All posts by sam2

Europe’s invisible minority

While the media have focused on the unsavory situations of Europe’s Muslims, the plight of the Romani, a devastatingly poor, long-persecuted minority in Europe, has gone unnoticed by many. These migrants are not newcomers from the Arab world, but rather nomads who came a millennium ago from northern India, genetic and cultural evidence suggests. Romani have adopted many of the customs of their homeland, and most practice Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, or Catholicism, while maintaining some ancient Hindu customs. Concentrated mostly in Eastern and Southern Europe, this ethnic group makes up 1-10% of most European populations, but has lifestyles reminiscent of a different continent and century. A third of Romani are unemployed, 90% live below their home country’s poverty line, and large portions of the population are illiterate.


Data from the Pew research center and show that Romani today face far more discrimination in Europe than other minorities, including Muslims. This racism, called anti-ziganism, is strongest in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox nations and weakest in the Protestant Northwest of Europe.

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Hundreds of thousands of Romani, having been deprived of German citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws, were killed during the Holocaust. Unlike Jews, however, widespread belief in their genetic inferiority persisted. From the 1970’s until the breakup of the USSR, hundreds of thousands of Romani women in Eastern Europe underwent forced sterilization, sometimes without the knowledge of the victim. Like many of the laws requiring desegregation of Romani and whites in some European schools today, patient’s consent existed in name only. In Czechoslovakia alone, over 90,000 women were made infertile from 1971 until 1991. Sterilizations continued illegally in the Czech Republic until 2007, by which time it was a full member of the EU, and isolated incidents have been reported in other parts of Eastern Europe more recently.


Some of the worst conditions Romani face today are in Italy. 82% of Italians have unfavorable views of the group, and 68% believe that all Romani should be “expelled from the country.” Several acts of terrorism by Romani in the past decade have sparked a new wave of resentment on both sides, and Italy’s reactions have been unpleasant. In the most publicized of these incidents, Italian beach-goers looked on as two Romani children drowned, then took pictures of their dying bodies without seeking help. In the same month, a mob of Italians stormed a Romani village, lighting several houses on fire. In a lawsuit related to the organization of this terrorism, the Italian supreme court ruled against the Romani. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s last election campaign promised a severe clampdown on “Roma, clandestine immigrants and criminals.” The association of an ethnic group with crime is not an unusual tactic for politicians, but seems particularly troubling considering the region’s recent history. The most recent attack, the bombing of a Romani home that killed three sisters, is shown below.


According to Persian legend, the Sassanid king Bahrām V Gōr discovered that the poor in his empire could not afford music, and hired ten thousand of the best lute players from India. He gave each of them an ox, a donkey, and some wheat, so that they could sustain themselves while playing music for the poor. Rather than set up farms, the musicians ate their animals immediately and a year later returned demanding more. Angry that they had squandered his gift, the king banished them West, to wander the world. Whatever the truth of this story, it represents a long history of Western oppressors accusing the Romani of laziness and greed, rather than recognizing their own failure to provide a welcoming home for this travel-worn people.


Trade Skepticism: Legitimate or Trumped-up?

President-elect Trump ran his campaign largely on the theme that he could negotiate trade deals that would slow globalization and prioritize American interests. He has pledged that the U. S. will withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement with eleven other Pacific Rim countries that President Obama’s administration has been negotiating for the past eight years, on his first day in office.

President Obama has claimed that the TPP will increase the number of American exports to the global market, help grow and strengthen the American economy, support well-paying jobs in the United States and throughout the rest of the world, and strengthen the American middle class during this period of dramatic globalization. Still experiencing the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the TPP’s predecessor, many Americans remain unconvinced.

NAFTA went into effect in 1994, creating the largest open market bloc in the world: Mexico, Canada, and the United States. While “free” trade (already a strange term for an economy so regulated) had existed between the U. S. and Canada since 1989, NAFTA has had a significant impact in the U. S. and northern Mexico. The agreement was supposed to allow the forces of supply and demand, rather than tariff battles that hurt everyone, to regulate trade. American businesses were expected to have a much easier time than before when trading with both Mexico and Canada due to lowered tariffs, eliminated investment restrictions, and the security of intellectual property rights; the combined economies of these three NAFTA countries at the time exceeded $6 trillion, with the United States being by far the most powerful economy, an unprecedented economic powerhouse. However, Mexico continued to place extremely high tariffs (often exceeding 30%) on American imports while inefficient bureaucracy further hindered trade, making it difficult for smaller American businesses to sell goods south of the border. This meant that the flow of goods from the U.S. to our neighbors has grown at half of the rate before the deal, quite the opposite of its stated intention. Meanwhile, many American workers saw large employers setting up manufacturing facilities in Mexico, and Mexican tariffs remained on average 250% higher than American tariffs, an imbalance that placed the U.S. at an extreme disadvantage. In Mexico, poor farmers found themselves unable to compete with U.S. producers, due to huge subsidies from the U.S. for corn and other crops that the Mexican government simply couldn’t match. Both American blue-collar workers and Mexican agricultural workers, rightly or wrongly, began to blame job losses on NAFTA and establishment economics, and felt threatened by the globalization and technological advancement that NAFTA encouraged. This anger, fear, and resentment has come boiling to the surface in the past few years with the debate over the TPP, and when Mr. Trump promised to put a 35% tariff on imports from American facilities like Ford who have set up in Mexico, many Americans finally heard someone who they thought represented them.

