In his Oct. 31 speech at Woolsey Hall, former President Bill Clinton expressed his support for international trade, insisting, “America has greater obligations to open up borders and to invest more in development in poor countries.” While terms like “open borders” and “development in poor countries” sound inviting, there is a darker side to utopian visions of a more unified and open world. Freer international trade can be devastating for all citizens of the “global community” — whether they are residents of the United States or of a “poor” American trading partner.
The U.S. economy lost 2.81 million jobs during the recession that began with the bursting of the tech bubble in March of 2000. Conservative estimates indicate that anywhere from 500,000 to 600,000 of these American jobs — mostly in manufacturing — have been transplanted overseas.
But statistics fail to convey the seriousness of these massive job losses. On Oct. 6, the Carrier Corporation — a manufacturer of air conditioners based in Syracuse, New York — announced that it would be closing its two Syracuse manufacturing plants. Carrier indicated that workers in China, Singapore and Georgia would replace the 1,200 laid-off Syracuse employees. According to Carrier Chief Executive George David, it is three times more expensive to build units in the United States than in Asia; indeed, to remain competitive, Carrier was forced to relocate its manufacturing plants.
Ironically, just this past May Mr. Clinton gave a commencement address to graduating Syracuse University seniors in the Carrier Dome — the veritable manifestation of Carrier’s importance to the Syracuse community. Of course, Mr. Clinton didn’t know that the “global community” he touted in his speech would cause 1,200 Syracuse residents to lose their jobs. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the soon-to-be-unemployed Carrier workers watched his son or daughter graduate at that commencement.
Unfortunately, the future also looks grim for the Syracuse graduates that Clinton addressed. While thus far most of the “exported jobs” have been in manufacturing, professional labor is rapidly becoming a global commodity. American companies are increasingly finding their engineers, stock analysts and software designers abroad — primarily in China, Russia and India. Morgan Stanley, for example, is increasing its number of analysts in Bombay, but not in New York, while Boeing has hired Moscow engineers and reduced its Seattle engineering staff.
For American companies it is a simple matter of cost-benefit analysis. Labor hired abroad is often half the cost of the high salaries, pensions and health insurance of an equivalent American workforce. And when frugal corporate officers consider the bottom line, concerns about community and civic responsibility carry little weight.
OK, so globalization doesn’t seem so rosy for people in the United States. But what about the residents of countries like China? Surely these people are benefiting from the new job opportunities created by a massive influx of American capital.
Residents of developing countries are also getting the short end of the global stick. A recent series of New York Times articles have probed the abuses of Chinese workers at the hands of China’s booming corporations. In one article, Shen Yunxiang, an employee at a pharmaceutical company in Taizhou, China, offered a story of particularly horrific disregard for human life. Mr. Shen was told to descend into a subterranean drainage pipe and knock down a barricade that had been diverting the flow of industrial waste. He and his brother-in-law climbed into the pipe and were immediately overwhelmed by a wave of noxious fumes. His brother-in-law died from the fumes; Mr. Shen lost consciousness and was hospitalized with severe lung congestion. Perhaps most shocking, however, is the fact that the company sent another worker into the pipe the very next day. This worker also died, along with a security guard who had tried to save him.
Mr. Clinton envisions a global community based on shared responsibilities, benefits and values. Unfortunately, the value that most quickly penetrates national borders is good old-fashioned American capitalism. And while in the United States the dangers of capitalism have been countered by government regulation and supervision, in an international community of 192 sovereign countries uniform and just regulation is nearly impossible. The result is that well-paid American jobs are replaced by sweatshop labor abroad, that safe working conditions and environmental concerns are sacrificed in a ruthless attempt to lower the bottom line.
Without the enforcement of international labor and environmental standards, free trade will lead to the devastation of the United States’ economy and the ruthless exploitation of workers and natural resources in developing countries. It is essential that we prepare for an international economy with effective international labor and environmental laws. Without these regulations, “open borders” and “global community” will have a catastrophic influence on both American and foreign communities.
Steven Starr is a junior in Saybrook College.