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The Stealth Coup

The WTO and the Fed have essentially become two new branches of government, in many ways more powerful than Congress and the president. Who elected them anyway?

November 21, 1999|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips, a political historian, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor" and "The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America."

The WTO is exhibit A in the neutering of Congress and the voters. WTO procedures allow countries to challenge each other's laws and regulations as violations of WTO trade rules. Cases are decided in secret, with documents, hearings and briefs kept confidential and unreleased, by tribunals of three bureaucrats, usually corporate lawyers. There are no conflict-of-interest restraints for these people. In addition, no appeal is possible outside the WTO.

Under this authority, barely debated in the legislative fast shuffle of 1994, the WTO has already overturned part of the U.S. Clean Air Act and declared illegal a recent U.S. environmental regulation. Now there is talk of enlarging WTO's jurisdiction to include education and health matters. Congress is being fleeced like lambs at a shearing.

Proponents of this transfer generally argue that either 1) globalization is the inevitable and we have to guide it or 2) globalization may involve some sacrifices but, in the long run, most Americans will profit.

History's example, however, raises major cautions. Indeed, the two great world economic powers before the United States--the Dutch in the 17th and early 18th centuries, and the British thereafter--followed the same internationalization trajectory as their world leadership peaked and then went into decline.

This precedent is as frightening as it is clear. As the Dutch and British global economies peaked, their future, said the elites, lay in embracing international rather than internal economic opportunities. As the old industries started to fade--textiles, shipbuilding and fisheries in the Netherlands; coal, textiles and steel in Britain--the elites said: Never mind. We now lead the world in services: banking, finance, overseas investments, shipping, insurance, communications. And that's where the payoff is.

Within each nation--1720-40 Holland and Britain in the "Upstairs, Downstairs" era of 1900-1914--two things came to pass. First, common people started losing the old industrial jobs that had made ordinary Dutchmen and Britons the envy of Europe. The old industrial districts deteriorated. Second, even as industrial decay worsened, finance and investments soared, inequality mushroomed and the elites buzzed about a new golden age. But then, something went wrong; finance, investments and services lost their way. The golden age imploded and the economy became no more than a shell of its old broad-based heyday--Holland in 1770 or Britain in 1945.

This is the enormous risk that ordinary Americans--the huge two-thirds in the economic middle--now take in allowing U.S. democracy and representative government to be undercut and restructured by the U.S. equivalent of the financial and multinational elites that so selfishly misdirected early 20th-century Britain and 18th-century Holland. Recent statistics showing the top 1% of Americans soaring on financial wings, even as inflation-adjusted median family incomes are about the same as they were 25 years ago, buttress the parallel. So do efforts of current U.S. elites to move their investments overseas, as the earlier Dutch and British elites did, and to sell technology to nations like China that could easily become a threat to U.S. interests.

It's easy to see why U.S. corporate CEOs and investment bankers want the new globalism. Dozens have publicly admitted they don't want their organizations to be American any longer; they want them to be international so they can cut loose from stagnant median family incomes and the future pensions and benefits for those 58-year-old workers in Kansas and Kentucky.

The WTO is many things, some of them reasonable. To say otherwise would be misleading. Nonetheless, too many multinational banks and corporations silently applaud the WTO as an enabler of overseas investment that will make it safe for U.S. companies to move more of their employment, profits and loyalties elsewhere. Ordinary Dutchmen and Britons couldn't stop the earlier trends, and maybe Americans can't stop these.

Even so, tens of thousands of angry people in the streets of Seattle, giving these issues a human face, could do more than attract headlines and evening-news coverage. They might propel the matter into an arena where such important decisions should be made: the 2000 presidential and congressional elections. *

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