Robert B. Reich, a co-founder of The American Prospect, is a Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. His website can be found here and his blog can be found here.
The next president of the United States either will lead the world into an era of unprecedented peace and growth, in which virtually all nations are knitted together into a seamless economic web, or will watch the world fragment into three trading blocs of advanced and rapidly developing nations, and a fourth vast territory -- stretching from South America through central Africa, Eastern Europe, and central and southern Asia -- largely characterized by deepening poverty, ethnic strife, and civil chaos. The choice is not entirely up to the next president, of course, but he will be in a unique position to influence it.
Ever since I argued in the Harvard Business Review last year that we should pay less attention to corporate nationality and more attention to whether our nation's work force was gaining the skills and competences it needed to compete, I've had the curious sense of being shoved -- quite against my will -- to the conservative side of the older debate over American industrial policy My first inkling of this transmigration came when The Wall Street Journal praised me and my argument in its editorial pages. If this were not cause enough for alarm, I found myself the recipient of expressions of shock and outrage from several fellow industrial-policy travelers who accused me of abandoning the worthy cause. And now, to deepen my gloom, comes Laura Tyson.
It seems as if every conference I attend on the subject of American competitiveness (and there are many -- the competitiveness industry is surely one of America's most competitive) begins or ends with a speech by a prominent chief executive of a large American corporation about business's stake in improving the quality of the American work force. The corporate public- relations staffs who write these things must compare notes, because the speeches are virtually identical: At the start, an upbeat assessment of the current state of American industry coupled with grim warnings about foreign competitors who are gaining ground.
"...O ye, the wise who think, the wise who reign, From growing commerce loose her latest chain, And let the fair white-winged peacemaker fly To happy heavens under all the sky, And mix the seasons, and the golden hours, Till each man finds his own in all men's good, And all men work in noble brotherhood."
-- Alfred Tennyson, "Ode for the Opening of the International Exhibition in London," 1862
As we reach the climax of the great battle over trade with China, it's worth taking a closer look at the main sticking point of this and every other major global agreement likely to arise in future years. There's widespread acceptance of the need for "global labor standards" and "global environmental standards." But apart from agreeing that no nation should permit forced labor, slave labor, employment of six-year-old children in factories seven days a week, and ocean dumping of nuclear wastes, there's almost no agreement on what labor and environmental standards actually mean. That's where the trouble begins.