Tag Archives: politics

A Biblical Proposal for accomplishing Russell Brand’s revolution

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past two weeks, and this blog is the first thing you’re reading since you crawled out from under it, welcome back! Now watch this interview that you, and only you, missed whilst you were under that rock:

Jeremy Paxson hints in the interview that he thinks Russell Brand’s critiques are valid (and has since said he thinks Brand is “absolutely right”), but still seems to dismiss Brand’s call for revolution on the basis that Brand can only say what an alternative political system shouldn’t do, without specifying how it would work.

This is the classic hic Rhodus, hic saltus taunt that any critics of the status quo (whether political, economic, cultural, etc) face.

Brand’s three criteria for a poltical alternative (which he repeats several times in the interview) are:

1. Shouldn’t destory the planet

2. Shouldn’t create economic disparities

3. Shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people

I want to posit here that a system which satisfies these three criteria can be found in one of the books of the Old Testament that even most Christians would quietly brush off as one of the more backward: Leviticus 25.

I won’t quote the whole chapter here because it is lengthy, but there are two major components that are of note:

1. Every seven years, there was to be a “Sabbath rest” for the land, during which fields were to lie fallow (i.e. crops would not be sown)

2. Every fifty years, all debts would be forgiven, and all land acquired during those fifty years was to be returned to its original owners.

Although many of us struggle with the violence, misogyny and occasional homophobia in the Old Testament, it’s undeniable that there are some good ecological and socio-economic principles here.

Allowing the land to rest for a year was a way of halting the degradation of the land that occurred through intensive cultivation. We now know that over-irrigation of rivers in the Ancient Near East was causing salinisation as early as six thousand years ago, and this was causing yields to fall, and land to be abandoned (it’s also why some parts of the region which were once called the Fertile Crescent are now barren desert). Allowing the soil to rest helped to halt this process and to restore the land.

What saline soil looks like

Requiring debts to be forgiven every 50 years was a way of preventing the concentration of wealth and breaking the cycle of poverty that was common in peasant societies.

Prohibitions against the concentration of  wealth are a recurring theme throughout the the Old Testament. The prophets are particularly scornful of those who accumulate wealth, with Isaiah 5:8 one of the most demonstrative examples:

“Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.”

The semicentennial forgiveness of debts was to be a way of rebalancing society and allowing those who’d fallen on hard times several decades prior — and were still struggling under the burden of debt — to have a chance of starting anew.

Returning land to everyone who’d been forced to sell it in the years between each Jubilee year broke the cycle of poverty wherein families that took on debt had to sell their land to repay it; having lost access to the means of production , they’d have nothing else to sell but their labour, which made them bond-slaves; once you were a bond-slave you had no way of earning enough to buy back your land (it was as much a dead-end job as working at McDonald’s in 21st-century America); the Jubilee broke this cycle of poverty.

Faith communities, Russell Brand fans and anyone else similarly dissatisfied with the current politcal and economic system could advocate for the Sabbath/Jubilee alternative:

Banks and credit card companies could be required to write off households’ debts after a certain number of years (and, in line with the provisions laid out in Leviticus, prevented from charging higher interest rates in the years leading up to the Jubilee year)

Farmers could be given subsidies for allowing their land to lie fallow in a given year, rather than saturating it with petrochemical fertilisers and crop monocultures (This isn’t that far-fetched; the US government already gave about $24 million last year to “farmers” who didn’t grown anything)

These policy proposals are radical. Wall Street (in the US) and the City (in the UK) would fight against them tooth and nail, as, presumably, would Monsanto, Cargill and other agribusiness suppliers who would stand to lose a lot if farmers used time-honoured methods of replenishing the soil rather than cutting-edge, ever-changing technologies developed in the laboratory.

But there is a precedent for this: Around the turn of the century, activists around the world called on rich countries to forgive the debts of poor countries, who were straining under the burden of massive debts that in many cases had been incurred by despots seeking the patronage of the West or the Soivet Union during the Cold War. The activists appealed to the biblical concept of Jubilee. The World Bank and rich country governments told them they were full of it, and that Jubilee just couldn’t work in the modern financial system.

