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Burma: Free Trade vs Human Rights

A Massachusetts law forbidding the state from buying products from companies doing business in Burma was struck down by a federal appeals court in June. "This is a severe blow to the practice of state and local governments using moral criteria to make financial decisions," an anti-Burma activist told The Boston Globe.

The court said the state cannot interfere with the federal government’s ability to conduct foreign affairs, and that federal laws preempt the state sanctions.

The state rep who sponsored the original bill said, "If we had rulings like this in the ’70s and ’80s, the United States would not have been able to participate in the anti-apartheid movement. The ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Looming Disaster

Last year was the worst on record for natural disasters, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). As the organization’s president told The New York Times: when environmental problems like global warming and deforestation collide with social problems like increasing poverty "you have a new scale of catastrophe."

Developing countries were hardest hit. Indonesia, already suffering from the Asian economic crisis, experienced its worst drought in 50 years. The rice crop failed while currency values fell, the price of imported rice quadrupled, and food riots erupted. Meanwhile, raging forest fires blanketed much of Indonesia with toxic smoke.

Last year, natural disasters created more refugees than war and conflict. Yet overall disaster aid from rich countries is diminishing and insurance companies are withdrawing coverage from the most vulnerable areas.


Modern Mythology

Jeremy Rifkin, a leading critic of biotechnology, met face-to-face with biotech gurus from Monsanto and other corporations to help devise scenarios for the impact of biotechnology on business and society.

One scenario devised by the conference, sponsored by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, forsaw biotechnology gaining widespread acceptance and lifespans of over 100 years. Rifkin backed a scenario predicting society will reject biotech products and embrace organic agriculture. Rifkin was invited to the session by a consultant not the companies themselves, according to The New York Times.


Double Whammy

You never know what may be up the sleeve of a Phillips-Van Heusen shirt. This leading U.S. shirt manufacturer makes every effort to appear labor-friendly. Its president is a member of the Human Rights Watch board of directors and was a founding member of the White House task force on ending sweatshops.

Yet Phillips-Van Heusen’s track record is made of a different cloth. The company recently closed its Guatemalan factory — the only export apparel shop in Guatemala with a union contract. While the company claimed it was merely cutting back on production, a report issued in June by the United States Student Association, the People of Faith Network, and the U.S./Labor Education in the Americas Project found unionbusting was to blame. The company had in fact increased its imports from Central American contractors during the first quarter of ’99. For six months, former workers maintained a 24-hour vigil outside the factory so that the multinational has been unable to remove any of its equipment.


Right to Act

New Jersey union members and citizens have taken dramatic steps to end industrial pollution in the state often referred to as the "Armpit" of America, Labor Notes reports. Spurred by a chemical leak from Heterene Chemical Company, which caused the hospitalization of 53 public school students and six teachers, residents decided enough was enough.

A new Passaic County law authorizes committees comprised of citizens, technical experts, union members, and corporate management to inspect polluting plants on a regular basis. If companies refuse to cooperate, committees are legally permitted to sue.

This "Right to Act" law is a milestone in worker and citizen empowerement, removing barriers behind which corporations have hidden illegal activity. More importantly, this law and others like it mark the first steps in reallocating corporate power.



Genetic engineers, perhaps hoping to win environmentalists over to their side, have devised a pig that will reduce pollution. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario have transplanted mouse genes into Yorkshire pig embryos and created three enviropigs whose manure is less polluting than that of natural pigs, reports The Boston Globe.

"The manure from our animals is superior," boasts John Phillips, lead molecular biologist of the piggy project.

There’s no way around it, genetic tinkering raises some stinky questions. There may be a reason why pigs lack phytase. The addition of this enzyme will certainly affect other internal workings of these pigs. The enviropig smells more like a scientific get-rich-quick scheme for researchers and the Ontario Pork Producers Marketing Board, which has an exclusive license to distribute these porkers.

Campaign Finance


Donor Gap

Women who make large campaign contributions are more likely to be liberal or conservative than moderate, less likely to contact their senators or representatives, more likely to contribute for policy rather than business or job-related reasons, more likely to contribute to challengers, and give more to female candidates and Democrats than their male counterparts. These findings were reported by two recent studies of large ($200 and up) political donors, one conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics, the other by several university-based researchers sponsored by the Joyce Foundation.


Surf the 2nd Coming

Can’t afford to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the second coming of Christ scheduled for the turn of the millennium? Watch the rapture in real time, broadcast straight to your home computer from a webcam set up on the city’s Eastern Gate, compliments of Daystar International Ministry.

Although the event should be so spectacular that technology will be unnecessary, the webcam will enable "armchair pilgrims" to virtually fulfill the Biblical command as watchmen on the walls praying for the city of Jerusalem. In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, a Daystar spokeswoman predicted "a glorious sound-and-light show, the sky filled with lightning and the shouts of archangels."


Prosper and Live Long

Scientists are slowly coming to grips with the class-divided nature of our society. Most recently, researchers have discovered social class as a strong predictor of longevity.

The higher on the social and professional ladders you are, the longer you will live, reports The New York Times.

The studies found that with lower social class comes more stress and less control over employment. In fact, the two are directly linked. In one study done at Carnegie Mellon University, subjects rated themselves on a social status scale and were then exposed to a mild virus. Those with a low self-ranking were more likely to become infected than those with a higher rank.


Global Tax Evasion

Large foreign owned companies with operations in the United States paid about half the federal taxes on average than U.S. firms of comparable size and revenues, according to a recent General Accounting Office Report undertaken at the request of Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). These firms often juggle transactions with affiliates overseas to their advantage.

As large U.S. firms like Chrysler become owned by foreign companies, their tax payments to the U.S. may fall, says Robert McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice. McIntyre called for reform of tax codes to create simpler ways of allocating taxes among countries.


Prison Can
Increase Crime

Putting criminals in prison reduces crime by taking them off the streets, according to standard criminological theory. But a controversial new theory by Florida State researchers suggests high community incarceration rates can reach a tipping point at which crime rates increase. When too many people are in prison, the community destabilizes. Families break up, people become cynical about the criminal justice system, and going to prison becomes a routine phenomenon.

The researchers point to Frenchtown, an African-American neighborhood in Tallahassee, with high rates of imprisonment, large numbers of unemployed, demoralized men, and a crime rate that has passed the tipping point.


The More Things Change...

The far left has been feeling some heat this year. First, anarchists gathering in Boca Raton last February found the local college had pulled permission for them to meet after being contacted by the police. Police also pulled over cars carrying activists on their way to the Total Liberation Conference. Members of groups such as the American Indian Movement, the Animal Defense League, Anarchist Black Cross Federation, Earthkind Feminist Collective of Syracuse, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) ended up meeting in a local grove, according to Earth First Journal!

Then, in July, Idaho anarchists were unable to come up with $500,000 in insurance that the Couer d’Alene parks department demanded for them to hold a Rock Against Bigotry concert. The concert was to oppose a white racist march scheduled around the same time.

Issue #225, September-October 1999

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Dollars & Sense magazine, 29 Winter Street, Boston, MA 02108, USA, provides left perspectives on economic affairs. It is published six times a year and is edited by a collective of economists, journalists, and activists committed to social justice and economic democracy.

Copyright © 2002 Economic Affairs Bureau, Inc.