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Meritocratic Missteps- Part 3

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Following suit of Tyler Miksanek, in this multi-part article, Matthew Dudak discusses another American ideal: meritocracy and how it ultimately hurts America as well. This is part 3 of 3. 

The final argument made for meritocracy is that it is all we have. The problem with this argument is the contentment with the system that proponents of it seem to possess. As civilized beings, it is our natural tendency to develop institutions, and rightfully so, they hold the potential to much greater power than an individual. However, often, when institutions begin to fail us, we simply keep trudging along, trusting the kinks will eventually be worked out. Chris Hayes defines the issue of meritocracy, not as one of right versus left, though it often comes off that way, but rather as institutionalist versus insurrectionist. Douthat and Brooks both fall into the former category while Hayes self-identifies as the latter. Institutionalists believe that the capacity for greater change lies within the bounds of an institution, while insurrectionists believe that in order for beneficial change to occur, we must revise our institutions in order to create this change (Hayes, 17-23). When examining just how broken our system of meritocracy is, it almost seems inevitable to lean towards insurrectionism. But beyond that, the fact that institutionalists have largely failed at creating any real change to meritocracy and have in fact accelerated its demise lends itself as enough reason to turn to insurrectionism. Look no further than the almost universally agreed upon failure of George W. Bush, certainly an institutionalist, to fix meritocracy: No Child Left Behind. By staying within the bounds of the preexisting institutions, Bush tried to give students more equal chances but created another institution which has grown to be hated by education professionals across the nation. Insurrectionism exists on both sides of the political spectrum, perhaps the best examples are the Tea Party on the right and Occupy Wall Street on the left. Both present images of a broken America which can only be fixed by a sweeping overhaul of our current institutions. Since we are focusing on meritocracy, we shall focus on the kind of insurrectionism that leads itself to change the meritocratic system. The fact of the matter is that meritocracy is clearly broken on all levels, from the smallest businesses up to the United States government, however since it is hard to proscribe changes in the private sector until they have a massive enough screw-up (a la Enron) to merit government intervention. For this reason, we will focus on changes which can apply nationally.

The first, arguably most important, step to fixing our broken institutions starts with the first institution most people encounter: education. The biggest problem is the disparity between the amount of money those at the top spend on their children’s education versus the amount those at the bottom spend. This does not necessarily guarantee higher achievement, it merely guarantees more graceful failure. Should a child who comes from very little not do well enough on their ACT to get a considerable scholarship anywhere, they simply do not go to college and thus fail altogether at higher education. But should a child whose parents are loaded not do well enough for a considerable scholarship, they end up going to college on their parents’ dime, it just is a school that is not Harvard. The second child was not guaranteed a higher ACT, and thus not guaranteed Harvard, or higher achievement, they were simply guaranteed a safety net to prevent them from failure. Charter schools are beginning to take a stab at this problem. But they still rely too heavily on either meritocracy or random chance. While guaranteeing students are given an equal chance in primary or secondary education is near impossible, giving them a more equitable chance at post-secondary education is possible. By focusing admissions testing on intelligence testing and not standardized testing, test preparation becomes a dead art and colleges are able to see the students they really want, not simply the students who can prepare. Additionally, we are living in an era of often ineffective affirmative action. Affirmative action schemes should be decided more on the basis of wealth than gender or race (Social Mobility in America). Education must the starting place. With a little insurrectionist nudge, education can fall into place and present more equality and less entrenchment.

Yet the change cannot stop simply at education, it must also follow into fiscal policy. The words “fiscal policy” are often the last words anyone wants to hear, but in the case of an entrenched elite they may be part of the solution. Fiscal policy should certainly not make millionaires into beggars or beggars into millionaires, but must create something more akin to an equal chance at life. In the September/October 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs, Andrea Louise Campbell discusses fiscal policy and its role in equality in the United States. Marginally, the US has a relatively progressive tax system, on par with many other OECD nations. However this tax system is made quickly regressive when you add on many tax breaks and subsidies that benefit mainly the wealthy, leaving you with a regressive effective tax system. Pair that with the fact that our social safety net is very small and the redistributive state is only very moderately progressive, and you leave those at the bottom at a loss. Campbell suggests a two-tiered approach to this problem. First and foremost, the United States must simplify its tax code, cutting out many tax breaks and making our effective tax system much closer to the marginal tax system. Then, when you are left with a moderately progressive tax system, add in a larger redistributive state which catches all those who need help, not just those with a giant need. Couple these two changes, both of which are not all that insurrectionist, and you are left with a more fair and progressive fiscal policy. This fiscal policy uproots the harsh lines which divide the elite from the others. Throw in some education reform for good measure, and we are able to achieve a system in which equity of opportunities is met with equity of tools.

