Opinion & Commentary
How the rich lead poor lives
Over the course of the last 50 years, the United States has seen a divergence in classes that is different in kind from anything it has known before.
Part of that divergence has led to a new lower class that has dropped out of the institutions of American life – especially marriage and work. The other part of the divergence has led to a new upper class that is increasingly segregated from, and ignorant of, life in mainstream America.
Over the course of the 20th century, and especially during the last half of the 20th century, two large historical forces reshaped the US’s social structure. Brains became much more valuable in the marketplace. The university system became much more efficient at finding talent wherever it existed and not only sending the talented to college, but to elite colleges.
Elite employers recruit at elite schools. The graduates of elite schools are disproportionately concentrated among the staffs of the most influential firms in the financial and corporate worlds, of the most prestigious newspapers and magazines, publishing houses, other media outlets, and the most prestigious jobs in Washington’s incestuous world of bureaucrats, legislators, lobbyists, and lawyers.
These kids who are shipped off to elite schools tend to end up marrying each other. These parents don’t just pass on money to their children. They pass on socialisation to a particular kind of world and they pass on talent, both through genes and their parenting. When this goes on for decades – and it’s been going on ever since the college sorting machine kicked into high gear in the 1950s – you change the composition of the next generation of the successful.
The problem is not that the new upper class has bad habits, but that it is isolated and segregated from mainstream US culture, living in a bubble.
What scares me are the children of the new upper class. They go to elite private schools from kindergarten to year 12, spending their summers at tennis camp or in exclusive resorts where their parents vacation. Then they get their law degrees or their MBAs, and move seamlessly into the same upper class bubble as adults that they’ve lived in all their lives. And they haven’t a clue about how ordinary people live.
Worse yet, they are likely to have an extremely condescending view of what ordinary people are like. They have no idea of the good humour, common sense, coping with adversity, and general competence that can be found across the whole range of human beings, including those who don’t test well on verbal analogies and quadratic equations.
And these same children of privilege are increasingly not children, but adults in their 30s and 40s who are rising, or have already risen, to places of great influence over the culture, politics, and economy of the US.
The condescension of the second and third-generation members of the new upper class has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the US. A great deal of the energy of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement came from a sense that a detached elite runs the country, setting rules for the rest of society that they don’t have to observe themselves.
What is to be done? If we are to make the moral case for capitalism in those terms, business people who are part of the new upper class must not only talk the talk but walk the walk.
They need engage in the life of the nation as a whole. I want parents who grew up in modest circumstances and had to surmount challenges and defeats to think about whether they would really prefer their children’s luxurious, protected childhood to the one they had. I want people who live on two-acre lots, walled-off from the life of real communities facing real problems, to ask if they are missing something.
The kind of cultural renewal that I seek requires merely a rediscovery of what our self-interest is; a renewed understanding that it can be pleasant to lead a comfortable, glossy life, but it is ultimately more rewarding – and more fun – to lead a textured life, and to be in the midst of others who are leading textured lives. It requires a return to long-standing, deeply held view of why America’s civic culture has been something to cherish. I will say parenthetically that it seems to me to bear a lot of similarities to the civic culture that Australians have cherished.Charles Murray is W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of Coming Apart (2012), The Bell Curve (1994) and Losing Ground (1984). This is an extract from the 2012 John Bonython lecture, given yesterday.