In 2005, the activists won. If impoverished countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Central America –the international Davids — can win Jubilee from the global Goliaths, there’s no reason the citizens of the rich countries can’t demand their own Sabbath and Jubilee.

My thoughts on a few things

I would never suggest that my friends back in the US are predictable, but oftentimes, if there is a particular development in the news, I know someone is going to ask me about it at a party. Since I have yet to establish myself as a repository of opinions on the same topics here, I find it necessary to answer the questions you would’ve asked me if you’d seen me the last few weekends.  Here are my thoughts on…

Protests in Russia

I’m quite frankly just as shocked (if not more so) as anyone else. Protesting is a very un-Russian thing to do, which suggests that either there is some outside influence (possible, but not in the way you might think), or the Russian body politic has reached a hitherto unreached breaking point (in my view, only slightly more likely).

The idea that the US or any other Western power is behind the protests is absurd. Western governments have an interest in the political stability in Russia, and would probably rather take their chances with a rearranged Putin-Medvedev duumvirate than gamble by supporting a popular uprising that might bring to the fore a more ardently nationalist leader.

But I think there is some external influence emanating from the Arab Spring and the various other protest movements that have gained traction around the world this year. Once again, it would be absurd to suggest that the same sequence of events that played out in North Africa could be repeated in Russia. There are plenty of reasons why this is the case, but the most significant is rather practical: It’s not SPRING. The revolution in Egypt gained steam as the protestors camped out in Tahrir Square and became an immovable presence. I’ve been in Russia in December and I can assure you that no one will be camping outside. It will be very hard for infrequent demonstrations that disperse at night to gain much momentum.

I’ve heard several Western news outlets suggest that the reason Russians are disgruntled is the announcement by Putin and Medvedev that they would once again trade places (currently they are Prime Minister and President, respectively). This view holds that Russian people were upset by their leaders so brazenly announcing the future of Russian politics without first consulting the people. This is pure bollocks. Russian politics has been carefully orchestrated for some time, and in fact, these two announced an identical switch-a-roo in 2007 (except with the roles reversed) and executed it in 2008 with little backlash. Clearly this is about more than just the two men at the top…

NHL Realignment

I am unequivocally in favour of it. I give the NHL kudos for deciding on a complete overhaul rather than just a minor adjustment to the current division format.

For starters, the new format is a lot greener, as it will require fewer cross-continent trips. This has the added advantage of decreasing players’ fatigue from factors other than actually playing hockey!

There have been some legitimate criticisms of the new four-conference format, but most can be easily dealt with.

One argument is that, by giving playoff spots to the top 4 teams in each conference, weak teams in weak conferences will unfairly get in while good teams in stronger conferences will unfairly be left out of the playoffs. This is inevitable in any system, though, and is already present in the current one anyway.

If last year’s teams had been divided up into the four new conferences, and playoff spots had been allocated using the new model, 15 of the same 16 teams would have made the playoffs. And the one team that would have been cheated out of a spot last year (the LA Kings) would actually be unfairly awarded a playoff spot this year if the season ended today. So the new model giveth and it taketh, but it doesn’t seem that it creates any inherently weak conference that would perpetually benefit from the imbalance.

Another objection to the new format is that it, by having a schedule so heavily tilted toward intra-conference match-ups, it will kill off other rivalries.  It must be said, however, that the best and most enduring rivalries are regional rivalries, which this new format enhances.

For example, during the late 90s and early 2000s, one of the best rivalries was Colorado-Detroit, a hate-filled rivalry fueled by several hard-fought playoff series in consecutive years. Now, that rivalry has faded as the players from those years have moved on. In the last few years, Chicago-Vancouver has been a great and bloody rivalry, spurred by the exact same causes. But it too, will soon disappear and is indeed already fading.

The truly enduring rivalries are those that are built by teams playing each other multiple games every regular season, sometimes evenly-matched, sometimes with the possibility for a legitimately surprising upset, but always with animosity borne out of the two teams being so close that the teams and their fans can really rub each other the wrong way. The best rivalries in the NHL are Montreal-Toronto, Boston-Montreal, Philadelphia-Pittsburgh, and some would add the “Battle of Alberta” between Calgary and Edmonton.  These are all regional rivalries and all will be preserved in the new format.

