The Death of Meritocracy?

2011-10-29 00:15:49 by chort

You must be living under a rock to not know about the Occupy Together protests that are happening right now in the United States, and other countries around the world. There has been a lot of press coverage trying to come to grips with what it is that the protesters are actually upset about. One of the best pieces on protester sentiments is this one in Rolling Stone. The gist of it is that Wall Street tycoons aren't getting rich by working hard and having better ideas, they're doing it by cheating the system. While I agree with this assessment, there's more to it.

Let me first make it clear that I'm not upset with all millionaires. Having worked in sales for the better part of a decade, I've been shoulder-to-shoulder with many executives at the companies I worked for, and also at my customers. The vast majority of them did get to their positions by working longer hours, and being more creative in solving the problems they were faced with. That's not to say corruption doesn't exist--I worked for a dotcom company that had one of the first book-cooking scandals of the tech industry.

The people I'm talking about are people like Jack Mack and his wife Christy (also a Rolling Stone story, worth the read) who basically took no-obligation loans from the government, just because they had the right connections. Could you or I get $220M from the government, just because we promised to invest it in something? Nooooooo. What about someone making $250,000 as a CEO of a small tech company? Doubtful. If you have billons already though, what's a few hundred million between friends? By friends, I of course mean large financial corporation executives and the government officials who are supposed to be making sure they play by the rules.

One of the answers many protesters have given to the situation of out-of-control corporate greed is forming more unions and giving unions more legal backing. This sounds good, because the premis of unions is they make sure employees get a fair share for the work they do. In practice though, many unions are simply another layer of management that takes a cut, and delivers very little value to the workers. They also don't measure up on the "fair share" part of the bargin, because union shops mostly promote by seniority, and workers aren't rewarded for producing better results. In fact new workers are often told to quit working so hard, so they don't make the more senior employees look bad.

About the only thing unions are good for is sticking up for their own, even if they are accused of flagrantly breaking the law. If you read that article, and I really hope you do, you'll see the nauseating sense of entitlement these people have. These are not people interested in public welfare or helping society, they're only interested and helping themselves and their clique. That sounds a lot like the guys on Wall Street to me.

So what's the common thread here? I think it's lack of proper accountability. If you watch Waiting for Superman you'll see the teachers unions consistently and fiercely resist measuring teacher performance. They don't want good teachers to be rewarded, because that will expose poor teachers and potentially prevent them from promotions and raises. Unions aren't concerned with how well their workers perform, they're only interested in keeping all union members content and paying dues. Likewise, mega-corp leaders aren't concerned with delivering great products or services, they're only concerned with impressing (and sometimes, deceiving) Wall Street investors. They aren't accountable to their employees or their customers, and that's just wrong.

What we've lost is America is the sense that it really is a meritocracy. The belief that if you work hard and keep your nose clean, you'll be rewarded for it in the end. I don't think many people are willing to say that out loud right now. What we see is billionaires being handed free money in stacks, that comes out of taxpayer pockets, after those billionaires made terrible decisions and gambled with everyone's lives and livelihood. We see teachers caring less about our kids' future employability than they do about giving themselves shorter work-days. We see workers in US manufacturing jobs care less about creating quality products that can compete on a global market than they do about going as slowly as possible so they "have" to work overtime shifts to finish the work they could have easily done, just to line their pockets. In short, everyone is so short-sighted in trying to cover their own ass that we forget to lookout for the people in our neighborhoods, towns, cities, and country (when doing so would pay huge dividends at every level).

I think step one is to figure out a way to wrest control of corporate investment away from speculators and put it in the hands of the employees of the companies. If people knew that their hard work would directly benefit themselves, and the people they see every day, by increasing profits and directly influencing their personal wealth, I think that would do a lot. If executives could stop worrying about how The Street was going to react to their quarterly earnings, they could focus better on creating quality products and delighting customers with service. If teachers had a stake in the future of children, say with college enrollment rates, or some other metric that they could influence, but not directly control (i.e. not scores of tests they administer), I think that would make a difference.

I think if we can find ways to restore faith in the twin concepts of "honest pay for an honest day's work" and "cheaters never win," we could instill the missing optimism needed to get us back on track. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some emails to write for work--at 12:05 AM on a Saturday.

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