Times Unmasks Protesters


Roger Bybee


The new global
economy is a battleground between those who idealistically seek higher living
standards and more democracy, and those fighting to keep Third World people
confined to lives of misery and submission to tyranny, we are informed by the
New York Times editorialists and columnists.

How do these
forces of 21st century uplift and 19th century darkness line up? In the wake
of the Quebec City discussions on the proposed 34-nation Free Trade Area of
the Americas, Times writers have provided a startling revelation about
precisely who these players really are.

Times
columnist Thomas Friedman boldly unmasks the “The Coalition to Keep Poor
People Poor.” They turn out to be hypocritical unionists, environmentalists,
and anti-sweatshop activists who seek to impose global standards which would
only condemn the Third World poor to perpetual exclusion from the global
economy.

“By inhibiting
global trade expansion they are choking the only route out of poverty” (NYT
4/24/01). This new accusation of callousness and hypocrisy represents an
escalation of Friedman’s 1999 attack on Seattle protesters against the World
Trade Organization as “a Noah’s Ark of flat-earth advocates” (NYT,
12/1/99). (However, for pure viciousness, it is hard to top Newsweek’s
linking of non-violent social critic and Z contributor Noam
Chomsky with Unabomber Ted Kaczynski in a sidebar on “The New Anarchism”
Newsweek
12/13/99).

Fellow Times
columnist Paul Krugman is only slightly less harsh about the anti-FTAA
movement. He concedes that the “most sophisticated” segment of the anti-
globalization movement “doesn’t want to stop exports—it just wants better
working conditions and higher wages.” However, sighs Krugman impatiently,
“It’s not a serious position. Third-world countries desperately need their
export industries—they cannot retreat to a rural Arcadia. They can’t have
those export industries unless they are allowed to sell goods produced under
conditions that Westerners find appalling, by workers who receive very low
wages” (NYT 4/22/01).

Meanwhile,
government and corporate officials “are sincerely trying to help the world’s
poor. And the people outside the fence, whatever their intentions, are doing
their best to make the poor even poorer.”

What the
world’s poor need, according to a Times editorial (4/20/01) is “the
same direct access to capital that has proven so beneficial to Mexico as a
result of NAFTA.” The Times goes on to not only wholeheartedly endorse
the FTAA, but also to urge the rapid conclusion of a trade deal with Chile
based on NAFTA.

Similarly,
other commercial publications enthusiastically promote corporate-style
globalization as “the inevitable consequence of capitalism and democracy” (Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel
editorial, 4/25/01), apparently unfazed by the
widespread repression of worker rights and the killings of dissident
journalists in Mexico and other free-trade bastions. The Journal Sentinel
cheerfully announces that free trade “opens the vast U.S. market to developing
countries that need access as a way to lift their populations out of poverty.”

But this rosy
scenario of lifting Third World peasants out of misery via investment from
transnational corporations has several defects. First, it leaves out some
vital elements, starting with the motives and conduct of transnational
corporations. Second, the interests of these corporations and Third World
nations are conveniently intertwined so that to criticize the practices of the
corporations is to crush the aspirations of the Third World poor. Third, the
interests of repressive Third World governments like those of Mexico, China,
and the Philipines are merged with those of the subject populations. Finally,
the major commercial media generally omit any serious analysis of the
practical results of NAFTA and other experiments in “neo-liberalism.” Let’s
examine each point in order.


 

A Question
of Intent


The notion that
transnational corporations are “sincerely trying to help the world’s poor” is
taken as a matter of faith in Times editorials and op-ed columns. In
contrast, the motives of those challenging corporate-driven globalization have
been constantly questioned. Promotion of global standards for democracy,
decent wages, and environmental safeguards reflects at best a condescending
form of interference in a Third World country: “What residents of a rich
country like the United States see as exploitation can seem a rare opportunity
to residents of a poor country like Honduras,” the Times’ Larry Rohter
pronounced in an article defending the abysmal conditions found in factories
making goods for Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line (NYT
7/18/96).

At worst, the
struggle for global standards is portrayed as a Trojan Horse for
“protectionism.” “…With the exception of the environmentalists—this
anti-globalization movement is largely the well-intentioned but ill-informed
being led around by the ill-intentioned and well-informed (protectionist
unions and anarchists),” declares Thomas Friedman (NYT 41/24/01).

