Ben Bernanke went to Princeton to talk to the graduates. And he said some interesting things. He took on the notion of meritocracy. I thought he hedged way too much. For example, he said, “Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic.” Did he really have to throw in “really entirely”? The gazelles on the savannas of Africa are a much better meritocracy than our country. The rich get to send their kids to better schools. The rich get to feed their children better. The rich get to provide better healthcare to their kids. The rich provide better social networks to their kids. Bernanke would have been more accurate to say, “We don’t even come close to being a meritocracy.”
From there he went on to the obvious point that seems to terrify most Americans: all people are not created equal. Some are smarter than others, prettier than others, stronger than others. I still don’t understand how a society can justify allowing people to live in abject poverty for the sin of being born slow witted or just in the wrong place. I do understand providing incentives for the more capable among us, but the level of inequality we except and even applaud is totally unacceptable. Conservatives especially, but not exclusively, really do think that brilliance (for example) is a sign of moral superiority. Bernanke said that how smart we are is just a matter of luck. That is an obvious point, but somehow shocking to most people.
One thing that Bernanke does not discuss are luck in traits that is just as obviously but even more repellent to most people. We normally esteem people like Bernanke not just for their brilliance but for all of their hard work. The problem is that the hard work (if it really was) is as built into Bernanke as his brilliance. To take another example: imagine you are trying to lose weight. If you stay on your diet, it doesn’t mean that you are morally superior to your friend who did not. The best you could say is that your will was greater than your temptation and his was not. You absolutely cannot say that your will was greater than his. We were all born with different crosses to bear.
Later in the speech, Bernanke provided a jaw-dropping moment. He said:
Right away, I’m annoyed: the impulse to feed, clothe, and educate your family is commendable. And we should encourage it in our society. But that man who does not have such an impulse is just as much a prisoner of his brain and his environment as the good family man. I understand that most people are not as focused on issues of agency and free will as I am. What bothers me about this is how much Bernanke cares about this man—Even to the extent of blowing smoke about being more fun!—when Bernanke’s policies have been a great big “Fuck you!” to these kinds of men. Bernanke has accepted high unemployment while working to keep inflation excessively low. That’s doing the work of the rich at the expense of the “people who have, say, little formal schooling but labor honestly and diligently to help feed, clothe, and educate their families.”
I’ve noticed a lot of press recently trying to make Bernanke look good and relatable. I think it is all part of a PR campaign to assure his renomination as the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Not that it matter to me. Whoever might reasonably replace him would be cut of the same clothe. He or she would be dedicated, as Bernanke was been, to the status quo and making America as little like a meritocracy as possible.