Ethicist Thomas Pogge talks on global poverty. (Flickr/Pontificia Universidad)
For three decades, the Institute for International Economics in Washington has been enormously influential as an intellectual home base for globalization. The think tank is nonpartisan, but closely aligned with business and finance multinationals that provide generous funding. A few years ago, its name was changed to the Peterson Institute, honoring its founding chairman and leading benefactor, billionaire Pete Peterson, who is better known for his long-running crusade against Social Security and Medicare.
Whenever you read about the thousands of jobs promised by a new trade agreement, supporting evidence was very likely generated by economists at the Peterson Institute. The fact that these “studies” regularly turned out to be wildly exaggerated or flat wrong has not deterred experts from churning out more dubious assertions.
The debate over NAFTA in 1992 was perhaps the most notorious example. Ross Perot, the independent presidential candidate, was ridiculed and effectively discredited for calling “free trade” globalization a “giant sucking sound” that would wipe out millions of American jobs. Perot, it turns out, was right. So were American working people who complained bitterly that so-called “free trade” was hollowing out the middle class and driving down industrial wages.
The Peterson Institute, so far as I know, never confessed error—but its new leadership is implicitly acknowledging the damage and inviting critics it has long ignored into the high-brow policy discussions. It was something of a shock to attend an all-day conference at the Institute, on January 7, where twenty academic economists and policy thinkers delivered papers. The subject was “ethics and globalization.” Ethics? What’s ethics got to do with it? Quite a lot, the Institute belatedly asserted.
Indeed, some of the speakers offered policy reforms that could have been drawn from The Nation magazine. Other speakers described the global system in deep trouble and warned of popular rebellion here and abroad if things are not changed. Having lost confidence in the trading system’s promises, many are turning to national governments to save them from global capitalism.
Howard Rosen, a visiting fellow at Peterson and ex-staff director of Congress’s Joint Economic Commmittee, enumerated the negative consequences of the last generation and concluded: “To my mind, this amounts to international trickle-down economics.”
Rosen recommended a list of reforms that includes a global minimum wage, industrial wage increases linked to productivity gains, unemployment insurance, adoption of international labor standards that encourage unionization and commitments by the World Bank and other international financial institutions to require nations to accept these reforms as a condition for getting loans.
Thomas Pogge, professor of law and international affairs at Yale, added to the indictment. “Who are the beneficiaries of the last 25 years?” he asked. “Not the global poor but the global rich.” The system has generated “a tremendous concentration of wealth,” he said, created by the rich nations in league with global organizations like the World Trade Organization.