Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Is Missouri the next Venezuela?

I can’t believe I just typed that title. I’m from Missouri, born and raised. I’m also the co-founder of Luz Para Venezuela a non-profit focused on reducing conflict in Venezuela. Unless you live in Miami with its vibrant population of Venezuelans you’d be forgiven for not being up to speed on the escalating tensions in this important South American country that just so happens to have more oil than Saudi Arabia. That’s ok because today I hope to change that for you since you do know where Missouri is and by this point you’ve definitely heard of a town called Ferguson.

My goal is not to repeat what you’ve already read in the media about Ferguson. My goal is to show you that our world is shrinking by the day and we are more interconnected than ever before. It is through this interconnectedness that we have a lifetime opportunity to make meaningful change towards a peaceful future.

Let’s start with the current backdrop in Venezuela. Since the beginning of 2014 civil unrest in Venezuela has escalated to levels not seen since the unsuccessful coup of President Hugo Chavez in 2002. His successor, Nicolas Maduro, has continued with a series of crushing economic policies that have pushed the country into experiencing soaring inflation and constant shortages of goods, particularly important basic necessities such as baby formula, toilet paper, and medicine. Crime has skyrocketed to the point that the government no longer publishes the shameful data. Estimates place the murder rate at approximately 24,000 annually making Venezuela’s murder rate nearly the highest in the world and for government corruption Venezuela is ranked by Transparency International as 160th out of 175 countries.

Venezuela has been reducing economic freedom for well over a decade by implementing disastrous policies that exacerbate the problems they are designed to solve. For example Venezuela is experiencing food shortages with increased frequency. When any food is in short supply its price naturally increases. Venezuela reacts to rising food prices by passing laws that freeze prices. Now that might seem like a logical thing to do in theory but let me explain how this works in practice. Let’s say that Apple’s new iPad is priced at $400. iPad’s are manufactured in China by a company called Foxconn. Let’s imagine for a moment that Foxconn has a catastrophic explosion at its facility and blows up. No more iPads will be made for at least a year. The public freaks out and prices for existing iPad’s start to skyrocket. Now let’s say that President Obama is concerned about rising iPad prices and that if the prices rise too fast schools that have been buying them for classrooms won’t be able to afford them. So President Obama passes a new law that freezes prices at $400. If no more iPad’s will be made for a year but the price is frozen at the regular price of just $400 how long do you think it will take before every store shelf is permanently cleared of iPads? About 24hrs. This is exactly how Venezuela works.

Now you might be saying to yourself well wait a minute why doesn’t the government pass a law during this iPad crisis that says only schools can buy iPads? Surely that would solve things. Matter of fact that’s exactly how governments usually react in such a situation. The only problem now is that the government has become entangled in determining who wins and who loses during the shortage. If iPads are only given to schools what happens to the architects that use iPads to design new schools? What happens to the solar companies that use iPads to collaborate with team members around the globe to get us off of fossil fuels? What happens to doctors in the field that use iPads to document potential pandemic diseases like ebola? The list goes on. When a law is passed in the manner I’ve described it rewards one group at the expense of another. There’s more to consider though because when iPad prices are frozen Apple as the seller can’t charge the higher prices necessary to replace or rebuild their supplier and thus ultimately the shortage in iPads which was supposed to be only a year becomes permanent. A bad policy prescription is at the root of this mess and in an effort to help with supply shortages the government has created more of them.

Now if you take the example I’ve just laid out and multiply it several times you’ll begin to get a picture of what Venezuela looks like today. Despite their vast natural resources their supermarkets are empty. You can probably imagine that if one bad policy is passed and the error in logic is not realized then a chain reaction of subsequent bad policy prescriptions will follow. And these policy prescriptions always end in excessive use of force. Why? Because as the situation deteriorates people get upset and civil unrest erupts. Not willing to accept blame for making the problem worse the government exerts physical enforcement of ever stricter laws. Not enough food? Well then the government will ration it for everyone. Companies not making enough food? Well then the government will take over these companies. It’s a downward spiral. Although corruption is a topic of an entirely separate article it is worth noting that corruption skyrockets in an environment of government intervention. As any government takes more control of a market, they de facto become the market and thus those in control become ever more incentivized to exploit their positions of power.

