In 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake brought down a section of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, weakening the structure to such an extent that rebuilding the 1936 monument to engineering was inevitable. When completed in 2013 the bridge, like virtually everything stocked in Wal-Mart, Target or any other mass merchandise chain, will bear on its underside the insignia: Made in China.
If ever there was a clear example of what is wrong with the American economy this is it. The state of California claims it will save $400 million on an estimated $7.2 billion project for its betrayal of American industry. The state does not say how much of that $400 million could have been saved by applying for federal funding which would have required the structure to employ American manufacturers.
Let it be clear: This has little to nothing to do with Free Trade. China can overcome the cost of transporting a bridge 6,500 miles not only because it employs cheap labor but also because the Chinese manufacturing industry is government owned and subsidized. If our government were to subsidize manufacturing it would be decried as a violation of the principles of Free Trade. Indeed, it would.
The fact is: Free Trade does not exist. International corporations and their proxies in government employ the principles of Free Trade selectively to justify labor exploitation and to maximize profits.
In the fantasy world of Free Trade all parties operate on an equal playing field according to the laws of supply and demand. In the real world everything a government does or fails to do creates imbalance. If government provides universal health care as they do in Europe it creates imbalance. If government provides incentives to drill for oil or produce ethanol it creates imbalance. If government guarantees a minimum standard of living wages and decent working conditions it creates imbalance. If government owns an industry and guarantees its success the imbalance is obvious. If it sanctions indentured servitude and neglects slave labor the imbalance is equally obvious.
The fact is: In a civilized world that recognizes the fundamental rights of labor, exploitation of labor is itself a subsidy and all nations that embrace those rights have a responsibility to punish nations that do not. They can do so by enforcing trade sanctions or by subsidizing their own industries.
In a perfect world, all merchants would enjoy equal opportunity while bearing equal responsibility. In the beginning there was equity. But then greed took hold and one merchant decided he could buy out the competition. Monopoly trumped free enterprise and the system became imbalanced and dysfunctional. Employers were empowered to require workers to work longer hours at lower wages under increasingly difficult conditions. Sweatshops and child labor became common. Retirement and medical assistance were nonexistent. If a worker was hurt on the job he became unemployed.
As the abuses mounted it became mandatory for a democratic government to act. Child labor was banned, working standards were mandated, and minimum wage was instituted. Monopolies were broken apart to restore competitive balance and workers gained the right to organize. Unions became the counterbalance to the power of big business.
The system flourished. For the first time in history, working people joined in the prosperity of the nation, laying the foundation for a middle class. Working people were empowered to buy goods and services beyond the necessities of life. Each generation looked forward to a better standard of living for the next. Businesses prospered on middle class consumption.
Social Security and Medicare answered a basic need while relieving employers of the burden.
The system worked not because businesses, industries and corporations were allowed to do as they pleased but because unions and government struck an equitable balance.
Now we have lost the balance because one party decided to serve their corporate masters exclusively and the only viable alternative decided it was easier to go along than to fight for the working people. When the economy went global it provided an opportunity to reset the table and labor was not invited. We no longer hear the term Monopoly but now we have corporations that are considered too big to fail. We have politicians who would prefer to see the economy collapse and working people suffer if it will give them a competitive advantage in the next election. We have governments at the state level declaring war on unions even though organized labor is but a whisper of the roar it once was. We have bipartisan agreement that the national debt is our dominant priority though real unemployment exceeds ten percent and those jobs that are available no longer offer a living wage.
We are badly out of balance and our government is as dysfunctional as our economic system. We are sustaining wars on multiple fronts while we are being told there is no choice but to welcome an age of austerity.
In the case of the Bay Bridge, the deal with China was struck in 2006 when the economy was relatively strong. The federal government was willing to make up at least some of the difference by subsidizing the project but the state of California under the leadership of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger placed no value on American jobs and American workers. Schwarzenegger and his co-conspirators in government ran the state like a corporation and corporations have no values, no sense of justice, and no principles of fair play.
As a result, when the new Bay Bridge is opened for business it will represent far more than a triumph of engineering; it will symbolize the systematic degradation of our economy. It will stand as a monument to the corporate world of greed and profiteering. It will be a magnificent memorial to the once-prospering middle class.
It will be a bridge to the age of austerity. In other nations it has begun in earnest and the people have taken to the streets in protest by the tens and hundreds of thousands. In other nations they have come to the realization that they were sold a bill of goods. They have watched the moneychangers run their economies into the ground while they escaped with all the loot. The ordinary working people are angry, fed up, and they are not going to take it lying down. What is happening now in Greece and Spain is a preview of what will happen in America if the austerity hysterics have their way.
When will we begin to wake up? When will we realize that we are all in this together? When California turns its back on workers in the steel mills of Michigan, we all lose. When union busting becomes a government mandate, working itself from state to state, every worker in America loses.
When our elected officials throw up their hands and claim they can do nothing about the exportation of our jobs to cheap labor markets because the capitalist bible of Free Trade economics forbids it, we must ask ourselves: Whom do they really represent?
We are at a crossroad. What we do now may well determine the kind of world future generations will inherit. Will it be a world in which only the wealthy can pursue higher education? Will it be a world that sacrifices the elderly and infirm so the elite can enjoy ever-lower tax rates? Will it be a world in which fathers and mothers must work two jobs just to pay down the debt?
Yes, we are at a crossroad and the only real power we have left is the vote. If we choose to squander it on politicians who preach austerity and raise the flag of Free Trade, then our cause is lost and our future is bleak.
Jack Random is the author of Jazzman Chronicles (Crow Dog Press) and Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press.)