Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream

Image Source 

When one seeks imperial power, there is no mean between the heights and the abyss.”

–Tacitus, The Histories, Book 2.74

The American dream is dead.  Matthew O’Brien thinks he knows why:

RIP, American Dream? Why It’s So Hard For the Poor to Get Ahead Today
Matthew O’Brien. The Atlantic. 18 June 2013.

It is a good article, but an incomplete one. Unlike many other attempts to explain why America has separated into classes distinct and impenetrable, Mr. O’Brien does focus on the factors that matter most. What he misses is why these developments have taken place. America’s poor (and their children) have little hope of becoming rich; her rich (and their children) face little fear of becoming poor. Three words missing from Mr. O’Brien’s piece hep explain why this is so: economies of scale.


The article gives us the background information we need to understand why economies of scale are such a dangerous thing. O’Brien rightly begins his article by focusing on upper class marriage:

But high-earners aren’t just earning more today; they’re also marrying each other more. It’s what economists romantically call “assortative mating” — and Christine Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, estimates inequality would be 25 to 30 percent lower if not for it.

Lets review why this fact is so critically important to understanding the broader story of America’s class.

In America, class is a matter of education. The more education you receive, the richer you will be.

Dylan Mathews, “Research desk investigates: How does college explain unemployment numbers, but not inequality?”, Washington Post, 12 August 2010.

 The world places higher emphasis on education and intelligence than it used to. The demand for brain power has increased. For this reason the instruction gained or achievements made in pursuit of a PhD or Ivy League degree are often less important than the possession of the degree itself. Regardless of what you studied, simply having a PhD from Harvard proves to employers that you are one of the few people with the intelligence and work ethic needed to get a PhD from Harvard. (The connections made in an Ivy League school are another lucrative side bonus). [1]

The story is larger than Harvard and the other Ivy League schools, but the subsequent careers of Ivy League alumni reveal a lot about the nature of America’s class woes. An Ivy League education is the most direct route to the heights of American wealth and power: Wall Street firms fix hiring quotas to ensure that enough graduates from the Ivy League’s most prestigious schools are hired (an offer graduates are glad to take – in 2009 40% of Princeton undergrads went to Wall Street after graduation!), while those with more ambition have access to even greater heights. 10% of U.S. Senators, 50% of all U.S. billionaires, and 60% of the President’s cabinet have Ivy League alma maters to their name.   [2]

It is a narrow funnel from which to form a ruling class.

In the early days of the twentieth century, the defining characteristic of the Ivy League funnel was wealth, not brains.  As late as 1952 the mean SAT scores of the incoming Harvard freshman class was barely above the national mean.  The same cannot be said today – the average freshman who comes to the Harvard campus of 2013 rarely has an SAT score below the top 5%. [3] The story is not limited to Harvard Yard. Notes Charles Murray:

Together, just 10 schools took 20 percent of all the students in the United States who scored in the top five centiles on the SAT or ACT. Forty one schools accounted for half of them. [The 105 most selective American colleges], which accounted for 19 percent of all freshmen in 1997, accounted for 7 percent of students with SAT or ACT scores in the top five centiles.” 

Murray then explains how this has changed the nature of elite “assortative mating”:

Back in the days when Harvard men and Wellesley women were more likely to be rich than to be especially smart, this meant that money was more likely to marry money. In an era when they are both almost certainty in the top centiles of the IQ distribution, it means that the very smart is more likely to marry very smart.[4]

This has serious consequences for inter-gernarational social mobility. The relationship between the IQ of parents and children has been empirically observed: smart parents create smart kids [5]. One can predict the average IQ of the children of today’s college graduates by looking at their IQ today:

Taken from Charles Murray. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010(New York: Cox and Murray Inc). 2012. p. 54

This is not a projection of the distant future. This new world is already a generation old. The wealthy, high-IQ, elite-school alumni who marry today are, by and large, the children of wealthy, high-IQ, elite school alumni who married each other a generation ago. [6] This cognitive sorting of the American people is the root of America’s current class divides.


