The Moral Center of Meritocracy Collapses

Family life itself has become part of the battleground of the classes.

The Stanford University campus
The Stanford University campus (Beck Diefenbach / Reuters)

Updated at 11:53 a.m. ET on March 14, 2019.

You are shocked—shocked—I know. According to the FBI, a network of 33 wealthy parents engaged in a massive fraud to buy places for their children at elite colleges. Didn’t they realize that there are many perfectly legal ways to do that?

You can hire a legitimate college counselor for $10,000 and up. You can get test prep for anything from $120 to $375 an hour. You can buy personal coaches, fencing equipment, and squash-club memberships, often for less than the price of a Sub-Zero refrigerator. You can arrange for unpaid internships that will allow Junior to shine as a true humanitarian. You can game your way into a great private school—it’s so much easier to play the angles in kindergarten or sixth grade than in college admissions. If all else fails, you can just make a big donation to the school of your choice.

Have the rich gotten dumber? Or are they getting cheaper? Actually, the affidavit suggests that there are two deeply connected structural problems. The first is that the price of admission has gone up. The second is that the moral center of the meritocracy has collapsed.

Back in 1998, buying a spot at Harvard cost $2.5 million—or at least that’s what the case of Jared Kushner suggests, according to reporting from ProPublica’s Daniel Golden.* But in this affidavit, William Singer—identified as “Cooperating Witness 1”—informs one of his parental conspirators that it takes “in the many millions” now to accomplish the same trick. Much more sensible to fork over something between $400,000 and $1.2 million, as Singer’s clients allegedly did.

College-admissions policies are going to take a lot of heat in the next few days, and they will deserve it. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this scandal, like so many others, is firmly rooted in rising inequality and the class system that has come with it.

According to the story that Americans usually tell ourselves, inequality is a game played by flashy celebrities, tech bros, and other freaks of nature. The coverage of this fast-breaking scandal, true to form, has focused with laserlike imprecision on the two of the 33 defendants who happen to be semi-famous Hollywood stars.

But rising inequality has also produced a large upper-middle class—the 9.9 percent—and it is made up of some much more ordinary characters: business executives, bankers, lawyers, physicians, dentists, and real-estate developers, more or less in that order. Nice people. People with good families, good degrees, living in good neighborhoods. People who have learned how to use all those good things as weapons in the struggle to preserve privilege.

Now take a look at the list of defendants. It consists of business executives, bankers, one lawyer, several real-estate developers, a physician, a dentist, and, yes, the pair of desperate Hollywood stars. The entertainment angle here isn’t that a few corporate types succumbed to Hollywood values. It’s that even starlets aren’t free from the grip of the culture of meritocracy.

Probably the least surprising thing about this case is the neighborhood setting. Go to your nearest geographic database and look for the neighborhoods with the highest median home prices, the best-rated public schools (for the little people), and the highest number of advanced degrees per capita. Yep, they’re right there in the affidavit: Mill Valley, Atherton, La Jolla, and Newport Beach in California, and Greenwich, Connecticut.

Now let’s talk family values. “The parents are the prime movers of this fraud,” says Andrew E. Lelling, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts. It is touching, and sad, that many of the defendants appear to have taken great care to make sure their children did not learn about the efforts to cheat on their behalf. But it’s also deeply twisted. “Son, I love you, but you’re too stupid to know what I have to do for you”—is that the message?

Family life itself has become part of the battleground of the classes. There are two kinds of families in America now, down from an infinity or so. There are the “good” families that mostly have two parents and invest huge amounts of their own money and time, and of their nanny’s time, in the cultivation of their offspring. And then there are the families that have been stuck into the bottom 90 percent of the economic pile.

For the “good” families, getting kids into the “good” schools isn’t just about loving the kids. It’s proof of status. That’s probably why the defendants in this case were so desperate to get their kids into academic institutions so ill-suited to their evident lack of academic talent. Much more was at stake here than Junior’s happiness. Setting aside the allegations that these defendants have engaged in truly reprehensible behavior—and trust me, with a daughter applying to college next year, I will not be outdone in outrage—the defendants represent these “good” families.

Meanwhile, the rest of America’s families haven’t got the time or money for the helicopter bills, they are much more likely to find themselves in single-parenting situations, and they have longer commutes from neighborhoods with less desirable schools. They are the ones who are counting on public schools to prepare their children for the future, and on colleges to give their children a chance to do good things. And they are the ones that this system, and the 9.9 percent, is shafting on an epic scale.

This case should open the eyes of the people who haven’t yet learned to use their families as weapons in their ongoing fight to maintain privilege. The core of the problem that emerges with rising inequality is that it makes everybody unreasonable. And it’s a very short step from unreasonable to flat-out immoral.

If you read the affidavit, you can see that step illustrated by the slightly thuggish cellphone dialogue. The defendants here are all winners in the meritocratic system. But even they think merit has nothing to do with it. “The way the world works now is pretty unbelievable,” says one parent, as he arranges a scheme to pass off his athletically challenged scion as a sports icon. “The whole world is scamming the system,” Cooperating Witness 1 assures another client. Indeed.

* This article originally misstated the year that Jared Kushner applied to Harvard.