Global Trade without Global Standards, Justice & the Future of Work

Writing from India

Can you have connection consciousness without economic justice?

When the protest riots against the World Trade Organization erupted in Seattle in 1999, as they have  every year since then, I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what the anti-trade demonstrators were complaining about. At the time, I was a dot com exec and MBA, doing well, raising kids on 2 professional salaries. I did not yet understand that the purpose of society wasn’t just private economic gain, but a comprehensive system of balancing economies with other long term values, to make a world that works for all.  In my old way of thinking, it seemed obvious to me that companies would of course move their businesses to where it cost less. Working people in the US would just have to figure it out; they weren’t promised anything. ‘Made in the USA’ seemed like sour grapes and retrograde jingoism. But I think differently now, I get it now: To allow free trade without commensurate regulatory standards applied to your trading partners is to disadvantage your own people in significant longterm ways.  Societies also need to work for all members, over the long arc of a lifetime, over all the vagaries of youth and old age, of sickness and health. Societies must also collectively address cultural  and technological changes so big swaths don’t win while others lose.

One area of change has been globalization. In the last 50 years global transportation, shipping and logistics, communication and media have propelled goods, services, money and information across the borders of nation-states in altogether new ways, with many unintended and unforeseen consequences.

There are a billion hungry, hustling people hard at work in developing economies, for a comparable pittance of pay. People want work.  Governments want jobs.  Yet, limited regulation and limited infrastructure in these places creates a mixed bag of results.  You get low cost labor, but you also have families of 5 driving around on a single motor scooter; raw sewage running through the streets; 7-day work weeks; working with toxic chemicals with no physical protections; polluting emissions with no water or air concerns; staggering death tolls due to lack of building codes (remember the clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh!?). In developing nations, the health of the worker and of the planet is put aside for the immediacy of economic gain.  In the developed world, the people have attempted to limit harm workers and environment through laws, in the interest of the long term good.

Low cost production, enabled by a lack of rules, allows for things made in developing economies to be sold back to the west incredibly cheaply. When corporations began moving their business overseas, in the name of higher margins, increased competitiveness and increased shareholder returns, there was another side effect: globalization allowed corporations to escape the limits the people in a community or a nation have imposed on unfettered capitalism via legislation.   On top of that, the profit margins from this effort went to the investing class, creating the largest gap in rich and poor we’ve every seen United States. Welcome the plutocracy, the oligarchy.

People in the west got used to inexpensive things from abroad (and increased extensive consumption of generally poor quality and unnecessary things) at the same time that meaningful production work for the laboring class was considerably diminished.  In the United States, as the labor jobs left, in many parts of the country (the Rust Belt and Appalachia come to mind), there wasn’t really a back up plan. Our education system was designed for the assembly line, not the “new economy”. Communities left behind in globalization continue to be disadvantaged to this day – the white rural poor are the most pessimistic group in America.

Adding insult to injury, to be able to pay for the consumption economy, the now less secure laboring class was offered easy credit. We became a nation of debtors. Globalization without concurrent global governance or at least standards on labor, trade and environment, has tricked us into our own demise, the demise of the working class family, and the rise of the oligarchy.

It seems only logical that a local community (Define that in any way you would like: a county? State? Watershed? Region? Nation-state?) should be able to provide from it’s own base some great proportion of the food, fuel, finance, healthcare and education it needs to sustain its own population, without imports. But we in the US can’t do that anymore. Banks and corporations won, the holders of capital won, and the people lost self reliance and strength.

It seems to me that leveling the playing field on things that are produced in other countries, to equalize for standards on labor, trade and environment would help that. Don’t remove our protections, but ask those from other countries.  It’s an almost impossible accounting, but if feasible, would close the governance and labor arbitrage loopholes. It would also make many items more expensive, which would diminish meaningless consumption and minimize waste/environmental damage.

Although this kind of a move might return making itself to local economies, technological developments most certainly mean that it won’t return traditional labor jobs at the same pace. In the era of AI and robotic automation, manufacturing jobs don’t come back with manufacturing: the machines do most of the work  We just need to mind the machines. In this situation, again, it is the holders of capital, the owners of AI robots who will continue to gain economic advantage.

We are embarking on a time when reframing what is good work, or human work is needed- and possibly the larger question: What is the role of work in a human life? What is the role of work in the right to live, to have living expenses covered? What is the purpose of a human life?

Social justice and environmental justice are deeply intertwined with the creation of the new connected community.  If we believe that all people need to work to eat, need to perform a role of value to others to be provided for, what kind of work will be left to do?  What should we be preparing ourselves and our children to do?

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