“Due to the repetitive observations made by most in their daily routines in a country with little socioeconomic mixing, there is poor visibility into how the lives of those in other classes transpire.”
own 30% of the country’s wealth. 20 of the 55 Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom to date all attended the same private boarding school as adolescents. Ask any Canadian millennial living in a big city—all of which are in the midst of a housing affordability crisis with rents and property values having more than doubled in the last ten years—if they think hard work pays off. They will reply that among their peers, the ones whose lives have progressed with a semblance of normalcy are not necessarily the most hard-working or capable ones but, rather, those whose parents let them move back in rent-free, covered the lease on their apartment, bought them a condo, cut them a six-figure check for a down payment, or co-signed on their mortgage. Inequality is the default state of humanity just as brutality is the default state of nature, but it takes a peculiarly daft society to attribute it to meritocracy.ales of haves and have nots are not unique to 21st century America. The classics of Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac speak to the squalor of post-Napoleonic France, the works of Dickens and Austen to the classism of imperial England, and those of Dostoevsky to the serfdom of tsarist Russia. African, Asian, and South American poverty—even in the present-day—is of a severity that makes writing about American inequality feel frivolous. Inequality-induced socioeconomic stratification is also not constrained to backwards states. The phenomenon is universal; it is just a matter of degrees. Germany and the United Kingdom are still very classist. The richest 1% of Germans
What does financial success come down to, really? Hard work is certainly an element, but there are few alarm clocks across the country that are not set to 6 am, contrary to the narrative of lazy, welfare queens concocted by President Ronald Reagan. That the rich may also work hard is unquestionable but, frankly, so does almost everyone else. The difference is that the rich put in their time in air-conditioned rooms, sit in padded chairs, take four vacations per year, and have the luxury of a decade to focus on their careers at the exclusion of everything and everyone else. Others toil on their feet, juggle unwanted obligations, and play whack-a-mole with an unending stream of adversity, as the sand in their hourglass runs out and their dreams recede forever beyond the horizon. It boils down to some having the luxury of a lifetime of freedom, heavily subsidized by parents that are financially doting and emotionally undemanding so that every exertion is triggered only by interest. Others have to divert their vivacity to helping their parents with their rent, mortgage, or retirement, scurrying from abusive bosses and belligerent landlords, helping younger siblings through college, tending to chronic medical conditions, battling precarious employment, and silencing the sense of futility that haunts them throughout their lives. It reduces to some being permanently propped up by a bottomless family estate, while others spend the majority of their lives treading water and gasping for air. Since most problems can be paid to disappear, money is effectively a lingua franca, with far-reaching consequences in all domains of life. What success, therefore, comes down to is a behind-the-scenes transfer of tens or hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars. More than ability or ethic, money is the performance-enhancing drug in the game of life.
Due to the repetitive observations made by most in their daily routines in a country with little socioeconomic mixing, there is poor visibility into how the lives of those in other classes transpire. Consequently, the typical conception of a life trajectory held by most does not incorporate this financial undercurrent. Instead, it is the persistent narrative engrained in childhood of a linear path from education to work to marriage to property ownership to child-rearing. Pushing over one domino properly is supposed to set the next domino tumbling. In actuality, life is more like a Rube-Goldberg machine with nonsensical, winding, tortuous machinations required to get from A to B. But even considering the domino model for the sake of simplicity, for most, the dominos are placed too far apart to sustain a cascade.
Got good grades in school? How will that help you afford your college tuition? Graduated cum laude? It is just a piece of paper. You will also bafflingly need three years of experience to get an entry-level job. Nailed down a stable job? You do not make anywhere near enough to pay off student loans. You saved for ten years and can make a down payment of $50,000? That might have been enough when you started saving, but owing to ballooning house prices, you will now need double that amount. Just another decade to go! What’s that, slugger? You actually followed through and want to retire at 65? Unfortunately, your retirement savings evaporated because a few big banks gambled on subprime mortgages, that trainwreck-waiting-to-happen that you were too responsible to partake in. Correct, the same bank we will now use your tax dollars to bail out. Oh and by the way, the pension you earned through years of company loyalty and were counting on as a backstop in retirement will be used to pay the multi-million dollar exit package of the short-sighted CEO who drove your company into the ground. We stole your life from you, just as if we wrongfully sentenced you to a lifetime of hard labor but with no legal recourse.
