by Molly Ivins
bizarre example of "fair and balanced" media coverage was the Summit of the Americas trade meeting in Quebec, Canada, in April. The first night of the trade summit, ABC spent four minutes covering the minimal violence created by a tiny fraction of demonstrators, whereupon Peter Jennings came on and asked his correspondent: "What are these people protesting? Or are they just looking for a fight?" The correspondent replied comprehensively, "They're against capitalism." So much for that argument.
In this era of ur-capitalism, when free trade is equated with democracy, raising questions about the specifics of trade agreements, or even pointing out the downside of NAFTA, has become a media solecism, akin to wearing white shoes after Labor Day. It's Just Not Done.
But the newsies are behind the curve again: It's actually quite chic among your forward-thinking multinational corporations to encourage labor and environmental protections in new trade agreements. Haven't heard that? Neither have the media: They're still stuck on the old Tom Friedman script --- Globalization is Good and anyone who questions it is Bad, or as The Wall Street Journal so happily put it, "Luddite whackos."
Bill Greider analyzed this new-found corporate respect for Luddite whackos in a Nation article in late March: "The only whiff of sincerity is they sincerely want fast track legislation with minimum cost to their bottom lines," explained Daniel Seligman of the Sierra Club. The corporations have run up against the formidable political coalition stalling further trade agreements and are anxious to get around it. Hence, the sudden discovery that if corporations can insist on protective clauses for intellectual property rights and investor security, it's quite difficult to argue against protective clauses for the environment and labor. Save the whales and the workers!
It's interesting to see who gets it and who doesn't on this issue. When NAFTA was signed in 1993, we were told it would create 200,000 jobs in the first year alone. According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, NAFTA has eliminated 766,030 actual and potential U.S. jobs. In 1993, the United States had a trade surplus with Mexico of $1.7 billion. By 1996, the trade deficit was over $17.5 billion. The trade deficit with Canada increased from $10.8 to $22.8 billion. By 2000, the deficit with both countries had increased by 378 percent to $62.8 billion. As Jim Hightower said in his newsletter, "Corporate chieftains routinely use the back-door exit to Mexico as a threat to abandon workers and communities here unless the workers accept major pay cuts, give up health and pension benefits, speed up the work line and put in more hours."
On the other hand, The New York Times ran a long, touching front-page story this week about the closing of a cotton factory in Alabama and the devastating effects on the town and its people. One worker explained: "People came to work sick, people gave their all to keep it open, to keep up production. They thought it was their protection." More than halfway into this long story comes one mention that NAFTA "was a death knell for working people like the cotton millers in Jacksonville."
One common side effect is the downward pressure on wages, as factory workers are forced into the low-paying service jobs. This in turn contributes to rising income inequality, another subject about which the American media do not talk. They're too busy with the Robert Blake story.
Here's a modest proposal: Fox News regularly eats up mountains of time reporting foreign news with its in-depth segment, "Around the World in 80 Seconds." I think they can get it down to less than 10: "This just in, news still bad." This would free up 70 precious seconds for a report on the Doug Jones' Average.
The Doug Jones Average, an old Hightower concept to replace the Dow Jones, would report on how average ol' Doug is doing today; up, down, anything Greenspan up to affecting him? New trade treaties? How's it by Doug? Anyone warned Doug about Chapter 11?
If you still think Chapter 11 means bankruptcy, you are not up on your trade treaties. The new and more horrible Chapter 11 (not the bankruptcy law Congress just finished screwing up) is about government by corporations. As Greider says, "Chapter 11 is the smoking gun" that proves we have given up national sovereignty for corporate rule. The evidence is in and becomes clearer by the day.
Chapter 11 of NAFTA established a new system of private arbitration for foreign investors to bring injury claims against governments. Under the rules, foreign investors in any country can bring suit against the government and demand compensation if the profit-making potential of their venture has been injured by a government decision "tantamount to expropriation." For starters this gives foreign-based companies more rights than domestic businesses operating in their own countries.
"In Mexico," Greider reports, "a U.S. waste disposal company, Metalclad, was awarded $16.7 million in damages after the state of San Luis Potosi blocked its waste site in the village of Guadalcazar. Local residents complained the Mexican government was not enforcing environmental standards and that the project threatened their water supply. Metalclad's victory established that NAFTA's dispute mechanism reaches to subnational governments, including municipalities."
No one knows how many of these cases have been filed because there is no requirement to inform the public. The contesting parties, Greider reports, choose the judges who will arbitrate, choose which issues and legal principles are to apply, and also decide whether the public has access to the proceeding. It is assumed these disputes are none of the public's business, even though public laws are under attack and taxpayers' money will pay the fines.
If I hated lawyers as much as George W. Bush hates lawyers, I'd step on that before it starts crawling.
May 17, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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