We in the United States supposedly live in a "meritocracy," yet there is much evidence that we are not all equal except for ability, and that socioeconomic distinctions are becoming more polarized. Is this the result of natural forces, or is it the systematic effect of our beliefs?
|Introduction||Monopoly of the Elite||Unnatural Forces|
|Social Engineering||Class Warfare||Conclusions|
When the Soviet Union collapsed, many observers in the West saw it as the failure of an experiment in "social engineering," defined as an attempt by a small group of individuals to imagine a future that benefits their group alone, and to force this future on an entire population. The failure of the Soviet Union justified Western observers in their opinion that no such centralized effort at "social engineering" could ever be successful. They concluded that the future for all of us must necessarily be left in the beneficent "invisible hand" of free market forces.
Since the Soviet Union's collapse, the United States culture has become the self-proclaimed super power and watchdog of socioeconomic developments all over the world. At the same time, in U.S. culture at least, use of certain terms and notions have been increasingly discouraged in polite discussion. The politically incorrect ideas include not only "social engineering" but also "income redistribution," "class warfare," and any form of affirmative action that might have become associated with these foregoing notions. Elimination of these ideas has left a vacuum in public discourse that has been filled by an expanding sense that the wealthy deserve their special condition. The entire culture allegedly depends on this small elite to continue the unprecedented increases in economic prosperity their influence has produced all over the globe, in the West predominantly, and most particularly in the United States. Given this rationale for the distribution of wealth, any attempt to redistribute wealth can be expected to be perceived by the privileged as a direct attack on their socioeconomic rights, an attack they must necessarily defend themselves against.
The first use of the power of an elite is to institutionalize a culture that maintains their quality of life. It is this kind of power that is currently being used by our own socioeconomically advantaged to prohibit any questioning of their rights. Prohibitions against such ideas accompanied by a countering public relations effort, that before political prohibition was called propaganda, amounts to political sublimation of a large body of important evidence. The evidence that is thus glossed over tells us that the very forces touted as now successful in the West, and especially the U.S., are very much like and systemically connected to the forces that failed so miserably in the former Soviet Union.
Look at the supposed reasons for the inevitable success of the socioeconomic strategy employed by the West and the United States. A collectively chosen future is presumed to be more likely to benefit an entire population than one created, imposed and enforced by a few. This technique for agreeing upon a socioeconomic structure, the result of much human experimenting over the last few centuries, has culminated in the almost universal popularity of democracy. However, the ideals of democratic process have been noticeably diluted in the U.S. over the past quarter century. Today, our way of life is widely perceived as purchased by those who have money and social influence, producing a preordained result that is merely ratified at the ballot-box. As a result, our way of life becomes the one that is envisioned by a very small minority, the exclusive 1 percent that exercises most of our collective wealth. In recent years, this minority has exercised its options to gain even greater control over a larger portion of the socioeconomic terrain. This can hardly be interpreted to be the result of democratic activity. A startling resemblance has appeared between the control this wealthy minority has seized by socioeconomic force, and the Communist revolution and reign in Russia.
In the U.S., the minority that exercises this considerable power is asked to justify retaining its monopoly over the quality of life of the population. The recent conflict between Microsoft and the U.S. government exemplifies these discussions that go on in many realms of our society. The justification is always the same: those who are responsible for bringing us to current levels of prosperity have a right to control socioeconomic resources any way they choose to maintain and even to expand that quality of life for everyone. Yet while these monopolies are clearly improving quality of life for the elite, there is increasing rot in the socioeconomic roots of our society.
We are asked to believe that natural forces are involved here, and that the evidence (collapse of the Soviet Union, for example) clearly shows that any imposition of artificial forces on the natural dynamics of prosperity is doomed to failure. For the wealthy to ask the rest of us to believe uncontrollable forces are responsible for their condition is symptomatic of either profound naivete and ignorance or unprincipled manipulation of public opinion. Opportunity makes it possible for any human to survive, and human survival, more than any other living organism, depends on the opportunities humans make for themselves. The diminishing of any segment of the human population is a result of systematic withdrawal of opportunity.
Likewise, the ascendancy to power of any segment of the population is a result of systematic offering of opportunity (Lemann, 1999). In fact, the social function of politics is the organizing of opportunity for the benefit of the body politic. Burgeoning salaries for CEO's do not result from superhuman qualities of those individuals but from the extraordinary opportunities our culture offers them. The pattern of opportunity is not a matter of chance, of the unexpected influences of forces beyond our control. The pattern is a matter of systematically creating, imposing and enforcing a specific design for opportunity throughout a population. Whether those with power do, or do not, understand that this is happening, the result is the same. As we have seen in the U.S., the exercise of social engineering is not a matter of collective choice, but the will of the few who control most of the socioeconomic power. The forces that determine wealth are indeed natural, but they are a matter of human control like any other resource.
