Tuesday, March 6, 2007

One question: Steven Hiatt

I posted on the release of Berrett-Koehler's new collection, A Game as Old as Empire, a couple of weeks ago. Since then, I've gotten a chance to dip into it and found it as fresh and disturbing as today's news.

For instance, the morning after I read the chapter relating Greg Muttitt's investigation into the ongoing effort by the US gov't and Big Oil to grab Iraq's most significant source of revenue, its oil reserves which comprise 10 percent of the world's total reserves, the news broke that after much foot-dragging the Iraq cabinet had approved the draft of a national oil law that would open the way for foreign investment in and control over their reserves for the first time since the 1970s. The stories in the news barely mentioned this important fact and said nothing about its ramifications, focusing instead on how the law apportions the reserves among Iraq's regions.

Each chapter in A Game as Old as Empire exposes new strands in what editor Steven Hiatt portrays as a 'web of control' spun by Western governments, corporations, financiers...in fact, the largest and most powerful institutions on earth, all aimed at looting the Third World. I wondered why they had come together in this way and asked editor Steven Hiatt this question: As you collected all of these pieces and fit them together, did you find that the players were all in the game for different reasons or do they share common motivators and goals; in other words, what are the primary drivers in this game?

Here's his answer:

"Perhaps the key principle is the quote from Hannah Arendt that I used to open my chapter: "A never-ending accumulation of property must be based on a never-ending accumulation of power." Another take would be one familiar to the analysis of financial markets: the drivers are greed and fear. In that sense, their motivations are similar, even though their perspectives may differ because of they occupy different positions in national and global structures of power. We might describe global elites--those who circulate among the top government, corporate, and other institutions--as constantly balancing the reality of competition with each other with the advantages of collusion. Jeff Faux's The
Global Class War
provides a fine account of what he calls "the part of Davos."

For example, suppose you're the head of the US Export-Import Bank, the US export credit agency. Your job is increase the exports/ contracts of major corporations like Boeing, Bechtel, and General Electric. The political aspect is that these contracts will result in jobs and investment in the US and help the administration and politicos in impacted districts and states. Power thus comes from increased business and profits, coin that can be turned into political power. The fear aspect is the mirror image: suppose the contracts, and the profits, go to Airbus, China Harbor, and Siemens? There's an institutional aspect, as well. You don't get far as head of an ECA by reducing your support for local industry: Success is defined as more exports, more contracts, more money, more power. If you don't understand the game or want to play it, you'll be replaced by someone who will. And power is very seductive: if you're newly arrived at these heights, you don't want to give it up. If you've inherited a place at this particular table, you look on it as simply what you're entitled to.

There are also geopolitical drivers--for example, the struggle to ensure access to energy supplies and other raw materials (as well as the struggle to control them to ensure leverage on other countries; see numerous US policy statements on the importance of US primacy in the Middle East going back to 1944). Again, on an institutional level, you don't succeed in the security services or the foreign policy establishment by giving up power and advantage.

Of course, there are differences of opinion among elites about the best course of action. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney believe, it is said, that the sooner the Battle of Armageddon is fought in the Middle East, the sooner the Messiah will return to reclaim His heavenly kingdom. This is decidedly a minority taste. To take another example, some corporate and government leaders, faced with the evidence of global warming, have pushed the longer-term health of the global economy/society, while others, influenced by ideological blinkers or a more precarious position in the market, take only the shortest term view of profit maximization.

Corporate globalization has brought the collusion aspect of the relationship among global elites to the fore. The World Trade Organization and NAFTA were admittedly designed to take most economic matters out of democratic debate and decision making, for example, settling trade issues by secret tribunals through a system riddled with conflicts of interest. As Alasdair Spark, asked, in defense of international elite conclaves such as Davos and Bilderberg, "Shouldn't we expect that the rich and the powerful organize things in their own interests. It's called capitalism."

But, we might, ask: what about the rest of us—the 6.5 billion of the non-elite inhabitants of the planet?"

You can read an excerpt from the book here. Also, somehow I ended up with two extra copies of the book. I'm giving them away to the first two people who email me at businessreader@gmail.com. Include your mailing address, in the U.S. only please.

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