The Vicious Cycle of American Meritocracy

It’s interesting that at a time when American corporations and the wealthiest in the country are being taxed at rates that are lower than at any other time during the last 100 years, one of the major political parties is trying to convince Americans that if we do not lower taxes even further on these players, then they will cease to do us the honor of creating the wealth that our nation desperately needs. Now despite that this is simply factual nonsense (during the largest periods of growth during the last century corporations and wealthy citizens, including Mr. Romney Sr., co-existed with a much higher tax burden), this makes no psychological sense. The drive to make money and to succeed, even at the top, is not that tax sensitive. Our wealthiest citizens are not going to suddenly elect poverty because they have to pay the taxes of their fathers. As mentioned, higher taxes during the 1950 and 60s and during Reagan and Clinton didn’t stop the rich Americans from becoming rich.

But one of the biggest problems our nation faces is a psychological disorder, a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy, where people are so convinced that their success and/or failure is due to their own merit, that they are completely disconnected from reality. This inevitably leads to a continuous cycle of nepotism, where those who merit success are limited to those who already belong to the club of the elite, while those who do not belong repeatedly fail, and said failure denies them the merit to achieve success.

In other words, where a society so values success and almost blindly believes that success is solely attributed to one’s own merit, anyone who is successful or unsuccessful is presumed to deserve their station in society, and society is completely and unquestionable content with and accepting of the consequences of having people who succeed disproportionately and those who fail miserably. So for example, we are fully capable of accepting that a corporation can outsource (don’t say “offshore”) jobs and slash employee salaries while increasing executive pay to amounts that simply do not coincide in any shape or form with the reality of the executive’s performance. Yet this disconnect is disregarded, ignored. The CEO achieved the American dream because he [must have] worked harder than all those salaried employees.

Such is the blindness, for example, that some Republicans can question’s the merit of Barack Obama’s academic credentials because he may have gotten into Harvard Law School due to unfair racial preferences. Meanwhile, there is no question as to whether Mitt Romney, the son of the CEO of the largest American auto company and a state governor, deserved to be admitted to the same school. In America, it is considered morally questionable and potentially dangerous to our meritocracy that certain minorities are granted preferential access to elite institutions, and if a Barack Obama gets into Harvard, somehow it must be less deserved than a Mitt Romney and even a George W. Bush who get in because of the merits of their fathers. But, of course, it goes without saying that it is infinitely easier for the offspring of the ultra-wealthy to get into Harvard than it is for an African American to benefit from so-called affirmative action. (What does the Bible say about the eye of the needle?) So even when Obama ends up competing on equal grounds with the elite and actually outperforms them (making editor of law review is no laughing matter), he is still suspect.

This, of course, is not a new phenomenon recently discovered as we now reach the biggest equality gap in the nation’s history and have less upward mobility than the majority of other industrialized nations. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five the lunatic Howard W. Campbell, Jr. has some rare lucidity into the American mind which is incredible relevant for today’s predicament:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t You rich? ‘ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand-glued to a lollipop stick and, flying from the cash register.

. . . Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves . . .

And so it goes that at a time with such economic inequality, when banks were made whole at the cost of the U.S. taxpayers (I highly recommend listening to Neil Barofsky on the fraud on the taxpayers that was TARP), when the entire political discourse has turned to the importance of keeping taxes low on the wealthy (ie, the same elite just bailed out by the taxpayers) but while cutting all sorts of government spending on services that the wealthy don’t consume anyways, when the entire system is rigged to ensure the status quo of the meritorious receiving their rewards, the elites truly believe that they are fully entitled to the prizes that we bestow upon them. And when these elites look down on the common man who does not have an elevator in his garage or who should never have entered into a mortgage he couldn’t afford, they are convinced that the common man deserves his suffering, just as the successful has earned his reward. So, can I please have my bonuses now?

This is should be of no surprise. We are the nation of Manifest Destiny. A Protestant nation, of hellfire and brimstone, with little to no compassion. A people who give the benefit of the doubt to the authorities. A nation that, with the highest prison population on the face of the earth in both real and per capita numbers, unrelentingly punishes its citizens. You make the bed that you sleep in. Everyone deserves what they get.

Of course, the great irony, though, is that this whole group of elites who have completely failed — bankers and CEOs who destroyed the economy, politicians who wasted our surplus on tax cuts and wars we wouldn’t win, the military who couldn’t win the wars against the most feeble of enemies, the intelligence community who missed all the warning signs, the press who was complicit in all of these glaring frauds, and everyone else who simply got it all wrong — none of them have had to pay any political or professional price at all for their failures. They continue to reign in their lovely meritocracy.

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Filed under Elections 2012, Essays

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