April 22, 2014

JAMES TARANTO: Purdy Grievances: Scenes from the class struggle in the faculty lounge.

In an essay for the Daily Beast, Purdy, now a law professor at Duke, brings us up to date on his life: “Born and raised in West Virginia, way out in the country, I tested and wrote my way into elite schools, and now I teach at one. I’m surrounded by very smart people who work very hard, and get rewarded.”

That doesn’t sound so bad. But he writes to inform us that America is still in Trouble. His piece is titled “We Need More Class Traitors: Solving America’s Meritocracy Problem.”

Purdy endorses French economist Thomas Piketty’s argument “that Americans are intoxicated by ‘meritocratic extremism’–an impulse to pick ‘winners’ and reward them enormously.” Piketty is the author of a new book, “Capital in the 21st Century,” that has drawn rave reviews from left-liberal scholars and commentators fixated on “income inequality” as the ultimate social ill.

The most revealing aspect of Purdy’s analysis is his classification of meritocracy into two different “generations.” “First-generation meritocracy pivoted on tests like the SAT,” he explains. “It channeled high scorers into elite schools and positions. . . . The iconic beneficiary of this meritocracy was the Iowa farm kid or child of segregated Charlotte who was plucked up and admitted to Harvard.”

Purdy disapproves much more strongly of “second-generation meritocracy, which has been accelerating since the 1980s.” This is the meritocracy of the commercial marketplace. “The idea is that money follows quality, so those who attract money must be the best: they must deserve it. Any other test looks spurious: if you’re smart, why aren’t you rich?”

Well, “rich” is a relative term. If you’re a successful first-generation meritocrat like Purdy, chances are you enjoy a solidly upper-middle-class income and lifestyle. He acknowledges as much: “I’m grateful for the way first-generation meritocracy put me in a place to be writing this essay.”

Yet that question “if you’re smart, why aren’t you rich?” seems to carry quite a sting.

All the talk about inequality is basically journalists and academics wondering why they don’t make as much money as the lawyers and investment bankers they went to school with.

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