The financial crisis has dominated the news in recent months and for good reason. With banks and the auto industry on the brink of collapse, it's difficult for anyone to think about much else. Politicians are pondering possible bailouts and how best to aid those in need while the country watches, waits and worries.
Yet, despite the understandable obsession with the state of the economy, there are still some vital issues that deserve the attention of both the public and our legislators. One such item is the growing threat of a nuclear Iran.
During the presidential campaign, both President-elect Barack Obama and his opponents pledged never to allow the Iranians to acquire nuclear weapons. Obama's advisors have been advocates of a campaign of renewed diplomacy that will persuade Tehran to back off. But, if such plans are to work, they will require increased sanctions on Iran to persuade them that further steps towards nukes will bring further economic ruin to that tortured country.
One element of sanctions must include measures that will punish any and all countries that do business with that rogue regime. To that end, bills seeking to force state pension funds to divest themselves from Iran's partners have been introduced around the country in the past year. Combined with similar concerns about those who engage in commerce with the genocidal regime in Sudan, the divestment movement gained momentum.
This past June, a bill co-sponsored by state Representatives Josh Shapiro and Babette Josephs that aimed to put Pennsylvania'' state funds on the side of justice was passed by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The bill, titled "Protecting Pennsylvania's Investment Act," mandated that Pennsylvania divest from firms that do business with Iran or Sudan.
But efforts to move the bill through the Senate failed in September after the panic on Wall Street made an already skeptical legislature leery of doing anything that tinkered with pensions at a time of monetary crisis. That means that the bill will be back to square one in January when the new legislature convenes in Harrisburg.
Since Shapiro, who served as deputy speaker of the House, will return to the back benches next year many believe the chances of a new bill are diminished.
But that shouldn't deter the legislature from tackling this vital issue again.
First, the notion that the shaky economy means that state investment in companies doing business with Iran and Sudan is sacrosanct is both immoral and illogical.
From the beginning of this struggle, there have been those who tried to sink divestment by claiming that it would hurt the state-pension system. But they have never explained why it is good business for Pennsylvania to invest its money in companies that profit from relations with terrorist regimes. While it's hard to find any stocks or funds these days that have made money, it's highly unlikely that the only ones that are profitable are those that have no scruples about the genocidal regime in Khartoum or the maniacal Islamists of Tehran.
The question here isn't one of good financial sense. It is one of ethical responsibility. The fact is that, so long as the economies of Sudan and Iran are able to operate without feeling the sting of sanctions, there's little hope of changing their behavior, no matter how much America's foreign image improves under Obama.
In case the denizens of Harrisburg have forgotten, what they're doing by avoiding divestment is helping to subsidize the perpetrators of mass murder in Darfur, as well as those seeking to build nuclear weapons to use against Israel. Do they really think their fears about imposing limits on pensions funds are more important than the need to deter a second Holocaust?
Pennsylvanians, contact your legislators and urge them to take up the divestment bill in January — and, this time, get it passed.