Within the United States, our meritocratic system has gotten out of hand. What started with good intentions has devolved into well-established class roles and a dismissal of personal ethics in pursuit of meritocratic achievement. While in an ideal world, meritocracy appeals to the fundamental core of our American identity and produces inherent “good” within us, when meritocracy is left to run its course, and we continually push to stick closely to the mirage we call meritocracy, we in fact create more “bad” than “good” as well as entrench those at the top and leave those at the bottom to fend for themselves. Yet through a mixture of admittedly radical education reform and more moderate fiscal reform, the good of meritocracy on a national level once again outweigh the bad. If we can fix the broken national institutions, perhaps the change will trickle down into the smaller institutions. The Occupiers of Wall Street have since died out and the Occupy movement has all but come to a halt, however their core message that America is broken still resonates. America and meritocracy are indeed broken, but they do not have to be.

Brooks, David. “The Merits of Meritocracy.” The Atlantic. N.p., 1 May 2002. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

Campbell, Andrea L. “America the Undertaxed.” Foreign Affairs, Sept.-Oct. 2012. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.

Douthat, Ross. “Luck, Hard Work and Meritocracy.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 9 Dec. 2008. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

Hayes, Christopher. Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy. New York: Crown, 2012. Print.

“Social Mobility in America: Repairing the Rungs on the Ladder.” The Economist 9 Feb. 2013: n. pag. Web.

Filed under Domestic, Economy
May 5, 2013

Meritocratic Missteps- Part 2

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Following suit of Tyler Miksanek, in this multi-part article, Matthew Dudak discusses another American ideal: meritocracy and how it ultimately hurts America as well. This is part 2 of 3. 

When the idealistic and pragmatic arguments for meritocracy fail, proponents of meritocracy resort to a much more flawed argument, which is essentially “Got anything better? No? Meritocracy it is!” Ross Douthat- a man who shares Brooks’ burden of being a conservative New York Times writer- also in a guest article in The Atlantic, discusses meritocracy and comes to the conclusion that meritocracy, in the end, incites in the people of meritocratic institutions a kind of unrivaled work ethic. But along the way, Douthat admits many flaws of meritocracy (which we will get to later). Douthat’s biggest problem though is accepting the status quo. Douthat epitomizes the final argument for meritocracy which is essentially that it may be broken, but it is the best we have.

First, the flaws with the idyllic view of meritocracy. The fundamental problem with this argument is similar to the debate over communism. Many would agree that communism is a pretty good system (if you are a fan of equity) in theory, but has always failed to come to fruition and ultimately ends up creating despots like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Ironically, flip to the (almost completely) opposite end of the spectrum, with meritocracy, and you essentially end with the same result. Meritocracy seems like a really good idea- it objectively rewards those who deserve it and leaves those who do not in the dust. But in practice it plays out more like this: one generation into the meritocracy, those who deserve success achieve it, those who do not, do not. Fast forward to the next generation, and those who hail from families of success are able to have access to greater resources which would allow them to be objectively better than those who do not, meaning that success is now dependent partially on objective skill or talent and partially on objective access to resources. Still objective, but other factors besides skill and talent begin to seep in. Fast forward to 2012, and you are left with a society where the top 1% of income receivers hold 20% of the total income and the Gini coefficient has increased by about .1 in the past 30 years, leaving only China, South Africa, and Brazil the only economies in the OECD with a worse coefficient. (The Gini coefficient is a concise way of summarizing income inequality. 0 is perfect equality, 1 is total inequality, .4 is very high.) This future generation of 2012 is the America we currently live in. Income inequality is just one result of a centuries-long experiment in meritocracy. Over the past 300 years, the United States has started as a fairly equal meritocracy and has since diverged. Essentially, those at the top of the meritocratic ladder have cut the rungs from beneath them. In turn, the meritocracy has become increasingly entrenched and what should be a vehicle for social mobility has taken away much social mobility. The problem is not a lack of equal opportunity, it is a lack of equity of tools: tools which are required for those opportunities.Take the massive test-prep industry which has evolved around the meritocratic bastion that is standardized testing. With Kaplan, Princeton Review, private tutors and classes offered through school districts, the SAT and ACT have no longer become matters of intelligence, they have become matters of preparation. The ACT and SAT are simply testing how well you have been fed and have absorbed the standard set of information tested. Everyone has the opportunity to get a 36 or a 2400, but only those with money and a good school have the tools to do so. The problem with the appeal of meritocracy to our ideal opinions of how the world should work is that in focusing too much on how the world should work, we ignore how it does work, ignoring the entrenchment which meritocracy causes.

