Every now and then, an issue comes along that pits different factions within the same political philosophy against one another. Friends become combatants, neighbors become enemies, dogs refuse to sniff each other – on and on it goes.
In Wisconsin, school choice has traditionally been such an issue. Democrats that represent inner city Milwaukee largely support the program, as it benefits their constituents the most. Democrats from the rest of Wisconsin continually attempt to undermine or eliminate the program, which often causes a good deal of internecine tension within the Democratic ranks.
Such an issue has developed this legislative session pertaining to state investment in companies that contribute to genocide in Sudan. Three years ago, the Sudanese government, backed by a militant Arab militia, moved to crush opposition to state control of the Darfur region’s rich agricultural resources. The conflict has left 450,000 people dead and has driven an estimated 2 million people from their homes. The genocide practiced by the Sudanese government has yielded reports of human mutilation, maiming, rape, and widespread property destruction.
In response to the Darfur genocide, thirteen U.S. states have passed laws that eliminate state investment in companies who do business in Sudan. Another eighteen states are currently debating bills to do so, and Wisconsin is among them. (Full disclosure: The Wisconsin Senate Bill’s author is my former boss.) Currently, Wisconsin has about $110 million invested in companies identified as contributors to the genocide in Sudan. The legislation targets companies, primarily Chinese contractors, which aid the Sudanese government directly – companies who actually attempt to aid the refugees aren’t affected.
Political liberals have taken the Darfur genocide on as a primary international human rights issue. Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold has been a leader in Congress pushing for divestment of funds in Sudan, as has presidential candidate Barack Obama. Celebrities such as George Clooney and Don Cheadle have pushed for divestment bills all across the country. Some of popular music’s biggest names recently contributed songs to a Save Darfur album, sponsored by Amnesty International.
Supporters of divestment rightfully argue that there should be a higher standard under which we invest public money. Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to fund genocide, and attempts can be made to find alternate investments that may bring equal returns. One can question how effective the legislation will be, but supporters of the bill argue that just because divestment in Wisconsin may not solve all the problems in Darfur, that’s not an excuse to do nothing.
However, there’s a problem – genocide actually happens to be wildly profitable. When Wisconsin invests in companies that aid the Sudanese government, it yields lucrative returns for the state’s pension fund. WEAC, the state’s largest teachers’ union, has lobbied vigorously against the bill, fearing diminishing returns for their members’ pensions. Suddenly, an organization whose primary mission is to insulate its own members from free market forces sounds downright Friedman-esque in its defense of international investment strategy.
It’s fascinating to see the same people who complain about “excessive” oil company profits turn around and justify profit derived from genocide, as long as it boosts their own pensions. Suddenly, Democrats who spend their political lives railing against “obscene” pharmaceutical profits become champions of the free market when it pads their own wallets. Apparently, drug companies investing their revenue in more research and development to keep grandma alive is more objectionable than taxpayer money buying guns and machetes to kill thousands of Sudanese.
Of course, the state could pull its pension investments out of oil and pharmaceutical companies if their outrage was sincere, but since the game is mostly about scoring political points, state employees will continue to share in these “record profits.”
WEAC’s lobbying appears to have ground the Wisconsin legislation to a halt. A public hearing was held in the Democrat-controlled Senate on March 28th of 2007, but no vote has been taken. It appears that the liberals dependent on state government paychecks are winning over the liberals whose consciences won’t allow them to aid in the ethnic cleansing of non-Arab Africans.
Whether divestment of Wisconsin government funds will make any real difference in Sudan is up for debate. However, one thing is sure – if government unions have their say, we will never know.