Uncommanding Heights

The Free-Trade Fantasies of PBS

The month of April brought us new evidence of the slow, ongoing degeneration of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS) into a pale reflection of corporate-dominated commercial television, a kind of Fox network for the educated upper-middle class. The April Fool surprise was the prime-time presentation of Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy, a three-part series based on the recent book by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw. The series purports to show how the unfettered free marketplace has proven itself over the course of the last hundred years to be superior in every way as an organizing principle of economic life to planned or mixed systems incorporating government regulation.

The Commanding Heights polemic, which is presented as an objective examination of the evolution of the world economy since the early 20th century, offers the following lessons, either directly or indirectly: Friedrich von Hayek's prescriptions are superior to those of John Maynard Keynes; Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are the paragons of economic policy in the political realm; Milton Friedman and the "Chicago school" economists hold the keys to the future; entrepreneurs are the cultural heroes of the modern age and technology is their magic wand; corporations are benign, progressive institutions; labor unions are selfish, mindless anachronisms; interfering governments are an impediment to economic progress; and corporate globalization is both inevitable and good for us all in the long run.

This is the historical economic landscape as laissez-faire conservatives view it: the triumph of free markets over the dead hand of the state. Prostrate Russia, for example, is presented as a success because it has accepted the dictates and discipline of the market; Japan, its unparalleled postwar prosperity up to the 1990s notwithstanding, is presented as a failure because it has stayed with a regulated economy in recessionary times. The Yergin-Stanislaw thesis presents many such admonishing examples: Free-market Chile under Pinochet is an exemplar of good economic policy; welfare-state Britain under the Labour party is an exemplar of bad or misguided policy in need of Thatcherism.

The series builds toward its conclusion, that (despite some bumps in the road) globalized free trade will liberate mankind, by means of interviews with selected "heroes" of the new world economic order. Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan's favorite economist, and Jeffrey Sachs of "shock therapy" fame are allowed to pontificate at will. There are also extended excerpts by such devoted free-marketers as Paul Volcker, Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney, and (yes) Bill Clinton. The opposing side (organized labor, environmentalists) is permitted brief, emotional commentary calculated to present it in the worst possible light. Anti-globalization forces in Seattle, for instance, are represented by alternative-lifestyle demonstrators rather than by the cadres of union representatives in attendance.

That PBS should identify itself with such biased intellectual fare is not all that surprising, given its performance in recent years. This, after all, is the network that brought us elevated political talk shows like The McLaughlin Group, in which a conservative host and a conservative-dominated panel routinely beat down the program's token progressive voice by shouting and bullying, while the moderator hews closely to a right-wing discussion agenda. The fact that only a tiny fraction of the PBS budget now comes from the federal government has had an obviously corrosive effect on the network's public affairs programming. With the exception of Bill Moyers' Now and occasional installments of Frontline, there is little on PBS that could be remotely construed as liberal in viewpoint. The corporate money that has replaced lost federal funding is apparently buying programming decisions as surely as it buys congress members and their votes.

With Commanding Heights, however, PBS has sunk to a new low. Slanted political talk shows, essentially raucous by-products of infotainment, are one thing; slanted documentaries are something else again, because in the guise of objectivity, they help frame the contours of serious debate. When Commanding Heights celebrates the positives of free trade and ignores or trivializes its negatives -- the series invariably portrays victims of the emerging global marketplace as pathetic losers -- it does a profound disservice. And when it repeats unsubstantiated claims that free-trade agreements like NAFTA cost the US far fewer jobs than they create, it is not only probably wrong, but incredibly myopic.

My home state of Maine, one of the places being shortchanged by the global economy, offers a reality check PBS producers could have benefited from. Despite its image as a vacationland, mills and factories have always been crucial to the state's job base; that's rapidly changing. Within the past six months, two longtime mainstays of local manufacturing, the Dexter Shoe and Hathaway Shirt companies, have announced they will permanently shut their doors, idling 800 skilled workers.

Both of these venerable firms, once independent operations, are now in the hands of outside corporate owners; Dexter is part of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway empire, and Hathaway (no connection) belongs to the Windsong/Allegiance Apparel Group. Predictably, disingenuous managements cite "foreign competition" as the job-loss culprit (Hey, not their fault.). The Dexter closing will mean the number of Maine shoe workers, 27,000 in 1968, will fall to 3,000. The Hathaway shutdown spells the apparent end for a brand name that goes back 150 years.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Upon purchasing these companies, the new corporate owners had made assurances of their commitment to the affected Maine communities; nothing, they said, would change except the names of the ultimate employers. Those were false promises. In the case of Dexter, the domestic share of the firm's production swiftly declined, with one regional branch facility after another moving to cheap-labor havens in the Third World. High-quality, hand-stitched leather shoes were gradually replaced by shoddier, low-cost products from overseas.

The Hathaway story was a bit more complicated and included a political component. In 1997, when the shirtmaker's first corporate owner announced plans to terminate local operations, a high-profile investment group headed by former Republican Governor John R. McKernan, Jr., husband of present US Sen. Olympia Snowe (a recent convert to fast-track trade authority), purchased Hathaway to "save" it. Having gleaned the maximum economic (and political) benefit from their purchase, the in-state investors then sold the firm in late 2001 to its present owners, who promptly announced closing plans. Those with suspicious minds have concluded that Windsong/Allegiance made its buy simply to acquire rights to the famous Hathaway name and the company's shirtmaking machinery, prior to an overseas move.

The upshot is that Maine's manufacturing sector has now shrunk to under 12% of total state employment. The sons and daughters of prideful, highly skilled blue-collar workers with well-paid, unionized jobs will earn their livings as undercompensated telemarketers or retail clerks, the economically and psychically unrewarding vocations of Maine's deindustrialized future. That's an outcome of the sort PBS neglected in its paean to the globalized free market.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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