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Meritocratic Missteps- Part 2


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

The Increasing Insecurity of Higher Education


America faces harsh economic times, and unfortunately a good education no longer ensures personal economic security.  In fact, the number of highly educated Americans who face economic hardships is staggeringly high.  Read through this infographic from OnlineColleges.net to learn more!

America’s PhDs on Food Stamps

This infographic is used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Filed under Miscellaneous
Jan 13, 2013

Final Presidential Debate


With just about two weeks to go until the election and many polls showing a close race, both candidates are looking for positive momentum to carry them through the final stretch.  An easy place to obtain this momentum is through the final presidential debate, which will occur Monday night at 8 P.M.  RantAWeek will be welcoming our extended panel for our final debate liveblog starting at 8 P.M. Central.  We hope to see you there!

Filed under Miscellaneous
Oct 21, 2012

Next Debate


The next Presidential debate is tonight at 8-9:30pm Central Time! Please join us for this town hall style debate, where we will have an extended panel for on the fly analysis. The page is here.

Filed under Miscellaneous
Oct 16, 2012

1st Presidential Debate Liveblog


Thank you all who read and contributed to our first liveblog for the presidential debates!  The liveblog is archived here.  You can read a full analysis of the debate on our homepage Thursday evening.

Filed under Miscellaneous
Oct 1, 2012

Election Live Blog Schedule


The most exciting days of the election season are coming up, and RantAWeek is excited to cover these critical moments of the campaign.  To do so, we will be employing the same live blog approach used in the primaries.  As of right now, our Fall 2012 live blog schedule stands as such:

1. Domestic Policy Presidential Debate – October 3rd

2. Vice Presidential Debate – October 11th

3. Town Hall Style Presidential Debate – October 16th

4. Foreign Policy Presidential Debate – October 22nd

5. Election Night – November 6th

We implore you to save these dates and watch the RantAWeek live blogs!  To reminisce about the primaries, visit our archived live blog page.

Filed under Miscellaneous
Aug 25, 2012

Is An Electoral College Tie Possible?

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America’s electoral system allows for an interesting anomaly: a tie.  With 538 electoral votes possible, each candidate can win exactly 269, preventing either from winning the majority needed to clinch the presidency.  The Constitution specifies that if this is to happen, the House of Representative selects the President.

So an electoral tie is possible, but since the Republicans are likely to maintain control of the House of Representatives, it would almost certainly result in a Romney presidency.  However, just because something is possible mathematically doesn’t mean it is convenient electorally.  In order to determine what a tie would look like this election season, it is best to only look at swing states, and assume that the candidates will win their safe states.

What are the swing states?  We first defined our swing states in this article back in April, but some updates are needed.  In June, we took the Republican victory in the Wisconsin recall election as a sign that Wisconsin is in play for Romney.  And considering that Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan is now on the G.O.P. ticket, Wisconsin should most definitely be added as a swing state.  Additionally, bad polling in Arizona for President Obama means that Arizona should no longer be considered a swing state and instead given to Romney.  These changes leave us with the swing states shown in white below:


Unfortunately, the work does not end here.  We must make a few more simplifying assumptions.  Of these swing states, North Carolina has leaned towards Romney.  While it is certainly conceivable  for Obama to win North Carolina, the upset victory there would most likely come with victories in the vast majority of other swing states, giving Obama a win and ruining the possibility of a tie.  The same is true for Pennsylvania, but with Romney being the underdog instead of Obama.  Thus, we will award Pennsylvania to Obama and North Carolina to Romney before looking at ties.  The electoral map now looks like this:

Using these eight swing states, there are four cases in which an electoral tie can be reached.  All four require a Romney win in Florida, but the other seven states go to different candidates based on each case.

Case 1: Romney wins Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Iowa.  Obama wins Ohio, Wisconsin and New Hampshire.

This case is unlikely due to the fact that Romney has been polling much better in Ohio than he has been in Nevada.  Thus, it is naive to expect a defeat for Romney in Ohio coupled with a win in Nevada.

Case 2: Romney wins Ohio, Nevada, Iowa and New Hampshire.  Obama wins Virginia, Wisconsin and Colorado.

Case 3: Romney wins Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada.  Obama wins Virginia, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire.

Both Case 2 and Case 3, just like Case 1, face a Nevada problem.  Romney has been polling better in Colorado than Nevada, meaning it is unlikely that he will win Nevada but lose Colorado.  Luckily, Case 4 solves this problem, having Obama win Nevada.

Case 4: Romney wins Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa.  Obama wins Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire.

