“There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy,” said Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts, announcing charges in a sprawling scheme in which dozens of rich parents are accused of bribing their kids’ way into prestigious American colleges. “And I’ll add there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”
I have no quarrel with the charges. But as to Lelling’s bromide about our nation’s supposed vigilance against inequality: lol.
There has always been a separate college admissions system for the wealthy, just as there has always been a separate criminal justice system for them. (See: Manafort, Paul.)
The real news in the college-bribery scheme isn’t that the ultrarich have discovered a fast track to the Ivy League. Instead, the true story here concerns the petite charms of the slightly less bougie. Rather than the perfidies of billionaires and hundred-millionaires, the charges illustrate the anxieties afflicting people who are just below society’s tippy-top rung.
Dig into the parents charged and you find they are the mere mini-titans of tech, finance, law and entertainment, mostly falling into a class that billionaire Peter Thiel once described with pained sympathy as “single-digit millionaires.”
And while the billionaires are crushing society on a grand scale, the single-digit millionaires are striving to crush it small. Beyond what the bribery scheme says about the integrity of the American education system, the charges tell a story about the democratization of graft — or what you might more aptly call the Uberization of it.
One of the principal functions of the economy of the past few years has been to allow people on the lowest rungs of the 1 percent to live like their betters in the 0.1 percent — to provide drivers, cooks, personal assistants, cleaners, butlers, private jets and food delivery at the push of a button to anyone blessed with more wealth than time.
Now such push-button convenience has come to the business of special favors. Billionaires buy up senators and presidents and museum wings and endowed chairs. Single-digit millionaires, aiming to emulate their wealthier peers, engage in smaller but no-less-corrosive forms of graft, perhaps because they have become socialized to easing every hurdle through an app.
Because when you’re rich and you’re surrounded by a sea of not-rich, every problem shares the same solution: Who should I Venmo to fix this thing?
This truth plays out vividly in the college-bribery criminal complaint. In one passage, William Singer, founder of a college-prep business who authorities say was the architect of the scheme, explains his plan to a prospective parent.
“Every year there is a group of families, especially where I am right now in the Bay Area, Palo Alto” who “want guarantees — they want this thing done.” He goes on to describe three different ways of getting into college, all the while playing on his mark’s class anxiety.
He explains that there is the “front door” for chumps dumb enough to try to “get in on your own.” Then there is the well-known “back door” to college, which is the corruption we’re all familiar with: giving tons of dough to a university in the hopes of getting your kid’s name to stand out in the admissions office. Sometimes this works. Twenty years ago, New Jersey real estate mogul Charles Kushner gave $2.5 million to Harvard; a few months later, his son Jared got a place in the freshman class.
But Singer dismisses the back door. It costs “10 times as much money,” — he’s right about that — and because it’s greased by connections and a certain kind of social class, “there’s no guarantees.” Instead, Singer explains that he has devised something cheaper and more certain. Something more like an app. By contracting the little people — not drivers looking to make a little extra scratch but college athletics coaches, test proctors and a university administrator — he had pried open a “side door” into college.
“My families want a guarantee,” he says. “So, if you said to me, ‘Here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school’ and you give me one or two schools, and then I’ll go after those schools and try to get a guarantee done.”
Is there any better metaphor for the injustice of the modern economy than Singer’s “side door”? One popular defense of rising inequality is that it hurts no one: Sure, rich people keep getting richer, but if everyone else is also getting richer, albeit more slowly, why should the masses care, other than jealousy?
Corruption, routine and pervasive, is why we should care.
As Bob Dylan put it: Money doesn’t talk, it swears. Excess wealth doesn’t just buy shiny things. It buys power and influence, it buys class, and it buys permanence. It buys the corrupt certainty that every one of life’s problems might be evaded through some special side door, and it does so at the expense of not just the poor but all of us, shattering even the thin illusion of meritocracy that still somehow seduces American politics.
As Singer put it to his customers: “It’s the home run of home runs.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.