News and Features
Bill Gates for President--next time. Now that we've gotten used to
millionaires running for the presidency, why not a billionaire and a
self-made one at that? At least Gates is aware that the biggest problem
in the world is not how to make some Americans even wealthier but how to
deal with the abysmal poverty that defines the condition of two-thirds of
Odd as it may seem, it took the richest man in the world in a dramatic
speech last week to remind us that no man is an island, and that when
most of the world's population lives on the edge of extinction, it mocks
the rosy predictions for our common future on a wired planet.
Gates shocked a conference of computer industry wizards with the news
that the billions of people who subsist on a dollar a day are not in a
position to benefit from the Information Age. He charged that the hoopla
over the digital revolution, which he pioneered, is now a dangerous
distraction from the urgent need to deal seriously with the festering
problem of world poverty. Gates, who has donated an enormous amount to
charity, also made the case that private donations alone will not solve
the problem, and that massive government intervention is needed.
"Do people have a clear idea of what it is to live on $1 a day?" Gates
asked the conferees. "There's no electricity in that house. None. You're
just buying food, you're trying to stay alive."
The "Creating Digital Dividends" conference he addressed was one of
those occasions in which the computer industry indulges the hope that as
it earns enormous profits, it is solving the major problems facing
humanity. The premise of the conference was that "market drivers" could
be used "to bring the benefits of connectivity and participation in the
e-economy to all the world's 6 billion people."
As reported by Sam Howe Verhovek in the New York Times, Gates, who was
the conference's closing speaker, doused that hope by denying that the
poor would become part of the wired world any time soon. In a follow-up
interview, Gates amplified his view of what occurs when computers are
suddenly donated to the poor: "The mothers are going to walk right up to
that computer and say, 'My children are dying, what can you do?' They're
not going to sit there and like, browse eBay."
Gates, who has long extolled the power of computers to solve the
world's problems, criticized himself for having been "naïve--very naïve."
He has shifted the focus of the $21 billion Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation from that of donating Information Age technology to meeting
the health needs of the poorest, beginning with the widespread
distribution of vaccines.
The New York Times reported that Gates "has lost much of the faith he
once had that global capitalism would prove capable of solving the most
immediate catastrophes facing the world's poorest people, especially the
40,000 deaths a day from preventable diseases. He added that more
philanthropy and more government aid--especially a greater contribution
to foreign health programs by American taxpayers--are needed for that."
Given that Gates is presumably the biggest of those taxpayers, that is
the most provocative challenge to the complacency of the
"free-markets-and-trade-will-solve-everything" ideology that dominates
the thinking of both major parties. US foreign aid to the poor
represents a pathetic fraction of our budget, while we devote ever larger
sums to building a sophisticated military without a sophisticated enemy
in sight. Yet those misplaced priorities went totally unchallenged by the
presidential candidates of both major parties.
Poverty is the major security problem both within and without our
country. These days the have-nots have many windows to the haves, and
resentment is inevitable. It is the breeding ground of disorder and
terror, and it is absurd to think that a stable new world order can be
built on such an uneven foundation.
One of the ironies of the wired world is that those terrorists in
their remote mountain camps are wired into the Internet, which has
facilitated the coordination of their evil plans. The terrorists have all
the laptops and cellular phones they want, but they depend for their
effectiveness on recruiting from the ranks of the alienated poor who
don't have medicines, food or a safe source of water.
If you are the parent of a newborn, beware. Fourteen to eighteen months from now your child will be programmed to nag for a new toy or snack every four hours, "branded for life" as a Cheerios eater or a Coca-Cola guzzler and placed in the loving care of a market researcher at the local daycare center.
That, at least, was the view of early childhood development presented by the 400 children's-market honchos at the third annual Advertising & Promoting to Kids Conference, held in New York City on September 13-14. Conference-goers attended sessions on topics like Building Brand Recognition, Marketing in the Classroom and The Fine Art of Nagging ("40% of sales of jeans, burgers and other products occur because a child asks for the product"). They cheered winners of the Golden Marble Awards for best breakfast-food and video-game commercials.
The marketing confab was held as the government released a report documenting the growing commercialization of public schools and also as the Federal Trade Commission blasted media companies and the advertising industry for deliberately marketing violent films and products to children. Although kids have been targets of marketing for decades, the sheer amount of advertising they are exposed to today is "staggering and emotionally harmful," says Susan Linn, a Harvard Medical School psychologist who studies media at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. Linn and other child psychologists, educators and healthcare professionals led a protest outside the Golden Marble Awards to draw attention to the effects of the $12-billion-a-year kid-ad industry, including the epidemic of obesity in children and increasing violence in schools. "It's appalling that creativity is being rewarded in the service of manipulating children," Linn says. "We hope this is the beginning of a national movement to challenge this."
