ZNet Interviews Barbara Garson about

(1) Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book, “MONEY MAKES THE WORLD GO AROUND” is about? What is it trying to communicate?


I decided to explore the global economy by the simple device of following my own money. I began by putting half my book advance in a one-branch bank and a second sum in an aggressive mutual fund. The result is part detective story part global justice manifesto as I follow my money around the world.


The first thing I found was that the small town bank had nothing to do with my money so they loaned it to Chase. Sitting in at the Chase Fed funds desk on their trading floor, I discovered that they too had nothing to do with that money in the US. Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that money is like a hot potato. Whoever holds it and pays interest on it has to pass it along quickly to someone else who’ll pay interest. If you hold it for too long, you’ll get burned.


A lot of the ideas we call neo-liberalism or corporate globalism arose from desperation to pass the money along starting after about 1973. Money had collected in fewer and fewer hands. There was nothing profitable to do with it in the U.S. and Europe so the money had to go abroad. Hence rich countries forced poor countries to do away with all the safeguards that once regulated money flows. Voila—the global economy with all its harmful consequences.


But I’m giving you conclusions. I write it from the ground up—as I said, a detective story on the trail of that money. Eventually I found a Brooklyn seafood importer who made a Chase loan at the very time my money came through. He used it to bring in frozen shrimp from Thailand, Malysia, and Singapore. Then I ran into some friendly (and I guess naïve) petroleum engineers whose company Caltex (it’s parent companies were Chevron and Texaco, now merged) had just borrowed money from Chase to build a refinery in Thailand. A lot of my money was headed for Asia so I followed. There I interviewed everyone from the oil company CEO down to its migrant workers and the street vendors selling them food outside the construction site. As a matter of fact, a couple of street vendors were not only my best contacts to illegal migrants, but also among the most surprising people I met. (I learned, among other things, how to make both green papaya and jelly fish salads. You’ll find the recipes in the appendix.)


 (2) Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?


I am proud to say that the content comes almost entirely from the people I met along the way. They range, as I say, from street vendors, to the former head of Citibank, Walter Wriston. There are also interviews with American workers in Maine and Tennessee who were effected when my mutual fund brought Al Dunlap in to downsize their company, Sunbeam. I also wound up owning shares in the British Railroads and in a French company that privatized the Johannesburg water system. One result of water privatization in South Africa was a cholera epidemic. But I wrote about that in an article for Znet, so I won’t go into it now.


By the time you finish reading “Money Makes the World Go Around” you’ll understand global capital flows from the bottom up. But don’t read it if you want to meet only good peasants and bad bankers. In this system—capitalism I mean—clever, admirable engineers pollute the ocean, and amiable, hard working bankers undermine our daily security. Some of the most fascinating people I met, people working right in the midst of the contradictions, included a labor contractor who brought Chinese and Bangladeshis to Singapore and a Chinese shrimp trader from Malaysia who used the profits he made from my Brooklyn seafood importer to open jellyfish factories in Vietnam. I’m sincerely interested in what each person does, from his own point of view. That’s how I get the total picture. And from his own point of view, each person does the best he can in a world he can’t control.


(3) What are your hopes for MONEY MAKES THE WORLD GO AROUND? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?


I’ll feel successful if Money Makes the World Go Around actually does what Howard Zinn says it does. Do you mind if I repeat his quote?


“I’ve been a fan of Barbara Garson’s writing ever since I read her brilliant MacBird! This book shows her at her best—able to be funny about serious things and crystal-clear about impossibly complex matters. She brings all the formidable abstractions of the new world economy—globalization, Eurodollars, information highways, restructuring, currency trading—down to the human level where we can see and feel and understand them. And always, her writing is suffused with a passionate concern for ordinary people overwhelmed by the giants of the corporate world.”


Like most ZNet readers, I had opposed the methods of corporate globalism that Howard Zinn enumerates—Eurodollars, restructuring, etc.—even before I did the research for this book. But I didn’t quite get it, not viscerally. How could all that money flowing in to poor countries leave people even poorer than they were before?