But the cognitive sorting of the American people is not the entire tale. What about the outliers – those children of uneducated parents who have the brains to qualify for an elite education? O’Brien captures the facts:

It’s less clear why higher education isn’t more of a path to prosperity for low-income children. 

Well, what kind of higher education are we talking about? As Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard show in a recent paper presented at the Brookings Institute, very few high-achieving students from low-income households end up even applying to a selective college. (Here, “high-achieving” is defined as the top 10 percent of overall test-takers on the SAT I or ACT, and a “selective” college is one of the top 236 schools in the country.) This, of course, is not how high-achieving, high-income students play the college admissions game. They follow their guidance counselors’ advice, and apply to a few “reach” schools, a handful of “match” schools, and a “safety” school or two.

…It’s a totally different game for high-achieving, low-income students, because nobody tells them how to play it. Aside from magnet school kids, they mostly don’t have parents or teachers or counselors with much experience applying to selective colleges. Nor do many know, despite the best efforts of the schools to inform them otherwise, that the most selective colleges have very generous financial aid packages that can take tuition all the way down to zero. Indeed, Harvard is pretty much free, including room and board, for students whose parents make $65,000 or less…. 

This is how the American Dream ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper of elite school applications by poor kids. Like it or not, the Ivies and other top schools are our conduit to the top, and far too many low-income students who should be there are not. As David Leonhardt of the New York Times points out, only 34 percent of high-achieving, low-income students attend a selective college versus 78 percent for high-achieving, high-income students. This has to be the most boneheaded way we as a society perpetuate the people at the top. The deck is already more than stacked against kids growing up in low-income households — their parents often aren’t as involved or even around — and we’re not helping the ones who do succeed to succeed more.

There is a fundamental mismatch between the resources (financial and human) available to America’s poor students and those available to her rich ones.  The New York Times explains:

At the college level, the divergence in per-pupil spending is staggering. Since the 1960s, annual per-pupil spending at the most selective public and private colleges has increased at twice the rate of the least selective colleges. By 2006, the funding chasm in spending per student between the most and the least selective colleges was six times larger than in the late 1960s. 

In short, more money is being spent on wealthy students who have never been more prepared to excel in college. Meanwhile, poorer students who are less prepared — those who a generation ago would not have even enrolled in college — are getting a smaller slice of higher education spending. According to a study by the demographer John Bound and his colleagues, lack of institutional resources explains up to two-thirds of the increase in dropout rates at lower-tier colleges. 

Of course, this divergence in educational investments begins long before college. Wealthy parents are piling on cognitive enrichment activities outside of school from preschool on up, and at a rate that is leaving everyone else in the dust. Schools could make up some of the difference by intensively investing in poor children, and the majority of richer countries do just that — spending more per pupil in lower-income districts than in higher-income districts. But it is the reverse in the United States, in large part because, unlike most other advanced countries, revenues for public schools continue to be raised mostly from local property taxes. [7]

As Mr. O’Brian suggests, more important than the money spent on each child is the disparity between the human resources rich and poor children have access to. [8] Here again elite sorting is at play. This culprit is not whom the elite marry, but where they choose to live once the knot is tied.

Much attention has been paid to the “big sort” of the American populace into like-minded populations of conservatives and liberals who live physically apart. Less trumpeted about has been the geographic separation by class – a big sort of rich and poor, each living in their own neighborhoods, both minutes and worlds apart. The problem has worsened considerably over the last 60 years.

Taken from Charles Murray. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. (New York: Cox and Murray Inc). 2012. p. 77

 The geographic isolation of America’s upper crust compounds the problems of America’s intelligence divide. Poor children in inner city or rural school districts do not have access to teachers, counselors, or community leaders who know how to play the elite university game because those teachers and counselors do not live in poor inner city or rural school districts. Even those from lower class backgrounds who manage to beat the odds and fight their way to the top do little for the communities they came from. Once they leave they rarely come back, settling down in rich neighborhoods with the rest of their class. Money follows the same pattern: the districts most in need of extra funds are those who lack wealthy citizens to draw these funds from from.


Patterns in settlement and marriage account for the most stunning of America’s entrenched disparities. Perceptive observers like Matthew O’Brien recognize this, but they do not explain why these patterns came about. To do so requires a deeper look at the structures of American power.

