RICH AND POOR….THE CONSEQUENCES OF A MERITOCRACY OF TALENT….Matt Yglesias makes the point today that one of the reasons for growing income inequality in America (and the rest of the developed world) is “assortive mating”: rich people tend to marry other rich people and poor people do likewise. I’m not sure Matt’s algebra has quite the right slant on the problem, but he does point toward a genuine problem with modern society: growing social stratification based on talent.

People have always socialized by income level, but today income level is more and more a function of talent. This seem eminently fair to many people, but ? no doubt by coincidence ? it is promoted as a social ideal most strongly by those who have lots of talent.

But there’s a downside to this as well. Back in, say, the 1930s, poor neighborhoods all had at least a sprinkling of smart, talented people, and these people were often the social glue that held these neighborhoods together. Today that’s no longer true: talent is so thoroughly recruited and rewarded that poor neighborhoods have been completely denuded of talent.

The number of people affected is small in absolute numbers, but the overall effect is nonetheless devastating. A neighborhood that loses its talent loses the people who run the PTA, coach the little league teams, and organize petitions to city hall asking for crosswalks at busy intersections. When those people leave, the neighborhood inevitably sinks into a long, slow decline from which it never recovers.

Solutions? I don’t know if there are any. But while a meritocracy is good for the economy as a whole ? and undeniably good for the meritorious ? it has its drawbacks as well. America’s inner cities, I think, are evidence of that.

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