Personal Responsibility in the Global EconomyA Conversation With William Greider

The global economy affects us all. There is a profound interrelatedness between the global economy and a person's individual life. For this reason we feel this interview is especially important, not so much for the solutions it brings, but for us to better understand the territory.The Internet, the World Wide Web, global communications, mass production, expanding economies, developing industrial nations -- all are products of ever-advancing and rapidly growing technology. All have provided us with the means to produce bigger, better, faster, more.The world is in the midst of an industrial and economic revolution even more far-reaching than the one that transformed Europe and North America in the 19th century. The upheaval of this industrial revolution creates social dislocations and economic tensions that lead to mass suffering and civil conflict -- even war, if societies and governments do not moderate them.This is the first time the world has experienced a seismic change of such magnitude. The focus is shifting from a single, super-power country to several super powers. Countries whose gross national production was too low to appear on the economic radar screen are now becoming major players in the global market. These changes affect us all and serve as the focus of this dialogue with William Greider.William Greider is the national editor of Rolling Stone magazine. He was formerly an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post and is the author of several books, including Secrets of the Temple (Simon & Schuster 1989), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award, Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy (Simon & Schuster 1992), and One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (Simon & Schuster 1997).Our interviewer is Michael Toms, founder and host of "New Dimensions," an interview-format program originating in the Bay Area that airs Sundays at 7 p.m. on KRCL-90.9 FM.Michael Toms: Is there anybody controlling global capitalism? It seems like a machine that keeps moving and moving. Is there anybody running the show?William Greider: The short answer is no. It's comforting for people to believe that there's a group of men in a board room somewhere making these big, if horrible, decisions for the rest of us. Multi-national corporations, awesomely powerful as they are, are themselves driven by a set of dynamics, and they indeed are disciplined by finance capital. The money is pouring in and out of financial markets, stocks and bonds, and the people in the corporations feel, with some validity, that if they don't do the sort of movement of production, the downsizing, the depression of wages, and all the other things they do, they will be harshly punished. There are lots of examples in American corporate life where, indeed, that has happened. Then I go up to the mountaintop of finance capital, which I call the Robespierre of this revolution, because it's the terror that moves around the world punishing not just multi-national corporations, but countries and entire regions of the globe if they feel there's something that has happened there that's inimicable to their capital interests and returnsBut then, you look closely at what is finance capital? It's this galaxy of individual investors of hedge funds, brokerages, money pots of different kinds, and they're behaving like manic fools. That's a strong phrase, but that's literally the case. When I say manic, I mean they're a mob, a herd, rushing toward the highest returns -- whether it's in Mexico or Japan or back in the U.S. stock market. It keeps to-ing and fro-ing like that with an unreal quality to it.Toms: I have a visual image of the chaos on the stock market floor with people shouting out their bids and bells ringing as they trade on the commodity market -- all those people struggling to get their bids in.Greider: That's a good image of what I'm describing, only this is happening in a volume and a speed all across the world on a scale has never seen before. Now, what the world has seen before -- and it's deeply embedded in the history of capitalism -- is that markets get swept up in manias, and then something happens and this crowd of investors discover they've been following an illusion, that these stocks they've been bidding up do not have value anywhere near what they've paid for them. At that point they panic. And if we are unlucky, the market crashes and spills dreadful consequences on the rest of us.And because this has happened before in history, you have to be respectful of the fact that there's a cycle going on here, which the participants, at least the average ones, are utterly unaware of. Somebody ought to step in, like governments, but as we know, governments have been swept into the maw of these enthusiasms themselves. You've heard the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, awhile back make a very, very mild warning about the irrational enthusiasms of the stock market -- and the market lost ninety-eight points the next day. And then the following day it ignored him and charged up a couple hundred more points toward the sun. It is like Icarus and Daedalus: the wings will melt; the ancient truth will reassert itself.Toms: Along this track, one of the interesting points you raised in your book is that global investment