It’s Not Just the 1 Percent. The Meritocratic Class Helps Keep “The System” in Place
For all its flaws, the system still works pretty well for some people. Like me.
Even in this age of economic inequality and political turmoil, “the way things are” serves some Americans exceptionally well. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be that way.
In Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall — and Those Fighting to Reverse It, journalist Steven Brill describes one such cohort. Between 2009 and 2012, he notes, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the top 1 percent of American earners saw their incomes rise by nearly a third. Over the same time frame, incomes “crept up a barely noticeable .4 percent” — that’s zero-point-four, to be clear — “for the bottom 99 percent.” This trend has continued over the past decade. “In 2016 the incomes of the highest 1 percent of American earners were 225 percent higher in real terms than they had been in 1979,” The Economist recently pointed out. “For the middle-class, the growth was 41 percent.”
These types of statistics make their way into today’s political conversation more than they used to. That’s progress. The fact that we talk a lot about income inequality reflects hard work by advocates and organizers whose concerns have been marginalized and dismissed for too long. But there are a number of trends that these numbers don’t fully capture.
Take racial wealth disparities, which stretch deeper into American history than the Declaration of Independence. As Trymaine Lee observes in The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, today “the median family wealth for white people is $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for black people.” One group of people doesn’t end up with ten times the median wealth of another group overnight. This race-based disparity is as structural as it gets. It’s “perhaps the most glaring legacy of American slavery and the violent economic dispossession that followed,” Lee writes.
Nor do the income numbers Brill cites reflect declining opportunity between generations. If you were born in 1940, the economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues have found, you had a 90 percent chance of earning more by age 30 than your parents did at the same age (a measure the researchers call “absolute income mobility”). For those born in the 1980s, though, that number drops to 50 percent. “One of the defining features of the ‘American Dream’ is the ideal that children have a higher standard of living than their parents,” the authors write. But “absolute mobility has declined sharply in America over the past half-century primarily because of the growth in inequality.” In fact, millennials “are likely to be the first generation in modern economic history to end up worse off than their parents,” Annie Lowrey notes in The Atlantic.
There’s another systemic trend that’s easily overlooked in the conversation about the soaring incomes of America’s wealthiest individuals. While we often point to those at the head of the income pack as the source of the problem, we spend significantly less time talking about the next tier of people for whom the system is also working well — perhaps not quite as well as the top fraction, but still very, very well.
The people in this tier are employed by some of America’s biggest companies and most powerful organizations. They are people who work in tech, consulting, finance, and academia. People who have studied and networked their way through the best schools in the world. People who take Ubers and might work in Uber headquarters, for instance, but rarely people who drive for Uber. People who are senators and members of Congress, and people who work for them. People who report the news, manage the media, and opine on current events.
These are people who are very concerned about societal challenges, but who are also very serious and responsible about which policies are and are not acceptable for solving them. People who didn’t write our current political and economic rules but who have nonetheless benefited from them, even if “the way things are” sometimes makes them uncomfortable or anxious or depressed. People who work hard and who, as individuals, generally try to do the right thing in their day-to-day lives. These are people like me. And maybe people like you.
In a powerful cover story published in The Atlantic in June 2018, Matthew Stewart calls this group of people — those with incomes below the top 0.1 percent but above the bottom 90 percent — “the new American aristocracy.” This cohort has also been called the meritocratic class. The professional class. Economic elites. In terms of wealth, “as a group” this 9.9 percent “owns substantially more wealth than do the other two combined,” Stewart notes. In terms of income, this group has done well, too. “From 1979 to 2018, middle-income families’ incomes rose 23.1 percent, adjusted for inflation,” The New York Times reported last October. “Professional families’ incomes, by contrast, rose 68.3 percent.”
But what defines and separates the meritocratic class from the rest of America is more than just income. It’s also our connections. Our networks. Our opportunities. Our stability. Our chance to be heard. Our understanding of how the system works. Our fallback options that allow us to take risks and make mistakes. Our ability to pay for private-sector substitutes when underfunded government services prove inadequate or nonexistent. Today, “a more telling index of class is access to opportunity — one’s sense of how to begin to begin, one’s social sphere,” Nathan Heller writes in The New Yorker. “The true mark of class vulnerability today isn’t the capacity to run out of money but the capacity to run out of options.”
