Sunday, January 31, 2010

Searching for ways to enlighten worker rights illiterates

How do you talk about worker rights to people who are illiterate about worker rights issues?

The question occurred to me because of a new survey that reveals what the New York Times calls “widespread political illiteracy” among Americans. The “News IQ Test,” conducted in early January by the Pew Research Center, found that only
-- 26% of the respondents knew that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate.
-- 36% knew that no Republican voted for the Senate health care bill on December 24.
-- 39% knew that the Majority Leader of the Senate is Harry Reid.

There may be a lesson here for those of us trying to convince the public that globalization, especially its trade system, needs a reform that incorporates the human rights of workers. How can we frame the issues so that the public understands what we’re talking about?

The old expression “social clause” – as in adding a “social clause” to trade agreements -- is inadequate and fortunately out of fashion. Yet we don’t have a phrase that captures the popular imagination. The goal of “decent work for everyone” comes closest.

It is a term embraced by the UN International Labor Organization in its strategy for a global coalition to support decent work. But what do you mean by “decent work”?

Here is a definition developed by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

“What is meant by the word ‘decent’ in regard to work? It means
• work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society:
• work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community;
• work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination;
• work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labor;
• work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard;
• work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one's roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level;
• work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living.”

With that comprehensive definition in mind, “decent work” is a great goal, but I’m afraid that, alone, it wouldn’t score very high in a Pew News IQ test.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

President's agenda for jobs: is it populist enough?

I didn’t watch or listen to President Obama’ State of the Union address. I read it the morning after. And I re-read large chunks of it, focusing on what he said about jobs.

“Jobs must be our number-one focus in 2010,” he declared. Here are his plans.

One way is to “put Americans to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow” and “building clean energy facilities.” These steps, however, “won’t make up for the seven million jobs that we’ve lost over the past two years.”

So “it’s time to get serious about the problems that are hampering our growth.” One of a series of initiatives proposed by the President: “Double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support two million jobs in America.”

In aggressively seeking new markets, the U.S. must make sure that other countries are playing by the rules. “And that’s why we’ll continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia.”
Some pundits attributed Obama’s new emphasis on jobs to a need to become more “populist” after a Republican won the U.S. Senate seat held by the late Senator Kennedy. But how populist is President Obama’s position?

A few weeks ago Gallup asked 1,017 Americans this open-ended question: “In your opinion, what would be the best way to create more jobs in the United States?”

The top prescription was “Keep manufacturing jobs here/Stop sending overseas,” favored by 18% of respondents. Another 4% chose “higher taxes on imports/Buy American.” So in effect 20% deemed globalization to be the chief obstacle to ending U.S. unemployment.

The Gallup poll findings were consistent with those in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. Its respondents were asked to prioritize a prepared list of 11 long-range foreign policy goals. Surprisingly, “protecting the jobs of American workers” shared the top place with “taking measures to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks.” Both were given 85% “top priority," and 13% “some priority."

If these findings do reflect public opinion, Obama’s jobs agenda may not turn out to be a winner on voting day. It could depend on the unemployment rate at that time.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Is WTO softening its posture toward human rights or is it looking for a mission?

An unwritten policy of the World Trade Organization (WTO) – that trade and human rights don’t mix – may become outdated before too long. At least, that’s a tentative conclusion that you might draw from a January 13 speech by WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy.

The headline of the WT0 press release summarized Lamy’s remarks this way: “Lamy calls for mindset change to align trade and human rights.”
Lamy expressed the point in two sentences toward the end of his text:

“It is our responsibility to coordinate our actions in a meaningful and efficient manner to ensure that trade does not impair human rights, but rather strengthens them. I am aware of the challenge that this represents, of the change in mindset this requires.”
Lamy was not specific about the policy changes a new mindset would involve. Rather, he spoke in general about the ways trade can be “a positive vector for reinforcement of human rights.” For example:
“To be successful, the opening of markets require solid social policies to redistribute wealth or provide safeguards to the men and women whose living conditions have been disrupted by evolving trade rules and trade patterns.”
Lamy’s topic was “Toward Shared Responsibility and Greater Coherence: Human Rights, Trade, and Macroeconomic Policy” at a three-day colloquium sponsored by two Geneva-based organizations, the International Council on Human Rights Policy and Realizing Rights.
* * *

Actually, the WTO is already much more involved in human rights than Mr. Lamy acknowledges. For the details, read my blog article, “Imbedded in WTO: Human Rights for Some,” at

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How globalization has turned against a best friend

“Manufacturing matters mightily to the wealth and power of the United States and to our ability to sustain the kind of open society we have come to take for granted.”

That was the opening sentence of “Manufacturing Matters” by two University of California/Berkley professors, Stephen Cohen and John Zysman, published in 1987. The co-authors, early critics of globalization, called “subcontracting production” to foreign countries “the fast track to disaster.”

Like other opinion-leaders, however, newspapers became cheerleaders for globalization and its major components, free trade and free investment. They argued that the growing decline in manufacturing in the United States didn’t matter much anymore.

