Normative Narratives


Leave a comment

Aftermath of The Baltimore Riots: Justice is Blind, Economics is Not

RIP Freddy Gray. Just 25 years old, a young man’s life was tragically cut short. We cannot let the ensuing chaos detract from this ultimate injustice.

I have seen people on social media try to justify what happened to Mr. Gray by bringing up his criminal history. Not only is his rap-sheet immaterial to his death, but it is despicable that people would drag a dead man’s name through the mud to make their politically / racially charged points. This man is dead, he cannot defend himself.

Furthermore, Mr. Gray’s criminal history of non-violent drug use / distribution is a common product of his environment. Not to make excuses for his past crimes, but his environment does offer some insight and context into his questionable choices.

Another meritless claim is that Mr. Gray’s spinal surgery led to his death. Mr. Gray did not die on the operating table, and without some outside trauma to his spine he would still be alive today.

Equally disgraceful to these meritless justifications of alleged officer misconduct are opportunists using Mr. Gray’s death to loot and riot. Mr. Gray’s family, for their part, has condemned the riots. Nothing fuels a counter-narrative like unlawful behavior; as the saying goes, with friends like these who needs enemies.

A Department of Justice investigation is ongoing, and I fully expect that after a transparent investigation those responsible for Mr. Gray’s death will be held accountable.

Yes America’s criminal justice system is flawed, particularly with respect to African American communities, but to assume that it is never capable of delivering justice belittles its many unsung successes. As of this posting, the 6 officers involved in Mr. Gray’s death have been charged with various crimes, including second degree murder and manslaughter, by Baltimore’s Chief Prosecutor.

I can understand rioting after an unfair ruling, but not before a ruling even takes place. Some will argue that as a white man it is not my place to understand, and while I like to think I am generally pretty good considering things objectively, they may have a point. I do however know this; when comparing the track records of violent and non-violent protests in achieving meaningful reform in America, the more effective approach has unquestionably been non-violent.

Those sympathetic to the rioters may argue that every successful non-violent protest was buoyed by a parallel violent movement. While it is impossible to completely decouple the effects of parallel violent and non-violent movements, I find this argument flawed. What positive role could violent protest possibly play in political decision-making when violent protests detract from public sympathy, and the state always has the overwhelming advantage in shows of force?

To the contrary, in my opinion meaningful change results from strong leaders utilizing their rights to publicly frame issues in ways that even those who may, in their private thoughts, be ideologically opposed cannot as publicly elected officials reasonably challenge.     

Regardless of my understanding, the riots have, in the words of Baltimore’s African-American Police Comissioner Anthony Batts, embarrassed Baltimore as a city. Fortunately the negative actions of a few misguided Baltimoreans should have no impact on either the Baltimore Country or DoJ investigations.

But ultimately it is not the short-term embarrassment or immediate economic consequences that should most worry those who wish to see Baltimore thrive. It is the long-term impact on investment that is most troubling, as the riots will likely exacerbate the very socioeconomic conditions which indirectly led to Mr. Gray’s death and the ensuing riots in the first place.

While properly served justice is “blind”, economic decision making considers every iota of information available:

The looting and burning of a CVS pharmacy and general store, which has been shown on just about every newscast in the past 24 hours, as well as the destruction of other shops, will tend to deter retailers from making new investments, economists warned.

“One of the things that’s been growing in the area has been the tourism aspect and nothing puts off tourists more than riots and curfews,” said Daraius Irani, chief economist at the Regional Economic and Studies Institute of Towson University in Baltimore.

“One of Baltimore’s credit strengths is it has a sizeable and diverse tax base,” said Moody’s analyst Jennifer Diercksen, noting the city’s universities, which provide thousands of very safe jobs – creating a stable base for Baltimore.

Still, the city lags the rest of the nation on a per capita income basis. Its per capita income was $24,155 for 2012, representing only 86.1 percent of the national median, according to Moody’s.

