Economic inequality has shot upwards since 1979, as the top one percent of income earners went from earning ten times as much as the bottom 90 percent to earning 20 times as much. And the top 0.1 percent and 0.01 percent have pulled away to far more dramatic heights. In his new book Twilight of the Elites, MSNBC host Chris Hayes argues this change in the country’s economic landscape is one of the key causes of the breakdown of American meritocracy:
CHRIS HAYES: The argument that I make in the book is that inequality is bad because of what it does to the people at the top of the social pyramid. That it actually makes the people at the top of the social pyramid worse… It just is impossible, in practical terms, to separate equality of opportunity from equality of outcome. The latter subverts the former almost as what I call in the book a kind of iron law.
Hayes recently sat down with ThinkProgress to discuss the book and its implications. Watch it:
The narrative core of his thesis carries personal significance for Hayes: When he was eleven, Hayes entered Hunter College, an extremely selective high school in Manhattan. The school prides itself on determining admission with a single test, irrespective of an applicant’s parents, income, essays, or connections. “An almost nobly austere vision of meritocracy,” as Hayes puts it.
Yet students applying to Hunter arrive at the test with vastly different advantages in terms of their parenting, their family’s economic resources, their community’s resources, and the quality of their previous education. Even more telling is the test prep industry that has grown up to ready prospective students for admission — assuming they can afford the cost of the prep courses. “The majority of students getting in now are products of the test prep industry,” according to Hayes’ interviews. The lesson is that economic inequality inevitably destroys the American vision of an equal and meritocratic starting line.