Saturday, April 01, 2006

An Invetible Consequence of World Trade?

Those of you who know me know that, despite my far left leanings, I remain hopeful and supportive of the notion of free global trade. To me, it comes down to the basics -- if I want to buy an artifact from Africa, from an honest and cognizant merchant, I should be able to. I like the idea of people and companies in the US spreading the wealth around the world and I also think that such actions can, if properly watched and regulated, improve the lots of people who were not fortunate enough to have been born in the wealthier rest.

But, as this TPMcafe post shows, there are other consequences of a global economy. Though the issue is dealt with as almost an aside, the key part of the post, I think, is the revelation that Wal-Mart, among other US-based but international businesses, would love to see international trade rules trump the decisions made by local governments in the US (and by local, I mean not only states but cities and towns).

To pick on Wal-Mart for a moment, the retail goliath faces very few federal regulations that could slow or halt its growth. On the local level, though, it faces formidable opposition. Local zoning boards have proven able to impede and stop the construction of new stores, and they've been able to use economic, social, and environmental means to do so.

This presents Wal-Mart with a difficult problem. The company can't appeal to the feds, especially in its current conservative incarnation, because the conservatives currently in charge would have to blatantly set anti-federalist precedents in order to let the federal government over-rule local zoning restrictions. As soon as the feds say that a town can't say no to Wal-Mart, after all, they invite the Supreme Court to decide that the feds can't let a town say no to an all-fetish gift shop either.

So... lobbying has gone international. Wal-Mart, and others, have decided that they really want to influence international trade agreements in order to render local regulation of the operation of international business moot in the face of federally-backed treaties.

Like I said, I am, at my core, a free trade liberal. I rather like the idea that entrepeneurs in the U.S. can operate not only here, but around the globe, and I like that entrepeneurs from the rest of the world can operate here. I think that global trade has manyu virtues, for all involved.

But, we need to, especially at this moment where global trade is already a reality but is, in the context of modern history, still new, find some way to keep international trade from becoming as corrupt as the trade between the states has become. Remember, when the US was formed, trade between the states within the union was such a major issue that it almost scuttled the formation of our country on numerous occasions. These days, trade between states is considered tantamount to a right of anyone who does business in the U.S. But, we're still working out the rules that should govern international trade. I don't want to restrict that. But I can't help but worry that, with companies like Wal-Mart starting to lobby on the international (rather than federally domestic) level, that the rules might be set, and enforced, in a manner that will give people living locally very little voice, if they're given a voice at all.

Yeah, I'm raising a problem here and I'm not suggesting an answer, but this IS a problem. Big-money lobbying is already too influential at all levels of government in the US, so just imagine the consequences of what's happening now -- international lobbying by multinational corporations.

In my admittedly scant experience, I've found that dystopian scenarios don't tend to play out (with one exception, and I'm sorry for bringing this up in a parenthical, which is the Holocaust from the last century) so I don't mean to predict that large corporations will dominate global politics, however... it seems like such a prediction is worth worrying about right now.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff is heading to jail for pushing our national rules abbout lobbying a bit too far (and, though I abhor the man and his politics, that's really the extent of what he did -- he pushed the rules, or at least the "accepted practices" of his profession too far) but what are we going to do about individuals and companies who lobby on the international stage?

As I am with trade, I am on the issue of lobbying -- as an idealogical libertarian, I'm fine with, say, the retards of the Ku Klux Klan holding parades and, by extension, that means I have to be fine with billionaires using their money to express their points of view. But, on the international scale (because governance of our economy and all economy is truly becoming international in ways that we still don't see now but will be written, in basic terms, in the textbooks that children read 2 or 3 generations from now) we had better start setting some rules that provide not only transparency but the right of local residents and their governments to have some say about what international corporations can and can't do.

At the moment, we're not really at the point where the United Nations or the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund or the G-8 Nations would dare order a town council in the United States to "stand down," when they're trying to stop Wal-Mart from opening a Supercenter in the town square. But, we've been at the point, for a long time, where those bodies have felt free to say such things to local governments outside of the influential United States. The IMF and World Bank, as just a couple of examples, have already required countries that need their support to privatize state-owned industries and to even modify the curriculums taught in states owned universities -- outside of the US, of course. We have to wonder how long it will be before such institutions starts dictating terms to governments within the US. They will... it's inevitable. But, who will be pulling the strings of those institutions when that happens? Wal-Mart? It just might be. Some company like it? A bunch of companies? Probably, it'll be a bunch of companies and not all of them will even be headquartered in the US.

So... I can't offer much by way of a solution. But we need rules about international lobbying right now. Heck, we've needed them before now. Wal-Mart entering the global political arena (so soon after it got involved in Washington politics despite decades of neglect) isn't a wake-up call so much as it is a final warning.


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