Tuesday 18th June 2024,
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Birth of a Caste in America?

Birth of a Caste in America?

Few books get the attention and acclaim that has been given to the book by Charles Murray titled “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010”. The book, in the author’s own words, “deals with the divergence between the professional and working classes in white America over the last century.”

In an Op-Ed in the New York Times on March 7, 2012, Mr. Murray outlined “four steps that might weaken the isolation of at least the children of the new upper class.” He admits that these steps “won’t really make a lot of substantive, immediate difference,”, but there “may be.. a symbolic value in these reforms”.  He concludes the Op-Ed with:

  • “The haves in our society are increasingly cocooned in a system that makes it easy for their children to be haves.”

This sentence rang a bell. The bell got louder as we read The Opportunity Gap, an opinion by David Brooks of the New York Times. In his opinion piece, Mr. Brooks discussed the research of Robert Putnam of Harvard, research that Brooks described as “horrifying”:

  • “Putnam’s data verifies what many of us have seen anecdotally, that the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities.”
  • “Richer kids are roughly twice as likely to play after-school sports. They are more than twice as likely to be the captains of their sports teams. They are much more likely to do nonsporting activities, like theater, yearbook and scouting. They are much more likely to attend religious services.”
  • “…poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.”

The bell began tolling with what Brooks wrote next:

  • “Affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings.”

What did our bell toll for? A Caste System. Yes, not a “class divide” as many have described it but the birth of a Caste in America. Specifically, a new “Brahmin” Caste in America.

The Etymology of “Caste” & its Development  

Today the word “caste” is so intertwined with India and “Hinduism” that hardly anyone remembers that it’s origin is European. The British coined Caste from Casta, an Iberian word (mainly Portuguese & Spanish). Casta means lineage, breed or race. According to wikipedia, casta is derived from the older Latin word castus, implying the lineage has been kept pure. If you want a pure example of Casta, look at the Saudi “Royal” family.

The British applied the Caste concept to the social strata they saw in Indian or “Hindu” society. There is nothing in “Hindu” texts to suggest a heredity-based segregation of society. At its formative stage at the beginning of known time, Vedic society described 4 professions or “Varna” – Teacher-Priest, Warrior, Commerce-Trader and Menial Labor. But these were pure Varna or professions. Several Vedic Sages came from the lowest economic and social strata of society. The prevailing dictum was “all are born as Shudra (menial class); it is with education that one becomes twice-born (upper class)”.

Fast forward about 1,000 – 1,500 years and come to Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the Mauryan Court. In his work, Indica, Megasthenes describes a fluid class system of 7 professions.

Does Economics Create ‘Caste’? 

India was an aggressive, invasive society until about 800-900 CE. The golden age of India is described as between 200-600 CE. In purely economic terms, the pie kept getting bigger for Indian society during these centuries. The corollary of such economic growth is upward social mobility. Just look at America’s secular growth period from 1945 to 1975.  This was the period during which the American Middle Class was  established, during which new European immigrants became a part of the American mainstream. This was the period of upward social mobility in America, a period in which children of working class parents had open and equal opportunities.

India turned inwards around 800-900 CE and “Hindu” religion focused on the meaning of after-life. India stopped collecting wealth from its neighbors and other countries in its trading neighborhood. India’s global trade shrank and the pie stopped growing. Slowly Indian society began the transformation of professions or Varna into hereditary entitlements – children of priests-teachers automatically became priests-teachers, children of traders became traders. As a result, children of menial laborers were forced to become menial laborers.

According to Professor Robert Shiller of Yale, such transformations were discussed by George Akerlof in his 1976 article “The Economics of Caste and of the Rat Race and Other Woeful Tales,”. Professor Shiller discussed Akerlof’s views his recent book, “Finance and the Good Society”:

  • “People who belong to a higher caste realize the immense economic advantage provided by their membership in that caste…They favor their own caste in business and reject those who do not belong to the caste.”
  • “Business communities can be caste-like…. Those who have gained admittance to such a community value their connections and favor others in the caste in their business activities and financial dealmaking.”
  • “In a modern society a “caste” may be defined in terms of connections to a specific business culture, or in racial or sexual terms, or it may take form among graduates of elite colleges…” (emphasis ours)
  • “So instinctively, one shuns outsiders and reconfirms the existing concentration of wealth and power.”

An example of these points was provided by Charles Murray in his New York Times Op-Ed:

  • “The children of the new upper class hardly ever get real jobs during summer vacation. Instead, they get internships at places like the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute (where I work) or a senator’s office. It amounts to career assistance for rich, smart children.”

An American “Brahmin” Caste!

Charles Murray studied America from 1960 to 2010. According to David Brooks, Robert Putnam studied the period from 1975 to 1995. This is the period during which American manufacturing began to lose ground, when jobs for the newly created middle class became less paying and began disappearing in some cases. Income and benefits, which had risen steadily from 1945 to 1960-1970, began contracting.

When the financial bull market began in 1982, investment capital became more important than labor. Investment capital places a premium on higher education, on conceptual & mathematical skills. These skills are far more easily transmitted to children by college-educated parents. In other words, a “Brahminification” of America began to occur.

This process has accelerated in recent years, in the technology-telecom wave in the Clinton Administration and then in the globalization wave & in the housing bubble in the Bush Administration. High quality schools became the norm in wealthy neighborhoods and provided greater access to elite universities while students in failing schools in low-income neighborhoods saw their education opportunities diminish steadily. During these recoveries and in the intervening recessions of 2000-2003 & 2008-2010, the size of the education-economic pie for American “Brahmin” class increased while the share of the non-college class decreased.

The culmination of this ‘high education’ class into a caste was neither described by George Akerlof nor by Robert Shiller. It was articulated eloquently by David Brooks:

  • “Affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings.”  

Remember that casta or caste means lineage. This is why a class becomes a caste when people in that caste end up marrying within that caste as a standard practice. So, is today’s college-educated affluent class becoming America’s “Brahmin” Caste? It sure looks like it.


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