For the wealthy on the other hand, the dominos are packed so tight that they cannot mess up even if they tried. Too rich to fail applies to individuals, just as too big to fail applies to banks. Straight-C student? Who cares, really? Good grades are for sniveling bookworms. The tuition is only $40,000 per year at a for-profit college with admission standards in the gutter. 2.3 GPA in college? College is not the real world. It is just a credential. Cannot seem to get an interview? No problem—it is all about who you know. Let me hook you up with someone in my network. Lousy at your job? Work to live, not live to work! Looking to move into your own place? Good thinking. Wage labor and renting are for clueless peasants; passive income and real estate is where the money is. We will help you out with a hefty down payment. Ta-da! A successful life. You are no worse off than the schmuck who has been working himself to the bone for decades but has no rich uncle in his corner. It is not hard to see why in the expression “afford not to give a s—,” “afford” should be interpreted literally.
That the stages of life are coupled so weakly for the poor and so strongly for the rich has well-studied psychological effects, dating back to at least the 1970’s, with the work of Martin Seligman on learned optimism and learned helplessness. The well-off have highly causal lives. Social contracts are upheld. Living up to expectations leads to rewards. Unfulfilled promises or unexpected obstacles are effectively countered with indignation and litigation since they have the social and financial capital to make the lives of those who have thwarted them miserable. Since there is a high probability of obtaining a reward after applying effort, it is the rational strategy to work hard. (In practice, the rich do not live causal lives but, rather, hyper-causal ones in which rewards are reaped even with a deficit of effort. Any student at a public university slaving for grades and sending his resume into a void over the Internet, while his counterpart at a private college gets drunk every weekend, coasts along with grade inflation, and still has Fortune 500 employers swoop down and gobble him up at a career fair can attest to this. Any minimum wage worker blessed with the cornucopia of a 20-cent increase in his hourly rate at an annual review, while his peers at corporate headquarters get five-figure bonuses because the company stock was buoyed by a tsunami in Kathmandu knows this all too well.)
This behavior, classified as learned helplessness, is not a character defect but a capitulation to rationality, to which even the defiant conceit of exceptionalism eventually succumbs.
The lives of the downtrodden, on the other hand, are largely acausal, not really driven by rhyme or reason. Unfulfilled promises are the norm. Education does not lead to good jobs—just endemic debts. Employment does not lead to financial prosperity; the working poor number in the millions. Given that reward is so uncorrelated with effort; that no amount of hard work will make a dent in the problem; that the goal posts keep moving; that the screws keep tightening, the rational strategy to making one’s way in the world is to phone it in, mentally check out, stop cooperating with a vampiric system, and live for the moment. Life’s volatility makes long-term planning futile. Over time, the rich develop the traits of the victor. They become bold, sure-footed, enthusiastic, visionary: “the world is my oyster!” The downtrodden are branded by the traits of the vanquished. They become demure, resigned, withdrawn, apathetic: “life is an ordeal.” This behavior, classified as learned helplessness, is not a character defect but a capitulation to rationality, to which even the defiant conceit of exceptionalism eventually succumbs.
