Times Unmasks Protesters
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.” “Â…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.”
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?
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.
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.