Sunday, September 27, 2009

Has Wall Street Finally Won the Vietnam War?

While I have had a long-standing interest in globalization and its discontents (possibly inspired by Sigmund Freud), I had not really appreciated the extent to which the free market can be used as a weapon until I found a report from Thuong Tin, Vietnam by Seth Mydans on today's New York Times Web site. It makes for interesting reading in the wake of the G20 summit's decision to prefer arguing over who has how much power as an alternative to trying to solve problems of global poverty that just keep getting worse. Mydans puts a human face on the consequences of such idle games through the genre of the good-news-bad-news story.

He begins with the good news (with only a slight hint of the bad):

Looking out across his green rice fields, Nguyen Van Truong can take pride in hedging his bets when he joined the global marketplace more than a decade ago and began to make money.

When Vietnam began a tentative engagement with the world economy in the mid-1990s, Mr. Truong was one of the first people to see profit in his local craft, embroidery, and he joined with other villagers in marketing it for export and domestic sales.

As hundreds, and then thousands, of farming villages began organizing themselves to sell their traditional crafts — like lacquerware, textiles, straw mats, noodles, fans and incense — they came to symbolize Vietnam’s eager embrace of capitalism after a ruinous postwar period of Communist restrictions on free enterprise.

Some villages, like Thuong Tin, on the rural outskirts of Hanoi, now resemble tiny cities in the midst of the rice fields with three- and sometimes four-story houses clustered along small concrete roadways.

Exports of handicrafts, many of them from village enterprises, earned $1 billion last year, according to official figures.

He then quickly shifts gears and makes this a that-was-then-this-is-now story. Needless to say, the "now" is not particularly pretty:

Most of the 3,000 crafts villages scattered around the country are in trouble, said Luu Duy Dan, vice chairman of the Vietnam Association of Crafts Villages. Only 30 percent of them are operating normally, he said, and, if nothing changes by the end of the year, half of them will have collapsed entirely, with a loss of some five million jobs.

Many villages are already bankrupt, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, including villages that made pottery, ceramics, shoes and high-quality paper.

Unlike Mr. Truong, 76, many of these new capitalists abandoned their farms and now find themselves without an economic safety net. In many cases, they had no choice, squeezed off their land like many rural people by a widespread conversion of farmland for industrial enterprises.

However, when it comes to appreciating the consequences of globalization, Mydans found one Vietnamese woman who seems to have swallowed an entire pitcher of the Kool-Aid and is willing to talk about how she now feels. The woman is Do Thanh Huong; and she committed to a three-fold embrace of globalization. She has two shops in Hanoi, one for fabrics and the other a clothing boutique, and also runs an export business. What she has to say is valid on all three of those fronts:

When people don’t buy in New York, we feel the effects in the village here.

Reading those words in the context that Mydans created for them, I suddenly realized that the financial sector of the United States managed to do to Vietnam what our military forces never succeeded in doing. Decades after the fighting ended, the embassy was evacuated, and peace was concluded, Wall Street won the Vietnam War for us. This may seem a bit anachronistic, if not downright silly; but think of it as a context in which to read those "mission statements" that continue to flow from al-Qaeda. The opposition that should concern us is an opposition that does not dismiss institutions like the G20 as irrelevant but instead sees them as a cultural threat. Since we are on the inside of that culture, so to speak, we cannot recognize the motives behind both their propaganda and their ongoing efforts towards terrorist attacks. We are as blind to those motives as we were to the motives of (then) North Vietnam; but, like those North Vietnamese, the al-Qaeda organizers are well aware of our motives and the risk of those motives prevailing over the long run. Unlike the Viet Cong, however, al-Qaeda has succeeded in taking their acts of opposition onto our own soil. We still think that we can retaliate by taking the fight to their soil without considering that theirs is not a "soil-based" battle.

If we are to get out of this mess, we might do well to think about Afghanistan in terms other than our usual agenda of making the world safe for democracy. At the beginning of this month, when every day seemed to bring news of another problem with the election there, I suggested that corruption was securely in place because the "government assumes that the West cares more about the threat of the Taliban regaining control than they do about the legitimacy of the democratic practices they claim to be supporting." Meanwhile, the Taliban is less concerned with democratic practices than they are with solving problems at the grass roots level, which is why the few success stories we have come down to whether or not our troops can present themselves at that same level as better problem solvers. However, even if our troops can present themselves this way, the question remains concerning whom they represent. If anyone who picks up a newspaper comes away thinking that neither the United States nor the G20 as a whole is seriously committed to problem solving, then, no matter how many good works those troops may achieve, they will never be seen as anything more than a temporary feel-good measure.

This is a serious problem, but it is even more serious because we rely so heavily on institutions that insist on pretending that the problem does not exist. This is nothing more than denial on a global scale. We ought to think metaphorically about that in remembering that denial is the first stage in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' model of how we deal with the prospect of death. We should bear this in mind in the context of European commentary referring to the "death of America" that was flourishing during the last Presidential campaign. If we can get past denial, skip over the middle stages, and recognize the value of acceptance, we may be able to contribute to a world less vulnerable to the damages of poverty and the threats of terrorism. Unfortunately, that is a terribly big "if!"

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