Thursday, September 18, 2008

Blood, gore and trade barriers

For those who like horror films, there are two new ones coming out. One is about a group of people quarantined in an apartment building where a virus is spreading, causing the infected to turn into vicious cannibals. The other is about a group of people fighting against an evil force that has descended upon their city, seeking to dominate the globe.

The second film, which opens tomorrow, is called Battle in Seattle. It chronicles the experience of different groups (protesters, riot police, city officials) caught up in the 1999 protests of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Initial reviews are generally positive, and the cast includes Ray Liotta, Charlize Theron, Andre Benjamin and Woody Harrelson.

Having not yet seen the film, I can't make specific criticisms or comments. I do, however, question the use of person narratives from a large-scale protest to provide insight into complex and abstract issues. The film's director, Stuart Townsend, is personally sympathetic to the protesters' cause. He spells out the conflict in stark terms:
"It's the faceless bureaucrats — they're the problem... It's the lobbyists and the corporations that rape the environment."
San Francisco-based NGO Global Exchange provides a good list of the most commonly cited critiques of the WTO. The WTO provides rebuttals to many of these arguments on its own website.

I think there's a lot of confusion about the WTO, it's history and purpose. The WTO is generally portrayed as an autonomous, unelected bureaucracy, when it's really a member-state organization like the UN. WTO representatives are not, themselves, elected (neither are UN ambassadors), but they are appointed by government leaders. Their policy-positions reflect the positions of their respective governments.

The WTO is also often accused of amplifying the power of large countries over global commerce. In actuality, WTO amplifies the power of small countries. This is because by joining the WTO, all countries, large and small, are committing themselves to a set of rules and responsibilities (again, not unlike the UN). Large countries have much more power to break their trade agreements with small countries (for example, put an illegal tariff on goods from the smaller country). The WTO provides an institutional mechanism so that small countries can seek damages from large countries when they break the rules.

Additionally, the claim that the WTO gives more power to corporations is a bit misleading. As I've said before, corporations only support "free-market competition" when it's in their interest. In reality, politically-connected corporations are the ones that benefit most from trade restrictions. They are the ones who get to avoid facing foreign competitors, yielding higher prices and lower quality goods for consumers.

The world faces many challenges too large for any one nation to solve. That is why we have global institutions, which allow for member states to agree on a set of rules and guidelines. But these institutions are really just the sum of their parts. If you want to change their priorities, you need to change the priorities of the member states.

My purpose in writing this is not to denigrate the concerns of the global justice movement - equitable labor standards, environmental protection, and human rights. I do, however, think that too many people have been seduced by a caricature of international trade that vastly overstates the costs and vastly understates the benefits. Trade is not zero-sum; we can all benefit at the same time.

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