Once again the Ivy League is a useful place to begin. We noted earlier that the Ivy League of the early twentieth century was dominated by the wealthy. Wealth was not the only thing that united Ivies of that day. Those who went to the elite schools in the Northeast were almost entirely from the Northeast. Elites from other regions stuck to schools within the region – why travel to the far away lands of the Ivy League when schools like Stanford, University of Chicago, Duke, or somewhere else closer to home offered the same prestige and better connections? [9] There was no single funnel through which the nation’s elite were picked and primed. This reflected the realities of contemporary society. America did not have one set of elite schools for its national elite because the United States did not yet have a single national elite.

The United States was born a republic of free-holding farmers. The township was the world of the New England man; the county was the center of Southern life. Few businesses had boundaries larger than this. Government power was concentrated at the bottom. Larger government structures existed, but their impact on daily life was negligible. National hierarchy arose in times of war – but once the war ended American life scaled down to normal, decentralized and parochial as before.

This America was not an egalitarian paradise – at least not in economic terms. Early America was  highly stratified along class lines. The disparity between rich and poor was great, and the rich were overwhelmingly the children of the rich. [10] But to contemporaries, these class divisions did not matter much. Early Americans could forgive exorbitant fortunes because they had few meaningful political consequences. What a millionaire in Salem or Philadelphia did with his money did not directly effect those living in St. Louis, Savannah, or Columbus. It often had no effect on those living in the township next door. Consequently, men rich and poor met as social and political equals. As Harry L. Watson, renowned historian of antebellum America, has said, “There was a certain mediocrity of culture, tastes, and opinion that seemed universal among Americans…. Wealth in America could not put on a face of public arrogance, and poverty did not require a posture of cringing deference. Instead, all white male Americans demanded and got a certain rough equality in personal respect from other citizens of the republic.[11]  

Viewing the scene with an outsider’s eye, Tocqueville quipped “The striking thing about the United States… is the rarity of lofty ambitions evident in this land where all are activley ambitious.” [12] He was right. Americans spoke of their ambitions with words like “independence”, “self improvement” and “obtaining a competency.” [13] No one aimed to climb the social ladder and join the upper class. As far as most Americans were concerned there was no other class than that which belonged to all white men.

Alas, the system was not to last. By the late 1800s transformations in transportation, industrial methods, and communications made industrial ventures that spanned the Union possible. The rest of the nation was not eager to industrialize, throwing up cow-boys and populists to try and slow titanic industrial conglomerations down. But continuing industrialization could not be stopped, and soon the opponents of industry were organized on a similar scale as their declared enemies. The turn-of-the-century progressive reforms and the rise of massive labour unions were the first steps along this path. The full transformation came with President Franklin Roosevelt.  The fight to end the Great Depression and (more importantly) emerge victorious from the Second World War changed the face of American society. Business changed from the government’s enemy to its closest friend, and both ballooned in size. During the war the entire population was mobilized and economy centralized to meet the demands of victory.

The distribution of American wealth would never be the same. Before the war America’s wealthy had been concentrated in the Northeast; by 1950 America had as many millionaires in the Sunbelt and on the West Coast as on the Northern Atlantic seaboard. For the first time in its history America had a truly national economic elite. [14] Wealth was not the only realm to see radical changes; more impressive was the new distribution of American power. As anyone who experienced rationing or curfews could attest, for the first time in America’s history the basics of everyday life were being dictated by generals, politicians, and businessmen far away. [15]

 The pattern proved successful. Economies of scale and a vast national hierarchy won the war. They were here to stay. Facing a cold war of global proportions, American statesmen decided to defy the usual tradition of scaling down after victory. The United States would stay on permanent war footing. The vast system of international hierarchies built up during the war would be maintained and improved; those helming these hierarchies – a strange mix of CEOs, politicians, generals, and career bureaucrats – would regularly make decisions whose impacts would resonate across the globe.

This did not go by unnoticed. C. Wright Mills wrote what may be the most famous reaction to these changes, aptly titled The Power Elite. He summarized the transformation succintly:

“The economy-once a great scatter of small productive units in autonomous balance-has become dominated by two or three hundred giant corporations, administratively and politically interrelated, which together hold the keys to economic decisions. 

