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America’s elite: An hereditary meritocracy (economist.com)
119 points by bootload 1095 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 110 comments

For millennia, being "elite" meant owning land. In a primarily agrarian society, owning land is a huge advantage. So then, if that land is passed along hereditary lines, the establishment of a "landed aristocracy" is inevitable.

The risk in "meritocracy" is that we no longer live in an agrarian society. In the modern economy skills, training, and education are the surest means to success. We've replaced the "landed aristocracy" with the "educated aristocracy". This could only be considered a meritocracy if the potential to become educated was equally available to all, but the situation in America is further from that ideal than almost any other place in the world.

I don't think it's the education that matters. It's as another commenter said, it's the ability to "visit the right clubs and (therefore) know the right people". Studying at Harvard isn't going to make you a millionaire. Being from a Harvard legacy family and already being a millionaire is going to make you a millionaire.

Your point about the value of owning land in the past was spot on. Several hundred years ago the primary occupation was subsistence farming, which requires a lot of fertile land. The most readily available source of energy was the photosynthetic energy from the sun stored in the trees of the forest, access to which also required lands. And the most healthful food sources were the animals who lived off of those lands. But today? We have a diversity of occupations, ample energy and plenty of food (in the developed western world at least). We have these things because of an increasingly complex web of progress and interdependence that's been enabled by technology. The resources that really matter in 2015 are human resources. The world is changing faster than any textbook can keep up with, faster than even the best teachers can understand and communicate to others. The only way to find and take advantage of the newest the rent seeking opportunities is to associate with the people who are creating them. Knowing a guy who knows a guy is the new nobility, and no amount of book learning can compete with being a member of the "in" crowd.

On the brighter side, society is exponentially more egalitarian than it was in the days of the landed aristocracy. If a man from Victorian England could observe the current level of social mobility (again, in the developed west) he would end up flat on his fainting couch. Unfortunately there is no way to prevent the wealthy from using their resources to give their kids a better life than everyone else has. Most people genuinely love their kids more than anything, who's to tell them that they can't spend money on what they hold most dear? The good news is that the long view paints a pretty picture. We're as far from aristocracy as we've ever been, and we're not going back any time soon.

>In the modern economy skills, training, and education are the surest means to success.

Nope. Still land:


actually it was never just land either. It used to be about owning land, debts, gold and slaves

Now it's about owning land, debts (bonds), gold and shares.

I can't find numbers on how many Americans own homes, but 67% of homes are occupied by their owner. That's quite a large aristocracy.


52% own stocks.


I'm too lazy to google bonds and gold (both easily available to anyone with a brokerage account).

The means to success seem pretty accessible based on these numbers.

I think he meant that money-convertible assets, like land, bonds and shares are more important for the future increase in those assets than brains or education. Anyway, the bank usually own your house, not you. You're not a free man until you own your home and workplace debt-free.

Thee is a meaningless difference between renting and owning 50+% the value of your home.

Looks for the % of Americans that own 95% of their home and try again.

PS: Out of 300 million There are under ~21 million households that own their home actually own their home.

Actually, there is a very substantial difference. The world recognizes and honors that 50%. Particularly the credit markets do and in a liquidity event, you walk with the 50% in cash.

Now if you were to just up and stop paying your debts, you can lose it.

Assuming the market does not tank. Plenty of homes have lost more than 50% of their value.

Even when you "own" your home you don't really --try not paying those property taxes and see what happens.

link for figures please :-)

Google: "home ownership without mortgage"

There was a few pages with similar numbers. EX:"More than 20 million American homeowners own their homes outright. No mortgage." http://www.cnbc.com/id/100370046#.

I used under 21 because there seems to be diffirent definitions of home owner. IE if you get a reverse mortgage are you still a home owner, how about a small home equity line of credit, own 2 houses and have more than 1 house of equity etc.

Perhaps share of land / stocks / debts owned may be a better metric. Also, home ownership should be replaced with home equity ownership.

>I can't find numbers on how many Americans own homes, but 67% of homes are occupied by their owner

...who has usually taken out a huge loan for the privilege, providing a stream of rents to the, uh, real aristocracy.

>52% own stocks.

