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Are we living in the age of protest?

ProtestsIt’s possible.

A working paper from the Initiative for Policy Dialogue tracked all protests from 2006 to 2013. The authors classified each protest according to the types of grievances and causes of outrage, the profile of demonstrators, size and the nature of opposition.

They found that protests are becoming more common worldwide and larger in size. The largest protests in human history (one exceeding 100 million people) have occurred in the past six years.

Increases in frequency are consistent across all types of protests, including economic justice, failure of political representation, rights and global justice.

Full on riots are fortunately few (only ~10% of all protests), but arrests and state violence are common. The biggest offenders include Iran, Russia, the US, Canada and Cameroon.

Developed countries account for the lion’s share of protests and the authors noted increased levels of “soft repression” in the form of surveillance and profiling.

More encouraging, they found that 37% of protests result in some kind of political change. These gains were mostly in the areas of political, legal and social rights. Global issues and economic justice, however, appear the most difficult areas to achieve change. No surprises here. These problems are vastly complex, entrenched, include numerous players and not easily solved.

I’ve written before on the issue of food prices and protest in South Africa and other authors have found similar trends in the Middle East. While the grievances of protesters often has little to do with food or issues of daily living, I’m wondering how economic pressures might be stimulating conditions favorable to demonstration. No doubt, we might look to solving the worldwide problem of volatile agricultural commodity prices and food availability.

Most interesting are the ubiquitous calls for “real democracy” or adequate representation of the populace in political matters. Policy makers would do well to respond to this simple and obvious call for inclusion. If not, we will see further unrest and potentially more violence and instability.

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To Raise the Minimum Wage or….

In my morning reads, I found this article from Ezra Klein. Apparently, economists widely agree that raising the minimum wage will reduce poverty.

Klein’s article mostly centers around a paper from Arindrajit Dube. Using models, he found that raising the federal minimum wage from the current $7.235 to $10.10 would reduce the number of people in poverty by 2.4%, largely agreeing with studies from other economists.

To me, this in encouraging but wholly unsatisfying. If we assume that approximately 50 million Americans live in poverty, this would mean that 1.2 million Americans would no longer be classified as poor. Certainly, this would be touted as a success.

However, noting that nearly 48 million Americans would still be impoverished, I can’t help but feel that the effort would have been wasted. Worse yet, I wonder how prices and employment might be impacted by a nearly 33% increase in wage costs. Here, there seems to be little consensus among economists.

The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of a redistributive “negative income tax” which provides direct cash payments to households based on income earned. Before my conservative friends get upset, I would point out that (depending on who you ask) the idea was originally proposed by conservative, free-market, University of Chicago school economist Milton Friedman. The present Earned Income Credit is based on his model.

So here are my (non-economist) points, all of which are completely up for debate:

1. Cash payments from government proportional to income earned would benefit far more people than those on the bottom income rung. The goal would not be to merely “alleviate poverty” but to also bring up the economic profile of all households below the current income median. I find the current discussions of raising the minimum wage to be incredibly myopic. I don’t know who raising the federal minimum wage will alleviate the greater problem of economic inequality in the United States.
2. It would have the effect of pro-actively alleviating poverty while still insuring employment and a health economy. Businesses would be motivated to maximize employment and would have little reason to insure that workers stay on the bottom. Small businesses would also have more leeway with which to figure out how to provide health or retirement benefits to workers.
3. Cash transfers would presumably reward increases in income within the bottom 25% of wage earners and gradually begin to taper off as incomes become healthy and sustainable. Tapering would be important. Welfare payments are often too regressive. They punish households for escaping poverty by cutting off benefits. Not only does this send an odd message to American workers, it also encourages hidden sources of income complicating taxation and the payment of wages below the federal minimum wage. Work in the shadows is not a pretty thing.
4. It would feed money directly into the economy and possible into communities. Households which have trouble saving would now (as with the EIC) receive lump sum payments with which they can purchase big ticket items, put a down payment on a new place to live, or even save the money so as to invest or start a business later. The biggest hurdle that entrepreneurs face is a lack of access to start up capital.
5. It would be equitable. Minimum wage increases risk regional efforts to circumvent them. As noted in 3) direct payments to households would help avoid the problem of “under the table work” which often preys on the weakness of workers.

