March 2011

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Could it happen here?

by Jonathan Wallace

In watching the events in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, I am impressed by the fact that every problem the protestors are confronting exists right here in the United States as well--where there is no effective dissent. I can't help thinking that if we had more young people like those driving the Egyptian protests, we'd be in better shape. Makes me wonder if everyone in this country is too busy eating McDonald's Happy Meals and buying lottery tickets.

The analysis in Western media of the motives of protestors, concentrates on several categories of irritants and provocations:

"Egypt has many of the same social and political problems that brought about the unrest in Tunisia - rising food prices, high unemployment and anger at official corruption." BBC

"[Hilary Clinton] appealed to Egypt's leaders to heed calls to open political space for dissent and improve conditions that have led to widespread poverty and unemployment." CBS

In Jordan, "Protests over poverty, inflation, unemployment, corruption and a lack of democracy have been going on for weeks." Guardian


Egypt has about ten percent unemployment, hardly ahead of the U.S. which was reported as 9% in January by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As has been widely reported, the official rate excludes people who are under-employed or simply have stopped looking for work, so the real rate in this country is much higher--here is a middle of the road source pegging it at 16%.

Rising food prices

These are not just an Egyptian phenomenon, but are happening everywhere. This NPR analysis says that U.S. consumers (who pay mainly for marketing and packaging, so that the price of the underlying commodity is a minor component) are somewhat insulated from rising food prices. "Still, the impact of higher grain, dairy and meat prices eventually will filter down to U.S. consumers, he says. The USDA is predicting grocery prices to rise between 2 and 3 percent this year." The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January that "all items" increased about 1.5% last year, with gasoline and fruits and vegetables accounting for a disproportionate share of the price increases.

However, here is an article which argues that our government downplays and does not properly track inflation in food prices. "For instance, a food basket survey by The Tennessean earlier this month found a 12.5% increase in prices for a typical grocery basket full of staples compared to November 2009." Anecdotally: I notice at the grocery that cuts of chicken and fish filets for which I paid $3 to $4 a year ago now often seem to be priced at $6-$7. I live in an expensive part of the country, but still...


The Egyptian government is attempting to assuage the protestors by launching corruption investigations against members of the Egyption oligarchy. "Media reports Thursday say the investigation is targeting former Commerce Minister Rachid Mohammed Rachid, former Tourism Minister Zuhair Garana, former Housing Minister Ahmed Maghrabi and parliament member Ahmed Ezz." Over the years, there has been significant coverage of "the corruption that has become embedded in an Egyptian society where the idea of service – health, education, genuine security for ordinary people – has simply ceased to exist." Egypt "is a state where corruption is widely viewed as systemic" (New York Times in 2008).

Let's focus for a moment on Ahmed Ezz as a case study. He is a very visible and volatile figure in Egypt, and protestors have repeatedly set fire to a building he owns. The Times says, "For many years, Mr. Ezz has represented the intersection of money, politics and power, controlling two-thirds of the steel market, leading the budget committee as a member of Parliament and serving as an officer and loyal lieutenant in the governing party." The article goes on to note:

Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt has long functioned as a state where wealth bought political power and political power bought great wealth. While hard facts are difficult to come by, Egyptians watching the rise of a moneyed class widely believe that self-dealing, crony capitalism and corruption are endemic...

In the United States, billionaires like Michael Bloomberg use personal wealth to buy elections; billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife financed the investigation of Bill Clinton in support of the Republican drive to impeach him; and the billionaire Koch brothers run junkets that are openly attended by Supreme Court justices Scalia and Thomas, who joined the majority in the Citizens United case opening the floodgates of anonymous billionaire money in political campaigns.

From the Times article: "At the same time, Mr. Ezz took on a more active role in public life, becoming vice chairman of a national trade federation, the head of one of the country’s industrial cities and a member of Parliament."

From The New Republic, Sorrow of the Oligarch: "the most salient fact about [David] Koch is how little media attention he's attracted, given the enormous influence he's wielded upon American politics....He has been able to spend a gigantic fortune to help bend the political system so as to become more congenial to his own economic interests." From the Nation: "“Info that Supreme Court Justices Anthony Scalia and Clarence Thomas are attending meetings like [those held by Koch] is pretty good for now in terms of challenging the impartiality of the court. [What] kind of activist judges speak behind closed doors at secret political meetings?"

