I USED TO THINK

Anyone who reads the New York Times on-line without a pop-up blocker has been subjected to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison exulting that “I used to think. Now, I just read The Economist.”

Of course he’s kidding. But it’s not so funny.

Leaf through the past few issues of The Economist, and you’ll find unsigned articles calling on Lula to cut back pensions, on David Cameron to promise shrinking social spending, and on the Democratic Leadership Council not to go wobbly against organized labor. Then read over this parade of praise for the magazine – as a news source that saves you the time of having to read any of the other ones. Ted Turner draws a favorable contrast with Time Magazine (yes, that Time Magazine), which apparently is “too populist.” No need to worry about populism from The Economist.

Now if the same roster of CEOs stepped up singing the praises of, say, the Wall Street Journal, heads would turn over why a “conservative” paper’s reporting was being taken as holy writ by so many powerful people (never mind that the news section of the paper isn’t so different in bent from what you would get in the Times). But when so many in the global overclass quote chapter and verse from a “neoliberal” paper laying down structural adjustment through shrinking spending and shredded security as the best medicine for every situation, that’s another story. Or rather, it’s not a story.

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IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME

Last week, the New York Times reported on the move in China to better protect workers’ rights, and in so doing stem the tide of rising social inequality. And it discussed the instant blowback from American companies:

Hoping to head off some of the rules, representatives of some American companies are waging an intense lobbying campaign to persuade the Chinese government to revise or abandon the proposed law. The skirmish has pitted the American Chamber of Commerce — which represents corporations including Dell, Ford, General Electric, Microsoft and Nike — against labor activists and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Communist Party’s official union organization…One provision in the proposed law reads, “Labor unions or employee representatives have the right, following bargaining conducted on an equal basis, to execute with employers collective contracts on such matters as labor compensation, working hours, rest, leave, work safety and hygiene, insurance, benefits, etc.”

This episode is an object lesson in how corporate-driven globalization works. While orthodox world systems theorists debate when we will shift from an era of American dominance to one of Chinese dominance, and the globalization gurus estimate how long it will take for “open markets” to unleash a new era of liberalism and freedom, corporate-driven globalization is lived by millions as a cudgel wielded not by a national government but by an economic clique, and wielded in the service not of human freedom but of management power.

When workers have the freedom to organize without retaliation and bargain collectively for better futures, they win better working conditions for themselves and their families, and they make it harder to treat them as infinitely flexible and fully disposable resources. That increase in the freedom and democracy of the workplace breeds understandable resistance from people who would otherwise get to call all the shots. Without global standards, global markets ease a global race to the bottom.

This is easy to lose track of in the bipartisan haze of “competition” and the elite faith that if a given nation just does enough to keep its workers cheap and contingent, it can outdo another nation’s efforts at the same. That’s a competition most everybody loses.

BILL FRIST: NADER-LITE

One of the consequences of the way I chose to furnish my apartment (futon on one side of the room, table and chairs on the other), is that having the wired internet reach my laptop on the futon – which due to some trouble following the Ikea instructions only works as a bed – means that it can’t reach the table. So I’ll pull things up sitting on the bed, unhook the laptop from the internet, and then take it over to the table to read whatever web page I’ve pulled up while I eat.

I mention only because otherwise it’s unlikely I ever would have read the entire past week of blog posts from Marshall Whitmann. I say this not because I disagree with him (although on most things he chooses to write about I do), but because reading a page of Marshall Whitmann felt a lot like reading a paragraph of Marshall Whitmann several times in a row. Although there are some variations: On Friday, Joe Lieberman was like JFK in that he’s a “blue collar, bread and butter” type unlike the “upper-crust” Ned Lamont; on Monday, Joe Lieberman was like JFK in that he’s a “pro-growth progressive” and not “the darling of liberals” like Ned Lamont.

But the most tendentious of the analogies employed repeatedly by “The Moose” is one that crops up again and again in neoconservative, neoliberal, “New Democratic” and other discourse on the internet: the comparison of left-wingers and Pat Buchanan. Lieberman’s critics, Whitmann warns, are part of a “neo-isolationist, MoveOn.org, Pat Buchanan-lite imperative to rid the Democratic Party of the centrist hawks.” And many of them “are merely Pat Buchanan lite who share the paleo-conservative animus toward America’s special relationship with the Jewish state.”

The logic seems to go something like this: Pat Buchanan is famous and really unpopular. He believes Hitler was “an individual of great courage,” that women lack “the will to succeed,” and that AIDS is “nature’s retribution for violating the laws of nature.” Also, he promotes an isolationist doctrine in which America should minimize its presence abroad. One application of that doctrine has been opposition to the invasion of Iraq and criticism of the ongoing American presence there. And he doesn’t much like neo-cons. Ergo: Anyone who is overly critical of the Iraq War is “Pat Buchanan lite” and one step away from embracing isolationism and bigotry. And since labeling lefties as Buchananite is counterintuitive, it’s guaranteed to be right – and to demonstrate the sophistication of whoever makes the charge, especially if it’s a conservative lumping another conservative in with a leftie.

