At the Edge

Commentary on the Big Issues

Month: December 2016

Anti-LGBT Laws

LGBT discrimination still exists today, even in the United States, despite the fact that Obergefell v. Hodges solved for a major portion of it. It’s disgusting and despicable, and with this (very brief) post, I hope to highlight a specific issue on LGBT rights: “religious freedom” laws. 

There are still 29 states in which individuals can get fired for being gay, or face similar abject discrimination just because of who they are. Take the case of Casey Stegall, a children’s social services worker who was fired just because of his sexual orientation. That’s the sort of thing that happens in America — progressive America. Why? The push from the Republican Party’s religious right, of course, in the form of bills such as the First Amendment Defense Act and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

All of these bills claim to be for the “preservation” of religious freedom, but the real objective behind them is obvious — this is a push against the LGBT+ community. In other words, they want to give people the right to destroy other people’s lives — making them unemployed, denying them healthcare or education, etc. — simply because they’re against the “religious principles” of those people. And by “they are against,” I’m saying that their existence is against the reactionary religious beliefs of certain individuals (including this bunch of far-right politicians).

The classic example of this form of discrimination is the example of people refusing to bake the cakes of LGBT individuals. That is hardly the main focus here. The main focus is cases such as those when hospitals can turn away LGBT people even in cases of emergency, causing the deaths of individuals. It’s when huge corporations can exploit LGBT individuals because of their conservative inclinations, by firing individuals, and thus destroying their lives, because of their sexual orientation. This should be reason enough to reject such despicable laws: engineered to rid individuals that don’t fall into the far-right’s precepts of their lives.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. This is a vast threat to social justice that the conservative establishment wants. Because they don’t care about the people as much as they care about their pathetic principles. The way these laws form a crux of politics is despicable, and they should be rejected with the deepest fervor.

Campaign Finance Reform

I firmly believe in the freedom of speech, but I only believe in that liberty for individuals. Human rights do not apply to inanimate entities such as corporations — corporate personhood is a facile notion. Giving corporations rights to “free expression” by allowing them to exercise financial power over politicians is giving possession of capital substantially more political power as an attribute. In other words, in rules of law where there are no limits on corporations funding political campaigns to advance their interests, democracy is eroded. Rich individuals and corporations could simply be kingmakers by (1) directly funding political campaigns and essentially structuring the policies of politicians, (2) funding media institutions to influence public perception by deeply biased, and even false, political commentary and (3) generally manipulate the public by dumping their money wherever necessary.

This is a problem both in Asia and in the West. In the U.S., the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC essentially declared multiple campaign finance restrictions unconstitutional as violative of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. The notion that some powerful corporation that simply wants to advance its interests must have its free speech prioritized over the people is fundamentally undemocratic.

The reason it is fundamentally undemocratic — as is the facile legal notion of “corporate personhood” — is that, in a democracy, political power must be decentralized. In other words, individuals should be able to play equal roles in democratic decisionmaking. When corporations can pay candidates as much as they want, then (1) there is no level playing field between various candidates because of the amount of money they have, as an extension of which (2) candidates essentially do whatever the corporations ask them to do, irrespective of whether they promised to do something of the sort, and irrespective of whether there’s a benefit to the people involved, and (3) people are deliberately manipulated in various ways, and their decisionmaking is infringed upon. Here, it is point (2) that is least obvious, and requires critical analysis.

For-profit institutions, generally, look toward short-term benefit or gain, over long-term stability of the market. Generally, public corporations have an ownership structure that requires them to impress their shareholders, so that there’s more investment, for which short-term profit is necessary. As such, corporations require the government to create conditions where their short-term goals are most profitable. That’s why corporate lobbies exist, and they’re willing to breach basic ethics to achieve their objectives. In the United States, the sugar industry has funded the deliberate publication of misleading scientific studies on the effects of sugar. In India itself, there was some level of advocacy to replace cooked midday meals with packaged biscuits under government midday meal schemes in schools. There are even larger corporate interests in question, and those are best fulfilled by placing candidates desirable to corporations in office.

The reason this is erosive of fundamental democratic values is that it is contradictory to the principle of “one person, one vote.” If each vote is to have equal value, then no corporation or individual should have greater political influence than any other. Of course, this is a utopian or quixotic ideal: but every step toward it is an objective social good. Erosion of democratic institutions is objectively harmful to social stability as a whole.