Its unemployment rate is higher than the U.S. average – according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Baltimore city’s unemployment rate in February was 8.4 percent versus the U.S. rate of 5.8 percent in that month.

Still, economists said one of Baltimore’s problems is the sharp demographic split between the successful elite and an underprivileged population.

“There is the vibrant, beautiful, urban community that is characterized by ongoing renaissance, and the poor, less educated, less visited, which faces more challenges,” said Basu. “Both Baltimores have been making progress in recent years.

“Despite the fact the destruction was in the other Baltimore, not the one visited by tourists, the damage economically in the near and mid term will affect both.”

When private investment lags, jobs and tax revenue for social programs and public goods take a hit. Regardless of your political affiliation or personal beliefs, one or more of these things are needed to promote social mobility and social justice.   

Baltimore’s leaders must now prove their mettle by utilizing the city’s strong fiscal position to attract investors. The city’s leaders must leverage both public money and the public relations boost private companies would realize by helping “rebuilding Baltimore” towards securing public-private partnerships that benefit Baltimore’s poorest areas.

The only silver-lining of these riots is that America is paying attention to Baltimore. While I think peaceful protests would have achieved this same outcome without the negative media coverage and economic backlash, the riots are now (hopefully) a matter of history. Moving forward, the attention Baltimore is currently receiving must be utilized as a positive.  

Another potential avenue for recovery runs through Federal government, which being within a stones-throw of Baltimore may be compelled to invest significantly in revitalizing the city. Of course these two sources of public funding–municipal and federal–should be carefully coordinated to ensure that maximum social benefits are realized.

It is exactly trying times like these when strong leadership is most needed. Let us hope elected officials in Baltimore and Washington D.C. are up to the challenge. Community and religious leaders also have an role to play, both immediately in catalyzing anger into a sustainable political movement, and in the long run by promoting the roles of strong social values, resilience, and personal and social accountability in poverty reduction.

I am confident that criminal justice will be served in the Freddy Gray case, and that this case will help spur more widespread criminal justice reform across America.

Unfortunately, I fear the riots may have exacerbated the very problems that need to be addressed for more comprehensive progress on the social justice front.

Advertisements


1 Comment

RIP NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu

New York City lost two hero’s yesterday. Officers Ramos and Liu were murdered execution style by a mad gunman, whose name I care not to learn. Both of these men are survived by their families, who after mourning must try to pick up the pieces of their lives. I have no doubt that the city of New York will make sure these families are given all the support they need.

After these cold-blooded murders, the gunman took his own life; there will be no trial, no answers. Unsurprisingly, this coward took the cowards way out.

It is natural in times like these to look for scapegoats. I have heard people calling for Mayor De Blasio to step down. I have heard people placing blame on Al Sharpton (a man who I take little pleasure in defending). The “other side” of the argument could place blame on the Staten Island Grand jury which failed to indict Officer Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.

There should not be “sides” to this conflict. Nobody benefits when an innocent person, a police officer or civilian, dies. I often hear people speak of Officers or Army vets as if they should be above the law because of their contributions to society (I am thinking of an often shared video of an army vet saying “my right trumps your dead” in response to the passing of the NY SAFE Act). People volunteer for these jobs, they receive pay and benefits, and are revered as hero’s by the vast majority of society–these are the benefits.

Being considered above the law, or “better” than those you serve and protect, is not part of the job description. No one American’s rights are greater than another, regardless of your sacrifices. Anybody who believes otherwise has a fundamental misunderstanding of the principles which guide this great nation.

Having said that, all rights have limitations. The first amendment, which protects the rights of protestors, is no exception. Free speech cannot come at the expense of public safety–you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater, and you should not be able to march down the streets of NYC chanting “What do we want? Dead Cops“. I have no reservations in saying these chants galvanized the murderer of officers Ramos and Liu.

If any third party should shoulder some blame in these senseless murders, it is people who participated in this chant. That “protest” was a bastardization of both first amendment rights generally, and the peaceful social-justice based protest in response to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown specifically.