 This case is much more feasible than the other three simply because it has Romney winning the easiest states for him to win.  Most polls show Obama’s lead to be rather shaky (or non-existent) in Ohio and Iowa, making it easier for Romney to win their electoral votes.  The one trouble is Wisconsin, which has leaned more to the left than either Ohio or Iowa over the past few years.  However, due to the influence of Paul Ryan’s Wisconsin roots, a Romney victory in Wisconsin seems more feasible than it did before the VP selection.  Unlike the other three cases, Case 4 presents a fairly logical electoral breakdown, leaving us with this map:

Remember, while this map makes logical sense electorally, there are a plethora of other maps that make similar sense.  This is not a prediction for how the Electoral College will turn out, this is merely a prediction for what a possible electoral tie would look like.  If you have any questions, critiques or predictions of your own on this matter, please feel free to share in the comments below!


Map Citation: National Atlas of the United States, January 27, 2011, http://nationalatlas.gov

Aug 22, 2012

Olympic Medals vs. GDP: An Intriguing Inspection


The size of a nation’s economy naturally affects how well that country will do in the Olympics.  After all, larger and richer nations should generally be able to field bigger and stronger teams.  This explains why, as the world’s largest economy, the United States was able to win the most medals.  Second in the medal standings was China, the world’s second largest economy.

To truly analyze how well a country preformed in the Olympics, it is thus necessary to examine its medal count relative to the size of its economy.  Determining the size of a nation’s economy is simple: this analysis used 2011 estimates of gross domestic product from the CIA World Factbook¹.  Examining the medal count, however, forces a decision on how to weigh the differences between gold, silver and bronze.

It is fairly safe to say that all Olympic medals should not be counted equally.  Winning a gold carries more prestige than a silver, and silver carries more prestige than a bronze.  But how should we measure this?

Upon noticing that the United States Olympic Committee pays athletes $25,000 for a gold, $15,000 for a silver and $10,000 for a bronze, I decided to use these payouts as a weighing system for the medals.  A bronze medal is then 1 ‘medal point’, a silver 1.5, and a gold will be worth 2.5.  (It should be noted that Russia also awards payouts at similar ratios, another reason this weighing was chosen.)

Here are the results: calculated medal points vs. GDP for economies larger than $1 trillion.


Notice that even though the United States and China have the most medal points, their results are nothing special due to the extreme size of their economies.  The United States, in fact, is actually below the line of best fit.  More impressive are the feats of Russia and the United Kingdom.  Despite their much smaller economies, they are able to post impressive numbers of medal points.  On the other hand, even though Brazil and India are rapidly developing economies, their medal points are unimpressive, and they fall well under the line of best fit.

The three unlabeled countries above the line of best fit are France, Italy and South Korea, who join already labeled Germany as nations that slightly over-performed.  The six unlabeled (and thus under-performing) countries underneath the line are Mexico, Spain, Indonesia, Canada, Turkey and Iran.  Most surprising is Indonesia.  Even with one of the largest economies in the world, Indonesia only managed to win one silver and one bronze, worth a mere 2.5 medal points.  However, this can be explained by noticing that Indonesia only sent 22 athletes to the Olympics.  When compared to other nations of similar economic clout, Indonesia chose to send a tiny representation.

The case of Indonesia demonstrates that factors other than GDP affect Olympic results.  After all, some countries simply choose to become more competitive than others.  As the host nation, the U.K. was more driven towards success.  Thus, they significantly outperformed most of their peers.

Take this data with a grain of salt, as GDP is not alone in predicting Olympic success or failure.  However, also consider this data to be a new alternative to the more traditional and basic medal count.  After all, when it comes to the Olympics, athletics are important, but money plays a crucial role as well.


1 – CIA World Factbook – https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2001.html

(A note – these GDP estimates incorporate Purchasing Power Parity)

Aug 12, 2012

Opinion: Multiple Paths and Apparent Paradoxes


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has advocated the use of cost-cutting austerity measures to solve economic woes in countries like Greece.  The measures, she argues, will create more fiscally prudent countries.  French President Francois Hollande has been a vocal critic of Angela Merkel’s policies.  Instead, he wants to use additional government spending to stimulate troubled economies, allowing Europe to grow out of its problems.

Germany wants governments to save.  France wants them to spend.  While embracing both philosophies simultaneously creates an apparent paradox, Europe has committed to both austerity and stimulus in combating the debt crisis.

Critics abound, arguing that austerity will undermine attempts at stimulus and vice-versa.  Instead of two different plans muddling the way forward for troubled countries, these critics believe a direct solution will provide a more feasible route to economic security.

