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Europe and the Refugee Question, January 2016

I get to talk to lots of different people when I’m traveling around the world. Many have a great picture of Germany, whether it’s because of renewable energy or the openness to refugees. However, just like the Energiewende has been slowly coming under scrutiny by outside observers, I think it’s time to look at how open we actually are when it comes to welcoming refugees, the mismanagement of the entire issue, the consequences thereof.

Denmark has come under criticism for planning to seize assets from refugees to ‘cover the cost of each asylum seeker.’ What often goes un- or undermentioned is how that the same is happening in Switzerland, and yes, Germany: Possessions above €750 can be and are confiscated by the police. Even the Green MP Beck agrees to the confiscation measures, as long as they ‘don’t create the impression this is done in an authoritarian way.’ Meanwhile, the Left party is the only one to condemn this practice both from a legal reasoning point as well as by principle: ‘A basic human right should not come at a financial burden to the person seeking justice.‘

I’m appalled at the justifications that this is for financial reasons, to help offset the costs and ensure equality between the Hartz-IV recipients. So we are ripping off of one group just so the other ripped-off group feels that they are being treated fairly?

Giving financial support for basic necessities to refugees (or those suffering under Hartz-IV) doesn’t have any real macroeconomic consequences: It doesn’t hurt the economy since the money is actually spent in the local economy. This is much better than money in the accounts of the super-wealthy, which is not circulating and thus not contributing to the economy.

Secondly, proportionality. How much money do you believe you’re going to make from this? Here’s a quick thought experiment: There seems to be no statistical data, so let’s use some very high assumptions: Say as much as 10% of asylum seekers would need to give €2000 of the money they arrived with. Let’s use the widely-circulated yet inflated number of 1M refugees arriving to Germany last year. That would amount to €200 million. (more realistically we’re talking about 0.1% and €1000, leading to a mere €1 million).

Compare this to the €310 billion of the federal budget, or against the ‘financial predictions’ circulating in German media that refugees will cost €20 billion even though it was only €1.5 billion in 2013 (nevermind that this prediction comes from Hans-Werner Sinn, one of the economists in favor of the takeover of Greece, which was communicated as a bailout). And let’s not forget how quick we were to give the banksters a €650 billion bailout that cost the tax payer upwards of €50 billion.

Those banksters would probably call the potential ‘earnings’ peanuts. There are several orders of magnitude between the ‘taking away stuff from refugees’-measure and the real scope of the issue. Taking away a few possessions is not going to make a dent, financially. It’s not in line with German tax policies either, as we tax income and not wealth (I agree with Piketty that we should have a global tax on wealth, just probably not for those with less than €10K in assets.)

Why then do decision-makers condone this practice? Is taking away from the poorest really the measure we want to be taking? Or might this be exactly what those who lead this country want?

If you take a look at the dehumanizing situation e.g. in front of Berlin’s LaGeSo, you start to wonder whether these are just unintended consequences. Today, there were reports of an Syrian Asylum seeker that died after waiting for several days in the cold for his papers [EDIT: this information is still unconfirmed]. I know a lot of refugee initiatives, organizations and even municipalities whose work is obstructed by German regulations and suffer from a lack of funding and resources from the federal and state governments. The friendly and welcoming image of Germany last summer rests on the shoulders of private people who decided to act, while the states and governments provided too few resources. Yes, I am happy that our Chancellor stood up and said ‘wir schaffen das’, but from the official side, it has mostly been words, not action so far. At the same time, this mismanagement led to an enormous surge of right-wing extremists and a rising fear in the general cultural climate. It’s the worst basis for smart decisions, and it’s a real threat to the European continent – so much that even the WEF is concerned.

Everywhere I go, especially in Europe, I hear people calling BS on the narrative that we cannot help refugees or that it is a burden for our continent. They are calling attention to the mismatch between the words and actions of our governments, and that this should not be called a ‘refugee crisis’ but a ‘political failure’, perhaps the largest in the last 50 years.

Europe’s people may be united by culture or a moral guideline, but our political leaders certainly aren’t. It keeps on reminding me of George Carlin’s words, who I miss dearly.