The political order, once a decentralized set of several dozen states with a weak spinal cord, has become a centralized, executive establishment which has taken up into itself many powers previously scattered, and now enters into each and every crany of the social structure. 

The military order, once a slim establishment in a context of distrust fed by state militia, has become the largest and most expensive feature of government, and, although well versed in smiling public relations, now has all the grim and clumsy efficiency of a sprawling bureaucratic domain. 

In each of these institutional areas, the means of power at the disposal of decision makers have increased enormously; their central executive powers have been enhanced; within each of them modern administrative routines have been elaborated and tightened up. 

As each of these domains becomes enlarged and centralized, the consequences of its activities become greater, and its traffic with the others increases. The decisions of a handful of corporations bear upon military and political as well as upon economic developments around the world. The decisions of the military establishment rest upon and grievously affect political life as well as the very level of economic activity. The decisions made within the political domain determine economic activities and military programs. There is no longer, on the one hand, an economy, and, on the other hand, a political order containing a military establishment unimportant to politics and to money-making. There is a political economy linked, in a thousand ways, with military institutions and decisions. On each side of the world-split running through central Europe and around the Asiatic rimlands, there is an ever-increasing interlocking of economic, military, and political structures.” [16]

That was in 1959. Since then the scale has only gotten larger. America’s population boomed from 150 million in 1950 to 314 million today. While civic associations and smaller government structures withered away, the federal government has expanded to touch almost every aspect of daily life.  The reach of the executive branch stretches across continents, allowing officials to spy on, freeze the funds of, or assassinate  men living thousands of miles away. The scope of the market has expanded even faster. American business now pays, caters to, and collects data on billions of people.

It is a lot of power held by a small number of hands.


Whose hands should they be? Meritocracy seemed the only solution. James Bryant Conant was one of the main architects of the modern meritocratic order. President of Harvard from 1933 to 1953, Conant labored diligently to transform Harvard from a New England country club with a library to a world class university who pulled a carefully slected caste of elite scholars from across the country. Mr. Conant’s ambition’s were larger than Harvard Yard; he hoped his reforms might change the face of American education. His hopes were more or less realized. He played an instrumental role in elevating the Scholastic Apptitutde Test (SAT) to national prominence, and he was chair of the Harvard Comittee, whose report “Objectives of General Education in a Free Society” set forth the pattern and principles of the GE system that dominates American undergraduate education today.

Time Magazine’s cover, 26 September 1943.

Conant laid out his vision for American education in a 1941 essay for The Atlantic titled, “Education for the Classless Society.” Mr. Conant made Thomas Jefferson his ideal:

In his brief autobiographical sketch Jefferson wrote that he deemed it essential to a well-ordered republic to annul hereditary privilege. He proposed ‘instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger, than benefit, to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society, and scattered with equal hand through all its conditions….‘ Elsewhere, in describing his new educational scheme for Virginia, he speaks of that part of his plan which called for ‘the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the poor.’ He declared, ‘We hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated.’ These quotations sum up for me the second component in the Jeffersonian tradition in education—a sincere belief in the paramount importance of careers freely open to all the talented.

America had changed since Jefferson’s day. After summarizing the institutional changes detailed above, Conant explained how Jefferson’s vision could be adapted to 20th century realities:

Let me pause a moment to examine the phrase ‘social mobility,’ for this is the heart of my argument. A high degree of social mobility is the essence of the American ideal of a classless society. If large numbers of young people can develop their own capacities irrespective of the economic status of their parents, then social mobility is high. If, on the other hand, the future of a young man or woman is determined almost entirely by inherited privilege or the lack of it, social mobility is nonexistent. You are all familiar with the old American adage, ‘Three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves.’ This implies a high degree of social mobility, both up and down. It implies that sons and daughters must and can seek their own level, obtain their own economic rewards, engage in any occupation irrespective of what their parents might have done. 

