wealth actually reflect aptitude and IQ which it does not. If I am in the top %1 based on aptitude evaluations and the top %3 in IQ terms, how many people have the right to be wealthier than me or tell me what to do or what is right or wrong? FYI, I was born to a poor family and there has not been a single opportunity for me that would actually benefit me more than the wealthier person(s) trying to exploit my productivity. A meritocracy never did exist and class mobility has always been a self serving plutocracy.

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@6sickofidiocy9

So lazy imbeciles (most people even if you think not) deserve to have wealth and power over highly intelligent, talented, and knowledgeable? 

You wish you were Donald Trump don't you?

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@hapeegirl61

Donald Trump or Albert Einstein....Who got richer for their time and who is objectively more valuable?


brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@Sardonic_Soul

Nope. China has the same exact problem that we do but they have been assigned a different title which is not accurate. They have backwards individuals with too much power and wealth at their personal disposal. It doesn't matter the mechanism you supply, it all ends in the same result. 

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@drorbenami

They also die 10 years earlier on average, suffer from more debilitating diseases, suffer from environmentally reduced IQ's, have much less lifetime fulfillment experientially unless they have been propagandized with religion, etc...

If life were so meaningless, then class distribution is irrelevant, the actions of the rich are moot, and there really is no case in support of their systems outside of their preference.

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@Albert Vargas  

So, Donald Trump is good for society and we should all aspire to meet his model?

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@Rethink_Everything  

Some people won't be happy unless they have a position of seemingly arbitrary power over the rest of the population. They need everyone to mirror them in order to feel "right." They need other people to suffer to feel "right."

Narcissism and Sociopathy


For me, I need to be able to tell these people to go fly a kite

Guest
Guest

I suggest you check out the Parable of the Talents

http://bible.org/seriespage/pa...

Building success is not a bad thing. It is rewarded.

The bible asks for 10%, not the 35+ % you freeloaders want.

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@Julius Caesar  

People could stop buying products of the companies that do lobby

Oh, Japan sucks, but hey, if you think that is cool go right ahead.

Guest
Guest

The bottom 20 often made awful decisions (dropping out of school, children at early ages, sometimes with multimple partners, just to name a few...) that often (not all cases, some just have poor luck?) lead to their plight.

Why should I constantly (assuming I were in the elite bracket) ever bust my tail to build something, knowing that eventually it will all be taken back from me? For the good of those who didn't work as hard as me?

I will help those less fortunate with my own charitable donations because I believe that is the right thing to do, not because it is my responsibility to take care of those who didn't take care of themselves (again, some just had bad luck).

Bottom line, we are not all equal. Some are born in to easier situations. Does that mean they did not work hard to earn their success? Some are born into tougher situations. It's up to you to do what you can with the opprotunites you have.

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@TimeMagsiWorthless  

College is about creating citizens that can function in a democracy or something like plutocracy in the more limited sense.  Rich people are not going to give up their positions (less profits and power) just because their minions are more educated. They do not want a highly educated work force because it is a threat to the high degree of economic polarity that feeds their positions.

Guest
Guest

You are what is wrong wit this country. Instead of blaming them, why don't you challenge them? Why not strive for your own success instead of chopping away at theirs?

pc1397
pc1397

It also says it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Or something like that. I should mention I'm a heathen.

theGadflie
theGadflie

 Rewarded?  Possibly, to a degree.  But, please note Matthew 19:24 which applied more directly to the subject of this story.

Rethink_Everything
Rethink_Everything

So Jesus feels the wealthy should own and be kind to slaves? If Jesus were alive today I bet he would take issue with you for equating him with a message like that. Sounds more like mankind's deeply flawed interpretation of his message to me. It's been awhile, but I learned that Jesus, the son of a carpenter, was a humble man who believed in living modestly and sharing what he had with others.

bubbasmith582
bubbasmith582

 My goodness.  You're going to belittle people into adhering to the teachings of your faith?  I'm no expert in persuasion, but I don't think you're going to win many converts.  How about you tone down the caustic rhetoric and up the peace, patience, kindess, etc. that your faith teaches you should be demonstrating, lest people believe you're an accurate representation of Christianity.

Barry Weinstein
Barry Weinstein

Decisons like working for a company that offshored their job I guess. As you so bigoted to honestly beleive that poverty is the direct result of the issued you raised?  Try way too much money being paid to way too few in most companies. Try the fact that simple possesion carries more jail time than large scale bank fraud.