How does this all connect to Ferguson, Missouri? It is similar bad policy decisions that are meant to “protect” our nation that ultimately cause us harm. In the U.S. it is specifically our war on terror. In a stream of bad policies designed to keep us safe we have now reached the point where we are at risk of being innocently shot by our own police. Let’s take a closer look at this.

First of all why is excessive force on the rise in the U.S.? The simple answer is because we’re funding it. Another example will probably be helpful here. Let’s say you work at a Toyota dealership and you find out that there’s a program available via a simple application that will allow you to receive a free Lamborghini. What are the odds that you’ll be exceeding local speed limits on I-95 (or I-70 for my people in Missouri)? Yeah about 100%. Well thanks to program 1033 its the same thing for U.S. police departments. It’s like Christmas on steroids. Program 1033 facilitates the transfer of military equipment to police departments. The idea was to not waste all this equipment coming back from our wars overseas. Ok I’ll buy that idea if its sending over laptops but .50 caliber machine guns and tanks? The problem here should be obvious. It wouldn’t be much fun to have all this gadgetry and not put it to work. And thus we see camoflauge, armored vehicles, and an assortment of other gear designed for war used on our streets in America or to keep with our metaphor we’ve got fleets of Lamborghinis zipping through our neighborhoods. Someone is going to get hit.

So with a little education on policy we start to get an idea on how to unwind bad policies but we still have a wholesale corruption issue we need to address first. There actually was a proposed bill to severely place limits on the 1033 program. Congressman Alan Grayson (D-Florida) proposed just such a bill. Did you know that a whopping 355 members of congress voted against Congressman Grayson’s amendment? But wait there’s more. Website Maplight.org reported the following:

Representatives voting to continue funding the 1033 Program have received, on average, 73 percent more money from the defense industry than representatives voting to defund it.

Fifty-nine representatives received more than $100,000 from the defense industry from January 1, 2011 - December 31, 2013. Of those only four supported defunding the 1033 Program.

Simply stunning and inexcusable. And we accuse Venezuela of being corrupt? At least everyone there knows it. If you are not taking the time to message your congressmen and congresswomen to let them know their days in office are numbered please do so now. And if writing a letter will take you too long then catch them on Twitter since almost every one of them is on social media. Not fully motivated yet? I’ve got more so keep reading.

Here’s a few quick numbers to show how your tax dollars are being spent to protect you.

$35 billion in homeland security grants

$3.9 billion new homeland security headquarters

$2 billion for NSA building with another $2 billion in hardware

$601 billion - proposed defense budget for 2015

Feeling safer yet? No of course not. Americans are being innocently shot by our own police.

Another similarity between Ferguson, Missouri and Venezuela is the direct targeting by law enforcement of the media. In an alarming report on Venezuela from Human Rights Watch issued a few months ago the organization noted the following:

”In 13 of the cases of physical abuse documented by Human Rights Watch, security forces targeted individuals who had been taking photographs or filming protests. All but two were then arbitrarily arrested. Roughly half of these individuals were professional journalists, while the other half were protesters or bystanders using cell phones to document use of force by security forces. In these cases, when assaulting or arresting the victims, security force members reprimanded them for taking pictures or filming. In several instances, security force members told victims they were getting what they deserved for trying to undermine the reputation of security forces, or told them they did not want the images circulating online.”

Now you might be saying to yourself wait a minute its not that extreme in Missouri. Yes it is. Two reporters were arbitrarily arrested and then released without charges. News crews have had tear gas shot directly at them. No fly zones have been enacted by the FAA. Even as I type this Amnesty International has for the first time dispatched a team into the U.S. to monitor Ferguson. And if all that doesn’t convince you then let’s pause for a photo break. I’ve placed a photo from Venezuela and then one from Ferguson, Missouri - they continue to alternate in that pattern.

See the full article and images by jumping to this link http://goo.gl/Mdbr25

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