Society October 2002

On the Brink

The need for fundamental changes in politics and policy—and fast

We have entered an age of unprecedented insecurity. For the first time since the War of 1812, a foreign enemy has attacked the continental United States. For the first time in economic history, the world is a single market. For the first time in human history, irreversible damage to the biosphere impends.

"Belief in progress," George Santayana observed, constitutes America's "national faith." September 11 shook the foundation of that faith. Already historians are comparing the war on terror to the Cold War—a long twilight struggle that, if prosecuted imprudently, could make the future the focus of fear, not of hope. The maxim guiding the war should be this: Any action that kills civilians abroad also threatens us at home. Say that President George W. Bush attacks Iraq. Saddam has placed weapons near mosques, schools, and hospitals. Say that these buildings are hit, and that the television station al Jazeera broadcasts the destruction throughout the Arab world. Those images could easily create one terrorist for every twenty Iraqi civilians killed—and we would once again reap defeat from victory over Iraq. The first President Bush's decision to station U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia to keep Saddam from the oil fields there—the alternative was to station the forces on carriers in the Mediterranean and the Gulf—furnished Osama bin Laden with the pretext for his "kill the Americans" fatwa. That decision backfired like few others in our history. The British military thinker Sir Michael Howard has said that an attack on Iraq could be as fateful as a nuclear exchange between the superpowers during the Cold War, touching off endless terrorism and endless military response, and eventually igniting the war of civilizations that bin Laden seeks to provoke. A future seeded with that self-inflicted catastrophe is one of fear and not of progress.

Economic insecurity, euphemized as "employee flexibility," is fast settling in as the twenty-first-century condition. Americans who had planned to retire must work until they die. The vaunted "democratization" of the stock market has made millions vulnerable to manipulated euphoria and financial chicanery. In 1975, as Jeff Faux recently pointed out in The American Prospect, 71 percent of employees had "defined benefit" pension plans, which fix the amount an employee receives on retirement. In 1999 only 29 percent had them. Under the 401(k) "defined contribution" accounts that have replaced them, the percentage of retirees unable to maintain 50 percent of their pre-retirement income rose from 30 percent to 43 percent in the booming 1990s. Those with household worth under $1 million saw their retirement wealth fall by 11 percent. Americans are asking, How did this happen? Who benefited from the 401(k) revolution? Twenty years ago employers paid an average of sixty-three cents into employee pensions for each hour worked. In 1996 they paid forty-five cents. Medical benefits have similarly eroded. Why?

Blaming our greedy CEOs satisfyingly personalizes an impersonal phenomenon. But American employees are not the only ones being squeezed. Polish shipyard workers are laid off by the thousands, Chinese factory workers by the millions. On Ecuador's banana plantations laborers must put their children to work or starve. Insecurity for the many pervades a global economy that has everywhere advantaged the few.

The U.S. response to global competition was to let the market rip. Drive down the cost of labor. Throttle unions. Deregulate the economy. The failings of that model now command the headlines. The answer is not to go back—economic security in any one country is no longer possible—but to go forward. To preserve our own standard of living we must raise the global standard. The workers of the world are now united in economic fact but not in consciousness of that fact. Right-wing populism will drive them further apart politically, pitting country against country and trading bloc against trading bloc, as it did throughout much of the world during the past century, in reaction to the social costs of industrial capitalism. Unless ... ? Unless consciousness catches up with fact, politics with economics. To tame globalization's society-devouring drive for efficiency, we need a global New Deal for equity. The machinery is in place: the World Trade Organization can end capital's race to the bottom by raising the bottom. A global minimum wage, a global right to organize unions, and global health and safety regulations in the workplace can make globalization work for all.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor of The Atlantic. More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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