The Art of Deferral
UPON READING Harold Pinter’s recent Literature Nobel Prize speech, a denunciation of US foreign policy, I thought I would focus on overseas perceptions of the US for this month’s essay. But I have decided, for a variety of reasons ranging from the flu to interminable house-painting to procrastination, that I will postpone that essay until next month (assuming something else doesn’t come up) and instead offer You Better Not Cry, a piece of Christmas satire on those disagreed upon creations called free trade agreements.
By appending this piece I am cheating doubly: first, I wrote it three or four years ago, and second, it is not an essay. But since we are in a new year and there may still be some lingering goodwill and laxity left over from the shopping season, I assume there is no better time to play my “get out of jail free” card. And best to start the year on a bad foot so that the rest of the year has a better chance of looking up.
That said, though You Better Not Cry is no essay, it cannot really be considered fiction either. Fiction demands that every person and perspective gets a fair hearing, and it is best approached without preconceptions and polemics. This piece, however, is no more than a political rant in jocular guise, a spray of anti-corporate propaganda composed in an atmosphere of ludicrous invective that takes every cheap shot possible and runs with every easy stereotype at hand. It is crass in its approach, hyperbolic, contemptuous, dismissive, and under close examination full of cheap tricks and dodgy ploys worthy of a second-rate magician. For this reason, it may in the end be more in line with my character than I care to admit and so I include it here without qualms.
You Better Not Cry
CHILDREN around the world wept on December 22 after a North Pole press release confirmed that Santa Claus would not be delivering presents on Christmas Eve. Santa’s much anticipated visits may in fact be postponed for another three to five years due to a recent structural adjustment program that promises to give a needed economic facelift to the remote and isolated regions of the polar north. With the November 4 passage of the FTANP (Free Trade Area of the North Pole) Claus and economic leaders are paving the way for a productive new future integrating the North Pole into the global economy.
As the passage of FTANP preceded elections, there was little media coverage; the terms of the agreement remain unknown to most people and were conducted in private, but C. Chrissy, one of the negotiators and a respected luncheon speaker, assures the public that “these agreements guarantee unrestricted movement of important goods and services, secure certainty and transparency for investors, and ensure that well-meaning but ill-informed social planners or communist flotsam left over from the Soviet era do not interfere with market forces by propping up barriers to trade that hinder the pursuit of private gain, which is such a vital condition to a vibrant economy.”
Transnational corporations have not failed to capitulate on this opportunity. Mikee has already moved its factories from Indonesia to the North Pole, where labor is available at lower costs. It is hoped this will lessen the headaches caused by disruptive anti-sweatshop groups back in the US who protest that Mikee has been “complicit” with a “brutal regime.”
“These elves are fantastic shoe makers,” said a delighted Mikee spokesman, who then praised the workers for their “nimble little hands.” Because the newly formed state of the North Pole has yet to establish a treasury, the elves are presently being compensated with a monthly pair of new sneakers, a privilege previously unheard of in the backward polar north. Every pair is individualized by a fortuitous and unique color-blemish, a symbol of Mikee’s ethos of creative spontaneity and appreciation for diversity among its workers.
“Of course, when a monetary system is introduced we will compensate at pay rates appropriate to the region,” the Mikee spokesman continued. “But the elves may opt to stay with their current compensation plan. After all, few work forces are guaranteed a steady supply of clean, comfortable sneakers. Many children around the world die because of diseases that afflict their bare feet. But not our workers.”
Critics of Mikee argue that the increased military presence in the North Pole since the passage of the FTANP reveals the ground realities of the free trade agreement and is transforming the once peaceful North Pole into a police state. But Chrissy disagrees:
“This is a security force whose sole mission is to ensure regional stability and prevent unruly elements from disrupting the modernization process. These men have been trained on American soil at S.O.P [School of the Poles], newly opened in Fort Lemmings, Georgia. I should note that, aside from professional training in counterinsurgency techniques and stabilization tactics, their training also included a four-hour human rights and religion course on praying for the salvation of victims’ souls before summary executions.”
Pleased local North Pole workers corroborated Chrissy’s optimistic claims. Escorted by two smartly dressed security officers fresh from S.O.P training, one elf left the Mikee factory line to share his feelings. “I love FTANP and Mikee … I love FTANP and Mikee,” he said, trembling and practically speechless in apparent gratification at the new work opportunities.
