Meritocracy dead?

In an article published today in the WSJ, national economics correspondent Nick Timiraos reports "American Meritocracy Isn’t What It Used To Be,...".

I believe nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr. Timiraos refers to the work of Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam in justifying his eye-catcher of a headline. 

Robert Putnam, seems like a good-enough guy after all his bio describes him as:

Raised in a small town in the Midwest and educated at Swarthmore, Oxford, and Yale, he has served as Dean of the Kennedy School of Government. The London Sunday Times has called him “the most influential academic in the world today.”

I come from a small town in the mid-west.  To have this type of bio leads me to think Mr. Putnam either grew up no better than middle-class - as the majority of small town mid-westerners do - or perhaps he grew up in one of the wealthy families in that small town.  

If the first case be true then clearly, with that resume, Mr. Putnam is a prime example of the vitality of 'American Meritocracy'. Otherwise how does a poor kid from the middle of America get to Swarthmore, Oxford, Yale and end up at Harvard. Now he was likely motivated to do better, found the right mentors, and certainly would have had that all too famous mid-western work ethic.  'American Meritocracy' worked for him, why does he believe it is no longer available to the millenials.

Mr. Timiraos documents well Mr. Putnam's answer to that question:

Most sobering, Mr. Putnam said, are data from a 2000 analysis showing that a family’s socioeconomic status has become more important than their educational aptitude in predicting whether an eighth-grader would graduate from college.

Socioeconomic status more predictive of college graduation rate than educational aptitude, think about it, ...wait on it..., as my kids would say.  The natural follow on of course being - graduation from college - as the key to moving one up the socioeconomic staircase. Is there anyone else out there right now saying, "No, Duh!".

Wait, stop the presses - HERE'S the NEWS:

1. Rich kids have a better chance to succeed. - Anybody here disagreeing?

2. A college education can and often does help one achieve an increase in the socioeconomic status. - Anybody for disagreement on that fact?

I don't think we'll find any dissenters, so what's the story here?  The story of course is that a study from 2000 (that's 15 years ago for those of you counting) shows #1 is now MORE important than #2.  

For this Mr. Putnam has written a book, and he needs us to buy it, not for the least of which reason is so he can further prove through his example the vitality of the "American Meritocracy".

If the second case be true, that of Mr. Putnam growing up in a wealthy family, then I would suggest that his conclusions are at best disingenuine and absolutely dangerous to the minds of our youth of all socioeconomic strata:  

Hey poor kids listen up, a rich kid is telling you: "give up", "it doesn't matter what you do you can't make it anywhere out of here", "not only are those bad grades going to keep you in this hole, but your mom and dad - IF they are around - are poor, and kids of poor people just cant make that American Dream come true - says so right here - so it must be the truth".

You gonna believe him?

I apologize if I have offended anyone with this post.  It was not my intention.  But as my son told me the other day, when I was challenging him on this very subject, he said "Dad you live the American Dream".  I do.  

Meritocracy worked for me.  Did the system favor me?  Maybe - I'm a white male - most people think that helped. But my socioeconomic status would never have been described as 'wealthy'.  I worked my way through college, it wasnt easy and my 2.85 GPA at graduation can attest to that, and my 'educational aptitude'. I worked job after job that gave me greater and greater levels of authority and autonomy.  You don't get passed on to those levels without hard work. Because it worked for me I will continue to the best of my ability to make sure it works for everyone, and I will never believe as apparently Mr. Timiraos and Mr. Putnam do that American Meritocracy just doesn't work anymore. 

I am sure Mr. Timiraos and Mr. Putnam are good guys, just trying to make a buck like the rest of us, but don't believe them.  The American Dream is alive and well, supported actively by American Meritocracy. If you want to live that dream, be respectful, honest and hard working.  Don't listen to folks who tell you 'it wont work' or 'you cant do that'. Find mentors, people are good, and they'll believe in you, if you believe in yourself. Finally, love people and take a genuine interest in their success in life, and you'll be amazed how they take a genuine interest in yours.

Jim