It is no surprise that disdain for elitism resonates so profoundly in the United States or that populism is surging, when one appreciates that the answers to questions like “Did you have an allowance growing up?”; “Did you get braces in middle school?”; “Did you get a graduation present?”; “Did your parents wave goodbye from a porch or a balcony when you left for school every day?”; “Did you take tennis lessons as a child or play in the street?”; “Did you drive to your high school or take public transit?”; “Did you have an air conditioner in your home or use a fan?”; “Did you have your own bedroom or share with a sibling?”; or “Did you have your own wardrobe or wear hand-me-downs?” are more predictive of future financial success, lifespan, and happiness than the responses to “How talented are you?”; “How disciplined are you?”; “How motivated are you?”; “How hard do you work?”; and “How much do you care?” In a society modeled after an auction house, an accountant with access to an individual’s cash flows during the first 18 years of life is a better oracle of his prospects than a talent scout.
This is the contradiction at the core of libertarianism, the confounder to meritocracy that manifests in a society explicitly designed to have a threadbare social security net. When inspected closely, it becomes apparent that the real parameter that determines success is private financial support. The rich can incur one debt after another without having to worry about clearing the books in between. They have a large family endowment behind them that provides opportune cash injections on demand—student loan installments, car expenses, rent payments, wedding deposits, home down payments, credit cards that can be swiped guiltlessly with no questions asked—so that all debts stay in the family. Since the rich never have to trade time for money, they meet all their life milestones at an accelerated pace, allowing them to leapfrog into positions of leadership. Private financial support ends up determining how closely the dominos are spaced.
Peruse any working or middle class CV, and one will find ten or 20 of the best years of life begrudgingly spent doing a thankless, menial job just to get out of a financial hole. An earnest, intelligent entrepreneur born in the bottom decile in the United States would likely have to live to be 150 for him to self-finance his journey to the top decile. So much for social mobility. So much for the land of opportunity. The only meritocracy that exists in such a society is a hereditary meritocracy, which has as much moral legitimacy as aristocracy or primogeniture or the divine right of kings. That is to say, none at all.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that many positions of leadership and posts of influence (which are often contingent on long educational and career paths) seem aristocratic and attainable only to those born to affluence. Those who can complete law school, get called to the bar, and make partner or set up their own firm; those who can complete medical school, residency, fellowship and become full-time staff; those who can complete a master’s degree, a doctorate, two post-doctoral fellowships (all the while forfeiting anything resembling a reasonable paycheck), become an assistant professor, and finally be granted tenure; those who can secure seed capital to start a small business and slog away until they net returns; those who can volunteer in political organizations for a decade, rent a campaign office during election season, pay a hefty candidacy fee, canvass door-to-door, and finally be elected into office are not the most talented, tenacious or ambitious, contrary to conventional wisdom. They are primarily those who can afford to put one foot in front of the other, without sacrificing other aspects of their lives (i.e. those who have someone bankrolling them) or, at the very least, have the luxury of living their own lives unencumbered, looking out for number one.
When those in charge are declared incompetent and out-of-touch from reality, it is not an unfair trivialization but a well-calibrated assessment. Financial constriction has thinned out the herd so that the best and brightest drawn from this privileged pool are dullards relative to the diamonds in the rough. Elites catapulted to success on the basis of financial advantage alone can only be credited with being the beneficiaries of a well-curated life—not with possessing superior capability, judgment, or character, as a true meritocracy would entail. However, given that the best uses of money are self-investments in one’s health, education, and career, it is difficult to gaze upon the rich several decades after they have been given free rein and articulate this criticism plausibly. One is left spluttering in hypotheticals that are easily dismissed with a condescending chuckle.
Even if the vocabulary is constrained to an anthropocentric one, the path of attaining success in life can most accurately be described not as a process of meritocracy but a process of attrition.
The culture of anti-intellectualism in the United States is, in part, explained by the resentment of the deprived and thwarted. Many brilliant, capable, thoughtful, and moral individuals among the ranks of the general population know they could outperform this self-installed upper class, had they not been consigned to lives of drudgery to make ends meet. In a society with social mobility, life trajectories are not stymied by artificial financial pressure. Such societies, where unassuming talents can percolate to the top, are efficient, productive ones. In contrast, societies with stark economic inequality where the wealthy install themselves as king-of-the-hill are dysfunctional.
