Nearly lost amid the hubbub about whether President Obama, Sarkozy or both were staring at the behind of a young woman at last week’s G8 summit was the fact that the leader of the world’s most powerful nations gathered to devise the next steps in the global economy.
Ir is a precarious time.
Obama has alternated between issuing optimistic forecasts that some economists call too rosy while also saying that the recovery may be a ways off. Multi-billionaire and revered investment guru Warren Buffett recently said additional stimulus money may be necessary to jump start the American economy.
Of course, the American economy is far more intertwined with the rest of the world than in earlier decades and centuries.
Journalist Jon Jeter has seen the workings of the international economic system up close as bureau chief for The Washington Post in southern Africa and in South America in the earlier part of this decade.
What he saw disturbed him profoundly. Jeter’s sense of outrage at the exploitation of workers throughout the planet is palpable in Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People.
Many thanks to dear friend and uber connector Danny Postel for the copy.
A primary source of this book’s power lies in its geographic range and vignettes.
Jeter paints compelling portraits of people grappling with desperate poverty from which they have no real hope to escape in countries ranging from Malawi to Argentina to the United States, where he focuses on former Black Panther official and current Congressman Bobby Rushand the Englewood community he represents on Chicago’s South Side. While the structure of his chapters are a tad formulaic-an anecdotal description leads into a brief combination of historical information and economic policy before heading back to the individual-the read is no less informative for being somewhat predictable.
To his credit, Jeter does not segregate his outrage by a country’s stated political affiliation. The Brazil of Lula and post-apartheid South Africa come in for some of the most withering attacks as Jeter convincingly documents those countries’ leaders’ repeated betrayal of their constituents. These chapters added to his credibility by strengthening his contention that the workings of the global economy affect all nations.
To Jeter, there are direct connections between people in each of these countries.
In the book’s overview, he writes, “From Argentina to Zambia, from Chicago to Soweto and D.C. to Rio, the restructuring of the global economy has ripped a hole through the earth, city by city, block by block, house by house. Globalization has widened inequality, corrupted politicians, estranged neighbors from one another, unraveled families, rerouted rivers, emptied ports of ships, and flooded streets with protesters.”
While Jeter’s perspective about globalization’s impacts is clearly stated, his analysis of how we have gotten there is less enlightening. While he does talk about the route each country he covers in the book has taken to participating in the interconnected economic system, he does not present a coherent argument about how the negative changes he so passionately describes were formulated and implemented.
Flat Broke has some wild claims-he writes that just six in 1,000 black Chicagoans are married, for example-and internal inconsistencies. Early in the book, he devotes an entire chapter to Argentina’s economic woes, but in the book’s final section writes about how it is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. He deplores the abuses of Pinochet in Chile and his adoption of Milton Friedman’s “Chicago School” approach to the economy, yet says that the stable growth that he holds up as an alternative had its little known roots in the Pinochet era.
Jeter also has a somewhat bizarre chapter about dating in which he talks about a black man and his insecurity about dating a more educated and higher earning black woman. He appears to be arguing that globalization has made it more likely that black women will have fewer available and attractive choices of black men. While this may be true on a macro level, the argument both seems to be a major stretch and, with all respect, does not exactly seem comparable to the dire straits he so vividly describes earlier in the work.
In short, Flat Broke is a mixed bag, but one that is quick, accessible, provocative and worth reading. You may not agree with all Jeter has to say, but you are likely to think afterward about why you disagree.