and the mad rush to burn up our wings includes a lot of middle-class Americans who are invested heavily in mutual funds.Greider: Absolutely, and that's the scariest dimension, because that's the predicate that led to the crash in 1929, and could do so again, though I hope not. Because in a market mania when the illusions are shattered, it's the last ones in who are the biggest losers. If you bought at the bottom three years ago, and you lose half of what you gained on paper, you still come out ahead. But if you came in last month, or the month before, or even six months ago, you're going to lose your savings when this crash occurs. That's why Greenspan is nervous. That's why a lot of people are nervous.Here is another heretical thought, and may surprise you coming from me, but capital is in surplus -- in gross surplus around the world. There is not a scarcity of finance capital; there is a scarcity of good opportunities for building new enterprise, because enterprise -- the productive industrial structure -- can produce more goods than the world can buy.Toms: And the point is we are producing more goods than we can use.Greider: We're piling them up, or we're building factories that cannot sell what they can make.Toms: I think you quoted an auto executive who said by the year 2000 auto manufacturers would be making something like twenty percent more cars than could be bought.Greider: Yes -- even more than that. They have the capacity to make them, but of course, you don't make cars that pile up as inventory very long before you have to close the factory. And that's the core reason why this system is out of whack and headed toward some sort of cliff, because that, too, is a fundamental condition that led to collapse in the 1920s. When the productive system, believing in itself and driven by competitive values, keeps building more productive capacity and the consumption base keeps eroding, partly because wages are depressed and so forth, at some point, you reach an imbalance that illusion can't sustain. And then it comes back to earth, and that's what typically causes a depression.Toms: Now the multi-nationals are investing overseas, and relocating factories to Thailand, or wherever, to pay lower wages. They're creating more products but the wages are going down, so we're not going to have the buyers on the other end to buy those products. So it's a no-win situation.Greider: Exactly, there are no winners in the story. There are some temporary winners, but in the long run the systems loses too. An easy example to grasp is Boeing, which is really the best producer of commercial aircraft in the world, nobody much disputes that. It's moving jobs to China, where the machinists make $50 a month -- a month! -- a 60th of what they make in Seattle or Los Angeles.Toms: And Clinton presents this $5 billion contract with China as a wonderful thing!Greider: He holds a press conference every time Boeing makes a big package of sales, but he neglects to mention that a) something like 15 percent of the jobs are moving to China, and b) a big chunk of that airplane is already made by Mitsubishi in Japan. Now, the global migration of jobs is a powerful process itself, because China, Japan, all these other developing countries, of course, want a piece of the action -- and who can blame them. They use whatever leverage they have to get it. In the case of China, the leverage is entry into our market. Demand is rising in China; China's going to buy a lot of airplanes; so they say, "We'll buy your airplanes if you give us a chunk of the jobs."I'm not against China's aspirations; they're perfectly reasonable given their history and their poverty. What I'm trying to argue is if you keep doing this you're trading a high-wage worker in Seattle for a very cheap worker in Xian, China, and you're hollowing out the system.The next step, of course, is debt. Everybody begins building up debt -- not just governments, but consumers, because they're trying to hang on to their standard of living, even though their wages are declining in real terms. So they borrow a little more and get the credit cards running and so forth. You're setting up a predicate for a lot of fallout.I don't say it's going to be the end of the world. I don't think you have to get to that to understand that this is a pathological process.You can reverse that, or at least shift it in a much more positive direction. You go back to some old-fashioned ideas, like: equitable returns from an economic system instead of concentrating incomes and wealth among a relative few -- you redesign the system to broaden the distribution of returns; you bring wages up at the bottom instead of pulling them down from the top. There are many remedial measures that can be taken if we can get enough grasp to say, "Let's look at this system as a whole." It's not just an American complaint or a German complaint or a Swedish complaint. We've got a world system, like it or not, and let's figure out what it's doing.Toms: One of the ways that the American people have been sold global capitalism is that somehow we're to assume that with capitalism comes democracy, and that isn't always the case. That's how China is being sold to us, that somehow by getting capitalism into China we're going to make them democratic.Greider: That isn't what the history books demonstrate. That's one of the great fallacies of the conventional