Easy Greider

Bill Greider's Washington, D.C. office is just a few blocks from Dupont Circle, where the homeless gather in ragged groups, muttering curses or pleas for change (or both) at men and women in business suits. The passers-by pick their way toward the offices of lobbyists and the embassies of Latin American nations, stately buildings which assume uneasy orbits around the Circle itself. Ambassadors circle about in tasteful automobiles of foreign manufacture, seeing through tinted windows the tremendous divisions between the powerful and the powerless, divisions much like those they left at home.It's a singularly appropriate neighborhood for Greider, national affairs correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine. Through nearly four decades, four books and countless articles for the Washington Post and other publications, Greider has explored the uneasy relationship between the influential and those they influence. And like a walk through Dupont Circle, his latest book One World: Ready or Not, vividly illustrates how the richest and poorest nations of the world are drawing closer together -- and recognizing in each other more and more of themselves. And that, Greider discovered, is both the most exhilarating and the most terrifying thing about how the global economy is shaping our lives.I arrive at Rolling StoneÕs Washington office a few minutes before anyone is expecting me -- not Greider, who isnÕt in yet, and certainly not the fetching twenty-something staffer pressed up against her desk in a passionate embrace with her boyfriend. A few minutes later, just after the boyfriend is hustled out the door, the 60-year-old Greider appears. He has the comfortably rumpled air of a tenured college professor, but his arrival is somewhat discordant after the scene of young lust I have just witnessed. The effect is much like opening a copy of Rolling Stone, flipping through full-page Calvin Klein ads filled with images of sexily disaffected and unisexually scented youth -- and then coming across GreiderÕs article on, say, the Export/Import Bank. GreiderÕs office is itself a study in contrasts. Scattered around the floor are drab-looking newsletters titled Defense News which, like drunken admirals at Tailhook, cozy up next to copies of the previous issue of Rolling Stone, whose cover features Pamela Anderson wearing a Santa Claus suit with a plunging neckline.But perhaps the most unusual combination is Greider himself: a journalist who has written for decades about power without ever being seduced by it; a reporter who can write about massive global change without ever losing sight of the individuals swept up in it."I was lucky when I started out as a reporter 35 years ago," Greider recalls, stretching out in his chair and loosening his tie. "Newspapers then were much more adventurous and willing to let you go explore and discover."After he worked for papers in Louisville, Kentucky, and his birthplace of Cincinnati, Greider "hit the very best period of the Ben Bradlee years" at the Washington Post. Under BradleeÕs editorial leadership, the Post broke Watergate and, along with the New York Times, made the controversial decision to print the Pentagon Papers. But perhaps BradleeÕs greatest legacy was the enterprising, even entrepreneurial, spirit he infused his reporters with."BradleeÕs politics were quite mild," Greider says, "but he loved the idea of reporters going out, digging hard, and coming back to shock everybody with what they found .. especially the establishment. Which was a perfect fit for what I did."And what he still does, except now newspapers like the Post are part of the establishment whose foundations heÕs digging beneath.As Greider writes in his third book, Who Will Tell the People?, when he began writing for the Cincinnati Post, "Few of these reporters (or their editors, for that matter) had been to college; it was unnecessary for newspaper work in those days.... There was no social distance between the newsroom employees and the ... printers and pressmen -- they were all working class."But by the time Greider moved to Washington, working-class "reporters" were being steadily replaced by middle-class, college-educated "journalists." And it wasnÕt just the jobs at newspapers that became less accessible to working-class Americans; it was what the newspapers printed as well.By virtue of their educated and affluent backgrounds, the new breed of journalists had more in common with the people they were writing about than the people they were writing for. As a result, Greider asserted in Who Will Tell the People?, "This exchange of classes is reflected, inevitably, in the content of the news, and I have always thought it is a central element feeding the collective public resentment that surrounds the news media." As journalism became a more "respectable" career choice, Greider maintains, the work itself became less and less respected by the public.If anything, GreiderÕs life has taken the opposite trajectory -- from a childhood whose middle-class upbringing allowed few contacts with the working class ("My father was very Republican, so labor was distant and even alien to me. People at the dinner table were denouncing the unions and so on."), to an accomplished reporter whose Rolodex is filled with labor activists and union leaders. A true reporterÕs reporter, at various points throughout the interview, he fishes out the name of a source I might find useful."Wow, IÕm networking," I say, scribbling down the number of an higher-up in the American Federation of Labor."Yeah, well, it's such a thin network. There aren't that many of us, you know."Most of my economic education came from my work as a reporter. I started out in the 1960s in Louisville, just as the War on Poverty was starting. And I was quite excited by the promises those programs held for the mountains of eastern Kentucky, which were poverty-ridden. I went out and started writing about these programs, and out of that I quickly -- in a matter of months -- came to realize that what the government was trying to do might or might not be