I choose to believe that those who are currently doing the social engineering do not recognize what they are doing it, or that what they are doing is ultimately destructive to society. Although this is what the experience of the Soviet Union should have taught us, I am not sure whether those who monopolize socioeconomic control are open to being informed of the hazards of their behavior. They have, after all, sought to obscure their increasing influence over the distribution of power by accusing their opponents of "social engineering." The question here is not whether social engineering is to be done; it is apparently a natural human function. The question is how, by whom, and for whose benefit social engineering should be done, a question many of us thought we had resolved with the penning of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Although the prohibitions against discussion of certain ideas make it difficult to raise certain issues, the disparities that exist between the powerful and the powerless are being observed and are generating comment. David Cay Johnson (September 5) in the New York Times describes the wealth of the 1 percent of the U.S. population that controls half of all wealth doubling at the same time as the wealth of the poorest 20 percent of the population is going down. Jacob M. Schlesinger (September 13) of the Wall Street Journal describes the "virtually nonexistent dialogue about inequality" of wealth. Within this context, the Wall Street Journal reports (August 22) that "vindictive, cruel, malicious, or humiliating" behavior has emerged as a universal problem for employees in the workplace. The Associated Press reports (August 23) that in response to such behavior, there is an "undercurrent of anger and resentment aimed at the workplace." We have evidence that vindictive, cruel, malicious, or humiliating behavior may have been involved in the Littleton tragedy. Similar behavior may have contributed to the Atlanta stock trader shooting. It seems as if there are two warring interests here that are directly related to socioeconomic status.
Can any coherent conclusions be drawn from these possibly coincidental reports? Are people who question systematically restricted opportunity simply inferior individuals who are jealous of the privileged positions of others who have earned and deserve socioeconomic advantage? Are those with socioeconomic privilege self-righteously withdrawing from anyone who questions their status the right to participate in the "free market?" These were the dynamics in effect during the mythical "gilded ages" that history shows were followed by the most extreme forms of socioeconomic upheaval.
In one more piece of evidence, Ellen Barry (September 11) of the Boston Globe reports confirmation by the U.S. justice system that it is reasonable for those with socioeconomic power to exclude anyone who conceivably, to those with power, could become disillusioned with the existing socioeconomic structure. The justification for this decision is that to include these potential malcontents would jeopardize the smooth running of any operation and therefore (I suppose) disrupt the flourishing economy. This evidence reveals a dominant rationale running throughout our culture that can easily explain both increasing disparities of wealth and increasing maliciousness and violence in our everyday lives. Very simply, anyone with even a little excess wealth, Microsoft for example, uses that wealth to drive out of any competitive position anyone who might want to change the current distribution. If you are not happy with your given place in life, look out! Things are going to get a whole lot worse! Of course, if you do not demonstrably have the ability to change or disrupt the current system, you have nothing to worry about. Only those who have demonstrated the ability to succeed over those who have superior power have to worry. Like people with measured high IQ's.
Finally, the Wall Street Journal (September 14) reports a landmark study showing that social inequities in organizations are often directly related to inequities in pay. What are we to make of these socioeconomic facts in a context where new multimillionaires are created randomly every week by lotteries, esoteric new technologies, and traffic in illegal drugs? How are we to interpret the political prohibitions against discussing these inequities and their possible sources and remedies?
Jacob Schlesinger (September 13) believes that the only reason people tolerate these inequities is the promise of upward mobility. 3 out of 4 students today expect to achieve their dreams of wealth by their efforts in the workplace. What is going to happen when today's students, most of whom expect to achieve their dreams by working, are profoundly disillusioned? Disillusioned by their own experience that the only ones succeeding are those who are willing to work exclusively for the privileges of a small minority. Disillusioned by their own observation that those unwilling to make this sacrifice are not only marginalized or eliminated from the workplace, but are not even acknowledged by the culture as being un- or under-employed. Disillusioned by their unavoidable conclusion that their own culture sees this treatment as being deserved.
I remain an optimist; when we know there is to be a train wreck, I believe there is always a way to prevent it. We still have time.
Lemann, N. (1999). The big test: The secret history of the American meritocracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Workplace bullies common. (1999, August 22). From the Wall Street Journal in The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA).
Study: 1 in 4 employees angry at work. (1999, August 23). From the Associated Press in The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), p.D8.
Johnston, D.C. (1999, September 5). Rich-poor divide still growing. From the New York Times in The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), p.A15.
Barry, E. (1999, September 11). Applicant scored too high on IQ test. From the Boston Globe in The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), p.A9.
Schlesinger, J.M. (1999, September 13). Wealth gap grows: Why does it matter? Wall Street Journal, p.A1.
Who decides pay, the marketplace or the old-boy network? (1999, September 14). Wall Street Journal, p.A1.
Please e-mail your impressions to: firstname.lastname@example.org