Amid tear gas, all globalization's foes emerge
Free trade is popular, but critics in Seattle range from idealists to bitter turf defenders.
WASHINGTON AND SEATTLE — If nothing else, massive demonstrations at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle have unexpectedly sparked widespread debate about one of the most powerful trends of the late 20th century: economic globalization.
To boosters, free trade and tighter business ties are obviously good things. The benefits of years of globalization are now clearly visible in communities across the world, they say.
The US has been a prime beneficiary, with globalization meaning everything from cash in the pocket for Kansas farmers to money for a minor-league hockey team in Jackson, Miss.
To its diverse alliance of critics, it is something far more sinister. They see "globalization" as a code word for destruction - of the environment, of working class wages, of native cultures. Their show of force in recent days is one hint that world leaders may have to pay more attention to a trend some have labeled "globalphobia."
"What we're seeing on the streets of Seattle is an excellent example of globalphobia," says Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's a collection ... of many groups of people, some of whom are intensely idealistic, others who just want to defend a position they regard as besieged, and others who are just very confused."
This message of protest is not one that the world's political and business elite should reject out of hand. That was President Clinton's message, in any case.
The secrecy of WTO rulings only creates fear and misunderstanding of the whole trend of world economic integration, Mr. Clinton told conference attendees. The WTO needs to take account of worker rights everywhere, he said. But Clinton also offered an endorsement, saying "this is a stronger, more prosperous world because we have worked to expand the frontiers of cooperation."
Many state and community leaders around the United States now agree with this view. Why anyone would be opposed to globalization is a mystery to Kansas state Rep. Jim Garner, who flew into Seattle as part of the Democratic Leadership Council. He says Kansas will benefit from increased trade for its two main industries: agriculture and aircraft production.
For example, once China joins the WTO, tariffs on agricultural products will drop from 40 percent to 14 percent. "The family farmer is really hurting out there, and opening up new markets like China will have a major impact on Kansas," says Mr. Garner.
World prosperity, he reasons, will benefit Boeing, which employs 5 percent of the workforce in the Wichita area. Since almost 10 percent of Boeing's planes are sold to China, he reasons that any improvement in the Chinese economy means more jobs.
Globalization has even brought Jackson a hockey team. The new minor-league Jackson Bandits were attracted to the city, in part, by MCI WorldCom head Bernie Ebbers. Mr. Ebbers' company is the center of Jackson's new economy. Globalization has helped make that happen. "There are pros and cons to globalization of trade," says Harold Lathon, director of the office of economic development for the city of Jackson. "But for the most part, growth of the telecommunications industry is seen as further ensuring local growth and development, and we certainly support the globalization efforts by WorldCom."
With Jackson's booming economy has come interest by other companies looking to locate and expand operations here. A $160 million power facility and multimillion-dollar art center are under way, housing construction is soaring, and community development is heating up.
Still, some groups blame globalization for their problems. Chuck Willer of the Coast Range Association in Covallis, Ore., worries the liberalization of wood products - a proposal before the WTO - will be harmful to the coastal communities of Oregon and Washington. He says increased logging will hurt both water quality and salmon habitat.
He's also skeptical that any increased logging will result in more money for workers. "Between 1978 and 1996, timber wages fell 38 percent, adjusted for inflation, as the industry moved into this new kind of economy," Mr. Willer says.
Willer is a good example of one of the three main strains of opposition to globalization, as defined by Mr. Burtless: workers who want to protect their own position.
Textile union workers and others who see their jobs migrating abroad have been well-represented in Seattle protests - though not necessarily in the violence.
The other two main groups are idealists, such as environmentalists, who believe values should trump economics; and those who regard the global spread of companies such as McDonald's to be evil on its face.
"They regard the common international trends as being pernicious ones," says Burtless. "They don't recognize that many people don't regard them as bad at all."
Kris Axtman contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society