15 December 2011

Power to the People

According to Time Magazine, 2011 is the “Year of the Protester”.  We have the so-called “Arab Spring” effectively demonstrated in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria.  We have Wall Street Occupiers everywhere from Lower Manhattan to UC Davis.  We have protesters in Greece, Spain and now Moscow.

The Arab Street is protesting repression by their dictatorships – ones that have been around for a while.  Ben Ali assumed power in Tunisia through a coup d’état in 1987.  Then-Vice President Mubarak became President of Egypt in 1981, after then-President Sadat was assassinated.  Saleh has been Yemen’s President since 1978.  Gaddafi ruled Libya since 1969 after a military coup.  Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez (both Ba'athists) to rule Syria in 2000, after his father had ruled for 29 years until his death.  Each ruled with an iron-fist for most of those years.

The so-called Wall Street Occupiers are protesting income and wealth inequality in the US – an inequality that is always present to some degree, and has been building now for decades.  European protests are a reaction to the measures their stressed governments have undertaken to reduce spending and get their budgets in order, going on now for over two years.  The recent protests near the Kremlin in Moscow are about alleged election-rigging – as if corruption in Russia just showed up last week.

So why now?  Any of these regional issues have basically been going on for some time.  But that’s just the “what” of it.  It is not really the “why”.  The particular “whats” might be disparate, but the “why” is shared.  The “why” is plain old economics.

Most people don’t get up every day trying to figure out what to get pissed off at and take to the streets about (or at least after some coffee).  They mostly just want to live their lives in as peaceful a manner as possible with the ones they love and care about.  Aside from a minute amount of agitators that live for this stuff, most people don’t publicly protest unless they're really upset, think it's their last option, and, that it might have an impact.  Having no job gives you a lot more free time to talk yourself into it.  Having no food gives you no choice.

Headline unemployment in the US has been over 8% for three years now; our duration of unemployment at an all-time high, double the worst previous post-World War II recessions and still rising.  As the world's greatest economic engine, our weakness touches every quarter of the Earth.  And so do our inflationary efforts to pull away from deflationary depression.

The Arab countries are the largest net importers of cereals in the world.  Food inflation there has been rising at ~5-25% annually in recent years.  With so many in that region living at subsistence level – where food consumption is 40-65% of their weekly budget – small increases in food prices basically have large consequences on millions there, not very different from the social effects of famine.  The Greeks have been grappling with significant cuts in their pensions and other social subsidies – a very large part of their incomes over there.  Russians are dealing with both a weak global economy and inflation as well for years.

And there is also the “how” of it.  It’s pretty simple – the Internet.  With more than 800 million users on Facebook, 300 million “tweets” per day, almost 700 million Skype users, 170 million blogs, a cell phone (most camera-enabled) for every 1.4 people on the planet out there…  Effectively, none of that existed just five years ago.  As a result, people today are more aware than ever about everything - and that includes that others too get occasionally upset with their plight.  This empowers and emboldens those like-minded.

Although it is finally starting to change, how much more different might China be today for example, had all that existed in 1989?  Having said that, it is shocking to me how precious few Chinese in their twenties understand Tiananmen Square to be nothing more than maybe a nice place in Beijing to eat during their lunch break, due to state-level information control.  (And also sad that most Americans in their twenties likely never heard of it either, as they have no excuse not to have.)

But as prolific as these protests seem to have become all of a sudden - except for maybe the Arab Spring - their near-term results will be ineffective, in my view.  To the extent I can understand them, the Wall Street Occupiers are directing their anger at the wrong places.  Greeks may have ousted their Prime Minister, but they will still have to take their medicine one way or another, and no matter who is in charge there.  A decade of popular support for Russia's strong man Putin serves his ego more than his power – so its withdrawal will do nothing more than perhaps make him grumpy (со всем должным уважением).

But here the protesters are.  And if it’s true that they will be inconsequential in effort, that merely dismisses the “what” of it.  It does not dismiss the “why”, and certainly not the “how”.  Either way, their presence should be taken as a message; a writing on the wall.

We conventionally consider the age of great monarchical empires to have fallen away in the early 20th Century – China’s in 1911, Russian Romanov in 1917, Austro-Hungarian Habsburg and German Prussian both in 1918 (Britain’s only exists today nominally).  They were dismantled through popular revolution.

