Saturday, October 04, 2008

A Transnational Cultural Lag

The number of people working for foreign subsidiaries of multinational corporations headquartered in the United States and other industrialized countries has nearly quadrupled in the past quarter century. The increase—from 21,524,000 to 81,615,000 workers—includes only people on payrolls, not the uncounted hundreds of millions more employed by the contractors and subcontractors of the multinationals.

Those figures are reported in the latest annual report of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), titled “World Investment Report 2008: Transnational Corporations and the Infrastructure Challenge.” As is common outside the United States, UNCTAD prefers the term transnational corporations to multinational corporations.

It’s not just a semantic quibble. Transnational expresses the realities more fully.

Take General Electric, the world’s top non-financial corporation (ranked by assets). It has 765 foreign subsidiaries or affiliates that have 164,000 employees and a total of $442,278,000,000 in assets. Thus, GE is more than a company with separate branches located in a multitude of countries (160 in all). GE is a cross-border production, marketing, and distribution system whose global presence and activities are better captured by being called a transnational. (For most of the data, click here, and scroll to table 3.)

Ditto for the estimated 79,000 transnationals in the world and the 790,000 foreign affiliates they control. Each contributes to an assortment of global production, marketing, and distribution chains, in which the foreign affiliates hold at least $68,716,000,000 in assets—33 times more than they held 25 years ago.

Those foreign affiliates also exported $5,714,000,000 in goods last year—eight times more than in 1982. The UNCTAD report does not include how much of this was intra-firm trade, or cross-border trade between two units of the same transnational corporation. Government agencies in the past have estimated that intra-firm trade accounts for 40 percent of international trade. (It follows that cross-border trade within GE and other U.S. based transnationals accounts for a large chunk of the U.S. trade deficit—a fact ignored in official U.S. news releases on trade imbalances.)

UNCTAD reports are rich in significant data that are seldom mined by the media. Very little of the above information and analysis is contained even in UNCTAD’s own news releases on the new 411-page report, which was issued on September 29.

The trends outlined in the report are examples of the magnitude of global changes in the past quarter century, changes that, together, make the 21st century global economy different in kind, and not just in degree, from the 20th century international economy.

Have the rules of this new world been adapted to that great change? That’s a fundamental question. It is not addressed in this report.

Human Rights for Workers has addressed the question before, and will again. Briefly: Yes, global rules have been improved to protect the rights of businesses and their organizations. No, they still do not cover the rights of working men and women and their organizations. The international labor market, for most of the world’s working men and women, is still a lawless jungle.

A University of Chicago sociologist, the late William Ogburn, had a term for this sort of situation: cultural lag, meaning the tendency whereby a society’s values and habits fail to keep pace with technological and other forms of significant material change. He held that cultural lag often caused social “disequilibrium” until society adjusted to the changes of modernization. That failure to adapt explains why globalization has fueled so much distrust and so many protests.

Congress will soon hold hearings on the financial debacle and the $700,000,000,000 in public money allotted to rescue Wall Street. Those hearings—and the needed curative legislation—must not ignore the transnational cultural lag and the disequilibrium it causes.

Print Page

No comments: