Opinion Column: Widespread protest creates freedom around the globe

The following is an opinion editorial that I submitted to a local paper.

Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again…

– Les Misérables

It started, of all places, in Tunisia – a small North African country mostly ignored by the wider world. Authoritarian crackdowns, high unemployment, and repression of speech were commonplace there, thanks to the corrupt leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in power since 1983. Conventional wisdom held that Tunisia could not change, that it was just one of those countries destined to dictatorship and unfairness for eternity.

But for all the Tunisians had weathered, last December brought the final straw. Mohamed Bouazizi was a street vendor who supported his family of eight with less than five dollars a day. He refused to pay a bribe to a police officer, who then publicly threw him to the ground and confiscated his cart and supplies. Humiliated and in despair, on the same day he set himself aflame and committed suicide.

And so the winds of change began to blow.

First the people of his neighborhood turned out by the thousands to decry this oppression. The protests soon spread to the entire country. Almost all Tunisia’s lawyers and teachers went on strike, while peaceful demonstrators were attacked with tear gas and beaten. On the orders of President Ben Ali, police dispersed demonstrations through force, but they simply could not handle the onslaught of ordinary civilians. Ben Ali fled the country on January 14. The country has now elected an assembly tasked with creating a new constitution.

This alone would be a momentous and uplifting event – but it has turned out to be the first act in a still ongoing drama of liberty, tyranny, and passion on a truly global scale.

Citizens in neighboring Egypt were galvanized by the Tunisian victory and demonstrated for three weeks in central Cairo and Alexandria. Despite being beaten, gassed, and killed by the thousands, despite being completely cut off from the outside world, despite Orwellian throttling of expression and assembly, resident despot Hosni Mubarak resigned. He is now on trial for his crimes at Egyptian courts in Cairo.

In Libya, ruled by bloodthirsty despot Muammar Gaddafi for 41 years, similar protests were met with slaughter on an appalling scale. Ordinary citizens could either join the revolution against Gaddafi’s mercenaries or watch their friends and neighbors get mowed down in a hail of bullets. Against all odds, the Libyan people prevailed with international assistance, finally deposing Gaddafi. Now their only challenge is to create a democratic government from scratch.

But protest didn’t stop there.

Even in our own Madison, Wisconsin, over 100,000 citizens came out against a governor who gave tax breaks to big business and corporations but saw it necessary to rescind state employees’ bargaining rights, even though they had already made financial concessions. The extent of Governor Walker’s perfidy and corruption certainly does not match those of Mubarak or Gaddafi, but the people whose livelihoods were shattered by Walker’s actions protested – in the exact same manner of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests – and made great political strides, showing the true power of peaceful, determined demonstration.

The most recent wave of change this year is the Occupy Wall Street movement, also known as the 99% movement. One percent of Americans own more than a third of America’s wealth; while they pay much lower tax rates than those who make less. Their corporate influence negatively affects politics and law, using shady campaign contributions to create attack ads and shape legislation through intense lobbying. By refusing to accept this situation, Occupy Wall Street has shown Americans that a nation without power in the hands of the rich and corporations can be possible. The 99% movement has irretrievably changed the national political discourse to include the economically disenfranchised, the poor, and the unemployed.

From Egypt to Wall Street, from Greece to Wisconsin, from Yemen to Syria, people are awakening. They are realizing that however imposing, however rigid an injustice may seem, it can always crumble under the weight of an informed, dedicated populace. The sheer magnitude of popular protest is changing the world, right now, one demonstration at a time. It is we, the people, that have the final say over all laws and regulations, all censorship and corruption, all progress and awakening.

Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade, is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free!



Suppression, in five acts

The Bill

A restrictive Voter ID bill was introduced in the Wisconsin State Senate in January.

The Passage



“Budget Cuts”

Closures of DMV offices (but only ones in Democratic districts).




The Plot

Voter caging, uncovered by One Wisconsin Now.

Even if none of this has been done with intent to disenfranchise, the effect cannot be disputed. #


The Economic Problem

Unemployment. Drug abuse. Lack of health care. Illiteracy and education decline. Street violence. Xenophobia. Prostitution. Malnourishment. The increasing income gap.

These are the industrial world’s perennial problems. The ones that have defied attempts both of both legislators and concerned citizens to squash them.  The ones that show us that America and Britain and Germany have their fair share of hardships as well.