I miss George Carlin. I think he raises a good (possibly the best) point that it doesn’t really matter who you vote for. But I think there’s an important reason to vote, which has gone largely underreported: upcoming nominations of Supreme Court justices.

Currently there are 5 traditionally conservative (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito) and 4 traditionally liberal (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan) Supreme Court judges, with Kennedy occasionally siding with the liberal opinion. The four judges in italic are likely to be replaced within the next years due to their age (over 73 years), with Ginsburg being the most likely candidate.

Why is this important? For starters, there’s the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the endangerment of affirmative action (Fischer v. University of Texas on Affirmative Action in education is to be decided soon) as well as gay rights (DOMA & California’s Proposition 8). But there’s something even more fundamental: the current and former courts’ support of power of corporations over the protection of individual rights.


Conservative Supreme Court Activism

In a 2010 speech, Sen. Al Franken (D) makes the point that right-wing Supreme court activism has strategically strengthened the power of corporations in the last years (It’s a 40 minute speech, but I can highly recommend taking the time to watch).

What conservative legal activists are really interested in is this question: What individual rights are so basic and so important that they should be protected above a corporation’s right to profit?

And their preferred answer is: None of them. Zero.

He goes on to recount numerous cases in which ‘the Roberts Court has systematically dismantled the legal protections that help ordinary people find justice when wronged by the economically powerful’:

Stoneridge stripped shareholders of their ability to get their money back from the banks that helped defraud them, Conkright made it easier for employers to deny workers their pension, Leegin put the burden onto the small business owners to show that price fixing will hurt competition under the Sherman Act, and Exxon reduced the damages that Exxon had pay for Exxon Valdez oil spill from $2.5 billion to $500 million USD because it could have an ’unpredictable impact on its future profitability’.

He tells the story of Lilly Ledbetter who sued her employer after she found out shortly before her retirement that she had been receiving less pay than her male counterparts. The Supreme Court interpreted the legal requirement to sue within 180 days to refer to the first time she was discriminated against, not the most recent discriminatory check.  Considering she simply did and could not know about it then, this is simply insane (Fortunately, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act loosening those requirements was the first bill Obama signed into law).


Citizens United: Super PACs and 501©(4)s

The most important ruling, however, was the Citizens United decision in 2010, which fundamentally changed campaign finance and essentially created the basis for ‘Super PACs’ – those theoretically independent organizations that can spend an unlimited amount of money on campaigning.

They are required to disclose their donors, but there’s a way around it: The ‘501©(4) Social Welfare Organization’ (which can spend money on campaigning) does not need to disclose its donors or even report to the IRS until after the election (i.e. after the campaign). What’s more, it even enjoys tax-exempt non-profit status, and – get this – it can even donate its money to the Super PAC, which then only needs to disclose a donation by the ‘501©(4)’.


Stephen Colbert has brilliantly dissected this insane change in campaign finance by setting one up himself in a mockery of the process. His lawyer’s answer to what ‘the difference between that and money laundering’ is ’It’s hard to say.’

Here’s an informative interview with lawyer Trevor Potter, a self-declared Republican:

This has led to an enormous rise in campaign spending, with the latest estimates reaching about $6 billion USD (compare that to the previous record of $700 million USD in 2008). Most of which, we’ll never know where it came from. And lot of that money has gone into negative attack ads, leading experts to call this “very likely to be the most negative race since the advent of television” (John Greer).


If I could, I surely would

So the Super PAC / 501©(4) combination seems like the perfect tool for those that according to Carlin ‘own this country’ to influence the election that will most likely determine who will decide upon the future of the Supreme Court. It might even be a major reason that they spend so much money on it. And check out the numbers USA Today posted:

That’s why I think this election matters. A more liberal court might revisit Citizens United, eliminating the need for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision. Should Ginsburg and Kennedy be replaced with a more conservative judge however, it’s safe to assume that this outrageous campaign finance game will continue along with the hollowing out of individual rights at the benefit of a corporation’s right to profit.

Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to vote. And I know that Americans don’t particularly like advice from the rest of the world, but if I could, I surely would make use of that privilege.