In most cases, to be part of this group is not necessarily to have done anything malicious or mean-spirited. Human beings respond to incentives, and the existing incentives — the existing rules of the system — strongly encourage us to keep doing what we’ve been doing by rewarding the choices we make. In our day-to-day beliefs and behaviors, we largely mean well. When we think beyond our daily lives, we’re worried — genuinely worried, I believe — about the challenges of this era.
Yet even as we see with growing clarity that the system that has served us so well is leaving so many others behind, our behavior perpetuates it. Our culture of hard work and achievement celebrates our ability to thrive in it. Consciously or not, we become increasingly determined to protect it, or at least increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of altering it in meaningful ways. How we think and understand the world — how and why things are the way they are — is reinforced in decision after decision, year after year, generation after generation. “For the upper middle classes,” Richard V. Reeves writes in The New York Times, “regardless of their professed political preferences, zoning, wealth, tax deductions and educational opportunity reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle.” As our techniques for navigating the system prove increasingly successful, our place within the system — and our interest in the system’s preservation — becomes increasingly entrenched.
We didn’t create this state of affairs ourselves. But it serves us well, so we largely accept it. (“Would one person rejecting it change anything?” we wonder, perhaps accurately.) We may not even see the system working for us in the background, propping us up and keeping things the way they are. Whatever the case, our acceptance of the political and economic status quo makes us, as Stewart writes in The Atlantic, “the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy.” We know it, too. “We feel it in our gut,” author and New York University business professor Scott Galloway writes. “We witness immense prosperity, but little progress. A shrinking middle class, depressed teens, and fractured alliances. Still, we continue to look away. As a species, we’re easier to fool than convinced we’ve been fooled. We refuse to face the truth.”
And yet. We may be doing just fine, but we’re still not at the very, very top of the economic pecking order. That makes it easier to convince ourselves that we’re not part of the problem. “One of the delusions of our meritocratic class,” Stewart writes, is “to assume that if our actions are individually blameless” — and they often are — “then the sum of our actions will be good for society.” It’s what he calls “one of the founding myths of America’s meritocracy: that our success has nothing to do with other people’s failure.”
This myth is part of what makes the pillars of the system so difficult to dislodge. The very concept of meritocracy rests on the assumption that hard work will lead to success. But in the United States, that formula doesn’t work for everybody. Even when it does work, it does so far better for some than for others. As Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits, author of The Meritocracy Trap, tells Vox’s Sean Illing, that makes the idea of meritocracy simply “a pretense, constructed to rationalize an unjust distribution of advantage.” The belief in meritocracy enables today’s winners — the people for whom the system works — to feel better about our own success. The easier it becomes to preserve that understanding, the more entrenched the system becomes.
Again, at an individual level, this way of thinking is not maliciously intended, nor is it part of some grand plan. None of us — or very few of us, at least — wakes up every day determined to preserve our privilege by kicking out the rungs of other people’s ladders of opportunity. We don’t consciously put on blinders to other people’s struggles before we walk out the door each morning. It just happens. We work hard and look out for ourselves as individuals, just as American capitalism taught us to. We look out for our families. We look out for our friends. We look out for people we know.
We genuinely care about bigger, community- and society-level challenges, but we usually don’t see that the little things we do every day — even the well-meaning ones that any person might do, like helping a friend’s friend get their resume to the right person, or moving to a different neighborhood with higher property values and better public schools — perpetuate and prop up the thoroughly broken system that created those challenges in the first place.
We don’t notice how, over time, the myth of meritocracy clouds our thinking and narrows our understanding of the world. Because we work hard and the system works for us, we become convinced that there’s a causal link between the two. We begin to believe that the system works for us because we work hard. If it worked for us, it can work for anyone. And once we accept that the fundamentals of the system are sound, it’s easy to accept all the other aspects of the system that sustain it — the zero-sum thinking, the false choices, the wisdom of the serious and responsible people.
These aren’t conscious decisions. They just happen. That’s how systems work.
This article is the third in an eight-part series. Read part four here.