2013 was filled with controversy after controversy. Meanwhile, the hope and inspiration of the 2012 election outcomes and ongoing Arab Spring revolutions seem to have been replaced with spreading instability and renewed pessimism. From the Middle East to Africa to Asia to Russia to even Europe and the US, the world is facing more and more self-inflicted catastrophes. That said, Europe’s intervention in several African conflicts as well as small hints of political and policy successes throughout the world suggest 2014 may be a year of redemption for politics and civil society in general. With that in mind, I wish you a happy New Year and I’ll see you on the other side.
The story on the NSA spying controversy is turning to the courts. Many view a Supreme Court review of the NSA and other spy agencies activities as an important step in resolving the national security/civil liberties conflict of interests. In truth, any decision is far from the end of the debate. If the American People want their freedoms and rights protected then they need to stand up for them by petitioning their elected officials to review and curtail the activities of our national apparatus. Doing so may even require the passage of a Constitutional Amendment, but we cannot expect our democratic rights and freedoms to be respected unless we are willing to demand them.
That said, the Supreme Court may well rule in either direction should the issue reach our highest court. Our security officials are very smart and clever, so they likely stayed within the technical limits of the Law, though the laws on the books could be a violation of our Constitutional protections. More importantly, we live in a day and age where an individual must share personal information and activities with third parties, such email services, internet providers, etc, in order to exist in our modern society. (Even if they are just collecting data and not reviewing it, it is still a violation of your privacy.)
One of the main arguments our courts are facing is whether previous standards for a reasonable right to privacy need to be tightened by the Supreme Court, i.e. spy agencies should not be able to legally collect data from third parties without a court order. Because you cannot live today without surrendering your personal information to third parties like phone and internet companies, we face a false choice where a legal standard, which allows the NSA and other spy agencies to freely collect data from third parties, means you must sacrifice a reasonable right to privacy. In truth, this is more and more becoming reality thanks to ongoing technological advances.
To live or enjoy a basic right to privacy isolated from the world is not an acceptable choice while it certainly does not honor the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Consequently, the Supreme Court must eventually recognize the need to revise previous court decisions and standards. In tandem, our Legislators need to do the same thing. It is one thing for corporations to deny users a privacy standard in the wake of weak regulation, but governments must protect the rights of citizens. As such, they are the ones who should be advancing standards for privacy, not arguing privacy should be suspended when they want to collect every piece of data on every person for potential review.
On Friday, December 27, 2013 the PBS Newshour featured a guest by the name of Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute who argued there is no consensus of research supporting claims that economic disparity hurts the economy. He also argued there was no consensus on whether disparity is actually hindering upward mobility, i.e. the ability of individuals to improve their socioeconomic standing. Although Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich disputed this expert opinion, economic measures like disparity and upward mobility are not necessarily as solid of measures as people are lead to believe; thereforce, they should be heeded, yet not over focused on.
Popular TV series like CSI may like to use catch phrases like “the evidence never lies,” but that is simply not true. What evidence is gathered and how that evidence is interpreted determines the outcome of a scientific investigation. Researchers were wrong about the incredible edible egg, because they did not have all of the facts while they were interpreting their data under a false pretense: all cholesterol is bad. In the case of economics, researchers must tease data from a variety of sources that are from comprehensive while they make tons of assumptions, which determine the limitations of a given economic model or theory.
For example, most economic theory cannot give adequate predictions past a few years, thus economics is short-sighted by its very nature. In accordance, economic philosophy takes over once the science of economics is no longer reliable. Meanwhile, most economic theory tends to focus on the macroscopic economy; henceforth, macroscopic measures like the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), upward mobility, and inflation reveal what is happening across the overall economy. An increasing or shrinking GDP cannot necessarily reveal the harmful effects of economic disparity nor can it readily reveal the long-term instability caused by economic disparity. Mr. Winship went so far as to say there are some studies that reveal growing economic disparity could help increase GDP. Even if valid, our attention should be focused on other factors.
As far as community and personal economic growth are concerned, GDP only tells us that our nation’s economic environment favors growth. Looking at measures like core inflation, the exclusion of vital and often volatile expenses like energy and food demonstrates the need to over focus on ill-cited economic indicators. What really matter is how much money is steered toward out communities and local businesses. If the economy is not doing that, we are experiencing economic disparity that makes it less likely our economic interests will be met. This means we have no incentive to support policies that simply increase the GDP as our interests are less likely to be met.
It is also important to remember the advantage of democratic government stems from its ability to hear, balance, and address the interests of all its Peoples. Unfortunately, our wealthy and working class already feel poor people have little right to complain about public policies when they are ones who have the most pressing interest in forcing government to address their economic interests through improved economic policies. As economic disparity growth and the purchasing power of consumers decreases, so does their influence. Henceforth, too much economic disparity will weaken our democratic representation and rights. Moreover, what really matters for the individual is the state of their own finances, so we should always pursue policies that best serve our direct and broader economic interests.
