The most dramatic story of the day is not, at first glance, about politics — except it is. Here are some of the amazing details:
The Justice Department on Tuesday charged 50 people — including two television stars — with being part of a long-running bribery scheme to get privileged children with lackluster grades into big-name colleges and universities.
The alleged crimes included cheating on entrance exams, as well as bribing college officials to say certain students were coming to compete on athletic teams when those students were not in fact athletes, officials said. Numerous schools were targeted, including Georgetown University, Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and UCLA, among others. ...
Court filings released Tuesday paint an ugly picture of privileged parents committing crimes to get their children into selective schools. Among those charged are actresses Felicity Huffman, best known for her role on the television show “Desperate Housewives,” and Lori Loughlin, who appeared on “Full House,” according to court documents. A representative for Loughlin declined to comment. A representative for Huffman did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Two participants in the scheme are scheduled to enter guilty pleas Tuesday afternoon, prosecutors said. One is William Singer, a well-connected college admissions adviser and the central figure in the scheme, officials said. He is accused of disguising the bribery scheme as a charity, enabling parents to deduct the bribes from their taxes.
As long as you’re handing out bribes, they might as well be tax-deductible, right?
While some of the amounts involved went into the hundreds of thousands of dollars or even higher, Huffman allegedly needed to fork over only $15,000 to bump up her daughter’s SAT scores. I couldn’t help but wonder if Charles Kushner is now thinking he overpaid when he pledged to Harvard — an institution to which he had no connection — a well-timed $2.5 million donation while his son Jared’s application was being considered back in 1998. Lo and behold, despite Jared’s mediocre high school record, the admissions office detected a spark of greatness in the boy and welcomed him with open arms.
This is a story about the privileges of wealth, but what's most striking is that the people involved didn't think even their wealth was enough. They surely gave their offspring every advantage possible — excellent schools, test-taking tutors, the chance to participate in all manner of enriching activities that look good on an application — but they still feared it wouldn't be enough.
So this is also a story about the perverse consequences of a winner-take-all society, where rich people believe that the spoils of American life are so unfairly divided that if little Cameron or Madison has to go to, say, San Diego State instead of Stanford, their lives will be miserable failures.
That’s not true, of course, even if there is evidence that you’ll earn somewhat more money if you attend an elite school vs. a lower-ranked one (see here or here). But even the ordinary, legal system of college admissions is completely rigged against people who don’t have the means to provide their children with those advantages that would make them look on paper like they possess “merit.”
So what do we do about it? There are certainly ways we could change the college admission process, but let's take a broader view and ask what things would look like if we could snap our fingers and create any reality we wanted. For starters, anyone would be able to go to college no matter who their parents are. There might still be more and less elite schools, but even the latter would offer a good education with which you could get a good job. And those who don't go to college could find careers in which they made a reasonable living doing work they find fulfilling.
If that sounds like a better situation than the one we're in, we can ask what government might to do make it possible. But right now, we have one party that would like to move in that direction, and another party that says, "No thanks — the way things are now is fine."
For instance, you might or might not think that Bernie Sanders’s plan to make college free for everyone is a good idea; they’ve done something similar in New York State, where public colleges are now free for families making less than $125,000 a year. Republicans, however, think the very idea is utterly insane, despite the fact that European countries manage to do it, simply by paying for it through taxes. But as of right now, there’s no evidence that the GOP as a whole even considers college affordability an important problem to address.
It's harder for government to do anything about the credentialism that creates divides between those who went to elite schools and everyone else, or about the many ways parents can create unfair advantages for their children to be admitted (even if they aren't doing anything illegal). But it is worth asking whether government can do more to create the conditions where people without college degrees can still succeed, as seems to be becoming harder and harder.
This was the idea behind Sen. Sherrod Brown's promotion of "the dignity of work," which was to be the theme of the presidential campaign he decided not to undertake. Conservatives like Paul Ryan use that same phrase, but they usually mean things like "We're going to take away your Medicaid so you're forced to get a job if you want health care, and then you'll have the dignity that comes from working, you lazy bum." When Democrats talk about it, they mean something different by "dignity," something too many people are lacking: the feeling that they're treated with respect on the job and their work is valued.
Government can indeed create the conditions to make that possible, with living-wage laws, making child care available and mandating family leave, providing people health care, promoting collective bargaining and having labor laws that give workers power.
That won’t eliminate anxious parenting, but if we could reduce inequality to the point where being middle class offers a pretty good life, perhaps people would be a little less desperate to make sure that their kids end up at the top of the heap.