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Editorial: Let’s get back to rewarding true merit

Hundreds people looking for work attend job fair last spring Waukegan.  |  Sun-Times Medifile photo

Hundreds of people looking for work attend a job fair last spring in Waukegan. | Sun-Times Media file photo

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Updated: December 14, 2012 6:16AM

If the United States were a healthy meritocracy, where talent and hard work pretty much determined how far we go in life, fair-minded people wouldn’t be demanding that rich people pay more in taxes.

The general feeling would be that the race is fair and the wealthy have earned all they’ve got. The rest of us just have to work harder and smarter.

But by no honest reckoning is the United States the “land of opportunity” it once was, and the race looks less fair every day. Advantages and opportunities are skewed to the few against the many, as is made evident by a breathtaking concentration of the nation’s wealth and income in a very few hands.

President Barack Obama’s insistence that the wealthy pay more in taxes, which Congress must grapple with as they begin new budget talks Tuesday, is hardly redistributive socialism, but neither is it just about balancing a budget.

Obama’s insistence that the rich pay more is an essential step toward restoring the rewards of merit, the first precondition of a functioning free enterprise system. It is a matter of ensuring that Americans at the bottom and in the middle get a fair shot, even if Daddy was an ex-con, not an ex-governor, beginning with a good education, adequate nutrition and health care.

Opposition to a tax increase on the wealthy, through either a rate increase or closing loopholes, flows from the curious notion that — we hear it all the time — Americans at the very top earned every dime they’ve got.

It is a self-serving view, best represented by Gov. Mitt Romney’s boast on the campaign trail that he built his business, Bain Capital, “from scratch.” As if Romney had not been born into an enormously wealthy and connected family, gone to the best schools money could buy and tapped his father’s friends for millions in investment funds. It would be more remarkable, frankly, if Romney had not done well.

Allow us to say it again: Increasing taxes on the wealthy is not a matter of soaking the rich, but of promoting a more vital link between merit and reward.

If the distribution of merit among all Americans — IQ scores, athletic ability, work ethic and the like — were plotted on a graph, it would create a bell curve, with a small number of incompetents at one end, the average majority in the middle, and a small number of extraordinarily talented people at the other end.

Then, if merit were fairly rewarded, the distribution of incomes also would create a bell curve. But, of course, it does not. The top 1 percent of Americans takes in about a fifth of all income and controls more than a third of the wealth. Meanwhile, on measures of social mobility — the ability of a person to move up — the United States ranks behind most advanced industrial countries.

All historic battles over government domestic spending, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fight for the New Deal, have been at heart disagreements about who earned or did not earn what. And, as a play that just finished up at Steppenwolf Theatre, “Good People,” makes clear, it’s not always an easy call.

In the play by David Lindsay-Abaire, two people who grew up hard in South Boston — a successful doctor and a struggling single mother — almost come to blows over whether the doctor made it all on his own, as he believes, and the single mom was a victim of bad luck, as she believes.

But this time, the numbers don’t lie. We are living in a new Gilded Age of alarming income disparities — hardly the desired outcome of a properly functioning free market.

And telling government to just get out of the way, when a fortunate few already control the race, is no solution at all.

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