Did you hear the one about the social worker and the WTO?

This week, I’m starting my class on poverty in the global economy (it’s tons of fun–a month-long crash course in global economics with BSW students!) and reflecting on a book that my husband actually recommended I read, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas.

One of the ‘dead ideas’ that the author contends is hindering our search for policy solutions to the real challenges we face is the belief that ‘free trade’ is always an economic good and, indeed, the equation of our current model of corporate-driven globalization with a free trade system.

The truth is, of course, that our global economic structures today, with free trade zones where labor laws are sparse and enforcement even rarer, and with nearly unfettered travel of capital around the globe, without corresponding movement of people, and with very little corporate accountability to any national–or even international–good, is bound to create winners and losers.

That means that it’s a good for some, and a threat to others, and that we need not only an economic system but a public commons that recognizes that and accounts for it.

For many of my students, this class is their first exposure to, well, almost everything we talk about in class: the connection between NAFTA and Mexican immigration rates, the linkage between pharmaceutical patents and the high lethality of HIV in the developing world, International Monetary Fund-imposed austerity packages and the privatization trend that has swept the world (including the U.S.).

The purpose of the class, the way I teach it, is to help social work students, who will spend most of their practice focused on social problems within a U.S. context, understand how small our planet really is today, and why, then, the way that multinational corporations behave, or that multinational economic agreements are structured, matter to, say, Kansans.

The challenge, sometimes, and the book talks about this some, too, is not not fall into a reactionary protectionism, which would simply replace one dead idea (all globalism=progress) with another (we can seal off our own economy).

Instead, the answer is justice.

What’s good for one can really be good for all, if we choose the right goods.

If we build real protections into our economy–a solid safety net, meaningful access to retraining for displaced workers, strong labor unions that make work pay–then we won’t be tempted by protectionism.

If we build alliances across national divisions, we can create people power sufficient to check the excesses of global capital.

If we open our minds to new ways of structuring economies, we can resist the pull of a dead idea.

And it starts, at least for me, with 5 1/2 hours of connecting the dots on a June afternoon.

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