Multinational Monitor

SEP/OCT 2008
VOL 29 No. 2


Biotech Snake Oil: A Quack Cure for Hunger
by Bill Freese

Nuclear's Power Play: Give Us Subsidies or Give Us Death
by Tyson Slocum

Conservation Corp.: Enviros Ally with Big Grain Traders
by Christine MacDonald

The Concession Trap: Auto Worker Givebacks and Labor's Future
by Simone Landon

The Commercial Games: Selling Off the Olympic Ideal
by Jennifer Wedekind


Bad Samaritans: How Rich Country "Help" Hurts the Developing World
an interview with
Ha-Joon Chang

Unhealthy Solutions: Private Insurance, High Costs and the Denial of Care
an interview with
Steffie Woolhandler

Arts, Inc.: The Corporate Control of Culture
an interview with
Bill Ivey


Behind the Lines

The State of Corporate Welfare

The Front
Climate Changing Africa -- African Inequality

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Greed At a Glance

Commercial Alert

Names In the News



The Political Economy of False Solutions

It’s hardly novel or controversial to suggest that a lot of bad public policy ideas are floating around. With this issue of Multinational Monitor, we aim to do something more than assert this self-evident truth. In focusing on the theme of “False Solutions,” we have other objectives in mind.

The stories and interviews in this issue highlight the ways in which multinational corporations and their allies are capitalizing on major global problems — new and old — to advance their own agendas.

Of course, it is possible for a corporate-favored solution to be in the public interest. As Simone Landon notes, when GM President Charles Wilson in 1953 said, “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa,” there was an element of truth to it: A robust U.S. economy was good for everyone, including GM.

But the cases on which we focus in this issue are ones where corporations and their allies deceptively try to adapt this formulation in situations where the corporate and public interests diverge. Biotech crops are good for Monsanto, but not the country or the world. They are a false solution to the problem of global hunger and spiking food prices. Nuclear power is good for equipment manufacturers and utilities, but is too expensive and unsafe to be a solution to global warming. Cooperative agreements with big environmental groups may be good for giant grain traders like Cargill and Bunge, but they will not prevent forest and habitat destruction. Concessionary contracts are good for GM (and Ford and Chrysler), but not for their workers — or manufacturing workers generally — and they are not a solution to the competitiveness problems of the Big Three auto makers. The market fundamentalist policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO) are good for Wall Street and global corporations generally, but they block rather than assist economic development in poor countries. Leaving intact the private health insurance industry certainly helps Aetna and Cigna, but it will fail to provide quality healthcare for all in the United States. Expanded copyright protections may help Hollywood or the recording industry, but it will not facilitate creative cultural production in the United States, or around the world.

These and many other false solutions offered by the corporate class can be grouped into three categories.

First is the promise of Magic Bullet technologies. These have an obvious allure. New technology innovation can play a vital role in solving intractable problems. But technology by itself is the answer to very few problems. Crucial is how technologies are developed, tested, controlled and deployed — and how they affect the social inequities that underlay most of the great problems facing a world with the capacity to meet everyone’s basic needs. Biotech seeds, as Bill Freese shows, are controlled by Monsanto and a handful of companies with the primary purpose and effect of deepening these corporations’ power, profitability and control. Nuclear energy, similarly, centralizes the control of electric utilities. Neither biotech food nor nuclear power has demonstrated an ability to meet the needs for which they are touted (biotech because it fails to increase yields, nuclear because it is too expensive), and both pose enormous and unbounded environmental and safety risks. These technologies have in common also that they draw attention and investment away from less capital intensive alternative technologies, as well as public policies, with far more promise: agroecological farming techniques, land reform, wind and solar power, energy efficiency.

The second category might be named, The Too Big-Too Weak Paradox. This involves the twin ideas that corporations are so big and powerful that challenging their prerogatives is fruitless, and that market forces beyond corporate control leave corporations relatively helpless. The consequence of accepting this paradox as true is to let corporations set the terrain of debate, and confining reformers to the margins. Thus, conservation groups invest energy in collaborative projects with grain companies, in an attempt to reform the growing practices of soy, palm oil and other commodities growers — accepting as a given the expansion of plantation economics that is inherently unsustainable on a local or global basis. Accepting the paradox also leaves the United Auto Workers with no apparent choice but to accept concessionary contracts that will undermine the solidarity principle at the heart of the union cause.

A third category is over-reliance on, and veneration of, The Market. A decades-long ideological campaign has vectored U.S. and global policy debates to assume more corporatization (privatization), more deregulation, and more and stronger property rights are the solution to almost everything. Thus, the Bad Samaritans, as Ha-Joon Chang calls the IMF, World Bank, WTO and rich country advisers, continue to instruct developing countries to adopt market fundamentalist policies that have demonstrably failed the poor and that the rich countries themselves did not follow when they were poor. Thus, an array of market-based healthcare reforms — some more venal than others — are proposed despite the inherent inability of private insurance to ensure quality healthcare for all. And thus copyright is expanded to the point where, Bill Ivey explains, access to cultural heritage is seriously impeded.

Problems as diverse as addressing global warming to enriching expressive life, of course, have no single solution. But none will be solved if corporations are permitted to frame policy debates, define the boundaries of policy proposals under consideration, or impose on society their preferred false solutions.

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