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Can the Problems of American Inequality be Solved With MOAR MERITOCRACY?

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Rachel Cohen assesses an argument to this effect. (SPOILER: No.)

Reeves underlines his point by making clear that he’s uninterested in the kind of social democratic policies that foster greater equality in European countries like Sweden and Finland. “America’s problem is not that we are failing to live up to Danish egalitarian standards,” he writes. “It is that we are failing to live up to American egalitarian standards, based on fair market competition.” The main challenge, he stresses, is to “narrow gaps in human capital formation” so that the “contests” people compete in will be truly fair. “The problem is not that society is too competitive,” Reeves informs us. “It is that it is not competitive enough.” Society has grown unfair, he surmises, partly because the upper-middle class is engaging in “anticompetitive ‘opportunity hoarding.’”

Among the many problems with this strange view of inequality as something like an antitrust issue is figuring out when someone’s gone too far and broken the rules. Dream Hoarders clumsily attempts to demarcate which of the upper middle class’s advantages are legitimate, and which are “unfair” and “anticompetitive.” Reeves sees no problem with affluent parents showering their children with many different types of privileges that they can use to get ahead in our economic rat race. SAT tutors, cello practice, and Mandarin lessons are unproblematic in his view. On the contrary, he sees them as “great, indeed laudable” ways to support “human capital formation.” It’s only when the opportunities of the privileged start to hurt other children, he explains, that it becomes a problem.

A prime example of “opportunity hoarding” occurs when a parent makes a call or writes a check to their alma mater in order to help their kid get into college. (Reeves admits he doesn’t have good data on how common this practice actually is.) Another example is when parents use connections to help their kid score an internship. Amazingly enough, despite his professed interest in fair contests, Reeves does not support banning unpaid internships, concluding that to do so would be “too draconian, illiberal.” He suggests instead that the government fund low-income students who wish to take them, but acknowledges there’s little political support for the idea.

At first glance, it’s awfully hard to see a distinction between Reeves’s approved “human capital formation” and his disallowed “opportunity hoarding.” After all, in both cases, wealthy parents are leveraging their position to give their children a head start over their peers. Reeves has an answer for this—sort of. He concludes that “opportunity hoarding” only takes place when the opportunity in question is valuable and scarce, and the hoarding itself is “anticompetitive.” He discerns a difference between “parental behavior that merely helps your own children and the kind that is ‘detrimental’ to others.”

Unfortunately, this carefully-parsed dividing line is delicate to the point of collapse. What is, for instance, the most likely result of a cello lesson: artistic enrichment, or a bullet point on a resume? Unless those lessons turn into a lifelong passion or a performance career, their main effect is surely to grant children an edge over rival applicants in the race for academic recognition. The line blurs the other way too: Presumably most parents angling for a legacy admission to an Ivy believe their children stand to grow personally from the experience.

When you’re committed, as Reeves is, to a vision of society as a zero-sum battle for economic advancement, then self-betterment and bruising competition for resources look one and the same. Any new skills or experience—“human capital formation”—may also prove an advantage that can be brought to bear against others, while anything that helps someone beat out a competitor and move up the economic ladder could ultimately prove enriching.

If Dream Hoarders fails to locate all the pathologies of the monied professional class, maybe it’s because Reeves is on the inside, looking out. The book carries all the hallmarks of 90s-style Democratic Party thinking, both in its lust for market-style competition in private life and its attitude toward taxes as “a necessary evil.” And for a book supposedly meant to awaken class consciousness, it has awfully little interest in exploring the working class, or even the labor movement. The word “unions” makes just one appearance in Dream Hoarders: Reeves breezily mentions the decline in trade unions as one “competing explanation” for growing wage disparities, before urging his readers’ attention back to “education and skills” as core causes of mounting inequality.

This idea that you can address growing inequality with a more robust meritocratic completion is an obvious nonstarter. Eliminating really obvious abuses like parents buying their idiot children into elite colleges might be worth doing, but this would mostly just mean other, more formally qualified people from privileged backgrounds getting these slots, since people from these backgrounds will always have major advantages in “meritocratic” competitions. Erasing the competitive advantages of socioeconomic privilege would require a remarkable amount of ongoing intervention into basic childrearing choices that are never happening, as you can tell from the fact that Reeves considers even modest and salutary reforms like banning unpaid internships too “illberal.” To say that the way that inequality has to be addressed is to increase taxes to pay for a more generous welfare state and to strengthen organized labor is a boring answer, but it’s also the correct one.

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