Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: 'People's year' gives hope that the tide is turning

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In his book God's Politics, the Reverend Jim Wallis tells of a young African American woman who worked with urban youth in Washington, DC. He describes her as "a smart kid from a working-class family who went to Yale and earned a PhD".

Her name was Lisa Sullivan, and she died of a rare heart ailment at the age of 40.

Wallis wrote that when people complained, as they often do, that we don't have any leaders today or ask where the Martin Luther Kings are now, Lisa would get angry: "We are the ones we have been waiting for," she would declare.

I was reminded of that line (appropriated by Barack Obama's campaign team when he ran for President in 2008) when I read that Time magazine's 2011 Person of the Year was The Protester.

"Everywhere this year, people have complained about the failure of traditional leadership and the fecklessness of institutions," Time editor Rick Stengel said .

"Politicians cannot look beyond the next election, and they refuse to make hard choices ...

"But leadership has come from the bottom of the pyramid, not the top. For capturing and highlighting a global sense of restless promise, for upending Governments and conventional wisdom, for combining the oldest techniques with the newest technologies to shine a light on human dignity and, finally, for steering the planet on a more democratic though sometimes more dangerous path for the 21st century, the Protester is Time's 2011 Person of the Year."

So, it was the people's year. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement, 2011 was the year of protest and dissent, when ordinary people everywhere flexed their collective democratic muscle, and sometimes won the day.

As Stengel said, no one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire almost exactly a year ago, he would spark protests that would topple dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and rattle regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.

"Or that that spirit of dissent would spur Mexicans to rise up against the terror of drug cartels, Greeks to march against unaccountable leaders, Americans to occupy public places to protest income inequality, and Russians to marshall themselves against a corrupt autocracy."

Protests have now occurred in countries whose populations total at least three billion people, while the word protest appeared in newspapers and online exponentially more than at any other time in history.

"Is there a global tipping point for frustration? Everywhere, it seems, people said they'd had enough. They dissented; they demanded; they did not despair, even when the answers came back in a cloud of tear gas or a hail of bullets. They literally embodied the idea that individual action can bring collective, colossal change.

"And although it was understood differently in different places, the idea of democracy was present in every gathering. The root of the word democracy is demos, 'the people', and the meaning of democracy is 'the people rule'. And they did, if not at the ballot box, then in the streets."

Perhaps that's why I end the year more hopeful than I expected. The tide is finally turning.

Even in those radical lefty bastions, the IMF and the OECD, concern is mounting at the extent and nature of income inequality (one of the main causes of unrest) and its implications for social cohesion, economic growth, and democracy.

That's despite the same kind of denialism (which holds that inequality is inevitable, and actually good for us) as we've seen on the global warming/climate change threat (which as far as all but a minuscule minority of the scientific community is concerned hasn't magically evaporated, despite assertions to the contrary).

The OECD's report released earlier this month, Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising, unequivocally dismisses the assumption that the widening inequality we've seen in the last 30 years is inevitable, that "the benefits of economic growth will automatically trickle down to the disadvantaged, and that greater inequality fosters greater social mobility". It does not.

Where high inequality exists, equal opportunity for all can only be a myth.

Governments must act to counter rising income inequality, OECD secretary-general Angel Gurria has said. That means upskilling the workforce, investing in people beginning in early childhood, and following through into formal education and work, and, yes, reviewing tax systems "to ensure that wealthier individuals contribute their fair share of the tax burden".

As for the notion that a more equal distribution of incomes reduces incentives to work and invest, the authors of an IMF report released in September argued that high inequality could be hazardous to economic growth, and that past experience shows that "sustainable economic reform is possible only when its benefits are widely shared".

"In the face of the current global economic turmoil and the need for difficult economic adjustment and reform in many countries, it would be better if these lessons were remembered rather than relearned."

Tapu.Misa@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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