The protests against ACTA are a just cause, and I support them. I'm always for the underdog, and the underdog these days, if it isn't a small independent bookseller or something, is almost always bound to be an individual. Whenever individuals have to compete against corporations, special vigilance is needed; and more than anything, opposition to ACTA ultimately comes from the concern for the status of the individual in the face of government control and corporate special interests. As for the rest of the criticisms of ACTA, there's very little I don't agree with, and I don't see too much misrepresentation, ignorance or, as the Prime Minister put it, seed intoxication.
Personally, I have two predictions -- fatalistic, pessimistic, but not too hard to see coming. One is that ACTA will pass anyway, largely unaffected by the opposition. The other is that, post-ACTA, rather than entailing too many expenses and red tape as some warn, it will be ridiculously easy to regulate many aspects of what reaches consumers on nearly the data packet level, just as it was easy for, say, Napster, after the anti-sharing backlash had begun, to prevent certain files from being shared. Even in Estonia there will be little disincentive to eventually go the route of policing content, of putting all these wonderful tools we have to index information online to work -- to flag certain information online.
But this is not just a post against ACTA or about freedom of expression. President Ilves talked about the ACTA protests being a symptom of broader dissatisfaction with the government's communication, and I don't think he meant just its lack of dialogue on ACTA, or the way it went over and behind the people and parliament on this particular issue. A much broader problem is the government's attitude, its implicit and often explicit insistence that it is infallible. It was impressive, maybe refreshing, in the beginning. But now, years down the road, like Ansip himself, it has started seeming sociopathic, self-justifying and hectoring. He's always right and never admits he's wrong. So what if the man is competent and usually has his facts straight; it's no way to talk to other people. It's too bad, because many of Reform's ideas like the flat tax and other liberal ideas appeal to me. I am after all a small business operator. But if Ansip thinks he is winning any points with his approach and demeanor, he must be from another planet. These are not my values.
Overlooked in the wave of protest against ACTA is the fact that the government has been smashing unions. Because part of it affects moribund industries and poor people, it's not as sexy an issue as educational reform, which is most people's #2 issue. But if anti-ACTA people are worried at all about individual rights losing out to corporate rights, there is nothing more glaring than the shabby way the pro-business government is eroding the potential role of unions, which should be an equal social partner. Actually, "smashing unions" sounds heroic, like Thatcher going after a bunch of menacing, dirty, Internationale-singing thugs. Considering that no one is very red in Estonia anyway, unions are practically non-existent in Estonia, and no one is striking yet in the first place, the government isn't smashing them, it's like it's dissecting a one-armed man in vivo. I'm not sure if anesthesia is being used, but Harri Taliga, the top union leader, seems to be in a state of permanent pain. It seems like half the bills that come out of the ministries these days attack one or another employees'-rights clause. Today it was a minor one: the right of employees who leave voluntarily to receive full compensation for a limited period. A plausible cut, but not all seem as clear. What will it be tomorrow?
The idea of increasing the level of companies' protection against their own employees began, of course, with the recession. Ever since the Employment Acts Contract was rewritten during the downturn to make it easier for companies to lay off workers, it has been one thing after another. Little of it will be reversed, now that the recession is long over. Even though growth is soaring (arguably it rode on the back of Ericsson exports for most of 2011, but now even other sectors look pretty solid), reserves are full of cash, in some cases much fuller than they were before the recession.
The Unemployment Insurance Fund's reserve in fact was so full it proved attractive to the government, which decided to take control of it last year. The stated reason: it knows how to invest this nest egg better than a wishy-washy public-law-governed body like the Fund, and can give the Fund better interest rates on it than a bank. The government decided this even though it holds only one-third of the seats on the Fund, which, as said, is not a government institution. The other members on the board have walked out, it didn't matter what they thought. The employers and unions actually agreed, this one time, that the government was playing foul.
What is interesting about the Fund's reserves is that they are not really being spent for the purpose they were designed for. They just sit and gather interest, because the government cannot bear the idea that money could be paid to people for doing nothing, and because there may be another "crisis" around the corner, at which point the government will need the reserves for other things besides the unemployed. It must be something in the national character: I witnessed similar behavior at private companies in the year of the recession. They had 300,000 kroons tucked away, but it was never used. Employees were asked to take a pay cut even though orders had not started dropping. It was so that the reserve could remain at that level, even though there was no requirement that a company have that much cash and with interest rates near zero and inflation high, financially pointless.
The workers' disability system is being overhauled. Here, too, the idea is to try to pay less whenever possible. Again, sounds admirable, until you remember that there are people on the receiving end, not all of them crooks faking gimpy legs. Apparently the idea is to make all payouts conditional on people having a personal return-to-work plan. It's something that sounds brilliant, but at the same time, nothing except for Soviet bureaucracy will drive a man to drink and apathy more than proactive meddling. Forgive me, but I am not optimistic that clinical depression and other intangibles will be taken into account by this return-to-work plan. And despite more such conditions, the overhaul proposal still contained the idea that the government might be unable to manage it and would have to involve private insurance companies in the scheme. My question: If the government can't even provide basic disability measures for people who lose limbs on the job, and has to farm it out to a bunch of dyed-in-the-wool sharks like the private sector insurance industry, what good is that? Is that really reform?
Another area where the unions have been stonewalled -- also this winter -- is proposed amendments to the Collective Bargaining Act. Here the idea is to give employers more wriggle room so that old collective agreements eventually run out -- even before a new agreement is reached. The problem here is that the government has behaved in such a bad-faith way with the unions vis-a-vis employers, that the unions don't expect there will be much dialogue or bargaining in the future. As far as they are concerned, they are probably serious when they say they fear the collective agreements will just be ripped up.
I understand that all this may be consistent with the government's platform and the holy principle of soundness of the public finances. I think financial soundness ("we're not Greece") may arguably have become a bigger selling point for the country than things like cyber defense (requires too much explaining). But there's a lack of a human face to it all, a whiff of paternalism, and I wonder whether these measures aimed at straitjacketing organized labor will really help make society stronger. It's like ACTA -- you could conceivably not implement it, but it's easier to implement it than you think. With ACTA, instead of a thriving, fertile, open-source innovation sector, you may end up with a stifling environment and a dead cyberspace where people don't have even access to their full cultural heritage. With the assault on employee's rights, instead of a flourishing real economy, you have a shifting landscape of insecurity, crumbling public services, lack of middle-class pride, crumbling brick and mortar, and places that don't produce anything. Might as well move to Greece.