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Saturday, January 15, 2005

Is American Meritocracy Dying?

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You should come to Portugal. That neighborhood you describe sums up the social and economic situation in Portugal.

Up until my generation (90s), portuguese people basically believed in a "hidden" and masked caste system of wise and all-knowing class of leaders/bosses ("doctor" and "engineer" titles are so valuable and socially defining that many, many people fake them in Portugal) and loyal, subservient ignorant lower creatures.

The effects of the medieval social structure tradition, coupled with the weight of the Church, which always supported this social hierarchy (the church was responsible for educating the "people", specially the poor ones - in Portugal for many many years) are still quite visible today.

And so what you have here is basically a cultural and richer minority that educates their kids in a rich cultural environment, paying for them to travel, keeping them away from public schools, always being served by a maid or two (who cleans up their houses, cooks their meals and waits for a pat in the head at the end of the day, sometimes underpaid and without any contract or legal protection), putting them on private schools that will give them high grades so they can go easily go to the best universities and occupy the small (how convinient) number of entries avaible so they can do exactly what their parents did before them.. And so, many, many doctors and engineers keep this cycle running.

Why it does not change? Because the rest of the ignorant, poor, unemployed, ugly, unhealthy, idiotic majority - which is basically a blind mob - only discusses football and gossip while they wait hours at the hospital treated like cattle to find out that a parent died because medics could not attend him in time due to the miserable conditions, not knowing or caring that their own children will suffer the same fate in years to come because they do not move a straw in what is related to the social dimension of the country.

Basically this mob has a relationship of worship/hate towards the "upper classes". They hate them but wish they where like them, but they can not because everyone has a fate you see.. Everything is already decided, everyone must accept it and not fight against it. We even have a word for it, that is also the name for a genre of music so beloved in Portugal: FADO!

Yap.. It's a screwed up society. Under the sympathy and aparent joy of portuguese people lies hidden this "secret" that few will tell you unless you live there for a couple of years..