Then, the problems with meritocracy as a tangible bringer of “good.”  The fundamental flaw in this argument is taking too narrow of an approach; this argument looks only at the good which meritocracy causes. True, meritocracy certainly incites work ethic and drive in the wheels of the meritocratic cog, but this is not all it incites. In Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Chris Hayes discusses events which transpired in the early days of Enron, before it became the Enron everyone knows. Enron’s vice president of internal auditing, David Woytek, stumbled upon patterns which suggested less than sound trading practices. The trading division from which these shaky patterns were emanating presented a story about putting money into personal accounts to balance profits over two years. Woytek took this information to the CEO, Ken Lay, who promptly acted upon this information, which was presented in tandem with bank records pointing to clearly shaky practices. His action: a firm scolding. Nothing more. Hayes goes on to make a connection between the reaction to the practices and performance of this trading division. Since the trading division was fairly successful, Lay was willing to simply look the other way. This kind of behavior was rampant throughout Enron. Hayes states that “whatever you did in pursuit of ‘dominance’ was fine so long as you won,” (Hayes, 74). Hayes goes through lists of other examples where similar, less than ethical, action was taken because of an atmosphere of hypercompetitiveness, ranging from professional baseball to the DC public school system to Countrywide Financial. In all of these cases, the drive and competition which David Brooks praises as creating character ultimately led to the demise of character, as ethics were thrown to the wayside. Hayes clearly demonstrates that the hypercompetitive atmosphere created by meritocracy effectively destroys the ethics of many people as they are willing to get ahead and not stop at any cost.

In the next part, we will discuss the final flaws in meritocracy before determining how to solve these problems.

“For Richer, for Poorer.” The Economist. N.p., 13 Oct. 2012. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.

 Hayes, Christopher. Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy. New York: Crown, 2012. Print.

Filed under Domestic, Miscellaneous
May 1, 2013

Meritocratic Missteps- Part 1

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Following suit of Tyler Miksanek, in this multi-part article, Matthew Dudak discusses another American ideal: meritocracy and how it ultimately hurts America as well. This is part 1. 

The words “We are the 99%,” echo through the streets of one of America’s most prestigious institutions: Wall Street. These words are not shouted by the prestigious brokers and Warren Buffet-wannabes, rather these words echo through the hallowed blocks of Wall Street as a result of a movement which was set afoot September 17th, 2011: Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Take away the numbers, but leave the burning rage and discontentment of the upper middle class which participated in OWS and you are left with a central message: America is broken. The Occupiers, or 99% had a list of grievances, many of which varied from person to person, but among them was one theme: inequality. In the United States, our ideal society is one of pure and unadulterated meritocracy. While a dictionary definition may be unnecessarily complex, meritocracy can be defined simply by looking at the first five letters of the word. The key is merit. Whether athletic, intellectual or otherwise, in an ideal meritocracy, achievement and success is based entirely on objective merit. To illustrate this, imagine two students: the first student may be black, poor, a mother, female and have everything else going against her, while the other student is white, rich, male, and has been spoon fed everything his whole life. Yet in an ideal meritocracy, both students take the ACT, which objectively measures their intelligence. The first student receives a 34, the second a 15. The first student thus then gets admitted into Yale and goes on to law school, while the second flunks out of community college after a year because he is always hungover. Now contrast this with a more dystopian scenario: the first student struggles to get by in life, let alone in school, cannot afford any test prep materials or classes and only gets a 24, although she works very hard on her own for it. The other student, on the other hand, is sent to ACT prep class three times a week by his parents, has a private ACT tutor and 10 ACT books in his house, allowing him to get a 29. In this dystopian world, the ACT measures no intelligence whatsoever, only ability for prepare for the test. While we certainly do not live in either of these two extremes, we are far from this ideal meritocracy. Meritocratic systems on their face present an ideal way to establish institutions, but eventually lead to an entrenched meritocracy which not only produces immense inequality, but also a potentially disastrous hypercompetitive environment.

In order to truly understand meritocracy, it is imperative to examine why we, as a nation, are in love with meritocracy. The ideal of meritocracy is so deeply ingrained within us, that we have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that seems even remotely anti-meritocratic. Call it communism, call it fascism, call it “The Tyranny of the Majority,” whatever we name it, we stray away from anything that is not meritocracy. But the thing is, it just makes sense, especially to Americans. For most Americans, after so many years of becoming so meritocratic, anything else just seems insane. The fact that the SAT was created to allow for an objective way of judging college admissions only after more than 250 years of higher education in the United States seems alien to many people. Standardized testing is considered to be the epitome of meritocracy. It allows educational institutions, from elementary schools up through law schools and medical schools to objectively judge proficiency in a subject. When it fundamentally comes down to it, meritocracy just seems fair. Not fair in any sort of equitable outcome, but fair in achieving equitable opportunity. And if Americans love nothing more, it is being the land of opportunity.