Here is a 1997 Fortune article giving some fascinating background on the lives, infighting and pecccadilloes of the Koch brothers. It seems that in 1989, a Senate subcommittee concluded that their company Koch Industries "had stolen $31 million worth of oil over three years--and implied that all of it came from Native Americans", calling it "the most dramatic example of an oil company stealing by deliberate mismeasurement and fraudulent reporting." The Senate committee referred the charges to the Justice Department, which decided not to pursue them (during the Clinton administration). Koch Industries has also been indicted for environmental crimes and cover-ups: "When the federal government drops 86 felony charges against your company, it should be cause for celebration. Not so for brothers Charles and David Koch, who run family oil conglomerate Koch Industries."

It's just the latest in a string of mishaps for Charles, 64, the company's chairman, and David, 60, the executive vice president. In September 1999, Koch Industries paid $8 million in damages after a Minnesota oil spill. In January 2000, the company was slapped with the largest civil penalty ever against one company. It was forced to pay a $35 million settlement for 300 separate oil spills in six states, leaking 3 million gallons of crude oil from corroded pipelines into local waters.

According to a New Yorker profile of the Kochs, they have benefited substantially over the decades from government contracts and tax breaks. "The 2005 energy bill, which Hillary Clinton dubbed the Dick Cheney Lobbyist Energy Bill, offered enormous subsidies and tax breaks for energy companies. The Kochs have cast themselves as deficit hawks, but, according to a study by Media Matters, their companies have benefitted from nearly a hundred million dollars in government contracts since 2000."

The Kochs were founders of the Cato Institute, and have since launched numerous other organizations with bland or ambiguous names ("Citizens for the Environment" is a classic) fighting regulations and taxes, propagandizing against climate change science, and supporting the Tea Party.

It is remarkable, from any moral standpoint, that Supreme Court justices dare to fly to places like Palm Springs to associate with the Koch brothers, who have been the subject of federal criminal investigations and charges. What exactly is the moral difference between the Koch brothers and Ahmed Ezz? The "intersection of money, politics and power" against which the Egyptian demonstrators are raging, exists in the U.S. as completely as it does in Egypt.


The "widening gap" between rich and poor is cited in many of the newspapers and blogs, including Arab media, as a major cause of Egyptian unrest.

Yet the Nation points out, there is more inequality here than in Egypt:

The Gini Coefficient is a number economists use to measure inequality, and the US is ranked as the forty-second most unequal nation—Egypt is ninetieth.

The United States has the widest income gap in the Western world, a phenomenon of the last forty years, grossly fostered by Republican government but which has always stayed alive even when the Democrats are in.

It baffles me, every time young people take to the streets to protest their foreclosed opportunities--we saw it in Greece too, this year--that Americans, who are suffering equally, are so complacent. As a member of the middle class who finds it harder to get by every year, I sometimes imagine a great social (Republican) hand pressing down on the top of my head. A young friend of mine said she feels as if she is being pulled underwater, socially and financially, by the ankles. Where are the angry young Americans? They are either buying lottery tickets and McDonald's dollar menu meals, or out demonstrating against the people who are trying to help them, successfully tricked by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

Lack of democracy

Mohamed El-Baradei, Nobel winner who has come to the fore as the gray eminence of the Egyptian protests, has been sounding a note for years about the lack of democracy in Egypt. The phrase has now become a common trope in media explaining the current uprisings.

We too have been accused of a lack of democracy:

We are still a partial, blocked, half-way democracy, for the simple reason that our constitutional system incorporates central features intended to frustrate the will of the majority. You probably know what I'm talking about, but if you're like me, you were brought up to believe that these profoundly undemocratic structures -- federalism, the Senate, the Electoral College, and so on -- have an internal logic that somehow protects our freedoms. Again, not so. They are undemocratic by design, and they have been preserved by interests who wish to frustrate the will of the majority.

Doubt that? Read the Framers' fulminations in the Federalist Papers against direct democracy and their eager explanations of why a republic, which checks impulsive, potentially violent majority will, is better.


According to the Times:

The deployment of plainclothes forces paid by Mr. Mubarak’s ruling party — men known here as baltageya — has been a hallmark of the Mubarak government, and there were many signs that the violence was carefully choreographed.

That at least couldn't happen here, right? Wrong:

Hours after Rush Limbaugh boosted the prominence of Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor's health care town hall in Tampa, Florida, angry protesters drowned out discussion, their chants of "tyranny, tyranny" forcing Castor to cancel the meeting early, before having a chance to hear and address concerns from her constituents.

Shades of the Nazi Rollkommando, the thugs tasked with the violent disruption of the opposition's meetings.


I am astonished every day by the humility, the complacency, the meekness of the people being robbed and crushed every day in this country, compared to their brethren in Egypt and elsewhere. I don't think it will last very much longer, however.