University

01/18/2011

America is great at creating the kind of peole who can solve its problems, and terrible at letting them

Dollars Social mobility is the engine that powers the “American Dream” – the idea that all it takes to reach the top is hard work and talent. 

Maybe America needs a new engine.  Social mobility doesn’t seem to be taking us anywhere anymore. 

If you want to work for a top level investment bank, law practice, or consulting firm, a study out of Northwestern University shows,  there are only five colleges you can graduate from.  Nobody else is even considered. 

Forget prestigious:  if you want to be a well compensated lawyer at all, an article in the New York Times explains, you’d better have graduated from a law school in the top quartile.  Otherwise, most firms will touch you. 

In fact, The Atlantic has gone so far as to suggest that the “new rich” are pulling further and further away from the rest of us ... not only in terms of wealth, but in the way they live, the rules they live by, and the opinion they have of “the rest of us.”

Journalist Chrystia Freeland writes:

Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly. Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.

A college education - from most anywhere - is still extremely valuable in many professions, but more and more the winners of the new global economy are comfortable locking everybody else out.  They say it’s about talent rising to the top, and are willing to say with a straight face that someone who went to Harvard is by definition more capable than someone who went to a state school.  But the argument for a meritocracy fell on its face after the “best and brightest” of the banks, law firms, and consulting companies trashed the global economy through reckless and self-destructive decisions – and needed a bailout from the “ordinary” citizens (who could pay their bills) to avoid mass defaults. 

I would go so far as to say that if the world’s financial and legal institutions had been run by graduates of community colleges instead of graduates from the Ivy Leagues, we would all be better off.  They would have done a better job for less money. 

But the biggest problem with the super-rich pulling the ladder up behind them is that our society, depends on upward mobility to function.  Talented people need meaningful work to apply their talents to.  It’s one thing if they have to compete with an ivy league talent pool – that’s fair.  It’s another if the name of their school automatically disqualifies them from an interview.  If that happens in enough, it can only lead to social stagnation;  a massive pool of smart, capable, educated people who are stuck in place because they didn’t go to the “right” schools or know the “right” people. 

The question of what we “do” with these people is generally put in negative terms – how do we keep them from causing social unrest, or fermenting revolution, or being a drain on society?  In fact, it’s just the opposite:  they are educated, talented, and every bit as driven as the men in suits earning six figure salaries – so how do we harness their abilities to solve the problems created by the global elite? 

Our society is great at creating the kind of people who can solve its problems, and terrible at letting them.

This is as big a concern for sustainability as any environmental issue, because if we can harness the talents and creativity of the population then will be much better positioned to solve the environmental crisis ... and if we can’t then they’ll likely be part of the problem.  People who aren’t given a chance at a good future can reasonably be excused for caring less about the planet. 

A house divided against itself cannot stand, and the more the new super rich create a society apart from the rest of us the more harm they are likely to do.  In the end, we will most likely have to revisit the government policies and civil laws that allow them to be so insulated. 

This may include higher tax rates to be invested in public goods like education, public spaces like libraries and parks, and public services.  The more we can invest in “the commons” the more will be able to come together through it. 

This may involve a national service program that even the children of the rich cannot opt out of:  the more we break down the social walls that keep the children of billionaires from ever having to interact on an even footing with the children of janitors, the more we will have common ground to build a better society.

At the very least, it should mean closing tax loopholes and regulatory get-out-of-jail-free cards that allow the creation of enormous wealth in ways that actively hurts the country.  And the next time the “Masters of the Universe” need a bailout, we should think log and hard about whether the system that created them is really worth giving a third chance.

Any company that hurts social mobility isn’t worth it.

-- Benjamin Wachs

Posted at 08:06 AM in

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