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A (Potential) Iranian Shift

June 17, 2013
Posted by Tyler Miksanek

Iranian cleric Hassan Rouhani will be Iran’s next president. But even though he campaigned as a moderate voice, it is currently unclear how much he will alter Iran’s conservative policies. (Picture Source- CIA World Factbook)

For the past few years, Iran has been controlled by a hard-line, conservative government that has escalated not only Iran’s nuclear program but also tensions with other countries.  As such, many found it to be quite a relief when Iran’s recent presidential election was won not by a ultra-conservative but by Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned as a moderate.

At first, Rouhani’s more moderate stances would seem to signal an imminent change in Iran’s relations with the rest of the world, hopefully changing relations from standoffish to conciliatory.  After all, part of Rouhani’s platform was to appease the international community in exchange for an end to the sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.  Unfortunately, investigating the election more closely leads to the realization that change might not be as rapid or as forceful as many Western nations would like.

The first hurdle to a shift in Iran’s policies and foreign relations is its governmental structure.  Rouhani, as president, will only have a small slice of power in the Iranian government.  More powerful than the office of the presidency is the office of Supreme Leader, a lifetime position held by Ayatollah Ali Kahmenei.  Even if Rouhani attempts a shift to more moderate policies, Kahmenei, a strict conservative hardliner, will likely be able to resist most changes.

The second hurdle is Rouhani himself.  While Rouhani was endorsed by the reformist movement and widely viewed as a moderate candidate, he is also a cleric, meaning that his election actually enhances the theocratic aspects of the Iranian government.  Considering that some reformers want to steer Iran away from its Islamic system of governance, it seems odd that the reform movement would back a cleric’s campaign, especially after eight years of having a secular president.

Indeed, the perception of Rouhani as strongly connected with the goals of Iran’s reform movement is seriously flawed.  While Rouhani did receive the support of Iran’s reform movement, the support was far from enthusiastic.  He was only officially backed by the reform movement two days before the election.  Rouhani’s position as the reformists’ candidate was more or less crafted for support in the days leading up to the election, and some aspects of his political history actually show him supporting anti-reform policies.

Still, completely writing off a move towards the center is flawed thinking.  Rouhani garnered more than twice as many votes as his nearest opponent, signaling a clear public referendum against the current conservative orthodoxy and showing public opinion favors more moderate options.  And while Rouhani may not be the dream reformist candidate, he does represent some change from the hard-line conservative thinking of the past decade.  Rapid change is unlikely, but public pressure for change, especially amid a devastated economy, may start to sway Iranian policies.


Filed under International

Economics – Confusing As Ever

June 10, 2013
Posted by Tyler Miksanek

Lately, there have been two main viewpoints regarding the American economy, and they are pretty much polar opposites.

The first viewpoint is the optimistic way of looking at things.  Proponents of this glass-half-full belief can cite financial markets, which have rebounded from 2009 lows and have recently hit new all-time record highs.  Moreover, the U.S. economy has consistently added jobs each and every month for the last two years, showing that the days of rapid job losses appear to be over.  The unemployment rate has dropped from a scary 10% to a much more manageable 7.6%.  And even though the current unemployment rate is higher is not as low as it could ideally be, America’s 7.6% unemployment is still much better than the eurozone’s 12.2%.

However, all this good news avoids the less-than-pleasing economic indicators that the pessimists focus on.  Even though the U.S. economy has been gaining jobs, the rather slow rate of job creation means that the unemployment rate is likely to remain stubbornly high.  For example, the U.S. gained 175,000 jobs in May, but that did not stop the unemployment rate from actually increasing by .1%.  Not only are new workers entering the workforce, which is why the number of available jobs must grow just to keep a relatively stable level of unemployment, but the U.S. still faces a huge problem with both discouraged workers and workers who are stuck in low paying or part time jobs.  Worse, government cutbacks from the sequester combined with ineffective legislation from Washington makes our economic future murky at best.

There’s information to support both fields of view, but it seems like many people are quick to align themselves with one side or the other.  The one viewpoint that gets lost in the optimist versus pessimist battle is also the most sensible one – a realistic take of all forces affecting the U.S. economy.  This realist take on the economy celebrates the economic gains of the last few years while also recognizing the corresponding weaknesses of our current economic situation.

Would markets have rallied to record highs if the economy still had an imminent threat of a precipitous drop into a double-dip recession?  Should a healthy economy have 7.6% unemployment even after 4 years of fairly consistent GDP growth?  Both of these questions deserve an emphatic ‘no’ as an answer, showing that things are neither as dire nor as cheery as many are apt to argue.

Politicians and pundits need to take a more moderate stance on American economic progress.  It’s hard to plan the right path forward if you disagree on your current position.  Instead of bickering about what the current economic facts mean for our economy, the U.S. must accept its economic strengths along with its weaknesses, and use this realist viewpoint to help spur the economy into a truly healthy state so no one can disagree.

