Niall Ferguson: Rich America, Poor America





Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University. He is also a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His Latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, has just been published by Penguin Press.

There are “two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws…THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

The British novelist (and later prime minister) Benjamin Disraeli wrote those words about England in 1845. But they could equally well apply to the United States in 2012.

Since the advent of Occupy Wall Street, there has been a tendency to assume that only the left worries about inequality in America. The implication of OWS’s division of the country is that “we” are “the 99 percent,” and therefore conservatives must necessarily be apologists for “the 1 percent.”...

So what, if anything, can conservatives say in response? Step forward Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, whose new book, Coming Apart, offers by far the best available analysis of modern American inequality—and a much-needed antidote to the campaign for a European America....

Like Disraeli, Murray sees two nations where there used to be just one: a new upper class or “cognitive elite”—to be precise, the top 5 percent of people in managerial occupations and the professions—and a new “lower class,” which he is too polite to give a name. The upper class has gotten rich mainly because the financial returns on brainpower have risen steeply since the 1960s. At the same time, elite universities like Harvard (where I teach and where Murray studied) have gotten better at attracting the smartest students. The fact that these students are very often the offspring of better-off families reflects the fact that (as Murray puts it) “the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children.” They do this because smart people tend to marry other smart people and produce smart children....




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