Are We Really a Meritocracy?

mark_sanfordWatching Mark Sanford give that speech yesterday gave me an idea: what if hard work and intelligence aren’t the prerequisites to success?  What if reaching a certain level has nothing to do with merit and everything to do with luck?

A governor and likely front-runner for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination for 2012, an ‘everyman’ he is not. Yet defying common sense and sanity he carried on for months indiscreetly scribbling love e-mails and planning trysts. Presumably he traveled commercial, so, my question is this—did he think he wouldn’t be recognized? And, considering it was Father’s Day, did he not consider that his kids would be calling? Couldn’t he have kept it zipped until his term was up? Had he ever heard of phone sex? Considering she lives in Argentina, it would have been more convenient and much less expensive.

His bizarre disappearance and even more bizarre press conference made me wonder—maybe the leaders in business and politics today aren’t the best and the brightest, perhaps they are simply the luckiest or come from the most influential families. Sanford’s wife  who led his campaigns came from a wealthy, influential family.

It isn’t just Sanford, what about George W. Bush. In his defense, he had eight years as president to shape his image as a thinker, or non-thinker. The list is long: He advocated democracy amongst advanced societies such as Egypt and Pakistan,  passed a prescription drug benefit without allowing the government to renegotiate pricing with the pharmas, nominated Harriet Meyers, condoned cronyism throughout his presidency, failed to pardon Ramos and Compean, bailed out GM and Chrysler and set the stimulus spending spree in motion.

Could he really have made it in business or politics without Daddy Warbucks?

And Nancy Pelosi? Would she really be Speaker of the House without her wealthy family behind her? Couple a grating and phony laugh with a juvenile, clique-like view of Congress and we have a country in gridlock. The same deer-in-headlights gaze that plagued President Bush transmit an emptiness of thought which make irrelevant any of her words spoken thereafter. Is she really the brightest and best our country has to offer?

The argument extends to the business community as well. Maybe those genius financiers and business founders don’t always merit that ‘genius’ label.

Madoff and his fellow Ponzi consigliere: Were they really smart? Making obscene amounts of money doesn’t automatically add up to a membership in Mensa. How much smarts does it take to recruit investors, take their money and promise a certain return which is made possible by taking on more investors?

What about the futures traders and hedge fund founders living in Manhattan or on palatial estates in Connecticut? Should they be considered worthy of wealth simply because of the profits they created? The credit default swaps that brought down the U.S financial system are complicated mechanisms created by said traders and hedge funders to avoid regulation. Maybe they should be given credit for the complexity of their trading, but make no mistake—walking into a casino, sitting down at a poker table and playing million hand poker with nothing in your pocket isn’t genius, it’s something else.

Growing up under the most optimistic of Presidents, inspired me to believe that the hardest workers, the believers, the doers made it in America. Watching Mark Sanford and our leaders over the last ten years makes me wonder.

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