Shirts Off Their Backs

The Global Economy, as Told Through a Tee

Indeed, that our credit-card patriotism depends on such inequities may go a long way toward answering a question that has bizarrely befuddled the TV pundits for the last two months: Why do they hate us? Even Henry Kissinger recently noted that "ideological radicalism" breeds "in a two-tiered system of globalized elites living behind security gates . . . while the populations at large are tempted by nationalism, ethnicity, and a variety of movements to free themselves."

Nonetheless, at the World Trade Organization summit that ended recently in Doha, Qatar, the U.S. did all it could to deflect agricultural, labor, environmental, and economic demands from developing countries, extolling unfettered capitalism as the god that truly blesses America, never mind what it does to the rest of the world. According to Caroline Lucas, a Green member of the European Parliament who was an official delegate there, "Doha spells disaster for poor people."

In an account of the talks in London's Observer, Lucas notes that developing countries pleaded for a delay on tariff reductions so that a study of their effects on local industries and jobs could be undertaken. "Their request was ignored," she writes, "and as a result, they face further decimation of their economies." As an example she cites Senegal—Ibrahim's homeland—which was persuaded to open its markets by cutting industrial tariffs by almost half, and then suffered the loss of one-third of its manufacturing jobs. And thousands of apparel and textile workers have been laid off in Pakistan in the last two months alone, in the wake of a two-thirds decline in business from the U.S., which imported $1.9 billion in goods from there last year; textile and apparel manufacturing employs some 60 percent of Pakistan's industrial workforce.

Back on the home front, Congress genuflects to the free market by passing corporate giveaways that favor the behemoths like General Motors and IBM—as well as the medium-sized, Texas-based energy companies that gave big donations to the Republicans in the last election. The "economic stimulus" package passed by the House near the end of last month offers them retroactive relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax—the only means of preventing profitable corporations from evading all tax liability through a range of loopholes.

At the same time, Bush appeals to "national security" to push through fast-track legislation—which would give the administration new trade-negotiation power to strike deals without any input from Congress. And the airline bailout rescued that industry's execs, but left 100,000 laid-off workers to sink in the accelerating downturn. As a result of all these domestic policies, America's income gap keeps expanding, further stepping up the need for cheap consumer goods, further accelerating the cycle. As Bill Moyers put it in a recent speech, the corporations are "counting on you to stand at attention with your hand over your heart, pledging allegiance to the flag, while they pick your pocket."

Some people have scorned the street vendors for trying to turn a buck on the tragedy of September 11. But Loki, Ibrahim, and all the others hawking jingoistic wares are not the catastrophe's true profiteers. No, those would be the corporations busily plundering the public coffers here and pressing for ever more self-serving agreements abroad while counting on the complacent consumers who buy their goods to ignore the misery of the people who make them.

Ibrahim shrugged when asked what he thought about selling NYPD and FDNY T-shirts made in Mexico and Korea. "I don't know anything about that," he said, referring the question to "the Chinese people" he bought them from. But having left his family behind and crossed a vast ocean to have a go at a better life in America, he knows everything about it.

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