CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A New Yorker cartoon once showed a successful-looking man being interviewed on a talk show, and he replied to this effect:
"No, I wouldn't say I was 'in the right place at the right time.' I'd say my success depended on being born with the right skin color -- and being born male -- and being born with a strong I.Q. -- and born to affluent parents who sent me to a top university -- and wearing the right clothes -- and belonging to the right clubs -- and having the right connections."
Essentially, that's the message Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave to affluent, privileged, well-connected Princeton University graduates a few days ago. He said America is a "meritocracy" in which the best-qualified rise to the top -- but he added:
"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, formerly a Princeton economist, told the graduates that success also depends on choosing a mate wisely. "Remember that physical beauty is evolution's way of assuring us that the other person doesn't have too many intestinal parasites," he said, adding that the young should look for more than beauty in a partner:
"The two of you will have a long trip together, I hope, and you will need each other's support and sympathy more times than you can count. ... I can't imagine any choice more consequential for a lifelong journey than the choice of a traveling companion."
The Fed chairman quoted the Gospel of Luke: "From those to whom much has been given, much will be required." He said privileged Princeton graduates won't be happy if they merely pursue wealth or status, but will feel deeper satisfaction if they use their advantages to improve life for everyone. He added:
"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. They're more fun to have a beer with, too. That's all I know about sociology."
The Washington Post called Bernanke's speech "radical" and said it's surely the first time "the world's most powerful monetary policymaker" lectured graduates about sexual attraction and intestinal parasites.