Beyond the idyllic view of meritocracy we as a nation hold, many view meritocracy as a bringer of tangible “good.” David Brooks, a man who has reached one of the nation’s hardest jobs- being a New York Times conservative columnist- views meritocracy as a bringer of “good,” namely character. Brooks believes that many children today dance through life with very little struggle or hardship, which presents a problem for the children’s character. Brooks takes logic which was largely championed by Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, who essentially argues that middle and upper class children, with a lack of hardship, lack character and often end up as worse as those who experience constant hardship throughout their life. Tough argues that the key for developing this character to sustain a healthy and fulfilling life is in finding a balance of a bit of hardship coupled with the right amount of soft landings at home in order to develop character. However, Brooks argues that hardship is not the only catalyst for character, and instead you can develop character from the sort of competition and drive which meritocracy instills. True meritocrats want to climb up the ladder, and want to contribute society, and this driving force instills in them character along the way (Brooks). Clearly, ideally as well as practically, proponents of meritocracy see it as a system which is worthy of governing our institutions.

In the next part, we will finish examining the arguments for meritocracy before determining why meritocracy may be more of  curse than a blessing.

Brooks, David. “The Merits of Meritocracy.” The Atlantic. N.p., 1 May 2002. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed. London: Random House, 2013. Print.

 

Filed under Domestic, Economy
Apr 24, 2013

Venezuelan Presidential Elections: Maduro’s No Chavez

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Last September, one of the last of the remaining wildly eccentric world leader category, Hugo Chavez was reelected his post as President of Venezuela, continuing his 13 year reign. Unfortunately, after a long struggle with pelvic cancer, we lost a true favorite here at RantAWeek (for his eccentricities, not his policies). His then vice-president, Nicolas Maduro was the heir apparent, and when Chavez died became interim president. But under Venezuelan law, a special election for president must be held, and this past Sunday, the election was held. Nicolas Maduro faced off against Chavez’ previous opponent, Henrique Capriles. Capriles, after having a comparatively successful time at opposing Chavez, handily won the bid for the primary opposition coalition, led by the Justice First party. The race ended up being incredibly tight with Maduro just barely squeaking by, garnering only 50.8% of the vote. Capriles meanwhile garnered over 49% of the vote. Compared to the consistently strong turnout for Chavez, which never dipped below 55%, Maduro had a relatively poor showing.

Maduro, Chavez, and the Socialist Party have long represented the ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution, primarily equality, a largely nationalized corporate sector and a large redistributive state. Their success has resulted primarily from economics; both the economic growth brought about by nationalizing the energy sector and the extensive welfare system which benefits most people have contributed to the parties continued popularity. However, even though Chavez still garnered 55% in his previous election, this was relatively low for his party and represents a movement away from the socialist party. The primary problem faced is slowed economic growth. While nationalization of the energy sector lead to a long economic boom, the economy is going to soon be limited by the nationalization. Additionally, with the decline of Chavez as a public figure because of his illness, and now his death, the party has been unable to truly continue “Chavismo.” Put simply, “Chavismo” is a combination of the policies employed by Chavez and the cult of personality that resulted from his charismatic appearance. Maduro lacks even a considerable fraction of Chavez’ personality, and without it, the policies may also fall by the way side. Ultimately, this leaves Maduro and his socialist party out of luck.

As for Capriles, to say the least, he is not pleased with the election results. Already he has called for a recount and investigations into fraud, both of which have been denied. Carpiles simply refuses to give up, and as a result, many of his supporters have started to turn to rioting and violence. Carpiles has even gotten the support of the US government behind him. The State Department has already issued a statement calling for the Venezuelan government to recount and verify the legitimacy of the votes. This is not much of a surprise given that Chavez and the US actively hated each other, and Maduro is an attempt to reincarnate Chavez. Additionally, since Chavez has come to power, the US has called for a recount almost every single time, even though many outside sources claim Venezuelan elections are less fraudulent than American elections. Even though Capriles may not have much of a legitimate case for fraud, and certainly a recount seems unlikely, the unrest that this will instill in the Venezuelan people will likely work to his advantage the next time around, and in subsequent parliamentary elections.

Maduro is currently in an incredibly weakened state. What he needs to do now if he wants to truly prove himself a leader is reform. He needs to prove that even if he lacks to charisma of Chavez, he can take Venezuela in a new direction. This must be all-encompassing. Maduro must ensure continued economic prosperity, continue to provide for the poor, while still balancing incentives for the rich. His economic policy should be the focus, but he must also work on foreign policy. Currently, Venezuela is shut off to the largest oil markets in the world due to Chavez’ previous anti-American rhetoric. If Maduro can prove to the world that he is more tempered than Chavez and that he does not actively hate the US and much of the rest of the west, his relations with these countries can improve vastly; after all, they can only go up. This last election proves that the voters of Venezuela are not fooled; they know Maduro is no Chavez. Now Maduro needs to use this to his advantage and prove that even if he cannot be Chavez, he can be something better.

