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Garson

Penguin, 2002


Review by
Nicola Bullard


My first encounter
with Barbara Garson is described on page 314 of her new book Money Makes the
World Go Around
." Here’s what she wrote: “Is PTT for sale?” I scribbled
during an IMF session called “Global Integration” and passed the note to an
Australian economist based in Thailand. “Yes,” she wrote back. “Most of its
assets are scheduled for auction.”

That brief
exchange took place during an IMF World Bank annual meeting in the heady post
Asian financial crisis days. The Australian economist is me, except I am not
really an economist.

Apart from that
slight inaccuracy, the rest of Barbara Garson’s book Money Makes The World Go
Around
is absolutely great. She sets out to “follow the money,” tracking her
investments (her publisher’s advance for this book) through a small local bank
and the international behemoth Chase. Both paths are fascinating and take us to
places we wold never visit on our own: the ForEx trading room of Chase, the
planning offices of a multi-billion dollar petro-chemical refinery in Southern
Thailand, and a union meeting in the living room of a sacked Sunbeam worker in
Tennessee, USA.

In fact, the book
is so good I felt humbled: after six weeks in Thailand she got a better feel for
the country than I have in six years [working with Walden Bellow at Focus on the
Global South,] and her grip on financial investments, capital markets and the
language of the City is sure and lucid. What’s more, Barbara Garson is an
excellent writer with a genuine interest in both the big and the little picture.
This was brilliantly demonstrated in her book of many years ago,, All the
Livelong Day,
which recounts with empathy and humor the true-life work
stories of hundreds of working class Americans trapped in tedious, dangerous,
insecure and poorly paid jobs. The humanity of Barbara Garson is that she cares
whether these people still have their jobs in recession-struck USA and because
she is genuinely interested in the fate of the people she interviewed in
Thailand first before than after the financial crisis. They are not statistics,
they are real people with quirky personalities, ambitions and sad stories.

Apart from the
deceptively plain writing, and the curiosity and wit that drives the story
along, Barbara Garson approaches her subjects with an open-mindedness which
disarms and charms all those she meets. She finds everything interesting, she
asks all the dumb questions most of us would never dare, she chats with the
bosses and asks about their lives and their kids, just as she chats with the
Malaysian fisherman or the Tennessee factory worker and describes for us their
lives in the world of hyper capitalism.

The book is not
without moral force and a political spin. One of the nastiest villains we
encounter is “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, the doyen of downsizing, who writes books
with titles such Mean Business. During his stint at Sunbeam, Dunlap
virtually clear-felled the company, destroying thousands of jobs and lives, and
even losing his shareholders a big pile of money. It was the company’s third
restructuring in a decade, and as Garson says “How many times can you squeeze a
lemon?”

But, there are
also heroes: farmers, clever engineers, feisty young women from Isarn (North
Eastern Thailand) who strike out with their own noodle shops, stoical factory
workers from small town Southern USA and Mangrove Action Network activists
hammering out strategies in New York City.

Amid all these
earthy and amusing stories she explains with utter clarity how the international
financial markets work, the driving force of shareholder values, the increasing
dis-articulation between workers and capital, profit and productivity. Barbara
Garson (who once ran as vice-presidential candidate for the Socialist Party) is
firmly on the side of the people and she builds a picture, frame by frame, of
how the globalized economy effects people. She puts the “real” back into the
economy.

It’s a
page-turner and a subtle political tract: a rare combination. What’s more, it is
funny and wonderfully written.                    Z