But what if these aren’t isolated troubles, but symptoms of a single ailment? I believe that there is a thread connecting all these issues, one which is not a complete explanation but nevertheless important: the problem of poverty.

Now, I use poverty in a sense broader than the traditional — I think many “middle-class” families drawing salaries above the federal poverty guidelines should be considered poor, not necessarily even because of a quality of life deficiency, but due to a lack of economic safety. A family of four with a single wage-earner who draws $30,000 a year may have climbed into the administrative middle class, but if that lifeline is cut off even temporarily, government welfare is their only safety net. Millions of Americans above the federal guidelines or thresholds for poverty are still not economically secure. It is the extreme pervasiveness of economic insecurity — even in a country that theoretically has the resources to do away with it — that is the root of quite a few of America’s social, economic, and political problems.

The employment rate is obviously related to economic security, and while each factor affects the other, it is clear that promoting employment is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end, and that end is economic security. There are unemployed millionaires who are still economically secure.

Drug abuse has a worrying connection with poverty. Drugs (including alcohol) are often used because of depression or uneasiness about the future, easily caused by economic insecurity.

Economic security includes access to health car and other facilities that are needed for a healthy standard of living.

When children don’t know if they’ll have a place to sleep, their school performance drops dramatically.

Violence and vandalism are more symptoms of feelings of insecurity about the future, reflecting their prevalence in poorer neighborhoods.

“Immigrants will take our jobs” wouldn’t be scary if Americans knew they would be economically safe anyway.

Prostitution and sex trafficking are results of extreme poverty and unemployment forcing women and girls to sell themselves to survive.

Malnourishment is evidently related to poverty and economic insecurity and is a very important indicator of quality of life.

The fact that the rich make so much more than the poor wouldn’t matter if even the poorest were economically secure. At bottom, it’s not the unfairness but the absolute poverty of the poorest that is most important.

A livable level of economic security is a basic human right — deride welfare and entitlement programs all you want, but that doesn’t change the fact that foreigners deserve to live under a roof just like American-born citizens, the “lazy” deserve to eat every day just like the “hardworking”, and the poor deserve to sleep on a bed just as much as the rich. #


Freedom and Conformity

South Sudan is now independent.South Sudanese Flag

After two civil wars, broken treaties, and seemingly endless economic and military strife, the vast expanse of Sudan was split in two by a vote. A mere referendum toppled Khartoum‘s hegemony over ten states and ninety-eight percent of its oil reserves. So why did Omar al-Bashir give up without a fight?

Because the South Sudanese elected to secede with a majority of over 99%.

There is a deep cultural, ethnic, and religious divide between the North and South of the Sudan region. But ruling parties and united governments have dealt successfully with much more. But in the government controlled by the North, there was simply no place for a South Sudanese citizen. Even setting aside the killings in Darfur, Abyei, and South Kordofan, Khartoum showed with shari’a law, mandatory use of the Arabic language, and utter neglect of living conditions that millions of people simply had no right to live there.

When a government has no place for its citizens, they have no need for the institution itself. This is a lesson from which the world can learn. #


Government that Works

As discussed earlier, ideal capitalism, while allowing personal freedom, compounds the suffering of the poor and destitute. Ideal socialism, on the other hand, saves the economic welfare of the poor at the expense of everyone’s privacy and diversity. Any worthwhile economic governmental system, if one exists, must solve both problems.

In addition, no government idea that requires everyone, or even most people, to follow a particular mindset or carry out a series of specified actions will work — people are just too different for such a system to function.

So what could work? Here are some ideas:

  • Government as Business. In this system, the central government itself employs people, like any other business, in for-profit ventures. This would provide a much higher rate of employment and even decrease the need for taxes, due to the earnings of the business. However, this could be considered unfair, because the government also has the power of economic regulation.
  • Welfare Capitalism. The government is obligated to provide amenities, like food, clothing, and shelter, or simply flat sums of money, to everyone who does not or cannot make the sufficient amount by themselves. Theoretically unassailable, this scenario is marred by its huge expense.
  • The patron-client system. Known foremost as the mechanism of Ancient Rome’s social stability, this involves the rich, or patrons, being directly responsible for the welfare of their poorer clients and supporting them in their endeavors. For such an idea to re-emerge, it would have to be modernized and strictly enforced.

All of these ideas, to some extent, do exist in modern-day America. The public sector employs over two million citizens. Examples of welfare such as food stamps and Medicare do form a safety net, if not an airtight one. And though the benefits are not enforced in any way, the doctrines of supply-side economics pays lip service to the idea of the rich and corporations supporting the poor.