Filed under International
Apr 15, 2013

Myanmar’s Required Shift: Ethnic Violence’s Destabilizing Effects

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For the past two years, under the leadership of Thein Sein, Myanmar has been trudging towards democracy, yet for all of the benefits of Myanmar’s quasi-democracy, there are some unintended consequences, most notably sectarian violence. There are two major ethnic groups in Myanmar: the Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims. The Rohingya are a suppressed minority and the two groups have had many bloody clashes, primarily where many Rohingya live in the Rakhine province in the west. You see, the Buddhists in Myanmar have a strange mindset about the Rohingya; the Buddhists still resent the Rohingya, many of whom arrived with British colonialists. Now however, the Rohingya have become just as Burmese as the Buddhists. When faced with this issue, most of the time the government, including dissident-turned-politician Aung San Suu Kyi, have remained silent on this issue. Occasionally they speak out in favor of the Buddhists, but never do they speak to the horrors of the violence. As if the violence were not bad enough in the Rakhine province, the violence is beginning to spread to the rest of Myanmar, recently sweeping through the cities of Mandalay, Meiktila, Okpho and Gyonbingauk. These cities are gradually getting closer to two key cities, Yangon, the former capital and business hub, and Naypyidaw, the current capital. Authorities in both of these cities are keeping a very careful watch to ensure that tensions do not rise too high to create a spark. The violence also epitomizes hypocrisy as Buddhist monks, normally the heralds of peace, look on and support the violence. The bloodshed in Myanmar is a tragedy, but it also reveals underlying issues with the governance of Myanmar.

Until 2011, when Thein Sein began his democratic reform movement, the military junta oppressed the rights of all people. When they first came into power, they shipped many Rohingya back to India, but after that left them alone. Because of the iron grip of the military, the Buddhists were too afraid to riot or incite violence against the Rohingya, so they simply lived alongside them. Yet once reform was initiated in Myanmar, the military’s power started to weaken. Eventually it got to a point where the military was no longer a huge threat, merely something mutually disliked by everyone. With a weakened military, the Buddhists saw their chance to exact their revenge on the Rohingya for coming in and supposedly taking all of the jobs and destroying Burmese culture. So, tensions flared and Buddhists attacked many Rohingya, beginning in the Rakhine province and now spreading to the rest of Myanmar. Since the government is primarily Buddhist, they have done nothing about it. But there are also underlying fears of action. Because tensions are high, should the government even do anything as subtle as allow the Rohingya to finally become citizens, it would likely spark even more anti-Rohingya sentiment, and in turn more rioting and violence.

The government of Myanmar has a lot on their plate. Their primary focus recently has been ensuring democratic reform, lifting restrictions on press and commerce among other aspects of Burmese life. These are certainly very pressing issues, but Myanmar has made plenty of progress in these areas. It is time to shift focus, if only temporarily, to the more pressing and destabilizing issue of ethnic violence. This is an incredibly complex issue that will likely take months, if not years, of investigation and negotiation together with piles of legislation to solve.  They must tread carefully in order to avoid inciting more violence, or worse yet bring back memories of the military’s iron grip, but continuing inaction on the issue is no longer a fathomable option.

Filed under International
Mar 28, 2013

Unexpected Outcomes of an Inconclusive Italian Election

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If we here in America think that our politics have become too partisan and too polarized, we really ought to take a look across the Atlantic, towards Europe for a reality check. While our parties have shifted slightly away from the center, and grass roots movement like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street gained momentum for a bit, by now, both Democrats and Republicans alike have realized that the fringes are not the way to go. Yet in Europe, there is a growing movement towards populism, and away from pragmatism. Last year, the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party received a surprisingly strong showing. In France, Marine Le Pen’s right-wing Front National became the third largest party, while Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party won the parliament and the presidency. And now, it is Italy’s turn. After only a bit more than a year in office, Mario Monti resigned in December, remaining on as care-taker until an election could be held. Well, this week, that election was held, and the results were inconclusive. We now take a look at the top four vote-getting parties and what they mean for Italy.

Finishing in first, with 29.5% of the vote, was Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democratic Party. Campaigning primarily on an anti-austerity platform, the Democratic Party is the center-left party in Italy. Just a few months ago, it looked like their primary competition was crumbling, and the Democratic Party would be a shoo-in, yet now, the situation has changed. Winning a majority in the lower house and only a plurality in the Senate, the Democratic Party will be forced to form a coalition if it wishes to rule Italy, something which may force it into an awkward situation.

