Thoughts on Class, Meritocracy and Civic Consciousness

The upperclass lives comfortably and with little regard for the rest of society.

Seattle Washington
Homes in Seattle, Washington, April 21, 2011 (Harold Hollingsworth)

This post is going to be a little less structured than usual. Please bear with me as I try to connect the dots between three recent stories.

American aristocracy

First up, Matthew Stewart in The Atlantic about what he calls the new American aristocracy: the top 9.9 percent (excluding the super-rich) who own half the wealth in the country, live in the best neighborhoods, send their kids to prestigious school yet call themselves — and are seen by many as — “middle class”.

These are the dentists and doctors and lawyers and management consultants who live comfortably but don’t consider themselves elite. Rather, they think of themselves as the fair winners of the American meritocracy, oblivious to the many ways in which they and their parents have stacked the deck in their favor.

This is less of an issue in Western Europe, where inequality is lower and social mobility is higher. But I think we do see a similar separation between the upperclass and the rest in terms of culture and lifestyle.

Invisible workers

Next, a story in the Financial Times about the dangers of working around the clock. This is about the distribution workers and security guards and truck drivers who keep the 24-hour economy going — at low pay — for the rest of us.

Across Europe, almost one in five workers are employed on night shifts, “invisible to those of us who clock in by day.”

This comes at a great social cost. Sleep disruption puts people at a higher risk of chronic disease and mental illness. People who work nights often feel they lack a social life. They see little of their kids. Marriages don’t survive. Little wonder they feel resentful.

Ruinous beliefs

Finally, David Brooks in The New York Times, who argues that the problem in America is not so much the concentration of wealth and opportunity in the self-styled meritocracy but rather its ideology, which encourages several ruinous beliefs:

  • Exaggerated faith in intelligence. High IQ correlates with career success but is not the crucial quality required for civic leadership. Many of the great failures of the last half century, from the Vietnam War to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people.
  • Misplaced faith in autonomy. Life is not a solitary, unencumbered journey toward success. If you build a society upon this metaphor, you will wind up with a society high in narcissism and low in social connection.
  • Misplaced notion of the self. Focus on achievement, not character, and you create a society that is demoralized and puts too little emphasis on moral systems that create harmony between people.
  • Inability to think institutionally. Today’s elite sees institutions as things they pass through on their way to individual success. Some, like Congress and political parties, have decayed to the point of uselessness. Others, like corporations, have become obsessed with the short term.
  • Misplaced idolization of diversity. Diversity is a midpoint, not an endpoint. Diversity for its own sake leads to social fragmentation.

Brooks’ essential point: civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, and that we owe a debt to community and nation, is missing in American public life.