Probably less than 1% could actually live off what they own, however, and rely primarily upon their labor for their income.

>The means to success seem pretty accessible based on these numbers.

Yes, well you intentionally made these numbers misleading didn't you? You didn't count the number of Americans whose incomes are derived wholly or nearly wholly from rents. You counted the proportion of Americans who owned at least one share.

As for owning one's home... were medieval peasants who owned a sliver of land aristocracy? According to you it sounds like it.

were medieval peasants who owned a sliver of land aristocracy? According to you it sounds like it.

I find the whole concept of "aristocracy" as applied to the US nonsensical.

Aristocracy is a form of government (rule by "the best"), and we simply don't have it. The fact that your mortgage payments go to a servicer who funnels it to a CDO who funnels it to Calpers doesn't mean that members of Calpers are aristocratic rulers of the US.

And let me remind you that the mortgage holders don't necessarily own any land.

>I find the whole concept of "aristocracy" as applied to the US nonsensical.

Of course you do.

>Aristocracy is a form of government (rule by "the best"), and we simply don't have it. The fact that your mortgage payments go to a servicer who funnels it to a CDO who funnels it to Calpers doesn't mean that members of Calpers are aristocratic rulers of the US.

Nope, the fact that the 1% own vastly more than Calpers or any other pension fund does mean that, though.

I think they call that "taking rents" in general.

Slaves are still there, it's just that they are exploited through interest.

Sorry, the definition of enslavement is coercion through direct and actual threat of physical violence and does not include other forms of exploitation.

i.e. "Slaves can be held from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation. " http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery

If you have a mortgage you can still refuse to work and just become homeless. Company men will not drag you kicking and screaming to your cubicle and force you back to you home in the evening to watch X-Factor until you vomit and pass out.

It's not that I want to understate the gravity of slavery, but to set the bar lower to what can be seen as slavery (which makes the common definition of slavery an even worse crime). You can get people to work without compensation in more deceitful ways than brute force.

"You can get people to work without compensation in more deceitful ways than brute force."

I think the term exploitation would cover this?

Even if there is some form of semi-institutionalized gouging, it's still not slavery.

So, what should we call common slavery? Super-slavery?

middle class degree educated white males on HN complaining about a mortgage being slavery...

Let's instead say 2x a person's annual income in credit card debt at 20% annual interest, a debt which was brought on by a number of short-term necessary but bad decisions, then left to grow for a couple of years due to unfortunate circumstances. That's the modern form of debt slavery, with no easy way of refinancing the debt or increasing the income. Such a scenario usually comes along with some other serious challenges, such as major health issues.

In the US, personal bankruptcy is an option. But not all Western countries have this luxury. In Norway, for instance, personal bankruptcy basically amounts to entering a 5-year contract of indentured servitude (you by law have to earn as much as you can, and get to use only the smallest possible amount of it to feed and clothe yourself - the debtors take the rest).

Please take your racism somewhere else.

They are though.

Interest leaves people impoverished and destroys families. But I'm sure you can see that from your mountain of moral superiority.

I think the difference is that you get to choose whether to enter into the loan agreement, you're provided all the terms up front, and you have access to legal counseling prior to accepting the agreement.

If you have to make a mental association between your mortgage and institutionalized human suffering, maybe indentured servitude would be a better (but still ridiculous) fit.

Then it's a good thing 30 year mortgage interest APRs are lower than average YoY returns for mutual funds, so you can make more money investing your cash than you can save by paying off your mortgage.

Usurious interest can leave people impoverished and destroys families, sure. But we're talking about mortgages, here, and in the general case interest leaves the price of homeownership about the same price as renting, provides additional stability and helps build families.

The real thing that leaves families impoverished and destroys them is when they have borrow half a million for a house to live in, only to find out that's only really worth about a quarter million a few years later during the economic crash, thus precluding them from actually selling it and moving somewhere that has an economy where they can work. That's principal, not interest.

So your definition doesn't include people who are effectively held hostage in a foreign country by having their passport taken away and forced to work in order to pay ridiculous fees to get it back?

Oh, that sort of interest. There is interest owed to established financial institutions and the there is interest "owed" to shady con men. The financial obligations might be a form of coercion in this instance?