…The distinction between a stratified class system and one with a high degree of social mobility is apparent only when at least two generations are passed in review. A class, as I am using the word, is perpetuated by virtue of inherited position. For one generation, at least and perhaps two, considerable differences in economic status as well as extreme differentiation of employment may exist without the formation of classes. Uniform distribution of the world’s goods is not necessary for a classless society. If anyone doubts this statement, let him examine the social situation of many small communities in different parts of this country during the early stages of their development. Continuous perpetuation from generation to generation of even small differences, however, soon produces class consciousness. Extremes of wealth or poverty accelerate the process…. if the American ideal is not to be an illusion, the citizens of this republic must not shrink from drastic action. The requirement, however, is not a radical equalization of wealth at any given moment; it is rather a continuous process by which power and privilege may be automatically redistributed at the end of each generation. The aim is a more equitable distribution of opportunity for all the children of the land. The reality of our national life must be made a sufficiently close approximation to our ideal to vitalize a belief in the possibility of the envisaged goal. 

…Political and economic changes must go hand in hand with educational innovations—the revision of methods of perpetuating control of many large industries, the overthrow of nepotism and patronage wherever possible, the stimulation of small enterprises, the spreading of private ownership. All this and more is needed if a free classless society is to become once again an ideal which affects our lives.

…Is it too late—too late for our schools to revitalize the idea of a classless nation? Can we complete the necessary major readjustments in our educational system in time to prevent the extinction of the Jeffersonian tradition? I believe we can, if we make haste. I predict at least another century of vigor for the American ideal. I envisage a further trial on this continent for many generations of our unique type of social order. I look forward to a future American society in which social mobility is sufficient to keep the nation in essence casteless—a society in which the ideals of both personal liberty and social justice can be maintained—a society which through a system of public education resists the distorting pressures of urbanized, industrialized life.(emphasis added)

It is notable that Mr.Conant had to define “Social mobility.” The term was a fairly recent phrase – invented at the turn of the twentieth century but only reaching prominence when heairachial structures of power began to solidfy in the 30s and 40s.

Google Ngram results for “Social mobility.”

Conant missed the irony of his “clasless society.” Classless, as he used it, did not mean the abscense of class, but an invitation to compete fairly for whatever class one desired. Compete we have. The ratio of acceptances to rejections for undergraduate applications to Harvard has climbed from 1:1.25 in Conant’s day to 1:13.5 today (for the class of 2014 a staggering 33,351 people applied). [17] The average American borrows $26,000 to get a college education. An entire generation has put itself in debt to climb the social ladder. [18]

Evan Applegate. “Correlations: Student Debt Explodes.Business Insider.  27 June 2013. 

The oft repeated sentiment “Inequality does not matter when there is equality of opportunity” rings hollow in face of these numbers. The greater the distance between the have and have-nots and the larger the hierarchy that divides them, the more fierce the compeition for the top spot will be. That is is the problem with all these comparisions to Sweden and Denmark. Those countries have smaller populations than the states of North Carolina and Wisconsin. Who wants to be the richest, most powerful man in Wisconsin? There are greater spoils to claim. As one Ivy League student conceded in a column for the Daily Princetononian, “We enjoy being the most elite college-aged kids in one of the most elite, unilaterally powerful nations ever to exist.” [19]

Millions of parents desperatley wish their children could say the same. Thus the extreme measures America’s upper class take to shape their kids into excellencce: baby Einstein, forced violin lessons, private tutors, gold medal sport teams, pre-test prep followed by pre-test tests. [20] Is it any surprise then to learn that ten times the money is spent on America’s rich kids than are spent on America’s poor ones? If America is to have “an aristocracy of talent” then the ruling class is going to do everything they damn well can to ensure their kids are talented enough to be a part of it. The stakes are too high to expect anything else.


The attempt to channel this fierce struggle for the heights of wealth and power through a national education system explains the concentration of America’s smartest and most ambitious. But the wicked marriage of meritocracy and economies of scale bears a more subtle cost. Let us return to the essay we started with, “RIP, American Dream.” Why does Mr. O’Brien say the the American Dream died?

This is how the American Dream ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper of elite school applications by poor kids. Like it or not, the Ivies and other top schools are our conduit to the top, and far too many low-income students who should be there are not.”  (emphasis added).