Finishing second, with 29.1% of the vote, was our good pal, Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) centre-right coalition. After years of running Italy into the ground, and of course his famous Bunga-Bunga sex and alcohol infused parties, Berlusconi was forced out of his office as Prime Minister on a vote of no-confidence by the Italian parliament. It initially appeared as if he had left politics, but we were fooled. Winning only a fraction of seats in the lower house, the PdL did exceptionally well in the Senate, still without a majority, but with a plurality only 6 seats smaller than the Democratic Party’s. Their victory was in large part due to their coalition with the right-wing Northern League.

As a surprise finisher in third, with 25.5% of the vote, was comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Beppe Grillo’s party really demonstrates the political attitude of most people in Italy right now; which is to say, they hate politicians. Grillo, rather than being a politician, economist, or anything of the sort, is a comedian. And most of his party does not have a single unified platform- rather they represent the sort of anti-party that Italy wants. All of this is incredibly illogical though. Five Star Movement’s candidates were chosen in a primary held online with a very small turn out. Most of them have no training in political science, economics or foreign policy. Instead, they are “everyday” people. In one region, the assemblyman and Senator are a mother-son pair. They even prefer ditching the titles of assemblyman and Senator in favor of the term “spokesperson.” While they do present some compelling anti-establishment arguments, their lack of organization not only means that they will not progress politics in Italy, it also means that their strong turn out may severly hold Italian politics back as they are unlikely to enter into a coalition with any other party.

Finally, in fourth place, with a meager 10% of the vote, was Mario Monti’s Civic Choice centrist coalition. After running the country over the past year as a technocratic leader, Monti initially decided that he would step down and let actual politicians take over, but then decided to lead a centrist coalition, and only remain on as prime minister if this coalition succeeded  It was a long shot and alas, they did not succeed. But the failure of this coalition essentially proved the fears of many outside of Italy, from the European Central Bank to the creditor countries such as France and Germany. The fear was that, after Monti, Italy would move back to politics, and threaten the stability that Monti worked so hard to obtain.

Until Italy establishes an actual government, the world will look nervously at Italy over the course of the next few weeks as the party leaders try to obtain a coalition which gives them control of the country. Bersani and Berlusconi may be forced into a coalition as it seems that Grillo will not enter a coalition anytime soon. Needless to say, this pairing of parties which have long been rivals could be awkward, but with the failure of Monti’s pragmatism, may lead to real progress in Italy.

Filed under Economy, International
Mar 3, 2013

Japan’s New Nationalism

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Japan has a bit of a commitment problem. They simply cannot seem to hold on to a Prime Minister for any long period of time. Once the honeymoon phase ends, it’s all downhill from there. Since 2007, Japan has had 6 Prime Ministers. Needless to say, they are simply unable to hold onto Prime Ministers for very long. This past December, they were at it again- getting back together with an ex and trying to make it work again. After being removed from a year term as Prime Minister in 2007 because of scandals and gaffes, Shinzo Abe was recently elected Prime Minister again. While generally the Prime Minister does not mean much for Japan, simply by nature of their short term in office, Abe’s election is significant for a few reasons.

The first is that Abe represents the rise of nationalism and of conservatism. Abe is a member of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party. Which while it sounds like it would be on the left on our spectrum, is in reality on the right of Japanese politics. In terms of economics, Abe may be just the man for Japan’s suffering economy. Since the Great Recession, and exacerbated by the 2011 earthquake an tsunami, Japan’s economy is nothing of what it used to be. Japan was once a very prospering economy, built around a strong export-driven economy. And under Abe, in his first term, Japan’s economy continued to prosper. Now, in his second term, Abe offers spending stimulus and deflation of Japan’s very strong Yen. Doing so will kick-start manufacturing and put people back to work. So on economics, Abe may bring Japan back to its former prosperity, yet he faces many other challenges.

When discussing Japan, it is inevitable to discuss the aging populace. It is estimated that over 23% of the Japanese population is over the age of 65. The unfortunate thing about having such an old population is simply that the workforce is considerably smaller. With a smaller workforce, Japan’s economic growth is limited, and this may be a problem that Abe (or his predecessor in a year or so) will face. Japan no longer has the same potential to be an economic engine as it formerly did.