Back to my original point on scapegoating; all this finger pointing, while understandable, is destructive. It trivializes the role of the actual culprit–the man who pulled the trigger.

After senseless tragedies like this, the best way forward, in my opinion, is to figure out how we can prevent similar tragedies in the future. It has become quite clear that treating social media postings as serious threats could help achieve this goal.

While it is impossible to preemptively identify all killers, a certain pattern has emerged from some of the most infamous killings in recent American history: Sandy Hook, Ft. Hood, UC Santa Barbara and now the murders of NYPD Officers Ramos and Liu. Recognizing this pattern, and updating police procedures, could provide a blueprint for how to prevent future tragedies and get people the help they need.

Social media has become a window into people’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Adam Lanza’s social media posts showed a fascination with mass shootings, Lopez expressed a general disillusion with the world and sympathy for Adam Lanza prior to his massacre, and Mr. Rodger’s posted now infamous (and removed) videos detailing his personal issues on Youtube. The NYPD cop killer made instragram posts making his intentions publicly known.

We have to ask ourselves, at what point does protecting a persons freedom of expression infringe upon the ability to protect another persons right to life? As an economist, I am constantly looking for “perfect information” to make the best decisions. While we will never have “perfect information”, is it possible that we are overlooking a valuable and readily available source of information in social media posts?

Perhaps police departments could employ social media specialist to identify potential threats without compromising a departments ability to fulfill traditional police duties?

Would monitoring social media produce false positives? Yes. But even so, anybody who threatens to harm someone on social media–whether they intend to make good on that threat or not–is probably in need of mental healthcare (or at very least needs to be made aware how serious their threat was).

Furthermore, by setting the precedent that social media postings are serious threats that can lead to incarceration / institutionalization, we would increase the perceived “cost” of making such threats. This would deter people from making empty threats / “venting”, leaving (for the most part) only serious threats that actually need to be acted on.

The law often lags behind technological advance. Are we, as a country, ready to police social media? Perhaps not, but it is certainly a debate worth having.


1 Comment

Ferguson, MO: Justice is a Dish Best Served Well Done

I will not comment on the actual decision not to indict Darren Wilson; I was not at the scene of the crime, and even amongst those who were, there are differing accounts of what happened.

I trust the judicial process (although there does seem to be a conflict of interest when prosecutors are asked to indict police officers; having special prosecutors for police trials makes sense); anybody who is trying to sell you an “obvious” answer is being insincere (lots of clickhole “this changes everything” type nonsense out there). Even after months of deliberation, a jury could not find sufficient evidence to indict Wilson–there is no “obvious”explanation of what happened.

I will say this–indicting and convicting Officer Wilson because a lot of people are angry would not have been justice, it would have been mob rule, the exact opposite.

For their part, Michael Brown’s family have urged protesters to remain peaceful and constructive. Unfortunately, their wishes were disregarded by many.

It is not surprising people disregarded calls by the Brown family to remain peaceful. Those who disregarded this message where protesting underlying social injustices–Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Officer Wilson was merely the spark which ignited decades of racially-charged tinder.

Unlike the exact events leading to the death of Michael Brown, these injustices are irrefutable. The ways forward are clear, if the leadership exists to mold people’s outrage into something sustained and constructive.

Police Accountability

Their is a deep mistrust between police and minority communities across America. History of racial profiling, and the failed “war on drugs” which disproportionately targets minorities, exacerbates the vicious cycle of poverty, crime, and mistrust.

One way of making police officers more accountable is a lapel camera. A lapel camera could have answered many of the unanswered questions surrounding the fatal Brown-Wilson confrontation. Wilson alleges Brown charged at him, certainly a lapel camera would have shed light on this claim.

I have heard many reasons why lapel cameras would not work, ranging from “cameras are too expensive”, to “officers will forget to turn them on”, to “recordings would be an invasion of privacy”.

Privacy can be protected by strict rules governing under what circumstances footage can be used (for example, yes in trials, no in performance reviews).