By railing against the complexity of the currently proposed solutions, thees critics demonstrate their own lack of foresight.  If Europe’s problems only required a simple solution, the problem would already be solved.  In reality, the debt crisis is a complicated problem that will likely require a multi-faceted solution.  Suggesting a solution is invalid because of its complexity is a flawed argument.

Critics may still latch to the fact that as an apparent paradox, the two-pronged solution to the debt crisis is doomed to failure.  But this argument is, once again, too simple.  Upon further inspection, a solution to what is only a surface-level paradox can be discovered.  Austerity and stimulus can coexist because they can be applied to different sectors of the economy.  Beleaguered sectors such as banking and finance may need extra capital, but that does not ruin attempts at austerity.

Bickering and disagreements lead to polarization, and polarization usually translates to a one-sided approach when dealing with large-scale affairs. Europe can not afford to let that happen.  If a mixture of austerity and stimulus sounds like a feasible plan to help save beleaguered nations within the Eurozone, then this plan should not be criticized based on faulty logic.

Jun 27, 2012

The Revolution Paradox

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The Computer Age has revolutionized modern life, but it has also revolutionized the act of a revolution itself.  Take a look at the chart below, and discover the changing nature of revolutions.


Revolution              Year                Notable Leader

American                    1775                 George Washington

Russian                       1917                 Vladimir Lenin

Cuban                          1953                 Fidel Castro

Arab Spring               2010                 Facebook???


All four revolutions follow the same basic beginnings: a group of people who feel wronged rise up against the government that is oppressing them.  However, the Computer Age has ushered in the leaderless revolution.

Think about it.  In the first three revolutions above, the group of oppressed people had a leader to rally around.  When the revolution was over, that leader took control.  Whether the revolution involved a transitional period (American Revolution), a coup (Russian) or a prolonged insurgency (Cuban), the end result was basically the same.

The Arab Spring Revolutions, engineered largely through social media, often did not have the luxury of a leader ready to take power.  This has handicapped the revolutions, as the lack of a leader who already has gained widespread popularity hampers both the formation and the function of post-revolutionary governments.

The prime example is Yemen.  Protesters were able to force President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power, but the revolution failed to create a new leadership figure.  Ultimately, Saleh’s vice-president took control of the country, a less successful end result than many of the protesters hoped for.  What could be considered a coup (it was a shake up of power amongst the elite) was far less successful in Yemen than Lenin’s coup in Russia.

Another good example is Egypt.  A successful revolution deposed President Hosni Mubarak, but the wake of the revolution left no leader ready to take control.  This forced a transitional period led by the military.

At first glance, Egypt’s transitional period can be compared to the transitional period the American Revolution faced after its completion.  However, under closer inspection, this comparison fails.  After the Americans noticed the failings of their Articles of Confederation, they were able to create a stronger central government with Washington as a ready executive.  The Egyptian transitional period did not have an experimental governance system like the Articles and was instead overseen by the military.  Sure, the transitional period is coming to an end, but the military still seems dominant.  Additionally, new President Mohammed Morsi may have narrowly won an election, but he lacks the near-universal popularity Washington had upon starting his administration.  The competitiveness of the first round of the presidential election proved that no one candidate stood out with the Egyptian people.  Washington, on the other hand, was elected unanimously.

Tunisia stands as an interesting example because its revolution was by far the most successful of the Arab Spring Revolutions to date.  President Ben Ali was deposed after protests, but a new leader in Moncef Marzouki was quickly elected.  The success of Tunisia’s revolution lies with the previous roles of Marzouki himself.  Before the revolution, Marzouki was a political dissident and outspoken critic of Ben Ali, making him a sensible leader to take over after Ben Ali’s ousting.  More than any of the other Arab Spring Revolutions, Tunisia follows the example of historical revolutions.

Perhaps the most important lesson can be found in Syria.  Not following the classical example of a revolution like Tunisia, Syria’s revolution still lacks a leader and sufficient organization.

The Syrian revolution, as a sort of insurgency, could be compared to its Arab Spring counterpart in Libya or to Castro’s Cuban Revolution.  But unlike the Libyan rebels, who were able to organize under a transitional council, the Syrian rebels are still mostly unorganized.  The organized Libyan opposition was created because the rebels had a stronghold in the important city of Benghazi.  Lacking a major stronghold, organization is a more difficult task for the rebels in Syria.  And unlike with Castro in Cuba, there is no dominating figure in the revolution.  Apparently, organization is far from guaranteed in the modern age of revolutions.

Technology, as seen in many of the countries affected by the Arab Spring, is changing the very nature of revolutions.  By examining the changing courses of revolutions, we can better predict their outcomes.  After all, the world is constantly changing, and it makes sense that revolutions should change with it.

UPDATED: JULY 31, 2012

Jun 9, 2012

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