Quotes from The Meritocracy Myth, by Stephen McNamee

- ‘Simply put, to the extent that income and wealth are distributed on the basis of inheritance, they are not distributed on the basis of merit.’ (1)
- ‘The [American Dream] term was first popularized by historian James Trulow Adams in his 1931 best-selling book, The Epic of America.’ (2)
- ‘For a system of inequality to be stable, those who have more must convince those who have less that the distribution of who gets what is fair, just, proper, or the natural order of things. The greater the level of inequality, the more compelling and persuasive these explanations must appear to be. The type of explanation or ideology varies depending on the type of inequality. In feudal societies, for instance, the aristocracy used ‘birthright’ and the idea of ‘the divine right of kings’ to justify power and privilege over commoners and peasants. In slave societies, slave owners used either the idea of ‘spoils of victory,’ or ‘innate superiority’ to justify their ownership of other human beings. In traditional Indian caste societies, inequality was legitimized on the basis of ‘reincarnation’; that is, one’s place in this life was based on one’s performance in past lives. In industrial societies such as the United States , inequality is justified by an ideology of meritocracy.’ (3)
- ‘You may not be held responsible for where you start out in life, but you are responsible for where you end up.’ (3)
- ‘In 1900, only 4% of Americans eighteen to twenty-one year olds were college students. By 2001, 62%.’ (10)
- ‘If intelligence were actually the primary determinant of getting ahead, then one might expect that the distributions of income and wealth would closely mirror the bell-shaped distribution of intelligence. But they don’t even come close. In fact, the most important determinant of where people end up in the economic pecking order of society is where they started in the first place.’ (13)
- ‘Discrimination is the antithesis of merit.’ (17)
- ‘The rich feel full of merit.’ Mason Cooley, American writer (21)
- ‘The really big money in America comes not from working for a living but from owning income-producing property.’ (26)
- ‘ ‘Having the right attitude’ is associated with qualities such as being ambitious, energetic, motivated, and trustworthy. It may also involve more subtle traits such as good judgment, sense of personal responsibility, willingness to defer gratification, persistence in the face of adversity, getting along with others, assertiveness, and the like. Conversely, lack of ‘proper attitudes’ as evidence by laziness, shiftlessness, indolence, lack of discipline, unreliability, disruptiveness, and so on, is associated with the failure to achieve.’ (29)
- ‘the middle and upper classes have the luxury to be able to plan ahead and defer gratification (going to college instead of accepting a low-paid service job) precisely because their present is secure.’ (30)
- ‘As Barbara Ehrenreich (2001) discovered when she spent a year doing odd menial jobs in America in a participant observation study, often the hardest working Americans are those who get paid the least… Additional ‘hard work’ of this kind is unlikely to result in any significant upward social mobility. Conversely, those with high paying jobs may not be working any ‘harder’ than those with less well-paying jobs in the same employing organization. In most jobs in America , compensation is more directly related to levels of responsibility and authority than it is to ‘hard work’ per se.’ (36)
- ‘Conservative estimates are that white-collar crime costs society over $260 billion annually, which is forty times more than estimated losses from street crime (Simon 2002, 91). It is more difficult to detect white-collar crime since enforcement efforts of the criminal justice system are directed towards crimes committed by the poor rather than the rich (Reiman 2001).’ (38)
-‘         Income Group              Shares of Income          Shares of Net Worth
            Top fifth                       47.7%                          83.4%
            2nd fifth             22.9%                          11.9%
            3rd fifth              15.5%                          4.5%
            4th fifth                          9.7%                            0.8%
            Bottom fifth                  4.2%                            -0.6% (debt)   ‘The State of Working America 2002/2003’ ’(52)
- ‘In 1998… the top 1% of all wealthholders [sic] alone accounted for 38.1% of all net worth.’ Lester Thurow, 1999 (53)
- ‘the 400 American taxpayers with the highest adjusted gross income in 2000 accounted for 1.6% of all income in the United States, more than double… 1992.’ (53)
- ‘In 1998… the top 1% of households held 67.7% of all business equity, 50.8% of all financial securities, 54% of all trusts, 49.4% of all stocks and mutual funds, and 35.8% of all nonhome [sic] real estate (Wolff 2002, 26).’ (54)
- ‘The richest 400 Americans… in 2001 collectively accounted for about 2.3% of all personal wealth.’ (55)
- ‘95% of children born to parents in the bottom 6% of wealthholders [sic] will end up as poor [lowest 18%] adults. Children who start out life born to parents in the bottom 6% of wealthholders [sic] have only one-half of 1% chance of ending up even in the upper half of wealthholders [sic] (Gokhale 2001).’ (56)
- ‘The wealthiest 1% are much more likely to be white (96% for the top 1% to 82% for the general population).’ (62)
- ‘Dealing with guilt for having inherited wealth is a prevalent theme among those who were born into wealth (Schervish: Gospel of Wealth: How the Rich Portray Their Lives).’ (64)
- ‘Unlike the children of European aristocrats who felt entitled to privilege as a matter of birthright, American children of great wealth of victims of an ideology that, through no fault of their own, essentially invalidates them.’ (64)
- ‘Conscious construction and use of social networks, conspicuous and invidious consumption, name-dropping, and the pretense of highbrow culture are some of the techniques employed by social climbers in their attempts to attain higher status.’ (90)
- ‘Median Annual Income for All American Workers Eighteen Years and Over by Educational Attainment, 2001 (p.96)
