News and Features
As January turned into February, the most important people in the world gathered themselves together in midtown Manhattan for the annual World Economic Forum. Normally held in Davos--the Swiss ski resort previously famous for being the site of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain--the meeting was shifted to New York this year as an act of solidarity with a city wounded on September 11.
Healing, though, wasn't much in evidence. To protect the 3,000 delegates--businesspeople, academics, journalists and random celebrities--the area around the Waldorf-Astoria was sealed off with metal fences, dump trucks filled with sand and 4,000 members of the NYPD. Of course, the intention was to keep out the thousands of activists who'd come to protest them, not to mention terrorists who might dream of taking out a good chunk of the global elite in one deadly action.
Thankfully, no mad bombers showed up. And though the protesters were kept well away from what was dubbed the Walled-Off-Astoria, their influence was nonetheless clearly felt. One attendee, Bill Gates, the richest person on earth, actually welcomed them, saying: "It's a healthy thing there are demonstrators in the streets. We need a discussion about whether the rich world is giving back what it should in the developing world. I think there is a legitimate question whether we are."
That Gates said something like that--leaving aside for a moment just what it means--is one sign of how the political environment has changed over the past few years. Another is the evolution of the WEF itself. The forum was founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a Swiss professor of business, policy entrepreneur and social climber. At first it was a quiet and mostly European affair, with executives and a few intellectuals discussing the challenges of what was not yet called "globalization." But it grew over time, gaining visitors from North America and Asia, and by the 1990s had emerged as a de rigueur gathering of a global elite. In fact, it's been one of the ways by which that elite has constituted itself, learning to think, feel and act in common.
Corporate and financial bigwigs--who pay some $25,000 to come--dominate the guest list, but they also invite people who think for them, entertain them and publicize them, for whom the entrance fee is waived. Star academic economists were also on the list of invitees (bizarrely marked "confidential," so I had to swipe a copy), alongside some unexpected names: cultural theorist Homi Bhabha, columnist Arianna Huffington and model Naomi Campbell. And lots of religious figures, NGO officials and union leaders--who, to judge from their press conferences, didn't feel very well listened to. It seems not much communication goes on across the vocational lines; Berkeley economist Brad DeLong, a first-timer, theorized that "one reason that the princes of the corporate and political worlds are where they are is that they are very good at staying quiet when baited by intellectuals."
And DeLong was in the same room with them. Most journalists covering the event weren't so lucky. The WEF designated a handful of clubbable correspondents from places like the New York Times and CNBC as "participating press" and allowed them to mingle with the delegates at the Waldorf. But several hundred others, dubbed "the reporting press," were penned up in a couple of cramped "media centres" in a neighboring hotel. The terms are fascinating. Clearly the participating press participates in the inner workings of power and helps create its mystique. But the reporting press couldn't really report at all: We got to watch some of the sessions on closed-circuit TV (only the big, more formal ones--the intimate brainstorming sessions were strictly private), to read sanitized summaries distributed by the WEF staff and to view a few dignitaries at press conferences, which were generally too short to allow more than a few perfunctory questions.
Not only were we barred from newsworthy events--we weren't even told they were happening. In one of them, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill explained bluntly that the Bush Administration let Argentina sink into total crisis rather than engineer a bailout because "they just didn't reform," apparently forgetting that the country was once praised as a model of economic orthodoxy. In another, Colin Powell asserted the right of the United States to go after "evil regimes" as it sees fit--harsh language from the Administration's resident dove. Neither speech went down well with a good bit of the audience; anxiety at Washington's unilateralism was one of the recurrent themes among non-US delegates.
The gathering's mood was clearly troubled. Back in the 1990s, when the US economy was booming, trade barriers were falling and the New Economy was still new, the temper of the gatherings was reportedly pretty giddy. Now, the headlines are full of bad news--Enron, Argentina, recession, terrorism, protest. And the conference reflected it.
Businesspeople and academics mused on how to deal with new risks--you can't hedge against bioterrorism in the futures markets. Economists debated which letter would best describe the US economy--a V (sharp fall followed by a quick recovery), a U with a saggy right tail (long stagnation, weak recovery) or, most appropriate, a W (false recovery followed by a fresh downdraft). The consensus leaned away from the V toward the saggy U, with the W not to be ruled out.
