Inequality: Is it true that the cream rises in America?“The cream rises to the top!” Have you heard someone utter that line, describing inequalities in America? Have you said it yourself?

Pour cream in your coffee and it rises to the top. Fancy coffee shops now create works of art, based on that principle—as you can see in today’s photos. But, when people repeat that line outside of cafés, they’re usually talking about the dividing line between rich and poor. They’re implying that it’s only natural to see the best rise. The rich deserve to be rich. Those at the top deserve it because they’re smarter, or better educated, or more talented, or faster, or have better ideas. And those at the bottom? Well, they deserve their lot in life, too, because they lack all these great qualities.

The cream-to-the-top argument is a dominant theory used (often by economists) to explain inequality in America. Mainly, they say, it’s better education that enables the winners to reap bigger rewards.

But, what is the role of raw intelligence? say it’s IQ—raw intellectual horsepower—that’s the cream. However, a famous study looked into this years ago, charting what happened over time to high-IQ young people.  Some did well in life, confirming the IQ theory. Some did pretty well. But a sizable proportion ended up in dead-end menial jobs. IQ, it turned out, was only one of many factors that explained outcomes in life.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in his book “Outliers.” As a case in point, he describes the story of a man with an IQ of 195 (45 points higher than Einstein’s) who, despite his gifts, ended up working on a horse farm in rural Missouri. What held him back, says Gladwell, was the environment in which he grew up. For example, his environment was devoid of people who went to college (and knew the ins and outs of the application process). He lacked the right type of cultural capital—an understanding of how the world really works, how to relate to authority and those in power, and knowledge of language and customs that are required to be successful.  

IQ alone is not enough.

Cream rises to the top in a coffee mug because of the laws of physics. But people aren’t cream, and rising inequality in America has more to do with the political choices that have been made than any simple explanation like education or IQ.  More on that tomorrow.

Please, “Comment” on this today …

What do you think of the cream-rises-to-the-top theory?

Does it have any credence at all?  Or is it just the justification those at the top use to justify their good fortune?


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