a good thing, but it wasnÕt going to solve poverty."It was utterly unrealistic, even perverse, to think that you could give somebody in the mountains of eastern Kentucky six months of training and then dispatch them to the cities of America to find work. And that started me, really, on my economic education."As Greider discovered, since the War on PovertyÕs underlying assumption was that the cause of poverty lay with the poor, many of the programs it spawned were more conservative than either its supporters or detractors wanted to admit. Conservatives contended that the poor suffered from some moral failing, while liberals argued that the poor lacked only education, but both groups assumed the solution to poverty lay in changing the mindset of the impoverished.The truth, Greider claims, is both more reassuring and more daunting than either side imagined: "When the jobs are there and the opportunities are there, people generally get a hold of them." The problem lies not in the behavior of any one individual, but in the behavior of a very complex economic system which no one individual controls.Decades later and half a world away, in the village of Yan Lian, China, Greider found confirmation of what he first saw as a cub reporter in Louisville. In that remote village, Chinese peasant workers -- who were no more learned than the rural poor of Kentucky -- manufactured parts for airplanes like the Boeing 747. "That shop in China literally looks like a photograph of the nineteenth century because itÕs so crude by our standards," Greider says, still shaking his head in disbelief. "TheyÕve got guys standing around machining parts with chisels. And these are the pieces which wind up holding up the engines of 747s. You see that, and you realize that people are capable everywhere."But the work being done by those Chinese workers was once done by American machinists who are as skilled as any in the world. And Greider finds a sobering lesson in that. "The machinists and engineers at Boeing are without argument the best in the world, and yet theyÕre losing their jobs too. So do we have enough skilled workers and machinists? Yeah, we have too many skilled machinists. That whole education mantra -- that if you get more education, youÕll be okay -- I think is really illusory."During the prosperous 1960s, it was an illusion we could afford to indulge in, just as we could afford both to spend billions on the poor while ignoring the real causes of their poverty. Even when American manufacturing began its decline 20 years ago, Greider says, "People could say ÔWell, the unions were fat and the workers were lazy, and this will all be for the best.Õ Now people have a harder time saying that, because the people in the front office did all the ÔrightÕ things: TheyÕre educated, theyÕre skilled at what they do, and theyÕre not members of labor unions. And yet look: ItÕs happening to them."I think we hide behind the notion that only us white folks can make the really good stuff," he muses. But if current trends continue, the future holds more low-wage, non-skilled employment for the American workforce. Yet, even as Malaysian peasants make superconductor chips for Motorola and Indian engineers plunge boldly into the software engineering market, AmericaÕs political and business elite continue to emphasize the countryÕs future as an "information society.""ItÕs a big step to challenge peopleÕs deepest beliefs," Greider says. "Even if you believe people need to hear that message, you can pay a price for being the guy who delivers it, and you may also be ignored. I think one of the things that sets me apart a little bit is that I have a status here" -- he gestures loosely about his office -- "that isnÕt going to be threatened by the policy elites."As if on cue, GreiderÕs phone begins ringing somewhere amid the thick manila folders and books stacked on his desk. ItÕs CNBC calling, a cable TV station which serves the kind of elite Greider is talking about. But the voice on the other end is obviously far from threatening. "I thought you were going to jump on me like you did with my last book," Greider says, laughing, to the producer who landed him a spot on a talk show earlier that morning, "but the show was great."ItÕs not surprising that CNBCÕs audiences are willing to tune into the ideas Greider discuses in One World. Despite its often scathing critique of the global marketÕs excesses, itÕs obvious the book is more attuned to their motivations than many others on the subject.The most important force driving global trade, One World asserts, is not corporate greed but fear -- fear of the very success the corporations worked so hard to attain. "Wondrous new technologies and globalizing strategies are able to produce an abundance of goods" the book explains, but they "fail to generate the consumer incomes sufficient to buy them." Thanks to the increasing use of automation and low-wage labor in poor countries, businesses are able to manufacture goods more cheaply than ever before. Unfortunately, as high-paying jobs are either eliminated or replaced with lower-wage positions, the labor cost of making the goods falls so low that fewer and fewer workers can afford to buy them.So businesses desperately seek new markets in the worldÕs emerging economies, especially in China. These countries promise both low wages and newly-affluent consumers, but they charge a strict price for admission, demanding that businesses produce some portion of the goods they want to sell inside their borders.BoeingÕs presence in Yan Lian was the result of one such deal, a deal that received a good deal of negative publicity last summer in a series of articles by Philadelphia Inquirer investigative reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele. The series, "America: Who Stole the Dream?", raised a question more and more Americans are asking: Why was Boeing sharing its technology and know-how with a potential future competitor? "The day may well come when China can supply to the world at least some of the planes that Boeing does now, and do it more cheaply," Barlett and