City Lit: Planet Wort

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Nothing could seem further away from the concerns of people who work at the grassroots than the global economy. But the power struggle between investors and everyone else that Richard Longworth analyzes in Global Squeeze already affects everything from where the next grant comes from and how policy gets made to what kind of jobs we and our children will hold.

There’s $400 trillion moving around the world in international capital markets every year. Two weeks’ worth of these dollar transfers fund the movement of all goods and services. The other 50 weeks consist of speculation, pure and simple. That’s a lot of money floating around, and Longworth isn’t sure it’s up to any good.

The MacArthur Foundation gave Longworth, a senior reporter at the Chicago Tribune, a year-long fellowship to expand on a front-page series he wrote during the past couple of years that chronicled how the world is becoming a global market instead of a global village. Longworth defines globalization as the explosive increase of money flowing around the world coupled with a market-driven quest for efficiency, regardless of whether that efficiency helps or hurts most individuals. One direct result is the anguish of disappearing jobs in the United States, particularly in manufacturing.

Longworth’s take, which depending on one’s point of view is either common sense or flamingly radical, is that the world’s wealthiest citizens–the Japanese, the Germans, the French and us–can choose which side will win this power struggle. He observes that industrial nations like these four always have had the biggest social safety nets, such as good unemployment benefits and welfare systems.

Well naturally, he writes. The countries that create the most wealth have always believed in setting aside more money for the citizens who have the least, in order to give everyone a stake in seeing the system prosper. That is, until now. These days, mutual responsibility is falling apart, in part because those with the most wealth don’t want to share anymore–profits have come to seem more important than participation in society.

That’s not news for anyone who works with communities on the losing end of that equation. Nor is Longworth breaking new ground in policy analysis–his core ideas have been fodder for Nation magazine articles for years, as well as the subject of a well-received book by journalist William Greider. What may be most remarkable about Global Squeeze is not what Longworth writes, but who he is. The Tribune is one of the most Republican papers in the country and a standard-bearer of corporate culture. In that light, this reporter’s critical evaluation seems positively revolutionary.

Longworth offers a telling story about market-driven efficiency. He visits a farm town in Iowa just like the place where he grew up, only to find that the school is closed, the remaining couple of hundred residents are mostly seniors and the only restaurant in town is run as a nonprofit to give locals somewhere to go. In Iowa, efficiency rewards larger and larger farms, at the expense of entire towns where a broad population that ran family spreads has been displaced.

He compares this to the farm town of Aurillac, in France. There, he finds a flourishing village market and plenty of life. Why? In France, whenever the government tries to remove price supports on agricultural products, farmers block highways with their tractors and shut the country down. It drives proponents of efficiency crazy–but it doesn’t hurt the farmers’ livelihoods, not to mention the quality of French food.

Unemployment and other results of the drive for efficiency pose a bottom-line question for Longworth: Who is an economy for? The investors and owners, or the rest of us? In his view, the global squeeze is the power struggle between capitalism and democracy. Contrary to what they taught us in high school civics class, capitalism and democracy are not friends. ‘The driving force behind capitalism is inequality–the dream of making more money than other people,’ Longworth writes. ‘The driving force behind democracy is equality–one person, one vote.’

Once he puts it this way–as a fundamental choice for societies to make–globalization starts to sound relevant to many issues that affect neighborhoods. While Longworth doesn’t specifically discuss megamergers, HMOs, the ‘financial modernization’ of banking or other prospects on the national agenda right now, what they all have in common is that they are big issues that demand a resolution to the question: Which is more important, profits or people?

Sound familiar? Even if strategic plans for community-based work don’t include consciousness-raising forums on globalization or organizing campaigns that take on the World Bank, those working in the grassroots should be pleasantly surprised to see the mainstream finally talking about issues that we’ve been concerned with all along. Call it trickle-up policy.

Yet globalization is a force bigger than any of us, and it isn’t one that most of us are likely to start working on anytime soon. How would you do it?

Gordon Mayer works at the National Training and Information Center, a Chicago community-organizing resource group.