Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

An influence inequality problem

Aaron Wecker/Collegian

One of the reasons I declared a political science major was the opportunity to discuss current events in an academic setting. As a high school English teacher of mine had once advised, “If you don’t want an argument, steer clear of two things: politics and religion.” I, however, wanted it both ways: discussions of political matters without the rude arguments that usually accompany them. In my political science classes, monitored carefully by professors and TAs, I’ve finally found a forum for it.

This has provided me an opportunity to hear different perspectives that would usually get shot down with vile language were they brought up in most other settings. In class, students are forced to listen to each other and hear opposing viewpoints, which allows less popular perspectives (read: conservative, here at the University of Massachusetts at least) to be voiced.

I was reminded of this when, naturally, discussions of the Occupy movement came up recently in my political science classes. As anyone who has followed the Collegian’s own Op/Ed section can attest, this has been a dominant news story and so it was inevitable that it would eventually come up in class.

One student presented his views on the matter with a thought problem. “Let’s say,” he said, “that everyone in this room got themselves a convertible. Everything would be fair and equal. But then, I go and get myself four more convertibles. The gap between the ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ has increased, as I now have four more convertibles than everyone else. But no one else is any worse off for it. Everyone else in the class still has their own convertible; no one was negatively affected by my own sudden wealth increase.”

I was intrigued; the student readily acknowledged that it was a simplification of the problem of wealth inequality in America, but stood by the point that income inequality was not inherently a bad thing. In fact, his view is actually supported by some liberal commentators. Despite the expression “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer,” left-wing economists like Paul Krugman have described America’s situation as being more accurately summed up as “the rich get richer, the poor go nowhere.” In other words, the 1 percent keep getting more convertibles, while the rest of us are stuck at just one.

The convertible metaphor stuck with me, but I pushed it out of the forefront of my mind. When I returned home that afternoon, I browsed the Web as usual, looking for the day’s current news. It was then that I found out, for the first time, about the PROTECT IP Act, or PIPA.

PROTECT IP, or “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property,” is a bill currently being pushed through the United States Senate. The purpose of the bill, as the extended name suggests, is to protect intellectual property rights. The usual suspects, such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), are trying to get the bill passed in order to prevent people from doing things like pirating music and movies online.

A quick look at the potential effects of PIPA, however, reveal that it is a terrible idea and a dangerous piece of legislation. Under PIPA, private entities like the RIAA would be granted sweeping new powers to police the internet themselves and take down sites they consider to be infringing on their intellectual property rights. The RIAA would, for example, be able to take down a website that posted even a clip of a copyrighted song. The RIAA would not have to go through any government channels to do this; as long as they judge the website to be infringing, they have the unilateral power to take it down.

The list of popular websites that could go down because of this is sweeping. Sites like YouTube’s days would undoubtedly be numbered. Many smaller sites could also be targeted if they stray even a little out of line.

This has naturally sparked Internet outrage, with many calls to senators and congressmen made in order to try to stop the passage of PIPA. The greatest cheer went up for Google, which announced it would try to fight the passage of the bill.

Reading all of this, I was interested also in seeing to it that the PIPA not be passed. However, of more interest to me was the way this story related to my earlier class discussion, and how it was actually a prime example of why income inequality has a severely negative effect on our democracy.

When you consider the extreme unpopularity of PROTECT IP, how is it that such a bill could make it this far through the Senate? The answer is money, of course. The RIAA, the metaphorical 1 percent, is able to make their influence extend beyond their relative influence through lobbying and campaigning Congress. They are able to do this despite the numerical opposition to PROTECT IP because they have a considerable wealth advantage over PROTECT IP opposition.

In a perverse sort of way, this theory was confirmed by the enthusiasm over Google’s announcement of opposition. As much as the general public may have opposed PROTECT IP, they probably knew, deep down, that the RIAA was likely to get its way. That’s just the way it is with politics in this country: money triumphs over all. It was only when a rival wealthy 1 percenter, Google, announced opposition, that the public was finally heartened; it was only then that they at last thought the bill might be beaten.

This, I think, is the reason why income inequality does negatively affect the general public. The lower classes may not be literally ‘less poor’ than they were 20 years ago. But they have considerably less influence over our democracy, and as a result they are losing the things that are important to them (like, in the PIPA example, a free internet).

If nothing else, the Occupy Wall Street crowd has shined the national spotlight on income inequality in this country. The nation needs to be having this conversation; as the PROTECT IP saga has shown, the very nature of our democracy is at risk.

Billy Rainsford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].


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