Expense should not be an issue; even a bulletproof top-of-the line lapel camera, should not be prohibitively expensive. Create a demand, and someone will supply lapel cameras at a reasonable price. Furthermore, in response to events in Ferguson, President Obama proposed spending $75 million on lapel cameras as part of a larger $263 million police reform package.

And of course officers can forget to turn on their cameras, just like they can forget to turn on the safety on their guns, or read someone their rights. By setting up proportional penalties, their is no reason to believe lapel cameras would be misused anymore than other equipment.

Camera’s do not just benefit the public at the expense of police officers. Lapel cameras can validate necessary use of force, and protect police officers from unjust complaints. As Cpl. Gary Cunningham of Rialto California put it “I think it protects me more than it protects the public,”

Before implementing its program, Rialto police launched a yearlong study in 2012, deploying wearable cameras to roughly half of its 54 uniformed patrol officers at a given time. The results were remarkable. The department saw an 88 percent decline in complaints against officers and use-of-force incidents plumetted 60 percent.

“After we got the data, we kind of sat down and went, ‘Wow, look at these numbers. There’s something to this,’” said Chief Tony Farrar, the program’s brainchild.

The debate about lapel cameras is taking place in municipalities across the country, and now at the national level. This is a good start towards building trust, transparency, and accountability between police officers and those they serve and protect.

Personal / Social accountability

Why aren’t there more minority police officers in places like Ferguson, MO? I do not believe their are any discriminatory hiring practices at work here, such a barrier could not exist in modern American institutions without being exposed. If anything, municipalities often have affirmative action mandates to hire more minority officers. So then, what is the issue holding back more representative police forces?

I think at least part of the problem is cultural (or in economics speak, a “demand side” issue). Minorities often face ridicule for pursuing a career in public service. Instead of being labeled a “hero”, they are labeled “snitch”, “rat”, “traitor”, etc. Facing ridicule and rejection from their communities, is it really surprising more minorities do not pursue careers as police officers?

Cultural change can only occur at the community level. It could be complemented by highly visible campaign of celebrities / athletes / entertainers on a larger scale, but the grass-roots community element is indispensable.

And this social / personal accountability goes beyond encouraging minorities to become police officers. No matter what a person decides to do for a living, we all have civic duties; to effect change, people must become more politically active:

Though two in three Ferguson residents are black, the city government is almost entirely white.

Local African-American leaders say that’s because, for a variety of reasons, blacks across the region simply haven’t participated in city elections. Until that changes, they add, Ferguson’s racial tensions aren’t likely to get better.

Black political leaders in the area say it’s not surprising that Ferguson’s government isn’t responsive to their community’s concerns, because blacks across St. Louis County simply haven’t turned out to vote in large numbers, or run candidates for office. 

No one collects data on turnout by race in municipal elections. But the overall turnout numbers for Ferguson’s mayoral and city council election are discouraging. This year, just 12.3% of eligible voters cast a ballot, according to numbers provided by the county. In 2013 and 2012, those figures were even lower: 11.7% and 8.9% respectively. As a rule, the lower the turnout, the more the electorate skews white and conservative.

“I think there is a huge distrust in the system,” said Broadnax, a Ferguson native. Many blacks think: “Well it’s not going to matter anyway, so my one vote doesn’t count,” she said. “Well, if you get an entire community to individually feel that way, collectively we’ve already lost.”

But State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose district includes Ferguson and who has been involved in the protests, said she thinks the anger over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown will translate into increased political engagement among the region’s blacks.

“I think this issue is changing the game completely,” said Chappelle-Nadal. “People are upset.”

Still, for [John] Gaskin, a board member of the national NAACP, the current lack of participation among the area’s minorities makes it’s tough to hear older activists talk about the sacrifices made in the civil rights struggle.

“It brings me to tears hearing from Julian Bond and everyone how important it is to vote, for the people that lost their lives,” Gaskin said, “when we’ve had to almost try to convince people to utilize this precious tool that so many people in the world don’t have access to.”

