Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Cash course

New book tracks the effects of a global economy.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 11, 2001 at 12:00 AM

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From the number of times per day we’re treated to the breaking news about the NASDAQ and the Dow Jones, you’d think that everyone had a consuming interest in following his or her investments minute by minute. The truth is that only about half of Americans have anything to do directly with Wall Street, even as little as belonging to a pension fund that’s invested in stocks.

But the doings of Alan Greenspan and the financiers do affect all of us, nonetheless. Author Barbara Garson, who became famous at a very young age as the author of the anti-war play MacBird! back in the 1960s, decided to “get beyond the global babble” and find out how the rapid and massive transnational flows of money act upon ordinary people. It is a search she chronicles in the new book Money Makes the World Go Around.

Garson is the perfect person to attempt such a project: She’s radical, she’s funny, and she takes each person she meets, from Wall Street to Singapore, at face value. With a few words, we know what makes the small-town banker tick, why the union staffer in Tennessee reacts to a plant shutdown the way he does (resignedly). “Everyone I met was surprising,” she says, “but no one exotic.”

More important for those of us whose eyes glaze whenever a news anchor says the word “economy,” she brings down to the ground such abstractions as currency crises, Eurodollars, Third World debt, the International Monetary Fund, and the interbank market for Federal Reserve funds. It would be hard to come up with a list that sounds more boring, and yet Garson makes it fascinating by taking us through her own face-to-face learning process.

What she does is use a portion of her publisher’s book advance to deposit $29,500 in a local bank and invest $5,000 in a mutual fund. She then follows her money as it wings its way around the world. It helps build an oil refinery in Thailand, it finances a catalytic cracker in Singapore, and it’s part of “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap’s rampage that wrecked the Sunbeam Corporation in the United States. As she recounts her interviews with high- and middle-level cogs in the international banking machine and with nannies in a Singapore mall, you feel you’re there.

Here’s the most subversive sentiment Garson heard in all her travels. She’s interviewing Malaysian fishermen, relaxing in their sarongs after work. The catches are much smaller now than 15 years ago, they say, because of the sewage from the tourist hotels. But they prefer fishing to working in factories or in the hotels, they say, because you’re your own boss, and you can stop when you have enough.

To “stop when you have enough” is exactly what the money that makes the world go round cannot do. “Enough” and “profit” can’t coexist in the same sentence. Although Garson is not gauche enough to put it this way, that’s one of the rules of capitalism. A lot is not enough if the other fellow is making more, because then he draws ever-fluid and ever-hungry capital away from you.

Garson learns from her banker contacts early on that they are “awash” in money, scouring the globe for places to put it so workers can make it grow. American and Japanese capital has poured into Thailand, for instance, financing refineries and shrimp farms and malls.

Then comes the Asian crash of 1997. What happens to the Thai companies’ vast debts to U.S. banks? They must be repaid in Thai baht worth half as much as before.

Who gets hurt? People like 20-year-old Porngagagag (“Squirrel”), trying to make a living as a food vendor on the streets of Bangkok; no one has as much money to spend, but the IMF forbids the Thai government to subsidize the cost of rice. Or an illegal Burmese immigrant that Garson befriended. He had worked in construction (but all the work is halted now) and as an auto mechanic (but 100,000 vehicles are repossessed in the first six months after the crash).

Yet the bankers, and the statesmen who aid them, are insistent that no nation can pass a law to restrain what they do with their capital or their currencies. Think NAFTA, the U.S.-Canada-Mexico treaty which has the authority to overturn local laws that get in the way of investment. (That’s what happened in a remote mountain town in Mexico. An American company, Metalclad, started building a facility to store toxic wastes. The local people refused the company a permit, even though Metalclad offered them 600 jobs. Metalclad took its case to a NAFTA tribunal, which ruled that the Mexican government should have forced the locals to accept the toxics, and ordered the government to pay Metalclad $16.7 million.)

“Money that could be earning more money is as demanding as rot,” Garson concludes. “For good, for bad, or for no practical purpose at all, that money must be invested and its returns reinvested. Unlike the fisherman I met in Penang, money managers can never say ‘You stop when you have enough.’

“That’s what creates the constant change I find so exhilarating, but that’s also what creates so much insecurity for so many people in the world.”

Reading Money Makes the World Go Around won’t make you more secure or tell you where to invest. It will make you (painlessly) smarter about what the big guys are up to with your hard-earned cash in that savings account earning 3 percent.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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