100 Things

email me

Listen to the Deviant SynCast! [Archive]

TPCQ = Tangential Pop Culture Quote

Why I Link to Amazon

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Global Economics 201.1: Three Recent Things Everyone Should Know About the WTO, Neoliberalism, and "Free Trade" 

The following is intended as an excessively rushed follow-up to my research projects Global Economics 101 and Global Economics 201. It will be truncated due to the fact that I'm due to canvass for Sen. Russ Feingold in about an hour, so I'll need to rush though everything I have to say. Apologies for any resulting lack of clarity; comments are appreciated, and I will attempt to explain further anything necessary in future posts. I chose not to delay this post due to the extremely timely nature of current events.

I am surprised and saddened to see a near-total absence of discussion -- even among news mainstays like Common Dreams and ZNet -- about the current WTO talks being held in Geneva, Switzerland. ABCNews has nothing; CNN -- even its Money section -- has next to nothing. Yet the discussions -- as I shall show -- have far-reaching consequences for millions (billions, it's fair to speculate) of people around the world.

Suffice to say that too many of us have no idea what's going on in these talks, and the ridiculously surface-level coverage they do get in the US press makes us naturally less inclined to study the issues. It's my hope that I can shed some light or help break it all down for my readers.

1. The WTO's Crisis

For a variety of reasons, the World Trade Organization is facing a fundamental test of its structure and capabilities, where its very existence may be on the line. After crushing blows in Seattle and Cancun (see item #3), the WTO is quite nervous about its relevance in the modern world stage, and with international condemnation of US unilateral action in Iraq and elsewhere, WTO acquiescence to first-world supremacy won't be easily tolerated. As Kevin Watkins of the International Herald Tribune puts it:
Success in these talks, known as the Doha round, would be an ambitious move toward making globalization a more powerful force for poverty reduction. Failure will sound the death knell for this round. More important, a breakdown would inflict irreparable damage on the WTO and the rules-based multilateral trading system it represents. . . .
In many ways, this recent turmoil is a replay of the late 90s cataclysmic train wreck known as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which was more or less abolished after massive global outrage -- aided by European demands of varying types -- caused a breakdown in talks. Whether or not the WTO will suffer the same defeat remains to be seen, and given the relatively immense levels of time and resources invested in the WTO (versus the smaller investment made to the MAI), it seems less likely.

What is not in dispute, however, is that -- now, more than ever before -- fundamental questions of who controls world trade and how are being posed to the world financial community. Its willingness to account for them in an honest and fair manner is not very visible at all.

Case in point: The United States and other wealthy nations are insisting that poor countries drop "trade barriers," which would raise the prices of goods brought into their nations. These barrriers include import tarriffs and subsidies to producers and farmers in their home nations. (Right now, cotton is a supreme issue.) However, the US refuses to drop its own subsidies to farmers, insisting that such subsidies are essential for it to remain competitive. As the BBC explains:
Even many Western countries agree that their farmers' gain is poor-country farmers' loss. Western farmers over-produce for their own markets. The excess is "dumped" on poor countries at knock-down prices, against which local farmers cannot compete. Moreover, when the poor farmers try to export to the West, they are vying against subsidised agro-businesses.
I would point out that I smell a false choice between supporting farmers in the US and supporting farmers in developing countries. My guess is that most US subsidies go not to family farms or smaller producers who need help in this country, but rather to large corporate producers with well-paid lobbyists and large PR budgets. But insofar as I can't find any documentation to this effect, I shall leave it at the level of speculation.

2. The Central America Free Trade Agreement

Because its talks in Buenos Aries failed in April of this year, the Free Trade Area of the Americas -- a sort of hemispheric attempt to spread NAFTA over 34 countries -- is in jeopardy of missing its 2005 deadline for ratification. As Public Citizen points out: "Ten years of NAFTA’s negative real-life effects have made it politically impossible for most countries to sign up for an FTAA-NAFTA expansion."

