Has a fairer America also become an America with less social mobility? That is the uncomfortable question raised by John Parker's long American survey in The Economist last month.
"A decline in social mobility would run counter to Americans' deepest beliefs about their country," Parker writes. "Unfortunately, that is what seems to be happening. Class is reappearing in a new form."
This was the conclusion, as well, of a recent series of articles in The New York Times -- although, as the Times and Parker both note, polls show that Americans think their chances of moving up are better than a generation ago. Statistics tell a different story: There is a higher correlation today between parents' and children's income than in the 1980s, and the income gap between college graduates and non-graduated doubled between 1979 and 1997.
"America," concludes Parker, "is becoming a stratified society based on education: a meritocracy."
Parker's view parallels that of another Brit, Ferdinand Mount, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, in his 2004 book, "Mind the Gap: The New Class Divide in Britain." Mount notes that income inequality has been increasing in Britain, not just during the Thatcherite 1980s, but since Tony Blair's New Labor government took office in 1997 -- much to the dismay of many Labor ministers. He notes also that Britons are not converging on one lifestyle -- Uppers and Downers, as he calls them, still dress differently and speak with different accents -- and that Britain, more open to upward mobility in the past than popular legend would have it, is becoming less so.
This he partly blames on the abolition by equality-minded Laborites years ago of the academically demanding grammar schools that were the routes out of the working class for so many Labor politicians themselves.
"We cannot help noticing," Mount concludes, "that the old class system has been reconstituted into a more or less meritocratic upper tier and a lower tier which is defined principally by its failure to qualify for the upper tier."
Which is exactly what Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray predicted for America in their controversial book "The Bell Curve," published 11 years ago. Herrnstein and Murray noted that intelligence is both measurable and in some large but unquantifiable part hereditary, an unexceptionable finding for experimental psychologists but maddening to social engineers. As college education becomes open to all with the requisite intelligence, graduates will tend to marry graduates and produce children with similar intelligence, while others will tend to produce children without it.