In the past eight years that decline has meant the loss of 42,400 factories and more than 5,000,000 manufacturing jobs. Besides, 90,000 more factories are in peril, reports Richard McCormack, editor of Manufacturing and Technology News.

“When a factory closes, it creates a vortex that has far-reaching consequences,” McCormack points out.

Newspapers, too, have been caught in that vortex. Two months ago, the Washington Post headlined “The accelerating decline of newspapers.” How could it be otherwise?

Newspapers do not exist isolated from the communities they serve. When people in those communities hurt economically, so do newspapers. In December 15,300,000 Americans were officially counted as unemployed and 11,700,00 others were working part-time against their wishes or wanting a job but not seeking one during the past four weeks.

So in this depressing climate, newspapers, too, have joined the “sunset” industries, for a variety of reasons. A major one is that they have been so successful at preaching and practicing global free trade that the ideology has added them to its victims.

When will newspapers, from the New York Times and Washington Post on down, start learning from their own experience? Lesson number one: manufacturing matters.

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Poll: for Americans protecting jobs is highest foreign policy priority

From a list of 11 long-range foreign policy goals for the United States, which one do Americans rank as having the highest priority? A Pew Research Center poll just released has this significant pair of findings:

-- “Taking measures to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks” has the highest rating: 98% of persons responding (85% “top priority,” 13% “some priority”).
-- Another goal, “protecting the jobs of American workers,” has exactly the same amount of support (85% top priority, 13% some).
Of the nine other listed goals, only “preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction” (with 94%) came close.

Oddly, pursuing free trade agreements was not on the prepared list of goals. Responses to other questions, however, showed continuing negative views of free trade agreements, because they

-- lower the wages of American workers (in the view of 49%).
-- lead to job losses in the U.S. (53%).
-- slow down the economy (42%)

The poll, on “America’s Place in the World 2009,” was conducted in cooperation with the Council on Foreign Relations. Public Citizen's “Eyes on Trade” points out:
“The survey also reveals quite a disconnect between the views of the foreign policy elite and the views of the public at large: 88 percent of the members of the Council on Foreign Relations believe that these trade agreements are a good thing for the United States, which is more than double the proportion of ordinary Americans who believe the same.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Economic suicide is not an option

Almost everybody who is anybody seems to be scrambling to figure out how a Nigerian terrorist came so close to blasting a hole in a transatlantic airliner approaching Detroit. The concern is legitimate. But while concentrating on one peril, we are ignoring another – that the United States is blindly on the path to a major economic disaster.

The alarming signs are there aplenty, but policymakers are either not connecting the dots or not telling the public what the signs mean. Either way, it’s way past time to spread an alarm about the danger of national econicide.

Buried in his January 1 New York Times column, Paul Krugman makes this prediction: that China’s policies probably will reduce U.S. employment by 1,400,000 jobs over the next two years. That should be startling, except that it’s nothing new. China has been stealing jobs from American workers for years without causing corrective action by American leaders, Democrat or Republican.

The supposed cure, mindlessly repeated, is to make Americans more “competitive.” But American companies are among the most efficient in the world, Richard McCormack, editor of Manufacturing and Technology News, points out, and in an article published in the January-February issue of The American Prospect adds:

“The nation’s steel industry, for instance, produces one ton of steel using two man-hours. A comparable ton of steel in China is produced with 12 man-hours, and Chinese companies produce three times the amount of carbon emissions per ton of steel. The same kinds of comparisons are true for other industries.”
“China is blatantly protectionist,” Carolyn Bartholomew, chair of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review, writes in the same magazine. “The Beijing government manipulates its currency, showers subsidies on favored industries, provides low-interest loans from a state-owned banking system, tolerates and even encourages the theft of intellectual property, and ignores WTO rules.”

In his column, Krugman explains that China, now a major financial and trade power, “doesn’t act like other big economies. Instead, it follows a mercantilist policy, keeping its trade surplus artificially high. And in today’s depressed world, that policy is, to put it bluntly, predatory.”

Among the excuses given for why we can’t retaliate against China’s predatory actions is that protectionism is always a Bad Thing, always, even in response to the persistent protectionism of others. “If that’s what you believe, you learned Econ 101 from the wrong people,” Krugman writes, and goes on to explain that the usual rules don’t apply in times of high employment that are not solved by domestic measures.

For support, Krugman turns to the master, the late Paul Samuelson, to show how mercantilism (such as practiced by China) changes the situation. Here is his quote from a classic Samuelson paper, interspersed with Krugman’s defintion:
“With employment less than full… all the debunked mercantilistic arguments”—that is, claims that nations who subsidize their exports effectively steal jobs from other countries – “turn out to be valid.”
Krugman calls Chinese mercantilism such a serious problem that “the victims have little to lose from a trade confrontation.”

For detailed insights into what the U.S. government should do (“before it’s too late”), don’t miss the special report in The American Prospect at

Will Congress and the administration stand up to predatory China, or are our leaders paralyzed by what they mislearned in Econ 101?

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