In terms of the U.S. – Mexican relationship, the TPP is essentially a renegotiation of NAFTA that will increase the quality of living and working conditions in both of these two countries. The TPP adopts higher standards for American and Mexican businesses, governments, workers, and environmental protection. Mexico has been advancing extremely rapidly in the areas of energy, telecommunications, finance, and labor practices, and conservative lawmakers and the Obama administration hope that the TPP will only increase the many opportunities for U. S. businesses to become more competitive and to export more goods to Mexico.

There are plenty of objections to the TPP, with typically unsatisfactory excuses from the outgoing establishment. Top-secret negotiations hidden from American workers are justified as political necessity. Arbitration panels designed for giant international corporations to circumvent or even influence American regulation are “balanced out” by weak commitments from Asian governments, when these lopsided labor and environmental responsibilities are admitted at all. But these aren’t the real reasons for anger at the TPP, at least on the far-right; it’s more about a perceived “rigged system,” run by and for large corporations with no regard for the concerns of the American people. Grievances against international trade have, in fact, been boiling in the hearts and minds of Americans, with little acknowledgement or sympathy from the Republican Party, since George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton’s negotiation of NAFTA.

One of the main issues in the American debate on trade has been our relationship with China, which is notably not part of TPP. President Obama has often criticized Mr. Trump’s harsh language toward China, especially his pledge for a 45% tariff on Chinese imports and allegations of an effective Chinese trade war on the U.S. A careful, cerebral leader, President Obama has instead chosen to snub China less directly, using the TPP to forge a protective economic alliance of Pacific Rim nations in a Cold War-style attempt to check the regional influence of our rival economy. The energy put into this agreement went to waste; the President-elect and new leader of the Republican party has a stance on trade that makes Senators Sanders and Warren look restrained.

Mr. Trump is already bringing jobs back to the U.S., having convinced Carrier Corporation through tax incentives and economic threats to keep in the country at least half of the 2,000 Hoosier jobs that it had planned to move to Mexico; however, negotiating an international trade deal acceptable to foreign leaders and the American people will be a true test of his abilities.

In a time where many are searching for unity, maybe trade is a place to start, as the 2016 election saw the Democrats and Republicans unite once again on the issue—this time to oppose free trade—with Secretary Clinton, in a rare moment of independence from the men in her political circle, vowing to immediately ditch the agreement and renegotiate. The TPP’s only hope was Gary Johnson, two-time Libertarian nominee for President, who supported the trade deal because “I’m being told that [it], in fact, would advance free trade,” echoing the establishment delusion that Americans want more open markets with low-wage countries.

Opposition to the broad free trade deals currently in place has become a political necessity because of the broad perception, which the political establishment has done little to dispel, that President Obama’s administration has come to the negotiating table with a well thought-out compromise and left with little. Mr. Trump promises as President to come to the negotiating table with extreme demands (i.e., his insistence on absurdly high tariffs) and leave with a fair compromise, which seems like a reasonable expectation for the world’s most powerful economy.

Free trade is a great phrase. After all, what could be more American than liberty and capitalism? This idea isn’t just economic; our rejection of the TPP would open up the Pacific Rim, especially East Asia, not only to China’s economic influence, but to its political and military control. But free trade only works when your partners agree to follow the same rules. An ideal trade agreement would compel foreign governments to put the same economic restrictions on their workforce as the U. S. does, so that our country wouldn’t need to sacrifice competitiveness in the global market for workers’ rights and environmental responsibility.

The world this year has seen too many referendums where the people rejected free markets, from Brexit to the election of Mr. Trump, and the refusal of many policymakers to recognize these intense and legitimate concerns has led to many of their political downfalls. President Obama and the traditional wing of the Republican party seem to think that spreading economic treats around the Pacific will curtail China’s dominance of the region, despite the fact that, not being a party to the TPP, our rival is playing by a completely different set of labor and environmental rules. The President’s opposition, on the other hand, has offered no real alternative besides tougher rhetoric and a “better deal.” But until President Obama makes a serious effort to explain and defend his stance on free trade to the American people, the country will continue to see the TPP as simply an expansion of NAFTA, complete with the obligatory $40 million of lobbying by the Koch brothers, that has been more influenced by its signatories, some of the most sluggish economies in Asia, than the Unites States.

International trade is complex and confusing, far more so than either side would like to admit. They say wisdom can come from the most unexpected places, so perhaps Gary Johnson had it right all along, and we should stand aside and let the “experts” figure out what’s best for the people.