Tuesday, June 28, 2011

America's Rich: Taking Their Ball And Going Home

In the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan led the conservative charge in reducing government infrastructure and welfare spending, reducing the tax burden on America’s wealthy, and reducing government regulation of private enterprise. One of the major effects these policies had was to increase the United States’ GDP drastically: the other was to severely reduce the share of the GDP that the average American enjoyed.

The process went something like this: without regulation or taxation, U.S. corporations (owned by a select few Americans, usually older white males) have the freedom to export jobs for cheaper production, reduce wages and reduce overhead by curbing safety and environmental standards. This excess wealth (the increase in GDP mentioned earlier) is concentrated into the hands of the owners, who increase their pay and compensation exponentially.

The gains made by Unions and organized labor at the beginning of the 20th century were wiped out as the jobs were exported to other countries: the average American’s share of national income drastically declined after Reagan was elected while the share by the already wealthy increased further. CEO compensation has increased 425% since 1981, but the national average of income has only increased 26%.

Obviously exporting labor is unsustainable: at some point we can’t ship any more jobs overseas. Unfortunately, because of the disparity of the last three decades the U.S. economy is entirely controlled by these economic elite, so that even when a company’s stock plummets, they’ll still raise executive compensation and tell Union workers that their compensation is the reason that the company’s overhead is high.

With the lack of funding in education, social services and infrastructure building in the last three decades, our work force is unable to keep up with the rising cost of education (leading to decrease in both income and productivity in American workers, mostly due to government policy), our populace is in increasing levels of poverty and our infrastructure is crumbling. As the effects of the decline are felt, more and more people support raising taxes on the wealthy, as a direct response to the disproportionate income, wealth and influence in the government.

The response by the extremely wealthy has been extraordinarily childish: rather than engage in their civic responsibility to build their communities, corporations and wealthy Americans all over the nation are threatening to pack up and move somewhere cheaper. Caterpillar, Jimmy Johns and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange all threatened to leave Illinois because of an increase in income taxes, Twitter threatened to leave San Francisco because of local tax rates, and Standard & Poor’s threatened to move to New Jersey if they didn’t get “special tax breaks”.

The recent trend of threatening to leave might be relatively new, but the concept (the wealthy vacating a community to abdicate social responsibility) is a time-honored tradition. Moving your business to a tax haven (a country with a much lower taxation rate) in order to avoid your tax burden has become so common since the 1970’s that Nicholas Shaxson calls it “the heart of the global economy”. In fact, a single building in the Cayman Islands is home to more than 18,800 firms, including Coca-Cola, Oracle and Intel.

So what can we do about it? Passing laws to restrict the freedom of movement sets a dangerous precedent and reeks of tyranny, but you don’t need to restrict movement to restrict tax shelters (any more than you need to actually move to the Cayman Islands to get the tax break). The people can demand a closure of these tax holes by their Congressional representatives, but what about the moving itself? What can be done when the wealthy take their money and flee to other countries?

The truth is that the wealthy already consume products made in foreign countries and do very little to contribute to the standard of living of the American people. While the GDP would decrease from a mass exodus of the upper echelon of society, it would focus our economy more on providing for the citizens that are left: the American middle class. When the rich next threaten to take their ball and leave, I urge Americans everywhere to call their bluff and speak plainly: we’re better off without them.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Israel's Manifest Destiny

Nineteenth century America was pockmarked with deplorable actions which were justified with the concept of “Manifest Destiny” (a quasi-religious ‘right’ for America to expand it’s borders across all of North America), notably the genocide of the indigenous Americans. Similarly, since its creation in 1948 (and the ensuing conflict), Israel has expelled Palestinians from their homes, prohibited economic development and annexed Palestinian land- all justified with a religious mandate to return ‘home’.

The first major expulsion of Palestinians (called the “nakba”, or catastrophe, by the refugees) came during the war succeeding the creation of Israel by the UN- over 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes, and Israel quickly passed laws and demolished homes to prohibit the Palestinians from returning. After 1948, Israel continued to expand it’s borders by evicting Palestinians (or bulldozing their homes, if they would not leave). The similarities to The Trail of Tears are striking- an indigenous people forced to away from their homes and prohibited from returning by law.

The expansion is justified several ways. The first of which is the concept, “to the victor goes the spoils,” with the idea being that because Israel won the Six Day War, they have a right to claim land that was previously occupied by Jordan. The Mexican-American war can serve as a very close analogy to the Six Day War- they were both aggressive wars, both resulted in expanded borders for the victor, and both are justified by a predestined mandate to expand their territories. The idea that the annexation of Jerusalem is justified by war would be much more convincing (though still, in my opinion, immoral) if the land was being taken from Jordanian civilians. While it’s true that Jordan occupied Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories at the time of the war, the civilians that were disenfranchised were natives to the land- Palestinians. Through no fault of their own, these citizens were forced out of homes they had been in for years.