Yes, shady con men, albeit ones operating with a great deal of organization and structure. There is a ton of this going on in places like the UAE[0] and Qatar[1].

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_the_United_Ara...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_Qatar#Immigran...

Paying mortgage isn't exactly slavery. Inappropes.

I think there are plenty of people in the world living in conditions close to slavery.

Yes, like, for example, victims of human trafficking. It's not the same as paying off a student loan though.

It's not exactly freedom either.

That's not the point. Any kind of contractual obligation isn't exactly freedom.

The point is, that the comparison is still bad.

On the contrary, I'd say the ability to become educated is more accessible than ever before.

Consider the example of foreign language immersion. I picked up conversational Portuguese this year from Duolingo (a free app, admittedly requiring a 249rs/month data connection). Duolingo just released English for Hindi a few months ago which will do more to make English language education accessible than even the Catholic Church did [1]. Or consider coding - again, free from codeacademy.com or learnXthehardway. Same for math from Khan Academy and Wikipedia.

Lets distinguish access to education from access to certification. Access to education has never been more available than it is now.

[1] For those unfamiliar, many (non-Christian) Indian parents pay way too much money to send their kids to Catholic school for English language education. Secular English education is ridiculously expensive.

It's not just certification, it's also the human/social part of education. There's an enormous jump between having the material available, and actually putting in the years of investment necessary to make yourself employable in that area.

I am still not sure about this whole subject. You are absolutely right - with internet access education is basically free and ubiquitous.

But the more important thing is in my opinion some kind of "drive" or "stickiness". We all know about the ridiculous high drop out rate from most MOOC courses. I think it might be that it is far less about education what makes kids succeed, but parents who are able to show their kids - may it be by example, by preaching, by pushing them - that they have to stick with things, even when it is "not fun", in order to succeed.

But this can compensate this with money - it allows you to push a kid in some kind of system (boarding school, etc) where it is more painful (social pressure, etc) to not stick with something (school) than otherwise.

I've thought about this a LOT, as a person who hated school growing up and makes a living with skills I picked up almost entirely online.

I think the current system of traditional schools and online courses is a sort of awkward/silly transition state. Online education (as far as I've seen) is trying too hard to become some sort of 'school-but-in-the-cloud'. It would be like selling MP3s through record-stores-in-the-cloud in album form, ignoring things like YouTube and Spotify.

Online education shouldn't (in my opinion) be about MOOC courses. It should be about literally figuring out what you want to do, finding people who can help you, building actual relationships with real people doing real work, and then literally getting involved and literally doing stuff. More like massively-distributed-apprenticeships.

It's already happening, and I'm a proud early case study.

We've replaced a landed aristocracy with a financial aristocracy.

Modern aristocrats farm money, in the form of rents paid for access to money. Land ownership is a useful byproduct.

It's still a feudal system. In the same way medieval peasants were tied to their lord's demesne, the modern peasant class is chained inside the local capital flow network and dependent on its favours for survival.

Education will only get someone so far towards becoming a financial farmer.

The irony is that money is a fiction anyway, and socially it's just a proxy for executive power.

So when the aristocratic class decided to 'fund' a project they're simply giving it an aristocratic nod - which they only do if they believe there's an acceptable chance they can benefit from it personally.

No actual stuff flows from one person to another. There's just a temporary infusion of transferred political power and status.

>the modern peasant class is chained inside the local capital flow network and dependent on its favours for survival.

This comment being posted on HN is quite ironic. Unless you are philosophically opposed to the Internet there have never been more options for capital access or less reliance on local "aristocracy". The contortions needed to make these kind of arguments should give some indication of their veracity.

That the aristocracy is not geographically local makes it less socially humiliating to ask them for help, but the arrangement is still financially problematic.

That the aristocracy has become more abstract does not mean it has ceased to exist.

If the aristocracy has become so abstract that it includes Kickstarter then the word has lost all meaning.

1. Kickstarter is very new 2. Kickstarter is so small as to basically being a rounding error

So when Kickstarter is bigger or if you consider all crowdfunding then it is an aristocracy? My point still holds. If reality gets in the way of dogma you might want to abandon your dogma.

