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Are You Worthy? It's Time to Question Meritocracy

04/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rick Santelli's rant on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade has been repeated ad nauseum on You Tube and cable TV, and the effect lingers. His self-righteous outburst directed at down-on- their-luck foreclosed home buyers amounts to what the late sociologist William Ryan termed "blaming the victim" or more specifically ''justifying inequality by finding defects in the victims of inequality.'' Unfortunately, quite a few people -at least according to a recent Rasmussen poll--seem to agree with Santelli. The poll last month found that fifty-five percent (55%) of American adults "say the federal government would be rewarding bad behavior by providing mortgage subsidies to financially troubled homeowners."

Santelli's smug imprecation is much more than a punitive response to President Barack Obama's efforts to help people who got in over their heads trying to stake a claim to The American Dream. The Santelli, Rush Limbaugh, and hate-talk radio screed is directed at a whole category of people whom they regard as "undeserving". This ideology of contempt toward urban-working-class people is a rehash of the Reagan-era enmity toward food stamp recipients, the unskilled, the black unemployed and "welfare queens", as the 40th President of the United States liked to put it.

Such individuals are often grouped together singularly and anonymously by conservative demagogues. But if a face and name were placed on some of the millions of down-on-their-luck individuals, would those among us who might feel as Santelli does broaden our points of view? Would we consider some--whom we may have written off in the past as "undeserving"-- worthy of our collective empathy? I offer three examples on the eve of our modern Depression:

Felipe Jesus Perez:

Farm worker Felipe Jesus Perez wants his three young children to go to college one day. So to encourage them, he takes them to a local library once a week in California's San Joaquin Valley. He doesn't want to see them working the farms that he labored on for two decades. Perez lost his job in the fields in 2003 after his foot and tendons were crushed in a cotton harvester. He uses a cane to get around the tiny town of Firebaugh in Fresno County, which ranks dead last on the American Human Development Index. With a smile on his face Perez told me he's still willing and ready to work. But there are no jobs. An estimated 30 percent of the county's agricultural laborers toil only seasonally, and the last few seasons--arid, hot and dusty--have been a disaster. The family lives on fruit and vegetables plucked from a tiny plot of land made available by the local government. They receive some federal assistance as well. So do many other men and women in the Central Valley. Some worked sunset to sunrise to pay mortgage payments but still lost their homes. They are now excoriated by the Santelli's of the world for "not playing by the rules". Exactly whose rules? And does that mean that people like Felipe Jesus Perez do not deserve a home of their own?

Molly Secours:

Molly Secours is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Nashville. She is barely middle-class but not exactly poor. A year and a half ago she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and spent much of 2008 in chemotherapy and radiation. During that time she never missed a single mortgage payment.
But now she's two months behind and is being threatened with foreclosure by First Franklin Loan Services, which raised her interest to nearly 10 percent. Link

She told me that she's more than willing to pay the mortgage, but the bank executives have been unwilling to consider changing the terms of the loan. First Franklin is a subsidiary of Bank of America, which, of course, is the beneficiary of a massive taxpayer bailout and that now owns Merrill Lynch, the company that awarded its top executives $3.6 billion in bonuses just before the merger with B of A.

Secours, who has spent years documenting homelessness and other social problems in Nashville, last week sent an open letter to President Obama seeking his intervention. Link

A man with no name and no home:

His body was found at the bottom of an elevator shaft in a warehouse in Detroit, a city that has become a metaphor for misery. The caller to The Detroit News said that the only visible part of his body was his feet, sticking out of a block of ice "like Popsicle sticks". Link

No one knew his name but a lot of people in subsequent phone calls to area radio stations knew at least one person who had either become homeless or was on the verge of losing their home due to foreclosures, joblessness, illness or a combination of all the above. Many callers reflected on the symbolism of the building where the man was found. The Roosevelt Warehouse, according to the newspaper, was used by the Detroit Public Schools as a book repository. Reporter Charlie LeDuff described it this way "the warehouse burned in 1987 and caused something of a scandal as thousands of books, scissors, footballs and crayons were left to rot while Detroit schoolchildren - some of the poorest children in the country - went without supplies." It is easy to surmise that the man found at the bottom of the elevator shaft encased in ice; a man with a name after all (it was Johnny),was once a student in a city where education, unemployment, foreclosures and homelessness abound; a man whose ultimate learning experience was that no one thought he was worthy enough to care.

We Americans pride ourselves on the ability to move from one station in life to another; to move from renter to home owner, from poor to middle class, from barely-educated to a PhD. And all of those things are still possible. But as economist Paul Krugman has made clear in his studies on social mobility and as Malcolm Gladwell explains in his most recent book "Outlier", getting from point A to point B is often a matter of coming from a solidly middle-class background, owning a home, having the right connections and lots of cash and just plain luck. Those items fall outside of the realm of merit.

That brings us back to Rick Santelli. Central to the discussion about "rewarding bad behavior" is the issue of meritocracy or the notion of "who is worthy." Take for example former Home Depot CEO turned Chrysler CEO, Robert Nardelli. Nardelli received more than $200 million in severance payments and other executive compensation from Home Depot. He left the company in bad shape but was quickly hired by Chrysler. At the number three U.S. auto maker he has done little short of seeking a tax-payer bailout to turn things around. Yet, he would be viewed by many as worthy by virtue of his station in life. There are multiple examples that should make us re-examine the whole notion of meritocracy. Perhaps the most egregious is Bank of America's $3.6 billion rewards to Merrill Lynch's executives who presided over the financial services firm's dramatic demise. For the record, $3.6 billion would provide 120,500 jobs paying $30,000 per year to farm workers in the Central Valley or would pay for 200,000 homes in Detroit, where the average house is worth only eighteen thousand dollars or would pay for the care of thousands of people who are losing the roofs over their heads due to catastrophic illnesses.

Merit is a concept that is fraught with contradictions: On one hand Americans cite it as the only legitimate measure of achievement. Yet many of the most privileged Americans work overtime to avoid paying estate taxes, which would impose limits on the millions of dollars left to their children, among them some who may not have performed a days worth of work.

Meanwhile, too many of us continue to demonize hard-working people in our nation who were advised to "pull themselves up by the bootstraps", buy homes and advance through life. It has not worked out well for Felipe Jesus Perez, Molly Secours and a man in Detroit, who had no name and no home, but who, nevertheless, was worthy.