By Donella Meadows
–December 1, 1994–
Most of what government does makes little long-term difference, thank goodness. Spend more money here and less there; strengthen a regulation here, weaken one there. Those are fiddles, small and reversible adjustments to the existing system.
But every now and then government actually changes the system in a way that has long-lasting effects. That’s what it failed to do this year with health care, but succeeded in doing this week with GATT.
The politicians and the corporations that own the politicians may understand the new international trading system they just brought into being. They should; they designed it, and it will serve them handsomely. The people, however, have no idea what just happened.
GATT is a 2000-page document, negotiated for seven years in international meetings to which press and public were not invited. You would be hard put to get your hands on the full GATT text, much less to read it. The people of every country know little about it except what the elites who designed it have told them. Such as:
“If we don’t get GATT, we fall back into the law of the jungle.” In fact we would have fallen back into the existing GATT, which has functioned for decades.
“If we defeat GATT, we will look like a frightened, defeatist, and unreliable nation, which is unwilling to act in its own best interest.” Whose?
It is not true, Al Gore said over and over, that GATT will undercut our sovereignty, decrease our wages, and lower our environmental protections. That is a myth, he said. He never explained why it’s a myth. That’s because it isn’t.
What IS a myth is the enrichment that free trade is supposed to bring to us all. It will create in the U.S. alone, they say, 700,000 jobs and $200 billion more in GNP every year. The reporters repeat those figures without ever checking their sources. Similar astounding numbers are quoted in every part of the world; GATT will be a win-win-win-win proposition everywhere except Africa. Everyone agrees that GATT will decimate the economy of Africa, the poorest part of the world. No one seems to care about that.
In fact the economic models that generate these enormous GATT benefits are pure fantasy. They are the same models that told us how many jobs would be lost if car companies had to install air bags, or if timber sales were stopped in Oregon, or if the gas tax went up by four cents. None of these dire predictions came to pass. The models are jiggered, they are incomplete, they are based on outmoded economics, they are consistently wrong, but the same reporters who jump on small uncertainties in environmental models never question economic models.
The little fix, the five-person panel that will monitor GATT over the next five years and determine whether the U.S. is losing too many trade disputes — if we are, Congress will have the opportunity to pull us out of GATT. Won’t look at the right things; won’t notice — as Gore and all the others fail to notice — that what has changed is bargaining power.
GATT can’t change our laws; only Congress can change our laws. Not seeing the system here at all. GATT generates the pressure that makes it inevitable that Congress will change the laws. Allows other nations with lower standards either to compete directly against us or to challenge our system. Gives companies no choice but to insist that our standards be lowered or to move or to lose competitions.
It has been totally frustrating for the people who see this to articulate it. No one wants to hear it. Corporations would rather hope that somehow there is salvation in the international economy that they can’t find in the national economy. People want to believe in those 700,000 mythical jobs. The press is singularly bad at getting across semi-complex, systemic arguments. The only folks who have managed to keep their bearings are those, strangely enough, on the far right and far left, who are more true to their ideologies than their corporate sponsors.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994