"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Meritocracy isn't fair

I live in Ohio, and though it hasn't gotten as much coverage as Wisconsin, the state government here is also trying to undermine collective bargaining rights of public workers.  These efforts seem to be driven by the an idea that taxes are too high even though tax burdens for most Americans are at record low levels.  What really puzzles me is why people, who themsleves were the beneficiaries of public investment, especially for education, are so loath to provide those same benefits for their own children.  Where does this come from?

I have a feeling that this might be an unintended consequence of our desire to create a more meritocratic society.  The dark side of meritocracy is that too many of the people who come out on top believe themselves to be deserving of their success.  And more, they come to believe that their success was due solely to their own effort and fail to see all of the institutional and cultural support that got them their.  It's like being out on a bike ride where you're making great time and you don't notice that you're riding downhill with a tailwind.  If you come to believe that everything you have is due solely to your own effort it isn't too far a leap to begin to see those who have less than you as deserve less because they didn't work hard enough.

From my experience as a manager at a corporation that pushed meritocracy like it was that old time religion, I saw that what meritocracy created in practice was a system where a key few reaped great rewards and the great mass of people received relatively less and less.  This just so happens to be exactly what has happened to income distribution in America.

When we did reviews we ranked people from best to worst, and we were required to make sure that we met a standard bell curve distribution.  Say, I had an employee who was say 20% better than the rest of the group.  Well, that employee got a raise that was at least twice and sometime thrice as great, percentagewise as the average employee.  Usually, that same person was the 'best' employee year after year and so in time that person would be making 100% more than his average peer even though his value was still only 20% better than the rest.  Heaven help you if you were the #2 person because even if you were 19% better than the group, that 1% difference in contribution still meant #1 would soon far outearn you.

I don't have any policy solutions.  I do think that the impulse of rewarding merit isn't in itself bad, but like any human designed system it can be prone to excess.  I am pretty sure that the fear that is behind the attacks on middle class workers is based on a sense that we are in a period of decline, a period of scarcity.  That in a globalized economic order, we engage the conomy as a zero sum game where if any other people or nation succeeds that must mean we fail.  But if fairness is our goal, then there's nothing fair about bankers getting multi-million dollar rewards while garbagemen live in hovels.  We have enough, we should learn to share.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Have you met my friend Jesus?

Several times when I was much younger, people came to our front door saying some version of the title of this post.  They were looking to 'convert' me and I usually found it much easier to 'accept Jesus' than to engage them in debate or to just rudely dismiss them, I was a nice midwestern boy, after all.  I wasn't too concerned in those days about religion but it kind of irked me that these people who were ostensibly trying to get me to change my life never came back.  They never checked in and said, "hey how's it going with you and Jesus?" or anything else.  whatever it is they were doing going door to door, it sure wasn't anything to do with me.

Recently though, I met with a group of fellow seminarians in the DC area to talk about evangelism.  The people who had organized this gathering were pretty clear that what they weren't talking about was what had happened to me all those years ago.  After some reflection of their own, they had come up the idea that evangelism was a kind of spiritual practice.  What they wanted evangelism to be was something that involved careful listening, hospitality and emotional connection but something that occurred in response to invitation.  They imagined an evangelist as someone who offered a space for spiritual conversation where the one being evangelized set the agenda and not the evangelist.

I thought they had done a good job of articulating and defining stuff that had been brewing in my mind but that had not yet taken form.  Theologically, this makes sense, because whatever happened in the crucifixion and resurrection was meant for everyone.  Those of us who identify ourselves with the church might do well to ponder that.  I think that if you take seriously the call to love your neighbors and your enemies, then you should probably remember that they are the beloved children of God too.  So, in some way, everybody is already part of the church, the body of Christ, whether they know it or not and we should stop acting like 'we' have something to offer that they need.  Whatever they need, God has already provided and they already possess. 

Stepping Off

Well, since this new I think I should try to articulate what I'm up to. I am going to seminary in preparation for being ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church.  Frankly, this amazes me.  For a large portion of my life, I thought Christians were kind of creepy and becoming one, let alone a "professional" one still kind of surprises me, but there it is.  Hopefully, I haven't become creepy in the process.  At any rate, I go to school full time at Bexley Hall seminary, I serve at a parish which is in a particularly hard up neighborhood that I absolutely love, and I work part time as a chaplain at a local hospital.  I also work part time in the office at school where I kind of do technology "stuff" and communications.  On top of all of that I'm also married and have a toddler daughter.  In other words, I'm kind of busy.  Which should be enough to fill up my time that I shouldn't be writing essays online (sorry, blogging - I'm kind of old) but I'm hoping that this could be a place to process all of the stuff that happens elsewhere and which is hopefully preparing me for stepping into a church someday and being the priest that they need.