Most of these programs are steps in the right direction. But over 43 million Americans live in poverty — what is being done is not nearly enough. #


Thoughts on Corporate Taxation

The most frequent argument against American states raising corporate taxes that I have seen is that this will cause corporations to move their headquarters out of the state in question, transferring their jobs and patronage to another state in the process.

But this argument has a fundamental flaw. Besides having the general defeatist tone of a state that is enslaved to corporations for its well-being, it underestimates the power of the state itself to regulate commerce.

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution

In context, since the ability to regulate intrastate business activity is not barred from the states by the Constitution, the Tenth Amendment allows states to levy taxes on any and all entities that do business in a state, whether they reside there or not. It is perfectly legal for the government of Wisconsin to tax an Illinois citizen for activity in Wisconsin; why should an Illinois corporation be any different?

Besides, the state government could lower taxes on businesses that choose to host their headquarters in the state itself, creating a positive incentive to create jobs there. #


Lies All The Way Down

Today, let us mourn for Wisconsin.

Today, let us stand in unison and decry the appalling torrent of falsehood condemning so many public workers to financial ruin, an unmatched reduction in their voice in democracy, and an abhorrent status as Wisconsin’s new second-class citizens.

Today, this despicable maelstrom of political and social warfare has barreled through Madison’s statehouse, claiming yet another casualty: collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin’s public workers. In a move founded on extreme cynicism and utter disregard for their own talking points, the Republican-dominated State Senate separated the collective bargaining measure from other sections of Senate Bill 11 and passed it on a reduced non-financial quorum, despite Governor Walker’s past incongruous assertions that the bill is somehow about Wisconsin’s budget. This was on the same day that Walker’s staff sent multiple e-mails pretending to be open for negotiations with the 14 Democratic state senators.

But we must realize that this is not the extent of the dishonesty which has culminated in such an attack on workers’ rights. Almost every premise used to arrive at this conclusion, even those accepted in conventional wisdom, is assuredly incorrect.

  • Public sector workers do not ‘deserve’ any budget cuts and are in fact under-compensated.
  • Wisconsin is not in a ‘financial crisis’. Wisconsin’s budget woes, while substantial, are absolutely no cause for apocalyptic alarm or immediate action for Wisconsin citizens. With a 7.4% unemployment rate and substantial tax revenue, Wisconsin was in solid economic shape, especially compared to other states across America.
  • Neither the budget repair bill or layoffs are necessary to balance the budget. Walker would definitely agree with the statement that “everyone should contribute their fair share” to eking out gains in Wisconsin’s budget. But there is no reason for these new measures — there’s already a time-honored, universally effective way of increasing governmental revenue. It’s called ‘taxes’. Best of all, it even ensures that everyone contributes proportional amounts based on their income. Indeed, Wisconsin’s budget deficit could most likely be erased without even raising individual income taxes — currently, two-thirds of Wisconsin corporations do not pay state taxes.
  • America is in no financial danger. The proposed cuts in Wisconsin are part of a national, sobering mood that America’s “fiscal house” is not “in order” and that we need to fix this by heaping abuse on our most downtrodden citizens. But the United States deficit is less than 10% of GDP. An actual financial crisis, the one seen in Greece, involved a worldwide financial crunch exacerbating a deficit over 100% of GDP for fifteen straight years. To quote Harvard economist Larry Summers, “[a]nyone who takes seriously the idea that the debt limit could not be extended and there could be a default even for a nanosecond on U.S. debt is a child with a mach in a dynamite storeroom.”
  • Even if financial doom was assured for the world, we should not take such measures. The very raison d’être of the modern government is to assure a certain minimum quality of life for its citizens. Disregarding such obligations is at once reckless, irresponsible, and dangerous — absolutely nothing should be as important to the United States and Wisconsin governments as the well-being of all of their citizens. Arbitrarily deeming the United States and Wisconsin deficits, mere projections of abstract financial goals, as more important than the very lives of untold millions is one of the most disturbing and destructive mainstream legislative opinions held in America today.

To Governor Walker: your days in office are numbered. To Representative John Boehner, Senator Mitch McConnell, Michelle Bachmann, Koch Industries, and all those who would favor green on a balance sheet over food in someone else’s stomach: your utter disregard for humanity itself is appalling. You are the problem with America today. #