James Bryant Contant’s vision has become today’s orthodoxy. The American dream has been reduced to a climb up the social ladder, the advance of the elect from one class to another.

What of those who cannot make the climb? What about those the elect leave behind? If the system worked as America’s meritocrats pretend it does, perfectly elevating the smartest and hardest working citizens to the top, would America be any better off? As Christopher Lasch once said:

[This is] the most important choice a democratic society has to make: whether to raise the general level of competence, energy, and devotion – ‘virtue,’ as it was called in an older political tradition – or merely to promote a broader recruitment of elites. Our society has clearly chosen the second course. It has identified opportunity with upward mobility and made upward mobility the overriding goal of social policy. The debate about affirmative action shows how deeply this pathetically restricted notion of opportunity has entered public discourse. A policy designed to recruit minorities into the professional and managerial class is opposed not on the grounds that it strengthens the dominant position of this class but on the grounds that it weakens the principle of meritocracy. Both sides argue on the same grounds. Both see careers open to talent as the be-all and end-all of democracy when in fact, careerism tends to undermine democracy by divorcing knowledge from practical experience, devaluing the kind of knowledge that is gained from experience, and generating social conditions in which ordinary people are not expected to know anything at all. The reign of specialized expertise – the logical result of policies that equate opportunity with open access to ‘places of higher consideration’ – is the antithesis of democracy as it was understood by those who saw this country as the ‘last, best hope of earth.” (Emphasis added). [21]

When we define the American Dream as “reaching the top” we restrict it to a very small number of people. The old American ideal of a free republic of self governing communities composed of self governing men fades away. American Dream? What was once a dream of democracy and improvement has degraded into a fight over who is allowed to join the governing class.

Like all phrases of its type, the “American Dream” is an idea. Ideas don’t die when they are frustrated. They die when people forget what they mean. Economies of scale killed the American Dream.


[1] For an excellent example, see Karen Ho’s description of the Wall Street recruitment program in Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). 2009. p. 39-73, esp. p. 64.

A grad student at Harvard Business School once explained to me how important “connections” were to the students there when I asked him about the quality of the courses he took: “Pretty much everybody here acknowledges that Harvard Business School is not really about the courses, but the people we will meet when we are here.”

[2] For Wall Street statistics, see Karen Ho, Liquidated, p. 44, for quotas, p. 65; for Senators, see the data collected and presented in T. Greer. “Cases in Plutarchy? U.S. Senate by Graduating Institution.” 30 April 2010; for billionaires, Jonathan Wai. “The Scary Smart are the Scary Rich.Forbes. 24 September 2012; data on the cabinet was collected by myself, based on each member’s wikipedia page. 

[3] Charles Murray. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. (New York: Cox and Murray Inc). 2012. p. 54

[4] Ibid. p. 57; 64.

[5] Charles Murray’s own foot note is worth repeating here: “The transmission works through both genes and environment, but the distinction is blurred because cognitive ability in the parents is associated with parenting practices that promote the child’s cognitive ability. In addition, it has been found that the shared environment among siblings–which includes the things that parents do to promote the child’s cognitive development in their children–has a small long term role independent of genes.” Ibid. p. 364 

[6] Jonathan Wai. “Investigating America’s elite: Cognitive ability, education, and sex differencesIntelligence. Volume 41, Issue. July–August 2013. p. 203–211

[7] Rebecca Strauss. “Schooling Ourselves in Unequal America.” New York Times. 16 June 2013. 

[8] There is a weak correlation between money spent on education and benefits reaped. See the graphs in Dan Lips, Shanea Watkins, and John Fleming. “Does Spending More on Education Improve Academic Achievement?” Heritage Foundation. 8 September 2008. Even so, the way we spend our money clearly betrays our priorities. 

[9] As late as 1948 30% of the Harvard student body  “hailed from within 25 miles of the Yard.” Morton and Phyllis Keller, Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America’s University. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). p. 34

[10] See Chart 1.2 in Kevin Phillips. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. (New York: Broadway Books). 2000.  p. 23. 

[11] Harry L. Watson. Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America. 2nd ed. (New York: Hill and Wang). 2006. p. 33. 

