Friday, December 12, 2008

Meritocracy and Capitalism

In my last class with Czech dissident/journalist Jan Urban (whose lack of a Wikipedia page is a travesty), he asked the question, is our current democratic system the only possible form? He then threw out some ideas, including a meritocracy.

My mind wandered, and I tried to imagine a meritocracy. I wondered what would happen if we had a council of folks who were empirically designated as the "best" of society--obviously a silly, impossible goal. Then I wondered about a possible way of empirically designating "the best."

Instantly, in our capitalist culture, I imagined a "board of directors" assembled from the highest paid CEO's in this country. And I laughed. Because the highest paid CEO's are the last people I'd want running this country. If our country was run by the CEO's of Merryl Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and a board of hedge fund managers, or the CEO's of the big three. Did you know that the CEO of Lehman Brothers is one of the top 10 paid CEO's of 2008?

Looking at the 2008 list, my utter disgust at the resulting board was a little unfair--many of the CEO's on that list run large successful companies well and without drama--like Howard Schultz at Starbucks. But is Larry Ellison at Oracle really a better CEO than Steve Jobs at Apple? Is he a better CEO than anyone else in the country?

It's just another way of looking at the whole "what does compensation mean in America" thing. If we chose our political leaders--or our economic leaders--from the top of this chart, I think we'd be fairly badly off.