By Erica Chen
Recently, mass protests are happening all around the world — from Britain, France, Spain, to Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, to Chile, Venezuela, and Ecuador, seemingly nowhere can escape from the outburst of civil unrest. Growing discontent towards the wealthy and the powerful was provoked by minor issues, like the increase of transport fares in Chile, and the tax on WhatsApp in Lebanon. In Hong Kong and Barcelona, on the other hand, the protest directed at the increasing governmental control. From the recent news, we can see a clear trend of the mass movement in 2019. While those protests have different causes, there is a question we should ask: do they share a common cause?
Protestors clashed with the police in the Alameda, Santiago’s main artery. Source: NYTimes
The answer is yes. The root of those protests was the increasing inequality between the rich and poor, the stagnation of the middle class, and the corruption of the ruling elites. For example, in Lebanon, the richest 0.1%, which includes many politicians, shares one-tenth of the country’s income, while the middle class was swiping out by the austerity measures. One of the events that revealed the corruption of the ruling class was the scandal of Lebanon Prime Minister, who sent a $16 million gift to a bikini model. The countries that became a democracy in the third wave of democratization were not truly democratic, as the ruling class seldom responded to people’s demands.
We often assume that the government would respond to the will of the people, and the ruling elites could make the best choice for the country instead of the ignorant mass. However, what if those elites don’t care about the people at all? What if the representatives, who promised to represent the interest of his or her district, city, or state, actually only cares about his or her personal gain and steals from the country? Do we have any mechanism to force the government to step down when the separation of power no longer works, when the three branches collude with each other and deceive the people?
I still remember in one of my Political Institutions seminars, a student asked our teacher: “Can the government enact a Constitution that does not have people’s support? What if the government no longer follows people’s will?” The teacher answered: “Because the government is the holder of pouvoir constituent, it basically can do whatever it pleases, even if it contradicts the will of the people. The only way to change the holder of pouvoir constituent is civil war.”
We study Comparative Political Institutions and Constitutional Law in college, and we know the principles for drafting a good constitution. Living in the academic bubble, however, limits our ability to actually see the reality. We always assume that everything could be solved in a legal way, and we consider laws to be just. Nonetheless, the truth is that sometimes the law is made to serve the interest of the ruling class. It’s neither legitimate, or just, and the government can modify the current law as it wishes, or simply ignores the law as no one has the power to stop it. Because the rich have the power to influence the government policy, the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. There is no legal way for people to change the status quo, so they come to the street to protest.
Even in the most developed countries, income inequality is a severe problem. In the United States, income inequality has been rising steadily since the 80s. Nowadays, the richest 1% holds 20% of national income. Moreover, the phenomenon of lobbying is pervasive in the country and has even become a “necessary evil.”
Michael Milken, a symbol of Wall Street greed, who took part in a vast insider-scheme and was sent to prison for violating the federal securities and tax laws in the 1980s, quickly rebuilt his reputation and regained power after his release through a non-profit think-tank, the Milken Institute which devoted to initiatives “that advance prosperity.” Recently, the Milken Institute is pushing a tax break to attract wealthy investors to invest in distressed communities known as “opportunity zones.” Nevertheless, it turns out that Mr. Milken holds property in the opportunity zones, so he could benefit from the tax break personally.
Mr. Milken is an investor in 700 acres in an industrial park in Nevada. The park didn’t qualify for opportunity zone status until Mr. Mnuchin told Treasury officials that they should accept the nomination of the census tract it is in. CreditTiffany Brown Anderson for The New York Times
Mr. Milken’s power and influence allowed him to give tax breaks for areas that were not qualified for “opportunity zone” because the residents were too wealthy. The Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, Mr. Milken’s longtime friend, directly intervened to benefit Mr. Milken. As a result, the Treasury Department ignored its own rules and selected the area that should not have benefited from the tax break.
The tax break was part of President Trump’s tax cut bill which he signed into law in 2017. He boasted that the bill could revitalize the downtrodden communities but it actually targeted the wealthy investors who could not in any measure be considered “downtrodden.” The tax break allows the rich investors to better reap the benefits from their investments in the opportunity zones. Through invitation-only dinners, Mr. Milken expanded his network and colluded with influential figures in the government, who in turn lobbied President Trump to sign the tax break bill. This is a perfect example to show how the ruling elites influence the government policy-making process and benefit from it. Now, we may ask: can we find a way to stop collusion? Is it possible to create a government that truly cares about the people and works for the interest of all?
The questions were answered by many political scientists, for instance, John Rawls, who considered that inequality is only just when it benefits the most disadvantaged, but remained unresolved in reality. When power comes into the play, it crashes all the political theories, makes everything a power struggle, and legal documents thus become mere hypocrisy. Although the international communities had been working together for equality and justice, recent events seemed to cast a shadow on our future.
Will our future truly be brighter? I have no answer.