The death of American meritocracy

The death of American meritocracy

Small US flags are attached to a stepladder at the Brandenburg Gate during a rally in November 2020.
Fabian Sommer/dpa/Getty Images

Until recently the United States' could reasonably claim that the country's best and brightest rose to the top.

But recently, America's meritocracy has started to crumble and class has become calcified.

In "The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World," Adrian Woolbridge takes on this crumbling concept.

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Central to the generations-long narrative of American greatness is the United States' willingness to allow raw talent to thrive unimpeded by artificial constraints. This idea that the best of us have the ability to rise to the top undergirds the narrative of America's origin story of escape from the ossified clutches of British aristocracy. It's also become a central tenant in the story of how Silicon Valley became the birthplace of the tech titans that have transformed the global economy. The US' fraught history with race and gender were always glaring flaws in this story , but until relatively recently, the data suggested that this self-conception of meritocracy was true to a surprising degree. There are a number of metrics that measure social and economic mobility, but the most often used is something called "intergenerational income elasticity," which signals the extent to which your financial success is determined by how well off or not your parents are. The ability of the ambitious or gifted to achieve their full potential and become better off than their parents did indeed once distinguish the US. But today, we now lag the supposedly class-bound UK in "intergenerational income elasticity" and have even fallen behind countries as diverse as Greece, Japan, and Spain.One cannot help but feel that the decline of our ability to let the cream rise to the top of our society has fed into America's increasing economic and political polarization. Adrian Woolbridge, the political editor at The Economist, has tried to pinpoint where we went off the rails and what to do about it in "The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World."

The cream is stagnant

In order to diagnose America's broken meritocracy , Woolbridge has undertaken an expansive cross-cultural history of how societies have viewed and addressed the issues of mobility, talent, and merit. "The Aristocracy of Talent" takes us from Plato and Confucius to Tucker Carlson and critical race theory. The result is an important and timely book that is both fascinating and infuriating.
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