Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Forging a Successful Political Coalition: On Recognizing Corporatism

For a little while, the Occupy movement garnered some press. The reasons why the movement has since all-but-disappeared into the memory hole are fairly obvious. It was led by people who didn’t believe in leading, which is to say, a mix of anarchists and advocates of direct democracy. Many of whom crept from their sleeping bags around 11:00 am to reminisce about how cool it was to have been a Vietnam War protestor back in the day and breathe deep the nostalgic aroma of patchouli and burning cannabis. It was barely a “movement” at all, inasmuch as movement implies a direction. 

The TEA Party movement has been noticeably more resilient, and has even managed to front candidates for political office. This is an accomplishment. Albeit an accomplishment that is diminished by certain missteps along the way – such as, for example, Christine “I am not a witch” McConnell’s ill-fated run for office in 2010, and Rich “I’m not a Nazi, I just dress like one” Iott’s run for office in the same year. This is is to say that the TEA Party just like the Occupy movement has suffered from the lack of capable leadership. 

A Civil Servant at Tiananmen Square
The Occupy movement attracted left-wing individuals and the TEA Party attracted right-wing individuals. But, as pointed out in a memorable article by James Sinclair (here), the ideological differences between the two groups obscure the fact that members of the two groups shared many of the same concerns. In this post, I will discuss the common ground between the two groups as a step toward envisioning a political coalition that could, in theory, challenge the dominant two-party system. 

James Sinclair observed that many Occupy protestors shared the concern that corporations have too much political influence in this country, and that many TEA Party protestors shared the concern that government has too much influence. In fact, Sinclair tells us, the root cause of many of the problems our country faces is that collusion exists between corporations and government. Positional ideology is extremely unhelpful in this situation because it compels some people to focus their animus on corporations and others to focus their animus on “big government.” The result is that people talk past one another and can’t even recognize it when they are essentially in agreement. 

Fresh Thinking … Almost

Ron Unz, a conservative business-leader and political activist, recently made the news because he attempted to advance a California ballot initiative which would have raised the minimum wage to $12.00 an hour. This is noteworthy because the archetypal conservative (e.g. Alan Greenspan, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio, see here), is apt to view the minimum wage as yet another example of government interference in the free market. Unz explains that increasing the minimum wage would allow the federal government to collect more revenue to allocate to programs such as Social Security (here), and thus ease the overall burden on current taxpayers.
After spending a few moments nodding in agreement with his arguments, I noticed a little further down that Mr. Unz penned an article titled, “What’s Good for America Is Good for Wal-Mart, and Vice-Versa.” That’s when I started to have that sinking feeling one gets when the accountant says, “that tax refund I mentioned? I made a mistake.”  

Corporatism; or, Let’s Talk about Wal-Mart

Mr. Unz’s view is that Wal-Mart owes its success to being able to offer low-priced goods. If it offered its employees a living wage as opposed to what it offers employees currently, it would lose its competitive advantage in the marketplace. This argument leaves Wal-Mart blameless. Here, we see the mischievous influence of political ideology – specifically in the form of uncritical faith in the free market. And this is not to say that there is anything wrong with believing in free markets. The problem is that, in the case of Wal-Mart, it is not a question of free markets at all.
In fact, Wal-Mart owes much of its success to President Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton the candidate said that he would reassess China’s Most Favored Nation (MFN) status in light of that government’s flagrant abuses of human rights. The tragedy of Tiananmen Square – where at least 300 pro-democracy protestors were mowed down by China’s military forces – was still fresh in Americans’ memories. As president, Bill Clinton reversed his earlier position, and renewed China’s MFN status. 

Wal-Mart is the single leading importer of Chinese goods. As reported in Village Voice,

… the Clintons depended on Wal-Mart’s largesse not only for Hillary's regular payments as a board member but for travel expenses on Wal-Mart planes and for heavy campaign contributions to Bill's campaigns there and nationally. According to reports in the early '90s, before Bill and Hillary moved to D.C., neither was raking in the big bucks, but prominent in their income were her holdings of between $50,000 and $100,000 worth of Wal-Mart stock (source).
One may reasonably conjecture that a causal relationship exists between the largesse of Wal-Mart toward the Clintons and Bill Clinton’s subsequent reversal of his position regarding trade with China. Although the incident was eclipsed by far more salacious and colorful Clinton Era scandals, it bears mention that President Clinton had been under investigation for accepting improper campaign contributions from Chinese nationals (source). 

Going a little further back, China and the United States did not have normal trade relations until 1980. Before that, the U.S. did not trade with countries that had non-market economies. This restriction was one of the only sensible ideas to have come from the Cold War mentality of the 1950s. There are perfectly good reasons for not trading with non-market economies. In the case of China, the economy is still centrally planned. Low-wage migrant workers are drawn into the manufacturing centers like Shenzhen, made to work 80 hour weeks, and housed in crowded dormitories. The fact that companies such as Wal-Mart are free to avail themselves of these underpaid, mistreated workers means that there is a downward pressure on the wages of American workers.  

The point is this: so-called free trade agreements are carefully designed to benefit a few well-connected large corporations. These agreements allow politicians to bring in more campaign cash and increase their personal wealth, but harm the public interest. Before we can discuss a new political coalition, it is necessary that conservative-leaning Americans recognize that fine expressions such as “free markets” and “free trade” are merely doublespeak. It is also necessary that liberal-leaning Americans adopt a more skeptical attitude when listening to politicians who eloquently dilate on their empathy for the working poor.  

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