Your esoteric examples are irrelevant. Come back when a significant percentage of the population finance their house with crowdfunding rather than a mortgage. You seem to be grasping at straws to defend your dogma, and quite honestly you drew a pretty short straw.

As a former teacher, I agree with you completely here. Through high school, the good teachers are as much motivators as they are instructors. That never seems to get mentioned in discussions on "the future of education".

This is why I firmly believe that while the future of education will be digitally mediated, the profession of teaching will grow towards "very high-touch instructor" rather than "supplemental tutor".

The digital tools will allow for significantly richer personalization - both with respect to the content being learned, as well as the facilitation of that learning via a skilled instructor. And, while we have the beginnings of these (digital/conceptual/pedagogical)tools, we don't a public conception yet of what this will actually look like.

I'm only responding to the idea that the potential to be educated is not well distributed. It's the ability and willingness to exploit that potential which is not evenly distributed.

I don't think that education is the way into the elite class. I think that if you are elite, then you will probably be educated, so you'll naturally see a gap in education between elites and commoners.

But I don't think being a doctor, lawyer, or Goldman-Sachs programmer, automatically makes you an elite. Owning a home doesn't make you an elite.

Having the capacity for power and influence, imo, makes you an elite. You don't necessarily need to express your power, but if you have no power to express except for buying a nice home, education, car, and so on, then I don't think you have power. Power is the ability to substantively influence political, social, or economic spheres. Bill O' Reilly has power. Peter Thiel has power. Bill Gates has power.

Because I really have to say, how are you an elite if you seem to lack so much say over the world around you? It almost looks like you are a luxurious piece of driftwood, bobbing to force of massive tides.

A lot of people have this standard of elite where if it's better than 99% of the world, then you must be an elite. But then I look at that remaining 1%, and I find too many servants of the elites (I consider a normal doctor to be a servant of the elites), which is why I don't like that capricious cutoff point. We should be focused on a more interesting question:

How do we describe power? Who has it? How much do they have? How does their power work? That's what I want to know when I drive an inquiry around "elitism".

Just replace "land" with "means of production" and you have updated your agrarian model to an industrial one.

I don't think education is quite as important as it is made out here, rather it is a confounding factor. Owning the means of production (being rich) is what makes you rich(er).

The import of education applies mostly to the middle class.

Let's also note that education doesn't fix poverty, any more than queue-jumping fixes queues.

There is a small number of high socio-economic status positions available at any point, and who gets those is determined mostly by how rich their parents are.

Meanwhile those at the lower end must live short stressful lives, fraught with misery, overwork and income insecurity, all the while being lectured that they are the "takers" by the media.

It's not quite zero-sum, but you certainly have a point. I guess if everyone had the same abilities engineers and janitors would get paid the same since they would have equal negotiation power. Managers, high-level salesmen on the other hand would keep their pay, since network is by definition exclusive. Same with the capital elite, which always need good networks with each other and government, not to mention that money grows exponentially - even a small initial advantage leads to dominance over time.

It seems someone has to end up on top, even if we were all equal.

Agreed completely that land is hugely advantageous in agrarian society, yes.

Here's the thing though- landowners don't just own land. They receive disproportionate profits and dividends from charging others for the use of that land. They (broadly speaking) collect rent, which they can then use to build schools, pay teachers, build banks, collect interest, so on and so forth.

The descendants of landowners have the most resources, which allow them to get the best education, the best skills, the best referrals, the best jobs, best networks. In land-scarce Singapore, for instance, about 50% of top students in primary school come from families who own landed property- the elites, who make up about 16% of the population.

It's wonderful that commoners can now also compete- a man like Barack Obama could become President- but there's still a long way to go.

That said, "America is further from that ideal than almost any other place in the world" strikes me as rather... naive? There are more than 6.5 billion people outside America, and there are still people with no access to schooling whatsoever, no basic literacy, etc.

America is nevertheless in a very poor place given its economical ranking

Didn't Piketty give this a pretty good treatment?

+1 Yes he did. At least he convinced me that a very small yearly tax on capital/resources over a (large) threshold is a good idea. His book changed my mind on this subject.

>This could only be considered a meritocracy if the potential to become educated was equally available to all, but the situation in America is further from that ideal than almost any other place in the world.

