I feel strongly that some important American values are being sacrificed in order to find the lowest-priced gallon of mustard or twelve-pack of underwear.
The role of government is to help create a society beneficial to people. People are the priority. Not corporations. Certainly commerce plays a huge role in the betterment of any great society, but any society that forgets that its primary purpose is to serve the people cannot ever be great.
We are engaged in more than an academic debate over philosophy. I believe this to be a contest for the soul of a great nation, with immense ramifications for the entire world. It is about values.
Byron Dorgan, the junior senator from North Dakota, may well have laid out in his new book, Take This Job and Ship It, the first rough roadmap for Democrats to find their way back into the hearts and heads of the anxious working and middle classes of America, our natural constituency at which Republicans have been nibbling away for the past decade or so.
Dorgan's main thesis, as the subtitle indicates, is that corporate greed and the egregious effects of outsourcing are destroying this country. Through tracing the consequences of our free trade policy on middle America, the senator is able to crack open the door to related discussions on global human rights and child slavery, corporate tax evasion, national security, energy independence and planetary environmental problems. This exploration of ever-expanding cause and effect allows him to sketch the outlines of an emerging muscular liberal populism for the Democratic Party, shorn of populism's historical nativist rhetoric and permitting Americans to see themselves both as citizens of a great country and responsible residents of the world.
The book opens with a mind-numbing list of personal stories and specific closures of once-great American companies - the makers of Etch-a-Sketch, Hula Hoops, Fruit of the Loom, Fig Newtons, Levis ... the list goes on and on. A particularly poignant anecdote relates how the workers at Huffy Bikes spent their last days on the job peeling the trademark American flag off the handlebars and substituting stickers of the globe in its place.
From there, Dorgan spreads out to take on - passionately - the multi-national corporations leading the charge to relocation. He outlines for laypeople in as straightforward way as possible some of the arcane tax maneuvers and loopholes used to reap corporate tax benefits; he calls companies to account for the "exported misery" they're visiting on other countries, where child slave labor and inhuman working conditions prevail; he rails against the practice of corporations that renounce their American corporate citizenship to avoid taxation; he deplores the trend of industry insiders being moved to agencies that nominally regulate the very same industries. Big Pharma in particular draws a cannon-load of fire as the subject of a whole chapter illustrating every aspect of what's wrong with multi-nationals today. Wal-Mart too earns the dishonor of a chapter of its own (which opens with Dorgan quoting Norman Mailer's mayoral campaign slogan: No more bullshit!).
The author tackles the need for energy independence in a chapter that says it all in the title: "Oil - The Lubricant of Trade and Terrorism," and he makes a strong case that outsourcing our vital manufacturing leaves our national security apparatus vulnerable, both through an inability to repair and maintain our infrastructure and through the common practice of outsourcing defense contracts. It's also our personal safety, not just our national safety, at issue: He cites the case of JetBlue, which outsources its airline maintenance to a company in El Salvador that has only one-third of its mechanics qualified as FAA-certified (illegal for American airline mechanics).
Chapter Nine, "The Toxic Waste of World Trade," attacks the deplorably short-sighted policies of moving life-killing industries to countries with relaxed or non-existent environmental standards, both a morally repugnant practice and a stupid one to boot; he details the effects on Southern California of having Intergen (a godawful mating of Shell and Bechtel) build a thousand-megawatt power plant just across the border in Mexicali. As Dorgan says: "The plant went south. The jobs went south. The pollution still floats to the north."
The consequences of the deadly combination of corporate tax breaks, free trade agreements and a consumer culture that promotes valuing cheap goods over long-term economic health can be tackled on several fronts, Dorgan believes. He's come up with an 11-point plan to address some of the more blatant problems, as follows (he goes into great detail in the book on these suggestions. Below is just a quick overview):
1. Develop an American Free Trade Plan through forming a bipartisan committee with both labor and business that addresses balancing trade deficits, locking in sustainable worker wages and conditions (both nationally and internationally) and securing domestic infrastructure.
2. Merge the seventeen (!) federal agencies that deal with trade into one Federal Trade Department.
3. Make an assessment of the national security implications of trade.
4. Eliminate the trade deficit through a plan of Import Certificates (first proposed by Warren Buffet).
5. Repeal the tax break for exporting jobs.
6. Prohibit imports from companies that abuse overseas workers.
7. Set a ceiling on trade deficits.
8. Make normal trade relations (NTR) with China a year-to-year decision rather than a permanent condition.
9. Encourage strong labor unions.
10. Tackle healthcare costs and education excellence.
11. Put the brakes on outsourced pollution.
The one glaring - and puzzling - omission in Dorgan's otherwise terrific economic overview is the lack of discussion of immigration policy. Look up "outsourcing" in the index and you come up with a dozen pages cited, but "immigration" doesn't merit a mention. "Insourcing" through permitting illegal and non-regulated labor would seem a vital part of the job equation argument, at least as structured, layer by layer, by the senator. Timidity on the volatile issue hardly seems a logical explanation for such an oversight since the author makes no bones about his alliance with and admiration for organized labor as a force for good in the economy, and his desire to promote, first and foremost, the welfare of American workers. He issued a press release in May condemning the Senate immigration bill (which he voted against) on the grounds that the proposed guest worker program undercut American workers in the global economy, and this hardly seems the action of someone ducking the fallout for taking a stand unpopular in his own political party. (I'm trying to schedule an interview with Senator Dorgan through his publisher and hope to be able to clarify why immigration wasn't addressed in any detail in the book).
