The New Republican "populism."(Humanistic Economics)(Column)

By Buell, John | The Humanist, May-June 1996 | Go to article overview

The New Republican "populism."(Humanistic Economics)(Column)


Buell, John, The Humanist


Pundits and politicians celebrate the "globalization" of our market economy. According to Time magazine, all economists believe that "free trade is a long term boon that delivers better bargains on consumer goods and boosts demand for the products of America's . . . high wage, export industries" This new global economy has, however, been most successful in bringing Third World in, equalities home to the United States. Over the last decade, the top one per, cent of American families has seen its share of total national wealth go from about 33 percent to 42 percent. The bottom 80 percent of American families has fallen from about 19 percent to about 15 percent.

When liberals and the left make such arguments, they are accused of fanning the flames of class war. These days, however, invoking class warfare is no longer a vice--or virtue--confined to one side of the spectrum. Even such Republican stalwarts as Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan have assumed the mantle of American populism and denounced big corporations for paying their executives large salaries as they relentlessly downsize or shift jobs abroad. Unfortunately, these modern,day tribunes of the people are pale shadows of historical populism. Worse still, that heritage itself must be modernized to meet the challenges of our global economy.

Class war is indeed a major factor in politics today, but it is best under, stood as a war of the rich against the poor. Time magazine to the contrary, a growing minority of economists recognize the inherent injustices in the so, called free trade formulas. Free trade in the modern world extends to capital a freedom it denies workers. Trade agreements protect the right of businesses to their "intellectual property" and assure them of compensation in the event of the seizure of their assets. These same agreements, however, say nothing about the rights of workers to organize or to receive a just share of the fruits of their labor. Such trade agreements therefore encourage a "race to the bottom": workers are often forced to cede bargaining power within the workplace to corporate leaders who threaten to move jobs to nations where unemployment is very high and independent labor unions or wage standards are virtually non-existent.

This new world economy severely constrains the traditional liberal response to inequality and joblessness. When the US. government strives to reduce unemployment by hiring citizens to build new transit systems or hospitals, many of the workers it hires buy their goods from productive Third World plants where wages are low and profits very high. As a result, high levels of government spending no longer have as much of their historic "multiplier effect" of creating further jobs and economic expansion in the United States. Debt as a percent of the gross national product goes up and the dollar is weakened. The growing instability of spending policies to effectively address problems created by the new trade frame, work has done much to give "big government" its bad reputation.

Pat Buchanans response to these dilemmas, nonetheless, relies on the worst features of our populist heritage. Denying Mexicans access to our market's may sound good but can only undermine Mexican development and increase immigration pressure on our borders. Nor does protectionism curb corporate power in any significant way. The United States is already a large market. The current dismantling of federal labor and environmental standards, in which Buchanan participates, already allows corporations to move jobs to low-wage and low,standard states and thereby degrades everyone's quality of life. Within such a large and unregulated market, major corporations will continue to have inordinate leverage in setting wages and extracting high profits.

Along with Buchanan's strident xenophobia goes a very narrow conception of those who are to be helped. Clearly single mothers and racial minorities are second,class citizens at best in his republic of virtue. …

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