The Washington Protests

CAMBRIDGE: We are entering the third round of street protests against globalization. The City of London and Seattle were the first to be besieged. Now demonstrators are massing in Washington against the IMF and World Bank. Thousands will protest for human rights issues, women rights issues, gay rights issues, workers rights issues, ecological rights issues, anti-war issues, Tibetan rights, and a myriad of other concerns. A brief look at the demonstrators' website a16.org gives a full taste of the menu of gripes on offer, including even an anarchists' domain.

What is extraordinary here are not the protests per se, but the sheer ability to gather and mobilize so many diverse groups into one giant anti-everything-that-is-wrong-in-the-world howl. But should we take these screams seriously? Is there a message? Are these protests representative of a widespread rejection of the way the world economy is working? Or does all this sound and fury signify nothing more than a well-organized mobilization of the dispossessed who cannot win support via the democratic process?

The demonstrations in Washington are certain to gain worldwide attention as the best show in town. But we should not be dissuaded from a sound economic approach to managing the world economy. The most important reason for ignoring these shouts is that, behind the scenes but not really hidden, the chief force organizing the demonstrations is America's organized labor, a movement with terrible problems with free trade (Nafta, trade with China, the WTO), anything, indeed, that looks like a global free market.

When union bosses play internationalist, don't believe them for a minute. They only want to raise labor standards abroad so that workers in poor countries become overpriced and lose their jobs. Policy makers in poor countries have long understood that their chief enemies are the "fair trade" advocates in the US, unions, and environmentalists.