Readers’ Responses to Edward Luce’s “The Discrete Terror of the American Bourgeoisie”

The responses to Edward Luce’s article below was as interesting as the original:

  “Real politicians know that they must ask people for their vote: never take anything for granted. It is an equally good idea for columnists to ask readers for their feedback, as I did for my Financial Times column “The discreet terror of the American bourgeoisie”. I even used the word “please”.
My rare plea has elicited about 200 emails, a lot of Twitter activity and many online reader comments — almost all of them thought provoking. I asked whether opponents of Donald Trump should examine their own faults — and whether America’s meritocratic elites should rethink their idea of a “fair society”. 

Almost every respondent agreed that the pre-Trumpian model is broken. Some believe inherited wealth should be taxed far more heavily. Others want to delink education from vocation and return learning to its Socratic ideals. What strikes me most, however, was the resonance of the meritocracy debate with so many readers. Everyone appears to be thinking about it. Some columns bring out the argumentative reader. This one brought out their constructive side. Below is an edited sample of what FT readers think.

The fate of Democrats Whatever happened to the party of the people, asks James Emmet of Palm Beach, Florida? Wake up American Democrats! It’s actually fairly easy: a $15 minimum wage, progressive income tax rates as they existed in the 1940s and 1950s, a progressive wealth tax, levied heavily on the unearned increment of land values, real tariff protection for US labour, indexed to exchange rates, and a serious antitrust regime. A single payer healthcare system and a drastic lowering of the length of the term of copyright protection.

Tax reform As an MBA student at Chicago Booth coming from a Chicago public school education and a middle class family, I can appreciate both sides of the spectrum, writes Owen Reynolds. The uneducated no longer feel valued in society — but without technical skills what value are they even empowered to bring? Lowering taxes on corporations was smart (I’d even say go further to ~15 per cent). But without increasing taxes on capital gains, outsized income, and estates commensurately, we’re not only being fiscally irresponsible, we’re rigging the game. Allowing the accumulation of intra-familial capital is anti-meritocratic and disjoints the playing field, putting children from uneducated families with few resources at a huge social and financial disadvantage. The statistical likelihood of financial success for those children is extremely low — what happened to the American dream?

Tackling inherited wealth The core hypocrisy of the meritocratic mindset, in my opinion, relates to wealth, says Steve Roth. US owners receive trillions of dollars in unearned income per year simply for . . . owning things. Roughly 60 per cent of US wealth — hence the income from that wealth — is inherited. It’s simply impossible to in any way justify this unearned income as resulting from “merit”. And this before even considering the opportunities that wealth and income deliver for wealth holding families. Arguably, “opportunity” is primarily a function of . . . having money.

Downward mobility Those in the elite have to resist the temptation to take personal advantage of their position, writes Florian Rittmeyer. If they cannot resist, they should surround themselves with people who will slap their fingers if they cross lines. Being part of the elite means winning trust in advance from those who are not part of the elite. Maybe every member of the elite should have a picture in their office of the June Rebellion of 1832 in Paris. Belonging to the elite is no gift for self-fulfillment, but rather a temporary mandate, and members should ostracise those who abuse that mandate. If we live in a meritocracy, then ascending to the elite bears the risk of falling. Those willing to attempt the climb should keep that in mind.

Rethinking education I’d go with GK Chesterton rather than D Trump, says GDCC in online comments. “Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.” Education has been diverted from its original purpose (to make us more human), and is now mainly viewed as a way to increase one’s share of the pie (making us more animal). The liberal elites’ obsession with education may be just a coincidence . . .

Elite self-delusion The idea that the best people get to the top is always appealing to those at the top, says Sound of the Suburbs in reader comments. Even the UK’s privately educated elite have managed to convince themselves that they have got to the top purely on their own merit. The US’s social mobility is just as bad as that in the UK, and the idea that they live in a meritocracy is a shared delusion. The OECD supplies figures on social mobility. Look them up and come back down to earth.

Finally, economist Branko Milanovic, author of Global Inequality, tweeted: “The combination of moral superiority with wealth (often acquired by actions that belied that moral superiority) is the key defect of Bobos [bourgeois bohemians].

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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