[12] Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America and Other Writings. Trans. Gerald Bevan. (New York: Penguin Books). p. 728. He continues: “There is not a single American who is not eaten up with the desire to better himself but you meet almost no one who appears to cherish very great hopes or to aim very high. All constantly wish to acquire material possessions, reputation, and power; few have a lofty conception f these things.

[13] Examples of these terms in early American discourse are too numerous to bother citing here. Those wishing to understand the gist of each term are advised to consult the following: On “independence” see Eric Foner. The Story of American Freedom. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co.) 1999. p. 3-69; on “improvement” see Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press). 243-285; on “competency” see Christopher Lasch, “Opportunity in the Promised Lan: Social Mobility or the Democratization of Competence?” in The Revolt of the Elites. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company). 1995. p. 50-79.

[14] Kevin Phillips. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. (New York: Broadway Books). 2000.  p. 71-73; 81.

[15] To say nothing of  the ten million people serving in the armed forces–whose families made up 1/4th the nation–and whose entire lives were constantly subject to the direct control of bureaucrats and generals. 

[16] C. Wright Mills. The Power Elite. (New York: Oxford University Press). 1959. p. 7-8.

[17] “2014 Ivy League Admissions Statistics.” The Ivy Coach. Last updated April 2013. For a comparison with non-Ivy league elite schools, see Kayla Webley. “Ivy League Schools: Acceptance Rates Decline.” Time. 4 April 2013. 

[18] Hadley Malcom. “Millennial Ball and Chain: Student Debt.” USA Today. 30 June 2013.

[19] Devon Peterson. “The Allure of Elite Jobs.” Daily Princetonian. 16 October 2003. 

[20] Yale professor Amy Chua provides a wonderful example of just how extreme these pressures can be. “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Wall Street Journal. 8 January 2011. Of course, the competition is even tougher for Chua and her children than for normal Americans, as the admission process has a proven bias against Asian Americans. See Robert Unz, “The Myth of American Meritocracy.” American Conservative. 28 Novemeber 2012.

[21] Christopher Lasch. The Revolt of the Elites. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company). 1995. p. 78-79.

Leave a Comment


Just to make sure I'm understanding this correctly:

Normative claim: We want a society in which there is a more equal distribution of power than is currently the case.

Descriptive claim: Economies of Scale concentrate the power into a really small space, and Meritocracy is the system by which people compete for this space. In this competitive environment, the socioeconomic-cognitive elites find themselves pushed into close proximity, and this only intensifies their capacity to become more elite and to produce cognitively and socioeconomically elite children.

Prescriptive claim: Decentralization will spread the power over a greater space, making meritocracy easier.

Accurate restatement?

(comment duplicated in fb)



Normative claim: We want a society in which there is a more equal distribution of power than is currently the case.

Yep. I suppose I did not give many reasons for why I am making such a claim (that would be a post in and of itself…) but I did allude to one: any society that has a great disparities in power will eventually have great disparities in wealth. Be it through bail outs, corruption, self seeking regulations, or well funded elite colleges, those with power will game the system so that their wealth matches their power.

Descriptive claim: Economies of Scale concentrate the power into a really small space, and Meritocracy is the system by which people compete for this space. In this competitive environment, the socioeconomic-cognitive elites find themselves pushed into close proximity, and this only intensifies their capacity to become more elite and to produce cognitively and socioeconomically elite children.

Correct restatement.

It is worth noting that meritocracy is not the only way people could compete for the space, but 20-21 c society has reached something of a consensus that this is a just way to do it. Given this fact, I suggested an additional "descriptive claim" to the one you have, which I suppose could be restated as:

"Aligning success and opportunity with social mobility/meritocracy has changed the over riding aim of social policy from actually helping the great body of the citizenry improve their lives to 'merely promot[ing] a broader recruitment of elites.' "

As Lasch suggests, debates over affirmative action are wonderful (perhaps horrifying?) examples of this. Affirmative action is great for the top decile of minorities who qualify for it – it will change their lives. But what about the people they leave behind? What about those people who simply are not smart enough to be part of the elite?

