"Contemporary capitalist polities need to accept that inequality and insecurity will continue to be the inevitable result of market operations and find ways to shield citizens from their consequences -- while somehow still preserving the dynamism that produces capitalism's vast economic and cultural benefits in the first place."
Note the comment stating that inequality is exacerbated by attempts to counter it. Is this claim fact or opinion? Is it meant to enlighten the reader or is it just another component of the campaign to convince readers that inequality is not as bad as it appears?
Muller’s description of the development of capitalism and the side effects of inequality and uncertainty is crisp and compelling. However, he injects some conclusions about the causes and degree of economic inequality that seem more like personal observations than history. In particular, his description of the role played by the education system seems designed to convince the reader that our schools are doing the job of rewarding those most capable, therefore we need not worry about the unequal educational outcomes.
He makes this statement about the attributes required for success, which he refers to as human capital.
Note that he uses the term equality of access to education, not equality of educational opportunity. He will later confuse those two quite different things.
Muller seems to believe that we are operating in a perfect meritocracy where the more capable are rewarded and the less capable are not. He concludes that education, by providing equality of opportunity, serves to enhance the inequality of outcomes.
The mechanism by which the middle and upper classes produce more exceptional outcomes is partly by genetic heredity, but also by being better at creating human capital. Muller points to the family as the main site for capital development.
Muller concludes that attempting to counter this inequality in educational outcomes is destined to fail.
Nothing one might due to try to modify the unequal outcomes, or, to use the phrase Muller prefers, achievement gaps, will work because the child enters school preordained for a certain level of success.
This is a rather astounding statement given his earlier claim that human capital is developed in the family and it includes social attributes and knowledge as well as cognitive capabilities. One would not expect "self-discipline, persistence, responsibility" to have been imprinted already in a five-year-old.
Muller lists a few programs such as Head Start and the Harlem Children’s Zone project as showing some potential to alleviate this gap in human capital in kindergarten, but writes them off as being ineffective, incompatible with scaling to large sizes, or, incredibly, as being not worth the investment.
Muller seems to be assuming that cognitive skills, things that can be tested and graded, are the only things that are important in education. He admits that non-cognitive skills (self-discipline, persistence, responsibility) can be developed outside the family environment, and that they are beneficial for success, but then seems to suggest that they are too expensive. But how does one take advantage of cognitive skills without having learned self-discipline, persistence, and responsibility?
Muller seems willing to throw away the intelligent children that come from a disadvantaged background and lack those noncognitive skills that he says are so important; or, perhaps, he assumes that if they come from a disadvantaged background they can’t be intelligent—the meritocracy would have already promoted their genes to at least middle class status.
There is emerging a school of thought that claims the non-cognitive traits—the ones Muller agrees can be taught—are the ones most critical for success. An article in The Economist reviews the content of a book by Paul Tough: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.
"So non-cognitive skills like persistence and curiosity are highly predictive of future success."
The task then becomes one of learning how to develop these character traits. This seems a much more hopeful and realistic outlook to build a future on. In this view, the attributes of "self-discipline, persistence, responsibility" that Muller sees being generated in his middle-class homes, are even more important than he indicates.
Muller’s contention that our educational system provides equal access or equal opportunity is a perversion of the reality of our educational process. We discussed a number of ways in which our system of education seems designed to magnify inequality of outcomes rather than to equalize opportunity in Education and the Propagation of Inequality.
Muller’s notion that our capitalist system thrives because it operates in concert with a meritocratic society is either hopelessly naive or a mere genuflection before the established power structure. As Christopher Hayes so eloquently detailed in Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, what we think of as a meritocracy will always evolve to a system that works to preserve and pass on privilege. Those who are successful will do what is necessary to preserve their status and pass it on to family and friends.
After the last financial crisis, can anyone still believe that the best and the brightest are really in charge?
JERRY Z. MULLER is Professor of History at the Catholic University of America and the author of The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought.