Monthly Archives: December 2012

Merit in an age of income inequality

By Jonathan Mousely

In an age when plutocracy is becoming increasingly evident in employment prospects and life success, it’s time to strive again to uphold and advance meritocracy — where people are judged on their individual abilities and work ethic rather than their family connections. In a liberal and democratic society such as Canada’s, the position of parents on the socio-economic ladder should have little impact on their children’s success.

While income inequality is growing in most countries to levels not seen since the late 1800s, social mobility is declining. In fact, children of privilege have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap than ever before, while those with less privileged backgrounds are finding it harder to climb that heap.

There’s nothing wrong with income inequality (albeit within reasonable limits, I would argue) as long as there’s sufficient social mobility. But the growing inequality seen in most countries today is happening at the same time as there’s less and less upward mobility. This is a breeding ground for growing frustration and resentment among those unable to benefit by dint of hard work and ability.  We need to ensure that the full range of talents that individuals have to offer can be recognized, fostered and employed.

One example of why this is less and less the case can perhaps be seen in government and the corporate world. The cadre of front-line workers and professional managers is declining everywhere as the pressure for cost savings forces governments and companies alike to contract out many activities and shift from full-time to part-time employees. Long-term employment with one employer is also much less prevalent than in the past due to frequent downsizing. It has thus become harder for people to have their skills or talents recognized, and there are fewer opportunities for talented employees to rise up the organizational — and income — hierarchy.

The policy prescriptions necessary to encourage or restore meritocracy are difficult to conceive and even more difficult to implement owing to the complexity of our modern society. Government can do a lot–in terms of taxation and income re-distribution — to realize greater equality of outcomes. However, it’s able to do far less — attacking crony capitalism and investing in the young are perhaps the best policy prescriptions available — to realize greater equality of opportunity. Instead, together, as a society, we need to revive the practice of recognizing and rewarding merit. Wherever we are able to truly reward excellence and hard work, society is at its best and most successful. Wherever we do not, society suffers, beset by corruption and favouritism. As the ancient Chinese knew all too well, meritocracy works!

Jonathan Mousely (UCC ’86) is a candidate for Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Reflecting on merit and my changing understanding of the UCC motto

By Neil Seeman

“Let he who merited the palm bear it” (Palmam qui meruit ferat). My classmates and I all remember our high school motto or, at the very least, remember seeing it in Laidlaw Hall, yet we all interpret it in different ways.

One challenge with merit is that, in its modern vernacular, it can serve confusion. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face,” ex-pugilist Mike Tyson once said. Statistically, chance explains the majority of all good fortune (yes, hard work adds to the general equation), as proven by the work of Nobel Laureates and decision researchers Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky. For me, the UCC motto was both a burden and an instigation to chase excellence, no matter the cost. The second bit stood me well, but the burden persisted. I never could understand why ‘bad things happen to good people.’

We should all know and remember this. Billions go to bed hungry each night. Billions live on less than a few dollars a day. What chance is there for merit without means? And what if, through no fault of your own, fate punches you in the face one day. That punch can, and usually does, come to everyone.

While I sat in Weston Hall at curriculum night for new Senior Kindergarten parents in my son’s class three years ago, I revisited these recurring thoughts. And then I met by chance Adam de Pencier, who had taught Latin and Greek at the College following the end of the tenure of the ever-great Terence Bredin (under whom I studied Latin in grades 9-12). “Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred…” I remember Mr. Bredin imploring us all to recognize the beauty in this sad but exquisite line by Lord Alfred Tennyson. There were 600 odd students in the Upper School then. I identified with the 600. Were we all, then, similarly facing doom?

I loved Latin, and, though I have no empiricism to support this gut feeling, feel that it has helped me more than all subjects I ever took in all my studies. A fellow UCC grad, Eric Meerkamper ’87, told me we often confuse our favourite subjects with favourite teachers. In my case, Mr. Bredin was my favourite. To most he was the Pit Bull bodyguard (to me he was a wise uncle of sorts) always on hall duty to ensure we were all properly dressed prior to entering the doors to the pews of daily assembly. One day my father, a neuroscientist, lent me an obscure journal article on neck constriction resulting from tight neckties. I showed it to Mr. Bredin. Mr. Bredin, ever one for novel excuses, allowed me exceptionalism, i.e., regular special entry to morning assembly without my top tie bottom affixed. Lovers of latin are rebellious sorts (we just don’t appear thus).

Trouble was, I wasn’t as expert in Latin as much as I enjoyed it. Twenty-four years after I graduated from UCC (‘88), Adam (now a UCC dad), over coffee, taught me what I never knew. He said it more elegantly, but it boiled down to: “Neil, the motto’s in the subjunctive mood you numbskull!” Huh? UCC had, indeed, taught me what ‘subjunctive’ meant but I’d forgotten this. It is not in the imperative (as a command) but, in fact, in the subjunctive, as in “Would that he who…..” (or, ‘if only he who….’) deserves it has a chance at the greatness of life.” That could be a person without shelter, a sister, or a nameless, limbless soldier in a war.

Neil Seeman (UCC ’88) is leading the new ‘meriTALKracy’ initiative together with Upper Canada College. Neil (JD, MPH) is Founder and CEO of The RIWI Corporation, a global data capture company that works with high data-sensitivity clients around the world, Senior Resident and CEO of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College in the University of Toronto, and teaches knowledge transfer over the Internet at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Health Policy, Management & Evaluation. He is an author of four policy books and adjunct faculty at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and at Ryerson University. A founding editorial board member of the National Post, his latest book, XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame (2011, Univ. of Toronto Press) was a finalist for the Donner Foundation’s best book on public policy by a Canadian. Neil sits on the Board on the Canadian Obesity Network and is involved in a number of philanthropic and research causes relating to the stigma and importance of mental health. 

Opportunity vs. merit

By Peter Singer

Merit is global, opportunity is not. Bridging the gap is what merit means to me.

Countries have only two exit strategies from poverty: non-corrupt exploitation of natural resources and mining the ideas and talent of citizens. And yet many elements impede opportunities for innovators in developing countries to pursue their bold ideas and create economic and social benefits for themselves, their families and their communities.

About 6.9 million children die under 5 years of age – most in the developing world and most preventable. This high child mortality translates into high fertility, population growth, and resource scarcity. Of those who survive, 200 million children do not reach their full potential due to threats to their cognitive development in the first 1,000 days of life from malnutrition, lack of stimulation from parents, prematurity, and infection. Mental health conditions, which account for 15% of the global burden of disease, are stigmatized and untreated. Entrepreneurs have difficulties accessing risk capital and mentorship to turn their bold ideas into social enterprises.

I am humbled honoured to lead Grand Challenges Canada which is dedicated to supporting bold ideas with big impact in global health. We are funded by the Government of Canada and we fund innovators in low- and middle- income countries and Canada. The bold ideas integrate science and technology, social and business innovation (we call this Integrated Innovation) and we work to catalyze scale, sustainability and impact. We have a determined focus on results, and saving and improving lives.

Grand Challenges Canada is closing the gap between opportunity and merit in global health in the developing world. For someone whose parents were immigrants to Canada, it is certainly one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to be able to help extend that same Canadian belief in opportunity from which I so greatly benefited to the developing world.

Peter Singer, OC, MD (UCC ’78) is Chief Executive Officer of Grand Challenges Canada and Director at the Sandra Rotman Centre (University Health Network and University of Toronto). He is also Professor of Medicine at University of Toronto, and the Foreign Secretary of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. Dr. Singer was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2011 for his contributions to health research and bioethics, and for his dedication to improving the health of people in developing countries. In 2007, Dr. Singer received the Michael Smith Prize as Canada’s Health Researcher of the Year in Population Health and Health Services. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, the U.S. Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, and The Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS).

Merit and measuring it in hockey and life

By Dave Turner

My son recently started playing hockey, and has 15 new teammates who have all become fast friends. This will he first of many experiences in a team environment, where personal accountability, hard work, and fair play all begin to mean something. I always laugh when a competitive event has concluded, and an observer or player surmises that one team “should have” won. If their reference was to the losing team, then on what facts are these comments based? Was the officiating in one teams favour? Did a player cheat and his actions go unnoticed? Or was it simply because based on past games or overall standings that the team coming in with the best probability of winning should always win?

While perhaps cliché, the underdog always falls back on the saying ‘that’s why we play the game’. If contests were simply based on statistics, then probability-based outcomes would govern success and failures. Not when you introduce the human element. On game day, the best prepared team with the best trained and most talented athletes should win – yet teams need to work together. They need to make quick decisive adjustments based on ever changing conditions and circumstances. Emotions and other variables are tough to predict, and often these variables change outcomes as much as a great goal.

No one deserves anything in life. Sure we want to be treated well by others, and have all the basic needs in life provided for, but no one deserves to succeed, be rich or be elected. Life should be based on merit. A meritocracy where people get rewarded based on meeting or exceeding mutually agreed upon expectations. We want to live in a world where advancement is based on ability and achievement set against a common set of evaluation criteria. The problem with our modern measurement of success, which typically comes back to monetary reward and public celebration, is that winners and losers set against these metrics always exaggerate the reasons for ‘success’ which are based on an unfair set of rules. The ‘winners’ are usually overlooking the role luck and opportunity played, while the ‘losers’ will always claim that their outcome was a foregone conclusion given the odds stacked against them.

