Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Do you think that global corporations are evil? 
Wait till you hear this.
It used to be that if an American company invested in Canada and some disagreement arose between the US and the Canadian businesses, their disagreement would be adjudicated under Canadian law. In recent years transnational trade agreements provide for what is called “Investor-state arbitration.” Under such treaties, an arbitration panel staffed by lawyers, who also may be involved in international trade and in court cases concerning international trade, is empowered to resolve disagreements regardless of the laws in the country where the investment is made. These arbitration panel decisions override court decisions of the country where an, often North American, corporation has made investments. Arbitration panels of this kind can override national sovereignty and governments duly elected by the people of another country.
There are a number of cases where North American drug companies have appealed to these somewhat shadowy tribunals in order to prevent Canadian manufacturers of generic drugs from selling those in the US or even in Canada. In other cases North American chemical companies complained about the Canadian limitations on poisonous agricultural chemicals. They appealed to the arbitration panels for permission to sell their highly toxic agricultural chemicals even where Canadian law prohibited that.
The upshot is that before US investors will invest in a foreign country, the country first must sign a treaty with the US which limits the application of their legislation and their courts and their government sovereignty in the interest of allowing US companies to override local law and court decisions.
A particularly startling example of this kind of naked imperialism is the experience of Ecuador. Between 1964 and 1992 Texaco explored for and drilled for oil in the Amazonian jungle of Ecuador. During that time the company is accused of dumping more than 16 billion gallons of toxic water into streams and rivers used by the local, indigenous inhabitants.
The indigenous peoples sued in Ecuadorian and in US courts. After losing repeatedly over an 18 year period, the plaintiff's finally won in an Ecuadorian court and then in the appellate court. Chevron, who had bought the operation from Texaco, was ordered to pay $18 billion for cleanup and punitive damages to the indigenous Ecuadorian people.
But that did not settle anything at all. In February of this year one of the shadowy “investor – state” tribunals ordered the Ecuadorian government to stop enforcing the decree of their own courts. Chevron has still not done any cleanup. It has not paid any reparations. It has sought refuge under the greater power of the US government and the US economy to invade the decisions of a legitimate Ecuadorian government.
The investor-state tribunal can give orders to the government of another nation, a government that the citizens of that country elected. US corporations arrogate to themselves power over foreign government. They enforce those outrageous claims by threatening to withdraw investments from those other countries. Imperialism is alive and well.
Is it any wonder that foreign countries and their populations call us “bullies”?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Then and now.

The current economic crisis has been compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s. But there is one important difference between then and now. In the 1930s many working people banded together to organize an American labor movement that was powerful in the workplace and in national politics on until the 1980s. Today…?
Today people look to the government to create jobs, to create an economy that is more just. That is true even of those working people who have bought into the Tea Party line of smaller and smaller government. The tea party people are not proposing to abolish the government themselves. They are looking to Congress – one of the three parts of government – to abolish one of the other ones, the executive.
Yes, there are real parallels between then and now. But there also is this glaring difference. Then Americans were willing to roll up their shirt sleeves and build new organizations in order to protect working people. Today people are willing to blame, to point fingers, and to wait for somebody else to do the real work of change.
What does that tell us about ourselves? We still take credit for being a self determining, active nation. We still like to talk about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. But I don't see a lot of evidence for any of that. In discussions I have with people about social and political problems, the first suggestion is always: “the government should…” I very rarely hear anyone say: “we should organize ourselves…”
No doubt there are many different explanations for this change. In the 30s many working people were leftist immigrants from Eastern Europe, or children of leftist immigrants. Today's immigrants are very different. They win a lottery for a visa and come to the US in order to participate the competitive struggle for wealth. Few among them are inclined towards organizing themselves to improve their ability to resist the pressures by employers.
Since the 1930s we have had 80 years of powerful executive programs. We have become accustomed to letting our government take care of us and then complaining if we don't get the sort of care we are looking for.
Since the end of World War II – 60 years ago – we have developed an astonishing consumer culture. Buying new things has become our recipe for happiness, even though everyone is ready to say that “money does not buy happiness.” What makes consumer goods so attractive is that they make life easier. Think of the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, the automatic coffeemaker, the remote control of whatever electronic device you may think of. You know longer need to get out of your chair to turn on your television. You just click a button. Comfort and minimal effort have become important values.
The dark side of that search for ease and comfort is, of course, that people have to work incredibly hard to be able to afford all this luxury. Possibilities of earning money are precarious. So you need to be careful and not get the reputation of being a troublemaker. Seeking ease, struggling to keep up with mounting bills, insecure in the ability to earn a living, – those and other pressures have turned us into passive citizens. When a depression, clearly orchestrated by large banks and other large businesses, puts our livelihood in danger we are no longer able to fight back.
Add to that the fact that the depression was brought about by very complicated maneuverings and manipulations. It is not obvious how Goldman Sachs and their other banking cronies managed to enrich themselves and impoverish the rest of us. It is difficult to fight against an evil that is not at all transparent.
So we do the only thing that seems left to us. We complain.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Who deserves the blame?

When an American soldier went out to the nearest Afghan village and killed 16 people, a great deal of attention was focused on this one man. We heard about his family and his own history. The same happens with the grisly crimes that fill the daily paper. Teenage boys shooting their classmates. Young mothers killing their children. Angry husbands killing their wives and sometimes their children also. Young men shooting other young men.
In each case there are one or more individuals accused of the crime and the news focuses on them. A good deal of attention is then given to what sort of punishment this person should receive. Where a murder has been committed there is always mention of the possibility of the death penalty, even if the accused murderer is only 15 years old.
This intense focus on the individual murderer has always puzzled me.
When the Boston Red Sox win a pennant, half of Boston celebrates and gets drunk even though the celebrants made absolutely no contribution to the victory of the team – except perhaps paying large sums to sit in the bleachers. People are “proud to be Americans” even though their individual contribution to American economic or military power is miniscule or even completely nonexistent. We take credit for the good things that happen in our society even when we, actually, did not contribute to the good event. It gives us a sense of accomplishment. It makes us important and our lives worthwhile.
But the bad things that happen always get blamed on specific individuals. When the Red Sox failed to win a pennant because it's overpaid players were drinking beer in the clubhouse during the game, did any of us ask ourselves what our contribution was to this sort of culture of self indulgence and “more money for me.” Is it conceivable that these undisciplined players were simply living out the standard life in a consumerist society? And do all of us who participate in that society not bear some responsibility for keeping it going?
If our schools have students so angry and so disillusioned that they are willing to bring a gun to school and use it, does that not also have to do with us?
News reports say that Sgt. Bales, accused of killing 16 civilians in Afghanistan, served three tours in Iraq before he was sent to Afghanistan – clearly unwilling to go. I'm sure he is not the only one who has served that much time on the front lines. All the other soldiers who have done similar service have not gone out to shoot civilians. For sure, but should we not ask whether the military – and we – put excessive demands on this person?
Should we not ask whether Sgt. Bales should have been in Afghanistan at all? Is it possible that all of us who have been condemning those wars but have not been willing to protest loudly enough to be heard in Washington have some responsibility for the continuing damage we are doing to Afghanistan and to our own soldiers?
If you are “proud to be American” you should also be ashamed for American soldiers who kill civilians in Afghanistan.