Filed under Domestic, Economy

Protests in Turkey: Erdogan Running Out of Time

June 4, 2013
Posted by mjdudak

Turkey has long been upheld as the bastion of things actually working in the Middle East. The country has managed to strike out a balance of secularism and Islamism. They have a secular government that is influenced by Islamist ideas, without being fully controlled by them. For this reason, much of the Western world has looked towards Turkey to act as a vital link with the Middle East. Sure, the Western world still has minor problems with Turkey’s insistence that it did not commit genocide against the Armenians, and there is bad blood that still exists between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus, but overall, Turkey is generally liked by the Western world. Not liked to the point where the EU is actually willing to admit Turkey into it, but liked enough that they at least deal with Turkey fairly regularly. The US is one of the exceptions, largely because of the clashes between Turkey and Israel. Point is, until recently, Turkey seemed to be stable and a perfect blend of Western and Middle Eastern governance. However, that may  now be changing.

Last week, a group of around 50 protesters peacefully assembled in Istanbul’s Gezi Park to protest the destruction of the park. The destruction was stopped, but only temporarily. A short time after, while the protesters remained, destruction continued, and police used tear gas against the protesters who still did not resist. Admittedly, this was not just any park, it was one of the city’s few remaining public parks, and also a place where many homeless people regularly found shelter in the park. After another few days of protests, police started to increase the methods, including more tear gas, water cannons, and plastic bullets. At this point, protests started to skyrocket. Thousands began to gather in Taksim Square, next to the park, protesting. Protests even began to spread throughout the country, resulting in many protests and The impetus for the protests was largely police brutality, but the protests have turned into something more. It is hard to find a unifying thread between the protesters. They have different religious views, different political ideologies, different party identifications. The key is a sense of grievance towards the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan.

The biggest problem that many Turks have with Erdogan is his overbearing nature. While far from a Mubarak/Qaddafi/Ben Ali-type dictator, Erdogan has been shifting towards a more authoritarian style of rule as of late, and this has been very disconcerting to many Turks, and after the police brutality, they were finally given an opportunity to express their gripes. Officially, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is secular, though often mischaracterized as Islamist. As such, many Turks have supported the party for its relatively moderate stances in Turkey. However, Erdogan lives up to the misconception of the party, and has begun to push many more Islamist-influenced policies, including alcohol restrictions. Others are also enraged over the Syrian situation, where Erdogan has continually supported the rebels, and has taken in countless refugees from Syria. In the end, the protests demonstrate one thing: Erdogan’s time may be numbered. While the protesters do not seem to particularly support one alternative or another, the anti-Erdogan rhetoric is strong enough that even if protests die down, it is unlikely he will be successful if he tries to run for president next year.

Another interesting aspect of the protests are that they seem to cause a seemingly inconsistent party line. On the one hand, Abdullah Gul, current President of Turkey, Erdogan’s predecessor and also a member of the Justice and Development Party, has actually praised the protesters. Gul believes that protesters are simply expressing their democratic rights and supports them for that. While some of this may be partially inspired by the probably show-down between Gul and Erdogan in next year’s presidential election, it also indicates a sort of inconsistency in policy aims between the two leaders. Additionally, Bulent Arinc, Erdogan’s deputy, apologized on behalf of Erdogan for the police brutality, however many doubt whether or not he was actually speaking on behalf of Erdogan or simply himself. Erdogan, on the other hand, is currently in Morocco and has remained silent on the issue, but for obvious reasons opposes the protests.

The protests demonstrate not only a decreasing amount of unity within the government and the party, but also demonstrate a sharp decline in Erdogan’s popularity. Erdogan’s time in power seems very limited, however what happens after he leaves seems up in the air. Clearly, a more secular-influenced government is needed, but as for Turkey’s relations with Syria and the West, nothing is clear. But for now, it is time to ready our goodbyes to Mr. Erdogan.

Filed under International

What’s going on in Syria?

May 22, 2013
Posted by Tyler Miksanek
1 Comment

In the early months of 2011, the middle eastern nation of Syria experienced anti-government protests as a result of the growing Arab Spring movement.  But back then, almost no one expected that those protests would morph into a more than two year long, extremely bloody civil war resulting in tens of thousands of deaths nationwide.  While this gloomy scenario was unexpected, it has transformed into an unfortunate reality for not just Syria, but also the entire world.

How did this remarkable transition from clustered protests to widespread civil war occur?  One explanation lies in the fact that while leaders of many other nations affected by the Arab Spring were hesitant to respond with excessive violence, Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad quickly resorted to violent means to quell protests.  Not willing to allow a totalitarian crackdown against descent, rebels responded with violence as well.  As both sides stepped up their tactics, the conflict quickly devolved into an all-out war that has included the targeting of civilians.

Unfortunately, the conflict does not appear to be approaching any satisfactory conclusion.  Recent attempts at peace negotiations have been met with extreme skepticism from all parties, as Syria seems to be too entrenched in conflict to find an easy resolution.  Worse, recent evidence shows that chemical weapons may have been used in the conflict.  The use of chemical weapons demonstrates that the war is escalating, exacerbating the conflict in the face of international hopes to stop the fighting.