In fact, this fall has been a good one for grassroots opponents of corporate commercialism. The Madison, Wisconsin, school board voted in August to terminate its exclusive beverage contract with Coca-Cola, making it the first school district in the country to cancel an existing marketing deal [see Manning, "Students for Sale: How Corporations Are Buying Their Way Into America's Classrooms," September 27, 1999]. The board cited "overwhelming public opposition" as the reason for its decision. That action came hard on the heels of successful campaigns to stop proposed school-marketing deals in Oakland and Sacramento, California; Philadelphia; and the state of Michigan, where a cola contract involving 110 school districts was shot down. In October the American Dental Association passed a resolution urging its members to oppose the marketing of soft drinks and junk food in schools, and the American Psychological Association, under pressure from many of its members, agreed to form a task force to examine whether it is unethical for psychologists to advise companies that market to children. Meanwhile, ZapMe!, the in-school marketing company, abandoned its educational business after failing to convince enough schools to accept its offer of free computers in exchange for delivering student eyeballs to advertisers.
"We're seeing a dramatic increase in local resistance to all forms of corporate marketing to kids," says Andrew Hagelshaw, executive director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, in Oakland. "The issue has finally hit critical mass with the public." Hillary Rodham Clinton has jumped on the bandwagon. Citing a "barrage of materialistic marketing" aimed at young children, the Democratic candidate for senator from New York wants the government to ban commercials aimed at preschool children and to prohibit advertising inside public elementary schools. Anticorporate activists welcomed Clinton's proposals but said they don't go far enough. Opponents of a New York City school board plan to finance free laptop computers for students through in-school advertising say her proposals won't protect millions of high school students. Nor would the proposals apparently affect the commercial in-school TV program Channel One, whose market is primarily middle school students.
Corporate lobbyists are already putting the heat on members of Congress who might support legislation reining in children's advertising. Hagelshaw believes the real battles will take place in local school boards and state legislatures, which may be more receptive to anticommercial arguments. There's never been a better, or more important, time for local activists to step up the pressure on corporate exploiters of children.
In the final triumph of free-market capitalism, farmers will become serfs.
If politics got real...the debate over costly prescription drugs would turn to more fundamental solutions like breaking up the pharmaceutical industry's patent monopolies, which generate soaring drug prices, and rewarding consumers for the billions of tax dollars spent to develop new medicines. As a business proposition, that sounds radical, but it would actually eliminate outrageous profit-skimming at taxpayers' expense and liberate lifesaving medicines from inflated prices so millions of people worldwide could afford the health benefits.
At present, the government picks up the bill for nearly all basic research and development, mainly through the National Institutes of Health. Then private industry spends about $25 billion a year on more R&D--essentially taking NIH discoveries the rest of the way to market. The companies mostly do the clinical testing of new compounds for safety and effectiveness, then win regulatory approval for the new applications. This is one instance where a bigger role for government, by taking charge of the scandalous pricing system, could produce vast savings for the public--as much as $50 billion to $75 billion a year.
The National Institutes of Health and independent scientists working with NIH grants generally do the hard part and take the biggest risks, yet there is no system for sharing the drug companies' subsequent profits with the public treasury or for setting moderate prices that don't gouge consumers. Instead, the drug industry reaps revenues of $106 billion a year, claiming that it needs its extraordinary profit levels in order to invest heavily in research. The companies are granted exclusive patents on new products for seventeen years (or longer if drug-company lobbyists persuade Congress to extend them). Meanwhile, the manufacturers collect royalties (and less profit) on the very same drugs under licensing agreements with Europe, Canada and other advanced nations where the governments do impose price limits. Thus, Americans pay the inflated prices for new medicines their own tax dollars helped to discover--while foreign consumers get the break.
Years ago, although reform was mandated by law, NIH abandoned its efforts to work out a system for moderating US drug prices--mainly because the industry refused to cooperate and had the muscle in Congress to get away with it. Now that soaring prices have inflamed public opinion again, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research proposes a more radical solution. NIH should be given control over all drug-research policy, Baker suggests, and Congress should put up public money to cover the industry's spending (probably less than $25 billion because marketing costs get mixed into the research budgets as well as money spent to develop copycat drugs, which are medically unimportant). The exclusive patent system would be phased out, perhaps starting with cancer drugs and other desperately needed medicines whose prices are too high for poor nations to afford. For $25 billion or less in new public spending, brand-name drugs would largely disappear, but, Baker estimates, prescription costs for Americans would shrink by as much as 75 percent overall.
