In the mid-1990s, when the U.S. signed another trade agreement (I now realize it was NAFTA, a regional agreement among the U.S., Mexico, and Canada) I was driving into Wisconsin. The MPR newscast announced this new freedom granted to U.S. corporations to take their manufacturing operations outside the U.S. with impunity. I immediately had a sick feeling. How exactly this would effect American life or my mounting sense of global justice, I could only dimly perceive at the time. But the simple clear question that occurred to me was this: if Americans aren’t making the goods they will eventually buy, then how will they have the money to continue buying them?
World stability depends in part on a rising standard of living worldwide. Though world trade agreements can help to produce that, they can’t protect against a host of ills that don’t come within the ken of such agreements. Like the underlying political system of a country, its educational standards, its wage and working structures, etc. Just because tariffs between the U.S. and Mexico are lowered, doesn’t mean that the young Mexican women sewing shirts or jeans for the U.S. market are protected against low wages or long hours, poorly ventilated buildings, or ruinous invasions of privacy by their employers–for instance, forced use of contraceptives. In fact, as I saw documentaries through a local nonprofit dedicated to global human rights, it became clear that U.S. corporations were at the root of keeping wages and working conditions poor for these workers outside the U.S.
During the next ten years, from the 90s into the early 2000s, the effects of globalized business came to my attention in other, immediate ways: calling Delta Airlines, I found myself talking to someone from India who was hard to understand and didn’t have the knowledge of U.S. geography or time differences to make much sense of my ticketing problems. Buying new clothes on sale, I discovered that I was purchasing a garment made in Bangladesh. Caught between appreciating the relative cheapness of the garment and worrying about what the lives of these workers were like, I carried my purchase home, put it on my body and forgot about it.
Meantime, my global environmental ethic was aroused: I was buying and eating pears from Chile, and fish and wine from Australia. Surely the emissions from transporting these products such long distances must be factored into their overall, global cost. We were experiencing global warming, weren’t we? Were my consuming habits here in Minnesota contributing to cutting down the rainforests? Was my coffee, hidden in its Maxwell House comfy American label, contributing to an environmental disaster somewhere else in the world? All these concerns crossed my palate with the food. Then there was the energy question, lately come to a head with Canadian gas being extracted from a horrendously damaging method called fracking.
Now our own U.S. workers are in trouble. The U.S. gained not a single job in August, so the news reports. Unions which have traditionally protected workers from sweatshop conditions and low pay are under fire by a form of Republicanism one can only call exploitative. Our education system, after being wrenched about by No Child…, is now being forced by the same brand of Republicanism to take larger and larger numbers of students into a single class. Two days ago, a special education teacher I’m mentoring talked about having three times the number of students that used to be mandated for a single teacher’s load. “We can’t teach much,” she commented. “These are autistic kids who are very delicately balanced. They freak out with too much noise, etc.”
How to connect the big global picture to what is happening here at home? Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, has voiced some deep concerns about the globalization of American business and consumption. Yesterday a StarTribune interview indicated that Reich is “concerned about what we can afford to pay for what we as a nation need to do.” Such as educate all our children for the highly demanding, technologically savvy work that is coming along. We can’t afford as a nation to create a widening underclass with poor nutrition, poor education, poor life prospects. Why? Because simply put, if our workers can’t compete with those overseas, American corporations will take those jobs overseas. Thus, it seems clear to me that we must do some or all of the following things:
* resist mightily continuing cuts to education. The public education system simply can’t sustain any more without damaging the viability of our people and their work skills
* support unions because they protect American jobs and their decent pay.
* rethink the corporate advantages of various trade agreements, and where necessary, tailor tariffs and reciprocal regional agreements to benefit health and human viability within our borders. American corporations donate enormous amounts to largely Republican politicians who throw a scrim over the realities of how corporations have drained the life-blood from American livelihoods. Note: the Ponzi schemes for bundling mortgages and then taking out insurance assuming the mortgages would fail have bereft many Americans not only of homes but of the funds they sank into those they’ve lost. Likewise this enormously risky financial maneuvering has rippled across all kinds of economic transactions, creating first the recession of 2008, and now this stagnant, no-growth economy.
* insist on higher taxes for the upper 5 % of Americans. They are the ones benefiting from corporate practices; not the middle or lower classes. They should contribute more of their earnings, as Warren Buffet, Mr. Money-Pants himself attested recently. As Robert Reich has said, the voices of big corporations are drowning out the voice of ordinary citizens. It is time we began to look around us and see just how deeply the loss has reached.