New, enterprising, innovative ideas

I have some! Even though this blog has been entirely inactive for several months, my mind hasn’t. Soon, I’ll be sharing more of my crazy schemes with you…

Drinks with David; My New Political Talk Show

The Problem:

Hyper-partisan, demagogic, damn-near un-watchable political talk shows and their corrosive effect on political discourse.

My relationship to political talk shows of any sort in any medium could be described using an SAT analogy:

Maus:Political Talk Shows::The World’s Most Interesting Man:Beer

That is to say I don’t often watch them.  The equivalent of Dos Equis would be those interviews that just sound so intriguing that I have to watch the clips online later, such as Lupe Fiasco on the O’Reilly Factor or Cornel West and Mos Def appearing together on Bill Maher.  But usually whenever I watch any sort of political talk show, I feel discouraged about humanity and annoyed at all the shouting.

Here is the question I asked myself last week, after a spirited, but ultimately amicable political discussion with my dad and uncle:

Why is it that ordinary people can have such discussions without descending into shouting and name-calling, but the professionals on TV can’t?

Part of the answer is that the people on TV aren’t like you and me or the family and friends with whom these discussions take place.  Oftentimes the people on TV have a sense of self-importance that makes them feel entitled to never be interrupted or corrected, and a need to verbally bludgeon anyone who deigns to do so.

BUT!

I think an equally important reason is that the “debates” on political talk shows don’t happen under the same circumstances as those with friends and family.  The context of a discussion probably does more to shape its tone than the content. Think back to college and how a discussion about the exact same topic would play out in a classroom versus in a dorm.

This leads me to my grand idea for a show:

Drinks With David

The most important element of the show will be the set: instead of having one one of those big circular desks in the studio with a backlit world map, oversize monitors or some other gaudy backdrop, I would have two (or maybe three) comfy chairs in the center of the stage and a bar off to the side.

Exchange the bookshelf for a bar and the desk for a living room set

When I introduce the guest (usually some political figure) I would meet them at the bar, and we’d chit-chat while the bartender (whose character for the show could be developed) got our drinks.  We wouldn’t discuss anything political until we had our drinks and were sitting in the comfy chairs.

Hopefully the relaxed atmosphere would make for less heated exchanges, and having a drink together would make the conversation seem more like just that — a conversation.

Usually I hope someone with the means to actualize will still my ideas, but truthfully, I would be kind of jealous if someone else actually gets to host a show like this.

THOUGHTS???

A Global Minimum Wage

Fanciful Utopia

The idea I’m about to foist upon you is not a new one, and it might not even be original (feel free to direct me to anything in the literature or blogosphere that might have scooped me on this one).

To make matters worse, it’s not even an enterprising idea — it’s a policy recommendation!  I first started formulating it when I was a wee undergrad, and when I pitched it to one of my Econ professors, he told me it sounded too much like “global utopia.”  I haven’t spent much time refining the idea since then, so it hasn’t changed,  but the times have, perhaps sufficiently to make the idea palatable…

The Idea

There are essentially just two big steps to this idea, the goal of which is to end exploitation of workers:

