April 28, 2011

Where do we go from here..

Original Post: April 7th, 2011

As I write this, tens of political parties are forming, each working on setting up their mandates, values policies and strategies.  Most are talking about very similar concepts and guiding
principles with little definition of what those “themes” mean for our day to day life. Social justice, redistribution of wealth, free education, freedom of speech, civil society, free market economy etc.. All such terms are extremely ambiguous if they are not defined by a holistic vision where all such forces are delicately and intelligently balanced. For example, minimum wage cannot be defined without considering purchasing power, which is – in turn – defined by the quality and access to public services which are paid for through taxes which depend on the profitability of businesses and their growth, which are in turn subject to their costs including wages. It’s a complex web of interdependent policies that can neither be defined separately nor independently from a clear vision for the future.

Then we are faced with political models, as if we should know what they mean, Liberal left of centre, Social democracy and all those socio-economic ideologies. I can guarantee you that none of those terms is relevant to us (commoners) because - by the end of the day - every country has to construct its own set of policies based on its culture, values, resources and future vision. And in my opinion, once a country is done doing that, some political science guru (apologies if you’re one) will come up with a clever name for it, which we will gladly accept as the name for “our” system of government. That’s why, I will – happily – skip through all the technical terms and just draw a picture of where to and how I would like to see Egypt develop.

The most important concept for me at this stage is Social Justice.

Social justice is a very big word and considered a profanity in capitalist economies. The Wikipedia “moderate” definition for social justice is: Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating a society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being. “ What is meant by dignity, equality and solidarity are up for interpretation.

Another Widipedia definition that zooms in on mechanisms for establishing Social Justice defines it as follows: “Social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality and involves a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution. These policies aim to achieve what developmental economists refer to as more equality of opportunity than may currently exist in some societies, and to manufacture equality of outcome in cases where incidental inequalities appear in a procedurally just system.”
While many view social justice from a Robin Hoodian perspective (take from the rich to give the poor), the meaning that I’m more interested in is the longer term objective of equal opportunity. If we put aside - for now - the current imbalances in the Egyptian society and look 50 years ahead; all Egyptians born in 2061 should have – more or less – identical chances of survival and of growth. Sounds communist? Not really. The concept is not about re-distribution of wealth per say, it is about establishing a level playing field.

There are two key factors – in my humble opinion – that define this concept: education and health; Not getting enough of either greatly impairs an individual’s ability to secure the right job and to continue to perform properly to guarantee his / her chances of “survival” and “growth”. What each one decides to do with that opportunity going forward is their own choice and I don’t believe that anyone is responsible beyond that point except with regards to issues of social welfare and other humanitarian considerations.

If we look at today’s education scene, a tiny percentage of the population has access to “good” schools and the rest get poor or no education. Right off the bat equal opportunity is lost and the rich with better education will end up getting the better jobs with the bigger pay checks and will afford to give their kids better education. The cycle continues and hence the infamous saying “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”. The gaps in quality of education have to be bridged.
So, answer number one is: “good” education should be made available equally to all socio-economic segments of the society. Does that mean free education to all? Yes it does. But hang on for a second, I mean free education subject to job market requirements. Not the crappy Nasserist style free University degrees for the whole lot. More specifically, universities should have a limited capacity based on a commitment to a certain quality of education within its resources and the job market requirements. Students will have to put up a serious fight to be able to secure their space in university. Those who don’t get the grades can either pay for their university education or chose to go into technical and vocational institutes, which again will have space according to job market needs. Because, let’s face it; the job market requires 30% of its workforce with university degrees and the rest with technical capabilities. What good is it to produce 30’000 accountants / year when all you need are 9’000? The rest end up doing something they could have learned in one year and for a fraction of the cost.

