Global safeguards for a global economy

By Harold Meyerson, WASHINGTON, Special to The Washington Post

With our nation just having celebrated its birthday, I’d like to make a modest proposal for a project that might occupy us for the next century or so: Taking the regulated, more-social capitalism that created mass prosperity in this nation and Western Europe in the second half of the 20th century and re-creating it on a global scale.

At present, our debate over how best the United States should relate to the rest of the world isn’t very fruitful. On one side are the realists who believe that advancing our interests may require abandoning many of the values we espouse. On the other are those who believe our interests are better served when we seek to advance these values, either in tandem with our allies (the liberal viewpoint) or by ourselves and by force (the neoconservative viewpoint).

None of these viewpoints focuses on the dominant social reality of our time: that a unified global economy has emerged that is ending our economic sovereignty, and that this brave new world imperils both the interests and values of the United States. Secession from the global economy is impossible. And while some of the problems that this economy presents can be mitigated nationally, many are susceptible only to global solutions.

Consider the spate of stories in recent weeks about all the unsafe medication, toys, toothpaste, tires and food that come from China to the shelves of our stores. This is the utterly predictable consequence of the decision by American manufacturers and retailers — Wal-Mart above all — to have their products made cheaply in developing nations where regulations to safeguard consumers are, in effect, nonexistent.

No one in this country has seriously proposed abolishing the Food and Drug Administration, which has ensured the safety of food and medication here for the past 101 years. Nonetheless, globalization is well on its way to abolishing it in fact if not in name. The FDA acknowledges that it inspects the barest handful of factories in India and China, where nearly half of the ingredients that go into our medications are made. It subjects less than 1 percent of imported food shipments to lab analysis.

We could — indeed, we must — increase the FDA’s budget so that it can conduct more inspections. But how many Chinese factories can it inspect, and what happens when Wal-Mart forces production to move to the even cheaper labor markets of Thailand or sub-Saharan Africa? Perhaps the FDA can cover some countries while the European Union covers others and Canada others still. Or perhaps, and more workably, the World Trade Organization or the United Nations can establish a global safety agency, equivalent to the World Health Organization, empowered to inspect factories in any nation, with severe sanctions to be visited on any country that doesn’t subject itself to the system.

I have started with consumer safety — I could just as easily have started with the climate crisis — to illustrate the limits of regulating the global economy nationally. But the same logic applies to environmental safeguards more generally. It applies to labor standards and worker rights. Software writers in San Jose are in the same labor pool as software writers in Shanghai, some of them working for the same company. The security guards in Los Angeles office buildings work for the same companies that employ security guards in Johannesburg. This is why, in just the past two years, the first global labor unions have begun to take shape. This is why, over the next several decades, some kind of global labor protections will have to take shape as well.

Just now there’s a lively debate among liberal thinkers over whether we can protect U.S. workers in the global economy through a series of domestic reforms or whether we also need to address the laissez-faire rules of the global economy itself. (Economists James K. Galbraith and Jeff Faux have had at it on the Web site of the magazine I edit, the American Prospect.) My own sense is that, as globalization proceeds, restoring some economic stability and creating more economic opportunity in the United States will require regulating markets and empowering labor on a global scale.

That, to return to my modest proposal, should be the centerpiece of the liberal project for the 21st century. It’s not the kind of theme that will surface in the 2008 campaign, but over time, the globalization of the economy will compel progressives to create, haltingly and piecemeal, a form of global government, just as the transformation of the American economy from a locally to a nationally based one between 1865 and 1935 compelled the progressives of that time to create a genuine national government. That is the internationalism to which liberals should commit themselves — one that promotes and preserves both our values and our interests, that extends into an uncertain future our economic achievements and democratic ideals. Meyerson is editor-at-large of American Prospect and the L.A. Weekly.