To help facilitate political engagement in Ferguson, mayor Jay Nixon today announced the “Ferguson Commission“:

An African-American pastor and a white civic leader will lead a state-appointed Ferguson Commission that will work toward “healing and positive change” in the St. Louis area, Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri announced  Tuesday.

The diverse 16-member panel has about 10 months to listen to residents, study social and economic issues and make recommendations for changes. The commission includes lawyers, activists, pastors, a police sergeant and a professor.

Inclusive political institutions should be the norm, not an ad hoc response to tragedy.

Mainstream development economics is predicated on a rights based approach. In America we no longer have to fight for basic political and civil rights, but simply exercise them.

But the ease of our modernized society has bred comfort and complacency. Events such the shooting of Michael Brown, and the ensuing protests, serve as a stark reminder that being at the frontier of progressive values requires constant effort.

If these protests can remain peaceful, and fuel sustained political activism, they will serve as a testament that our democratic system–while not always pretty or linear–is still capable of pushing the frontier of progressive values.

Let the concepts addressed in this blog–accountability (of police officers, but also of ourselves and our communities), inclusive politics, and a politically engaged citizenry–be the legacy of Michael Brown.

Let his death be the catalyst of a new Civil Rights movement, one which bridges racial divides and addresses underlying socioeconomic injustices which hinder Americans of all races and creeds.

Such cultural shifts would amount to a much more meaningful legacy than any individual indictment / conviction ever could have.

Update: The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were completely separate incidents.

In the case of Eric Garner’s murder, video evidence clearly showed a non-threat–and perhaps a good Samaritan who broke up a fight–being choked to death (a claim confirmed by a medical examiner’s autopsy).

In his defense, Officer Pantaleo said he never meant to cause Eric Garner harm:

…the officer’s testimony, as recounted by Mr. London, seemed at times to be at odds with a video of the encounter, such as his stated attempt to get off Mr. Garner “as quick as he could.” 

It is not even controversial, but I do forcefully condemn the decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo on charges of at least manslaughter.

The Justice Department is launching a civil rights investigation into Mr. Garner’s death; hopefully justice is served in this clear case of police misconduct and brutality.


Leave a comment

Transparency Report: China Speaks of Inclusion at UN, Cracks Down on Protestors in Hong Kong

poly

Pro-Democracy Protests in Hong Kong:

During China’s annual address to the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Wang Yi had an interesting message for the international community:

The new sustainable development agenda should advance people’s wellbeing, promote inclusivity and ensure implementation

Inclusive, participatory politics are a foundation of modernization theory / a human rights based approach to development. Coming from a Chinese official these words ring hollow, as they were delivered while the Chinese government cracked down on pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong:

In a significant escalation of their efforts to suppress protests calling for democracy, the authorities in Hong Kong unleashed tear gas and mobilized riot police with long-barreled guns Sunday to disperse crowds that have besieged the city government for three days. But thousands of residents wielding only umbrellas and face masks defied police orders to clear the area.

At the heart of current protests are provincial elections in Hong Kong. The Chinese government is allowing these elections to take place, but will only permit certain candidates to run. To their credit, and against great odds, protestor’s have defied calls from the Communist Party to end their protests.

It has become clear the people of Hong Kong are willing to defy authority in their attempt to secure political rights. The protests have naturally gained much international attention, and have put the usually shrewd Chinese Communist party in a difficult position.

Polyarchy and a Context Sensitive Approach to Development:

Robert Dahl, one of the most influential political scientists of the 21st century, would probably consider Hong Kong an “inclusive hegemony”. Technical terms aside, even the casual observer should realize that, as they stand, Hong Kong’s elections would not represent a real democratic exercise (and hence the protests).

When it comes to human rights and poverty reduction, the Chinese experience is perplexing. Since 1981, the number of people in the world living in “extreme poverty” (less than $1.25 PPP / day) has fallen by 500 million people; excluding China, this reduction turns into an increase of 100 million people. One could certainly argue that the UN is not in a position to lecture China on the finer points of poverty reduction.

