Monday, September 26, 2005

Blogging from Beijing

I had read that the Chinese government was not terribly keen on blogging, and that access to most blogging sites is restricted, or--with the happy collaboration of corporations like Microsoft--one cannot post (or even *type*) certain dangerous words like 'liberty' or the date of the Tianamen Square massacre. This morning I tried to use the Beijing telecom dial-up service to access Lumpenlogocracy and a few other of my favorite blogs, but I couldn't get through to any of them. Free proxy services like Anonymizer, which mask your IP address and so help you get around blocks for some sites, were also inaccessible. I am able, however, to access the Blogger home page and to view posts through the 'Edit' function. So I have read Christian_Left's recent posts even though I am unable to view the web log itself, or to leave any comments. Hopefully I'll be able to post this, too--we'll see.

I very much enjoyed Robert Jensen's piece on September 11. The less self-centered perspective he advocates would not only make us better individuals, but if it somehow became part of our foreign policy, it would make the country much more secure. Our overwhelming superiority in military and economic power will be difficult to maintain in perpetuity, and to the extent that it is maintained, it will be accepted by other countries only to the degree that the US dedicates itself to serving intnernational as well as national interests.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Why the U.S. Should Withdraw from Iraq Now

This weekend in Washington, D.C. will be the next big demonstration against the war in Iraq. I wish I could be there. But I'm a long ways from D.C., so I will just have to be in support from a distance.

In preparation for this weekend, opponents of the war who are uncertain about whether a speedy U.S. withdrawal would be a good thing should be sure to read Michael Schwartz's excellent synopsis of the argument for immediate withdrawal. Yes, that's right, immediate withdrawal. Schwartz's analysis strikes me as persuasive, although I would be interested in hearing from blog readers who know of well-argued counterpoints that favor a more staged or gradual withdrawal.

By reading thoughtful analyses like this, we can be ready to argue effectively with people who think we have to keep supporting the war because there is no alternative. Maybe none of the alternatives are great, but right now I am convinced by both moral and pragmatic arguments that speedy withdrawal is probably the "least worst" option.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

From Germany Back to the U.S.A.

The German national election, which I wrote about in my last post, is now over. The inconclusive result, with both of the largest parties losing votes and neither capable of forming an obvious coalition government, will have to be sorted out in the coming days and weeks. Personally, I can't understand why the Social Democrats don't just accept the Links/Left party representatives into their coalition and form a government with them and the Greens. Yes, some of them are former Communists from East Germany, but they will constitute only a small fraction of the coalition. It might even improve government by slowing down "centrist" pro-market reform efforts somewhat. For some reason, everyone seems to view the Links-partei as untouchable. I prefer to see them as a balancing force against the powerful German business community, perhaps leading Germany to steer a happy medium course between markets and social welfare.

But now let me turn to my home country, the U.S.A. Several days ago, I read a fine essay by one of my favorite op-ed columnists, Robert Jensen of Austin, Texas. I just can't get the piece out of my head. With his usual piercing moral clarity, Jensen reflects on the four years since the September 11th attacks. I know that many sympathizers will find Jensen's views unpalatable because they seem to be strategically problematic, at least in the short term--in other words, that most Americans will find Jensen's words so alienating that they will reject them out of hand. But I also think that over the long run, we need people like Jensen to remind us about what a moral commitment to the equality of all people in the world entails.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

What is this!? Elections on the Weekend?

Last week, I moved to Berlin, Germany for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship. This is my first post from overseas. On the bus from the airport, I was already noticing the abundant political signs posted along streets all over the city of Berlin. That's because a big national election is coming up here in Germany. And, believe it or not, Election Day is on the WEEKEND! What a strange concept...I have to admit, it certainly makes it easier for working people to vote--I can't imagine the Republicans would ever allow that in the USA. So next Sunday, September 18th, Germans will be heading to the polls in a closely contested election.

When I first arrived, the out-of-power (and more conservative) CDU was in the lead, but now the race seems to be tightening, as the incumbent SDP, led by Gerhard Schroeder, catches up. Last time, rumor has it, Schroeder squeaked back into office despite high unemployment by riding the wave of discontent with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Now things aren't too much better (or worse) economically, so the end result is hard to predict.

One interesting development is the emergence last summer of a new party called the Links ("Left") party, which consists of a combination of former SDP members upset with social reforms and the remnants of the former East German communist party. Led by populist firebrand Oskar Lafontaine, the Links-Partei draws lots of voters in the former East Germany, especially those who want to maintain social spending for unemployed people, as I understand it. They are also not afraid to call more aggressively for preserving German jobs for Germans, which makes lots of better off people nervous, both for good (anti-ethnocentric) and bad (working-class mass movement threat) reasons. In the East, they seem to be drawing at least as much from the CDU as the SDP, interestingly enough. Just like in the USA and elsewhere, disaffected workers seem to draw from either the left or right, not from the center, thus once again compounding the conventional political spectrum believed in by elites.

If the CDU wins, as was predicted confidently until the last week or so, it will mark a major event in German political history. The CDU leader, Angela Merkel, would be the first female head of state. (She's also from the former East Germany...) To make it even more interesting, the CDU would almost certainly have to govern in coalition with the Liberal (what we would call Libertarian) party, whose leader is an openly gay man. So a conservative victory would result in a female and gay co-leadership. Funny how things happen sometimes. (I can't imagine the Republicans in the USA ever tolerating a coalition with a party led by an openly gay at least culturally, Germany is a quite different place!)