But there were things more profound than the business cycle to worry about. As the Washington Post noted with apparent surprise, "The titles of workshops read like headlines in The Nation: 'Understanding Global Anger,' 'Bridging the Digital Divide' and 'The Politics of Apology.'" Most prominent among those concerned with poverty were the duo of Gates and his new friend Bono, the lead singer of U2. Bono--who identified himself on opening day as a "spoiled-rotten rock star" who loves cake, champagne and the world's poor--hammered at the need for debt relief. (It's easy to make fun of him, but activists are quick to point out that his influence is much to the good.) Gates kept reminding everyone that about 2 billion people live in miserable poverty. Of course, no one was rude enough to point out that Gates's personal fortune alone could retire the debts of about ten African countries.
It's hard to believe this is much more than talk, however. Addressing poverty and exclusion would require WEF attendees to surrender some of their wealth and power, and they're hardly prepared to do that. Stanley Fischer, formerly the second in command at the IMF and now a vice chairman of Citigroup, expressed "profound sympathy" for the people of Argentina but then worried about "political contagion"--the risk that other countries, seeing the crisis there, might reject economic orthodoxy.
Further insight into the WEF mindset was provided by Fischer's panelmate, South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel. According to Manuel, during the (private) WEF discussions, "poverty was defined...as the absence of access to information," which would be news for anyone struggling to pay the rent. More urgently, he pointed out that "uprisings occur because ordinary people don't feel that they have voice and representation." To ward off that danger, policy-makers must worry about "equity"--which he carefully distinguished from "equality." When I asked him to expand on this distinction, Manuel said, "There are different conceptions of equality to start with. There's equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. But equity is about creating stakeholders. For example, both employers and employees have a stake in good labor practices." When I said that that sounded like it was more about changing perceptions rather than material reality, he said, "It's all those things. It's all those things." Manuel also revealed that the participants had "interesting, interesting debates on whether we should ask business, in the conduct of business, to act ethically or whether it's OK for business to be unethical in the conduct of business and then have some spare cash to do good with." No wonder people pay $25,000 to play this game.
And it's no wonder that on the closing day, a panel of union leaders--five out of some forty who were there, including AFL-CIO president John Sweeney--gave a very downbeat assessment of the forum's dedication to a real adjustment of policy. Sweeney, the most moderate of the group, said that the world economy doesn't have an image problem--its problems are structural. Others spoke of CEOs being "in denial," of hearing but not listening.
Unfortunately, though, there were very few union people--leaders or rank-and-filers--demonstrating in the streets that weekend. That would have made quite an impression on the great and good. But Gates's appreciation of the protesters points to what was doubtless the best thing about this year's forum: The 12,000 who marched through midtown Manhattan on February 2 proved that the so-called antiglobalization movement, a global movement if there ever was one, was not put out of business by September 11. It's alive and well--so alive and well that it set much of the WEF's agenda.
It may look as if domestic politics no longer exists in the new America--the one in which there is no money for anything besides guns and prisons but we don't care because we are all bowling together against the Axis of Evil. But that's not true. As long as there is a fertilized egg somewhere in this great land of ours, there will be domestic politics. George Bush may not be able to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth for the religious right, who gave him one in four of his votes. He may even realize that a serious victory for religious conservatives--significantly restricting the legality of abortion, say--would hurt the Republican Party, because California has more people than Utah. But he is doing what he can to keep the fundamentalists happy.
It must be frustrating for him--just when we're all supposed to pretend to love our differently faithed neighbor even if we know he's bound for hell, Christians keep saying weird things. First there was Jerry Falwell's remark that God let terrorists blow up the World Trade Center because he was fed up with "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians...[and] the ACLU"; Falwell apologized, only to express the same thought a bit more obliquely on November 11 at a Florida church: "If the church had been awake and performing that duty"--proselytizing the ungodly--"I can tell you that we wouldn't be in the mess we're in today." God, says Falwell, "even loves the Taliban"--it's just liberals he can't stand.
