William Greider

William Greider is an award-winning author and reporter who has covered politics from the nation's capitol for more than 30 years. His best-selling books include "Secrets of the Temple" -- on the inner workings of the Federal Reserve -- and "Who Will Tell The People: The Betrayal of American Democracy," an eye-opening and tough-minded account of how accountability and responsibility have decayed in the American political system.

by / December 31, 1996
William Greider is an award-winning author and reporter who has covered politics from the nation's capitol for more than 30 years. His best-selling books include "Secrets of the Temple" -- on the inner workings of the Federal Reserve -- and "Who Will Tell The People: The Betrayal of American Democracy," an eye-opening and tough-minded account of how accountability and responsibility have decayed in the American political system.
This month, his new book, "One World, Ready Or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism" was published by Simon and Schuster. Examining the global system, from peasants entering the industrial world for the first time to the most sophisticated levels of global finance and government, he delivers a compelling analysis of the great changes that are now sweeping over the affairs of government and destabilizing established political orders.

GT: In your earlier book, "Who Will Tell The People," you make the statement, "The reality is that information-driven politics, by its nature, cannot produce a satisfying democracy because it inevitably fosters its own hierarchy of influence based on class and money." Can you explain why you believe this is the case?

Greider: Well, I've watched this happen at the national level for a number of years, but I know that it also occurs in state and local governments, perhaps with either conscientious officials unaware of it or unable to do anything about it. The key is that as political questions get resolved through various processes of expertise -- whether it is science or economics or various modes of management -- you've created a language which most citizens can't speak. They don't understand either the terminology of the expertise or its latent content, which is really social-political judgments and assumptions. And so they find themselves always out-gunned in the public arena.

I suppose the easy answer is, well, they should get educated. But that is not a very practical solution. Everybody can't become economists or lawyers or whatever. So then you would say, they need to mobilize their experts. And that gets to a pretty obvious question of resources. Who has the resources to mobilize a team of scientists or lawyers or other expert testimony on behalf of an issue? Then too, large sections of the population -- certainly the majority -- don't have either the incentive or the wherewithal to participate in this debate. I say this with considerable sympathy for the people who manage government, because we want them to make "rational" decisions that are broadly in the public interest. But I think they need to step back from those procedures by which these decisions are made and ask themselves, "Are the people really present in this process?" A lot of people speaking have a lot of knowledge and opinions, but where is the public in the debate?

GT: You've also written that the rehabilitation of American democracy requires much more than reforming government, that in a very real sense, citizens-at-large must also reinvent themselves, and that the political culture that has fractured governing authority has done the same thing to citizenry. It is clear that a great many people in this country don't participate at all in the political process, but does it go deeper than this?

Greider: I think you have to recognize the causes underneath this reality. We saw the reality once again in this recent national election, something like 48 or 49 percent of the presumably eligible adults bothered to vote. That is a stunning fact about our democracy. And it reflects a long-term decline over the last 30 years. 1992 was a brief turn-around, and I think it was partly that people were excited by Clinton, the three-way race and lots of other things. But if you take that declining vote as a symptom of something deeper and ask why it happened, there are probably a hundred explanations. The big ones I think are the mass-media politics which have made it possible for politicians, candidates and interest groups to mobilize this passive audience of viewers quite effectively for different reasons, whether it is voting in vain or it is supporting a cause or not supporting a cause. One effect of this is that it leaves the voters quite passive. Politicians didn't invent this system. It grew up out of the technology. And it is now being augmented in various ways.

Another factor is the decline of the political parties as representative institutions. Another is the dominance of big private money, not just in contributions to candidates, but in shaping the issues that are the main debate of public life. Nor do I think you can let citizens-at-large off the hook. Certainly, some people declined to vote out of a sense of contentment, but I think it is widely unrealistic to believe that our declining electorate is a symptom that everybody thinks everything is okay. We know that is not true.

On the other hand, electoral turnout rises on hope, generally. History demonstrates that. People come into the public arena believing that it is about them and their presence there will make a difference in their lives. So where do you begin to rebuild that? This sounds romantic, but I think it begins not in Washington and probably not in state capitals, but on the ground among citizens themselves, re-establishing their own connections through various kinds of organizations. I'm quite open to whatever those organizations might look like. There are a lot of them active around the country trying to do this very thing. And particularly in inner cities, it is a tough, tough struggle. But I think until that happens, the institutions will continue to be pushed around and drawn to large forces of money and power and citizens will continue to atrophy in their connection.