I haven't even mentioned the other sizeable party, even though it is the one I would probably vote for if I could. That's the Green Party, which has been in coalition with the SDP and stands to remain in the governing coalition if the SDP wins. I do have to admit some attraction for the Links party and its firebrand populism, but I would probably stick with the Greens if only for their less ethnocentric style. Plus, the Links and SDP hate each other and won't go into coalition, so they say.

My favorite possible outcome has been described to me by a German as the "traffic light" outcome (I forget the German word for it...everyone in Berlin speaks English so it's been hard to learn much of the local language!) That would be if the SDP (associated with the color Red) and Greens (Green, believe it or not!) don't have enough to govern, but can together with the Liberals (Yellow, who knows why?) Then Germany would have a triple Red-Yellow-Green coalition...yippee!!

Friday, September 09, 2005

Review: Barry C. Lynn, End of the Line: The Rise and Fall of the Global Corporation (2005)

I bought this book thinking that it would cover the rise of the anti-globalization movement and what I hope is a growing backlash against the power of multinational corporations. But Lynn has a narrower definition of the 'global corporation' than simply a multinational, and he sees the doom of said global corporation stemming not from grassroots rebellions against its overweening power, but rather from the fragility inherent in its productive system. It's an interesting and not entirely implausible argument.

For Lynn, a 'global corporation' is a new breed of business, born of the late 20th century, that is steadily replacing the old assembly line giants like Ford and GM. Those giants of the past profited from economies of scale, collecting under their own factory roofs as many steps of the production process as possible. Efficiency for them meant the continuous operation of the assembly lines, and this required long-term cooperation with closely allied suppliers and parts inventories sufficient to safeguard against possible supply interruptions.

The new global corporation is less a producer than an assembler and marketer of components harvested from a far-flung network of contractors and sub-contractors. Using tracking systems pioneered by companies such as FedEx and WalMart, global corporations keep inventories razor thin, squeezing profits from increases in logistical efficiency and pressing their suppliers to do the same. Lynn explains how companies like Dell have even learned to integrate their marketing campaigns into their supply systems, "engineering demand" so that customers buy the products the company currently has in stock.

Improvements in communications and computing technology have enhanced the growth of the GC's, but legal and political decisions dating from the 1960s laid their foundations. Painting a historical picture with a somewhat over-broad brush, Lynn divides US policy on foreign trade into three periods: From George Washington to F.D.R., the US pursued a policy of foreign engagement sufficient only to allow the US to develop its own self sufficiency. Facing the threat of global communism in the aftermath of WWII, however, the US shifted to policy of economic interdependence among the Western allies, integrating into the US economy the economic interests of much of the rest of the world. The US actively encouraged the development of manufacturing in countries such as Japan and Germany and helped US companies move operations overseas in the belief that such economic ties would best ensure continued peace.

Bill Clinton, according to Lynn, broke with this Cold War tradition and began a "radical" restructuring of foreign trade policy predicated on the notion that no governmental guidance of the market whatsoever would better ensure prosperity and security. Clinton's support of NAFTA and, later, of regularization of trade with China, effectively signaled to US companies that the government would not bar them from relocating to any part of the world any part or all of their production. (It's odd that Lynn singles out Clinton for such ire, considering that by Lynn's own account Reagan and Bush I did nothing to encourage US companies to stay in the US. He seems to view Clinton as an apostate, though he also maintains that "the idea that protectionism kills" was "one of the central founding myths of the modern Democratic Party" [83], and, more ludicrously, that during the Depression the Dems won back American workers by demonizing the Smoot-Hawley tariffs.)

Clinton's deification of the market was predated among businessmen and economists by the work of Milton Friedman in the 1960s. In reaction to the growing consumer rights movement, Friedman argued that a corporation's sole obligation was to its shareholders and stock price, not to its employees, consumers or country. Making the corporation maximally free to increase its value in the eyes of the market, the argument went, was the best way to ensure the efficiency of the economy. This ideology fit well with the development of globally distributed network production systems; legally and physically, companies became more disembodied and placeless, less beholden to anyone save the traders on Wall Street.

Lynn's summation of the effects of these changes is that today's corporations are the leanest, most cost-efficient organizations the world has ever seen. But their very efficiency creates dangers. With less physical plant to look after and ever-fewer employees, the managers of GC's concentrate more on short-term profits and share price rather than careful husbanding of productive resources for the long term-they are less system-builders than system- squeezers. The search for ever-greater efficiency radiates across the productive network, as GC's use the threat of relocation of facilities or contracts to squeeze suppliers and states for lower prices and tax breaks. Suppliers have less and less capital to devote to innovation or to risk management, and the pressure for lower and lower prices has led to what Lynn calls "hyperspecialization" in the production of key components. The entire system is so pulled so taught that an accident in any one part of it can have disastrous results for the system as a whole.

Lynn is somewhat alarmist in his predictions of a coming disaster for this finely- tuned world economic machine. He has a few well-known examples of how an earthquake in Taiwan, or an epidemic in China, threatened to derail certain industries, but I am unconvinced that such shocks could necessarily entail a serious economic downturn. Indeed, we seem to have survived Lynn's exemplar disasters in fairly good shape. But if the GC's are better at managing short-term risk than Lynn gives them credit for, Lynn's more subtle point that GC's search for efficiency is corrosive of social and political well-being seems on target. At the end of his book, he gives eight specific policy recommendations to combat the dangers of globally-networked production, which I can recount at request. More worthy of concluding this overly long review is Lynn's larger point that the corporation is not an inevitable product of global economic development, nor some alien invader bent on destroying society. It is, rather, a creation of government-an organization molded by law and policy-and we can and should use those tools to shape it into a more socially useful form.