The new labor force in the North Pole puts pressure on unions worldwide to abate their incessant demands. Unions are unhappy with the new FTANP, claiming that they must now operate under the company threat that production could shift to the North Pole. They are also concerned with changing workplace conditions. According to official sources, one African-American union worker who drives a Cadillac said FTANP “sucks” because he would now “have to work harder.”
But the arrangement pleases thrifty corporate leaders, who are quick to note the advantages offered by the virgin North Pole territory. “After shifting production from Mexico—with its steep minimum wage rates of $3.40/day—to Guatemala and Haiti, it was believed this would be the end of the line for us,” said a corporate spokesman preferring anonymity. “But as my boss says, success comes to the go-getter with one eye on the market and the other on the pocketbook. We are now considering relocating to the North Pole. This is a great victory for free trade and democracy.”
Rich in marine plants unique to the polar caps, the North Pole has also attracted a group of ambitious ‘bio-prospectors.’ Monstrousanto has taken the lead in this modern-day repeat of the gold rush, though this time not for gold but for plants that can expand the limits of food production and medicine. Bio-prospecting benefits the public by globalizing the valuable plants once enjoyed solely by the privileged few of the locale. While most elves agree it is good to share and help the needy, there are some who are angry that bio-prospectors are profiting off their land by “stealing indigenous knowledge.”
Manager of patent rights at Monstrousanto Rob Dairland concedes that bio-prospecting is motivated by profit, but that seems to him poor grounds for criticism: “A local grocery store that provides food for the neighborhood also operates on profit principles. Does this mean they should be shut down? Of course not. The profit-motivator is precisely what begets these utilitarian outcomes.”
As for the critics who claim Monstrousanto is “stealing” resources, Dairland asked what right these elves had in claiming ownership to the North Pole at large, pointing to the Native American tradition in the US that “was founded on an ethic of sharing the land.” Dairland did note, however, that there was “a clear point at which a collective good could be transformed into a private one by applying willful creative design and technological innovation to the good in question.”
Another accusation, namely that Monstrousanto unfairly demands ‘protectionist measures’ for public goods, visibly distressed Dairland. Kneading his forehead, he said it was a constant battle to fend off such slander. “This is absurd. If you write a novel, do I have the right to put my name on your novel? Of course not. The same rules apply to these plant extracts. These plants can help sick people. And as long as there is a way to help the sick, we will do whatever is necessary. We believe there is hope. We believe in hope.”
With temperatures often plummeting to 80 below zero, farming has never been an easy task in the North Pole. A $500 million food aid package headed by FTANP humanitarian coordinator Aikaire Furyoo now guarantees food to the local elf population. Acting like a Santa Claus, the meatpacking giant Urchin Daniels Hindland has taken on the contract and the initiative to cheer the barren land by supplying the neglected and deprived elves with sustenance crops like rice, corn and soybean. The move has led to the nomination of Furyoo for the newly created UDH Ending World Hunger Award.
A few elves, the vocal minority, criticize the new food aid effort, arguing that it undermines the traditional cold-climate farming practices that have successfully fed the elven population for millennia. In their view, the subsidized crop imports are “unfair” and “coercive.” They claim that the elf farmers, no longer able to participate in the barter system, are losing their land to Urchin Daniels Hindland, which then converts the property to reindeer farms and processing plants.
But Furyoo, unlike the disgruntled elves, sees Hindland’s polar land acquisitions as beneficial to the North Pole peoples. “One must bear in mind that not only are we providing the North Pole with a steady and dependable stream of food stuffs but we are also building an infrastructure that enables the elf tribes to exploit their previously unappreciated resources. The succulent reindeer meat has exploded as the premiere gourmet meat on the world market and will bring needed revenue to this long-ignored region. It also serves as crucial advertising to put the North Pole on the traveler’s map. One can imagine the benefits of establishing a vibrant tourism trade here. In this light, objections to our efforts are, frankly, astounding.”
Unwilling to contemplate these benefits, the usual suspects hammer away with their criticism that the free food imports will not last long and will lead to dangerous “food-dependency” for the former farmers who are “forced” to relocate to the urban center for factory labor.
To this Furyoo can only sigh with a grandfatherly chuckle. “What they fail to understand is that these jobs will provide the elves with more opportunities to purchase a wide variety of goods, including previously unimaginable luxury items. It will have a civilizing effect on their tribal lifestyle and their former standards of living will in retrospect seem barbaric. Just look at the effect of comparable policies on other countries: the GDP rose. Don’t be deceived by shortsighted detractors who fuss that wages have dropped. What matters is that GDP is climbing. As for these elves, what can one say to them? Angry elves will not listen to facts or reason. Of course, they are different from us, and we should bear that in mind.”
