- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2005

Has a fairer America become an America with less social mobility? That uncomfortable question is raised by John Parker’s long American survey in the Economist last month.

“A decline in social mobility would run counter to Americans’ deepest beliefs about their country,” Mr. Parker writes. “Unfortunately, that is what seems to be happening. Class is reappearing in a new form.”

This was the conclusion, as well, of a recent series of articles in the New York Times — although, as the Times and Mr. Parker both note, polls show Americans think their chances of moving up are better than a generation ago. Statistics tell a different story: There is a higher correlation today between parents’ and children’s income than in the 1980s, and the income gap between college graduates and nongraduated doubled between 1979 and 1997. “America,” concludes Mr. Parker, “is becoming a stratified society based on education: a meritocracy.”

Mr. Parker’s view parallels that of another Brit, Ferdinand Mount, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, in his 2004 book, “Mind the Gap: The New Class Divide in Britain.” Mr. Mount notes income inequality has been increasing in Britain, not just during the Thatcherite 1980s, but since Tony Blair’s New Labor government took office in 1997 — much to the dismay of many Labor ministers. He notes also that Britons are not converging on one lifestyle — Uppers and Downers, as he calls them, still dress differently and speak with different accents — and that Britain, more open to upward mobility in the past than popular legend has it, is becoming less so.

This he partly blames on the abolition by equality-minded Laborites years ago of the academically demanding grammar schools that were the routes out of the working class for so many Labor politicians themselves.

“We cannot help noticing,” Mr. Mount concludes, “that the old class system has been reconstituted into a more or less meritocratic upper tier and a lower tier which is defined principally by its failure to qualify for the upper tier.”

Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray predicted exactly that for America in their controversial book “The Bell Curve,” 11 years ago. Mr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray noted intelligence is both measurable and largely but unquantifiably hereditary, an unexceptionable finding for experimental psychologists but maddening to social engineers. As college education becomes open to all with the requisite intelligence, graduates will tend to marry graduates and produce children with similar intelligence, and others will tend to produce children without it.

“Unchecked, these trends, will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top,” said Mr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray.

That leads to the question children ask on long car trips: Are we there yet? Mr. Mount says Britain is and Mr. Parker says America may well be. And perhaps they are right.

Yet should we be so gloomy about this? The British have tended to see their society as a one-ladder system, with Oxford and Cambridge graduates at the top and lavatory cleaners at the bottom. Yet in America (and I think in Britain, too), there are many ladders upward, with many intermediate rungs. Not everyone has an emotional need to be on top: How many people, if they thought seriously about it, would really want the burdens of a chief executive officer, however lavish the pay?

Meritocracy may leave people with no one to blame for failure. But, as Messrs. Herrnstein and Murray argued, almost all Americans have the ability “to find valued places in society.”

And that depends not so much on intelligence as on personal behavior. Here, perhaps, we are coping with meritocracy already. New York Times columnist David Brooks notes that, since 1993, we have seen declines in violent crime, family violence, teenage births, abortions, child poverty, drunken driving, teenage sex, teenage suicide and divorce. We are seeing increases in test scores and, as Mr. Parker notes, in membership in voluntary associations.

As Mr. Murray has written, all you need do to avoid poverty in this country is graduate from high school, get and stay married, and take any job. The intelligence needed to get a place in the cognitive elite may become more concentrated in a fair meritocratic society, but the personal behaviors needed to find a valued place in society are available to everyone.

Meritocracy may mean less mobility. But that is bearable if, as Mr. Brooks says, “America is becoming more virtuous.”

Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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