Another rationale for both Manifest Destiny and Israel’s expansion is a religious right to the land. The first usage of the term ‘manifest destiny’ said that the North American continent was “allotted by Providence”. In other words, the land was a God-given right. Prime Minister Netanyahu told the Israeli Parliament last year that Jerusalem was Israel’s "eternal and indivisible" capital, and claimed that it’s mention in the Torah 850 times was justification for it’s annexation.

The similarities don’t end there. The Indian Removal Act bears a striking resemblance to the use of "settlement expansion, house demolitions, discriminatory housing policies and the West Bank (Separation) barrier as a way of 'actively pursuing the illegal annexation' of East Jerusalem,” as revealed by an EU in a confidential report filed in 2008. The Indian Appropriations Acts are similar to the measures taken by Israel to prevent economic growth in Palestine, including the sanctions and blockades imposed by Israel, in that they arbitrarily limit trade on certain luxury goods (alcohol and chocolate, for instance) among the indigenous people. The massacres during Operation Hiram by the IDF are similar in nature (though much less prolific) to the massacres of Native Americans by the United States military.

The term “manifest destiny” isn’t very popular in America any more, but our imperialism remains (as demonstrated by our intervention in Iraq and Pakistan, among others). Israel’s expansion onto lands previously occupied by Palestinians is increasingly controversial (with human rights organizations in Israel, such as B’Tselem advocating the cessation of violent annexation), but it remains to be seen if the lasting influence of that expansion on foreign policy and military doctrine will mirror Manifest Destiny’s effect on the United States.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

US Drone Strikes Threaten Relationship with Pakistan

Pakistan plays a pivotal role in our war in Afghanistan. Most of the supplies and equipment used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan are shipped in from Pakistan's northwest border (along the Waziristan region and in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province), and that same area is contested by Taliban insurgency. To secure it's supply routes and ensure the defeat of Taliban forces, the US employs unmanned drones to attack suspicious targets. These drone strikes are illegal, immoral and are alienating Pakistan from it's US ally.

The US has no legal standing to removing sovereignty from Pakistan- they pose no threat the the United States (even the Taliban in northern Waziristan pose no direct threat to the US). By launching attacks into Pakistan, the US is committing "a violation of our sovereignty," according to Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit. The UN Human Rights Council's special investigator Phil Aston stated "the Central Intelligence Agency is running a program that is killing significant numbers of people and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international laws". Interior Minister Rehman Malik agreed, stating unambiguously that, "drone attacks are violating Pakistan's sovereignty". Pakistan's parliament voted just yesterday to disallow any drone attacks by the US: "Such drone attacks must be stopped forthwith, failing which the government will be constrained to consider taking necessary steps including withdrawal of (the) transit facility allowed to NATO". Contrast this democratically set mandate to the US' actual policy: US drone strikes are set to intensify in Pakistan, and just one day before the Parliamentary action US officials confirmed that the drone strikes will continue, even after bin Laden's death.

Apart from the illegality of the drone strikes, their inefficiency and inaccuracy are so abyssal that it renders them indefensible. The success rates of the drone strikes are an astoundingly low 2%- at $10.5 million per drone (with the next generation model slated to cost up to $15 million), such a low mission success rate can't be justified. The repeated failure of the strikes to kill the correct people isn't just incompetent and expensive, either- it results in innocent, civilian casualties. Almost one thousand Pakistani civilians were killed by drones in 2010 alone, and Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution places the ratio of combatants to civilians killed by the drone strikes as ten to one.

The effect that this has had on US/Pakistani relations is made clear by the actions of the Pakistani government, who are understandably concerned with this loss of Sovereignty and are responding with saber rattling by the head of the air force, Rao Qamar Suleman who stated that they "may shoot down US drones". Another (and perhaps more likely) outcome would be a shut down of the supply lines by Pakistan itself (a similar shutdown was threatened in 2008), undermining our military position in Afghanistan. Pakistan's President has repeatedly requested that we share intelligence and stop the drone attacks, and his requests have been ignored. US politicians publicly and directly contradict Pakistani officials about the drone program, and the US military feels comfortable pledging to respect the sovereignty of Pakistan only hours before an unapproved drone strike. It's not clear exactly how far each nation is willing to give, but with the US' steadfast advocation for these drone raids and the Pakistani population's overwhelming opposition to them, it's clear that the escalating tensions must eventually crescendo.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tunisia and what we can learn

Tunisia's uprising is extraordinarily interesting. Of course, seeing people stand up against corruption is always heartening, but it also gives incite into what is and is not effective for people advocating for change with limited means to do so legally. In an interview with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, Jual Cole explains that it's not just an uprising with a singular source:

All revolutions are multiple revolutions happening at the same time. So there’s a strong element of economic protest. There’s a class element. Twenty percent of college graduates are unemployed. There’s extreme poverty in the rural areas. And the regime was doing things that interfered with economic development. They would use the banks to give out loans to their cronies, and then the cronies wouldn’t pay back the banks, so they were undermining the financial system. And that made it—and the extremeness of the dictatorship, the demands constantly for bribes, discouraged foreign investment. So the regime was all about itself. It was doing things that were counterproductive. And it injured the interests of many social groups—the college-educated, the workers. Now, the three ministers that pulled back out of the national unity government today were from the General Union of Tunisian Workers, which is an old, longstanding labor organization. So, it was a mass movement; it included people from all kinds of backgrounds.