Success based on merit seems so simple, but in today’s competitive world, players will use what ever leverage they can to increase their probabilities of success. A pure merit based world ceases to exist as soon as variables are introduced – variables like gender, religion, race, family, and income. We can only strive to reduce the influence of these variables, and to live in a society where talent, hard work and achievement are rewarded and recognized without skepticism

Dave Turner, UCC ’87 and a UCC Parent, is Vice President of HUB International HKMB.

Tough choices make merit sweeter

By Blair Wilson

Merit is the basis of earned accomplishment. One works hard toward a goal and when he achieves it he should merit any benefit of this achievement. It is right that anyone who achieves success in an endeavour, having worked hard in a disciplined fashion, according to appropriate moral, ethical and regulatory guidelines, has earned these benefits. However, simply working hard to achieve a goal is not always sufficient to merit these desired benefits. Choices are also part of the process. There are always short cuts that may be taken, corners that may be cut; the easy way out is often an attractive alternative to proper hard work. As we have all seen, the depth of a successful endeavour or strength of a well-constructed project, is reliant on its plan, its materials and how the materials were put in their place. Simply put, the “how” part of the process is just as important as the plan and the materials.

In theory, it is easy to adhere to a multi-beneficial ‘how’ so that no corners are cut and no individuals are inconvenienced (or worse). Given the choice, it would be expected that most people would choose a process that achieved a goal (and they received the benefits) by way of a process that smoothly progressed from beginning to end. In practice, it is rarely easy to adhere to a multi-beneficial ‘how’. The world is fast-moving and the majority of industries demand faster results, not to mention the media, which delivers dizzying information flow. Oftentimes it feels as though we are encouraged to focus more on results rather than the process by which we achieve them.

It isn’t meant to be that way. It is likely that prior generations had similar feelings about the intensity of demands on their time. It is, however, part of competitive environments — whether in sports, business or any other life experience. In the short term, there are usually a high number of successful results or projects that come to fruition in any given field. There are those that merit this level of success and those that do not. Time is the ultimate awarder of merit though. To me, it always seems to be that those results that stand the test of time have been achieved through a carefully thought out plan, the use of proper materials and hard work executed according to appropriate ethical, moral and regulatory guidelines. This isn’t to say that the results were easily or smoothly achieved. Hard decisions will always have to be made. Those who achieved these long standing successful results have, in all likelihood, made many difficult choices and merit the benefits. So: you’ll know when you merit what you have.

Blair Wilson (UCC ’89) is married with two young children and lives in Toronto. He enjoys skiing, swimming and generally being outdoors with his family. He has spent the last 19 years in the investment industry and is a Wealth Advisor with BMO Nesbitt Burns. 

In praise of those who deserve

By The Honourable Michael H. Wilson, CC

The word “merit” is both a word and a noun.

It features in the UCC coat of arms, Palmam qui meruit ferat – He who merits the palm shall earn it.

When I use the word ‘merit’, I think of excellence, laudable, high achievement, well-deserved, praiseworthy and well-earned, sometimes in the face of daunting circumstances.

To give the word more meaning, let me apply it to people who have had a great impact on my life and whose achievements MERIT the use of the word!

Clara Hughes – a great Olympian, winning seven medals in both summer and winter games. During this span of unparalleled success, she was plagued with periods of severe depression. She now is a great champion to defeat stigma surrounding mental illness.

David Johnston – our current Governor-General. He has also been an inspirational President for two great universities: McGill and Waterloo. He has earned great admiration in each of these positions. He is also a successful author, educator and corporate board member.

Maurice “Rocket” Richard – my hockey hero as a kid. The Rocket: an extremely talented hockey player, passionate, electric and winner of many awards. He was unmatched during his career and was the most exciting player of his time.

Rob Prichard – passionate and committed President of the University of Toronto. He led the university when it raised $1 billion to support expanding its facilities, curriculum and student aid. He continues his success as a leader in the legal profession and in public service.

Dr. Paul Garfinkel – a highly respected psychiatrist by training, he successfully led the amalgamation of four diverse psychiatric and addiction institutions to form the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, one of the leading institutions of its kind globally.

These five people are my role models for success. They have achieved success through strong, inspirational leadership and hard work, Some have led by their enthusiastic activities as leaders. Others were quiet leaders, motivating others by their example.

But each earned the success they achieved by using their God-given skills to the utmost. They merited the awards they received. They displayed excellence in every way and were deserving of the gratitude and admiration that came to them. They were each worthy of the merit they received.

The Honourable Michael H. Wilson (UCC ’55) is a former Canadian ambassador to the United States and federal Minister of Finance and active volunteer with a range of community and research organizations. He is Chancellor of the University of Toronto. He is also Chairman of Barclays Capital Canada Inc. A passionate advocate for mental health awareness and research, Mr. Wilson also serves on the governing council of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.