In my travels this past summer, I lugged the 1.25 kg (2 lb. 12 oz) volume of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century from Toronto to Chiapas, British Columbia, Ottawa, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Chiapas—the southern Mexican state that saw the uprising of the Zapatista Indigenous movement in 1994—may have the highest levels of inequality in the country. I was there to visit my partner’s family in Juárez in the northwest part of the state. On a humid July afternoon, one of my favourite political leaders came to town to talk about the oil and gas industry.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador first caught my attention in 1994 when he launched an energetic protest against electoral corruption. He ran that year to be governor of his home state, Tabasco (just north of Chiapas on the Gulf of Mexico), but had “lost” to Roberto Madrazo of the well-entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Later he would go on to serve as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, when he resigned to contest the 2006 presidential campaign. He ran again in 2012, but lost to PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto, the current president.
Soon afterwards, when legislative leaders of his Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) signed a pact with the PRI and a conservative party, López Obrador left the PRD to form a new group, the Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA).
Now he is leading a campaign against efforts to break up the publicly-owned national oil company, PEMEX. Private companies like Halliburton (which works with PEMEX to exploit natural gas in northwest Chiapas and Tabasco) want to expand their operations in Mexico—and successive energy “reforms” are giving them what they want.
In Juárez, López Obrador left people with a sense that they had something important to do: “Economics and politics are activities for everyone.”
Key to his campaign is a petition: he is gathering two million signatures in a bid to force the government to hold a referendum on the future of PEMEX in 2015.
He also wants to increase amounts paid to state and municipal governments for oil and gas. “If an oil well produces 500 barrels a day, in a year it will generate 280 million pesos (about CAD$23.4 million), and the state government will get about 72,000 pesos ($6,000),” he explained. “You can’t permit that all the wealth of Chiapas, Tabasco and Campeche be taken, or that they destroy the environment, pollute, not provide jobs for the people or even pay taxes to the state.”
But, as Naomi Klein told CBC’s The Sunday Edition Sept. 14, with regard to environmental laws and taxes, resource extraction companies and their shareholders pretty much get what they want from governments these days.
Participation in public life is part of being human
And therein lies the problem that Thomas Piketty and many others find with the concentration of wealth these days. In a review of Piketty’s book, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote: “For me the most convincing argument against the ongoing rise in economic inequality is that it is incompatible with true equality as citizens. If, as the ancient Athenians believed, participation in public life is a fundamental aspect of human self-realisation, huge inequalities cannot but destroy it. In a society dominated by wealth, money will buy power.”
And Paul Krugman, columnist for The New York Times and economics professor at Princeton, points to how money is used to buy influence in the United States:
“Tax burdens on high-income Americans have fallen across the board since the 1970s, but the biggest reductions have come on capital income—including a sharp fall in corporate taxes, which indirectly benefits stockholders—and inheritance. Sometimes it seems as if a substantial part of our political class is actively working to restore Piketty’s patrimonial capitalism. And if you look at the sources of political donations, many of which come from wealthy families, this possibility is a lot less outlandish than it might seem.”
Piketty himself concludes his text with a word of warning. “It seems to me that all social scientists, all journalists and commentators, all activists in the unions and in politics of whatever stripe, and especially all citizens should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it, and its history. Those who have a lot of it never fail to defend their interests. Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interest of the least well-off.”
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