Juan Cole continues to impress me. It's easy to think of revolutionaries as a monolithic group, but the reason so few are successful is because the reality is much different than the ideal. Though direct opposition to a revolt often quashes it, the times that violence attain the desired effect of suppression require different tactics.

The Tunisian government is attempting perhaps the most insidious of tactics to deal with the revolution: fracturing. The idea being to give concessions to some of the groups while leaving the rest oppressed. It was particularly effective against the labor movements of the early 1900's whose members were often deeply bigoted white supremacists (though not nearly as violent as generations previous and relatively innocuous compared to violent racists in the same time period).

The Tunisians government has already tried a few concessions. The BBC describes them as "dramatic", but based on the details available they seem quite sparse. The president has promised to stand down in 2014 and to reduce food prices. Investigations have been opened into the President, his bank accounts and his financial connection to his network of nepotism. The curfew has been reduced (though not removed), but that might be the only real, substantial change.

The Tunisian protesters, to their merit, seem unfazed. They seem to recognize that promises made while they are active are unlikely to be followed through upon by the dictator if he's allowed to retake control, and very little has changed since then. If they stay together, I'll be excited to see how far they can take their country with regards to eliminating corruption and obtaining truly democratic representation.

If the citizens of the US with legitimate grievances stood together in solidarity, I wonder what they could achieve. I don't think any US politician would be willing to use physical violence on nonviolent unarmed US citizens without due process (though they felt it was appropriate with armed citizens in Waco, and unarmed citizens abroad like Gulet Mohamed, and unarmed non-citizens like New Americans without legal papers), so the response will definitely be to capitulate to certain interests and leave the others alone.

We've already seen this tactic effectively employed for the last few years. A big ceremonious (and imaginary) closing of Guantanamo while we continue to torture abroad, a repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell while the Defense of Marriage Act stands, pretending to pull out of Iraq while our unmanned death machines reign carnage on Pashtun weddings have all left the progressives in America divided.

Obama, we can all agree, was better than McCain. So, we fought for Obama (and we won)! With that victory, though, came the misconception that Obama was 'on our side'. We had no figure on the left and no venue to reach the level of people that the conservative media (Fox, AM radio) and the government aligned media (NPR, NYT, MSNBC, CNN, etc.) do every day. We have the occasional Amy Goodman and Glenn Greenwald, but their voices were far eclipsed by the status-quo noise machine.

Our system is dominated by money. It controls how effectively information is spread, how the public is exposed to that information and the 'groupthink' opinion is hoisted off onto anyone who sees a seed of truth and doesn't have the time, motivation or resources to investigate further. We need to stop looking to media figures or even executive leaders for cue and start concentrating on the policy, not the people.

Going through all those quotes by Dr. King yesterday, I was reminded of his triple evils of poverty, war and racism and how connected they are. Poverty would not exist in our world today without excess. Our resources are vast and our production effective beyond belief. Poverty exists because we allow it to exist every time we focus our resources on luxuries for the wealthy instead of necessities for our peers.

War serves only to pad the pockets of the owners of Lockheed Martin, Halliburton/KBR, Blackwater/XE and other war profiteers. Without the profit motive and our glorification of violent conflict, our politicians wouldn't feel so driven to it.

Racism may seem less tied to economic exploitation now than it did in Dr. King's time, but that's only because a veil draped over the connection has been propagated by that same pro-status-quo media machine. The source of the concentration of money can easily be traced to a time when Africans were exploited by wealthy whites (read: all of American History). I believe that the reason 'othering' (not just racism but also sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc) is so prevalent and sustained in our society is the benefit that the 'upper class' (those that benefit most from societies current structure) perpetuate it. In this sense, a sort of Reaganomics of ideas exists; the wealthy reward those media outlets that parrot their opinions with investment and commercial capital and the ideas 'trickle down' to the rest of us.

These three evils are symptoms of the real disease: economic exploitation. Only when everyone who is harmed by corporate, government and societal oppression comes to realize the singular source and fight against it together will the system (which has been built to last and has a myriad of tools and resources to combat change at it's disposal) be formed by the people like a true democracy, rather than by moneyed interests like the plutocracy we're degenerating into.