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Griping Americans seek equality of opportunity

Now Chelsea Clinton, never having been a serious news reporter in her life, is taking the leap into the big leagues of American media, once again begging the question: Just how real is American meritocracy?

As Glenn Greenwald reports at Salon today, Clinton has been hired as a full-time correspondent for NBC News. That’s a splendid gig, coveted by talented and hard-working TV reporters everywhere, but too bad for them — they chose the wrong parents.

And Chelsea’s anointing is hardly the exception to the rule of merit. It is, in fact, further proof that something is amiss. Before Clinton, there was Jenna Bush — President Bush’s daughter — joining NBC’s “Today” show, and Luke Russert — Tim’s kid — going to NBC, and Meghan McCain — Sen. John McCain’s daughter — cutting a nice deal with MSNBC.

And, as Greenwald says, people wonder what Occupy Wall Street is beefing about.

But that doesn’t stop hard-core defenders of the status quo, even if that means ignoring the real and substantive complaints. They simply set up straw men and knock them down.

Case in point: an online essay by Matthew Continetti in the Weekly Standard in which he pretends (he must know better) that the so-called “99 percenters” are largely a bunch of radical lefties offended by even a hint of material inequality and dead-set on achieving a completely even distribution of wealth and income.

Nonsense. Here’s reality:

1] The vast majority of Americans who are concerned about the very real and dramatic disparity in wealth and income in this country are not seeking an equal distribution of those things. That’s the straw man. They seek only a more equal distribution of opportunity, based on personal merit — one’s talents and drive — to acquire wealth and income. That is to say, they seek the proverbial fairer playing field. They want capitalism to work better.

2] They are alarmed by the current yawning disparity in wealth and income because they rightly see it as proof positive that merit is not being rewarded fairly. It’s either that or, amazingly, some very small fraction of all Americans — one or two percent — truly possess some 40 percent or more of all the brainpower, talent and gumption in this country. Does anybody (even at the Weekly Standard) believe that?

3] In a system that fairly rewarded merit — the “hidden hand” of capitalism envisioned by Adam Smith — the distribution of wealth and income would resemble the natural distribution of brainpower, talent and drive in the entire population. In the real America we live in, it doesn’t come close.

4] An unequal distribution of wealth and income is a wonderful thing when it closely reflects a rewarding of real merit. But the current dramatic inequities reveal just how untethered reward has become from merit. A real conservative would not deny this, but try to fix it.

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