Of course, this begs the problem of how to finance such a system. Barring the details (and potentially another post), I would suggest that federal sales (consumption) tax or a value added tax such as those in Scandinavia. This tax would exclude housing, food and education, but be applied to consumer goods and services. More on that later.

So that’s my take. I think that raising the minimum wage is a good step, but merely a Band-Aid on a greater problem. What do you think (all 10 of you)?

Neocons Get Free Room and Board at the University of Michigan

Today, I got a email notice calling for applications for Telluride House. A scholarship guarantees one free room and board for up to 5 years here at the University of Michigan.

Telluride house is a residential community at the University of Michigan that offers full room and board scholarships to University students, based on a selective application process. The scholarships, renewable for up to five years, offer a unique living experience filled with intellectual stimulation, challenging leadership development opportunities, and a host of avenues for thoughtful engagement in governance and community service. Past winners of the Telluride scholarship include a diverse set of luminaries such as philosopher Francis Fukuyama, postmodern scholar Gayatri Spivak, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, and
several Nobel prize winners including Steven Weinberg, Richard Feynman, and Linus Pauling.

I never realized I shared an educational pedigree with such right wing luminaries like Fukuyama and Paul Wolfowitz.

Both were members of the Project for the New American Century, the right wing group with orchestrated the eventual invasion of Iraq by the United States. It’s worth noting that Dick Cheney, Jeb Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were also in the same group.

It can be argued that this was one of the most influential groups in recent history, having carved the path of current US foreign policy.

To be fair, Fukuyama has since backtracked on his neocon past but still enjoys photography.

Do these people need free room and board? That’s a better deal than most people ever get. Most people don’t orchestrate massive military expeditions. Telluride would do well to open their doors to the poor and conscientious.

John Rawls and the Cancer of Extreme Inequality

Presently, I am slogging through John Rawls‘ “A Theory of Justice“, the brunt of which rests on these two basic requirements of a just society:

First, each person is to have an equal right to the most basic extensive set of liberties comparable with the liberties of others.

Second, social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and b) attached to positions and offices open to all…

The first appears rather standard, particularly to an American. Liberties and rights should be guaranteed to apply to all citizens in an equal fashion.

In practice, of course, the easiest way to circumvent this requirement is to play fast and loose with definition of citizenship itself. This phenomenon should be very familiar to an American, particularly in an age where rights are happily denied to those labelled as “illegal,” despite participation in our economic system, which is the very root of out national identity.

The second is more interesting. Rawls accepts inequality, but argues that it is only permissible when it benefits everyone, and when opportunities to move on the social ladder are open to everyone.

Clearly, if we take Rawls’ requirements as dogma, the United States in 2012 has a serious problem. The United States would be a prime example of an unjust society. Our level of inequality benefits only a select few. Our level of inequality is cancerous.

One could argue that it always has been, though I would also argue that we made serious inroads for a while (thank you labor, thank you unions). However, The economic tides have very much turned against individuals seeking to move up.

I keep returning to the situation of adjunct instructors, and how the phenomenon is completely unspectacular in the grand scheme of things and indicative of this cancerous growth of economic inequalities and therefore, power inequalities.

Inequality is wildly popular in the US. Hollywood made an industry out of telling stories of people with lives and abilities vastly superior to our own. Jesus can walk on water, we have to swim. It’s also true, that a certain amount of inequality is necessary.

What proponents of the current level and growth of inequality miss (and they are clearly legion), is that the extremely wealthy in the United States are no longer constrained by national borders. Free marketers make the assumption that once all resources move to a select few, the market will collapse and reset. This is the heart of neo-classical economics. If things get really bad, the system will fix itself. But what if the winning players can just quit the game?

As an example, this idea of a “resetting system” certainly hasn’t worked for Michigan. Why? Michigan (and least of all for Detroit) isn’t a closed system! The wealthy of Michigan are free to invest is other more profitable areas, other states or countries, while the not so wealthy at home are left in the dust and without capital. The point is, the rich have many choices. We don’t have that many.

Mr. Romney is the inequality candidate. In fact, he feels that people (like me) screaming of the problems of inequality are just “envious.” Personally, I don’t give a shit about his dancing horse. I just want non-employer sponsored affordable health care and reasonable wages for my fellow Americans.

Granted, Mr. Romney has never been poor so we should wonder why anyone should believe him when he speaks on the subject. Vote for him, and you, well, vote for him.

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