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By Carla Binion

Reprinted with permission from The Online Journal

January 3, 2000 | Former speaker of the House Jim Wright said recently, "We seem today on the verge of becoming a corporate state." (Fort Worth Star Telegram, December 26.) Wright asks what happened to Franklin D. Roosevelt's idea that this nation does not care about "wealth for wealth's sake." The former speaker quoted Roosevelt: "Wealth is the means and people are the ends."

Wright points out that in 1993, proponents of free trade promised a "fair labor component" to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.) However, says Wright, the promoters of free trade have broken that and other promises. According to Wright:

(1) A NAFTA agency based in Dallas was set up to monitor labor agreements to improve wages and working conditions. Wright says the agency was all talk from the outset, that it never worked, and was finally "unceremoniously closed."

(2) Mexican workers are worse off now than before NAFTA. Wages in 2,000 maquiladora plants have fallen. U. S. corporations now pay about one-fifth the U. S. minimum wage. The Mexican workers usually live without electricity or sanitary sewer systems.

(3) A recent $81 billion Exxon-Mobil merger eliminated 16,000 jobs "to swell its stock profits of about $3.8 billion...a microcosm of what's happening worldwide."

(4) The common theme among global corporate investors today is: downsizing, layoffs, mergers. Governments are "privatizing," or selling national public assets to private multinational corporations. More and more U. S. plants are closing, so corporations can use the products of cheap labor outside the country.

Corporations and the politicians who speak for them, claim free trade, or globalization, uplifts workers in all nations and helps create "unity" between the American people and citizens of other countries. The reality is, free trade has only benefited multinational corporations and the politicians who feed at their troughs.

As Jim Wright points out, downsizing and outsourcing are obvious attempts by multinational corporations to escape obligations to their U. S. employees and increase their own profits. Corporate leaders and their mouthpieces sometimes twist the facts. For example, on December 26, the CBS program Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood ran a segment which portrayed dissenting American workers as people who are simply unwilling to "share" jobs with workers of other nations.

Former Speaker Jim Wright and consumer advocate Ralph Nader are not "selfish" people unwilling to "share" U. S. jobs. However, as Nader and other critics of free trade have pointed out, multinational corporations are unwilling to share the decision-making process with citizen organizations.

In "The Case Against Free Trade," Nader says: "Corporate lobbyists, cruising in halls outside the negotiating rooms, have been able to exert tremendous influence over the [NAFTA and GATT] negotiations. Citizen groups have not been able to play a parallel role."

Ralph Nader calls globalization a "race to the bottom." The global game allows corporations to pit country against country to compete for the lowest wages, lowest environmental standards, and lowest consumer safety standards. Nader says EPA test results show that U. S. companies in Mexico dump an industrial solvent, xylene, at around 50,000 times the level allowed in the U. S., and they dump methylene chloride at around 215,000 times U. S. standards.

Nader also mentions a National Safe Workplace Institute report showing Mexican workers suffer much higher levels of injuries than American workers, and that babies born to Mexican workers in U. S. plants have an alarming rate of birth defects. So much for "sharing" the good life with workers of other countries.

Corporations work to remove environmental and health standards they dislike. As Nader says, the companies develop an argument about how a given environmental or health standard violates the rules of a trade agreement and then insist the health standard be revoked. For example, in 1991, Puerto Rico upgraded its milk supply quality with the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, a tough system of regulation. High temperature milk from Canada was unable to meet the standards, so Puerto Rico banned the Canadian milk. Canada then challenged Puerto Rico's consumer safety standards. A panel of five trade bureaucrats (none from Puerto Rico) heard the case. Puerto Rico had to either allow the Canadian milk in or face sanctions.

Health and safety standards for products made or consumed in this country are now subject to review by trade bureaucrats from other nations. NAFTA and GATT have made the situation worse, effectively lowering U. S. consumer health and safety standards which might "inhibit free trade." Journalist Bill Greider says relinquishing our health and safety standards and other forms of surrendering our national sovereignty are "profoundly at odds with national history and democratic legacy." ("Who Will Tell The People," 1992.)

Greider quotes French economist Jacques Attali: "We already know they [the global economic changes] demand that politicians and statesmen accept the unpopular abandonment of national sovereignty." He also quotes W. Michael Blumenthal, chairman of Unisys: "I wouldn't say the nation-state is dead, but the sovereignty has been greatly circumscribed ... even for a country as large as the U. S."

Jim Wright says that for most of the 20th century, America wanted to spread the wealth wider and wider. Wright called it "a people's capitalism," or the American dream. That dream included such things as livable wages, secure retirement, and affordable health care for all Americans.

Today the corporate state moves jobs out of the country, keeps wages low and unlivable around the globe, and removes secure retirement and affordable health care. The corporate state does this under the pretense of raising living standards around the world - allegedly "sharing" the wealth with other nations. In reality, working standards and wages around the world are dragged down to the lowest common denominator.

Free trade and globalization will remain a race to the bottom until the trade debate includes voices such as Jim Wright's and Ralph Nader's. The debate needs to include Nader's idea that in a workable global economy, all boats would rise. Wages, health standards, and working conditions would improve worldwide -- not merely in politicians' rhetoric, but in reality.

The free trade debate also needs to include Wright's idea that the free trade wheelers and dealers should factor in Roosevelt's humanity and the American dream. If moneyed individuals have changed this nation from FDR's America into a virtual corporate state as Wright suggests, it is time our politicians stop pretending otherwise. What the American people need is more straight talk and less corporate spin from political leaders.

Political leaders should spend less time defending free trade and more time evaluating the fruits of globalization. They should ask, along with the rest of us, "Who stole Roosevelt's America?" We need to take a good look at where our nation was before we became a near corporate state and where we are now. We should examine how we arrived at this point.

At one time, most of us agreed that what made America a prosperous nation was the fact that we had a large, strong middle class - not the fact that we spawned a handful of corporate billionaires. Today the gap between the very rich and the middle class is increasing, around 40 million Americans live in poverty, and almost 45 million Americans have no health insurance.

Do we want heads of multinational corporations, not elected by the public, to lead us into the 21st century? Do we want to continue to vote for politicians who only serve as figureheads - politicians who turn political power over to those corporations? If we do not like where we are, it is time we rethink our current system and work toward methods of reform.

Copyright (c) 2000 Carla Binion. All rights reserved.

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