Since I was vacationing and unplugged from the media during the first week of January, I missed the first issue of The Economist for 2005. There is a special report in this edition regarding the erosion and possible demise of meritocracy in the United States. The expected evidence is trotted out - the Bush political dynasty, the widening gap between rich and poor, the "dumbing down" of public schools and the flight of elites to private schools, and the prevalence of "legacy" admissions at America's top universities. The more disturbing allegation is that social mobility is decreasing - a study carried out by Thomas Hertz, an economist at American University in Washington D.C., is cited as evidence.
Surveys in Europe indicate that most citizens believe that forces beyond their personal control determine their success. In the U.S., only 32% of respondents agree with this fatalistic view. Over two-thirds of Americans believe in their ability to succeed, and believe that the U.S. offers the opportunity to do so. I certainly have signed on to that belief, and I am not dropping my faith after reading the Economist article. But it is clear that we are falling out of balance and developing more rigid classes of people.
If you are ever in Chicago, take a field trip to Kennilworth. It is the third suburb north of the city, and one of the wealthiest places in the region (and on the planet). Walk around. Observe the lovely homes. Look at the people. Try to find a black face - or a Mexican face - or an Asian face (not likely). If you have the time and the chutzpah, chat with some of these folks. Find out if they grew up poor (most did not). This is an enclave of homogeneous, moneyed aristocracy. You can find such places all over the U.S., and it isn't a new development. But is it a growing part of our national scene? The Economist thinks so.
My family is all about social mobility. My mom was a school teacher; my dad an office clerk. I made it through grad school - with loans, scholarships and part-time work. My wife is a first-generation American of Mexican descent, the first person in the history of her family to graduate from college - she paid her own way. I am a big fan of folks that start with nothing and make great progress due to their hard work and talent. Enabling this individual striving is the best part of the American experiment. We have to preserve it, and fight the forces that are pushing our country toward the tyranny of a class system.