Friday, April 06, 2007

Another Reason We Need Reform in Washington

We invaded Iraq to bring the Iraqis democracy. No one believes anymore that democracy is the main reason Bush went to Iraq. In fact, most days, Bush is still peddling the canard that we're in Iraq so the 'terrorists' don't come here (never mind, we're the ones who went there). And of course the biggest immediate threat to our democracy these days is the incompetent and authoritarian behavior of the Bush Administration itself. There's a bitter irony in all this: people like myself write on blogs like this partly because we believe we are defending the US Constitution; our constitution, in fact, gives every citizen the right to defend that constitution and offers checks and balances in our government to protect that constitution. I have sworn no oath to defend the US Constitution but any number of government officials in the Bush Administration have sworn to protect and uphold our constitution and they are doing any number of things to undermine the highest law of our land. Go figure.

But there are issues afoot that go far beyond the ideological claptrap of the Bush Administration. An issue like globalization goes back a number of years, at least into the early 1990s. One of the things globalization was supposed to do was help democratize nations and lead to a better life for workers (there was mumbo jumbo about the tide rising for all workers).

Of course, globalization has fallen far short of many promises made by its proponents, both Republican and Democratic (Bill Clinton was certainly one). I was never entirely against globalization but it was disturbing early on to see that the concept was too easily embraced and implemented by corporations and conservatives who had little interest in the progressive possibilities of globalization (and Clinton was frankly sluggish in this area).

Now we have American corporations and their proxies actively opposing better conditions and wages for workers. Harold Meyerson of The American Prospect reports:
...the conduct of America's corporate titans in China is ... disquieting. There, since March of last year, the government has been considering a labor law that promises a smidgen of increase in workers' rights. And since March of last year, the American businesses so mightily invested in China have mightily fought it.

Beyond the Starbucks of Shanghai, the China of workers and peasants is a sea of unrest, roiled by thousands of strikes and protests that the regime routinely represses. Cognizant that they need to do something to quell the causes of unrest, some of China's rulers have entertained modest changes to the country's labor law. The legislation wouldn't allow workers to form independent trade unions or grant them the right to strike -- this is, after all, a communist regime. It would, however, require employers to provide employees, either individually or collectively, with written contracts. It would allow employees to change jobs within their industries or get jobs in related industries in other regions; employers have hitherto been able to thwart this by invoking statutes on proprietary information. It would also require that companies bargain with worker representatives over health and safety conditions.


As documented by Global Labor Strategies, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization headed by longtime labor activists, the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and the U.S.-China Business Council embarked on a major campaign to kill these tepid reforms. Last April, one month after the legislation was first floated, the chamber sent a 42-page document to the Chinese government on behalf of its 1,300 members -- including General Electric, Microsoft, Dell, Ford, and dozens of other household brand names -- objecting to these minimal increases in worker power. In its public comments on the proposed law, GE declared that it strongly preferred "consultation" with workers to "securing worker representative approval" on a range of its labor practices.


First, about one-fourth of the global labor force is in China. Opposing steps toward the formation of unions there suppresses the wages of so many workers that its effect is felt worldwide. Second, since authoritarian China remains an adversary of the United States and a backer of some genuinely dangerous authoritarian regimes, blocking even the most modest steps toward the development of a civil society and democratic rights there poses a threat to U.S. security interests. Third, since the Bush administration champions the spread of democracy globally, why hasn't it taken America's leading corporations to task for retarding democracy's growth in China?

I'm all for free enterprise and competition; that's why it may be time to wean our corporations from their autocratic culture and back into our democracy. Countries who try to protect their privileged class only end up stifling opportunities for others and the economy of those countries always suffer from such measures. Franco's Spain is a classic example of economic suppression and stagnation and the fact is, we're heading in that direction.

Republicans, and right wing conservatives in particular have forgotten some important lessons about our country. Corporate laws are derived from our government and the government exists for the people, not for corporations and certainly not for a privileged sense of autocratic rule. Reform has saved our country several times before and our country has grown stronger after such periods of reform. We're overdue for some serious changes. For one thing, we're heading for some serious challenges and we need a dynamic and creative economy that can deal with those challenges.

Thought experiment: visualize the auto makers of Detroit dealing with the coming challenges. They're not even remotely ready to take on those challenges. If we have an oil shock in the next year or two, few companies in our country are in a position to deal with such a scenario. Actually, for many years, Detroit and big oil have been the albatrosses slowing our country down and putting our future at risk. Real innovations requires involving everyone, including workers down the line, and it requires real economic openness and opportunity; in other words, real free enterprise and real competition with the government occassionally stimulating various sectors such as research in new sources of energy.

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Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

"I'm all for free enterprise and competition; that's why it may be time to wean our corporations from their autocratic culture and back into our democracy."

Good luck with that when they've gotten themselves the best government their money can buy. I posted an item the other day about how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has the distinction of making the biggest outlay for lobbying of all.

The thing about corporations and big-bucks investors controlling the government, and/or being given free rein by the government, is that the common good, the longterm best interest of the country, even national security, isn't their top priority. Maximizing profits is their top priority, it's what they exist for.

So-called free trade and globalization provide unprecedented means for breaking unions, destroying jobs and exploiting workers here and abroad. That the corporations are fighting China's modest reforms is perfectly in keeping with the corporations' pursuit of their immutable imperative. It's exactly what's to be expected from them, with rare exception.

Also, despite their routine comments to the contrary, businesses and big investors look on competition the way drug smugglers look on the DEA. They want no part of it and go to great lengths to limit or eliminate it whenever and wherever they can.

One good working definition of greed is that it's the difference between seeking a fair profit and seeking to maximize profit. The same applies to "shareholder value."

12:50 AM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

Regarding U.S. automakers, it's interesting and revealing that whenever their competitive plight is discussed by moneymen, invariably, the focus is on high labor costs.

Typically, the moneyman sighs and in disapproving or frustrated tones explains that it costs GM, Ford and Chrysler $2,000 or $3,000 more to produce a car than it costs Toyota and Honda.

Somehow, several other little things never get mentioned. Little things like stale or lackluster designs (how long did Ford go between major redesigns of the Taurus?), poorer quality control than Toyota and Honda, lack of sufficient investment in R&D, being slow to update plant and equipment, and alienating the work force in a thousand ways large and small — routine mass layoffs, drastically underfunding pensions and watering down or eliminating medical benefits, to name a few.

It's as though if U.S. auto workers would just come to work on bicycles — those being all they could afford — and do their jobs, 10 hours a day, five days a week, for free, or close to it, the big three automakers would at last be able to beat back the competition once and for all.

Not that the CEOs and others running these corporations should have to cut back seriously on their fabulous incomes and perks, though.

1:11 AM  

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