This is part of Europe's cartoon view of America. The educational problems in the US are largely cultural.

This is a red herring!

I can believe the argument of hereditary meritocracy for an academic middle class, where children grow up in houses with books in them, rather than 24/7 TV, and parents who are able and willing to help their kids when they struggle with their school work.

But it does most definitely NOT apply like this for the "elite" - that is when you get a cushy, highly paid job where you can virtually do no wrong because you studied at the right university, visit the right clubs and (therefore) know the right people. And that is only until you come into your inheritance, when your "work" will consist of raking in the huge rent you are receiving because you are rich already.

So much this. That merit is hereditary is a problem, but merit was never that important anyway. The thing that really drives me up the wall, though, is popular culture's insistence on hard work as the key to success, when really the most common way to success is various variants of interest(investment returns etc)

In fairness, it's a bit of both. The position of parents on the income scale vs. the position of children on the income scale is (too) highly correlated all across the income scale. The mechanisms for this correlations are different ones at different points of the scale, as you say, and certainly the very top is the part that needs the most fixing.

> that is when you get a cushy, highly paid job where you can virtually do no wrong because you studied at the right university, visit the right clubs and (therefore) know the right people

While it's du jour to criticize the wealthy for the occupations they choose, I take issue with the idea that the jobs are "cushy" and ones in which you "can do no wrong". It's certainly true that going to the right university and knowing the right people gets your foot in the door, but for the most part the people who get these high paying jobs are immensely qualified. And the jobs they are doing are in fact challenging and you will be fired for underperformance.

I've been going through the interviewing process at one of these universities and while on the whole I'm not impressed with the quality of the students here compared with e.g. my high school (and I think there is a lot of smugness and false sense of superiority among many of my peers for presumably being smarter/better than everyone at a "lesser" school), I am, however, very impressed with the students I've met in the final rounds of the interview process for some of the top tier banks and other financial firms. They are among the most intelligent and well rounded of those I've met in school.

"Our Enemy, The State", by Albert J. Nock - 1935. CHAPTER 4 ===================================================== AFTER conquest and confiscation have been effected, and the State set up, its first concern is with the land. The State assumes the right of eminent domain over its territorial basis, whereby every landholder becomes in theory a tenant of the State. In its capacity as ultimate landlord, the State distributes the land among its beneficiaries on its own terms. A point to be observed in passing is that by the State-system of land-tenure each original transaction confers two distinct monopolies, entirely different in their nature, inasmuch as one concerns the right to labour-made property, and the other concerns the right to purely law-made property. The one is a monopoly of the use-value of land; and the other, a monopoly of the economic rent of land. The first gives the right to keep other persons from using the land in question, or trespassing on it, and the right to exclusive possession of values accruing from the application of labour to it; values, that is, which are produced by exercise of the economic means upon the particular property in question. Monopoly of economic rent, on the other hand, gives the exclusive right to values accruing from the desire of other persons to possess that property; values which take their rise irrespective of any exercise of the economic means on the part of the holder.[1]

Economic rent arises when, for whatsoever reason, two or more persons compete for the possession of a piece of land, and it increases directly according to the number of persons competing. The whole of Manhattan Island was bought originally by a handful of Hollanders from a handful of Indians for twenty-four dollars' worth of trinkets. The subsequent "rise in land-values," as we call it, was brought about by the steady influx of population and the consequent high competition for portions of the island's surface; and these ensuing values were monopolized by the holders. They grew to an enormous size, and the holders profited accordingly; the Astor, Wendel, and Trinity Church estates have always served as classical examples for study of the State-system of land-tenure.

> they meet the standards of meritocracy better than their peers, and are thus worthy of the status they inherit.

Or maybe the education system ended up being tailored for well minded people, and not for the others ? Education involves a lot of human interaction, it's pretty difficult to teach and learn.

> Neither has plausible ideas for what to do about it.

The purpose of education, in my mind, is to lift people out of poverty by just teaching them a job that their parents don't have any relationship with, and will never have.

If you put competition in something that is made to reduce inequality, you will be disappointed. Maybe expensive schools should be taxed to fund more public schools too. There's a student loan bubble, so why not tax it to fund community colleges ?

