On opposite coasts, on the same evening, two gatherings: In Seattle, demonstrators against the World Trade Organization shout their protest against globalization, and some clash with police. In Washington, several hundred people gather peaceably at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to hear men and women of the clergy issue prayerful appeals on behalf of those left out of our national festival of prosperity.
The link? In "different ways," says Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, both groups were demanding "economic justice" and both spoke to a nation's unease. "The American people know that this is not really success," he says. "They know there's something missing."
In the short run the attention will go to the violent minority in Seattle who smashed windows, burned trash and tried to shut the city down. Violence begets media attention, and those who rampage usually drown out those who petition peacefully.
But in the longer run, Seattle will be remembered as the moment when the debate over who benefits from the globalized economy--and why--forced its way into the political mainstream. The immediate target of the demonstrators was the World Trade Organization. But the WTO is the symbol of a larger discontent.
"Trade" should not be divorced from all the issues that surround the making and selling of things. At home, we are not content with a government that simply guarantees the free movement of goods from New Jersey to Texas. We citizens demand rules so the goods will be made in safe workplaces by workers paid at least a decent minimum wage and in ways that don't harm the environment. And we have rules to guarantee the safety of what we eat.
The problem with the WTO is not that it adjudicates trade disputes--somebody has to--but how. Free countries resolve disputes through open, democratic debate. WTO decisions are made behind closed doors, on narrow grounds.
Take the matter of genetically modified foods. Seen one way, the effort of European farmers to keep those products off their markets is naked protectionism aimed at closing out American producers. Seen another way, the issue is about whether these genetically modified foods are safe enough to make them freely available. A further complication: Some cultures are more inclined to take risks with newfangled products than others.
In democracies, disputes of this sort are resolved through an open debate that seeks to balance economic and social factors, local and national concerns. The current global system is not good at such balancing tests, because there is nothing remotely close to a democratic method for resolving disputes.
You don't have to be a protectionist (or a violent demonstrator) to find this a problem. Nor does it make you a protectionist to worry that while the new economy has created great new wealth--and, yes, even lifted the living standards in some poor countries--it has also caused economic harm to many, including the most vulnerable people in wealthy nations such as ours. And is it unreasonable to insist that human rights, workplace standards and the rights of workers to bargain and protest should matter as much as the terms of trade?
These issues need to be put on the international table. Free traders can no longer expect a pass on the hard questions by merely chanting the word "protectionist" to dismiss their critics.
But trade is not the only (or even primary) cause of inequality and injustice. Even among the critics of the WTO, many--perhaps most--acknowledge a broadly open world trading system is here to stay. The issues are how fast to move toward greater openness, and under what conditions.
And settling those questions will not eliminate the need to ease the burdens on those in our own country who pay the highest price in the new economy. At the HUD meeting, Jim Wallis, a religious activist, suggested that we pay a lot more attention to "Burger King Mom." He was talking about the mother struggling to raise a family on the low wages symbolized by employment at a fast-food outlet.
Burger King Mom's struggles may have been caused by trade--perhaps she lost a manufacturing job because of low-wage foreign competition. But her struggles may have nothing to do with trade--perhaps she was unemployed before she landed fast-food work. In either case, our failure to do much to help her improve her lot or give her children a chance at success in life is the "something missing" Cuomo is talking about. It's an issue on the streets of our nation, not only on the streets of Seattle.