But even though the majority of the international community has attempted to curb the fighting, these attempts have been extremely limited in their effectiveness.  A major factor for this limited success has been the overwhelming influence of Russia, a nation that not only has veto power on the United Nations Security Council but also has been supplying arms to Assad.  The United States government has deliberated on whether or not the U.S. should intervene more directly than Russia has allowed the U.N. to do, but so far, the rebels are only receiving limited support from western governments.

Russia is not the only reason the U.S. is hesitant to offer more assistance to the rebels, however.  Al-Qaeda influence has spread into many rebel groups, forcing the United States to question whether they are willing to help defeat Assad if doing so might hand the country over to terrorists.  Basically, the U.S. has found its foreign policy stuck between a rock and a hard place, and while it may be uncomfortable with the status quo of civil war, it doesn’t want to commit itself to either the rebels or Assad.

The idea of a status quo works well for Syria right now, as little action seems to be occurring that could transition the country towards peace.  However, we must remember that the status quo so many nations seem comfortable with has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians.  While an easy path to stability and peace in Syria seems unlikely, that doesn’t mean the international community should give up on Syria.

Filed under International

Meritocratic Missteps- Part 3

May 5, 2013
Posted by mjdudak

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

Meritocratic Missteps- Part 2

May 1, 2013
Posted by mjdudak

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

Meritocratic Missteps- Part 1

April 24, 2013
Posted by mjdudak

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

Venezuelan Presidential Elections: Maduro’s No Chavez

April 15, 2013
Posted by mjdudak
1 Comment

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

North Korea’s War of Words

April 7, 2013
Posted by Tyler Miksanek

The Korean War has long been considered more apt for history books than for newspapers.  But strangely enough, that viewpoint is not shared by North Korea, which recently nullified the armistice that ended the Korean War back in 1953.  And while North Korea often acts belligerently, it seems to be stepping up its rhetoric against not only South Korea but also against the United States.

North Korea claims its recent martial actions, including the movement of a missile to its coast and direct military threats against the U.S., were instigated by joint U.S.-South Korean military operations that took place last month.  However, this statement should not be trusted, as the United States military commonly works alongside South Korea without receiving such an inflammatory response from the North.  After all, the U.S. has kept tens of thousands of troops in South Korea for years, and North Korea has rarely protested in such a threatening way.

Why then is North Korea increasing the scope of its military endeavors?  The answer appears to not involve international disputes but instead is focused on domestic politics.  North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un might not need to worry about elections, but he is still a young leader with a great deal to prove to his people.  Navigating the country through a crisis – even a manufactured one – will help him gain credibility and mettle.  This domestic focus seems to be the underlying reason for North Korea’s belligerence, and it is also the reason why other countries aren’t afraid of North Korea’s hostile actions.  Kim Jong-Un could care less if his missiles spur fear internationally, because he really wants them to inspire respect at home.

It’s not just North Korea that has been handing out mixed signals.  China, which is North Korea’s main trading partner and benefactor, has been doing exactly the same.  On one side, China has maintained both relations and trade with North Korea.  But on the other hand, China has allowed new economic sanctions against the North, bucking the trend of using its powerful position on the United Nations Security Council to block increased sanctions.  However, most of China’s recent criticism has been limited to words, not actions.  With the notable exception of allowing for those increased sanctions, China has merely been slapping North Korea on the wrist for their belligerence.  Considering that China is North Korea’s main ally and holds great influence over North Korea, it could do much more to stop the North’s recent aggression.

But while China may be maintaining somewhat of a relationship with North Korea, this recent aggression from North Korea will likely make the U.S.-North Korean relationship even more rocky.  Kim Jong-Un is willing to threaten America in order to improve his domestic standing, showing how little he values possible cooperation with the U.S. in the future.  Still, this standoffish tone towards the U.S. isn’t just a recent development, as it has manifested itself throughout Kim Jong-Un’s short tenure in office.  Even last year, Kim Jong-Un was quick to violate the terms of a food aid deal with the U.S. in order to test his country’s missile technology.  When this food aid deal was being created, we here at RantAWeek hedged our bets, arguing “there is no specific policy-based reason that would make Kim Jong Un voluntarily give up the nuclear program his father so obstinately worked to create” and warning that “failure to successfully execute this compromise could doom diplomatic relationships with the North Koreans for years to come”.

Kim Jong-Un still lacks any policy-based reason to stop his aggression, especially since China isn’t exerting pressure as harshly as it could be.  Worse, North Korea seems to have abandoned plans to cooperate with the United States.  But at the very least, the U.S. should take comfort in the fact that North Korea is not an international threat, just a country willing to sacrifice international cooperation for a new leader’s domestic credentials.

Filed under International

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

March 28, 2013
Posted by mjdudak
1 Comment

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

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