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Howard Zinn: Disruption

Published on May 12, 2017 by Paul Ciano

Foreign economic policy was presumably based on “free trade” agreements, most notably those signed with Canada and Mexico. Democrats and Republicans, enthusiastically supported by corporate interests, joined to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Clinton signed. Labor unions opposed it, because it meant businesses would be free to move across borders to find workers who would work at lower wages, under poor conditions. The claim of “free trade” was hardly to be believed, since U.S. policy was to interfere with trade when it served certain political or economic ends (although the phrase always used was “national interest”). Thus, the United States went to lengths to prevent tomato growers in Mexico from entering the U.S. market and put pressure on Thailand to open its markets to American tobacco companies, even while at home mounting public protest led to restrictions on the sale of tobacco.

In an even more flagrant violation of the principle of free trade, the United States would not allow shipments of food or medicine to Iraq or to Cuba, the result being the deaths of tens of thousands of children. In 1996, on the television program 60 Minutes, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright was asked about the report that “a half million children have died as a result of sanctions against Iraq…. That is more children than died in Hiroshima…. Is the price worth it?” Albright replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.”

The United States, with 5 percent of the earth’s population, consumed 30 percent of what was produced worldwide. But only a tiny portion of the American population benefited; this richest 1 percent of the population saw its wealth increase enormously starting in the late 1970s. As a result of changes in the tax structure, by 1995 that richest 1 percent had gained over a trillion dollars and now owned over 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.

According to the business magazine Forbes, the 400 richest families owned $92 billion in 1982. Thirteen years later, this had jumped to $480 billion. The Dow Jones average of stock prices had gone up 400 percent between 1980 and 1995, while the average wage of workers had declined in purchasing power by 15 percent.

It was therefore possible to say that the U.S. economy was “healthy” — but only if you considered the richest part of the population. Meanwhile, 40 million people were without health insurance, and infants died of sickness and malnutrition at a rate higher than that of any other industrialized country.

The United States (forgetting, or choosing to forget, the disastrous consequence of such a policy in the twenties) was consigning its people to the mercy of the “free market.” The “market” did not care about the environment or the arts. And it left many Americans without jobs, or health care, without a decent education for their children, or adequate housing. Under Reagan, the government had reduced the number of housing units getting subsidies from 400,000 to 40,000; in the Clinton administration the program ended altogether.

If democracy was to be given any meaning, if it was to go beyond the limits of capitalism and nationalism, this would not come - if history was any guide - from the top. It would come through citizens’ movements, organizing, agitating, striking, boycotting, demonstrating, threatening those in power with disruption of the stability they needed.

Paul Ciano

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