Now there is one other big element underlying all this, and that is that American prosperity, as described in the broadest terms, is not there any more. At least not in the terms we knew it 25 years ago. For many years, people have denied that, but I think we are now at a point where most people, not just poor people, not just the working class, but the broad middle class now has at least a sense that this is something that is different. And this, right now, drives people out from participating in the public arena, frankly because they don't see government doing much that has any relevance to that anxiety or to their losses.

I guess my hope and belief is that we will reach a point of critical mass where once enough citizens are mobilized in myriad ways to demand responses. At that point, you may begin to see political leaders -- politicians, candidates, government officials -- breaking out of the orthodox assumptions, the sort of satisfied status quo, and responding with new ideas, and that can regenerate politics. We are not there yet, that is for sure.

GT: You've talked about electronic media, particularly radio and television, empowering ordinary citizens, providing access and information they did not have before, connecting them with distant events and authorities. Yet you've also pointed out that the content of such things as talk shows is hardly focused on what could be called substantive issues. Now, with the emergence of computer networks, particularly the Internet, has your assessment changed?

Greider: Let me give you two, perhaps rather contradictory answers to that. I am fundamentally an optimist about human nature and new technologies. I think that we have to remind ourselves that we are all new to this age and we don't know how to deal with it. We don't know how to be sophisticated about it. We don't know how to absorb the messages and see through them and use them effectively. So I give our society a bit of patience in the sense that we are all learning how to do this and it takes time. You can't rush that process. It is based in human experience.

I am an optimist in the sense that, in theory, computer networking, both at an individual level and a decentralized level, ought to empower people and I think it does. I think a few people have discovered that. But it is not going to be truly democratic until a lot more people have discovered it and have the wherewithal to use it.

The second half of this is that right now, the Internet audience is a very, very special subset of American citizens, dominated by people who just love the technology and love to play with it and love to discover all of the unusual connections you can make through the Web and so forth. They are not users in the real sense of the word. There are a few, I grant that. But everyone wants to have a Web page, yet nobody asks who is really reading these Web pages? Who is really using the system? I think it is a very small group of mostly young techies, quite frankly, and libertarians. And I have total respect for their perspective, but these are people who are more or less acting alone, despite the illusion of connections. They are often not interested in real human engagement. But I don't want to over-generalize. So the question is, "Does it move beyond that stage?"

I fiddle around on the Internet and I've heard the hype, particularly from my young friends who are very enthusiastic about what it will do for our society, how it will empower people. But, quite frankly, I don't see it yet.

So I think in the broader sense, I am an optimist about the technology helping to revive democracy but I think the people who are creating these systems don't have that in mind. And why should they? That is not their role. And we have a lot of hard thinking to do as a society about empowering citizens for access and control before these technologies will deliver that promise.

GT: Turning to your new book, "One World Ready Or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Competition," you present a compelling analysis of run-away global capitalism which you describe as "a wondrous machine, with all its great power and creativity, [that] appears to be running out of control toward some sort of abyss." Can you explain why you say this?

Greider: The easiest way for people to understand what I'm trying to say is the historical framework. We are in the midst of an industrial revolution that is in many ways like previous industrial revolutions. It has been gathering acceleration for nearly forty years. And it is accelerating now, and dispersing and inventing and creating, and also destroying in the nature of industrial revolutions. If you think back to the last industrial revolution, the 1880s, 1890s and beyond, there are many similarities which I won't belabor. But the same kind of conventional wisdom drove politics in that era -- a kind of "isn't this amazing, we've got electricity and we've got automobiles and radio communications, the wireless telegraph, etc. And that's going to lead to wondrous plenty for everybody."

You have to understand that it did of course eventually lead to a broad American prosperity, but in between were World War I and World War II, the Great Depression, and generations of brutal social conflict and political upheaval as people tried to protect themselves from these forces. As they tried to get a share in the new prosperity, deep divisions formed within our own country, not to mention Europe and other countries that were industrialized. I think something very much like that is happening now. And I think the one advantage we have is that we ought to be self-conscious enough to understand that leaving this wondrous machine to its own devices leads toward disastrous consequences. And so the question is, can we moderate it? Can we assert some social and political control over it without destroying its creative energies?

GT: In describing the deeper political instability you believe lies ahead, you raise the question of what the national interest really is in this new era, and you argue that no elected government has managed to produce a definition that convinces its own electorate.

Greider: I think the recent election is more evidence of that, not to mention elections in Japan and elsewhere. Everybody kind of knows in their gut that not much was resolved by the 1996 election. At best, you can call it a sort of stalemate between two very different and shifting ideas about government and society. And it mostly evaded the harder questions, kind of by mutual consent amongst all the politicians. Nobody has any good answers, so let's not talk about them.