To be honest, I live in france, I think the problem with the US education system is what the education quality students are exposed to from age of 8 to 16. I think it's very heterogeneous in the US, and that might be the source of the problem.

Unsaid in the article: 1. 85% of America's millionaires are self-made ("The Millionaire Next Door" by Stanley) 2. there's never been more free opportunities for self-education, from the Khan Academy to MIT lectures free online.

This line of thinking is the same as Will Hunting say that you can get a Harvard education for 1.50$ in fees at the public library.

Education is a wide-scope issue; availability is only part of the equation.

It's easy to perceive education as "immediate" from the middle/upper class point of view, but it's not so immediate in reality for families living on food stamps and/or multiple jobs, and/or with relatives in jail, and/or having children going to schools with high crime rates and/or poor teachers, and so on.

I strongly doubt that any of those self-made millionaires is the son of, say, a Mexican car washer.

Peter Thiel will not give you money to drop out of the Khan Academy. Andreseen Horowitz will not invest into a MIT-online alumni. Google will not hire a Coursera graduate. Chances are you would be the most educated poor man ever.

Small correction, 85% of America's millionaires consider themselves to be self-made millionaires. As this comment section has shown, smart and wealthy people have plenty of delusion to that point.

The mobility charts don't lie, if you take all of the kids born to households in the bottom 40% of income -- fewer than 10% of those kids will ever earn top quintile salaries. Keep in mind how low of a bar that really is, in 2010, the cutoff line for upper 20% of single-earner incomes was at $42,000.

Salary isn't the same as wealth. I know millionaires who have never earned more than a lower middle class salary, and the book I mentioned showed how this was done.

No offense, but the book you mentioned is a case study in selection and survivorship bias. They interviewed 350 millionaires (out of how many millions that live in the US?) and prescribed spending and living habits based on those millionaires' responses. What happened to all of the people who invested, worked, and lived exactly like the millionaires who never accumulated a million dollars? Or bet on the wrong housing market and went bankrupt?

Spend less money, save more money -- all fine advice, but the average $40k/year individual can't possibly become "a millionaire" in any sense of the real value of a million dollars. Ignoring inflation then showing $1,000,001 in a bank account in 40 years doesn't really count.

As a general rule, pop culture personal finance books exist to make the authors wealthy -- not the readers.

Sad thing is that you no longer are the kind of elite talked in this article by just having a few millions. The real american elite has assets in the hundreds of millions or billions.

A self-made millionaire starts from what base?

The Millionaire Next Door sets out the terms of an "Average Accumulator of Wealth" which are literally impossible to meet for young workers without family support.

1.85% is pretty small. (EDIT: This is incorrect. I take it back!)

And learning online may teach you the skills, but won't replace the prestige you earn or the connections you make at an ivy league university.

The fact that you're at a prestigious university in the first place means there's a good chance you're already rich. And the easiest way to get rich is to be rich in the first place. This is the point of the article. Not that education makes all the difference, but that being rich has so many advantages.

85% not 1.85%. There is a formatting issue with the parent post

No, but considering that self taught programmers are considered to be good enough to hire on like any other programmer, I'd say we've made some progress. That can move someone away from a low wage job and into a salaried job.

This can mean that their kids can get a better education. This means the kids get a better job starting and the grandkids get an even better start. It might take a few generations, but working hard can bring you up the ladder.

>1. 85% of America's millionaires are self-made ("The Millionaire Next Door" by Stanley) 2. there's never been more free opportunities for self-education, from the Khan Academy to MIT lectures free online.

If those were mentioned in the article he would not have much of an article would he?

A lot of the problems with social mobility in the US could be solved if universities didn't get to handle their own admissions. Interviews and "letters of application" are just a way to let wealthy sponsors get their kids into the best education. Why not just say universities either hand over their admission to a central agency OR agree to base all admission on objective parameters like standardized tests or grades?

My country uses exact system that you're suggesting and I am jealous of US system of interviews and letters of application.

Over there, potential students submit their high school performance reports to a centralised system and select programmes they want to study. Then system selects students based purely on their academical performance. It includes high school exam and average grades at final year of high school. Few top performers in each programme get all expenses paid, a bunch of good-but-not-best get partial coverage.

