Since god-given talent and IQ give some people an edge, why reward them so much for winning?

I’m still catching up with the Sunday newspapers.  I want to recommend “Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters” by David Z. Hambrich and Elizabeth J. Meinz, both professors of psychology, that appeared in the “Sunday Review” section of the New York Times.

Hambrich and Meinz dismantle the myth that time on task can make anyone a success, and in particular the silly idea that an IQ of 120 is enough to ensure anyone can go to the top of their fields if only he or she work hard enough. Just like a basketball player of average height and speed for high school teams has no chance against the size, speed and dexterity of Shaquille O’Neil, at any given level of endeavor, the one with the photographic memory has an enormous edge on the average Joe of middling intelligence.

What does that mean to our reward system, which lately pays outsized amounts to the winners and miniscule amounts to all the other players?  Think only of the business game in which most employees have lost ground to inflation over the past 30 years, while the winners—the executives and owners—take home lots of cash.

Many of those winners are the talented and the high IQ: gifted athletes, entertainers, writers and high-end knowledge workers like lawyers, surgeons and senior executives.   Do they (do we?) deserve the enormous sums of money they rake in?

Hambrick and Meinz have established for us that hard work can only take you so far.  Those geniuses that go the farthest may or may not work hard. They’re at the pinnacle because of something they had when they were born. They can cultivate, apply or fine tune their natural abilities, but never can they create their ability. It was given to them, so I don’t care if we call it “god-given talent.” You have it or you don’t. And if you have it, succeeding in what you do best is easy as pie.

Don’t forget that success must manifest itself within a social context. Once upon a time, we rewarded people with superior marksmanship and strong arms. Now we reward people who can add numbers quickly and use words to communicate clearly.  Having the right talent for the current age is worth a lot to many of those who currently make a lot of money. Sadly, Willie Mays might have been a field slave if he had been born 100 years earlier.

If a large and perhaps the most important part of your success had nothing to do with anything you did, why should you reap unlimited benefit?

Now in the United States we let there be a free market, which means we let the winners take all, or most, of the stakes. We then use tax policy (or until Bush II, we used to use tax policy) to make sure that no one gets an unfair share, making people pay an ever greater percentage of additional income in federal income taxes. On the level of ethics, what we’re saying is that the more money you make, the greater likelihood that the reason you made it had to do with something out of your control, such as inherent talent or high IQ. Thus the less of your money you get to keep and the more of it goes to fund government services to the entire community.

The one exception we make to this idea is the tax for Social Security and Medicare, for which everyone pays the same percent of their wages. In fact, there is a cap on the amount of wages for which the Social Security tax applies, but there is also a cap on the amount you can collect each month in benefits.

Every Republican candidate except the honorable Jon Huntsman has called for some kind of a flat tax. The flat taxers are really saying that no matter how much a person makes, it’s entirely resulting from his or her time and efforts solely, with nothing caused by other factors, such as the circumstances of the time, god-given talent, family wealth and connections, the support of society or plain old luck.

That’s why outside of Huntsman, every Republican candidate, from Newt to Mitt to the Pizza King, will be disastrous for this country. All will pursue a flat tax, which will lead to the wealthy paying even a smaller share of the tax burden, which in turn will lead to a greater erosion in government services and a larger tax burden for the poor and middle class.

On social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and birth control, the Republicans represent about a third of the country. But on economic issues, however, they represent the top one percent, and no one else.

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