American Meritocracy Is Rotten to the Core


College admissions policies are going to take a lot of heat in the next few days, and they will deserve it. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this scandal, like so many others, is firmly rooted in rising inequality and the class system that has come with it.

According to the story that Americans usually tell ourselves, inequality is a game played by flashy celebrities, tech bros, and other freaks of nature. The coverage of this fast-breaking scandal, true to form, has focused with laser-like imprecision on the two of 33 defendants who happen to be semi-famous Hollywood stars.

But rising inequality has also produced a large upper middle class- the 9.9 percent -and it is made up some much more ordinary characters: business executives, bankers, lawyers, physicians, dentists, and real estate developers, more or less in that order. Nice people. People with good families, good degrees, living in good neighborhoods. People who have learned how to use all those good things as weapons in the struggle to preserve privilege.

Now take a look at the list of defendants. It consists of business executives, bankers, one lawyer, several real-estate developers, and physician, a dentist, and, yes, the pair of desperate Hollywood stars. The entertainment angle here isn’t that a few corporate types succumbed to Hollywood values. It’s that even starlets aren’t free from the grip of the culture of meritocracy.

Alexandra Robbins: Kids are the victims of the elite-college obsession

Probably the least surprising thing about this case is the neighborhood setting. Go to your nearest geographic database and look for the neighborhoods with the highest median home prices, the best-rated public schools (for the little people), and the highest number of advanced degrees per capita. Yep, they’re right there in the affidavit: Mill Valley, Atherton, La Jolla, and Newport Beach in California, and Greenwich, Connecticut.

Now let’s talk family values. “The parents are the prime movers of this fraud,” Andrew E. Lelling, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said. It is touching, and sad, that many of the defendants appear to have taken great care to make sure their children did not learn about the efforts to cheat on their behalf. But it’s also deeply twisted. “Son, I love you, but you’re too stupid to know what I have to do for you”-is that the message?

Family life itself has become part of the battleground of the classes. There are two kinds of families in America now, down from an infinity or so. There are the “good” families that mostly have two parents and invest huge amounts of their own money and time, and of their nanny’s time, in the cultivation of their offspring. And then there are the families that have been stuck into the bottom 90 percent of the economic pile.