The universe is not conspiring to satisfy any anthropocentric ideal like meritocracy, and human societies approach this ideal only to the extent that policies are fair and effective. Even if the vocabulary is constrained to an anthropocentric one, the path of attaining success in life can most accurately be described not as a process of meritocracy but a process of attrition. Those that thrive in the modern-day are predictably similar to those who could survive a siege in the Dark Ages: aristocrats owning castles with wide moats and well-stocked cellars, who could hoard the harvest of their fields and exploit the labor of their peasants.
What determines social mobility is the interaction of these two competing processes of meritocracy and attrition, each of which has an associated timescale describing how long the process takes to manifest. The timescale of meritocracy is a decorrelation time and can be interpreted as the duration of a theoretical moratorium that needs to elapse before individuals can fairly be evaluated on their own merits. It is the amount of time needed for children to be sufficiently educated, stand on their own two feet financially, and have their fortunes be disentangled from the arbitrary initial conditions of their birth. The timescale of attrition is a damping time, beyond which those who are not wealthy enough to play the long game, are snuffed out. Social mobility is determined by the split between these two timescales.
Both timescales are affected by government investment. The more that is invested in early-childhood education, good public schools, safe neighborhoods, and affordable post-secondary education, the quicker children become educated and escape the twin traps of poverty and ignorance. That is, they get up to speed quickly and can hit the ground running career-wise so that the timescale of meritocracy is shortened. The more that is invested in adult education, fair labor laws, daycare programs, and public healthcare, the more likely adults are to stay healthy, upgrade their skills, and find meaningful long-term employment. That is to say, they take a long time to burn out (hopefully never) so that the timescale of attrition is prolonged. The quicker an individual is empowered and the larger the volume of sand in his hourglass, the more time he has in his life to be happy and productive.
In the United States—barren of good social services on all fronts—the timescale of meritocracy is very long: Many never receive a good enough education to transition into fulfilling careers, let alone make sense of their world. Meanwhile, the timescale of attrition is very short: Many are indentured into the labor market prematurely in order to afford basic services that can be taken for granted in every other modern state. Consequently, the two timescales swap their ideal order so that many end up hobbled before ever being able to stand on their own two feet. This inverted dynamic is economically suboptimal and culturally divisive. There are whole swathes of the population who are under-educated and precariously employed because of this inversion. As a result, though the country nominally has a population of 330 million, only half participate meaningfully in society. This is reflected even in the United States’ most elite institutions, where the calibre of home-grown individuals is commensurate with a country half its size, with capital and high-skilled immigration being the dominant factors in maintaining a competitive edge internationally.
It is because public investment in social infrastructure is so low in the United States that the effect of private financial support dominates, stifling social mobility. Although everyone appreciates the effect of compound interest, the notion of a familial financial heritage that provides cascading returns is not well-internalized practically because many of these transfers happen behind-the-scenes. Every high school graduate knows how to compound annual interest at 5% on a $1,000 principal, but it is much more difficult to reason about the cumulative effect of having family help with student loans or setting up a household.
In the age of social media (where over-sharing is the norm), that finances are not disclosed is an obvious indicator that money is still the most guarded element of anyone’s life. This lack of visibility means that the mathematical, monetary scaffold that dictates how life transpires remains largely unacknowledged and is considered gauche to investigate. It is difficult to have honest, sober conversations about the catapulting effects of money without unlocking accounts to scrutiny. Unfortunately, doing so is bound to inspire envy, lead to unfair trivializations of effort, and opens up the Pandora’s box of having to defend arbitrary advantages that are often existential in nature. Beyond logistical complications, implementing policies such as a wealth tax, which some economists suggest may be the long-term solution to inequality, is likely to be met with ferocious resistance for these reasons.