But how
“well-intended” are the corporate globalizers when it comes to improving the
lives of the poor in Mexico, Honduras, or China? Here, it appears that
Friedman, Krugman, and the Times editorialists have neglected to read
the front page of their own publication.

A detailed
series on conditions in maquiladora plants along the U.S. border revealed
shocking sanitation and pollution hazards, especially in Juarez. As Juarez
Mayor Gustavo Elizondo plaintively told the Times (2/11/01), “We have
no way to provide water, sewage, and sanitation workers. Every year, we get
poorer and poorer even though we create more and more wealth.” Elizondo,
pointing to the annual contributions of $15 per worker made by primarily
U.S.-based corporations, says, “It’s better than nothing, but really what they
give is a miniscule part of all the money they are able to make by having
their plants in Mexico.”

Clearly, people
like Mayor Elizondo do not sufficiently appreciate the imperatives of
globalization. General Electric CEO Jack Welch starkly outlined the new
philosophy of corporate globalism: “Ideally, you’d have every plant you own on
a barge.” GE’s Mexican operations, which employ 30,000 people, have a payroll
estimated by some at about $90 million, which Times writers like Rohter
and Friedman would surely praise as evidence of the benefits of globalization.

However, GE’s
benificence to its workers in Mexico must be measured against an uncomfortable
fact: combined, the 30,000 Mexicans employed by GE earn less than the $92.4
million hauled in by Welch alone in 1999.

The same
Times
series recounted how Alcoa’s Mexican operation in Acuna once had a
practice of providing its workers three squares a day. Not three square
meals—they were limited to three squares of toilet tissue by a janitor posted
by management at employee bathrooms.

Meanwhile,
Alcoa’s contribution to a cleaner water supply or other basic community
services was close to zero. Alcoa’s tax statements for 1999 examined by the
Times
“appeared to indicate that Alcoa paid no income, property,
asset, import, export, sales or value-added taxes that year in Acuna.” The
Times
added, “Alcoa’s annual reports add other company documents
suggest that Alcoa Fujikura’s operations in Mexico are quite profitable.”
These profits surely helped former Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill—now U.S. treasury
secretary—to collect $36 million in salary and stock options in 1999 (NYT
2/25/01). But somehow, Friedman and Krugman have managed to contain their
speculations about the “intent” of either GE or Alcoa management from spilling
over into their columns. There is of course no suggestion that such
corporations are “choking the only route out of poverty.”

 

Intertwined
Interests


The Times-style
advocacy of corporate globalization continually merges the interests of
transnational companies and the impoverished, job-seeking masses of the Third
World. To insist that corporations like GE or Alcoa provide better wages is
portrayed as driving away the investment needed to lift the poor out of their
deplorable conditions. Friedman, in effect, narrows the choices about
globalization to accepting corporate investment on all the terms imposed by
the corporations or rejecting entirely any outside engagement with the outside
world.

The notion that
the corporations ought to be held accountable to some standards—on respect for
worker rights, the environment, fair taxation, and democratic decisionmaking
by the local government—is dismissed out of hand as impractical. But unless
some standards are imposed, corporations will play global hopscotch” in
“search of low-cost labor,” as US News and World Report
approvingly described Reebok’s strategy (June 5, 1995).


Friedman,
Krugman, and company have no credible explanation how this ongoing race to the
bottom can be reversed. In fact, they deny it is taking place, simply
asserting as a matter of blind faith that corporate investment will inevitably
and inexorably improve the lives of the workers. But when workers even in
low-wage Mexico can be threatened with the loss of their jobs because their
elected mayor insists that corporations begin to pay some taxes, how can
conditions possibly improve for working people?

 

Who’s
Missing?


For the most
part, free-trade advocates in the Times and elsewhere
conveniently omit discussion of the ferocious corporate opposition to any but
the most superficial global standards on worker rights and the environment.
(One exception: the 11/29/99 Time article quoting Thomas Donohue,
president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “Environment and labor standards
won’t be tied to trade even if the U.S. stands on its head and spits wooden
nickels. The Chamber won’t let it happen, and the rest of the world won’t let
it happen.”) Instead, most accounts instead ascribe the most significant
opposition to Third World nations. These nations are portrayed as fiercely
rejecting such standards both on the principle of sovereignty exercised
against Western-imposed rules and the practical need for
development-generating investment.

