The Texas company has been a scandal in other countries for a long time.
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.
Pôrto Alegre, Brazil--In US living rooms, talk about such policy measures as the White House's proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is likely to elicit clueless shrugs.
On Saturday, February 2, approximately 12,000 demonstrators gathered in New York City to protest the meeting of the World Economic Forum.
The challenge to global capitalism is more relevant now than before September 11.
Enron's power project in India demonstrates who benefits from globalization.
"Not over my dead body will they raise your taxes," George W. Bush cryptically proclaimed. The press dutifully translated what he really meant, but few commented on the tastelessness of a wartime leader with troops in the field saying he was willing to die for the cause of lower taxes for the wealthy.
Never mind. The President's speech had no high public purpose or occasion. It was a political document, intended to undercut Senate majority leader Tom Daschle's prescriptions for economic recovery the previous day; it had more to do with gearing up for the 2002 Congressional elections than with speeding up the economic recovery. Bush's riposte signaled that the not-so-great debate of '02 is on.
Besides standing foursquare against any tax hikes, Bush offered only the same prescription for economic recovery as he has in the past: Let those at the top of the heap keep more of what they've got. Despite a stratospheric approval rating and a nation united behind him, he reaffirmed his fealty to his corporate underwriters and offered tax cuts for the rich at a time of obscene inequality. His partisan posturing on the stimulus plan showed that he thinks the economy will recover on its own, leaving the swelling ranks of jobless folk on their own.
Although superior to Bush's package, Daschle's was securely in the lineage of Bill Clinton's efforts to be both fiscal conservative and compassionate centrist. It positioned Democrats to campaign, amid economic recession, as the hair-shirt party of "fiscal responsibility," blaming Bush's tax cuts for the vanished (and largely notional) budget surpluses and evoking public nostalgia for the giddy boom of the late 1990s, which actually began heading south before Bush came to town. Daschle's minimalist list of stimulus measures shows a party leader out of touch with real conditions who thinks this downturn is a nonthreatening event that will soon be over, just as the stock-market cheerleaders are forecasting. Wiser heads on Wall Street, however, warn that any recovery will be weak and perhaps transient.
Even if the recession proves less serious than feared, the Democrats should be advocating spending on badly needed long-term projects, from schools to railroads, while pushing for extended and expanded unemployment compensation and health insurance and aid to states hard hit by new national-security costs.
Along with this expansive agenda the Dems should overcome their timidity and make the case for repeal of the bulk of last year's Bush tax cuts, particularly those provisions that benefit the wealthiest Americans. Those cuts will do little to stimulate the economy (even if they operate as promised--a dubious assumption), since they don't take effect for another three to six years. Instead, by assuring a greater stream of revenue from those who can best afford to pay, the Democrats can help forestall inevitable GOP efforts to claim that social programs must be cut to allow for military needs, while at the same time providing funds to address housing, hunger and poverty.
Teddy Roosevelt, whose biography is on Bush's bedside table, may have been less a foe of the malefactors of great wealth than his rhetoric claimed, but he did espouse a progressive agenda of reform, which included antitrust, financial regulation, the eight-hour workday, even a living wage. And Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 outlined an economic bill of rights that would redeem wartime sacrifices and secure the gains in income of the working class. All Bush can come up with is a thank-you note for his campaign donors.
On terrorism and the new democratic realism.
Talk about rebuilding New York, and sooner or later someone will pipe up that out of crisis comes opportunity. It depends on where you stand. Right now what poor and working-class New Yorkers have got is crisis, and unless a force of historic proportion develops to shift the course of things, what will follow is more of the same.
