Worker Notes: A Rational, Sustainable Economy Is Key To Worker & Community Health


By Tom Crofton
The Commoner Call (7/16/18)

Recent talk of trade wars has been missing the critical discussion of how the needs of people around the globe could be met in the most sustainable way, and core to that discussion are clear agreements on what those needs really are. Pre-industrial societies met most of their needs locally, most often within a few days walking or riding distance. Locally scarce items — like salt for food preservation — were easy enough to transport. As ruling aristocracies developed tastes for more exotic items, their political and military power was used to control the supply and distribution of those relative luxuries.

Empires were built on the ability to control the flow of resources and goods made cheaply by foreign natives, who in turn were conditioned to want manufactured goods from the empire. An absurd example is the imperial use of the color red, whose manufacture from plants and tiny creatures was so labor intensive that no peasant would ever have anything red, but entire armies could wear red coats dyed by the result of peasant labor. Just the sight of thousands of red coats made the natives cower; an empire that could do that had to be strong.

Real prosperity for all would include more leisure time instead of a second or third job. Renewable materials tastefully made into durable goods don’t have to be a thing of the past. Locally grown food offers great opportunities for meaningful work, better health, and a reduced carbon footprint.

A modern example is the change in local peasant agriculture, where the thousands of species of food crops suitable for small scale self-sufficient farming are replaced with genetically altered, herbicide resistant, proprietary trademarked crops whose seed cannot be saved for replanting and whose costs are controlled by global corporations. In these cases, the local varieties are lost, the chance for massive crop failure increases as a disease or climate shift can destroy everything, the costs for seed and chemicals often don’t get balanced by world commodity price shifts, and the traditional local food staples are priced too high for the peasants (e.g. corn tortillas in Mexico).

Toward a sustainable economy

A sustainable economy would allow for trade in items not locally available, but would price the difference in labor rates and all external costs correctly to allow locally produced goods to compete fairly. The revenues of the U.S. government from its beginning into the early 20th Century when the income tax was created were almost all from tariffs. The original idea was to tax the difference in labor rates. Commodities are priced in a world market but the costs of moving them and the cost of adding labor value vary. A fair trade concept is to keep labor rates even, which then supports local production because the transportation is cheaper. This model is quite the opposite of finding the cheapest labor possible, colonizing it, extracting raw materials for export back home, and importing finished goods made in the center of the empire. The Imperial model worked well for the Brits because of those red coats, a bunch of ships, firepower and brutality. The losers were the “wogs” at the bottom of the food chain, and no “white man’s burden” could get them back their old regional economy, since the missionaries’ “burden” was to set them up as permanent dependents of the empire.

Globalization is the empire turned inside out, where the home-front is colonized and the corporation is the ruling elite, whose person-hood is recognized politically, but whose lack of responsibility to the consequences of its actions is quite inhumane. The use of jumbo jets to haul tomatoes to places that could grow their own is a stunning development. So is the fact that the pollution from container ships bringing manufactured goods is greater than that of 18-wheelers on our roads. You can buy light weight wood shavings in the Midwest — where we have abundant forests — that come a thousand miles from the western mountains. Milk is hauled up from Florida to Wisconsin to make cheese while Wisconsin farmers produce too much already.

None of these trades would take place if labor was not exploited by low wages and external costs — like pollution — were included.

Trade war victims

Now we have the irony that new tariffs are being placed on imports by our President with the resulting tit-for-tat tariffs being placed on export commodities directly impacting the farmers who elected him. These farmers are dependent on growing too much with capital intensive systems that are very fragile in shifting economic times and have lost their diversified rural lifestyle as a result. The loss of export markets will sink many of them if trade wars heats up. That development will just consolidate the failed farms into larger corporate entities that use semi-skilled hired hands with bigger equipment to squeeze a few more cents of labor out of the bushel. The quality of life for farmers and rural communities is declining just as it happened to the natives colonized by the Empire, but in this case we did it to ourselves.

Regional economic models can return us to living wages and long-term prosperity if developed with sustainable principles. These must include questions of what we actually need and what kind of lifestyle we should strive for. Madison Avenue marketing has taken away the cognitive powers of most and much of the stuff coming across oceans in containers is junk.

Real prosperity for all would include more leisure time instead of a second or third job. Renewable materials tastefully made into durable goods don’t have to be a thing of the past. Locally grown food offers great opportunities for meaningful work, better health, and a reduced carbon footprint. Manufacturing wastes need to become raw materials for other products. Waste energy needs to be reused in other forms. None of these ideas are new or difficult. Implementing them as a holistic plan cuts against the intentionally planned global top-down/short-term profit model that rules the world now.

For the good of all we must change that.

(Art from Labor Temple mural in Madison, Wisconsin.)


Trump’s Trade War Is About Asserting US Dominance In The World, Not Helping American Workers

By David M. Kotz
Jacobin (6/28/18)

President Trump slaps tariffs on imports from many of the US’s traditional allies, condemning their leaders for unfair treatment. The mainstream media warns of the erosion of the global order.

President Trump threatens, and then imposes, high tariffs on Chinese products and other restrictions on trade relations with China. ZTE corporation, a leading state-owned, high-tech company in China, is barred on national security grounds from importing US-made components that are essential to their products. Then the ZTE action is reversed, leading some Democratic senators to denounce Trump for going soft on China.

Whose side should we be on, if any, in this burgeoning trade war?

Lashing Out at US Allies

There are two aspects to Trump’s trade-war policy. One is the action against the EU, Canada, and Mexico; the other is the stance toward China. The issues are different in the two cases.

What about US workers, though? We can’t ignore the cost to working people in the US when relatively high-wage jobs are shifted to China or Indonesia.

Trump’s actions against the EU, Canada, and Mexico are driven by his right-wing nationalist politics, which are shared by some of his closest advisors. That political posture helped propel his unlikely campaign to the presidency in 2016. According to the right-wing nationalist view of the world, global trade is a zero-sum relationship. Tariffs are the battering ram that can be used to secure better deals for the US at the expense of others.

This right-wing nationalist stance runs contrary to the longtime establishment consensus, which favors “free trade” within a US-dominated global order. Both liberals and conservatives in the US have supported the relatively open global trading system — which, underneath the rhetoric about everyone benefiting, is designed to empower capital to move freely around the globe in search of low-wage labor, low taxes, and lax environmental regulation.

While the Left has long criticized this arrangement, Trump offers nothing better in its place. The US does not have the power to impose a flagrantly unfair set of trade rules on the rest of the world. …

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