News Brief Oct. 4, 2017

Saudi women gain the right to drive

On Sept. 26, the government of Saudi Arabia publicly announced that women in the kingdom will soon be allowed to drive. The

gender-based driving ban will officially be lifted by June 24, 2018 (BBC, “Saudi Arabia: Why weren’t women allowed to drive?,” 09.27.2017). While there was no official law that prohibited women from driving, only men could be issued licenses and thus drive legally.

Saudi Arabian women have been publicly asking for the right to drive since 1990, the year of the first protest against the gender-based ban. This first demonstration included 47 women who protested by driving around the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. Multiple women were arrested and lost their jobs as a result. In response to the new ruling, Fawziah al-Bakr, a female university professor who participated in the first protest 27 years ago, stated, “[S]ince that day, Saudi women have been asking for the right to drive, and finally it arrived” (New York Times, “Saudi Arabia Agrees to Let Women Drive,” 09.26.2017).

While the new ruling is a step toward increasing women’s rights, the primary reason for lifting the ban was economic. Saudi Arabian officials believe that permitting women to drive might increase their participation in the workforce, thus benefitting the economy. Women currently spend a large portion of their salaries on drivers to and from their jobs, limiting their involvement in the workforce.

The driving ban is intertwined with Wahhabism, a very strict form of Islam prominent in Saudi Arabia, which states that men and women should be separate and that women must keep themselves covered. Multiple explanations for the ban have been offered by government officials and Saudi clergy, such as that allowing women to drive would lead to promiscuity and thus greatly harm the traditional family structure. Additionally, the driving ban may have resulted from an extension of the law that forced every woman to have a male guardian, often her husband. Some argued that women did not need to drive because she was not allowed to travel without permission from her guardian, who would drive her (The New York Times, “Saudi Arabia Agrees to Let Women Drive,” 09.26.2017).

Up to this point, Saudi Arabia was the only nation that still barred women from driving. Despite the new legislation, the conservative culture continues to dominate the kingdom, and there remain many other restrictions on Saudi women. Perhaps most notably, women in the nation are still required to have male guardians to make critical decisions for them. These include granting permission to leave prison, travel, get married or divorced, open a bank account, work or even have certain surgeries. In many cases, women must also pay their male guardians for traveling or working privileges (Human Rights Watch, “Boxed In: Women and Saudi Arabia’s Male Guardianship System,” 07.16.2016). It is not yet certain how the right to drive will impact these restrictions.

—Pazit Schrecker, Guest Reporter

Trump proposes new tax plan

Last Wednesday, Sept. 27, President Trump announced a new tax plan focusing on slashing tax rates for the wealthy. Republicans believe the change on tax policy would bring an economic growth, while experts are doubtful and want more clarifications.

The major changes in tax plan are: 1) There will be no estate tax and alternative minimum tax. 2) Corporate tax will be reduced from 35 percent to 20 percent. 3) Top individual income tax will decrease from 39.5 percent to 35 percent. 4) Taxes on invested income will be cut down. Through these changes, Trump is looking forward to more investment, economic growth and prosperity (The New York Times, “Trump Tax Plan Benefits Wealthy, Including Trump,” 09.27.2017).

The White House and the GOP are planning to pass the new tax policy by the end of the year. In order to pass the legislation, they need to obtain at least 60 votes for consent from the Senate (The Washington Post, “GOP Proposes Deep Tax Cuts, Provides Few Details on How to Pay for Them,” 09.27.2017).

However, the negotiation between Republicans and Democrats does not seem easy. Indeed, a lot of experts, including many Democrats, are skeptical about the new tax plan. The one big concern they all express is that President Trump has left so many unanswered questions and failed to assure the credibility of the plan.

First, it is evident that the new policy would benefit only the top one percent of the wealth and give nothing to the bottom 99 percent. All the taxes which will be reduced—estate tax, alternative minimum tax, and corporate tax, etc.—are relevant only to the wealthy. Moreover, the research reveals that, with the new tax plan, the top one percent would receive 50 percent more on total tax benefit, while the bottom 95 percent would only get a tax cut of average 0.5 to 1.2 percent (Reuters, “Rich Would Benefit Most from Trump Tax Cut Plan: Policy Group,” 09.29.2017). Trump did not even propose a tax relief such as payroll tax and earned income tax credit for low income families. (The New York Times, “Trump Tax Plan Benefits Wealthy, Including Trump,” 09.27.2017)

Experts warned that this uneven tax relief would exacerbate the gap between the rich and poor. Law professor at New York University and deputy director of President Obama’s National Economic Council Lily Batchelder said, “In broad brush strokes they’re doing nothing for the bottom 35 percent, they’re doing very little and possibly raising taxes on the middle class, and they’ve specified tax cuts for the wealthy” (The New York Times, “Trump Tax Plan Benefits Wealthy, Including Trump,” 9.27.2017).

