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Wanna Buy a Port?

In a deal approved by the Bush administration, the Port of Miami and five other U.S. ports would be operated by a firm owned by the United Arab Emirates.
In a deal approved by the Bush administration, the Port of Miami and five other U.S. ports would be operated by a firm owned by the United Arab Emirates. (By Mark Elias -- Bloomberg News)

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

We're selling our harbors to an Arab government. Our biggest Internet companies are complicit in the Chinese government's censorship of information and suppression of dissidents. Welcome to American capitalism in the age of globalization.

Here the market rules. National security and freedom of speech are all well and good, but they are distinctly secondary concerns when they bump up against our highest national purpose, which is maximizing shareholder value.

This is a uniquely American value. Other nations designate certain industries as too strategic to ship abroad or sell to foreign interests. Only in the United States is the corporation answerable only to its shareholders -- not to its employees, its host communities, its home nation.

It wasn't always this way, of course: In the decades following World War II, you could speak, without undue smirking, about corporate responsibility. A sense of national solidarity, high rates of unionization, and a labor force that did not extend much beyond our borders anchored American business in America. Over the past three decades, however, the eclipse of all corporate stakeholders save the shareholder, and the creation of a global labor pool, have combined to make the very idea of corporate citizenship an anachronism. In consequence, the fundamental needs of our financial and corporate institutions and those of the rest of the nation diverge with increasing frequency.

By the logic of the market, there's no reason why our East Coast ports shouldn't be operated by a company owned by the United Arab Emirates. By the logic of national security, it may be a good idea or a crazy one. But even in the current security-conscious zeitgeist, security concerns do not loom that large in our government's attitude to things economic. Our high-tech manufacturing has decamped to East Asia, and our machine tool industry has all but vanished from our midst.

There is nothing peculiarly American in the willingness of the marquee U.S. Internet companies to play in China by the rules laid down by the Chinese government; globetrotting companies have a genius for assimilating themselves to the worst practices of their host countries. Indeed, while the executives at Yahoo, Google, Cisco and Microsoft deserved to be taken to task for their complicity in Beijing's determination to censor information, they would have been justified in noting that every U.S. corporation that goes to China is linked to, and almost invariably profits from, that nation's suppression of fundamental rights.

After all, when American business goes to China to have a machine built or a shirt stitched or some research undertaken, it is in no small reason because the labor is dirt-cheap. This is partly the result of the nation's history of poverty and partly the result of repressive state policy that views all efforts at worker organization -- as it views all efforts at establishing autonomous centers of power -- as criminal. Were the current labor strife in China to escalate, were the nation plunged into turmoil in an effort to create a more pluralistic society with actual rights for workers, what would the attitudes of the U.S. corporations in China be? Would Wal-Mart, which does more business with China than any other corporation, object if the Chinese government staged another Tiananmen-style crackdown? Would other American businesses? Would the current or a future administration levy any sanctions against China? Given the growing level of integration of the Chinese economy and ours, could it even afford to?

To the extent that American business or our government even attempt to square this circle, the argument they most frequently adduce is that modernity -- that is, the integration of a nation into the global economy -- will transform that nation into a more pluralistic democracy. China, however, is determined to manage its integration on its own repressive terms. And, more broadly, modernity hasn't always guaranteed the flourishing of democratic pluralism -- a lesson you might think we'd learned after that nastiness with Germany in the middle of the past century.

Indeed, at the heart of the Bush administration's theory of democratic transformation, we find two non sequiturs: that integration into the global marketplace leads to democratic pluralism, and that elections lead to democratic pluralism. Yet China and the Arab nations of the Middle East tend to refute, not confirm, these theories. Elections and economic integration are both good in themselves, of course, but absent a thriving civil society, they offer no guarantee of the kinds of transformation that these nations sorely need.

What's clear is that neither the task of building democratic nations around the world nor ensuring secure ports and cities here at home is our primary national purpose. Our mission is to maximize shareholder value. Which, by the measure of our strategic interests and our historical ideals, amounts to selling America short.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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