Barry Weinstein
Barry Weinstein

That is the point. If we are not all born equal what are you doing to correct it?

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 Ah, c'mon.

 Lower 20% is at 22k. This is very low, particularly for a household.

 Lower 20% disproportionately consists of people not working full time (due to family reasons or because they are students) or people not working at all.

Lisa M Cara
Lisa M Cara

 A lot of people worked very hard to achieve all they lost because of greed in this country.  That is in no way their decision that cost them their home, job, retirement funds.  Stop blaming people and start blaming the corporate owned government that took taxpayer money and bailed out those who by RIGHT should be suffering instead of profiting.

The equality that needs to be addressed is that of opportunity, and wages that allow for living instead of a slow slide into permanent poverty for an even greater percentage of our population.

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@Guest  

If you were the owner of a business and you hired a genius to run the place, would you properly hand the profits and ownership to them since they are objectively better at running the business-no, I don't think so.

Barry Weinstein
Barry Weinstein

Because their "success" came from stealing from those they employ. Its is not possible to pull yourself up when soemone is standing on your neck.

It is simple, your success is more a matter of luck than skill or effort. 

Guest
Guest

I did no such thing. I used a passage from the Bible to counter someone who misrepresented God to try and make him into a democrat.

The bible encourages people to strive for success with the gifts and abilities they've been given.

And yes, it teaches to be charitable to the needy. It does not teach to tax the heck out of those who are wealthy.

Rethink_Everything
Rethink_Everything

It saddens me to think  someone could honestly believe  hoarding  money and spending it on frivolous material things is God approved behavior. By all means use your gifts and strive for financial success. Just remember, the more financial success you have, the greater responsibility you have to help humanity.  

Guest
Guest

See response to Rethink...

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@Guest  

Profits are thievery buddy. That is all money that could go towards lower prices, higher wages, and increased quality/availability. 


I'm planning on raking in some profits btw. Not because I want to or think its right, but because I am forced to by all the other people taking profits (and I do mean "taking")

Guest
Guest

Are so bitter that you believe success only comes from thievery?

Poverty IS a likely result if you make those bad decisions. SO DON"T MAKE THEM!

How can you blame somebpdy else for your plight if YOU drop out of school knowing the benefit it provides you?

How can you blame somebody else for YOU having children far before you were financialy ready?

As I said, these examples are not true to everyone in poverty, but a good portion. Some are unlucky. That is what charity is for.

If you want things to really be fair, how about a fair tax?

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@Guest  

Don't forget to create institutions and rules to keep the competition at bay once you have attained your higher status

Guest
Guest

We are not all born equal. It is up to YOU to correct it as much as YOU can. Leave destructive situations. Study hard, work hard. Successful people stick together as this article points out, because they share the experience of working hard for their goals.

Attitude is more important than anything. If you believe you are a victim, you will always be a victim.

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@Guest  


Funny how that belief justifies your relative position?

I am not for helping these people. I am for not exploiting them for profits. I am for not instituting systems that require economic polarity to function. I am for not rewarding people like Donald Trump.

Guest
Guest

It is low. Unlike you however, I believe a lot of those people are there by their own mistakes and bad choices. Not all, but a lot.

Family reasons such as? Having children at young ages causing you to drop out of school? Elaborate please...

Those students are students because they know it will help them towards success. How many in the bottom 20 have degrees?

I'm all for helping those people suffering in the bottom 20% through welfare programs such as TANF, but only if those people are willing to work.

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@Guest  

Companies want people they can profit off of. Everything else is second to that. Why is it morally proper for lesser people to "deserve" to profit off of the backs of superior people (which is what business's would prefer)?

Guest
Guest

Nobody is holding you back but yourslef. Companies WANT people who WANT and STRIVE for success, not those who want to coast.

Indeed their are cases of people ruined by greed, Madoff being the obvious answer. He was punished, his profits are being taken and returned to those he robbed. Yes, he ROBBED people. You assume that all other successful companies stole to get to the top. This wrong and dangerous. Discouraging effort and success will ruin this country if it continues.

I agree, equality of opportunity, and by that I mean the education, needs to be fixed. But equal wages? I disagree. Wages should be based on talent, skill, effort...

Talent, skill, and effort were not stolen from you or anybody.

brownbri1983
brownbri1983

@Guest
 

Allow the establishment to profit from your productivity or slowly starve and be marginalized...That is a reasonable choice?

Guest
Guest

You honestly believe that? That everybody who's achieved this success you vilainize stole it from you?