I think the national interest -- and this is in the American context which is quite different from say Japan, Germany, or other parts of Europe -- but as a country, our politics has assumed -- really since the New Deal years -- that government plays a role in stimulating, fostering clearing the way, subsidizing and creating markets for private enterprise. And it does that in many controversial and different ways. Even most conservatives have bought into that, whether they like the methods or not. What is good for General Motors is good for the country.

But what has happened as a result of the globalization of production is that doing these things in government no longer fulfills the general premise that, on the whole, everybody will benefit from this. You can argue, perhaps, that many of these measures never really did benefit everyone. However, governments are now trapped in this, and you see this quite vividly at the state and local level -- trapped in a kind of political quicksand where, yes, every politician wants to create jobs, but how does one create jobs? Well, let's give $200 million to Mercedes, or $300 million depending on how you count it, so they will build a factory to build mini-vans in Alabama. Fifteen hundred jobs. And then you spin out of that this fanciful notion that there is going to be an auto parts industry located in Alabama. Give me a break. Nobody believes that. No one in the auto industry believes it. Then North Carolina does the same, so does Ohio, so does Illinois.

One of the points that I make in my book is that this is not different, in its fundamentals, from Malaysia giving enormous tax breaks, suppressing labor and doing a bunch of other things in order to get the U.S. semiconductor industry to locate its assembly plants in there. In a sense, all governments are caught in this kind of dealing -- one might call it either blackmail or bribery, depending upon whether the jobs are leaving or coming, but that is really fundamentally what it amounts to. And it is no longer clear that helping a corporation become productive and its stockholders become profitable delivers a general good to the broad public. And in fact, there is a lot of evidence that this is a negative transaction. I have some sympathy for governors who do it because I'm sure their thought is, what else can you do?

In terms of the national interest, that is to me the starkest example that the old assumptions just don't work so well.

GT: You've summed that up in your new book, saying "The logic of commerce and capital has overpowered the inertia of politics and launched an epoch of great social transformation." Do you have any thought on what the new political logic should be? From your examination of these problems, is this something that we are going to have to find through a long process or is there an obvious solution sitting there?

Greider: The only logic which I can identify starts with a negative perspective, examining what it is that governments do now and asking a very hard question. Does this really deliver work and wages -- decent wages -- to the populace that is paying for it? I know the federal establishment much better now than I know state government, but I can guarantee you that as you go through the federal budget and the tax code and ask that question, you will find enormous volumes of things for which the answer is no. You find what we are doing is sustaining sectors that are there and exist. And yes, of course people are employed there, but there is nothing being created by it. And in fact, the cost of it is quite high just to sustain it. I think the same process would perhaps also provide a general understanding that this country particularly has to do a new inventory of invention at the lower level.

Some of this is going on, as you know, where people are willing to take the risk of creating a market for an enterprise or products or a service that does not exist now because they have a good basis for understanding that this is a future market.

I'm not arguing that government ought to get out of the question of economic development. I believe profoundly that across human history, long before there was a United States, governments have always played a central role in economic development and always will. It is part of society. The free market dogma that says that you just have to get the government out of it is nonsense. First of all, most of the world doesn't believe it even if Americans did. And I don't think most Americans believe it either. Certainly most politicians don't believe it, not under the skin.

Here's an image to keep in mind: If you go back to World War II, other elements aside, it was an extraordinarily creative time in terms of economic development. And the government, almost single-handedly in the necessity of war, created a demand for a lot of new technologies and products. We can go down the list from radar to petrochemical synthetics.

As a country, we came out of that war not only with a lot of pent-up demands because people couldn't buy cars and houses for several years, but also with these new industries which led the world. What people have forgotten is that after the war, the government continued to fund these in fundamental ways. An obvious example is the semiconductor industry. For most of its first generation, there was really only one buyer, the U.S. government. Large body aircraft, where we now have lead the world for almost two generations, came out of the defense budget spending post World War II. Telecommunications would be another example.

You can go down this list and in every case its the same story. And this is not unique to the United States. Similar things were happening in Europe and Japan. The government was able to put some money on the table in reasonably intelligent ways and the money either bought this new product before it was commercially viable, or it subsidized the R & D or it even created the factories in some cases. I think this has got to happen again in this country to really get back to a stable prosperity. What I would be for is a lot of little invention.

I believe the market's ability to sort out what works and what doesn't is pretty effective. It is not so effective to opening the door to the ideas which are not profitable but which reasonable people can understand fulfill a public need and will also be profitable one day. We need to start thinking again in those terms -- and there are some states doing this and there are some companies doing it.

