America’s challenges take center stage in Greece
this is an article from World Review: State of Democracy, a special section that examines global policy and affairs, and is published in conjunction with the annual Athens Democracy Forum.
ATHENS — Eleven months after the election of President Joe Biden and the defeat of populist politics in the ballot box, the United States still faces challenges to its stability as a democracy: a flawed voting system, a data-hungry tech giant and an unequal health system.
These were some of the thoughts shared at the three-day conference held last week in collaboration with The New York Times, the Athens Democracy Forum. Held annually in the Greek capital, it brings together heads of government, business leaders, academics and activists. Topics including the challenges of politics, health care, economics and technology were discussed in panels, interviews and video commentary. Participants from around the world shared their thoughts in person and online.
In the past few conferences, talks have been dominated by Donald Trump’s presidency, with his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, a 2019 attendee declaring, “It’s Donald Trump’s populist nationalism that’s going to see us ahead.”
This year, speakers, especially those from the United States, did not focus on the current president, but on what they identified as urgent illnesses affecting America.
The first warning came from Stacey Abrams, a voting-rights advocate who was the Democratic leader in the Georgia House of Representatives and the party’s nominee for Georgia governor in 2018.
In early forum talks, he denounced the “disenfranchisement” of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—which forbids racial discrimination in voting—and weakened “the railing that protects the most vulnerable members of our society from voter suppression”. . “
“We are witnessing the advance of authoritarianism under a different guise, but with a similar end, which is the oppression of minority rights and voices,” she said.
Ms Abrams said 600 bills were moved “to undermine voting rights” in 48 of the 50 states, and that “fake audits of the vote” were carried out by Republican leaders across the country. It was imperative for both houses to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, whereby “wherever you live in our country, you will have the same fundamental, minimum standards of democracy,” she said. “He doesn’t exist today.” (The act, introduced in the Senate last month, would set national standards to ensure that Americans can vote according to them, regardless of their age, race, gender, language or zip code.)
The convention began after a major Silicon Valley controversy. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Facebook was getting ready to launch its Instagram Kids service for kids 13 or under, despite being aware that Instagram could harm the mental health of teenage girls. is delivering. (Following the Journal’s report, Facebook announced it was halting development of Instagram Kids.)
The controversy portrayed the power of American technology giants – a power that was denounced by author Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School.
In a lively video address, Professor Zuboff warned of disastrous consequences for democracy and humanity if tech companies were allowed to continue harvesting people’s data and take advantage of what it called “surveillance capitalism”.
He said Western democracies had fallen asleep over the past two decades as the tech giant engaged in “massive” campaigns to “wholesale destruction of privacy,” disinformation and modifying human behavior. He said that no law was made against these encroachments. So everyone everywhere around the world was “naked and vulnerable”, left “without the rights, laws and institutions designed to govern us in our digital century in the name of democracy”.
Professor Zuboff cautioned that unless there was a “democratic counter-revolution” against technology companies in the next decade, they were “definitely to expose the sociological and psychological underpinnings on which democracy is based.”
“Democracy is under such siege that only democracy can end,” she concluded.
As it did last year, this year’s conference took place in the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 700,000 people in the United States. President Biden introduced a $1.9 trillion rescue package last March that included direct payments, unemployment insurance supplements, child tax credits and vaccine distribution. (That package is still vigorously debated in Congress.)
Since the start of the pandemic, the Federal Reserve has also kept interest rates close to zero and bought $120 billion in government-backed bonds every month to throw a lifeline for a disease-stricken nation. With the economy now rebounding, inflation may soon return.
Nobel Prize winning economist Prof. Joseph Stiglitz was asked about inflation and whether it was going to affect the middle class and working classes hardest.
“From my point of view, inflation is just a hiccup,” replied Professor Stiglitz. “Normally, you don’t shut down an economy, then try to restart it. These are the most unusual times, and economies don’t go through these dramatic changes very easily.” As when a country goes into war and comes out of it, he explained, it was a big change, “and the market doesn’t handle these well.
“I’m not surprised we have a shortage,” he said. “There will be spikes in the prices of some goods. There will be some cost.”
Yet he pointed out that tools were in place to prevent inflation from reducing the incomes of “the middle and bottom”. Government aid programs were indexed for inflation, and wages tended to rise with inflation. “We have to make sure we have security,” he concluded.
The second issue the pandemic has highlighted is the unequal access to the American health system – care and insurance. This was an issue at the conference.
“We have to admit as a country why have we done so poorly in response to COVID?” asked Dr. Paul Farmer, chair of the Department of Global Health at Harvard Medical School and strategist for Partners in Health, a health care nonprofit focused on resource-expanded regions and countries. “After all, we have more resources than most places in the world.”
Dr. Farmer provided a series of explanations. He said the United States had a patchwork health distribution and health insurance system, reflecting “longstanding tensions” between local and federal governments over health policy.
There were also cultural issues, such as “a long history of hostility to government attempts to infiltrate people’s lives” and the country’s “failure to invest in public health” over the past few decades, he said.
What COVID-19 did was help the United States come closer to accepting that health was a human right. “When you don’t have a strong safety net, seeing what it’s like to get through a pandemic has been an object lesson for many people,” he said.
As a result, there were reasons to be hopeful.
“Sometimes such an event or the recession that began in 1929 is needed to encourage some reforms,” he said. “On top of that, we have a long overdue moment of racial reckoning in America
“I remain optimistic that we are going to move things forward,” he concluded.
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