Meanwhile, however, smaller versions of the same effort are being rushed through on the undemocratic "Fast Track," wherein Congress must simply vote yes or no on huge trade bills, without the possibility of amendment or disputation.

One example is the Central America Free Trade Agreement [CAFTA], which seeks to apply NAFTA's regimen of "free trade" to Central America. NAFTA's effects have been clear and overwhelmingly negative for workers in both the US and Mexico, bringing with it a new set of rules for international trade, whereby corporations can sue governments and workers' rights and environmental protections are relegated to the laughable status of "commitments," unenforced and largely ignored.

A vote on CAFTA in the US Congress -- necessary before it can become law -- won't happen until after the 2004 elections. Therefore, activists are scrambling to use the extra time to inform the public about the possible consequences of such an "agreement" -- a questionable term, insofar as poverty-stricken nations to the south often must choose between Cuba-style isolationism and almost total acquiescence to US trade demands.

Rather than enumerate the various reasons why US citizens should oppose CAFTA, I will merely point to the Stop CAFTA website and move along.

3. The Power of Seattle and Cancun

Many corporate lobbyists, mainstream news analysts, and US pundits prefer to think of the 1999 Seattle protests -- and the resultant breakdown of talks, led by internal protests by poor nations of the world -- as a minor blip on the radar screen of international economics and politics. The nuts on the street, we were told, were just breaking windows for the hell of it; meanwhile, sane people inside were working their best so that everyone could prosper in the modern globalized structure. The protests were counterproductive, they said. What's needed is calm dialogue and compromise, not rigidity and outrage.

The same rhetoric was cooked up after the talks in Cancun collapsed last year. The protestors in the street were painted as lunatics bent on mindless property violence (and self-aggrandizing self-injury), and ultimately there were just some nuts 'n' bolts things that couldn't be worked out.

But as my man Chuck D. said, don't believe the hype. The street protests of Seattle and Cancun provided an urgent, critical space for the negotiators from poor countries to make their concerns heard inside the meetings. The level of calm on the streets can often be reflected in the level of calm inside these meetings. Just as we workers in the US are being urged to go back to sleep -- since there's nothing we can do to struggle for better trade conditions for ourselves -- so too are the negotiators from poor nations being urged to go with the flow of US/European power and sign away their economic sovereignty.

Seattle helped to change all that. Representatives from nations like Brazil made it quite clear that the turmoil outside had a significant impact inside. As the BBC points out:
For better of worse, the collapse of the world trade talks in Cancun may prove an historic turning point in the history of free trade. For nearly 50 years, the world's trading system moved towards greater trade liberalisation, largely out of the spotlight of the media. Now things are very different - with trade talks deeply enmeshed in domestic political battles.
We can debate about the effectiveness of property destruction vs. state-sanctioned protest in "free speech zones"; and we can -- and should -- debate about the issues of class stratification in poor nations and just how much the trade representatives from these countries represent the poor people of those countries, and so on. But what cannot be disputed is that -- contrary to the facile image of mere troublemakers that the media tried to display of protestors in the streets -- those of us who take to the pavement are performing a critical role in widening the discussion and forcing different perspectives into the gaze of the institutions.


There are a million more things I'd like to say, but my time is, alas, up. I am, as always, massively interested to hear from people on this issue -- as it hopefully obvious, it is a great passion of mine, and something about which Americans are woefully uninformed -- and worse, misinformed.

I will close by repeating something I've said in the previous two installments of this series:

Those of us who are a part of the grassroots resistance are not confused kids with nothing better to do. We do not take to the streets to have a good time (although we often do). We raise our voices — we block traffic, we stage hunger strikes, we wear silly costumes, we hang banners on buildings, we protest, we march, we chant, we yell, and yes, sometimes we destroy property — because the policies of financial power are hurting, maiming, and killing people all over the world.

We speak out because we want to live in a world based not on greed and profit, but on human needs, equality, and economic justice. We want everyone to have food, housing, medical care, and a decent standard of living. In a world as wealthy and bountiful as ours, there is no reason for caring people to accept the suffering that exists all around us.

The struggle goes on.