A less drastic solution, suggested by James Love of Ralph Nader's Consumer Project on Technology, would limit use of exclusive patent rights and, if needed, compel drug-makers to grant royalty licenses to other US companies to make and sell the same medicines, thus fostering price competition. Competing companies would be required to contribute a minimum percentage of revenues to R&D to maintain research spending levels. The government could also require companies to help fund government or university research.
The prescription-drug debate of Election 2000 is a long way from either of these visions for reform, but events may lead the public to take them seriously. Drug prices are inflating enormously. If Congress fails to make it legal, the bootlegging of cheaper medicines from Canada and other countries where the prices are controlled is bound to escalate, and the present system might break down from its own lopsided design. As a matter of public values, the discovery of new health-enhancing medicines ought to be shared as widely--and inexpensively--as possible, especially since public money helped pave the way to these discoveries. Jonas Salk never sought to patent his polio vaccine. He thought his reward was knowing how greatly his work had advanced all of humanity.
While the differences between George W. Bush and Al Gore may still be coming into focus for many Americans in the final weeks before the election, one is already stark. On tobacco, the leading cause of preventable death in America, Bush would return the nation to the failed laissez-faire attitudes of the past. A Gore administration could be expected to continue the course charted by President Clinton, the first truly anti-tobacco President.
Indeed, a Bush administration would solve so many of tobacco's problems that the Texan is virtually one-stop shopping for an industry that has drenched his campaign with cash. For one thing, he'd change the civil justice system. Clinton vetoed tort reform bills, but Bush has made such "reform" a keystone of his proposed social policy and points with pride to his record in Texas--in 1995 he placed draconian restrictions on the right to sue. Bush would help mitigate the fallout from the recent $145 billion verdict in the Engle lawsuit--the Miami class action on behalf of thousands of Floridians sickened by cigarettes--by signing a bill pending in Congress that would send all class actions to federal court. There, Engle would be decertified, downgraded into a handful of individual lawsuits, long before trial by a federal system hostile to tobacco class actions.
As to regulating cigarettes, Bush would likely work with a Republican Congress to enact a "compromise" regulation law, limiting some forms of tobacco marketing and granting toothless federal oversight in return for liability limits and giving tobacco a seat at the table of any regulatory process. Bill Clinton was the first President to make the regulation of tobacco one of his signature policy initiatives. Although the Supreme Court ultimately shot down Food and Drug Administration oversight of cigarettes, Clinton used the bully pulpit of the presidency to put tobacco on the national agenda in a way it had never been before, fulminating against the industry for peddling nicotine to children.
Bush's record indicates he would pay lip service to keeping kids off cigarettes but would put much more energy into vilifying plaintiffs' lawyers for getting rich from lawsuits that attack the industry for targeting children. Bush has pledged to kill off a multibillion-dollar RICO action by the Justice Department that charges that the cigarette companies concealed their product's deadliness, and he would likely rescind or stymie numerous Clinton executive orders, nascent regulations and programs dealing with everything from secondhand smoke to funding research on Big Tobacco's internal documents.
Finally, Bush would be likely to back incursions by domestic cigarette makers into foreign markets. He would be much less disposed to sign on to a proposed World Health Organization treaty on tobacco and health and very prone to weaken it, to the benefit of a global tobacco industry now menacing Asia, and to the detriment of millions of potential new smokers who will become victims of cigarette-related disease.
Who says this is a do-nothing Congress? Sure, it can't agree on expanding the childcare tax credit or approve an increase in the minimum wage. Yet, as Congress prepares to adjourn, legislators were rushing to protect and expand tax subsidies for some of the largest, most profitable corporations in the world. Under current law, US exporters can set up largely paper presences in foreign tax havens like Barbados. The exporters can then exempt between 15 and 30 percent of their export income from taxes by routing products through these entities, called Foreign Sales Corporations. In a recent case filed by the European Union, however, the World Trade Organization ruled that the FSC tax break was an illegal subsidy.
Precedent has shown the United States more than willing to bend to the will of the WTO. For example, when the WTO ruled against an Endangered Species Act protecting sea turtles, the United States quickly eased its regulations. Yet when a multibillion-dollar tax incentive is at stake, Washington falls all over itself to protect corporate welfare.
Immediately after the WTO ruling against FSCs, the Clinton Administration, a few members of Congress and the business community began meeting in secret to work out a bill that eliminates FSC in name only while actually expanding export subsidies for a total cost to taxpayers of about $4 billion a year. The beneficiaries? General Electric, Boeing, Raytheon, Cisco Systems, Archer Daniels Midland and others. The House approved this bill with only forty minutes of debate and no amendments allowed, by a vote of 315 to 109. The bill was held up in the Senate because some objected to the tax break for arms manufacturers and subsidies for tobacco exports. Despite the objections, the bill is expected to be tacked onto a must-pass budget bill and signed by the President.