Affirmative action allows the upper class to feel good about being diverse and open minded without having to actually bother helping (or interacting with) the vast majority of blacks or hispanics who don't like to read, actually watch Jersey Shore, and probably have a family member in prison. When you define success as reaching the top, then those people will never have it (so why help them anyway?).

Prescriptive claim: Decentralization will spread the power over a greater space, making meritocracy less competitive.

I might switch from less competitive (which is true!) to less relevant.

Decentralization makes the elite much less relevant. By extension, the focus will shift away meritocracy and towards helping the people become prosperous and fully involved citizens.

(And on that note I am going to veer a little off topic: This is one of the worse parts of the economies of scale/meritocracy marriage – it carries with it the idea that only the people smart/hard working/talented enough to reach the top deserve to influence politics. Back in the 1800s, rich southern aristocrats would complain that the poor farmers around them could only talk of two 'mundane' things: "agriculture and politics." No one would say the same today! The difference was that back then poor and middle class people were expected to be citizens. And a lot of the machinery of government was close enough to them that what they did really mattered. So they stayed informed (enough) and were actively engaged in their own communities.

People only learn to do things that are relevant to their lives. When politics stopped being relevant to American's lives, they no longer bothered learning how to do it. Decentralization might just make these things relevant again).

The current situation is a result of government power choking off economic opportunities. We have a rentier system, where all major decisions are made politically. Disruptive technological change displaces and churns up elites. The current ruling class has created a narrow funnel to create barriers to entry and preserve their franchise. But they are rotten custodians of the country. They will attempt to prevent the creative destruction that is coming, but they will fail. The existing government is going to go broke and the technological changes which are coming cannot be stopped. The type of stasis you depict is not an end state it is a temporary stage. Their self congratulation about being very, very smart is mostly misplaced. Getting the credential requires being smart at getting grades and credentials, with little actual application, as you note. It is a membership card, not preparation for adding value. The high IQs of most of these people are being wasted. The finance industry is based on government manipulation of the money supply, not creating value. People who are street smart will have a lot more opportunities as the current regime weakens. The mix of arrogance and ineptitude of this ruling class will make some grimly amusing reading in the histories of the future. But few people who were not dealt into that rigged game will miss it.

I haven't read this whole post yet though I plan to, but 'cognitive sorting' is not the only explanation for inequality and class stratification — not by a long shot. You also have to take into account the decline of organized labor in the US starting in the 70s, concurrent with major changes in the US and global economy. You might want to look at Jefferson Cowie's Stayin' Alive: The 70s and the End of the Working Class. (The subtitle might not be exact but go w author and main title.) I actually haven't read the book, but there is an interesting interview w Cowie in Summer 2012 New Politics,

Thanks for the comment LFC, and the book recommendation!

I agree that labor unions were an important part of the inequality story. One of the big takeaways from Timothy Noah's great series on inequality is that there is no single reason for economic inequality.

But there are two inequality stories: the bridge between the poor and the well off (top 20%) and the bridge between the well off and the super well off (top 1%). I think labor unions had much more to do with the first than the second.

And declines in social mobility – which is really what this post is about* – can only be indirectly related to labor unions or things of this type.

*Well, that is not really true. This post is not really about the division of wealth at all – it is really about the division of power. Inevitably the second will create the first and mobility will go down with it.

Monkey Cage had a short post on similar themes today:

Their line "In a meritocracy, the whole point of having “merit” is that you can run things (“ocracy”), and the point of running things is that you can get good jobs for your family and friends." hits the nail on the head.

Hi T.Greer,

It seems I'm 2+ years late to the conversation, but I wanted to hear your thoughts on the global elite, especially now that you've spent some more time living in East Asia. I like to call them the "Monocle" class – those who can read Monocle with purpose because they are reasonably likely to end up in Lisbon (where they decide to buy an artisan chair to be shipped back to their home), then a month later find their knowledge of the Japanese fishing industry relevant and worth bringing up in conversation over an exquisite meal at the most exclusive boutique hotel in Tokyo.

American elite universities long ago achieved their goal to mine the children of local/state elites for potential national elites. Less discussed is the process of shaping the identity of the global elite by accepting the children of national elite all over the world.