Taking the crisis part first, it's well-known that New York has lost 95,000 jobs since September 11, less well-known that it lost 75,000 in the twelve months prior, and that even in boom times 1.5 million people, most of them with jobs, were turning to soup kitchens. Now those kitchens have had to turn people away for lack of food, and grassroots community agencies, to which for at least ten years government has outsourced a whole range of human services, are themselves against the wall. This past autumn Mayor Giuliani ordered every city department other than fire, police and the board of education to cut its budget by 15 percent, meaning nonprofit groups with city contracts took a similar cut. Governor Pataki froze state money at a cost to nonprofits of more than $200 million. Meanwhile, foundations warned they'd make fewer grants, smaller grants, their capital having been clobbered on the stock market. And in fashioning end-of-year appeals, every group strove to connect to 9/11, because that's the trigger for charitable giving. September 11 relief funds are bulging with $1.1 billion. There's so much cash available for grief counseling that the big charities are fairly begging to give it away, but for tackling the material sources of grief-as-everyday-life among people who can claim no direct link to the twin towers--that's trickier.
At the Good Old Lower East Side, a tenants' rights and neighborhood preservation organization, we are looking at a worst-case loss of $200,000 out of our $500,000 annual budget. Meanwhile, the work goes on--only now we worry because one of our organizers has had asthma attacks from the air downtown while at housing court, because a lot of people we work with are depressed and scared, because the supposed era of good feeling ushered in by the tragedy hasn't stopped landlord harassment or evictions, because gentrification steams forward in the Lower East Side, because low-income people never just have housing problems; they have employment problems and health problems and family problems and immigration problems, and all of those are getting worse. From our counterparts in other groups, in areas from children's rights to prisoners' rights, we hear the same story of too little money and too much need. Drug and alcohol abuse is up, domestic violence is up, homelessness is way up (30,000 adults and children in city shelters, an all-time high). In December some 30,000 New York City recipients of public assistance hit federal time limits for welfare; in 2002 19,000 more will lose their benefits, left to compete with 95,000 displaced workers for jobs and services that are barely there.
One has to be a keen shopper for silver linings to see opportunity in all this, but for the past months, in a variety of venues, groups like ours have been meeting with legal services agencies, immigrant groups, unions, community activists, progressive politicians, economic policy analysts and others to discuss a people's agenda for rebuilding. For years politicians have been pronouncing on the value of work; now the state's commitment to work, but also to a living, must be tested. And if there are to be tax incentives to private companies, there must be a return in jobs, environmental safety, an expanded economic infrastructure--transportation, housing, communications, health, education. People are asking, Can we think of rebuilding that enhances all of New York's boroughs? Can we look at those holes where the towers stood and boldly imagine a different city, a better city? And can we mobilize an army to fight for that vision?
Even in the best of times that would be difficult. Now there's recession, and unless some major revenue sources are tapped, State Senator Eric Schneiderman says, "we're looking at something that makes the New York fiscal crisis of the 1970s look like a picnic in Coney Island." Only a fraction of the $20 billion that Bush promised to the city in September has materialized. The state and city are both running many billions of dollars in deficits; when the governor and mayor come out with their budgets in January and February, they are likely to strike at every social program, the better to impress Washington with their resolve to shoot the wounded. Again, the nonprofit service contractors, which are small and diffuse but account for about 15 percent of the city's budget, will be an attractive target. So will the city's civilian work force, already shrunk by 20 percent since 1993.
Schneiderman, for one, is calling for a freeze on about $4 billion in state tax cuts scheduled to go into effect in 2002; for reinstatement of the city's commuter tax; for repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws, which, he says, would save the state hundreds of millions a year. There are other ideas, including exacting sacrifices from the top 10 percent of New York's population, who doubled their wealth in the boom, and from city property holders, whose average tax rate has been frozen for ten years. The point is for New York's social justice forces to be organized, ready to struggle for every dollar and demand every good. Some of the bigger unions are saying they might want to give Mayor Mike Bloomberg a "honeymoon." Some in the media are still flogging the idea that there's a "new" New York, more generous, more one-for-all. It's the same New York, just worse. Only the rich have opportunity by right. The rest of us have to fight for it.