Protesters raised the right questions

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. - So here I was last year, in this Washington, the one with the big domed building, and all the way across the country in the other Washington, the one with the big domed mountain, there was real political action - smashing Starbucks.

Well, explained one of the peaceful protesters via my hotel room television, Starbucks is a symbol, and with 50,000 demonstrators in town a few people were bound to get out of hand. But there weren't 50,000. Maybe half that, and fading though my memory may be, it recalled a summer day when there were five times 50,000 Washington demonstrators with grievances clearer and more present. Yet nothing was shattered but indifference.

The Seattle event also recalled chillier autumn evenings with angrier crowds making a determined effort to destroy a building. But that was the Pentagon, both symbol and citadel of real power. Starbucks?

I find the coffee too oily, but that's no excuse for breaking windows. Is something petty going on here?

The window smashing, yes. But few of the demonstrators against the World Trade Organization broke windows. And if some of the arguments of the demonstrators against the WTO (and their costumes) were silly, the impulse underlying their protest was not. Nor were the questions they raised.

The questions were about the costs and benefits of the global economy, the pluses and minuses of corporate dominance, the winners and losers in free trade.

Behind those are questions more fundamental: Where is the border line between democracy and the market? What is the extent of national sovereignty? Who decides what the countryside and the towns will look like? Even, perhaps, what is the good life?

Such questions are too broad to apply merely, or mainly, to any one region, but they have particular salience for the American West. Much of the argument about the global economy is about agriculture, which remains central to both the economy and the culture of the West. The answers to those questions will help determine how many cattle ranchers will survive, and whether the price they get for their beef will be set by the market we have now or by one manipulated (or at least affected) by one of the four conglomerates that will soon control most of the food supply, in the estimation of rural sociologist Bill Heffernan of the University of Missouri.

In fact, the global economy debate may help determine whether commercial agriculture continues to exist in America. That may seem an absurd prospect; American began as a nation of farmers, and the independent farmer, however few in number, remains vital to the national culture.

But some argue that the American farmer is an anachronism.

"Most Americans could not care less if farming and ranching disappear as long as they get their burgers and fries," wrote economist Stephen Blank in The Futurist. "America will waddle on. The U.S. economy no longer needs agriculture and is rapidly outgrowing it ... No one is buying the farmer's sob story any more. Instead, we buy imported food."

Nor is this the only reason the global economic debate may have a special impact on the West. The West is more dominated by government, meaning by the democratic process, than any other region. Taken to its logical extreme - and some would take it there - unfettered world trade overcomes the processes of democracy with those of the market.

At risk: Local markets

In Canada, there has been serious talk about urging the WTO to outlaw the U.S. food stamp program (democracy) as a government subsidy distorting the supply and price of food (the market). Canadians and some Americans are also trying to transform water into a private commodity (the market), even where its allocation has been determined by law (democracy).

"In general, free trade liberalization is about commodifying more and more," said Patrick Woodall of Public Citizen, a national consumer and environmental organization founded by Ralph Nader in 1971. Could taking commodification to its logical conclusion include a challenge to the legality even of public land?

Politically, don't worry about it. But theoretically, yes, and among the far-fringe free-trade ideologues it is discussed as a desirable outcome: Disney's Yellowstone National Park.

There are far-fringe ideologues on both sides of this debate. For us non-ideologues who have no financial dog in the fight, it's close to impossible to look at the world and not conclude that more trade is better than less, and that most rules designed to suppress trade are foolish. That's true whether the trade is between Colorado and New Jersey or between the United States and Tanzania.

In neither case is trade unencumbered; it is girt about with rules protecting one interest or another. It has to be. The market itself is a creation of law. The modern economy did not come into existence until the development of the modern state and its laws, without which the market would wither. Nor is there such a thing as the non-use of power; those who can take advantage will take advantage.

There is at least one other reason why the questions raised in Seattle are interesting, especially to the West, and that, too, involves food.

"You have to consider that agriculture has never been integrated into the global system," U.S. Trade Rep. Charlene Barshefsky lamented in Seattle.

That's true, but perhaps not lamentable. Food is unique. No other product goes into your body every day, or has as much capacity to enhance or damage your health. Nor can any other product provide as much pleasure. And most food - bread, tomatoes, turkey, beer - is both healthier and tastier the more it is produced around the corner by an independent farmer, not by a global corporation importing it across the seas.

Farms don't just grow food, either. They can anchor communities. Arriving in Seattle, José Bové, the French farmer who became something of a Gallic hero for his attacks on McDonald's restaurants in France, proclaimed that "WTO wants everybody to live the same way in all the world ... They are destroying all the culture because they don't allow each country to have his own food."

Bové's analysis, like his English, though better than my Franìais, was a little off, but not without substance. Two weeks before I was in this Washington, I was as far away as that Washington, but the other direction, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Walking down the big shopping street behind the grand City Hall, my companion looked around and said, "This looks like Michigan Avenue."

One world, one brand

Yes, it did. Or like Fifth Avenue, Broad Street, K Street, Market Street, Commerce Street and any mall where the same chain stores sell the same brand names. In its triumph, corporate capitalism is doing what so many feared Communism would do: homogenizing the world.

Maybe this is inevitable, even desirable. By definition, dynamic societies change. So if the independent farmers and ranchers are replaced by industrial agriculture even as they replaced Native American hunter-gatherers 150 years ago, that's progress. Especially if industrial agriculture is more efficient.

Stephen Blank presents conventional economics. The most efficient producers of any goods should produce those goods. If the most efficient producers of food are overseas where wages are low and environmental laws are lax, so be it. Americans will prosper most by doing what we do most efficiently, and if that means there are no more ranches, wheat farms and the communities they support, fine.

Unless, as seems likely, most people do not want a homogenized world. One question behind the questions in Seattle was whether it is possible to choose controlled inefficiency in food production, in order to protect traditional communities and folkways.

Granted, agricultural industrialization is one reason food is now plentiful and inexpensive. This does not render invalid the decision to stop it where it is. Having subsidized industrialized agriculture, public policy may control it.

We have here a bit of a pickle for Western liberal environmentalists. Public-land grazing supports traditional subcultures and communities as much as does M. Bové and the sheep from whose milk he makes Roquefort cheese. He just talks cuter because he's French. If you're going to support subsidizing less efficient producers for the non-economic values they preserve, Idaho ranchers are as deserving as French dairymen, German vintners, and Irish shepherds.

Interesting questions, even from those who may have the wrong answers.

Jon Margolis recently visited Europe, where he found many people speaking foreign languages.

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