  1. Set a global minimum wage (GMW)
  2. Allow countries to place import tariffs on companies that pay below this global minimum wage
1. Set a global minimum wage
This will be very hard to determine.  It makes sense for whatever wage is agreed upon to be expressed in USD, but at purchasing power parity (PPP) rather than exchange rates, as that will make it more stable (If I’ve lost you, don’t worry, the rest will still make sense).
Where exactly the GMW should be set is tricky, to say the least.  It needs to be set high enough that it actually accomplishes its goal of lifting workers out of poverty and preventing exploitation, but low enough that it doesn’t push economic activity underground or off the books.
2. Allow Tariffs
This part is also tricky. I’m still not sure whether tariffs should just be allowed against companies that fail to pay the GMW or against product categories from an entire country if the respective government fails to enforce the GMW in that sector.
In any case, the enforcement for this plan would be through the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
As I said, this idea has not undergone significant revision since I first dreamed it up, but the current political climate might make it either more palatable or less so.  First, the reasons I think it might be more plausible:
Pro: Rising Protectionism
I’m not a big fan of “economic nationalism” but it’s a completely predictable consequence of a recession or downturn, and in this case it could be put to good use.  I think politicians in the US  would love the opportunity to slap tariffs on China and other emerging economies; European leaders would love it even more because they could do it in the name of Human Rights!
Con: Corporate Objections
The major opponents to this will of course be large multi-national corporations who rely on low wages at one end of their global supply chain.  Their objection to paying livable wages to workers in developing countries is nothing new, but their political power, especially in the US, has been growing significantly.
Recent Supreme Court decisions (Wal-Mart v Dukes, Brown v Entertainment Merchants Association, etc.) have solidified the Roberts court’s reputation as the most corporate-friendly in history; with the current composition of SCOTUS, it’s quite possible that any tariffs enacted in support of the GMW could be successfully challenged in court in the US, the biggest single market for imports.  And even that would require a treaty to be ratified in the first place; given the increased corporate influence over Congress authorized by Citizens United v FEC, it would be difficult, at best, to get any sort of legislation passed enshrining the GMW in law.
As with any other idealistic global scheme, it would be possible to proceed without US participation, but the effect would be reduced.
Thoughts???

The “Birthers” of the 19th Century

This is already a departure from the newly established pattern of this blog to generate socially entrepreneurial ideas, but I’m struggling to articulate some of my recent thoughts in this area, and I thought it would be fun to write a short post about a historical figure and our present madness.

Now that President Obama has been forced to stoop to the level of his critics and address the so-called “birthers,” I suppose I too shan’t deem myself above commenting on this petty debate.  But I want to give it some historical depth, by looking at the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, our 7th President, in office from 1829-1837.  There are two competing assertions and assumptions that surround the ruckus over Obama’s birth certificate, that I will challenge:

1. That this issue is all about race.

2. That this is about the President’s place of birth, and the documentation thereof

Point the first

The first point is a common lament of Obama’s supporters who ask if such ridiculous questions would ever be put to a white president.  In some ways, they already were asked of Andrew Jackson (granted,  some of his opponents alleged that he was the son of a British prostitute and a mixed-race father).  North and South Carolina now argue over which state can claim him as their own, but in his day, plenty of his critics alleged that he wasn’t born in the Americas at all.  He was the son of Irish immigrants, and some said that he was born on the ship on the journey over, and even that he wasn’t actually named “Andrew Jackson” but that he’d stolen his brother’s birth certificate.

So, in one sense, ridiculous claims about natural-born citizenship (or lack thereof) can’t be just about race if they were first leveled against Andrew Jackson, a white guy. BUT, in another sense, they are about race.  Jackson’s and Obama’s both were historical presidencies that marked a shift in who Americans considered Presidential.  Before Jackson, all six US Presidents had been Aristocrats from Virginia or Massachusetts who were of English pedigree.  Jackson had plenty of strikes against him: not only was he the son of Irish immigrants, but he grew up dirt poor and openly considered himself a man of the people.  Jackson clearly did not fit the Presidential mould, and that rendered attacks about his upbringing, qualification and family more believable.  Class was to Jackson what race is to Obama –something that set him apart from his predecessors,  and challenged those informal requirements for the Presidency that are not proscribed in law, but rather in American consciousness.  Perhaps, then, we could say that he current birther movement is not so much about race as it is about difference.

Point the Second

How many times have you heard someone say, “I agree with most of President Obama’s policies, but I’m deeply concerned about this birth certificate thing”?  Not very often, right?  And that brings us to the second assumption — that either “birther” conspiracy was actually about place of birth.  As  with President Obama, anyone who said President Jackson wasn’t truly an American citizen probably said much worse things about the man.  Because Jackson was president before anyone had heard of Hitler or before  Socialism became an organized doctrine, Jackson’s opponents used the equivalent labels of the time: Before he was elected,  his opponents spread fear that he would institute a military dictatorship.  When he vetoed the Second Bank charter (if you really want to read more about the Bank War, be my guest), his critics compared him to the French Revolutionaries and the Roman Empire.  It would seem that the belief that Jackson (or Obama) might not be a true American citizen was an effect of his opponent’s fierce dislike of him, and not a cause.