Thankfully, in India, we do have restrictions on the level of influence that individual or corporate wealth has on politics. But there have been multiple criticisms of these restrictions as “undemocratic.” I’m not qualified to do an in-depth analysis on the level of political influence campaign finance is used for in India, of course, but the notion that these restrictions are undemocratic is a myopic one. It is myopic because corporations are not people, and so don’t deserve the same legal rights. Money is not speech. At the point at which corporations looking to short-term financial gain have more power over government than the people, which they already do, what we’re looking at isn’t a democracy: it’s an oligarchy.

Campaign finance is not the only way corporations exert political influence — they will continue to use indirect, nefarious means to create conditions for their short-term objectives to be achieved. But at the point at which there are no restrictions on the structure of campaign finance, corporate managers can just buy elections directly. The enormous power of corporate lobbies, thus, is enhanced by such loose regulations. To be sure, none of this is a criticism of corporations or capitalism. I am not a socialist, or an anarchist. I’m a capitalist — a bitter one, but a capitalist nonetheless — so I am not opposed to corporations in principle. Most people aren’t. I am, however, opposed to the wreckage of the political system.

Issues such as health care costs (which affect both human welfare and long-term economic stability through their influence on productivity) and environmental protection (which is basically the most important issue of today) are affected by corporatist control: because there will always be vested interests against these long-term measures simply for the short term objective of profit. For example, lobby firms have spent millions of dollars fighting healthcare reform measures by President Obama. Similarly, multiple corporations back think tanks that deny the scientific consensus on climate change. At the point at which those very corporations gain the ability to exert direct and powerful influence over election, there’s no doubt they’ll push these interests — which are objectively harmful to long-term economic stability, and to society as a whole.

Every time a corporation buys an election, a battle in the war for democracy is lost. Only when the campaign finance system is reformed to prevent such intervention can true progress be made.

Reflecting on President Obama

It is official — successful businessman Donald Trump is the next President of the United States. In one month, President Obama will resign, and President-Elect Trump will take the oath of office. Let’s take this time to reflect on Barack Obama’s presidency, and how it has benefited both the United States and the world.

File:President Barack Obama.jpg

President Obama’s official photograph in the Oval Office on 6 December, 2012.

In 2008, everyone had high expectations of U.S. Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. He promised a strong recovery from economic recession, affordable and accessible healthcare, tax reliefs, and a strong, stable foreign policy. Unfortunately, he hasn’t fulfilled all those promises — partially due to a Republican-dominated legislature and general opposition from U.S. legislators; for instance, his proposed infrastructure investment and a minimum wage hike were both voted down by Congress.

Still, he has proven himself one of the most productive presidents the U.S. has ever had. He began by swiftly signing an $800 billion fiscal stimulus bill, and started tax relief measures, to boost competition and productivity in the midst of economic recession. In a span of two years, unemployment figures drastically dropped. With the heavily controversial Affordable Care Act, he ensured that the costs of health insurance dropped by 7%, the rate of price inflation of healthcare premiums dropped from 69% in the Bush administration to 27%, and millions of people gained health insurance. In his first term alone, he made substantial investments in clean energy, further strengthening his robust job creation schemes. Finally, his bailouts of the automobile industry ensured an end to the vicious cycle of private sector jobs in the auto industry being destroyed.

In terms of foreign policy, his accomplishments have been equally substantial. It has largely been conducive to advancing international stability, with the notable exception of intervention in Libya. Now, there’s little doubt that U.S. foreign policy has always been particularly ruthless — and has engaged in the destruction of lives — but President Obama’s foreign policy was substantially better in that regard. While Secretary Clinton’s stint as Secretary of State undoubtedly resulted in a lot of unnecessary military intervention, President Obama largely tried to prevent wars or other economic conflict, with negotiations that led to the hugely successful Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Agreement to deal with climate change, and the normalization of relations with Cuba.

Regarding social policy, he has strongly advocated — and succeeded, at least partially, in gaining — substantially greater inclusiveness for Americans belonging to the LGBT community, which began in 2010 with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and climaxed with briefs to the Supreme Court that made illegal state-level same-sex marriage bans (Obergefell v. Hodges). His veto of the Keystone XL pipeline authorization and support for restrictions on hydraulic fracturing have, alongside the Paris Agreement, advanced the quest toward combating climate change at the domestic level.

