When Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke speaks, people listen. But it’s usually about quantitative easing or non-farm payroll numbers – critically important but not necessarily inspiring or humorous points of conversation. Conventional wisdom says he wouldn’t be the best commencement speaker you’ve ever heard. Well, he was pretty good.
Mixed in with references to the bible, Robert Burns and Forrest Gump, Bernanke gave an interesting take on the merits of a meritocracy. Speaking at his former employer, Princeton University, Bernanke basically threw a bucket of water on the whole idea, noting that meritocratic systems – or what we consider meritocratic systems, like say a democracy or Wall Street, aren’t as fair and equitable as we like to imagine.
“A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate--these are the folks who reap the largest rewards,” Bernanke told graduates on Sunday.
He stressed that the lucky souls – namely the people sitting directly in front of him – own the responsibility to share their luck with those who weren’t born with the same gifts. Bernanke also pointed to what he sees as the flawed state of admiration in the U.S.
“I think most of us would agree that people who have, say, little formal schooling but labor honestly and diligently to help feed, clothe, and educate their families are deserving of greater respect--and help, if necessary--than many people who are superficially more successful,” he said. “They're more fun to have a beer with, too.”
And his last piece of advice for soon-to-be moguls of industry: Call your mom and dad once in a while. This is particularly true if they just paid for four years of Ivy League tuition.
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