News and Features
How the right is using trade law to overturn American democracy.
A final declaration for the fourth WTO Ministerial Session was finally issued on November 14 after negotiations that extended well past the original deadline.
What goes down comes around. Amidst all the attention to United Airlines' post-September 11 woes, no one noticed the ringing irony of its tapping John W. Creighton Jr.
The social safety net has become frayed because of welfare "reform."
This week, George W. Bush began peddling the "three legs" of his program to "restore confidence in the economy": fast-track trade legislation, his big-oil energy program and a multibillion-dollar piñata of corporate and high-end tax cuts. In other words, his old agenda repackaged as a response to war and recession. None of these could have been enacted prior to September 11. And remarkably, all are still in trouble now. The President's soaring opinion polls aren't making his agenda any more palatable.
In the war abroad, the President captured the middle ground by spurning the calls of the holy-warrior conservatives for a war of civilizations against Islam. By going with Colin Powell and coalition, United Nations-sanctioned diplomacy and a war targeted on Osama bin Laden, Bush cemented his support across the political spectrum. Democrats like Senator Joe Biden are now leading the defense of Administration policies.
Initially, Democrats offered similar support at home. Bush started meeting regularly with the leaders of both parties. Together they rushed through $40 billion in emergency appropriations for war and reconstruction and the $15 billion airline bailout, which did nothing for workers. They handed Attorney General Ashcroft virtually all the intrusive powers he sought in the antiterrorist legislation. Republican senators led the charge to federalize airport security, a bill that passed the Senate 100 to 0. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt pledged that he would allow "no light and no air" between the President and the Democrats.
Bush seemed to reciprocate, even pledging $20 billion to New York City for rebuilding, and pinching Senator Chuck Schumer's cheek on national TV. He then signed off on the bipartisan principles for an economic stimulus put together by leaders of the budget committees.
But "patriotism," as that old Tory Dr. Samuel Johnson quipped, "is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Eight days after the terrorist attack, the Wall Street Journal laid out the scoundrel agenda in an editorial arguing that Bush's newfound popularity made his "agenda far more achievable"--including billions more in tax cuts, drilling in the Alaska wilderness and the appointment of reactionary judges. Scoundrel time opened immediately. Senate Republicans held up the defense bill, trying to attach the President's energy program to it. They filibustered foreign assistance appropriations, trying to force Democrats to confirm some of Bush's Neanderthal judicial nominees. House Republicans sat on the emergency airport security bill, theologically opposed to making that a federal function. US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick campaigned for fast-track trade authority, suggesting that its opponents, like bin Laden, reject the modern world. And House majority leader Dick Armey and others in what Newt Gingrich called the "perfectionist caucus" of the party went ballistic at Bush's embrace of a balanced stimulus package and marched up to the White House to bring the President to heel.
So, House Republicans passed, on a virtual party-line vote, a shameless special-interest bauble of corporate and upper-end tax cuts in the name of stimulus. The bill showers two-thirds of its $212 billion, three-year benefits on corporations and three-fourths of its individual tax cuts on the top 10 percent of income earners. In the name of giving a temporary boost to the economy, the bill permanently repeals the alternative minimum tax on corporations (a law that insures that no matter how clever their lobbyists and accountants, profitable corporations have to pay something in taxes). Laughably, the House bill makes the repeal retroactive for fifteen years, with the result that IBM gets $1.4 billion in rebates, General Motors $833 million, General Electric $671 million and Enron (the leading Republican contributor) $254 million.
More than 500,000 workers have been thrown out of work since September 11. Two-thirds will get no help from our unemployment insurance system. Few will be able to sustain health insurance for their families. But Dick Armey dismissed bolstering unemployment insurance as against "the American spirit," and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill scorned it as part of a "spending package, not a stimulus package." Similarly, even as cities and states face a deepening fiscal crisis, the White House opposes any assistance to them in the stimulus bill.
War profiteering is as old as the Republic. But usually the corporations involved are producing something for the war effort, not simply raiding the Treasury. And usually Presidents try to curb the profiteers. Now Bush cheers them on, announcing that he is "very pleased" with the House bill.
The blatant plunder in the House bill finally sparked a reaction. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, already enraged by the airline bailout, mobilized workers across the country to demand aid for the unemployed. Progressive Democrats revolted in the House caucus, stiffening resistance to the Republican bill. Focus groups and polling showed people angered by the corporate profiteering. This was tonic for the courage of Democrats setting up a battle over the bill in the Senate. At the same time, Senate Democrats faced down the Republican filibuster on judges. Lack of support deferred votes on fast-track trade authority in the House and on the energy bill in the Senate.