wisdom. The simplest case is if you just go back to the 19th century and ask what happened to the leading countries that industrialized, including the United States. Well, the United States, Britain, France and some others did develop civil democracies, over a long time, that are now beacons for the world.Germany and Japan industrialized rapidly across that same period; yet their industrialization led to fascism -- the corporate state merged with military power. Communism was the result in China and the Soviet Union.So the simple straight-line logic that capitalism leads to democracy is wildly out of synch with the actual record.The other dimension of it is, however, if the Chinese want to be a totalitarian state until the end of time, one can say, "That's their sovereign choice as people if that's what they will tolerate. Who are we to tell them otherwise?" I at least listen to that, though I don't have great respect for that argument. We're connected to those people now -- like it or not. We're in a consumer-buyer-producer-seller relationship with lots of people where brutal regimes absolutely deny the most basic human rights to their citizens and profit from that. And the multi-nationals that make the goods there and sell them to us also profit from that repression of human rights.So, you've got first the very straightforward moral question: If I'm buying those shoes from the factory in Indonesia where I know those kids are being abused in different ways -- and I saw some of them and talked to them and it's a complicated story -- what's my moral obligation to those young people there? They've come from rural villages and, of course, they want wage jobs; and, of course, they came to the factory to help their families; and, of course, they aspire to greater success and freedom in life. They're bewildered in many ways. But they know this: they know they're being taken advantage of, and that's why they stage wildcat strikes.When the boosters of this system come forward with these assurances that it's all going to work out, my response is: if the workers in those poor countries are so happy with their jobs, why do they have so many strikes? You don't read about this much in our newspapers, but there are thousands of wildcat strikes across the developing world, and they're not started by organized labor unions, they're started by the workers in the factories -- at enormous personal risk.When I talked to these young people, I came away awed at their personal courage to take these things on. They know what they're up against. You can get killed in Indonesia for doing that. In China, you can get sent to prison for 20 or 30 years. Doesn't that beg the question of not just our moral responsibility but the market system's morals?Toms: You had a story in the book about the toy factory in Bangkok, which I think speaks to this issue of responsibility.Greider: Yes, it's one of those great human tragedies that the rest of the world blinked at and went on. In early, I think, 1993, a fire broke out in a toy factory on the outskirts of Bangkok. Something like 180 to 190 women, most of them quite young, perished in this fire. It was the worst industrial fire in the history of capitalism. It was reported on page 25 of The Washington Post. The Financial Times of London ran a short item on page six. The Wall Street Journal came along with the story a day late -- and so on. I thought that was such a vivid expression of the gap that exists in our human consciousness.This toy factory made Bart Simpson dolls, Playschool dolls and Sesame Street dolls. We buy those toys for our children at Christmas and other occasions, utterly oblivious to the conditions under which they're made. You can't escape that. If you are going to buy toys in this country now, they probably came from Thailand or China.That's the reality. But that doesn't relieve us of the responsibility. In fact, it deepens it -- and likewise for governments and for companies. There was a devastating fire at a shirt factory on the lower eastside of Manhattan in 1910 or 1911, which produced a huge storm of shame in American life. It started a political movement to clean up the abuses of low-wage workers. And yet this event comes along that's even worse, and we're oblivious to it.There are a lot of political reasons for that, but I think, fundamentally, our own consciousness hasn't expanded enough to take on those people on the other end and to recognize that they're human beings just like the rest of us, and we are connected to them, ready or not. We can't walk away from that. We can't pretend it's not so. It is so.Toms: In some way, Americans have been incredibly insulated from the rest of the world, for whatever reason. It's amazing to me how, for instance, in the Soviet Union, there are something like 90 million shortwave radios, while in America there are only about three million.Greider: And they know so much about us compared to what we know about them.Toms: Yes, exactly. And you go overseas, and everybody speaks English, but Americans don't speak their language.Greider: Believe me, I've felt this every day I was abroad -- both in Europe and in Asia. I'm a self-centered American too. I can't not be an American. I am an American, and glad of it. In a way, I'm trying to nudge people to step out of their own perspective, at least once in a while, and not analyze situations based on the