9. The new knowledge economy created a new class of Americans: men and women with college degrees, skilled with symbols and numbers—salaried professionals in information technology, computer engineering, scientific research, design, management consulting, the upper civil service, financial analysis, law, journalism, the arts, higher education. They go to college with one another, intermarry, gravitate to desirable neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas, and do all they can to pass on their advantages to their children. They are not 1 percenters—those are mainly executives and investors—but they dominate the top 10 percent of American incomes, with outsize economic and cultural influence.
They’re at ease in the world that modernity created. They were early adopters of things that make the surface of contemporary life agreeable: HBO, Lipitor, MileagePlus Platinum, the MacBook Pro, grass-fed organic beef, cold-brewed coffee, Amazon Prime. They welcome novelty and relish diversity. They believe that the transnational flow of human beings, information, goods, and capital ultimately benefits most people around the world. You have a hard time telling what part of the country they come from, because their local identities are submerged in the homogenizing culture of top universities and elite professions. They believe in credentials and expertise—not just as tools for success, but as qualifications for class entry. They’re not nationalistic—quite the opposite—but they have a national narrative. Call it “Smart America.”
The cosmopolitan outlook of Smart America overlaps in some areas with the libertarian views of Free America. Each embraces capitalism and the principle of meritocracy: the belief that your talent and effort should determine your reward. But to the meritocrats of Smart America, some government interventions are necessary for everyone to have an equal chance to move up. The long history of racial injustice demands remedies such as affirmative action, diversity hiring, and maybe even reparations. The poor need a social safety net and a living wage; poor children deserve higher spending on education and health care. Workers dislocated by trade agreements, automation, and other blows of the global economy should be retrained for new kinds of jobs.
Still, there’s a limit to how much government the meritocrats will accept. Social liberalism comes easier to them than redistribution, especially as they accumulate wealth and look to their 401(k)s for long-term security. As for unions, they hardly exist in Smart America. They’re instruments of class solidarity, not individual advancement, and the individual is the unit of worth in Smart America as in Free America.
The word meritocracy has been around since the late 1950s, when a British sociologist named Michael Young published The Rise of the Meritocracy. He meant this new word as a warning: Modern societies would learn how to measure intelligence in children so exactly that they would be stratified in schools and jobs according to their natural ability. In Young’s satirical fantasy, this new form of inequality would be so rigid and oppressive that it would end in violent rebellion.
But the word lost its original dystopian meaning. In the decades after World War II, the G.I. Bill, the expansion of standardized tests, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of top universities to students of color, women, and children of the middle and working classes all combined to offer a path upward that probably came as close to truly equal opportunity as America has ever seen.