Rich versus poor, old versus young: heed the cries

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The World Trade Organization are already talking about using the next ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar, in November to open a new round of trade talks. As well they might, though the meeting is still four months way. The WTO's last meeting, in Seattle in 1999, came apart in violence over globalization, and divisions are more pronounced today.

Two important gaps are growing in and between nations of the world. One is between rich and poor nations as well as people; the other, between old and young within nations. Both will have profound consequences.

The rich-poor gap goes to the heart of the popular opposition to globalization. This is the tendency of multilateral corporations to seek the most favorable manufacturing conditions anywhere in the world: the fewest possible environmental regulations and the lowest possible labor costs. Poor countries see this as bringing them jobs; rich countries see it as taking jobs away.

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Before Seattle, concern over labor and the environment was dismissed as modern camouflage for the old arguments of protectionism. Now, it is seen as more complicated. The noisy opponents of globalization may be a bunch of scruffy kids, but like their predecessors of the Vietnam era, they deserve to be taken seriously.

Consider the issue in a multilateral relationship such as a Western Hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas, if one is negotiated. When there are many poor countries involved, such as all of Central America, they compete against each other to attract foreign business through lax, if any, environmental and labor regulation.

The same situation prevailed among poor states in the United States before the federal government imposed nationwide uniform standards for the environment and labor. It would make sense to agree on worldwide standards, if agreement can be reached.

The second gap - between young and old - has to do with the surplus of labor in the poor world, where the young are more numerous, and the shortage of labor in the rich world, where the old are more numerous. The American computer industry has already imported, on a temporary basis, hundreds of thousands of workers from India to make up for a shortage of qualified American workers.

More of this will happen in computers and in other fields. This fills a need in the US for labor (unions think it also holds down wages) at the same time that it contributes to India's foreign-exchange coffers through remittances.

With the large exception of native Americans and African slaves, the US began its national life as a European nation. Most of the huge waves of immigration in the 19th century were European - Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, Italians. The Chinese were brought to build the railroads and then, in 1882, excluded by an act of Congress, not to be legally admitted again until World War II made the Chinese allies. In 1923, less-onerous restrictions were imposed on European immigrants, with the aim of preserving the national mix then prevailing.

This policy has long been a total failure. The pressure of population growth in developing nations since World War II has generated a growing and irresistible flood of immigrants that is changing the American people from basically European to a heterogeneous mix of Europeans, Hispanics, Asians, and Africans - with Europeans slipping into the minority.

This is changing more than the workforce; it is changing the culture. And it is difficult for some Americans to adjust, the more so since there is nothing they can do about it.

Even more than the US, the rest of the rich world - namely Europe and Japan - needs immigrants. By 2050, only half of all Europeans and 58 percent of all Japanese will be under the age of 60. This will not sustain present economies. It is only immigration that is driving American population growth.

This combination of rich-poor, old-young trends is woven together in a complex relationship that has too many conflicting interests for neat solutions. Industrial economies will continue to seek export markets and advantageous investment opportunities.

There will continue to be enough people hurt by this growth in world trade to make themselves heard - at the polls in democracies and in the streets of other countries. Enough people will continue to benefit to make themselves similarly heard. In most instances, the balance is probably on the side of the beneficiaries. But there are enough legitimate complainants that governments should curb the more rapacious instincts of their corporations.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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