The Common Good
November-December 2000

When Profit Is the Driver

by Jo Ann Heydron | November-December 2000

The consequences of globalization.

"Today the worker is not only the engine of production but also the consumer. She sells her labor cheap and buys at full price." In his brief but rousing new book, Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History, Walter Mosley questions both the ends and means of triumphal capitalism. He calls on working Americans of all ethnicities to ask themselves what they deserve for a lifetime of labor. Air that doesn't make them asthmatic? Exemplary education for their children? Renumeration for childrearing? A "medical bill of rights?" Make a list, counsels Mosley, and see how closely it coincides with "the rather small and insignificant goals of the few who own (or control) almost everything." If at least 10 percent of us articulate and answer this question, if we carry our lists around, consult them often, argue their merits, vote by them, the year 2000 might represent a genuine turning point in our history.

Christian readers committed to serving others may object to Mosley's insistence that we consult our own interests—but not if they are familiar with Mosley's fiction. Author of the popular Easy Rawlins detective novels and creator of Socrates Fortlow, the deeply wise ex-con hero of Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, Mosley shows how inextricably linked are self-regard and compassion. "The goals of revolution," says Mosley in his new book, "are realized by personal enlightenment." To this end, he advises us to suspend the influence of the "spectacles and illusions" that hypnotize us by spending 90 days without TV, movies, or professional sports.

We might use this time, offers Mosley, to consider what the experience of African Americans can teach the rest of us—about dealing with learned self-hatred, about using educational opportunities to investigate the history of oppression and its resistance. We might look in the mirror and learn to appreciate both the unique personal history and "the billion years of the striving of life" that produced each of us. In this way we are bound to see ourselves and others as more than a race, a gender, a class, or an age. Mosley further proposes that we tell the truth once a day—about something, anything—and observe the changes that ensue both inside and outside us.

THIS READER MIGHT suggest another resource for those 90 evenings of silence: Field Guide to the Global Economy. Authors Sarah Anderson, John Cavanagh, and Thea Lee broaden Mosley's discussion to the situation of working people around the world. Readable even by those who dropped Economics 1 after the first week, this slim volume explains what is new about the economic globalization of the last two decades.

From Field Guide we learn how the World Bank and International Monetary Fund work in practice, funding infrastructure and industry that largely benefit foreign investors, and how these multinational investors maximize profits by, among other means, reporting gains in countries with low tax rates and losses where rates are high. Easy-to-read tables and graphs are plentiful, as are clarifying examples. Between 1994 and 1996, for instance, General Motors moved nearly half its production of the Suburban SUV from Janesville, Wisconsin, to Silao, Mexico. Although GM paid its Mexican employees 8 percent of the average wage it paid American workers manufacturing the Suburban, the price of the SUV over that period continued to rise (and rises still).

Field Guide calls into question the closed-door meetings and the limited and nonelected membership of the World Trade Organization, founded in 1994 to rule bindingly on trade disputes among member nations. Most forcefully, the book describes the effects of unbounded and unregulated commerce on life in so-called Third World nations. The conversion of local agriculture and industry to production of export products uproots populations. Social services are cut to pay interest on foreign debt. Environmental controls are weakened, and governments eager to appear "stable" to foreign investors increasingly violate human rights. The last chapter of Field Guide details some responses to globalization in the United States and abroad, and an appendix provides a satisfying list of organizations working on the issue from many angles.

Barbara Ehrenreich suggests in her introduction to Field Guide that the process of "globalization could lead to a safer, more peaceful and—who knows?—more interesting world," but not when corporate profiteering is its only, or even its primary, driver. Should Christians cooperate in handing over the keys? "The margin of profit," says Mosley, has come to "define our humanity." Surely that prerogative belongs elsewhere.

JO ANN HEYDRON is a poet and fiction writer living in California.

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