While Abe’s economic policies are sound, though possibly limited, the biggest fear surrounding Abe is which direction he takes the foreign policy of Japan. Currently, Japan, China and the Philippines are locked  in a bitter dispute over a small set of rocky islands in the South China Sea. While these islands are only inhabitable by goats, they would extend the sea borders of whichever nation controlled them, giving that nation access to vast swathes of oil reserves. Now where Abe comes in is that his policies are generally incredibly nationalistic, and often rather aggressive. Meaning that if the tensions continue to rise as they have, when it comes down to it, Abe may be more willing to use military force against China to gain control over the islands. Throw in the fact that Abe is stepping up the defense budget and that Japan recently received support from the Philippines in the conflict, and it is clear that Abe is growing rather bold.

Abe brings a unique mix of qualities to the table for Japan. His economics are sound, and may be just what Japan needs. Over the course of the past few years, Japan’s standing in the world has declined, and thus they need economic growth. But this decline has also led the Japanese people to turn towards nationalism, and Abe satisfies just that need. If Abe can lead Japan successfully against China in the South China Sea, he would bring Japan up in the world and make his people proud. Yet in doing so, he takes a huge risk in that China is still an incredibly powerful nation. As things are now, tensions between Japan and China will continue to rise, but with Abe’s new nationalism, it may only be a matter of time before they spill over into a military conflict.

Filed under Uncategorized
Feb 9, 2013

Confronting the Realities of our National Debt

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Everyone in Washington seems to be proposing their own solution to solve the nation’s crippling budgetary woes.  The big issue: many of these so called solutions don’t actually solve our debt problems, and their math just doesn’t add up.  Few politicians are willing to address the numbers head on, but it’s important for Americans to realize the exact predicament our nation is in.  So let’s do something that politicians won’t, and examine the underlying numbers behind our nation’s fiscal failures.

Our fiscal year 2013 deficit is projected to come in at 901 billion dollars(1).  But that’s just a one year budget shortfall.  Our total national debt is around 16.4 trillion dollars and rising fast.  Clearly, monumental steps need to be taken in order to stabilize our budgetary failings.  Unfortunately, politicians are only focusing on the small solutions, and this shortsightedness is evident from both major parties.

Republicans have clamored that a smaller government is the right path to a balanced budget.  It’s a good argument on the surface, but dive further into the math and Republican proposals seem far from a panacea.  The reason for this is that Republicans are targeting too small of programs.  Take food stamps, a federal program Republicans have lambasted.  But when Republican backed legislation to curb spending on food stamps surfaced in the House last year, it was only able to trim about $16 billion of the $80 billion food stamp budget.  Simply put, proposed Republican budget cuts don’t have the ability to solve our nation’s fiscal woes.  Bigger reforms are needed.

That all being said, Democratic proposals for tax hikes have been far from a panacea as well.  While tax hikes can certainly ameliorate our budget woes, they are far from actually fixing the problem by themselves. On the surface, tax hikes also seems like a good idea- raise revenue while possibly lowering the income inequality gap. Yet, upon further examination, this plan runs into some problems. First and foremost is the breadth of tax hikes needed. Currently, federal taxes are about 18% of the United States’ GDP. In order to balance the budget, these rates would have to be hiked by about 10% over the next ten years. Not only is this a huge hike which could slow down economic growth all around, this only takes care of the deficit in 2023. By then, the United States will have picked up as much as 26 trillion dollars of debt.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats can stick to the hard line on this issue. Simply spending cuts or simply tax hikes will make a little dent in the deficit, a smaller dent in the debt, and overall get nothing done. If Congress is serious about cutting our deficit and eventually lowering our debt, a comprehensive approach must be taken. Taxes must be raised, this much is evident. The Bush Tax Cuts have run their course and should expire entirely, perhaps even raising taxes across the board on this issue. Republicans will first have to break free from their Norquist-ian chains, reach across the aisle and admit it has to be done. Yet Democrats also have to give in some too. Programs like Social Security, Medicare and even defense spending have become wildly inefficient and are doomed to bring failure to the budget of the United States. An all-encompassing reform of revenue and spending must occur if Republicans and Democrats alike want to hold on to hope to truly ridding the United States of the shackles of debt.

 

(1) – White House Office of Management and Budget – http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/overview

Feb 5, 2013

Myanmar’s Long Trudge To Democracy

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It’s been awhile since we have discussed Myanmar, a country often hailed as the last frontier for democracy, so it seems like an apt time to do an update on their circumstances.

Currently in Myanmar, they have made great strides towards democracy. Economic liberalization and opening up to the world will likely improve the economic situation in Myanmar. In recent months, sanctions have been lifted, and all around, trade barriers between Myanmar and especially the US have been lowered. Improving the economic situation improves the standard of living for Burmese, which, in turn, makes them more vocal for more reform. As Myanmar’s natural resources are used and their workforce grows, Myanmar will begin to move its way up the value-added chain, and as with most economies, economic growth will bring more democracy. The economic situation in Myanmar is looking up, and will likely kickstart a cycle for more economic and democratic reform.