Until this monetary calculus is completely exposed however, the default conception of life that most will have is a moral calculus, in which success is understood in the vocabulary of good attitudes and work ethic. It is wholesome for parents to transmit these values to their children. It is condescending for the well-off to speak this way, assuming that during their choreographed exertions, the downtrodden have been idle—and concluding that hardship is a failure of exertion. They fail to appreciate that most are overtaxed, fighting off demons both formidable and mundane. Those who are not born into money are forced to counter in the language of the resigned, speaking of potential and what could have been, which the wealthy dismissively wave away as the rationalization of losers as they march ahead with all the material trappings of their success.
Ironically, it is not the winners in the game of life but the alleged losers who most accurately perceive this dynamic. While the winners earnestly chatter about the next stage in their careers and how to increase GDP, everyone else has surmised that when considered soberly without recourse to self-serving psychological devices, life is perhaps most succinctly described as a cruel practical joke. This is, in no small part, because those who win the game and are most empowered to stop it from being so could never fathom the thought. The downtrodden have long since deduced—with perceptive minds and heavy hearts, hidden behind stoic smiles—that while promised the life of a man, they were, in fact, condemned from birth to the life of a mule.
Money is, of course, not the definition of success or happiness, and many will eventually find their way in life in spite of financial hardship. Hopefully, they can seek safe harbor with family or find love to tide them through, but they will nevertheless spend their lifetimes resisting a financial maelstrom. What the downtrodden want, of course, is not to expropriate the wealth of the well-off as paranoid capitalists claim but simply an honest chance. They need to be able to look their children in the eyes, tell them hard work does pay off, and not feel like liars. The downtrodden also cherish the value of inter-generational wealth, even moreso than the rich who have accumulated capital well beyond the point of diminishing returns, and are not trying to deprive others the benefit of a family endowment. Having participated in a multi-generational Sisyphean effort to establish base camp, they are more aware than most that family wealth is the last refuge in a society that treats its citizens like unmilked aphids. Their resentment is targeted at having the ladder shaken as they are trying to climb it, having the doors slammed in their face, and having policy doctored to make it even harder for them to succeed, while the rich lighten the load on themselves.
It is depressing that despite all the boons the wealthy in the United States are given, with easy access to a world-class education and almost bottomless capital, they largely operate as if it is a zero-sum game. They cannot let others rise without feeling threatened at the top. They seem willing to help only if they are guaranteed a position of eminence. They readily justify any course of action so long as they can claim to be rational actors. Compound it all with a glue of evangelical validation that bakes intent and purpose into how lives unfold, and that seals the deal. There is a benediction on the success of the wealthy and a teleology surrounding the suffering of the poor so that economic advantage is treated as earned and financial hardship as a divine test.
And so, when one watches Jared Kushner on television strutting through the corridors of the White House, Harvard graduate (admitted following a $2.5 million donation), CEO of Kushner Companies (appointed after his father’s incarceration for tax fraud), senior adviser to the President (his father-in-law), and responsible for peace in the Middle East (having read 25 books on the subject)—an exemplar for this archetype the country over—one cannot help but recall Flaubert’s cutting words from Madame Bovary in describing the French aristocracy of the July Monarchy:
“They had the complexion of wealth, that white complexion that is heightened by the pallor of porcelain, the sheen of satin, the luster of fine furniture, and is kept in perfect condition by a moderate diet of exquisite foods. Those who were beginning to age seemed youthful, while those who were young had a certain look of maturity. Their faces wore that placid expression which comes from the daily gratification of the passions; and beneath their polished manners one could sense the special brutality that comes from half-easy triumphs which test one’s strength and flatter one’s vanity—the handling of thoroughbred horses, the pursuit of loose women.”
The special brutality that comes from half-easy triumphs which test one’s strength and flatter one’s vanity—good God Flaubert! What a sentence! Selling lemonade to your father’s complaisant bodyguards, being named to the Forbes’ list of the 100 Most Powerful Women. Launching an eponymous business empire with a half-billion dollars of your father’s capital, recruiting a gold-digger to be your trophy wife.
Duluxan Sritharan is a PhD candidate at Harvard University.