The American Class System

snobsThe American Class System.  It’s hidden in plain sight.  My parents were firm believers in the American meritocracy: work hard, get a good education, and you will succeed.  It’s a worthy aspiration, and it served me well.  But too often in the United States, the meritocracy is honored only in the breach.  Consider this article by British-raised Richard V. Reeves in The New York Times, Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich.

Here’s Reeves: “[I]magine my horror at discovering that the United States is more calcified by class than Britain, especially toward the top. The big difference is that most of the people on the highest rung in America are in denial about their privilege. The American myth of meritocracy allows them to attribute their position to their brilliance and diligence, rather than to luck or a rigged system. At least posh people in England have the decency to feel guilty.”

Reeves notes that “Beneath a veneer of classlessness, the American class reproduction machine operates with ruthless efficiency. In particular, the upper middle class is solidifying. This favored fifth at the top of the income distribution, with an average annual household income of $200,000, has been separating from the 80 percent below. Collectively, this top fifth has seen a $4 trillion-plus increase in pretax income since 1979, compared to just over $3 trillion for everyone else. Some of those gains went to the top 1 percent. But most went to the 19 percent just beneath them.”

Thus “On the one hand, upper-middle-class Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly engage in antimeritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up.”

And moreover: “Things turn ugly, …., when the upper middle class starts to rig markets in its own favor, to the detriment of others. Take housing, perhaps the most significant example. Exclusionary zoning practices allow the upper middle class to live in enclaves. Gated communities, in effect, even if the gates are not visible. Since schools typically draw from their surrounding area, the physical separation of upper-middle-class neighborhoods is replicated in the classroom. Good schools make the area more desirable, further inflating the value of our houses. The federal tax system gives us a handout, through the mortgage-interest deduction, to help us purchase these pricey homes. For the upper middle classes, regardless of their professed political preferences, zoning, wealth, tax deductions and educational opportunity reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle.”

As Reeves concludes: “Progressive policies, whether on zoning or school admissions or tax reform, all too often run into the wall of upper-middle-class opposition. Self-interest is natural enough. But the people who make up the American upper middle class don’t just want to keep their advantages; armed with their faith in a classless, meritocratic society, they think they deserve them.”

In substantial ways, our society is even more class conscious than the British Reeves picked up on.  Consider, for example, the election in which Kerry ran against Bush – both candidates were Yale graduates and members of the elite Skull and Bones.  It is no coincidence that our “democracy” predictably elevates those with the “right” credentials.  Al Gore, and yes, even Barack Obama, had their qualifications burnished with elite Harvard diplomas.  The American system of private schooling flourishes with its graduates given an automatic entrance into American upper class.  Our electorate is attracted to and rewards American upper class families, the Bushes and Kennedys, the Roosevelts and now the billionaire Trumps.  Many corporate boards are dominated by Ivy League graduates.  And for all our claim of meritocracy, our public schools in inner cities are poorly funded, provide poor educations, and trap the majority of their students in an underclass.

Trump, of course, and his acolytes in the kleptocracy reflect the antithesis of meritocracy.  Trump flaunts his wealth like a later day Sun King.  His education secretary Betsy DeVos is actively hostile to public education.  Trump’s billionaire cabinet is schooled in class and privilege.  And what, indeed, is Mar a Lago but a modern King’s Court, filled, one can only assume, with sycophants and wannabes?

I’m for meritocracy, and rewarding hard work, and holding out the possibility of the American Dream for each of us.  Maybe we should work a little harder at making that dream real.


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