All seems good on paper, but it gets nasty during the last few years at high school. People do whatever they can to increase their grades. Including cheating, manipulating teachers and so on. In addition to that, people learn solely for the exams. Instead of gathering general knowledge, previous exams are studied to prepare for questions that may be in the upcoming exam. So it's either studying for grades or paying for studies.

Another problem is that some people graduate with the best grades and don't know what they want to do. But they're pretty sure to get a free spot thanks to good grades. They apply for random programme that has a cool title. Sometimes they end up enjoying it, sometimes they just sit through it and end up working in a different field. While people who were genuinely interested in that subject, but had lower grades, may not get even a paid spot.

It may be grass-is-greener thingie, but interviews and letters of application seem to be much better way. Grades do not show if particular person is a good fit for the specific programme. Different schools/teachers rate their students a bit differently as well.

Interviews and letters of application might seem like a good idea, but on closer inspection it isn't. As you could expect, an industry of "consultants" has emerged, helping rich kids get into Ivy League schools, by interview training and "helping them" write letters of application (i.e. writing it for them). So the grass doesn't seem much greener.

Perhaps the best system would be a combination of anonymized grades/scores combined with anonymized interviews?

There're always people who want to game the system :( I still think that interviews/applications are better on theoretical level though. Maybe it's because I didn't do very well in high school :)

Anonymization definitely helps. It's strictly enforced on national exams there and it seems to work pretty well. I'd focus on ensuring that applicants themselves do the job though. For example, application letters could be written in a controlled environment, without any help from 3rd party. Some people would memorise prepared letters, but it would make it a wee bit more fair.

P.S. Anonymous interviews would look great. Live Robot voice converter, full face (body?) mask... I'd watch this movie.

I think the catholics have all but perfected the anonymous dialogue...

So basically, some kind of big national exam with both a written and an oral part.

Why in the world would a university give up control over something as important as admissions to a third party?

If lawmakers believed such a law would help the political goal of improving social mobility and true meritocracy (rather than hereditary) then such a law would pass, and universities would simply have to follow it. To answer your question, they wouldn't give that right up but rather have it revoked.

Or you live in a country where Universities are historically publicly founded and funded to begin with. That what it is like in my country. There are also a few private Universities here, but those are not bound to all the same rules as the public ones.

If you base admission only on test scores, welcome to the world with 50% Asian, 50% White (with 40% of them Jewish), ~0% of black and ~0% latino student body at elite universities. I am not sure this is what you want when you talk about more fair system.

I would tend to believe that more mobility could be achieved by setting limits on federal and private loans permitted per year of school. Restricting which majors are granted loans would help.

There are areas of expertise and service the country needs and focusing resources on that is far better than the near blank check colleges enjoy, that blank check being the money loaned nearly without restriction to students who don't get a choice in paying it back. There needs to be restrictions to which schools they can be used at, the failure rates as some "universities" are just abysmal.

So set limits to what course can cost, the government already does it with medical services so their is more than enough justification. You are free to choose not to accept government loans and go where you want and learn what you want. I am quite sure a lot of schools would suddenly have costs in line with the requirements.

"The children of the rich and powerful are increasingly well suited to earning wealth and power themselves. (elite is producing children who not only get ahead, but deserve to do so: they meet the standards of meritocracy better than their peers, and are thus worthy of the status they inherit) That’s a problem"

Actually, this kind of thinking in itself is a problem. If there is any deterrence in social mobility where potential value does not get the chance to become true value then by all means - address that deterrence. But taking a political standing questioning the moral for current state where (although resourceful) potential value becoming true value? This is wrong. Humanity getting better (through non-destructive ways) does not need justification in someone's eyes or qualification in some political doctrine's view, because it is in itself more important than any of these.

Got down-voted pretty quickly! Was it after a rational analyze of the contents I've written or was it just an emotional response?

More karma burn and no explanation whatsoever. I think this answers not only my parent question, it also gives a glimpse on human nature of our time and what are we currently surrounded by. The humanity that I've mentioned earlier has apparently still a long way to go.

> Caltech, a university which admits purely on academic ability, has more Asian students than other elite schools.

Caltech is unique in other ways - it's the only university with an honor system top to bottom.