But China’s experience with development and poverty reduction cannot easily be replicated. Economic development is always context sensitive, and the least developed regions in the world (specifically Western / Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle-East) must develop from starkly different contexts than China has.

China is generally a homogenous, stable country with a strong central government that effectively meets peoples basic needs. Generally speaking, modern day Western / Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle-East couldn’t be more different; sectarianism / tribalism run rampant, and governments are corrupt and ineffective at providing even the most basic services. This combination results in instability, insecurity, and high poverty rates.

Any meaningful attempt at “South-South cooperation”–using the experiences of past development efforts when drafting new ones–would quickly identify these difference. While China’s economic development has been a remarkable success story, it would also be impossible to reproduce in today’s least developed countries (LDCs).

Furthermore, there are limits to the growth China’s can realize from it’s political economy model. While extreme poverty has dropped in China, the average Chinese person is by no means “wealthy”. The Chinese government has proven itself to be incredibly adept at picking the “low hanging fruit” of economic development. But it is widely accepted, even by Chinese leadership, that future growth and development requires a shift from export-based / state-sponsored growth to consumer-demand / market based growth.

The question is whether  this type of growth is possible in a quasi-capitalist, authoritarian country. Perhaps China will continue to be the exception to the rule, and become a highly developed nation without extending the political freedoms many of it’s people crave. I have my doubts, and recent slowdowns in China’s economic growth may affirm my beliefs, but admittedly a longer-term perspective is needed to see whether China’s economic slowdown is a symptom of structural flaws in its political economy or not.

Human Rights Records and Rankings:

It is worth noting that China is far from an outlier / renegade nation (such as North Korea). China is not, for instance, Egypt or Syria–countries whose leaders greeted pro-democracy protestors with indiscriminate slaughter. Furthermore, modern day China is not 1989 China; these are not the Tiananmen Square protests, times have changed and I am fairly certain the Chinese central government will not resort to violence in order to break up the protests.

China generally works within the international community, and is sensitive to negative perceptions that may affect its economic growth. The Communist party has proven itself to be in-tune with the needs of it’s people–whether this is out of some sense of good governance or a survival tactic is certainly open to debate.

It is difficult to rank countries based on their human rights records; human rights violations are interconnected and their consequences difficult to quantify. One such organization that attempts to rank countries, the International Human Rights Rank Indicators, has China ranked 48/216. This rank is below most of the world’s wealthiest countries (which has a lot to do with a governments ability to fulfill economic and social rights), but ahead of many of the worlds poorest / most oppressive regimes; I would say this is a reasonable ranking.

Growth and Development:

The ability of the worlds LDCs to develop, and of China to continue to develop, should be of great concern even to those in the “developed” world. If the Great Recession has proven anything, it is that “financial innovation” is not a sustainable path to prosperity. Wealthy countries need new markets to export their goods–they need people in poorer regions to obtain greater purchasing power. This means the international community must be clear-eyed when assessing the merits and limitations of the Chinese growth model.

For the world’s LDC’s, I am fully convinced that a human rights based approach to development is needed. The Post-2015 development agenda–with a human rights and a context sensitive approach to development at its core–is being designed with the world’s most impoverished in mind. I am cautiously optimistic that this second iteration of the MDGs will make a meaningful impact in the battle to end extreme poverty and expand human dignity in the worlds poorest regions.

China will not take outside advice when determining its future policy choices. China does not need international economic assistance, so there is no mechanism for implementing outside advice (regardless of its merits). If democratic gains are to take hold in China, it will require a combination of internal pressure (protests) and a continued slowdown in China’s economic growth.


Leave a comment

Transparency Report: Thailand’s Anti-Democracy Protests

Original article:

In a world now accustomed to democratic upheavals, including the Arab Spring and the Saffron and Orange Revolutions, the weeks of political upheaval in Thailand stand out for one main peculiarity. Protesters massing on the streets here are demanding less democracy, not more.