As commodity, energy, and food price increase along with the price of essential consumer goods and services like automobiles, computers, cell phones, internet access, education, etc., the ability of individuals to support their current lifestyle, growth their incomes to increase their lifestyles, cope with potential economic catastrophes, and save for the future is what really matters. In accordance, the expenses involved in maintaining a middle class lifestyle are far greater than what they were in the 70’s when American incomes peaked while the cost of a “Middle Class” lifestyle will only increase in the future. The lesson here is that incomes must grow, versus stagnate or shrink, to simply maintain a certain level of comfort or survivability.
Furthermore, the idea of survivability is often discussed in terms of social welfare programs like food stamps and Medicaid. If we wish to understand the true nature of our economic state, these benefits and others cannot be included in any calculation of economic disparity while the debt of government must included as it determines the real economic value of America, which is shrinking. With significant numbers of Americans unable to support themselves without government assistance, including Social Security, or other forms of debt (credit cards, home refinancing etc.), and two-thirds of the American economy based on consumer spending, a lack of wealth in the hands of the majority of American will eventually spell disaster. As such, the advent of economic disparity and lack of upward mobility on a massive scale could very well be seen as a sudden catastrophic onset, even if there is no gradual increase in these measures.
Meanwhile, it is important to remember economic disparity creates a great deal of long-term issues. Technologically, the world is headed into an era of unprecedented advancement where the vast majority of the world will not benefit equally due to personal financial constraints and technical skill. Economic disparity will determine how unequal the benefits of technology will be in the future. At a certain point, that technological and technical gap can grow so wide the vast majority of individuals in the world will be denied access to modern lifestyles. In fact, the standard of living of today may no longer be accessible for most American, because they will not be able to afford it or invest into it.
President Obama and other political leaders have decided to take on economic disparity, so there will be those who push back while what policies are pursued should be questioned. Certainly, no one should suppress evidence that undermines popular perceptions. That evidence is actually valuable as it give us insights into what policies will be most effective, but such evidence read improperly will derail efforts to solve problems. The GDP, economic disparity, and upward mobility of today are not necessarily the issue; it is the trends that reveal our future economic state that matter. In their book “Why We Want You to Be Rich,” Donald Trump and Robert Kiyosaki, who wrote the quintessential “Rich Dad, Poor Bad,” make the case for increasing and broadening one’s sources of incomes and financial assets. A failure to address economic disparity makes it that much more difficult for the American to follow the advice of these two financial experts, so the American People always need to be followed on how to decrease economic disparity, increase upward mobility, and decrease poverty.
There is a certain degree of hypocrisy to fact that the UN was able to send Peacekeepers to the recently formed South Sudan in response to growing violence. Those in Syria have experienced far worse violence for far longer while their violence started as a result of the current leadership choosing to violently crackdown on protestors. While the major distinguishing factor seems to be the fact that UN Peacekeepers were already in South Sudan due to ethnic cleansing on behalf of Sudan, the Syrians and others are certain to see immediate UN action as a slap in the face.
“Cool heads prevail,” is a saying that hints at the need to avoid acting on anger or hysteria. In accordance, the worst time to plan an intervention is not when the intervention is most needed. The reason additional Un Peacekeepers will be able to react to violence in South Sudan is that the mechanism for intervention was already in place; whereas, the International Community continues to fail when it comes to unplanned interventions that require a serious commitment. In many respects, our world leaders are dishonest about the need for intervention, thus organizations like the UN have limited credibility and effectiveness.
Public officials continually say things like this or that situation requires a political solution, not a military solution. In many respects, this is really a means of the International Community rationalizing its inability to honor its self-proclaimed commitments and responsibilities. Politics exists to give actors with conflicts of interests a less destructive course of action versus immediately engaging in mass violence. The reason for the violence in South Sudan and Syria is a failure of politics to deliver satisfactory solutions. Meanwhile, every civil society adhering to political, legal, economic, and other social norms do so because policing organizations add more immediate consequent for those willing to engage in violence.
In Syria, President Assad quickly bowed to US pressure to dismantle this chemical weapons’ arsenal once he felt military action was forthcoming, i.e. the military solution made the political solution an attractive option enough option for Assad to choose it. In South Sudan, the military solution is more of a police solution, thus UN Peacekeepers are there to prevent violence from spreading while a political solution may be facilitated by South Sudanese political leaders and world leaders. In other words, the UN is doing little to exert a military solution onto the situation.
South Sudan is a new country facing short-term hurdles thanks to its history of violence with parent country Sudan and long-term issues that will determine how national produce with impact the Peoples of South Sudan. This latest streak of violence is a step back to those short-term interests instead of a step forward to deal with long-term interests like the dispersion and exploitation of South Sudan’s natural resources. Syria is now a broken country with an established civil society that is in need of a military solution while it will have a serious policing problem once it is time for a political solution.
Where additional military pressure could force Assad to settle Syria’s civil war, South Sudan is best served by a police solution that helps reestablish peace for now. If the situation collapses into a full civil war, the UN must either put enough boots on the ground to force a political solution or remove troops until such a civil fizzles out. Given the widespread instability in countries across the globe, such a commitment is an unlikely option and one that would probably create great political backlash from neglected countries like Syria.
I’ve been told the holiday season is a time for family and friends, not politics. Even though we live in a democracy, so much that the entire American cultural identify is built around our democratic way of life and history as the first modern democracy, I guess we can put politics on the back burner for a little bit. Merry Christmas and happy every other holiday.
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