Robert C. Packard trustee chair in law and professor of law, economics, and political science at the University of Southern California Edward J. McCaffery asked, “Is it really fair that millions of working parents, single and otherwise, should see their taxes increase to help finance a massive tax cut for hundreds of multi-millionaire morons?” (CNN, “Trump’s Massive Tax Cut—For the Rich,” 09.27.2017).

The second argument against Trump’s new policy is that its uncertainty makes estimating impacts on the middle class difficult. Even though Trump proposed new tax brackets, he did not designate income thresholds. He also suggested substituting the current tax deduction for each dependent with a child tax credit. However, the administration did not clarify a dollar amount for that new credit. Therefore, all these ambiguities on the tax plan for the middle class imply an imperfection of the Trump’s new tax plan (The New York Times, “Trump Tax Plan Benefits Wealthy, Including Trump,” 09.27.2017).

Finally, Trump did not clearly explain how he is going to offset the loss of federal revenues caused by a tax deduction. The new tax plan would create $5.99 trillion in tax cuts, which eventually will reduce $2.4 trillion of federal revenues in the next 10 years. The reduction of federal revenues, experts believe, cannot avoid the growth of federal deficit which hampers the economic growth (Reuters, “Rich Would Benefit Most from Trump Tax Cut Plan: Policy Group,” 09.29.2017).

Indeed, it would be a significant task for Trump and the Republicans to clarify the new tax plan in order to convince not only Democrats and experts but also all the people who will be under the new policy.

—Youngju Chang, Guest Reporter

EU summit agenda shifts

A two-day summit of the heads of state and governments of the European Union (EU) member states started with an informal dinner last Friday, Sept. 29, in Tallinn, Estonia. The EU Summit is a yearly meeting of the European Council, where the heads of state or government of each of the Member States come together. The central theme of the so-called Tallinn Digital Summit 2017 was digitalization, without which it is impossible to imagine the future of the EU. At least this was the official agenda for the summit created by Estonia, who is right now presiding over the EU Council.

However, the past week has seen the unfolding of the two big events, which have a possibility of strongly influencing future of EU. This will decisively shift the discussion of the Tallinn summit. It might happen that in the end the digitalization, supposedly to be at the center of a debate, will present only a framework for the wider discussion of the future of EU.

Reportedly, even before the summit, European Council President Donald Tusk tried to set at least an approximate framework for debate. The central topics of last year’s summit in Bratislava, which was also the first summit without the UK, were migration, security and economic and social issues (Consilium, “Letter from President Donald Tusk to EU leaders ahead of their informal dinner in Tallinn,” 09.21.2017) However, due to the events of the past week, we can expect drastically different looking agenda.

The first event that will shape the debate at the EU Summit is the recent German federal parliamentary elections. Many European leaders are wondering how the German Chancellor Angela Merkel intends to form a new government and how will this new power equilibrium in one of the most powerful EU countries will influence the future of Europe.

Although Merkel won Sunday’s Bundestag elections, her conservative union lost a lot of votes at the expense of the nationalist party Alternative for Germany. These will be the hardest negotiations yet on building a new government and on EU policy for the German chancellor. The only real possibility for the future coalition is the liberal FDP (Freie Demokraten), which rejects any measures that could be understood as a transfer of budget money into the eurozone.

Especially worrying is also the relatively rapid rise of the far-right party Alternative for Germany and the allocation of nearly 100 seats to its members in the German Federal Parliament.

That the rise of the far right party has caused a wave of worry all across Europe is evident from a number of letters received by German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, which urged him for an explanation of the recent events. Many find it very worrying that in Germany, which is the leading EU country, and where its dark nationalistic past still hasn’t been forgotten, the third strongest political force coming out of elections is a party whose leader said between other controversial comments that “Germans should be proud of what their soldiers achieved during the first and second world wars” (The Guardian, “AfD co-founder says Germans should be proud of its second world war soldiers,” 09.24.2017).

The second event influencing the debate in Tallinn is a set of reforms proposed by French president Emanuel Macron. In a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris last Tuesday, the French president outlined a list of European reforms that would lead to closer European integration and with that more connected and in all respects a more efficient and stronger European Union. According to The New York Times, his proposals included common European asylum agency and border police and a eurozone finance minister responsible to the European Parliament and a European Monetary Fund to aid member states facing financial trouble.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s only response was through her spokesman, who said on Thursday that “the chancellor welcomes the French president delivering a speech with so much verve and passion for Europe,” but that it was “too early for a detailed appraisal of the proposals” (The New York Times, “Emmanuel Macron’s Lofty Vision for Europe Gets Mixed Reviews,” 09.28.2017).

With the newfound anti-EU political climate in Germany and suddenly increased French leadership in EU integration, the issue of the German reaction to President Macron’s reforms will certainly overshadow the initial agenda of digitalization that was set by Estonian leadership for the Tallinn 2017 Summit.

—Marusa Rus, Guest Reporter

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