The proponents of this giveaway claim it will promote US jobs. However, the Congressional Budget Office, whose director was appointed by Republicans, has written, "Export subsidies do not increase the overall level of domestic investment and domestic employment.... In the long run, export subsidies increase imports as much as exports." The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reached a similar conclusion.
It gets worse. The tax break may actually subsidize moving US jobs overseas. There is no requirement that a substantial portion of a product covered by the subsidies be made with US content or with US labor. An Administration official said that an eligible product could have "little or no US content" and still qualify.
Not only is the legislation not economically justifiable, it is not likely to comply with the WTO ruling. The EU has already stated that the changes aren't adequate, and it intends to seek authority to retaliate by imposing 100 percent tariffs on some $4 billion worth of US goods.
I am not a fan of the WTO. It is an unaccountable, secretive, undemocratic bureaucracy that looks out for the interests of multinational corporations and investors at the expense of human rights, labor standards, national sovereignty and the environment. But by pointing out that export subsidies like FSCs are corporate welfare, the WTO has done US taxpayers a favor. It has once again highlighted the fact that US trade policy is written by and for corporations, with no concern for workers, human rights or environmental protection.
Activists have achieved power. Now they need to figure out how to use it.
Only months after a major victory on China trade, Big Business is again scavenging for cheap labor. This time, the high-tech industry is pressuring Congress to allow additional foreign technicians--particularly computer programmers and engineers--to work temporarily for US corporations. Congress, with the President's blessing, is poised to deliver a sweet deal to the industry, at the expense of US and foreign workers.
The 1990 Immigration Act set aside 65,000 H-1B visas each year to allow "the best and the brightest" from around the world to work in the United States for up to six years. In 1998, when the high-tech industry complained about an unbearable shortage of skilled US workers, Congress raised the annual H-1B ceiling to 115,000. The industry promised it was a one-time solution. But tech companies devoured the visas. Now their Washington lobbyists claim they are still starving for qualified workers.
Such evidence as exists, however, casts doubt on the alleged labor shortage. A recent study by the IT Workforce Data Project concluded that over the past fifty years, "there is no evidence that any serious shortages of technical professionals--engineers in the past, information technology specialists now--have ever occurred." If the industry faces a tight labor market, it's self-imposed. The industry has largely ignored its vast underrepresentation of women and minorities. Few tech firms recruit at African-American job fairs, and less than 1 percent of blacks with high-tech degrees have Silicon Valley jobs. The corporations also often shun older workers, who might require retraining or better pay.
The tech industry craves cheap labor, not skilled workers. H-1Bs, which are temporary and prohibit the holder from switching employers, fill the bill. H-1B workers cannot unionize, are likely to accept uncompetitive wages and do not receive the employment benefits that similarly skilled Americans would demand. Many companies reportedly force their foreign employees to work in factorylike conditions and routinely withhold wages and violate contracts. Foreign workers, dependent on their jobs for legal residence in the United States, are defenseless: If they complain, they risk being fired; if they quit, their employer can sue them. Their only legal remedy is a bureaucratic federal complaint process with few enforcement options. These foreign temps--indentured servants of the new economy--can either put up or go home.
Nonetheless, Bill Clinton, Congress, Al Gore and George W. Bush support raising the H-1B ceiling to approximately 200,000. Why? The computer industry alone has pumped more than $72 million into federal campaigns. Orrin Hatch and Spencer Abraham, sponsors of the Senate's leading H-1B bill, have received nearly $1 million in high-tech campaign contributions. David Dreier and Zoe Lofgren, authors of the industry-endorsed House legislation, each enjoy tens of thousands in Silicon Valley funding. Other powerful legislators have also profited handsomely from cooperating with Big Technology.
The industry is reminding its political welfare recipients that expanding the H-1B program is a top priority for the nation's tech firms. Their lobbyists are meeting one-on-one with politicians and are barraging Capitol Hill with daily "fact sheets." Chairmen of House and Senate campaign committees have received letters explicitly warning that tech companies will not support legislators who dawdle on H-1B. With control of Congress up for grabs, opposing the industry hardly seems worth the risk.
Representative Tom Davis, who chairs a GOP campaign committee and supports raising the H-1B ceiling, acknowledged, "This is not a popular bill with the public. It's popular with the CEOs." Once again, powerful corporations and unprincipled politicians are preparing to take advantage of vulnerable foreign labor, while many US workers are left out in the cold.
The Supreme Court once championed antitrust laws as valued tools to limit corporate power and to promote the autonomy, diversity and economic rights of people and firms without power. Not anymore.
Chase should immediately open its archives to slavery researchers.
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