As for the political situation in Myanmar, it too is quickly improving. With the cabinet reshuffling, the administrative side of things in Myanmar will begin to open up as new, fresh faces bring new, fresh ideas with them. Additionally, the parliamentary elections that took place last year began the reform, and as more seats are opened up to the National League for Democracy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party will be forced to continue reforms in order to even have a chance at staying in power. This means that either way the politics fall, both parties will ensure that reform is continued. Yet without a new constitution, the military still may have the opportunity to come back into power. But given the military general’s support for Thein Sein and his reforms, this seems unlikely.

The biggest problem plaguing Myanmar today is the Rakhine state. Essentially, in the Rakhine state, there is an oppressed minority of Rohingya Muslims. The Buddhist Rakhine in this area have continued violence against the Rohingya, killing, raping and burning down their houses. Currently the Rohingya remain a country-less people as Myanmar does not accept them, forcing many refugees to Bangladesh where they are also not accepted. In Myanmar, they are not even given the rights of basic citizens. The government, however, has remained fairly silent. If the government says anything, it is always in favor of the Rakhine, and the military in Myanmar has made things worse for the Rohingya. To make matters worse, the Rohingya are not receiving aid, as the Rakhine and military block it, and countries like Bangladesh have stopped sending it. Even other Muslim countries have remained silent despite the immense bloodshed As long as Aung San Suu Kyi  Suu Kyi has already reached out to every other minority, now is her opportunity to reach out the Rohingya. If she can do this, the biggest stumbling block toward democracy will be taken out. Yet because Suu Kyi still faces a Buddhist electorate, it seems unlikely that she will try to get much done until possibly she has seized the presidency.

Myanmar is on a long trudge toward democracy. They have come far, but still have far to go. At this point however, with economic and democratic growth already occurring, it seems unlikely that Myanmar will reverse track anytime soon. There are still many obstacles, including the Rakhine state, a remaining large military influence and corruption, but with the help both internally and externally, the last frontier for democracy may be conquered.

 

Filed under International
Jan 7, 2013

Palestine’s Observer Status: More than Just Symbolism

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It seems like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of those stories that is just always in the news. Yet, once again, we find them in the news. This time, after a failed bid for full United Nations statehood last September, Palestine filed for “Observer- State Status,” on par with the Vatican City. Unlike the full membership which was vetoed in the United Nations Security Council, observer status is up to the full general assembly. The resolution passed resoundingly, with the final vote being 138-9. But many on both sides of the debate are arguing about what this elevated status will actually be. Hopefully, it should speed up the peace process, and allow Israel and Palestine to finally hash out a peace plan.

The primary snag in peace negotiations has been borders. Israel continues to settle on Palestinian land, basically tearing down Palestinian houses and replacing them with Israeli ones. For this reason, Palestine refuses to come to the negotiating table with Israel, unless they stop. However, now, even though observer status is a largely symbolic move, it gives Palestine access to key entities including the International Criminal Court. The expectation is that should Palestine take Israel to the ICC for their settlements, Israel will lose. It is expected that Palestine will likely begin by threatening Israel to stop settling, or risk being taken to the ICC. Hopefully, this threat alone will deter Israel enough to force them to stop settlements. If Israel finally stops these, Palestine will once again be willing to negotiate.

Another main issue within Palestine has been a lack of unity. Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank (which also claims control over  Gaza) have been in a power struggle, and Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas. Recently, after the attacks between Hamas and Israel, the PA suffered a set-back and came out as the less-legitimate entity. Yet now, with the PA the officially recognized head of Palestine, Palestinians will likely rally behind and support them. If the PA can gain increasing support, then Hamas will start to weaken, making negotiations better and for a less extreme Palestine. This is good for all entities involved.

Another telling factor is simply a shift in the global arena. For a long time, the Israel-Palestine issue divided the world. The east mostly supported Palestine, while the west mostly supported Israel. Yet in this vote, the 9 countries that voted against the measure included the obvious candidates, such as the US and Israel, and then a bunch of less important countries including Canada, Panama, Czech Republic, Marshall Islands and others. On the other hand, Palestine had the support of Spain, France and Italy all voted in favor of the resolution. 41 countries including Germany and the United Kingdom abstained from voting. Clearly, global support for Palestinian statehood is beginning to change. As the rest of the world wants Israel and Palestine to just call it quits, it is likely that they will.

With a combination of halted settlements, Palestinian unity and international pressure, hopefully both sides will be willing to cave a little bit and hash out a deal. The peace process has been one going on since the two states were separated 65 years ago, and will likely continue. However, observer status at the UN may do more to expedite the process than to slow it down.

Filed under International
Dec 4, 2012

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