At the beginning of this decade social critics, ever on the hunt for a new trend, discovered the globe-girdling power of the multinational corporation. Without armies and with megabucks instead of megabangs, these great preter-national business organizations were thought to be mightier and more independent than the nation-states where they were spawned.
Multinational businessmen encouraged these notions by saying the most amazing and arrogant things, like the IBM president who told the world, "For business purposes, the boundaries that separate one nation from another are no more real than the equator. They are merely convenient demarcations of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural entities. They do not define business requirements or consumer trends." tOr Dow Chemical chairman Carl Gerstacker's informing us in 1972, "I have long dreamed of buying an island owned by no nation and of establishing the world headquarters of the Dow Company on the truly neutral ground of such an island, beholden to no nation or society."
Last month, seven years later, America's multinational banks discovered what nonsense it was to think that multinational means supranational. The United States government ordered all American banks, whether their offices were on our soil or foreign territory, to hold Iranian government assets. The banks, at some cost and pain to themselves and their future reputation as safe places of deposit, found they had to obey.
Viewed from the end of the decade as compared with the beginning, the problem with multinational corporations may not be excessive independence from their home country's laws and restraints but their dependence on government as a bill collector and all around bodyguard.
The multinationals may also be under attack by Arab body snatchers, bedouins who have invaded the bodies of once friendly and helpful American-based, American-owned multinational corporations and now control them. That may be what's happened with a Mobil or an Exxon.
For manyyears the oil companies delivered the cheapest gasoline in the world to the American motorist and manufacturer alike. The oil companies got rich and, in the process, they may have committed economic rape and pillage, but not on the domestic consumer.
We were collateral beneficiaries of marvelously low production costs. Middle East oil in particular was pumped at bargain prices that, even after princely profits were extracted, were passed on to you and me as well as to our parents.
The big oil companies "owned" their Middle Eastern oil fields and the nations in which they were located dared not seize them or nationalize them. When Iran tried to do so in the early 1950s, it discovered it couldn't sell its oil.
The principal reason this amazing system held together was the state of Texas. Texas oil production was so large and so cheap that the major companies could break recalcitrant foreign governments who wanted to raise crude oil prices by stepping up Texas production and unloading Texas oil on the world market. Thus, as long as the United States had the capacity to pump surplus crude, no OPEC could be effective, no price rise the major oil companies cared to resist could be enforced and, certainly, no nationalization attempt could be succesful. It was a buyers' market, and we Americans were the biggest buyers.
When we ceased to be an exporter and became an importer of oil -- that is, when our own fields no longer could produce a surplus we could threaten to sell abroad -- power shifted from buyer to seller. Saudi Arabia became the New Texas, the producing entity that can determine world oil prices by increasing or reducing its production.
The oil companies that once had been able to dictate to the producing nations saw their oil fields taken over and their power to set prices evaporate. Reduced to being the purveyor of technical services, marketers and middlemen, they have continued to make pots of money -- but only to the extent they act as agents of the foreign governments whose goodwill they must court if they are going to get any product to sell.
With every year, the seeming independence of the multinational oil giants is further diminished as the oil-producing nations take over refineries, pipelines and tankers. At the rate things are going, these once-awe-some brand names will be little more than a few filling stations.