Steele wrote. "But like much of American business today -- and most especially those businesses that are publicly owned and susceptible to profit pressures from Wall Street -- the Boeing-China deal was made for short-term gain, at the expense of any long-term commitment in America."Greider understands the resentment lurking behind Barlett and SteeleÕs series, but he dismisses their reading of BoeingÕs motivations as overly simplistic. "I'm more sympathetic to the Boeing managers than a lot of people. Boeing can make twice as many aircraft as the world needs. In that situation, any producer is desperate for new demands, and he's got to go to the hot market where people want to buy airplanes."The Chinese say ÔWe want to buy your airplanes, but you've got to give us a piece of production and of the technology.' So Boeing is literally trapped between its workers and its customers. Does it say no to the customers and lose the sale to someone else, or does it give up some of its production to keep its factories going? What they are trying to do is manage their way through that dilemma and preserve as many American jobs as they can. They assume there will be an Asian competitor down the road, and their answer is ÔWe want to be a partner.Õ This is a pretty smart strategy for a company to pursue. They've done the same thing with Japan for 20 years, and Japan doesn't make its own commercial aircraft."A note of wearied irritation creeps into GreiderÕs voice: damning the Boeing deal and the trends it represent may play into a natural, even justifiable resentment of the wealthy, but itÕs as useless as it is easy. "A lot of people want to demonize the CEOs and multinationals and see them as heartless beasts," he sighs. "I only wish it were that simple."But, heÕs quick to add, the CEOs justification is itself a little too convenient: "You're telling the American people to keep an open market here, and meanwhile you're doing these deals. To me that's contradictory in a profound way." More importantly, if China does develop its own aircraft industry, it wonÕt matter whether BoeingÕs partnership succeeds or not: the new airplane production will worsen the surplus that drove Boeing into Asian markets in the first place.All over the world, businesses are facing similar contradictions. If they donÕt choose to reduce costs, theyÕll be pummeled by the competitor who does -- and by stockholders who feel cheated of higher dividends. The more the free market expands, the more businesses are enslaved by it."Some of these executives behind the veil know what IÕm talking about," says Greider, "but they donÕt want to take the big step out in front and say, ÔLook, weÕve got a big problem.Õ As a businessperson, where do you get to the moment in your career where you stand up at the staff meeting and say ÔWait a minute, we should re-examine the worldÕ? ItÕs not an opportunity that presents itself."Greider pauses, fishes around in his shirt pocket for a pack of cigarettes, and lights one -- an unfiltered Camel, a tobacco product I don't generally associate with someone who thinks much about the future. But of all the paradoxes Greider has uncovered, perhaps the most difficult to explain lies in his optimism about the future -- especially since its origins lie in what makes him most pessimistic. The global market has demonstrated the capacity to play workers off against each other, but it also offers a chance for them to recognize their common interests. Even NAFTA -- the trade agreement decried by many labor groups afraid of losing jobs to Mexico -- has begun to establish connections between workers across the border. "In a funny sort of way," Greider says, "NAFTA was an opening. Ten years ago, the Mexican government would have said ÔHell no, youÕre not bringing the unions here,Õ and the U.S. government would not have supported the unions. Now, the pretense is that weÕre this merged trading group and canÕt say that, so itÕs up to American unions to go across the border and help these people get out from under.""[T]he process of globalization is visibly dismantling enduring stereotypes of race and culture, ancient assumptions of supremacy," One World's opening chapter declares grandly.Unfortunately, it's doing so by making us accept the supremacy of multinationals. One reason workers will have to look to each other for answers is that they have nowhere else to turn. "I look at the alignment of political power not just here but in other countries," Greider says, "and it's overwhelmingly dominated by finance and major corporations. I think that at a minimum we're going to have to go through some more hard knocks before people get their act together."Despite GreiderÕs optimism, when the interview is over and IÕm walking back toward Dupont Circle, thereÕs a passage from One World I canÕt get out of my mind: "I think there will be more pain, more destabilizing disruptions and loss, before people find the courage to rebel and take control of their destinies," the book concludes. "[T]he global system will, indeed, probably experience a series of terrible events -- wrenching calamities that are economic or social or environmental in nature -- before common sense can prevail."It occurs to me that, a few weeks ago and not far from where I was standing, a child had been struck and killed by a car driven by a diplomat hurtling through an intersection at something like 80 miles per hour. Citizens were outraged, of course, especially since the driverÕs diplomatic credentials grant him immunity from prosecution.It was, both literally and figuratively, a senseless collision, one that could have been avoided if somebody -- the driver, a passer-by -- had looked up to see what was coming. In other words, it was exactly the kind of collision between nations, between people, that seemed likely to continue for as long as I could imagine.I shrugged the thought off and began looking for the restaurant recommended to me by the comely staffperson in GreiderÕs office. I was hungry as hell, and IÕd never had Lebanese before.

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