question, "Is this good for Americans, or is this bad for Americans?" I want them to ask a larger question -- to get to know these people on the other end.There's another great struggle coming. It's really about the nature of human experience and existence, and it comes down to that old Enlightenment question of self-realization. I came back from seeing those kids in Indonesia and the workers in China and elsewhere, utterly convinced that they are as interested in self-realization as any of us here. Our smug politicians will say these Asian kids really don't want individualism, or they really don't want to have control of their destinies, but that's nonsense. It's political cover that allows them to exploit those young people.Toms: Yes -- where did those high school students come from in Tiananmen Square? They weren't being trained in democracy, and yet there they were standing in front of tanks.Greider: And similarly, American institutions -- including the best ones -- have lost sight of the original purpose of democracy. At the core of democracy is each individual asking, "What is my place in the scheme of things? I have a voice, I have a mind. How can I use those for self-expression, and also for community?" And, "Do I have a role in determining my own destiny?" Not to dominate other people, not to control the world, not to get super rich, but a much more fundamental question. I came back exhilarated in a way, because that same question lurks in every human being, everywhere in the world. It may take a different form culturally, but that sameness I find very reassuring.Toms: There's a human connection at the deeper level.Greider: And it has a potential that nobody has yet discovered, and that makes the future very exciting to me.Toms: I'd like to talk about that. You brought it up in One World, Ready or Not, and that was the common global ethic, a new spiritual ethos. Could you tell me what you mean by a new spiritual ethos?Greider: It requires hard self-examination. I think of that in terms of the organized religions of the world, all of which have moral codes and their own strong order of organization, but all of which still have a kind of tribal overlay to them that allows people of faith -- whether they're Christian or Moslem, Confucian or Buddhist -- to say we of the faith are one species and those other people are not. In the next 20 years in global existence we're going to need to ask, "What does it mean to be a Christian in this new world?" And ask the same question of Buddhists and Moslems and all the rest, too. And that's not an easy question.Another dimension of that is, okay, we're all on different pages in terms of our countries' development, our levels of wealth and so forth, but we know there's some base line in which we all have to regard ourselves with some standard of mutual respect and decency. And that's not a simple question; it takes a lot of work to get to that standard -- but I think it's doable. I put it this way: human dignity is indivisible. We're not all going to be equal anytime soon. We know that. Not in our lifetime, anyway. We don't all have exactly the same aspirations for self-development, but the minimum ought to be that every human being is entitled to a kind of minimal standard of dignity. That means not abusing them in obvious ways in the name of economic enterprise. And especially if you're on the buying end of that, where you get cheap shirts or shoes out of exploiting kids and factories in Indonesia or China -- that's sick. That's not a close call.Another element is something that started with European colonialism, but it's in the American consciousness, too. It's an unexpressed conviction that we are more capable than those people. That we can make the advanced stuff -- we've got the scientists, the engineers and the financiers, and we'll do the high end and, yeah, we'll let them make shirts and shoes. And that's grossly mistaken. I was in a lot of factories where people in very benighted places are making world-class-quality stuff, some of which we buy.The economic implications of that for wages and work in the advanced economies is threatening, no question. But I still came back with a feeling that people are capable everywhere in the world. That's a noble reality, and we ought to celebrate it. We need to attend to those economic vulnerabilities and make sure that we don't crush people aimlessly in the process, but I think there's a potentially unifying thread there. I probably push it further than most people would go, but I think in some ways it's a starting predicate for the world to discard a lot of ancient stereotypes about each other. These are folkloric, and they're ancient biases and prejudices -- racial, religious and otherwise. Again, this probably isn't going to happen in our lifetime, but human development is a long, rich, complicated story, and I think that's possibly an important turn in the road.(Copyright 1998, New Dimensions Foundation. All Rights Reserved. This article is reprinted from New Dimensions, the journal of New Dimensions Radio, and is excerpted from a New Dimensions Radio dialogue. The New Dimensions radio program is broadcast worldwide on radio stations and shortwave. For information about New Dimension or for a free audio cassette catalog of their most popular programs, call 800- 935-8273.)


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