The people who had risen to the top in 1963 had little in common except their success. Most had grown up in middle-class or working-class families, and they retained the preferences and tastes of those milieus. Their status was precarious, and often not successfully transmitted across even a single generation. In other words, America was ruled by a rapidly circulating elite, not by an upper class. (The “old money” families of Philadelphia, New York and Boston were an exception, but their numbers were tiny and as a class they had no influence on the nation’s destiny.)
Coming Apart tells the story of how this equilibrium was upset in the years that followed. Murray first discusses the rise of a new upper class; then, turning to the opposite end of the social scale, he shows how the white working class has deteriorated into a proletariat.
The new upper class is a product of our higher-tech economy, which relies heavily on people with exceptional cognitive abilities. A young person with outstanding mathematical ability might formerly have aspired to become a college professor; today he can make a killing writing code or managing a quant fund. Business decision-making has also become more complex and the stakes are higher. “Today, if a first-rate attorney can add ten percent to the probability of getting a favorable decision on a regulatory ruling worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he is worth his many-hundreds-of-dollars-per-hour rate.”
[…] At one time, geography largely determined where most people went to college; even the Ivy League catered to the Northeastern social elite rather than the cognitive elite of the entire nation. Since the 1960s, however, our higher education system has come to function as a sorting mechanism for grouping youngsters according to intellectual ability. An American’s cognitive ability can, with ever-increasing exactness, be inferred from the college he attended.
[…] As the author notes, most Americans’ notion of meritocracy is that all the brainy kids scattered across the fruited plains should be offered the same chance to develop their talents. The social class of one’s parents is not supposed to matter. This is not how things worked out, for two reasons: 1) cognitive ability is significantly heritable, and 2) it is now the major determinant of social status.
College education occupies young people during their prime mate-seeking years. Combine this fact with the cognitive sorting now performed by the college admissions process and you get intellectual homogamy: people marrying those with similar cognitive ability. This level of ability tends rather strongly to get passed on to their offspring. Most children within the cognitive elite have parents with an average IQ of 117 or more. Only about 14 percent of them are produced by parents from the bottom half of the distribution.
So while the brilliant son of a plumber from Podunk will still occasionally break into the Ivy League, there will never be enough others like him to determine the character of those schools. Most of his classmates will come from affluent families, and a disproportionate number from the new upper class itself. American meritocracy has ended up producing something like a hereditary upper class.
(The Occidental Quarterly, January 9, 2012).