ON THE WATERFRONT

10 03 2006

There has been a tremendous hue and cry lately about the prospect of the government of the small, oil-rich Arab state of Dubai collecting the profits from running six of America’s east-coast seaports. I think there is an issue here, but it’s not the one everyone’s talking about. It’s not about the Arabs. It’s about the ownership.

The sad thing is that for most people, it is about the Arabs, and that is an unfortunate and embarrassing prejudice. Arabs, and Muslims in general, have a bad rap in this country, a reputation that is not particularly connected with truth. For example, Hamas’ victory in the recent Palestinian election sparked a similar outcry. “These people are depraved! They’re electing terrorists! That’s not what we meant by democracy, dammit!” Many American Muslims have been deported or prosecuted, and numerous charities shut down, for channeling support to this so-called “terrorist organization.”

Does Hamas target Israelis with violence? Yes, they do, and I think that’s reprehensible. I am a radical fundamentalist Gandhian, at least in some respects, and I don’t think angry violence is the answer to angry violence. But that’s just a small part of what Hamas does. Their religious practice commits them to scrupulous honesty, and that is what has endeared them to the people of Palestine. Palestinians know from intimate daily experience that Hamas is not on the take—that’s why so many American Muslims were supporting them, at least until our government’s crackdown. They knew that money donated to Hamas would go to people who needed it, not to some wealthy middleman.

Similarly, Dubai Ports World has an excellent reputation for running ports, a business fraught with opportunities for fraud and bureaucracy. That is probably one of the reasons why the U.S. government didn’t forsee any problem with handing management (and profit-taking) over to them. As I said, the real problem here is foreign ownership, and the consequent foreign destination for any profit from those ports.

This is not a new or unique situation. Foreign companies, individuals, and countries have been buying up U.S. assets for years. For example, according to the IRS, cited on the website .economyincrisis.org, the following percentages of U.S. businesses are foreign owned:

Sound recording industries – 97%

Commodity contracts dealing and brokerage – 79%

Motion picture industries – 75%

Metal ore mining – 65%

video industries – 64%

Wineries and distilleries – 64%

Database, directory, and other publishers – 63%

Book publishers – 63%

Cement, concrete, lime, and gypsum product – 62%

Engine, turbine and power transmission equipment – 57%

Rubber product – 53%

Nonmetallic mineral product manufacturing – 53%

Plastics and rubber products manufacturing – 52%

Plastics product – 51%

Insurance related activities – 51%

Boiler, tank, and shipping container – 50% and the list goes on….
So, why has this happened? And what does it mean?

We have Al and Bill to thank for this one, folks. I’m sorry, all you Democrats, but this one happened on your watch. Think WTO. Think GATT. Think NAFTA. Think about that vast sucking sound Ross Perot used to talk about.

When Mr. Bush was in India recently, he fantasized about increasing U.S. exports, but the sad truth is that, thanks to all those treaties us wildeyed crazies tried to stop back in the late eighties and early nineties–all those treaties that the 1992 election should have been a referendum on and wasn’t, thanks to the Democratic Party–the U.S. doesn’t has nothing to export anymore.

Well, not quite nothing. We’ve got lots of bonds and dollar bills to export, and you can bet that those trillions of dollars the rest of the world has loaned us will be paid back with American assets—what companies are left, hard assets like port facilities, and, ultimately, land—urban, rural, forest and field, we owe, we owe, so off our assets go. All those Indians running motels are just the beginning. And when our assets, corporate or material, are owned by foreigners, the profits go overseas, and we will become third world peons, peed on by the man, exploited for the benefit of rich people somewhere else—Dubai, China, it doesn’t matter, it ain’t here.

Yes, this sucks. Get used to it. This country has been running the world economy with a Ponzi scheme, selling bonds to pay the interest on the bonds we’ve already sold, and all those chickens are coming home to roost. Dubai Ports World has decided to find American buyers for P&O’s American assets, but they may have a hard time doing that, because only one of the major players in the port operation business is American these days. There is a strong likelihood that these ports will end up being operated by Dick Cheney—I mean, Halliburton.

The ironic thing to me about all this is that who really ought to be running these various ports doesn’t seem to occur to anyone…how about the port cities themselves? Duh!? Has neoliberal privatization become so much the norm that public ownership of public assets is totally off the table? Many of these port cities are struggling to provide basic services for their citizens—doesn’t it make sense to put the proceeds from port operations back into the city around the port?

Stepping back a notch, I have to wonder how much of the international trade going through these ports is really necessary, and how much is just pushing beans around for the further enrichment of the already wealthy. When I learned that the U.S. exports as many almonds to Italy as we import from Italy, I just had to shake my head. Who decided it would be OK to burn the diesel fuel to make that one happen? I bet they weren’t even thinking about the diesel fuel….

Under a Green program of local self-sufficiency, there would very likely be a lot less world trade. When you take the current paradigm to its logical conclusion, soon enough the major resources that are traded internationally will be depleted, and there will local insufficiency rather than self-sufficiency, and a lot less world trade. Which way would YOU like to have it?

music: James McMurtry, “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore”

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