But the Asian currency crisis occurred soon after I’d left South East Asia. That gave me the opportunity to present an entire cycle. It’s also why it took me five years to complete the book. After the crash I got back to the same people I met during the boom. The younger of the two Thai street vendors who I liked so much had disappeared after a fight with other vendors over a spot. Places to sell were scarce since so many construction sites had shut down. Her friend, the older vendor, was desperately concerned about the missing girl who had become like a daughter to her. She also mentioned, in passing, that the price of rice had suddenly doubled for reasons that to her were mysterious.


But by that time my readers and I knew why the price of rice had doubled. We’d already spoken to Chase and IMF executives. It was not mysterious to them. Chase had fifty billion dollars at risk in Thailand. Thai rice (and other products) had to be sold abroad instead of at home so that the Thai government could earn foreign currency to pay back the loans my bank had made–even though those loans were made by Chase to private Thai companies. If the price of rice inside the country was raised, more would be sold abroad. Yes, that meant that more Thais went hungry in a country that produces a great surplus of rice. Yes, that meant that the street vendor’s ingredients cost more so she brought home less money for her day’s work. The vendor’s letters to me after the crash are in the book and readers will be able to assign reasons for the rice price increase and all the other hardships she and her friends endured and are still enduring.


I heard the same sort of thing when I got back to those bright good-natured migrants I met in Singapore. They spent a couple of years away from their families living in metal containers in order to earn those good Singapore wages. But the crash made their money worth so much less, it was as if they had worked seven of those months for no pay.


The fishermen and tapioca farmers who the reader met building my oil refinery didn’t necessarily complain that their land had been paved over. Each person was engrossed in the daily problems and hopes of his of her own new life. Indeed the reason that so many mainstream reviewers like the book is because the people I introduce aren’t just “the migrants” or “the street vendor.” They’re also that particular young girl who never wants to go back to the paddy farm or see her mother, that particular man you have to like even if he’s constantly looking around for every angle, or that particular migrant who loves welding right angles but hates straight angles. Some readers get interested in these characters even if they don’t care to understand why things didn’t work out the way these people had hoped.


After the crash, when rice prices in Bangkok soared, many people I’d met couldn’t go back to farms that had been paved over to build refineries, nor could they fish in water that was polluted by my shrimp farms. Not only couldn’t they go back to their old poverty, but they now had to pay off the bank loans that they themselves had never made. Paying off loans took forms like mysteriously doubled rice prices. That’s why they were not just as poor, but poorer than before. All sorts of rules had been forced through so that my bank could first desperately push dollars into South East Asia, then get them out even more desperately without losing a penny on their reckless loans.


Did I know this before? Well, sort of. But now I really know it. I understand the mechanisms as well as who pays the cost. I’ll feel successful if people who are part of the global justice movement come away from the book with a deepened understanding of many of the things they already believe, plus a few new insights. I’d also like them to acquire enough economic background to be able to discuss global finance confidently with friends and even with their neo-liberal economics professors.


I’ll feel unsuccessful if the book is only read by the bankers and brokers who already know whereof I speak. They and bank regulators seem to be the people who bought the hard cover edition. I suppose I should be proud that they don’t find errors. But I’ll be prouder if people in the global justice movement start reading the paperback.


Hmm, you notice I can’t even conceive of a success whereby my arguments change policy. In the sixties I had about as great a success as you could have with a political book. “MacBird!” sold half a million copies. But it was the movement not the book that brought about real changes. I simply entertained the movement. “United we laugh” may be my slogan. Entertaining is still an important goal of my writing. In that respect I already have a success. “Money Makes the World Go Around” is at least a lively read.


MONEY MAKES THE WORLD GO AROUND: One Investor Tracks Her cash Through the Global Economy: (Penguin 2002) Available from Booksense.com (the order house of independent bookstores), Amazon.com, or local bookstores. For the publisher’s information click on: http://www.penguinputnam.com/Biuiu8udddook/BookFrame?0CS^0142000507


Leave a comment