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Howard Steven Friedman

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America's Incomplete Thoughts About Inequality and Meritocracy

Posted: 07/24/2012 1:34 pm

Conservatives and liberals both vehemently declare their support for equality of opportunity, a rare area of agreement between groups that struggle to find any common ground. This unity likely stems not only from people's intuitive feeling for what represents fairness, but it also reflects our collective sharing of the "American Dream" -- that anyone starting from whatever level of hardship can achieve greatness if they have sufficient talent and diligence.

Since it seems that all Americans feel united in wanting a society that has equality of opportunity, it is only natural to review some key facts and incomplete thoughts about America, inequality and meritocracy.

Fact 1: Americans have a greater belief that their country is a meritocracy than citizens of nearly every other country. For example, in World Values Surveys 60 percent of Americans believed that the poor could become rich if they tried hard enough, a rate that is more than double that of European countries. Additionally, Americans were far more likely than respondents from other countries to agree that "hard work brings success."

Fact 2: World Values Surveys also show that Americans are more tolerant of higher income inequalities than citizens of other countries.

Fact 3: America has higher degrees of income inequality and wealth inequality than citizens of other wealthy countries. Moreover, America generally has less social supports for the poor than other wealthy countries.

Fact 4: America has far less social mobility than other wealthy countries. Americans who are born poor are more likely to stay poor than citizens of other wealthy countries. Economic success in America is more dependent on the economic status of your parents than in other wealthy countries.

Let's see how these facts connect and where things fall apart. Fact 1 and Fact 2 seem perfectly linked. Because Americans believe that their country is a meritocracy, they are more accepting of the idea that those who are wealthy deserve their wealth and that the poor either lack talent or are lazy. Fact 3 flows from the previous two facts. Since Americans are more accepting of higher inequalities, it is perfectly logical that America spends less to help its poor than other wealthy countries. After all, how a nation spends its money is a reflection of national values.

Fact 4 is the disturbing fact that topples the logical applecart. The data show very clearly that America is less meritocratic, rather than more meritocratic, than other wealthy countries. This means that Fact 1 was a mistaken belief -- that is to say, Americans are mistaken in believing that their society rewards those with talent and effort more than other countries. Once Americans learn that that have misplaced confidence in their system being a meritocracy, this should lead to Americans becoming less tolerant of high inequality. This decreased tolerance of high inequality should lead to Americans calling for more social supports and to correct the issues that are leading to America's vast inequality of opportunity.

The logic is simple and, to some extent, is the logic expressed previously by the Occupy Wall Street movement and the We Are The 99% campaign. So what happened? Why did this logic fail? Why is it that Fact 4 hasn't prompted a sustained awareness campaign to disabuse people of their mistaken faith in American meritocracy (Fact 1), cause them to question their acceptance of high inequality (Fact 2) and drive greater movement to social supports (Fact 3) and a shift to a society that truly has more, not less, equality of opportunity?

Some blame the media for failing to raise America's awareness of the dismal facts regarding our limited social mobility and our inequality of opportunity. Some blame complacency of the American people and general apathy. Some blame our political process for having too much inertia to enable change. Some blame the organizers for failing to convey their protest messages clearly. Some blame the power structures for dampening the voices of the protesters.

Last year many Americans started to connect the dots regarding American inequality and the myth of American social mobility. This thought process was left incomplete. For the sake of America's future, I hope that America will reawaken its passion for equality of opportunity and that those who express support for this equality are not simply speaking empty words. The fight for equality of opportunity needs to be a major issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, rather than simply a minor footnote in American political history.


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