Ford Motor Company introduced the eight-hour, $5 work day, more than doubling the standard wage in what was already one of the best-paid industries in the world.
At the same time it opened a huge assembly-line auto plant in Detroit, where it produced the cheapest, most reliable car in America, the Model T.
The high wages at Ford helped to cause a boom in the economy, which helped to sell automobiles, and Henry Ford was applauded as a financial genius.
In 2005, Mike Zafirofsky, CEO of Canadian telecommunications giant Nortel, made $37,429,297. That works out to $102,546 a day.
Unlike Ford’s $5 day, though, Zafirovsky’s generous pay packet doesn’t seem to be causing much of a lift for his company.
Last week, Nortel announced another 2,900 layoffs, and a plan to move another 1,000 jobs to China, India, or Mexico in search of cheaper labour.
No word yet on whether it plans to relocate the most expensive employee of all.
In a related story, last week Qin Dahe, chief of the China Meteorological Administration, recognized China’s enormous burden of greenhouse gas emissions, but pointed out that the country “lags behind Europe and the United States” in its technological ability to scrub coal, which would greatly reduce those emissions.
In fact, China has the dirtiest coal, the worst smog and the second highest emissions in the world.
This is what’s called globalization.
It’s the great economic miracle of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney.
Its purpose has been to generate billionaires, and to turn existing billionaires into multi-billionaires, and at this it has been an unqualified success.
Vast fortunes have been made shipping raw materials all over the world in search of the cheapest labour and the lowest environmental standards, and then shipping the products back to where there’s money to buy them.
The architects of this plan have been called financial geniuses too, but only by each other.
Since 1989, the number of people relying on food banks in Canada has grown by a factor of 90 per cent.
Over the same period, real wages have dropped despite a massive boom in the energy industry, poverty rates have increased 38 per cent in cities and 18 per cent in rural areas, and Canada has regularly posted the world’s highest per capita number of billionaires.
At latest count that’s 22, worth $78 billion US between them.
According to a CBC report from December 2006, there are 793 billionaires worldwide, with a total net worth of $2.6 trillion US, or roughly the GDP of Germany.
Not all six-figure CEOs are billionaires, at least not yet, though they’re working on it.
It’s one of the shining achievements of modern times that the rich are richer than they have ever been. Unless you are among those lucky few, or among the hapless many with no money at all, the benefit of globalization comes in the form of cheap consumer goods.
When you can buy a vacuum cleaner for $30 at Wal-Mart, who needs good wages?
Meanwhile, the oceans are thick with polymers from the tonnes of plastic junk that falls off container ships in storms, the air in Chinese cities is thick with smog, and greenhouse gas emissions are soaring like a CEO’s salary in a tanking communications company.
Is there anybody left who thinks this is a rational economy?
Anybody, that is, not buried past their eyes in money?
The poor have taken the brunt of globalization, just as they’re going to suffer most from global warming.
As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said last week, “It is the poor, in Africa and developing small island states and elsewhere, who will suffer the most, even though they are the least responsible.”
A nice cushion of dollars makes almost any crisis easier to bear.
We can’t control climate change unless we slow down the container-ship economy, insist on fair labour and environmental standards in our trading partners, and bring some of those manufacturing jobs home, so that raw materials and finished products don’t have to travel halfway round the world.
It should now be clear to anyone who didn’t get filthy rich out of globalization that it was a bad road to go down, and that painful as the journey back will be, we’d better turn around before it leads off a cliff.