In their place in Europe, rose socio-economic bodies that put the power in the hands of the people.  Radical political ideals competed for their hearts and minds.  Communists fought for the classless equality of the proletariat; Fascists for nationalist identity.  Both were radical, totalitarian-themed and hostile toward free thought, cultural diversity and form of expression - the sanctum of the individual.  And both have since failed as well.

What remains largely today are the empires of representative democracies.  I use the word “empire” very loosely, but because I believe despots can rule in a democracy as well, not just in monarchies or other totalitarian states.  They just take the form of party, rather than king or commissar.  And if those despots continue to care more for their own power than the will of the people, this latest form of rule will become challenged as well – harbingered by The Protesters against such regimes.

Our representative democracy here in the US will now come to face an existential question.  Can a representative democracy do the right thing when there are no longer any good options?  Can we make the tough choices necessary to sustain the prosperity of the people, when it might come at some cost to the prosperity of the individual?

Despite its obvious imperfections along the way regarding equality for race, creed or gender, it seems to have worked reasonably well on the way up.  When America has no foreign competition, because all those that would be, have literally been destroyed by fighting World War II on their own soil.  When the standard of living as a result increases by leaps and bounds, year after year.  When opportunity awaits the motivated, persistent, hard-working and talented who reach out for it.  When all of that creates so much wealth, our politicians can promise everything to everyone – purchasing our votes with our own wealth, and as if to suggest our successes actually had anything to do with them.

But what about when that upward arc begins to flatten out?  When we have real global competition for the first time?  When that bleeds away our standard of living into other quarters of the world, no matter who we vote for?  When there’s no more fat for politicians to carve off and sell back to us?  When we now must make adjustments, sometimes hard choices; real decisions?

Suddenly it’s not so fun anymore – not necessarily being the undisputed “number one”.  Suddenly it starts to feel and look a lot more like yet another aging empire.  That’s when people’s true character starts to come out.  When it comes down to survival, it’s suddenly every one for themselves once more; so characteristic of all heretofore societies in their last days that collapsed under their own weight.

And then the radical ideas don’t seem so radical anymore.  And then the people might actually be willing to deal with the devil that they don’t know.  And then revolution is in the air once more.  Dangerous words – the spark of so much war, so much blood, so much suffering in the past century.  So dangerous, because they speak of something so real and, from time to time, so present.

In a representative democracy, if the political leader is unwilling to give us the spinach we need instead of the ice cream we want if you will, it is because the electorate is unwilling to eat spinach – no different than a spoiled child.  After all, how can even the well-intentioned politician do good, if he can’t get reelected?  And what is to become of that representative democracy, when its governance must rely on the consent of the spoiled?

It prevails as every child, once spoiled, ultimately must – through discipline.  There simply is no other way.  Yes, we have become spoiled.  I can say it, because I’m not running for public office.  But whether I was or not, I would also remind us of the following…

We are a great society – I believe the greatest that can be found in the history books.  But we are at a crossroads.  If we want to continue to flourish with many more days to look forward to, it is up to us individually and collectively.  If we want serious politicians to make the serious decisions required for further prosperity, then we the people must get serious, be disciplined, grow up.

Because, right now, we don’t have any politicians acting serious – that’s for sure.  Even the ones that want to.  And that is nothing more than a reflection of those who would vote for them.  We are going to have to try something new now.  We the people are going to have to vote for the politicians that tell us what we don't want to hear.  They do exist.  They're just hiding right now, because they want to keep their jobs.

Being serious means we must ask for less right now.  Not because it is ignoble to strive for that great society on the hill, but because the latest generation has misspent our treasure, allegedly trying to get us there, and we have to be the responsible ones now and pay for their folly.  With taking less, we will also have to give more.  That is if we claim to care a lick about everything we have built, and the children who we would pass it on to.

We must remember to rely on ourselves, and ourselves alone, while at the same time be mindful to care for our sister and brother when they’re down.  The sanctity of the individual – of individual achievement, expression, success, dominion – must be preserved at all costs.  And part of preserving that means we must be charitable and remember to safeguard the individual sanctity of our neighbor.

Never have we been better situated to succeed in that endeavor.  Because we stand at a moment in history – as the richest and most powerful nation to have ever existed on Earth – where we can learn from the lessons of all others that have tried and failed.

The only thing left we need is a little resolve and discipline.  And the smallest reminder that this great nation was built by great people – was built by us – I believe is all it takes to evoke that which is already within us.

For if we don’t rise to the occasion, all we ever will have been in the annals of history, is someone else’s lesson of what not to do.

And that is what The Protesters are telling you.

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