Workers and the World Economy: Breaking the Postwar Bargain

Roosevelt signs the G.I. Bill into law on June 22, 1944 in the Oval Office.

The global economy is leaving millions of disaffected workers in its train. Inequality, unemployment, and endemic poverty have become its handmaidens. Rapid technological change and heightening international competition are fraying the job markets of the major industrialized countries. At the same time systemic pressures are curtailing every government’s ability to respond with new spending. Just when working people most need the nation-state as a buffer from the world economy, it is abandoning them.

This is not how things were supposed to work. The failure of today’s advanced global capitalism to keep spreading the wealth poses a challenge not just to policymakers but to modern economic ‘science’ as well. For generations, students were taught that increasing trade and investment, coupled with technological change, would drive national productivity and create wealth. Yet over the past decade, despite a continuing boom in international trade and finance, productivity has faltered, and inequality in the United States and unemployment in Europe have worsened.

President Bill Clinton may have been right to proclaim that ‘the era of big government is over,’ and perhaps the American people will ultimately decide that those who need assistance should look elsewhere for help. But if the post-World War II social contract with workers--of full employment and comprehensive social welfare--is to be broken, political support for the burgeoning global economy could easily collapse. For international economic integration is not some uncontrollable fact of life, but has deepened because of a series of policy decisions taken by the major industrial powers over the last 45 years. It is time to recognize that those decisions, while benefiting the world economy as a whole, have begun to have widespread negative consequences. The forces acting on today’s workers inhere in the structure of today’s global economy, with its open and increasingly fierce competition on the one hand and fiscally conservative units--states--on the other. Countermeasures, therefore, must also be deep, sustained, and widespread. Easing pressures on the ‘losers’ of the new open economy must

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