This leads to another of my points in the book, which is that I don't think people grasp the dimensions, the enormity of the ecological and environmental problems that are bearing down upon us. And I don't just mean the United States, I mean the world. If you believe that as I do, and a lot of people do, government has to take the lead here. You can't expect a General Motors or a DuPont Chemical to invent that future for just obvious, practical reasons. It destroys their income in the present. And any corporation, I don't care how principled they are, is going to be reluctant to do this.

GT: Going back to the logic question for a minute, there also seems to be a fundamental philosophical issue here. If you look at the world as a fixed market, developing in some areas and therefore expanding, but still as an kind of pie that gets cut up, then to get a significantly bigger slice of the pie also means someone else has to lose out by getting less. But what you are talking about is a somewhat different view. The historic precedents of what has really driven prosperity has been creation of new things, creating new pies if you like, through invention and government funding of the development and production of these inventions.

Greider: This is hard for a lot of people to grasp and I try in different ways in the book to make it clear to people, but it is easier to see, in some ways, in the creation going on. Because there are fabulous new inventions and countries that were once very poor are coming on stream as manufacturers and so forth. You can see the evidence of that fairly clearly. What is a little more difficult to see is what you are calling the win-lose situation because the economic numbers don't seem to show that -- the economy is still growing, etc. -- and the displacements which are immense and damaging are concealed within that. My argument in the book is that -- and this is really the promise of our moment in history -- is that if people can get outside their bound local identities or national identities or the more conventional understandings of how things work and say, 'Wait a minute. We really all are now in this together and to stabilize our prosperity, to work out a new format for it, we do have to attend to those people on the other end, not just their work and wages and living conditions, but also their role in this larger economic system.' In fact, as we know, there is no institution existing in the world to do that. You have to do it from a national and local level. That is how the world is organized.

This sounds corny to people, but I almost think it is a sense of consciousness. And as I argue in the book, commerce and finance of multinational corporations are the vehicle for opening up this new possibility. And a lot of people who are critics -- and I count myself as one of them -- have a really hard time acknowledging that really positive potential which is now before us in the world.

It is very, very difficult. If you think of my last book as arguing mostly through the functional problems of our present democracy in a national sense, then I'm raising the bar. Unfortunately, you just can't think in those terms anymore. You now have to think about not just what your social standards are in the United States, but what are your social standards for the world? And there is an economic interest in doing that. I mean a really practical self-interest in doing it. But it is also very hard for people to do. If you listen to the noise around our society, there are an awful lot of people who are turning the opposite way. They want to pull up the bridges and seal off the world. And even if that were possible, which of course it is not, that is a very reactionary response to history.

GT: So what you are saying is that multinational corporations are thinking globally. They move their chess pieces around the world, so to speak, to maximize profits. And naturally so, given the current technological realities. But part of the social balance required is that governments, even government at the state and local level, and really even citizens as individuals, also have to start thinking globally in much the same way.

Greider: Let me state the very optimistic core of that. This again will sound corny to many people, but having traveled enough around the world and gone to remote places where people are manufacturing advanced goods, and then having spent a lot of time with American managers and engineers and so forth, I came back with this Boolean feeling about the capacities of human beings. You just cannot help but be stunned by so much of what is happening. If people can design and build these things with just a little bit of help, and begin making stuff in Indonesia or China or wherever, then it is not beyond human capacities to assert strong, really globalized principles of how societies can function and ought to function. Now maybe that's my own wishful thinking, but I would say, if you look back at human history over lots of centuries, that is the process that took people to a higher plateau of organization. I don't think human nature changes over a few centuries, but I think we have the capacity to invent new arrangements and tools that make life more fulfilling, and that, in the final analysis, help people realize their own individual capacities.

Let me just add one other thing. If I were sitting in local government right now, doling out these bribes or blackmail to corporations to either bring their jobs to my jurisdiction or to not take them away -- and this is scandalous all over the country and it is also scandalous all over the world -- one of the big questions I would ask myself is how can we stop this? And I think you rather quickly would conclude that I can't stop it in Akron, Ohio, or Birmingham, Ala. This takes national action. And probably it takes international actions. Not right way. And it is a tough, tough legal problem.

I know various groups are studying it and proposing various rules of behavior and so on. I think it might require a constitutional amendment and I can't write you that amendment, but I have a sense that it has got to be about public expenditure for private use. And that gets to be a very, very tricky question, given the pluralistic nature of our governments. But if I were in local government, worried about work and wages, I would start talking to other governments in a pretty serious way about how we could stop this or at least moderate it, at least put some controls in. Because it really is a win-lose game here and the win-lose is not just within the United States but throughout the world.


[January Table of Contents]

Blake Harris Editor
Platforms & Programs