And then there's Attorney General John Ashcroft, who burqaed the semi-nude statue of the Spirit of Justice because he felt upstaged by her perky breast at press conferences, and who thinks calico cats are emissaries of the devil, when everyone knows it's black cats. Ashcroft is in trouble with Arab-Americans for offering this proof of the superiority of Christianity to Islam as quoted by conservative columnist Cal Thomas on his radio show on November 9 (and belatedly denied by a Justice Department spokeswoman): "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you." Not to get too wound up in theology here, but if the Christian God sent his own son to die doesn't that make him, according to Ashcroft's definition, a Muslim?
Fortunately, the fertilized egg can be rolled onstage to distract us from such knotty questions. In keeping with the strategy of rebranding antichoice as prochild, the Bush Administration plans to use the CHIP program for poor children to provide healthcare to children "from conception to age nineteen," a neat way of defining zygotes as kids. The women in whom these fine young people are temporarily ensconced will remain uninsured--perhaps they can apply for federal funds by redefining themselves as ambulances or seeing-eye dogs. After all, somebody has to get those fetuses to the doctor's office. As for the 8 million uninsured postbirth children, not to mention the 27 million uninsured adults, who told them to leave the womb?
But wait, there's more. In a highly unusual move, the Justice Department has weighed in on the side of Ohio's "partial-birth abortion" ban, which has been on ice thanks to a federal court ruling that found it did not make enough allowance for a woman's health, as required by the 2000 Supreme Court decision in Carhart v. Nebraska. The Ohio law would permit the operation only to save her life or avoid "serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function." Gee, what about considerable risk of moderate and long-term impairment of a bodily function of only middling importance? Should the Ohio state legislature (seventy-five men, twenty-four women) decide how much damage a woman should suffer on behalf of a fetus? Shouldn't she have something to say about it?
To please fanatical antichoicer Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, Bush is holding back $34 million from UN family planning programs. To return the favor, Congressional Republicans have revived the Child Custody Protection Act, which would bar anyone but a parent from taking a minor across state lines for an abortion. The parental-notification-and-consent laws of a pregnant teen's home state would follow her wherever she goes, like killer bees, or the Furies--and unlike any other law.
Bush is also stacking with social conservatives commissions that have nothing to do with abortion per se but raise issues of sex, gender and reproduction. The cloning commission, called the Council on Bioethics (fourteen men, four women), is headed by bioethicist Leon Kass, a former opponent of in vitro fertilization who's associated with the American Enterprise Institute. There's room around the table for antichoice columnist Charles Krauthammer; antichoice law professor Mary Ann Glendon, the Vatican's representative at the UN conference on women, in Beijing; and social theorist Francis Fukuyama, who wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed that the thirty-years-overdue introduction of the pill in Japan in 1999 spelled the downfall of the Japanese family, because now women will just run wild. But there are only four research scientists, and no advocates for patients with diseases that the cloning of stem cells might someday help cure. Similarly, the newly reconfigured AIDS commission is said to be stacked with religious conservatives and will be headed by former Representative Tom Coburn, whose claim to fame is his rejection of condoms, which sometimes fail, in favor of "monogamy," which never does.
Finally, there's the nomination of Charles Pickering for the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Rated unqualified by the Magnolia Bar Association of Mississippi. Pickering, an ardent segregationist when it counted, opposed the ERA, has been a lifelong opponent of legal abortion and won't discuss his antichoice record in Senate hearings. The Fifth Circuit includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, states where the right to abortion is already compromised by conservative legislatures; in l999 Texas tied with Michigan for most new antichoice laws enacted (seven). Traditionally the federal courts offer hope of redress for victims of state laws--in this case, some of the poorest women in the country. What are the chances that Pickering will champion their rights and their health?
My money's on the fertilized egg.
Facing the anguish of their gay son, the Hardys became accidental activists.
From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. In 1965, he wrote about the power of demonstrations and "legislation written in the streets."
On Saturday, February 2, approximately 12,000 demonstrators gathered in New York City to protest the meeting of the World Economic Forum.