We abolished "titles of nobility" but forgot to address the government privileges, such as patent "royalties" and land-titles, which yield the payments that monopolists like to rent-seek.

HN doesn't interpret <> correctly. Here https://twitter.com/paulg/status/558494900245643264

thx @blfr

Glad you put the Paul Graham endorsement here; this story was mysteriously flagged off the front page yesterday:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8930360 links to this version of the story: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21640331-importance-in...

didn't check yesterdays page. This is one example where the site fails, changed url, same title (update: wrong) and where the poster (me) has to check.

If you notice the a) compared to b) notice there are no graphs. ... read a bit more: B) has been re-edited down from print A) and re-purposed. I had to re-read both to see B) is a re-write. Even the sub-heading are changed. I do believe B) is an inferior version of A).

A) America’s elite: An hereditary meritocracy http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21640316-children-ric...

B) America’s new aristocracy http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21640331-importance-in...

The Economist has lead editorials, and then more in-depth articles. B) is a leader (you can even see it in the URL), A) is the more in-depth article. You can see them both listed here: http://www.economist.com/printedition/2015-01-24

I think that they make a lot of good points, and think it's a good article (I subscribe to The Economist), but also think it's primarily a political subject and discussion.

Thank you David, I'm not a Economist reader so this clears up the confusion on my behalf.

When I step back and take a look at modern America, I don't see much of a meritocracy. It looks much more like a mediocrity.

It wouldn't be a complete solution, but a 100% estate/inheritance tax would go a long way to correcting this. Without that you can't even remotely pretend everyone in this country has equality of opportunity.

I haven't down-voted you, but I must say it's a crazy idea. We may try finding ways to impose some handicap to some people for... what exactly? For some political/social sense of rightness? In the end, the fact is, the entire society benefits from having competent people around, regardless of their pedigree chart. Moreover, like the article mentions, the inheritance isn't just estate/material any more. It's a broad spectrum that starts from (probably controverted) genetic advantage up to the process of being groomed for high-level positions in society. Say, how would we tax the parent's reputation and her network of social connections that somehow spills over the off-springs?

It's very possible that I'm missing some vital concept but start from the other direction, as if inheritance never existed: The point of taxes is to contribute to society for the help they have given you for resources we all share (infrastructure, national defense, education, etc). After you die, why should your accumulated wealth, produced with the help of society, go to only your offspring instead of society at large?

Because our theory of justice and government include property rights. Those rights include the privilege to gift legally acquired property, while we live, to our children.

Turn that question around. What is society at large going to do for my children if I die today that I couldn't do better if I was living and directing my efforts toward them?

Property rights are already voluntarily violated through taxation, this is just a more thorough example. Why should someone who hasn't earned property get to exercise rights over it? Society contributed to the wealth, the offspring may or may not have, but if they did they should have been paid before the elder in the situation passed on.

And to your second point, it's a chicken-and-egg problem. Because taxes are so vilified, we don't have the fiscal ability to take care of people as we should (in my opinion). If society at large had a form of basic income, that would answer your second point and one way to fund it would be to massively increase estate/inheritance taxes.

I never thought of taxes as property violation. I guess I had perceived these through their original concepts - from the roman right. There a property was rightly yours in the society that considers you a part of it. At your turn, it was your duty to make sure the society that recognizes your rights stays in one piece, which meant protecting it with your life if necessary. That was your contribution to society. Later the citizen's contribution become solely financial and it's somewhat understandable now why it's perceived as a racket. You've suggested that after you die the property should go to society, which is totally outside the roman right tradition and hard to swallow in west. However in east (or at least in China) you may find your suggestion already implemented. I'm not aware of all details, but I remember that a "property" there (like a house to live in) is yours only for a limited time and your children have to buy it all over again!

Interesting, I didn't know that about China.

And regarding taxes as property violation, it's a very popular meme in the American Right/Conservative/Libertarian groups that "taxes = theft".

To people who disagree, how do you justify the concept of inheritance other than status quo bias? You can say that the concept of working hard as a parent is to provide a better life for your children than you had but what about the much more common situation of the elder generation being broke and unable to pass anything along to their children? What about all the parents who can barely eke out an existence?

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