From their stage beneath the Democracy Monument, a Bangkok landmark, protesters cheer their campaign to replace Parliament with a “people’s council” in which members are selected from various professions rather than elected by voters.

The embattled prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has proposed new elections as a solution to the turmoil. But that is just what the protesters do not want.

In today’s fractured Thailand, a majority wants more democracy, but a minority, including many rich and powerful people, is petrified by the thought of it.

Because a number of the protest leaders are members of Thailand’s wealthiest families, some have described the demonstrations here as the antithesis of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is the 1 percent rebelling against the 99 percent, they say.

The reality is more complicated — the protesters include rich and poor, Bangkok residents and many people from southern Thailand who feel disenfranchised by the current government and its northern power base. What unites the protesters is the desire to dismantle Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, which has won every election since 2001.

The anti-democracy protests, which have been some of the largest in Thai history, call into question the commonly held belief that a rising tide of wealth in a society will naturally be followed by greater demands for democracy. Thailand today is much richer than it was two decades ago, but it is also much more divided.

On the face of it, the crux of the protest appears to be a classic power struggle between a dominant majority and a minority frustrated by its losing streak in elections and its inability to influence national policies in a winner-takes-all, highly centralized system.

But Thailand’s crisis is multifaceted and tightly intertwined with the fact that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s 86-year-old monarch, who during more than six decades on the throne has been revered to the point of quasi-religious devotion, is ailing and that the country is bracing for his death.

More broadly, Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a leading Thai scholar on the monarchy, argues that Thailand’s protracted political turmoil has been exacerbated by the contrast between a deified king and politicians who appear crass and venal in contrast. “We have an image of monarchy that is flawlessly excellent in everything,” he said in 2010. “If we had not built this image in the first place, we would not have so many problems and complaints with politicians.

Respect for the king, and the notion of his near-infallibility and beneficence, are deeply ingrained in Thais from the earliest years of schooling.

This blog is concerning the legitimacy of protests calling for replacing the democratically elected government with an appointed “peoples council”. There are two central tenets of liberal democracy I will base this analysis on:

1) Liberal democracy is meant to uphold the will of the majority, while protecting the rights of the minority.

2) Everyone is viewed as equal in the eyes of the government; no one person has more or less influence over political outcomes than another.

Based on uncontested election results, and the fact that protesters are not satisfied with the proposition of early elections offered by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, one can assume the protesters represent a minority of Thailand’s population. Based on this article, there is no evidence that the rights of this minority are being infringed upon.

Protesters cannot claim a mismanagement of the economy, as the per capita GNI has more than doubled over the past decade. Thailand’s HDI has been trending upwards for decades, and it’s poverty rates have been going down for years (accompanied by a decline in the Gini inequality index)–the current democratic governance structure surely has some merits.  One particular area of concern is Thailand’s level of perceived corruption / lack of transparency, however a move away from democracy would likely exacerbate this problem.

It seems rather that protesters, unhappy with populist policies that do not directly benefit them, are trying to change the policy making process to one which they can control. Such a move would be a violation of the two tenets of liberal democracy listed above. It would amount to upholding the will of the minority while violating the political rights of the majority. It would also give more power to the desires of select individuals.

To appease the opposition, the government should consider changing its parliament from a “first past the poll” system to a proportional representation system, to ensure a plurality of opinions in policy making. The government should also consider expanding civilian oversight mechanisms, to increase transparency and allay fears of corruption / embezzlement.

To become a more effective political party, the opposition should consider embracing policies which have had success in reducing poverty / inequality while simultaneously increasing economic growth. Such pragmatism is a necessary component for the continued relevance of any political party; in democracies everywhere, parties which do not embrace popular and effective policies tend to fall by the wayside.  

So far, the King and the military have stayed out of this fight, hopefully they will continue to do so and allow the democratic process to fix the unrest it has caused. Thailand should not dismantle its democratic system, which has a long history of effective governance.