The folks who trot out the Pat Buchanan slur like to pitch it as some kind of sophisticated exegesis of the philisophical first principles underlying criticism of the neoconservative project. But it’s not. Certainly, Democrats have been more comparatively more hesitant in polls to express support for phrases about government pursuing aggressive foreign policy or democracy promotion since the man who’s running the government gave both a bad name. But that doesn’t make them isolationists. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t worthwile interventions they would support, especially if they had reason to trust the people making the case for them. Plenty on the left – to the chagrin of some at The New Republic – have decided that US military intervention in Darfur would be a very good idea while remaining convinced that unilateral US military intervention in Iraq was a very bad one (as Alan Wolfe notes, unilateralism is itself the “first cousin” of isolationism).

And it should go without saying, but if you’re looking for a constituency with greater animus than most towards people who are Jewish, women, Black, or gay, the left isn’t it.

It’s hard to come up with an equal and opposite absurdity to compare to the charge that war critics on the left are like Pat Buchanan. It would need to compare people on the right based on a policy view they have to a wildly unpopular figure on the left who shares it for different reasons. Maybe “Conservatives who tried to use the federal government to re-insert Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube are Ralph Nader lite!” Difference is, Ralph Nader may be unpopular, but unlike Pat Buchanan, he’s not a bigot.

DEMOCRACY IN LATIN AMERICA

The cover story in the January/ February edition of Foreign Policy is an article by Amherst Professor Javier Corrales arguing that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is perfecting the art of dictatorship for the 21st century. He offers a list of Chavez’s crimes against democracy which (like an ADL report on antisemitism which conflates incidents like the Iranian President’s diatribes against Jews and some professor’s criticism of the separation wall) combines clear offenses, deft but legal manipulation of the law, and economic policy Professor Corrales doesn’t like.

Some of the abuses Corrales describes are indeed direct assaults on the democratic freedoms of Venezuelan citizens, like keeping public databases on citizens’ votes and outlawing demonstrations of “disrespect” towards government officials. Observers on the left should indeed condemn such human rights abuses, when they are clearly demonstrated, as quickly when perpetrated by leaders on the left as when perpetrated by leaders on the right. Hugo Chavez’s claims to a democratic mandate are indeed weakened by his failure to uphold some principles of democracy, and Corrales is right to call attention to these. Some ostensible abuses Corrales describes amount to effective manipulation of the parliamentary system to reduce the power of minority parties and increase what can be accomplished legislatively by a bare majority (you may know this as “the nuclear option”). I’d agree that such maneuvers are often effectively undemocratic, as long as democracy is understood as a spectrum (as a theorist like Dahl would advise) rather than a dichotomy (as a theorist like Schumpeter would). Certainly, many political structures and policies – the electoral college and the Senate come to mind – reduce the control of individual citizens over the political process. Corrales’ argument that using a majority in parliament to increase his majority on the Supreme Court itself makes Chavez a dictator makes one wonder how he views some other national leaders. Given that Corrales’ qualifications for dictatorship include intentionally polarizing the electorate so that more moderates will break to your side, it’s hard to imagine who doesn’t qualify.

Some of those leaders are distinguished from Chavez when it comes to economic policy, the area into which a third set of Corrales’ critiques of democracy in Venezuela fall. Corrales makes some of the same seemingly contradictory charges levelled against Chavez’s economic policy by a series of neoliberals and conservatives: the problem with Hugo Chavez is that he bribes the poor to like him with economic resources and that he doesn’t really provide them with economic resources and that he doesn’t really make the poor like him. Corrales’ claims of bribery of the poor in Venezuela are echoed by Ann Coulter’s complaints that Americans who benefit from government programs are allowed to vote for the perpetuation of those programs. Corrales’ grievance that Chavez distributes economic benefits as a means of reward and punishment is an important one. His attacks on Chavez for spending large sums of money to help the poor at all are less persuasive though. And his description of Chavez’s investments in alleviating poverty as a demonstration that he is a dictator will be compelling only if one believes that democratization and the right-wing economics of privatization, government-shrinking, and deregulation perversely called “economic liberalization” are one and the same. This postulate – that the “structural adjustment programs” of the IMF and the democratic reforms pursued by human rights groups are two sides of the same coin – are accepted uncritically by too many ostensibly liberal theorists in international relations and economics (not to mention the Wall Street Journal). It’s on full display in Corrales’ article, which faults Chavez as a dictator because “Rather than promoting stable property rights to boost investment and employment, he expands state employment.”

I don’t fault Corrales for seeing economics and democracy as interrelated. I’d say progressive economics that provide more people with economic resources and opportunities also empower them to exercise real voice over the choices which determine the conditions of their lives. Unfortunately, the economic regime Corrales and company favor too often has the opposite effect, plunging more people into conditions of abject poverty in which ever-greater portions of their lives slip from their control. When structural adjustment programs drive down wages, dirty water, and turn a blind eye to violent economic coercion, they erode democracy. And, as David Held argues, the means by which these programs are enacted are corrosive to a robust conception of democracy as well: they remove critical decisions about countries’ economic futures from the province of democratic oversight by citizens to the authority of distant technocrats. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the past decade has seen one Latin American country after another throw neoliberal and conservative leaders out and replace them with populists who run on opposition to the undemocratic “Washington Consensus (including Bolivia this weekend; Mexico looks likely to be next).” It’s unfortunate that some of those populists have democratic deficiencies of their own.

