Meritocracy Plus

By Seymour Schechtman

Meritocracy, in my lexicon, has always been a very respectable word. This is not always true, I have discovered, in certain higher echelons of academe, where encouraging the best and brightest to excel can be considered too daunting for the average student; therefore equality of outcomes --and preservation of self esteem--is to be highly respected. So I was heartened to see a few weeks ago in the New York Times--on page one, no less--- that Meritocracy was resoundingly endorsed by some of the wealthiest men in our country, including Warren Buffet, George Soros, Bill Gates,Sr., David Rockefeller,Jr. etc, And, most importantly, their support for this ideal would directly cost them money, for they were opposing President Bush’s proposed repeal of the estate tax laws, which weigh heavily on the richest in our country.

Warren Buffett is quoted as saying "that repealing the estate tax would be terrible mistake, like the choosing of the 2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of the 2000 Olympics..... We have come closer to a true meritocracy than a nywhere else around the world.....without the estate tax, you will have in effect an aristocracy of wealth, in which you pass down the ability to command the resources of the nation based on heredity rather than merit." Estate taxes are paid by only a small fraction of the wealthy, with the starting level eligible, now 675,000, going to be raised to 1,000,000 by 2006. From this base the tax becomes quite heavy, with estates over 3,000,000 paying as much as 55%. It is estimated that only about 48,000 people annually pay the tax.

I have only stopped cheering recently over this noble display of patriotic and financial self denial and realize that I have lingering, guilty sentiments on that selfish self interest side that still is attracted to retaining that "root of all evil"--the money! Indeed, for protection, I am marching under that somewhat scorned and tattered banner of nepotism----whose guiding rule is still family welfare first and all will be well. Indeed I herewith submit an awkward but memory clinging word- nepotocracy-- to denote the uncomfortable but necessary reality of this basic human situation.

All the efforts for the "just society", where there is an equitable place for the less favored as well as the those blessed with nature’s superior abilities---the egalitarian society--come to naught in the vain attempt to "adjust" human nature beyond its basic needs and cravings. These needs and urges begin with two adults, male and female, to have as part of their marital union the blessings, burdens, and challenges of family rearing. An incredible and wonderful amount of time is spent in the rearing and caring for their offspring, each a unique and problematic person whose fragile destiny must be carefully supported and protected with loving care. These protective needs, of course, change as the helpless babe matures to the inquisitive and seeking child and then doubting and challenging puberty driven adolescent. New energies and insights and strategies must be evolved to simultaneously release the maturing child to the allure of the surroundings and yet, in love and respect keep him or her bonded to the family and its core realities. A most tenuous but yet necessary negotiation verbally and emotionally, usually which is intermittently ongoing until the "maturity" of college days and the forced independence of living away from "the nest".

From birth on the whole focus of the family oriented group becomes child centered. Childless couples live, literally, on another planet emotionally. They are quite preoccupied with with a whole spectrum of other compelling needs and desires that life presents. Occasionally the parents of children separate for a few days or weeks of extra rest and recreation, ---the much longed for vacation!-- but always with the basic need to reconnect again with their offspring.

This is not to say that this powerful flow of human emotion, a sort of human undertow that draws like unto like in the wider tides of life, necessarily produces routinely stronger and healthier family units. In the modern world untold reams of writing exist delineating the tensions and drama, the doubts and disasters of the failed and/or dysfunctional family unit. And, besides this extreme focus of interest on the evolving family unit clinically and professionally there is the endless daily parental musing ,on the tantalizing vagaries of the children --usually full of portent for great things in the future!! Always an important muse and speculation between concerned parents as the child climbs the ontological ladder of mental awareness. Child rearing is definitely not an exact science, a still a sort of seat of the pants interacting with life and fate and prayerful hope that all will turn out well for both parent and child. But still full of the expenditure of loving and intensely preoccupying effort for the hopeful benefit of both parent and children.

Thus is built up an "emotional greed account" driven by the intense interest lavished on one’s own children. The welfare of other peer children is not to be denied certainly; indeed are we not all working for Tikkum Olam, improving the world, especially for the next generation of children that we are so assiduously rearing now?. All children, not only my own! But am I working so diligently and creatively, even enthusiastically, only for the general good, or really for the direct material good of my own unique and blessed offspring? Certainly I want both, but I will certainly not hesitate to put the direct reward to the account of the family before the general welfare of all. Indeed, if the reverse were true, that I had to take "from the top" a significant amount for the general good, and then mete out among my children the smaller left over balance, than I certainly would not expend the necessary effort to acquire the wherewithal to distribute any significant sums at all. Altruism is not my strongest suit, although I too almost tithe my income to charitable purposes.

Of course I do not wave the nepocratic banner too fervently either. The problem is really one of degree; really with correct interpretation of one key word------millionaire! I offer this wry truism to adequately pose the problem; "it takes sixteen million dollars today to live like a millionaire". That is, the so called "millionaire" of today is "chump change" upper middle class really, reasonably affluent and not to be pitied but far from the "bloated plutocrat" who has reached the life style that was formerly enviously attached to the current millionaire class, where we today have to watch our financial outlays and not have to draw on capital. So a fair degree of nepotism can still remain if we change the million dollar base tax level upward so that the "death tax" starts at the $3,000,000 level so that all us poor single million asset holders can be spared, then I too will relent. And thus allow the dispersal of some meaningful amount of largesse to my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren (hopefully!). And also thus allow the family name to be more easily perpetuated with the financial support of inherited money.

But while I will be thus co-opted on this issue by mere monetary gain I must still retain my higher level instincts about the "egalitarian" society which the Times, in a subsequent editorial the next day on this subject of inheriting wealth seems to think is the only just way to go, They take a rather dim view of the nepotistic approach. As I have been trying to expound on these pages the ideal we have always emotionally bonded to is not Liberte, Fraternite, and Egalite, but LIfe, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. If we but trust the natural, productive exuberance that is in the human spirit when allowed to work for his own needs, greeds, hopes and desires, we will set the limits of human success and progress at much higher levels than with the dull stale concept of equality. There will be a much larger pie to share, even as far as social justice is concerned. There will be, also, as with the good, an excess of bad. And inherent in humanity, who was, remember!!, created in God’s image, will be the need to still be "my brother’s keeper" and strive for the sustenance and rights of those less fortunate fellow human beings. But the core emotional and spiritual unit for most of us is the intensely focused love we have for our family and our perhaps sometimes irrational vainglorious hopes for their maturation as the productive citizens our loving care has nourished them to be.

I will indeed by happy to stop waving my nepocratic banner, happy indeed in the meritocratic valor and zeal in those noble capitalistic heroes I mentioned earlier who were happily willing to support more estate taxes for the sake of funding worthy and poor meritorious future possible leaders. But a strong dose of nepotism will still be an important part of the brew. With the right amount or meritocracy it will be a bracing but not too heady tonic! And serve our country well!!