According to every reference book I can find, there is no antonym for the word ‘meritocracy’. That’s too bad, because that is exactly what America has become. So I suggest the rather obvious ‘demeritocracy’ as a succinct word to describe our culture’s current trend toward rewarding the foolish, greedy, reckless, negligent and dishonest.
Today I read that Kellog Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton corporation, was just awarded a new contract worth 35 million dollars to do major electrical work, right after they’ve been severely reprimanded by the Pentagon for substandard electrical work that has resulted in the accidental electrocution of at least 18 solders in Iraq and Kuwait. I saw a picture of the mother of one of these dead soldiers, a photo of her son in front of her, testifying before congress a few days ago. She looked shattered, of course, but how does she feel this morning, waking up to find out that the people guilty of at least negligent homicide are being rewarded with another juicy contract?
The question ringing insistently in my head isn’t even why KBR is being given a new contract, it’s why on earth the principals in the company aren’t up on charges!
And of course we’ve also seen corporate CEOs and Wall Street gamblers rewarded richly for gutting their companies. But what’s been most amazing is the implacable entitlement mentality these people project. And it’s not just the corporations, it’s regular citizens too. A woman spills hot coffee in her lap, sues McDonalds, and gets a hefty settlement. A burglar on a rooftop falls through a skylight and successfully sues the building’s owner. A man donates sperm to a sperm bank anonymously, and a woman sues for child support later on.
It’s gotten so bad that if you buy a Superman costume for your kid for Halloween, the label will read something like this (and I am not exaggerating): “This costume does not confer the ability to fly upon the wearer. Do not attempt to fly while wearing this costume, as this may result in injury or death”.
This is how extreme our society has become. Those guilty of electrocuting our servicemen aren’t charged, but innocent companies are sued for acts of consumer idiocy. I’m surprised that reams of paper don’t have labels emphatically warning of paper cuts, but I’m sure that’s coming.
After 9/11, I was appalled to see that the victim’s compensation fund doled out money to families based on the salaries that the victims were making (i.e. a dishwasher at Windows on the World was implicitly labeled as being less valuable than a broker at Cantor Fitzgerald, which is doubly ironic since the dishwasher may have been more useful to society than the broker). Actually, I was sort of amazed that the government was giving these victims money at all. Heinous crimes, from a bodega shooting to a terrorist attack, happen – but does the bodega owner’s family get a government bail out? No. The best they can hope for is that they had life insurance.
Which brings me to the aspect that most disgusted and amazed me about the 911 fund: When the fund was initially set up, the families of those victims who had no life insurance would get more money from the government to make up the difference. So, if you preferred to spend your salary on cocaine, or a new BMW rather than on making sure your wife and kids were protected, your estate was rewarded.
It’s time that we, as a society, started rewarding merit again, and handing out demerits, real ones, that have real consequences; Which means having life insurance if you’ve got a family, losing your bonuses if you wipe out your company, and going to jail for negligence and malfeasance. I know president Obama’s got a lot on his plate, but I hope he will institute a draconian policy regarding government contractors: if you are found guilty of fraud or negligence, no matter who you are, your company will be barred from all government contracts for five years, and you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.