Saturday, November 28, 2009

10 years from Seattle . . .

I think that ten years from now, the thing that's going to be written about Seattle, is not what tear gas bomb went off on what street corner, but that the WTO in 1999 was the first of a global citizens movement for a democratic global economy (This is What Democracy Looks Like). Ten years ago tomorrow, diverse activist groups appeared in Seattle to protest perceived globalization/corporatization exemplified by the World Trade Organization. (Wiki) Some more anniversary stuff from KPLU in Seattle, Real Change, and maybe the Teabaggers. Previously: One year after.

This via twoleftfeet at metafilter . . .

It's interesting. Ten Years On, this is not what democracy looks like. Thank goodness. For one thing that's just impossibly corny. And, more seriously, it's a seriously skewed vision of what democracy should be. The protesters were, essentially protesting on behalf of rule by a young, self-righteous minority. The messiness of actual democracy holds little interest for folks who are so in love with the romantic gesture.

On the other hand, this is probably a great time (when economic activity has slowed somewhat and there isn't so much money immediately at stake) to revisit the economic issues surrounding globalization. Not the issues so often flogged by the kids on the street, but some of the basic structural issues of bringing dozens of heterogenous nations under one market.

The last ten years have seen some remarkable strides taken by significant portions of the world population, but there are some significant transition problems in the global economy. But there have been problems as well: the further de-industrialization of America; the export of high-paying service and technical jobs to lower-wage markets, etc.

Americans sometimes view this situation as their being displaced by sadly exploited workers from overseas . . . but as many American workers should be aware by now, the only thing worse than being an exploited worker is being an un-exploited worker. The "exploited" workers of China and Malaysia, while not enjoying a western lifestyle, are exercising what they perceive to be a much better option than the alternative (life in a village) . . . and even if their conditions were ameliorated, labor-costs would still be quite low compared to the US. The problem isn't the exploitation, it's the radical difference in development between the US and other nations.

Globalization theory assumes that by opening up markets, allowing people to purchase what they want at what price they can negotiate and letting manufacturers move to the places they can best compete, the global economy as a whole will optimize over time, with each participant assuming the role best suited to it, as determined by geographic factors, character of the people, the regulatory climate, what have you. Over time this would result in an evening out of the overall economic landscape: ideally there would not be such a huge disparity between rich & poor nations in a globalized economy.

This process takes time, though, and meanwhile we have "race to the bottom" situations developing across the globe--in areas like waste disposal, worker rights, regulation, taxation and more, developing countries are competing to be the most lax. But living standards are beginning to improve in some of the largest developing nations, and hopefully new forms of domestic political pressure will eventually condition the drive for cheap. But what to do meanwhile?

And even success may have its dangers: an optimizing world economy may be very bad news for the country that has been reaping the benefits of the sub-optimal economy for so long: the United States. As economic conditions do begin to even out, the US is not going to be such an exceptional country anymore. It may be a bigger adjustment for us than we anticipate. In fact the belligerence of the Bush administration may be just a foretaste of America's response to fades back into the pack economically.

It would be great to see globalization being discussed 10 years on, rather watching a bunch of kids use it as the occasion for tiresome street theater. I am skeptical that we have it in us to actually talk about an issue that activists groups have made as divisive as possible*, but who knows?