Bush seems intent on pushing his flawed stimulus bill and forcing a vote on fast track. The corporate wing of the Democratic Party is busy brokering a back-room deal. But the scoundrel patriots are disgracing the flag they drape themselves in. They can succeed only if the public remains distracted by anthrax and Afghanistan. If people of conscience in both parties stand up and the public gets a whiff of what's going on, Bush may find that even the leader of a nation at war can't sell these lemons.
September 11 showed us true American heroes. Now let's build on their strength.
The September 11 attack on the World Trade Center led journalists and image-makers to rediscover New York's working class. In an extraordinary essay in Business Week titled "Real Masters of the Universe," Bruce Nussbaum noted that during the rescue effort, "big, beefy working-class guys became heroes once again, replacing the telegenic financial analysts and techno-billionaires who once had held the nation in thrall." Nussbaum fulsomely praised "men and women making 40 grand a year...risking their own lives--to save investment bankers and traders making 10 times that amount." In The New York Times Magazine, Verlyn Klinkenborg, describing the construction workers who formed the second wave of rescuers, wrote, "A city of unsoiled and unroughened hands has learned to love a class of laborers it once tried hard not to notice."
Until September 11, working-class New Yorkers had disappeared from public portrayals and mental maps of Gotham. This contrasted sharply with the more distant past. When World War II ended, New York was palpably a working-class city. Within easy walking distance of what we now call ground zero were myriad sites of blue-collar labor, from a cigarette factory on Water Street to hundreds of small printing firms, to docks where longshoremen unloaded products from around the world, to commodity markets where the ownership of goods like coffee was not only exchanged, but the products themselves were stored and processed.
Much of what made post-World War II New York great came from the influence of its working class. Workers and their families helped pattern the fabric of the city with their culture, style and worldview. Through political and ethnic organizations, tenant and neighborhood associations and, above all, unions they helped create a social-democratic polity unique in the country in its ambition and achievements. New York City became a laboratory for a social urbanism committed to an expansive welfare state, racial equality and popular access to culture and education.
Over time, though, the influence and social presence of working-class New Yorkers faded, as manufacturing jobs disappeared, suburbanization dispersed city residents and anti-Communism made the language of class unacceptable. Then came the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which saw a rapid shift of power to the corporate and banking elite. When the city recovered, with an economy and culture ever more skewed toward a narrow but enormously profitable financial sector, working-class New York seemed bleached out by the white light of new money.
The September 11 attack and the response to it have once again made working-class New Yorkers visible and appreciated. Not only were the rescuers working class, but so were most of the victims. They were part of a working class that has changed since 1945, becoming more diverse in occupation, race and ethnicity. Killed that day, along with the fire, police and emergency medical workers, were accountants, clerks, secretaries, restaurant employees, janitors, security guards and electricians. Many financial firm victims, far from being mega-rich, were young traders and technicians, the grunts of the world capital markets.
The newfound appreciation of working-class New York creates an opening for insisting that decisions about rebuilding the city involve all social sectors. Whatever else it was, the World Trade Center was not a complex that grew out of a democratic city-planning process. We need to do better this time. Labor and community groups must be full partners in deciding what should be built and where, how precious public funds are allocated and what kinds of jobs--and job standards--are promoted. Some already have begun pushing for inclusion; others should begin doing so now.
In the coming weeks and months, we need to rethink the economic development strategies of the past half-century, which benefited many New Yorkers but did not serve others well. Might some of the recovery money be better spent on infrastructure support for local manufacturing, rather than on new office towers in lower Manhattan? And perhaps some should go to human capital investment, in schools, public health and much-needed housing, creating a work force and environment that would attract and sustain a variety of economic enterprises.
Winning even a modest voice for working-class New Yorkers in the reconstruction process won't be easy. Already, political and business leaders have called for appointing a rebuilding authority, empowered to circumvent zoning and environmental regulations and normal controls over public spending. The effect would be to deny ordinary citizens any role in shaping the city of the future. As the shameful airline bailout--which allocated no money to laid-off workers--so clearly demonstrated, inside operators with money and connections have the advantage in moments of confusion and urgency.
But altered perceptions of New York may change the usual calculus. On September 11, working-class New Yorkers were the heroes and the victims, giving them a strong moral claim on planning the future. Rightfully, they had that claim on September 10, too, even if few in power acknowledged it. It ought not require mass death to remind us who forms the majority of the city's population and who keeps it functioning, day after day after day.
It's time to ask "borderless" corporations: Which side are you on?
The fighters are powerless workers in need of rights and justice.
Joe Stiglitz is no fan of Washington consensus-style globalization. Read "The Globalizer Who Came In From The Cold," an interview with Stiglitz on the IMF, World Bank and WTO conducted by Gregory Palast.