Tuesday, January 25, 2005

David Brooks: The Bobo in Winter

David Brooks is a particularly unintelligent columnist, although every once in awhile he rises above himself and puts out a piece well worth reading, like his column in the NYT today. David thinks that President Dubya needs to devote himself to that great American dream; social mobility. Trouble is, that's not something the Repugs believe in. They're way too busy trying to create an American aristocracy complete with tax free inheritance. To his credit, Brooks realizes something is going badly wrong:

Today, for example, we may still believe American society is uniquely dynamic, but we're deceiving ourselves. European societies, which seem more class riven and less open, have just as much social mobility as the United States does.

And there are some indications that it is becoming harder and harder for people to climb the ladder of success. The Economist magazine gathered much of the recent research on social mobility in America. The magazine concluded that the meritocracy is faltering: "Would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap."

Economists and sociologists do not all agree, but it does seem there is at least slightly less movement across income quintiles than there was a few decades ago. Sons' income levels correlate more closely to those of their fathers. The income levels of brothers also correlate more closely. That suggests that the family you were born into matters more and more to how you will fare in life. That's a problem because we are not supposed to have a hereditary class structure in this country.

But we're developing one. In the information age, education matters more. In an age in which education matters more, family matters more, because as James Coleman established decades ago, family status shapes educational achievement.

At the top end of society we have a mass upper-middle class. This is made up of highly educated people who move into highly educated neighborhoods and raise their kids in good schools with the children of other highly educated parents. These kids develop wonderful skills, get into good colleges (the median family income of a Harvard student is now $150,000), then go out and have their own children, who develop the same sorts of wonderful skills and who repeat the cycle all over again.

In this way these highly educated elites produce a paradox - a hereditary meritocratic class.

It becomes harder for middle-class kids to compete against members of the hypercharged educated class. Indeed, the middle-class areas become more socially isolated from the highly educated areas.

Indeed, Brooks is right. These people do not tend to mix, and people just are not rising the way they once did. If your parents are poor and you live in a neighborhood with junky schools, you're either not going to get into college or you're going to get into an equally junky one. Your chances of rising out of your class are pretty low.

But what to do? Um, according to Brooks, create a fair playing field. I agree, David, but King George II and the wealthy parasites who back him aren't likely to listen. They're far too busy trying to stack things their way. They're rich, and they intend to stay that way, forever. How long before they begin giving themselves titles?

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