Why meritocracy?

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Why meritocracy?

 Kim Won-bae
The author is a national news editor of JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Jun-seok, the new head of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), has a decisively different tone from a typical politician in Korea. He is an outspoken advocate for “elitism” and “professionalism.” In his book “Fair Competition” published in June 2019, Lee argues that “a minority with skills and capability can change the world. I would willingly accept the criticism of being elitist.”
He claims that setting quotas for women, for instance, should be eliminated as it helps deepen inequality due to economic and political preferences given to one group. He is opposed to radical feminism. He proposes fair competition because “our ultimate value should be freedom, and fairness is a racing track on it.”
The Harvard-educated chief of the opposition has come under all-around offensive upon ascending to the top post of the conservative party. Former Democratic Party (DP) head Lee Nak-yon pointed out that the new chief of the PPP calls for competition based on one’s capabilities, which could only infinitely widen equality gaps. He instead proposes a new welfare platform where all people are guaranteed minimum living standards, a supposedly inclusive policy.
Korea’s youth, who are some of the biggest fans of Lee Jun-seok, are not unaware of the limitations of the merit system. If the argument came from someone in his 50s, it could be seen as justification to defend vested interests. But it sounds different coming from someone in his 20s or 30s. The young are outraged at being stripped of any opportunity to get on the field — and it’s a level field they are demanding.
Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk in 2012 tweeted that “Not everyone can be a dragon and there is no such need. Even if one cannot fly as a dragon, we should create a society where everyone is happy to live as carps, frogs and crawfish in a pond.” But for the elite, there were many more ways to become a dragon.
When he was an assistant minister at the Justice Ministry, former Vice Justice Minister Lee Yong-gu protested to Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl for targeting Cho’s family for violating laws through faking documents and certificates to boost his offspring’s chances to get into elite schools. “Why pick on them when it (faking internship or awards) is a common practice in Gangnam?” said Lee. That precisely reflects the true elitism in a society of the rich and powerful.
The young generation are most enraged by favoritism and hereditary privileges. They demand a level playing field where the able can become dragons through their own efforts. They wish to become a dragon rather than settle into the life of a frog in a small pond. Such a dream may not be an answer to the multiple problems of our society, but at least it is not hypocritical.
When serving as President Moon Jae-in’s policy chief, Chang Ha-sung, current ambassador to China, said in a radio program in September 2018, “Not everyone should live in Gangnam. I can say so because I live there.” His remarks drew an avalanche of criticism.
The Moon administration promised to build a society where everyone can become happier. But many people are house-poor due to a spike in real estate prices under the liberal government. Inequalities have never been so deep. Lee Jun-seok has created a phenomenon by attracting young voters with a promise of a ladder that almost anyone can climb up — all they need is ambition and effort.
As the economy slows and industries migrate to automation and digitalization — while others literally migrate to other countries — decent jobs have become fewer for the young. The existing salaried jobs and decent salaries are dominated by unions and the seniority-based pay system.
In his book “Rice, Disaster, and the State,” Lee Cheol-seung, a professor of social studies at Sogang University, found that the seniority-based salary system and demographic changes have worsened joblessness for the young and generated a surge in non-salaried jobs. He proposes the salary gap between novices and employees of 30 years currently stuck at 3.3 times be narrowed down to a level of two and salaries be based on work performance of employees.
But breaking the norm is not easy. First of all, workers in their 40s who benefit from the seniority-based system would not agree. And those facing retirement want their retirement age to get extended. Younger people would find it ever harder to land a decent job.
Everything is blurry for the young generation. Meritocracy could be instrumental in cracking the mold. The twenty-somethings who have flexed their political power in April 7 by-elections and primary for the PPP chairmanship will raise their voices. If their demands go unheard, conflicts across the generation, gender and society will be inevitable. Proposals for basic incomes or monthly allowances cannot make the problem go away.
Reforms in the labor market and pay system and development of new prospering industries must take place first to create good jobs for the young. Political leaders must come up with a feasible outline ahead of the presidential election next year.
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