So I’d say Corrales gets the correlation between democracy and neoliberalism backwards, and that his opposition to Chavez’s economics drives him to put some shaky examples along with the solid ones on his list of grievances about democracy in Venezuela. Unfortunately, too many on both the left and the right go beyond arguing that economic policies increase or decrease democracy to instead reducing democracy to the favorability of a country’s economic policy. Too many let bona fide dictators like Pinochet or Castro off easy because of the economic policies they implement. People who live under such leaders deserve better.

FROM MISERY, PAST POVERTY

Spurred by this Washington Post profile in which National Labor Committee Head Charles Kernaghan describes the sweatshop workers for whose rights he advocates as seeking to move “from misery to poverty”, Matt Yglesias makes the classic anti-anti-sweatshop/ anti-anti-child-labor arguments:

people who don’t have sweatshop jobs are miserable. So miserable, in fact, that the terrible conditions in sweatshops are better than their best other alternative. Closing down the sweatship option would seem to just force everyone to stick with misery…as long as the alternative to sweatshops is what anti-sweatship activists concede to be misery, then people will want the sweatshop jobs and it’ll be mighty hard for rich country liberals to stop corporations from making them available.

The assumptions Matt seems to be making here are the same ones for which Richard Rothstein took Nicholas Kristof and Paul Krugman to task last spring in Dissent. First is the idea that somehow Charles Kernaghan, the National Labor Committee and company are pushing Nike and company to pack up and leave the countries in which their agents are operating sweatshops. Put simply, they’re not. Neither is United Students Against Sweatshops, for that matter. The call is for basic working standards and fundamental human freedoms. The call is for codes of conduct which would be applied around the world, with wage standards based on local costs of living. As Keraghan tells the Post right after describing the aspiration of many in the third world to move from misery to poverty,

he gets angry when he recalls what a worker told him in Bangladesh: “If we could earn 37 cents an hour, we could live with a little dignity.” (As opposed to the 21-cent hourly wage that barely staved off starvation.) Another Bangladeshi worker told him of being smacked in the face by her boss when she worked too slowly. “It just destroys me,” he says.

What’s going to push that worker’s wages up from 21 cents towards 37 cents? Conservatives and neoliberals would have us put our faith in the free market’s grace in rewarding increased productivity with higher wages for low-wage workers as employers compete for the best sweatshop workers. But as Rothstein reminds us, that’s not how the story went in our own country. How did sweatshop workers in this country improve their working conditions and bring themselves real economic freedom? In part through judicious use of government to enshrine common labor standards in laws of the kind the anti-anti-sweatshop crowd tell us would condemn workers of the third world to eternal poverty. And in part through collective action of the kind for which workers around the world are fired or murdered. The anti-anti-sweatshop critics who insist that the eager workers of the third world are being victimized by misguided do-gooders from the first world might better expend their energies advancing the rights of those workers to stand up for themselves and for each other without fear of retaliation. That, incidentally, is exactly what Charles Kernaghan is doing.

When it starts like this

I think I can explain what happened, but first I have to tell you about this wild typing race I recently had with an 8-year-old Indian girl at a village school.

…you know it’s Thomas Friedman. In this particular case, he’s spinning his wheels trying to reframe Indians’ overwhelming rejection of the neoliberal economics of the BJP as a request for more globalization. As a neoliberal evangelical, Friedman has no choice but to believe that the persistence and expansion of an underclass under globalization is a result of too much government interference in the economy (read: corruption), rather than too little (read: social welfare). Color me unconvinced. But maybe that’s just because I’ve never been to “India’s Silicon Valley” and had a typing contest.

Tonight’s episode of the West Wing, from what I caught (admittedly, since the writing’s tanked I find it too painful to really concentrate on the show for a full hour), was about the conflict between two positions:

Well-meaning, bleeding-heart “anti-traders” want to protect the jobs of Americans who have them now because they believe Americans are more important than poor people in the third world, and that having jobs today is more important than having jobs in a generation, and because they want unions to vote for them.

Rational, thoughtful free-traders care about everyone’s jobs everywhere and recognize that millions of Americans may need to lose their jobs to outsourcing in the short term, and it hurts them more than it hurts the unemployed, but they have the moral leadership to do the hard thing by pursuing the policies which will rain down wealth on everyone around the world in the long-term.

Needless to say, no discussion of the benefits to workers around the world from “raising the floor” of wage standards and working conditions, or the threat to workers in this country and every other from a corporate race to the bottom spurred on by neoliberal trade policy designed to maximize short-term profits for transnational elites. Instead, the free-traders learned that they should respect the “anti-trade” folks because they mean well even though they’re wrong, and the “anti-trade” folks learned that they’re wrong.

Do people really still see The West Wing as part of that ubiquitious, malignant liberal media we’ve all heard so much about?