Grab, while the grabbing's good


BRIDGEHAMPTON, N.Y. -- In case you haven't noticed, this is a great time to buy wooden furniture. At Caldor's, the big discount store here 100 miles east of New York, you can get good-looking, heavy wood kitchen or dining-room chairs for $39 and $49 and tables for $99 to $199.

The design is "Old American," in the manner of the rickety but beautiful 100- and 200-year-old Windsor chairs and farm tables. I just bought a bunch of the stuff, wondering exactly how they can sell it for these prices.

Well, actually, I think I know. In fact, I think I saw my chairs when they were still logs on the docks of Jakarta, in Indonesia.

A little tag under the seat says "Made in Malaysia." One way or another, the wood is from old forests being ravaged in Southeast Asia. Every day dozens of ships, the world's largest collection of working sailing ships, dock along the half-mile-long pier at Sunda Kelapa in Jakarta. Small dark men, most of them barefoot, some wearing ski masks against the equatorial sun, run up and down the wobbly gangplanks of the ships. They come down with back-bending loads of timber and go back up with giant bags of rice.

Where is the wood from? Indonesia has 13,000 islands, many uninhabited by anyone but the timber cutters. The rubber

plantations of old Malaya are being leveled. Vietnamese troops are taking out trees in their country and in Cambodia and Laos.

It is exactly the same as it was in the white-pine forests of Michigan in the mid-19th century. "A majestic order reigns above your head," a visitor to the Michigan pine forests wrote. "In a few years these impenetrable forests will have fallen; the noise of civilization and of industry will break the silence of the Saginaw."

So it did. From 1860 to 1890, 23 million board-feet of lumber were carted or floated out of the valley of the Saginaw. The take was $4 billion, $1 billion more than all the gold dug out of California. The West was built of that wood.

That done and forgotten, we now deplore the same impulses in Asia: ecology, child labor, unrenewable resources and all that. There will be a one-time harvest and then denuded, scrubby land for decades. But the men behind the masks of Sunda Kelapa are just like the men, our great-grandfathers, swinging axes along the Saginaw. Some will get rich; some will be left behind in wastelands.

This is "the global economy." It was endorsed last week by President Clinton in chats with Asian leaders, including the premier of China. Behind the rhetoric of human rights and all that, he let the Chinese know that we know all about one-time bonanzas. China can do whatever it wants as long as Boeing and Disney and Rupert Murdoch get their piece of the action in the coming Chinese buying spree, another one-time thing, as the largest country attempts once more to make the great leap to modernity.

Business is the plot line

Secretary of State Warren Christopher went on television and patiently explained that while human rights and democracy are always paramount considerations for us, they are only part of the story. Business is the plot line. He gushed over the new Shanghai, the Portman towers and glassy hotels rising behind the waterfront.

For some reason, he did not mention that the population of central Shanghai was driven out to make room for the foreigners trying to make a buck before the country closes up again. He also did not mention that tens of millions of Chinese are roaming the country, congregating around railroad stations in a bewildered chase after the action -- or that 35 million Chinese still live in caves.

Americans cannot make China, or its leaders, do anything it does not want to do. It's ludicrous to think that the folks in charge of the Middle Kingdom for this moment of history are going to allow freedom of assembly or freedom of the press because editors of the New York Times and syndicated columnists think that would nice. The Chinese are not nice, and neither are we -- even when doing our Bill of Rights number.

Free markets, not free press, are what we want. This new wave of global capitalism will roll on unless there is political revolt by the losers in the great game -- losers that include downsized, benefitless, pensionless Americans or their mirror image, benefited but unemployed Western Europeans.

This is the way it will be until there is trouble in the streets. In America, at least, the winners have once again forgotten that "progressive" attitudes toward labor and the welfare state itself were not gifts to the masses but payoffs to keep them quiet and not come and kill us.

In Foreign Affairs, Ethan Kapstein, of the Council on Foreign Relations, pondered the impact of new technologies and the global scramble for cheaper and cheaper labor, then warned that we might be repeating the mistakes that led from the Industrial Revolution to worldwide depression and two World Wars. "Workers [then] became commodities like grain and coal," he said, "creating a world of urban poverty, creating a political caldron.

"Over time [now] special-interest groups have become entrenched around a particular set of policies -- reduced deficits, reduced spending, reduced taxes and that most exalted of deities, low inflation -- [that favor] financial interests at the expense of workers. . . . The world may [again] be moving inexorably toward one of those tragic moments that will lead future historians to ask, why was nothing done in time?"

Maybe. But I have to tell you, those chairs look great in the dining room.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/02/96

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