For now, I'll leave you with a few excerpts from Take This Job and Ship It (all emphasis is in the original):
Corporations use our roads to transport merchandise. Their children and employees are educated in American schools. They want their interests protected by our courts and armies at home and abroad. More and more, they just don't want to pay for it. These days, tax avoidance is the entitlement program for the wealthy and their corporations.
It's curious. Those same members of Congress who claim messages from the Almighty on subjects like the estate tax and capital gains surely must be getting some messages about monopoly pricing of prescription drugs. But their silence is deafening.
I do support trade, and plenty of it, provided it is fair, free, and mutually beneficial to us and our trade partners. However, that's not the case today. And we do desperately need change.
Change doesn't mean closing our borders and retreating from the global economy. But it does mean standing up for our country's interests and establishing a set of rules for trade in the global economy that reflect our country's interests. It means establishing a trade strategy that is designed to lift others up without pushing American workers down. We can do that. But we need to start now.
There [is] no social program as important as a good job that pays well.
Wealth is measured by what you produce, not what you consume. America is a nation of builders, a nation of innovators, inventors, and creators, and driving that great engine of commerce is the American worker.
I admit "free trade" has a marvelous sound to it. It sounds distinctly American.... The thing is, though, free trade must be fair trade, and these days it is not, and we in the United States are paying a huge price.
Corporate America is slowly but surely devouring its own customers.
[There is a view that] says that "free trade" is good, and anyone who opposes it is some sort xenophobic isolationist stooge who must want to build walls around our country and set the clock back a century.
Even in the face of all the evidence that this so-called "free trade" strategy is a bankrupt strategy, one that shortchanges our workers and cripples our manufacturing industries, American corporations and this administration continue to push the free trade myth.
Corporate strategists set up no-win competitive comparisons between American workers and foreign workers ... It is unpatriotic. When corporations set up offshore subsidiaries in tax-haven countries ... avoiding U.S. tax liabilities, it is not only unpatriotic, it's also dishonest.
The worker becomes the fall guy for aspiring to earn a good wage and support his family.
Structuring a business so that it can avoid paying U.S. taxes, outsourcing the labor, and hypocritically taking advantage of the U.S. marketplace by selling here can hardly be considered patriotic. That's a corporation that wants all of the benefits and none of the responsibilities that come with U.S. citizenship.
We bail out companies who have long abandoned any sense of American citizenship. We shower the great instigator - Wal-Mart - with tax breaks, then, when their workers can't make ends meet, we foot the bill for food stamps. Hidden in the seams of the economy is a welfare system for the richest corporations, and that ought to make your blood boil.
Exploiting labor forces in America and abroad by pitting them against one another is a flawed strategy and just plain wrong. You can't blame Mexico. They're playing the game created by global corporations, but the only ones winning are corporations. One of the basic rules for long-term successful trade is everyone has to win. Global corporations are making up the rules as they go along, but rule number one remains constant: Profit matters, people don't.
If the $5.15 minimum wage had risen as fast as CEO pay since 1990, the lowest-paid workers in the country would make $23.03 an hour.
Is this "free trade" a practice that is mislabled? Is it really about freedom? If so, for whom? And more important, is this free-trade strategy of the United States exporting freedom or misery?
Labor has become an unregulated commodity. You don't have to lose your job to lose in this equation.
Like it or not, you are competing with global slave labor. You are a commodity, not a person.
I say why not bring basic human rights to the oppressed workers in other nations through our trade agreements? Why don't we use our economic muscle to ensure that those with whom we trade raise their workplace standards to meet our own? In saving others, we save ourselves.
Labor just to provide meager sustenance is immoral. Labor that provides a fair wage allows a worker to live in dignity. It is both moral and a means to elevate society.
Companies fire their American workers, move their jobs abroad, then collect a big fat tax break with hardworking families and others having to make up the difference.
It's a little like being fired by your boss at a lunch meeting, then getting stuck with the check.
Corporations, whose decision-making processes move much faster than democracies', have been much quicker to exploit this evolving global economy. More succinctly, they are exploiting the system. They are exploiting people. They are exploiting you. You get the bill while they get dessert.
Will global corporations supersede nations as the dominant powers? I believe we are headed in that direction.
The FDA is supposed to be regulating the drug industry, not representing them.
Wal-Mart has a right to pursue their business plan, but I also believe local governments have a right to make their zoning decisions based on whether they believe their next Wal-Mart superstore will help or hurt their local economy.
But the free market only works when you have many competitors. When one of the competitors becomes large enough to clog the arteries of the free market system, even on a local level, then the market is no longer free. Innovation is retarded, and in essence you have the same stagnation that exists when there is no competition.
As Americans we have to understand that economic vulnerability is as dangerous as military vulnerability; in fact, the former causes the latter. The fanatical terrorists who have us in their sights understand this as well. When, as a nation, we carelessly allow ourselves to become as financially vulnerable as this president has, it is dangerous to our national security.
Cleaning up the environment and protecting it from further damage seems to me to be the preeminent security issue of our species.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.