The same concept applies for health care. Obviously, being in good health impacts the ability of a person to secure a proper job and to continue to perform in that job. Today the rich have better health than the poor, partly because of better awareness and living conditions but mostly because they can afford “good” healthcare while the less fortunate of our people have to rely on our pathetic public health care. My view for the future is that regardless of a person’s financial ability, they should have access to “good” health care. More money should not mean better health, full stop.
Obviously, to have a system that guarantees “equal opportunity” for all, corruption has to be eliminated; transparency and free access to information have to be secured.

 So, if this is Egypt in 50 years. Where do we go from here and how?

Where we are today - as a country - is unacceptable by all standards. The amount of poverty, sickness, illiteracy and suffering that we have in our society is shameful. I’m not going to go into the details of how we got there or the apathy that this nation has suffered from over the past 6 decades because - right now - we have a chance to make decisions that will change this reality going forward.

If we agree that our aim as a society is to be able to provide an equal opportunity to every Egyptian, regardless of their social, economic, ethnic or religious background and if we also agree that where we are today is far from that, then we must look at how we will be able to bridge this gap.

The first thing that we need to acknowledge is that there is a significant portion of our population that will not be able to have access to equal opportunity. It’s too late. We - as the more fortunate society - are fully responsible for this segment. They have the right to live in dignity and if they cannot afford it, we have to bare that cost for them and with a smile on our faces. Not only do we have to work towards establishing a future that provides equal opportunity to all Egyptians but we also have to support the segments of our society that have missed that chance. Therefore, brace yourself for more taxes, less subsidies and more civil work than what you had in your plans on January 24th.

Yes, you heard me right, less subsidies and more taxes. There is no reason why the government should subsidize our fuel, electricity and bread for us. We can surely afford to pay market price for those. As for taxes, I’m sure there is nothing that will happen to us if we 1) lose - say - another 5% of our income or 2) if we pay higher taxes on our properties, luxury goods, etc.. But there is no way in hell, can anyone convince me that the 40% of our population who live below poverty line can continue to live as such, especially if the argument will be in defense of more income for us, the rich and able. And don’t worry too much, you will not end up carrying the whole bill, the amount of resources that were stolen or mismanaged in this country over the past 30 years will cover the bigger portion.

Let me establish that I am not advocating any form of communist or centralized economy. I remain a fanatic believer in free market economies (see below). But I also believe that an equalitarian society is not only “fair” and “just”, but that it ultimately leads to sustainability and growth through the development of a morally, intellectually and financially sound society. Funny isn’t it?

To achieve that I see three key defining forces: 1) Redistribution of wealth through taxation, 2) Development of Civil society and 3) A transparent political system. Nothing new in what I’m saying? Of course, what did you expect? That’s what people have been debating for a couple of centuries now.

I’m not going to go into the whole technical debate of how to develop each of the 3 forces above. All I can say is that I would like to see the following: 1) A definition of what is considered a minimum acceptable level of dignity, 2) The mechanism to ensure that such level is continuously raised as the country develops and 3) An agreement that the resources required for such development are made available through a taxation mechanism that on one hand secures needed funds and on the other hand does not hinder the competitiveness of the profit seeking institutions. Again, there is nothing new in what I’m saying and it’s obviously much easier said than done.

But – in my opinion - the starting point is “that” definition of a minimum acceptable level of dignity and in my books this means the following: Every Egyptian has the right to a clean and safe home (with all that this definition entails of running potable water, sewage system, electricity, access to transportation, security, etc.), health (including disease free food, healthcare, living conditions, etc.), full and balanced nutrition (be it that minimum wage can guarantee that or through welfare) and education (as described in the equal opportunity definition above). Those rights are not a wish list and are not my long term dreams. These are any human being’s basic rights and our priorities for today!! Every effort that we do should go towards securing these rights for all Egyptians in the coming few weeks, months and years, not as a government but as a nation. Our political, social or economic efforts should focus on nothing else. Economic growth and prosperity will follow.

So, first step is a definition of a minimum “income” (wage, pension or welfare) that guarantees the above, because we know - as we speak – that the government will not be able to make available its public services up to standard in a timely manner. Therefore, minimum income has to be defined in such a way as to make the average Egyptian able to afford the above rights according to prevailing market prices and soon. Minimum income will be discussed again once the government is able to provide the above rights to all Egyptians, but at this moment those services need to be made available through private means.

