Book Review: 'Flat Broke in the Free Market' by Jon Jeter

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By Roger Atwood
Sunday, September 20, 2009

FLAT BROKE IN THE FREE MARKET

How Globalization Fleeced Working People

By Jon Jeter

Norton. 232 pp. $25.95

Twenty years ago, globalization had a certain seductive logic. Goods would be made where they could be made cheapest, streamlined air and sea links would take them to distant consumers, and we would all enjoy lower inflation and wider choice. Sure, there would be losers early on, but soon subsistence corn farmers in Mexico would switch to strawberries for export. Inefficient steel producers would liquidate and happily make T-shirts instead.

Ah, the innocent 1990s. Jon Jeter maintains in "Flat Broke in the Free Market" that, whatever its intentions, globalization became "an international shakedown" of the working class that "widened inequality, corrupted politicians, estranged neighbors from one another, unraveled families, rerouted rivers, emptied ports of ships and flooded streets with protesters." His book succeeds in showing the human cost of the sudden opening of vulnerable economies in Africa and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. Unfortunately, he then lapses into an overheated, unfocused and tedious diatribe against almost everything that has happened, or that he believes to have happened, in the world and U.S. economies in the past 20 years.

He would have benefited, for a start, from some kind of definition of what he means by globalization. It's an elastic term, and, as employed by Jeter, it can mean free trade, financial deregulation, privatization, IMF austerity or corporate downsizing, among other things. Sometimes it seems a synonym for capitalism. Sub-prime mortgages, childhood obesity, urban gentrification, police brutality, poverty from Chicago to Malawi to Brazil -- everything is laid at the doorstep of globalization. It even makes for bad relationships: "Globalization pits men and women against each other, fueling greater miscommunication, jealousies and even violence," because the loss of well-paying jobs has disrupted traditional gender roles. More than an argument, what Jeter offers is ammunition for free traders who claim its opponents blame it for all the world's ills.

Jeter, a former correspondent for The Post, starts with an account of how Zambia dismantled tariffs in the 1990s at the advice of international lenders, leading to a flood of foreign-made goods that overwhelmed and finally destroyed its industrial base. The number of textile plants fell from 140 to eight, leaving Zambians destitute and forced to wear imported castoffs. In South Africa, privatization of water services made water so expensive that people went back to fetching it from streams, leading to a cholera epidemic. Jeter writes here with compassion and a flair for metaphor. Faced with a starving old man, Jeter offers him some crumpled bills. The man cups them in his hands "like a bird catching a worm in its beak."

Jeter then turns to Latin America, where his narrative suffers from an oddly blinkered view of the recent past and from factual gaffes. No, Chile did not privatize its state copper mines, and it never had Latin America's largest foreign debt. Argentina indeed went broke as a result of government policies enthusiastically backed by Wall Street, but it didn't have "the most prosperous and industrialized economy in Latin America" when those policies were implemented in 1991. (I covered both countries as a reporter for Reuters in those years.) Far from a middle-class Valhalla, Argentina had been brought to its knees then by a previous bout with bankruptcy and hyperinflation, which was a lot less benign for working people than Jeter thinks.

He holds up Chile as a model of globalization with a human face, with which I would agree, but it's a surprising choice for Jeter since Chile has spread the mantra of free trade more than almost any other country and was first in the world to privatize its social security system. He chides Chile for signing a free trade agreement with the United States but then salutes its salmon industry for conquering the U.S. market, an achievement made possible by that same agreement after years of damaging bilateral disputes.

Jeter ends with an adoring tribute to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and his "modern-day slave revolt" to free the continent from the domination of greedy capitalists. The traumas caused by the application of free-market dogmas are worth protesting and a story worth telling. It just needs to be told better than in this glib and unconvincing book.

Roger Atwood, the author of "Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World," lives in El Salvador.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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