Education Level                                                Median Income ($)
Professional Degree                                          71,606
Doctorate                                                         63,952
Master’s                                                           49,324
Bachelor’s                                                        37,203
Associate                                                         28,563
Some college, no degree                                   21,658
High school graduate, including GED     19,900
Not high school graduate                                  11,864 ’
Reference: US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Detailed Tables pp L-169, Table 8
- ‘Education Level Completed by Persons Age Twenty-Five and Over, 1910-2001 (p.97)
            Year                 High School                              B.A. or Higher
            1910                13.5%                                      2.7%
            1920                16.4                                         3.3
            1930                19.1                                         3.9
            1940                24.5                                         4.6
            1950                34.3                                         6.2
            1960                41.1                                         7.7
            1970                55.2                                         11.0
            1980                68.6                                         17.0
            1990                77.6                                         21.3
            2001                84.3                                         26.1  ’
Reference: US Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2002
- ‘By giving every student – by the most humble to the most privileged – an equal educational opportunity at the beginning of life, society would be in a position to select those most qualified by intelligence and hard work to occupy the command posts at the top. In this way, an ‘aristocracy of talent’ would be re-created fresh in every generation.’ Harvard President Conant, 1940 (101)
- ‘Grades and cognitive test scores are the best single predictors of educational attainment… Even so, family background never disappears as an explanatory factor because it helps to predict test scores.’ (105)
- ‘Approximately five out of six US public schools use some form of tracking in which children are placed in different tracks or groups that prepare some for college and others for vocational skills that do not lead to college… Tracking has tended to separate children by class background and race. The outcomes of tracking are also fairly clear. First, track mobility is typically low: once placed in a low track, it is difficult to ‘move up’, and for those placed in a high track, it is difficult to do poorly enough to ‘move down’.’ (107)
- ‘Children from privileged backgrounds are more likely to attend college, to start college right out of high school, to go to a four-year institution, to go to a ‘quality’ college or university, and to graduate on time.’ (111)
- 4000+ US colleges; largest 100 each had enrollment of over 21,000 in 1997 (112)
- ‘Those from privileged families (top quarter of an index of socioeconomic status composed of parents’ education, income, and occupation) are three times as likely as those from less privileged families to be admitted to elite highly selective colleges and universities (Sacks 2003).’ (112-113)
- ‘The history of the American labor force can be summarized by three jobs – farmer, factory worker, sales clerk.’ (117)
- ‘Compared to farming and manufacturing, office work in the service sector was cleaner, less dangerous, less physically demanding, and often conferred high social status.’ (119)
- ‘The #1 fastest growing job in America is ‘food preparation and serving workers including fast food’, emblematic of the new working class.’ (121)
- ‘Subemployment refers to a variety of nonvoluntary [sic] substandard conditions of employment such as being unemployed but looking for work, part-time employees who want to work full time, and people working full time at wages below the poverty standard. An estimated 14 to 24% of the US labor force, depending on cyclical variation, falls into this category.’ (123)
- ‘Bill Gates has as much wealth as the bottom 40% of American households.’ Thurow, Building Wealth, 1999 (130)
- Self-employment 7% in US in 2000 (138)
- ‘Compared to the wage labor force, self-employed workers tend to be older, white, and male. Self-employ4ed workers are older by an average of about ten years (Aronson 1991, 6). Older workers are more likely than younger workers to have both the work experience and the accumulated capital required to start businesses… White are three times more likely to be self-employed than blacks.’ (141-142)
- ‘The rate of closure of new business starts is 44% after two years, 51.4% after four years, and 61.5% after six years.’ Census Bureau (143)
- ‘Roughly half of today’s Fortune 500 companies, regardless of where they conduct business, are incorporated in the state of Delaware .’ (144)
- ‘It is better for a woman to compete impersonally in society, as men do, than to compete for dominance in her own home with her husband, compete with her neighbors for empty status, and so smother her son that he cannot compete at all.’ The Feminine Mystique (155)
- ‘The geographical patterns of federal spending are such that large urban areas (high proportion minority) pay more to the federal government in taxes than they get back.’ (158)
- ‘The more powerful the office, the greater the minority underrepresentation [sic]… Minorities receive longer and more severe sentences (controlling for criminal record and severity of crime).’ (159)
- ‘In 2001 the average family income of blacks was only 62% that of whites, and the corresponding figure for Hispanics was only 64% (Mishel).’ (160)
- ‘[Detractors] claim that affirmative action is antimeritocratic [sic], amounts to reverse discrimination, and has led to the hiring and promotion of thousands of minorities (blacks) over more qualified white males. Research findings suggest otherwise. The truth is that employment discrimination – affirmative action for white males – continues, largely unacknowledged by its beneficiaries, and seeming American as apple pie. Discrimination against minorities and women in employment continues and remains a far larger problem than employment discrimination against white males.’ (162)