The movement can seize the moral high ground and win support for change.
The challenge to global capitalism is more relevant now than before September 11.
Questions about Enron's links to the White House and Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force are reassuring. They mean that the nation, after the September 11 attacks, is now confident enough to focus on some of the more traditional threats to our democracy, like the corporate takeover of our political system.
Following the release of the White House energy plan last year, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) demanded the Energy Task Force's records, including any interactions with major Bush campaign donors like Enron's Ken Lay. The Vice President's office refused to release the documents, claiming that Congress was exceeding its oversight authority. One of the oil and gas men whose privacy the White House wants to protect is Cheney himself, who in 1999, as CEO of Halliburton, was a member of the Petroleum Council, an advisory group to the Energy Department. The council issued a report calling for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and of roadless areas of the West to fossil fuel exploitation, proposals incorporated into the White House plan.
The GAO was preparing to sue for the first time in its eighty-year history when the terrorists struck. It then put its suit on hold so it could focus on "homeland security" and let the White House do the same. With the collapse of Enron and the beginning of Congressional hearings on the largest bankruptcy in US history, that holding pattern appears to be ending.
Still, even as environmental groups backed away from criticizing the President after September 11, the White House continued to push its "free market" environmental agenda. This past October, Interior Secretary Gale Norton had to explain why she'd altered scientific data, in a letter to the Senate, to make it appear that oil operations in the Arctic would not harm hundreds of thousands of migratory caribou, when in fact her own Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had provided her with data suggesting it would. "We did make a mistake. We will take steps to clarify and correct that," she told reporters in explaining one of the many discrepancies in her letter.
Norton has also concluded that drilling in the Arctic won't violate an international treaty that protects polar bears. The FWS, which has twice issued reports stating that drilling poses a threat to the bears, was directed to "correct these inconsistencies" with Norton's position. Polar bears can live with oil drilling, the FWS now tells us. They'll just look more like panda bears.
Ten years after President Bush Sr. pledged "no net loss of wetlands," George W. has signed off on an Army Corps of Engineers proposal that will make it easier for developers and mining companies to dredge and fill America's vital wetlands through a "general permitting" process that is rarely if ever challenged. Again, Norton failed to forward comments from her FWS to the corps, even though the FWS had written that the proposed policy change would result in "tremendous destruction of aquatic and terrestrial habitat."
Among the beneficiaries of the new engineer corps rules will be mining companies involved in "mountaintop removal" in Appalachia. J. Steven Griles, Norton's deputy, was a longtime mining lobbyist, and Norton herself lobbied for the lead industry.
Over at the EPA Christie Whitman won greenie points when she ordered GE to begin dredging PCBs out of the Hudson River. At the same time, the EPA has begun moving top career people (from the office of wetlands, enforcement, etc.) around the agency in a strange reorganization no one quite understands. "Are they purposely designing this to hamstring EPA for the next twenty years?" wonders a career employee who also complains that enforcement actions (as opposed to industry-friendly out-of-court settlements) are down significantly in the past year.
Under White House and lobbyist pressure, the EPA is also getting ready to relax clean air standards (that, as governor of New Jersey, Whitman supported) requiring old coal-fired power plants to shut down or significantly reduce gaseous emissions that contribute to acid rain and other forms of pollution.
Even Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's recent Detroit auto show announcement that the government will work with the auto industry to develop pollution-free hydrogen-fuel-cell cars got mixed reactions. That's because he used the announcement to abandon a program aimed at improving existing auto fuel-efficiency standards. As usual, most of these environmental policy decisions are rife with corporate conflicts of interest, but conflicts that in recent months have gotten even less media attention than they normally would.
In her public appearances Whitman now emphasizes the need to protect America's water supply from terrorists (if not arsenic). Norton has been pushing the argument that drilling in ANWR can provide as much oil as we import from Iraq in eighty years (or the oily equivalent of sixteen years of Cheney's diet), and President Bush insists that Arctic drilling will make us "more secure at home." If nothing else, America's new "war on terrorism" is helping the Bush White House in its old war on the environment.
The Supreme Court has made a decision that is wrongheaded, and wrong.