Provided that minimum wage and welfare (such as: unemployment benefits and pensions) are put in place, I believe that the labor laws should be changed and companies should have the right to hire and fire as their businesses require. Free market economies have to prevail.

Whereas, free market economy is considered a profanity for many “left wing” advocates, I personally believe that it guarantees the most efficient utilization of resources. Lefties will call that “exploitation of resources”, so be it. But none can deny that exploitation of resources is - by definition - efficient. While the definition of Neo Liberalism (which is basically Capitalism rebranded for public appeal) has proven vulgarly corrupt, centralized economies have also proven to be infinitely bureaucratic, inefficient and much to your surprise, just as corrupt.

In centralized economies, being both the player and the referee (because a government is both the legislative body and a profit seeking player) leads to anti-trust practices and monopolizing policies that render the whole market inefficient. Additionally, the government’s mixing its profit seeking objectives (in a centralized economy) with its social obligations again leads to a less competitive enterprise, especially in light of the growing globalization (and seriously I’m not going to start debating globalization here, it’s a fact and you have to live with it). Moreover, centralized economies are always blind to the requirements of the various macro segments of the society and therefore undermine the competitiveness of small and medium enterprises (which are basically responsible for 90% of our economy in terms of GDP and employment). Finally, the Utopian ideology of a community based management of resources is too naïve for my taste, there will always be individuals that are more ambitious for power and wealth than others and they will always end-up monopolizing the system to their benefit. It is therefore better – in my opinion – to integrate them in a formal setting, tax them and enforce upon them a positive role in the community than it is to create a system that is based on full trust in human integrity and an unrealistic sense of community.

So, if we agree that market driven economies are ultimately more efficient and more competitive (at least I agree to that), then what we need to do is to mitigate their side-effects, which are basically high level corruption (those indecent relationships between money and politics), resource exploitation (human, environmental, etc..) and socio-economic imbalances, in order to reach a more equitable society. So, we go back to the same three factors: 1) Redistribution of wealth, 2) Development of civil society and 3) Transparent political system.

Whereas, redistribution of wealth is something I’ve talked about earlier in terms of taxation and subsidy, the two other factors need to be discussed in more details.

Civil Society as defined by Wikidpedia: “is composed of the totality of voluntary social relationships, civic and social organizations, and institutions that form the basis of a functioning society, as distinct from the force-backed structures of a state (regardless of that state's political system) and the commercial institutions of the market.” And according to London School of Economics “Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values.”

Over the past 6 decades we have lived with the understanding that the government is responsible for the people. Civil society had a tiny which was limited to charity and temporary poverty alleviation. Most interventions happened on a macro level with limited involvement in policy making. The true role of Civil Society in representing interest groups, crystallizing community values, rallying support for common interests and demands was non-existent.

As we are coming out of an oppressive and corrupt regime towards democracy; we are starting from scratch. The success of developing our “brand new” society will rely significantly on a vibrant Civil Society that is yet to be established. Issues such as illiteracy, health, human development come as clear first priority but a much deeper role is also needed in political awareness, revival of our core values and culture and the reestablishment of communal conscience, on a social level. On the political level monitoring of integrity of the political system, exposing and combating corruption, organization of unions and syndicates, pressure groups, involvement in redrafting the country’s constitution and establishment of a long term vision for Egypt are all core responsibilities of our upcoming Civil Society and a truly democratic process cannot exist without it.

The biggest challenge for the development of Civil Society in the coming period will be to establish the belief - in the community - that it’s no longer the government which is responsible for the people but that it is the people and their active involvement that can bring the change. To eradicate that apathy and to reinstate a sense of belonging will be our biggest achievement and will guarantee the sustainability of this Civil Society.

Finally, a vibrant Civil Society is our only protection, going forward, against corruption, oppression, fanaticism and other social, political or economic diseases that could creep into our society.

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