- ‘Schools with high minority enrollments are more likely to be older or run down; have inadequate facilities, programs, and technology; be overcrowded; have larger classes; have less experienced and qualified teachers; have student bodies that are disproportionately lower in socioeconomic status; and have a host of other characteristics that hinder academic achievements.’ (164)
- ‘Blacks and other minorities are underrepresented in the teaching profession and in positions of authority within education. As we move from elementary school to secondary school to higher education, the underrepresentation [sic] increases.’ (164)
- ‘Even if minorities manage to transcend educational discrimination and become academically successful, research consistently shows that minorities receive much lower income and occupational returns on equivalent amounts of educational attainment than do whites.’ (165)
- ‘In 2001, the rate of home ownership for whites was 71%, but the corresponding figures for blacks and Hispanics were 48% and 47% (Mishel 2003).’ (166)
- ‘The differences in both rates of homeownership and the value of homes owned further contribute to the staggering wealth differences by race. For instance, whereas blacks on average earn about 65% of what whites do, blacks have only 12% of the net worth.’ Ibid (166)
- ‘Studies have also revealed that although it is illegal, banks, mortgage companies, and insurance companies discriminate, as indicated by black-white differences in loan approval rates, mortgage interest rates, and insurance rates that cannot be accounted for by black-white differences in income and other relative characteristics.’ (167)
- ‘Housing discrimination differentially excludes minorities from the intangible status recognition of living in prestigious neighborhoods. It forces minorities to live in neighborhoods with fewer resources, services, and amenities; poorer schools; and higher rates of poverty than whites of similar economic status.’ (168)
- ‘In both the private and public sectors, nearly all of the positions at the top, such as corporate officers, members of boards of directors, and high elected officials, are held by males.’ (169)
- ‘Pink-collar [female-dominated] jobs are often extensions of the traditional domestic female sex roles – nurses and nurses’ aides taking care of the sick and the elderly, teachers and daycare workers taking care of the children, and so on. These nurturing tasks are critical to any civilized society, but as paid labor they are grossly underappreciated, undervalued, and underrewarded [sic].’ (170)
- ‘In 2001, the median hourly wage of female workers was 78% of the median hourly wage of male workers, whereas in 1979 it was only 63% (Mishel).’ (172)
- ‘Constituting only 29% of the workforce, white men hold 95% of all senior management positions.’ (172)
- ‘For many working-class and minority women, however, the housewife role never became the norm – these women never had the option of leaving the paid labor force to become housewives because economic necessity required that they work for pay.’ (177)
- ‘One out of every two families headed by women now lives in poverty.’ (177)
- ‘Of the 4.9 million American women scheduled to receive child support payments from their former husbands in 1991, only three-quarters actually received any money, and of these, most received small amounts.’ (178)
- ‘In 1986 the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that the Constitution does not protect homosexual relations between consenting adults, even in the privacy of their own homes.’ (182)
- ‘Even a cursory reading of American history clearly reveals that full religious freedom has been granted only to Christians, and then only to those within the mainstream of Protestant (and later Catholic) belief and practice.’ (189)
- ‘A growing body of research reveals that for both men and women, attractiveness is rooted in manifestations of physical health (smooth, taut, flawless skin, think shiny hair) and fertility. It also includes facial and body symmetry and proportionality, tallness, and slenderness.’ (192)
- ‘Parents respond more affectionately to physically attractive newborns. Attractive school children differentially benefit from positive teacher expectations. People are more likely to help attractive individuals, and this holds even if they don’t like them. People are less likely to ask good-looking people for help… good-looking people are given more ‘personal space’ than unattractive people and are more likely to win arguments and persuade others of their opinion (Etcoff).’ (193)
- ‘What we have suggested is that, despite the pervasive rhetoric of meritocracy in America, the reality is that merit is only one factor among many that collectively influence who ends up with what.’ (197)
- ‘In 1950, 28% of the civilian labor force was female; by 2000 that percentage had soared to 60% (US Census Bureau).’ (199)
- ‘In 2000, 31% of workers age sixteen and over worked more than forty hours a week, including 8% who worked 60 or more.’ Ibid (200)
- ‘Household debt as a percentage of income rose from 20% of personal income at the end of World War II in 1947 to 109% in 2001 (Mishel).’ (201)
- ‘Private sector firms that do not hold large federal contracts and have not been sued for violating antidiscrimination laws have no obligation to practice affirmative action.’ (203)
- ‘One potential reform, then, is to develop affirmative action programs for the economically underprivileged, regardless of race or sex.’ (204)
- ‘Impose a more heavily progressive system of taxation on income and wealth. Such tax schemes would not mean simple redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor in the form of cash disbursements. Revenue from more progressive taxation, for instance, could be used to provide greater access to quality education at all levels, health care, public transportation, and other critical services.’ (206)

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