But these
portrayals typically neglect the poor bargaining position and fundamentally
elitist orientation of Third World governments such as those in Mexico, South
Korea, and the Philippines. With commodity prices generally low and subject to
fluctuation, and buried under a mountain of debt to institutions like the
International Monetary Fund and World Bank, Third World nations tend to be
desperate for any source of investment and foreign exchange. If that means
acting as the pimp selling the low-wage labor of one’s nation—and repressing
union activity to hold down wages—so be it.

Second,
non-governmental organizations across the Third World have been emphatically
proclaiming the need for universal standards to raise conditions for working
people and peasants. Forces as diverse as the COSATU labor federation in South
Africa and the Zapatistas in Mexico—along with scores of other genuinely mass-
constituency organizations in the Third World—have all unambiguously stressed
the need for global protections for worker rights, environmental conditions,
and respect for democratic rights and institutions.

Still, the
coverage in the major commercial media tends to ignore both the
intransigent opposition to enforceable global standards by major corporations
and the fervent advocacy of such standards by non-governmental organizations.
The question of global standards can then be comfortably framed as a battle
between self-interested and condescending Western activists and Third World
governments proudly resisting such interference in order to assure investment
and jobs for their citizens. Essentially, Third World governments are inserted
as stand-ins in for the corporate opponents of a worker-oriented and
environmentally friendly form of globalization.

 


The
NAFTA-math


Despite seven
years of observing NAFTA’s impacts, the level of enthusiasm for “free trade”
remains undiminished among the editorialists at the Times and other
dominant media. Thus, the Times prescribes more of “the same direct
access to capital that has proven so beneficial to Mexico as a result of
NAFTA” without any correspondence to reality. To cite just a few indicators of
NAFTA’s less-than-beneficial effects:
 

  • Manufacturing wages have
    fallen 21 percent in Mexico, according to a study by Carlos Salas cited by
    the Economic Policy Institute
  • Approximately 28,000
    businesses have collapsed in Mexico. The displacement of Mexican farmers by
    U.S. imports has sharply increased immiseration in the countryside, with the
    Zapatistas declaring “NAFTA is our death warrant”
  • The manufacturing job
    loss in the U.S. due to NAFTA has been estimated at a half million,
    according to the Economic Policy Institute
  • While NAFTA proponents
    point to increased U.S. exports to Mexico, they fail to note that much of
    this is simply “industrial tourism”—unfinished parts shipped from the U.S.
    to Mexico for completion and then exported back into the U.S. market
  • The percentage of U.S.
    exports devoted to such intra- firm transfers soared from an already-high 40
    percent in 1993 to 62 percent in 1996, according to John MacArthur’s The
    Selling of Free Trade.


The
Times
has been equally enthusiastic—and similarly off base—about
the results of elite- oriented economic policies in Chile, imposed under the
brutal regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet with the assistance of economist Milton
Friedman and other “Chicago Boys.” “Chile is a heartening example of how a
policy of economic liberalization can lift a people’s standard of living,” the
Times gushed (editorial 4/20/01). The economic reality has been less
“heartening”outside the small circle of billionaires produced by these favored
policies.

According to
Marc Cooper, author of Pinochet and Me, wages remain 18 percent
below the level when Pinochet overthrew democratically-elected Salvador
Allende with extensive U.S. assistance. But the Times’ recommended
“policy of economic liberalization can lift” at least some people’s standard
of living: “The richest 100 people in Chile earn more than the state spends on
all social services,” as one opposition senator points out. Further, of 65
nations studies by the World Bank, Chile ranks seventh worst in unequal income
distribution.

However, given
the zeal of the free-trade proponents, such realities are unlikely to intrude
into the editorial and opinion pages of the nation’s leading publications.
What Jorge Castaneda called the “thought paralysis” caused by the “free-trade”
mantra has, if anything, intensified into a cult-like worship of
corporate-style globalization at the Times and elsewhere.
                              Z

Roger
Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and activist.