There’s no doubt that, for instance, his foreign policy leaves much to be desired — but, I daresay, no post-WWII president has had a more stable and stronger foreign, economic, or social policy as President Obama. He didn’t live up to expectations, but he did give the people of America, and of the world, substantial change: change that we can believe in.

India’s Demonetization Gamble

The Indian government made news at the announcement at what they declared was “demonetization,” a “revolutionary” move in which 500 and 1000-rupee notes ceased to be legal tender in India after November 9, 2016. It was hailed as the beginning of the war on tax evasion and black money, with the aim of forcibly destroying a substantial amount of black money, requiring proof of the means by which amounts of wealth in five-hundred and thousand rupee notes were acquired at the time of bank exchange. The popular Indian opinion is also  overwhelmingly in favor of the move, and multiple businessmen and capitalists have hailed it. Businessmen Anand Mahindra, Sajjan Jindal, Kunal Bahl, Narayana Murthy, and others all hailed the move. But it also met with vast criticism from reputed figures such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and former professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University Prabhat Patnaik.

People gathered around ATM of Axis Bank in Mehsana, Gujarat. Credit: Nizil Shah (own work).

The above image is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. It has been taken from Wikipedia, which in turn credits the picture to Nizil Shah. 

While I disagree, often, with the foundations of this criticism, and am even willing to accept demonetization as a mechanism to combat black money in theory, I think the implemention of demonetization has left much to be desired, and has been counterproductive to the social welfare of the people, while failing to produce a net greater revenue. I argue that demonetization poses the following harms:

First, the rural poor who lack the infrastructure to set up deposit accounts have now had their money and finances — held in cash — completely devalued. But even the rural poor who do have access to accounts are struggling. As Padmapriya Govindarajan explains: 

Even those who do have access to accounts among them struggle with ill prepared banks and post offices, small and dispersed in number, and the need to take off several crucial hours from work – sometimes in vain.”

Second, socially ostracized communities, such as the transgender community and sex workers, are disproportionately cut off from banking systems. The level of systemic discrimination and marginalization against them has caused them a substantially greater hit from demonetization. The impact of demonetization on sex workers has been analyzed. Bindiya Chari of The Times of India explains by citing an example of a group of sex workers:

Half-a-dozen sex workers, who travel to Panaji from Vasco every day in search of clients . . . said their business has dwindled since the demonetization move.

Third, refugees, who are similarly cut off from banking systems because they lack requisite documents and are still undergoing a lengthy documentation process, see months of their savings go to waste. To quote examples from The Hindustan Times:

“Chetan Achu, a native of Tharparkar in Pakistan, is an engineer who moved to India four years ago [as a refugee]. He works on contract basis. ‘I used to get cash in instalments from my employers but now after this decision of demonetization, my employers say they cannot pay cash.’ Dileep Singh, another refugee, said they approached banks but because they do not have any bank account or identity proof, banks have refused to exchange cash for them. ‘We are shocked how we will be able to change our cash?’”

The reality: they can’t. And driving people who are already suffering to worse conditions lacks in even the thinnest veneer of justice.

Additonally, there are two glaring economic harms from demonetization. First, economic productivity. Workers are stripped of productive hours as they wait for hours in ATMs and banks wanting to exchange money, and failing to meet those very objectives. This has a direct impact both on the human welfare of these workers and on economic productivity. Second, the enforcement costs of demonetization are substantial. The need for ATMs to be filled more often and the burden on banks cannot be ignored. Note that this does not constitute a net harm, but cancels out the positive effect of gaining black money. For now, this is, of course, not quantifiable. But considering the substantial uncertainty here, it is impossible to deny that the effects of demonetization on minorities and marginalized groups is sufficient to justify the notion that the impacts might just be negative.

None of the supposed benefits of demonetization holds up to scrutiny. The benefit from regaining black money?—?government revenue?—?is small because it is substantially mitigated by the amount of money lost by the government in the process, and the definite slow in GDP growth.

In terms of “fighting terrorist networks,” the human cost still outweighs because terrorist networks can still gain money and resources?—?the impact is merely temporary and mild. And since terrorism does not rely way too much on operational costs, it was largely unaffected.

Demonetization has been a blow to the weak: the shameful, staggering human cost ignored by the elitists who proposed it. The certainty among the public following demonetization was mired by truth, and by uncertainty.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén