Monday, September 30, 2013

We reward achievement

A meritocracy is only as good as the people deciding what constitutes merit.

How do you know if you have done well at an assigned task? Usually, someone in a superior position praises you. This may include a financial reward. For a student the reward may take the form of scholarship assistance for further education. For a worker it takes the form of pay, benefits and bonuses. Is your achievement meritorious if it doesn't interest someone with the power to give you something tangible, like money, prestige, power or possessions?

In human history and legend a few outsiders have achieved fame and great levels of influence outside the system of entrenched power and wealth. Jesus Christ, whose brand has since been bought out by profit-driven interests, started out as a critic of the establishment whose popular philosophies centered on rewards other than the conventionally accepted wealth and power. Mahatma Gandhi was not known for living like a televangelist either. Those examples spring quickly to mind because they're so darn easy. And they will suffice to illustrate the point that the idea of spiritual rewards and principles without a price tag appeal to something in the human mind. But they can't really stand up to the time-honored tradition of cross-generational brown-nosing that we call achievement. If you're not worth money to the controllers of money, what are you worth?

Gandhi was a political leader. After the idealistic struggle to free India from the British grasp, the country had to function economically. Jesus never had to deal with the compromises of governing. He was an idea man. If he hadn't had that "eternal life" trick to fall back on, he would have been just another troublemaker crushed by the wheels of power. If you live in this material world you have to deal with the self-proclaimed judges of your merit.

Up to this point in history, to achieve merit you must help people who want money make money or you must help them feel good about themselves. This can mean everyone on the economic spectrum, but the best yields come from pleasing people who can bestow the most reward on you for your efforts. You can also make money by scamming people, as in the financial services industry, but then you have to use your wealth to fund the sort of merits that support your lifestyle. Within the financial sector your merits include lining up the chumps for the greater good of your company and manipulating data in a way that maintains a positive cash flow and does not draw attention from the nearly nonexistent regulators.

You can also make money by entertaining people. The superstars of sports and entertainment make it look like a high achiever could amass a fortune largely by personal effort combined with some level of initial talent. However, even there the players have to attract cash just to get started. One person with a guitar and some snappy lyrics might soar to prominence, but only if they get discovered by the right promoter. Merit tends to favor commercialism. You can do some edgy, challenging work, but only if that's what is selling right now.

In science, earnest nerds toil in obscurity, known only to their geeky peers, until one of their discoveries looks like it could have economic or military value. Other types of achievement might get a little "gee whiz, wouldya look at that" kind of publicity, but the real interest perks up only when the work in question looks lucrative.

Free market capitalists will say, "That's what we've been trying to tell you all this time." But their kind has been in charge of defining merit since before the term "capitalism" was coined. People didn't cross wide oceans on tiny ships just to look at the scenery and say hi to the natives. People looked for stuff they could use, even if they had to slap someone else around to get it. Explorers who made it there and back, and exploitative expeditions that followed them had great merit in the eyes of those who financed them.

The net result of centuries of meritorious achievement has been a sprawling human population overrunning a planet battered and smouldering from our ambitious ministrations. We should do something about that, but there's not enough money in it. You might mention that we threaten our very existence, but when you look at the number of people who drink and drive, text and drive, ride motorcycles and bikes without a helmet, take up smoking, and a host of other things we know are bad ideas you realize that warnings fall on deaf ears, while the jingle of coins carries across miles.