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Despite the fact that most Americans believe our country is still The Land of Opportunity, the greatest meritocracy in the world, the United States is actually a terrible place for fortune-seekers. Chris Hayes, author of the new book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, notes that when citizens of different countries are polled about their perception of how easy it is to start off poor and work their way up to wealth, “the U.S. is near or at the top in terms of people who say ‘yes.’ And yet it is also near the bottom in terms of actual social mobility.”

In other words, as Hayes argues in his book, America isn’t truly a meritocracy. Sure, the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and equal opportunity laws have helped to remove many of the barriers to success — but people at the top tend to stay at the top, from clique to clique, and generation after generation. “Those who climb up the ladder will always find a way to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up,” Hayes writes.

The powerful are liable to game systems (like school admissions processes) designed to reward merit; they’ll also go to great lengths to maintain their bank accounts and their positions (consider, for instance, just about everyone involved in creating the subprime mortgage crisis). And despite the fact that we are all supposedly born with the same legal rights, the elite are rarely punished for their misdeeds, particularly compared to those lower down on the socioeconomic chain. “The idea that we are a meritocracy is a vast oversimplification, a self-serving and self-justifying one,” says Hayes. “If you believe that the model is that those who are smartest and hardest working end up with the most power or the most lucrative jobs, then … one conclusion to draw from that [is] that the people currently occupying those positions must be meritorious, which I think is an insidious myth.”

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