Magazine article Modern Age

The Cognitive Elite and America's Future

Magazine article Modern Age

The Cognitive Elite and America's Future

Article excerpt

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray (New York: Crown Forum, 2012)

Near the end of their controversial bestseller, The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray summarized their thoughts about intelligence and class structure in contemporary American society with gloomy predictions about the future. Our increasingly high-tech and worldwide economy, where competition is fierce and huge sums of capital are at stake, will require business and government to recruit the highest IQs. The brainiest individuals (the ((cognitive elite"), coming mainly from elite universities, will then command enormous salaries and perquisites. Those will allow them to merge with the already affluent strata to form a new upper class. With their educational backgrounds and their intellectual tastes, members of the "cognitive elite" will seek out the company of their peers, becoming more and more isolated from the rest of society. The downside of this high-tech, global-reaching meritocracy, however, will be the "deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive ability distribution." In short, the poorly educated and/or not-so-bright among us will lose their unskilled or semiskilled jobs to low-wage Third World workers or to technological innovation. American society will polarize.

Herrnstein died shortly before The Bell Curve appeared, in 1994, but Murray has followed it up with this new book, Coming Apart, which elaborates on their forebodings. Basing his work on two longitudinal studies, the Current Population Survey and the General Social Survey, Murray concludes that by 2010 America had indeed polarized. The "cognitive elite" now included the topmost individuals in the political, financial, and media worlds plus senior military officers, high-level civil servants, business executives just below the CEO rank, and the most prestigious people in the liberal professions. Their incomes placed them in the richest 20 percent of all households. Most of them were graduates from elite colleges that acted as "sorting mechanisms" for entry into the new upper class. Moreover, this new upper class tended to be increasingly isolated, culturally and physically, from the rest of society. More intellectual and cosmopolitan than their fellow Americans, they lived in locales where they and their children intermingled only with people like themselves. And they were more likely to marry people of the same high IQ level and educational background: a practice Murray calls "homogamy."

To present a composite portrait of the new upper class and its lifestyle, Murray uses a fictional neighborhood called Belmont, which is loosely based on a real affluent suburb of Boston. The people of Murray's Belmont still adhere, more or less, to the old civic virtues that built America. They are industrious: both men and women practice their professions and work longer hours than most people do, although their schedules are often quite flexible, and many of them work at home. They enjoy their work because it gives them a sense of accomplishment and often requires foreign travel. The elite have greater job security, too, because their talents are not easily replaceable.

On the other hand, the new upper class is not as religious, philanthropic, or civic-minded as American elites--even the so-called Robber Barons--used to be. Nor, given the recent examples of malfeasance on Wall Street, or at Enron and WorldCom, does the new upper class seem to believe that "honesty pays." Still, people in the new elite are usually married and are less likely to divorce. Most of them tell interviewers that extramarital sex is always wrong, and indeed single mothers and cohabiting couples are relatively infrequent within this class. A very high percentage of married people in the elite said that they were happy in their "homogamous" marriages.

The bottom 30 percent of the social spectrum lives in Murray's fictional neighborhood of Fishtown, which also has a real-life counterpart in a poor part of Philadelphia. …

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