US taxpayers are already seeing their investment in the FTANP food aid program pay off as North Pole reindeer steaks begin to line supermarket freezer shelves. At $8.99/lb, North Pole reindeer may not be the most affordable meat, but an online study conducted by The Right Questions Inc. sampled 1000 consumers nationwide who had purchased the North Pole reindeer meat, and 92% found it “sweeter than beef,” while a whopping 98% were “glad it is available.” As part of its Waste Nothing – Save the Planet project, Urchin Daniels Hindland offers a free set of mounted reindeer antlers with every non-commercial bulk order of 100 pounds or more.
Environmental activists have voiced concern about a possible decline in the reindeer population, but Urchin Daniels Hindland representatives assure them that several breeding camps have been constructed outside the slaughterhouse to ensure an uninterrupted flow of meat product. A few marginal watchdog activist groups have recently claimed there is a correlation between the genetically modified grain provided by feed supplier Carkill and the sudden outcropping of cancerous growths on the reindeer intestines. But Furyoo dismisses these claims as “desperate attempts by the usual conspiracy theorists to boost their self-image by playing detective and shouting wolf about imaginary dangers.”
A recent Carkill study that draws on scientists and other advanced degree holders finds that there are “no verifiable connections between GM crops and the growths on the North Pole reindeer intestines,” concluding that the growths are most likely “a harmless cellular reaction to shipping stress.” An Urchin Daniels Hindland study confirms these results.
Despite its infancy in the international economy, the North Pole has already been embroiled in controversy. As a result of an ‘investor-to-state’ dispute resolution established by Chapter 11 of FTANP, ChrystBrrr Corporation—the car manufacturer that recently opened a major production outlet in the North Pole—recently sued the nascent polar state for imposing unacceptable emission standards on its factories. The investor-to-state provisions give companies the right to sue states if FTANP conditions are violated.
“These irrational and burdensome constraints parading as environmental regulation are in flagrant violation of the most essential principles of a free and open market,” said ChrystBrrr prosecuting attorney Sue Yurasoff. “Who does the government think it is anyway? I thought we had advanced beyond the antiquarian and oppressive notion of divine right of kings.”
Because of the efficient structure of the North Pole government—a newly formed governing body consisting of the Clauses—an agreement satisfactory to both parties was promptly worked out. The emission standards were immediately lifted and ChrystBrrr dropped its $600 million lawsuit in return for a signed promise that Christmas would from then on be promoted as Chrystmas, with all patent rights belonging exclusively to ChrystBrrr. In a goodwill gesture, ChrystBrrr custom-designed a fuel-injected sled for Claus, replete with airbags, a retractable bulletproof glass rooftop, a 50-disk DVD player, and a reindeer-leather interior. Economists and business leaders hailed the agreement as “another win-win of privatization” and “a bold step forward towards liberalizing services.”
Claus spoke at a press conference shortly after the settlement of ChrystBrrr Corporation vs. North Pole. “The sky here is big enough for both Santa and ChrystBrrr”, he proclaimed, raising his arms up. “We of the North Pole believe that ‘Chrystmas’ better captures the spirit of our times than ‘Christmas.’ If a day of piety is no longer treated with reverence, we should end the desecration by removing all religious connotation. Let us not use the Lord’s name in vain.”
Claus’s comments carried extra weight among his audience thanks to his new mature look. Clean-shaven and donning a sports suit, Santa now exudes a spruce youthfulness mellowed by respectability. Yet Claus nonetheless remains committed to the Chrystmas spirit: a crimson silken napkin hangs from his breast pocket, forming a tasteful complement to his red-and-white ChrystBrrr sled tiepin.
Thanks to his new Gorge-and-be-Gorgeous sponsorship, Santa has even lost inches around the belly. Formerly known as Get-Thee-Away-Fat, Gorge-and-be-Gorgeous is supplying Claus with a free cargo of trial-size weight loss pills that allegedly work regardless of one’s caloric intake. These berry-flavored complimentary gifts will be dispensed to children who, like the former Santa, could stand to lose a few pounds.
“We are very happy with the FTANP and have seen how the unencumbered pursuit of private gain increases prosperity,” Mrs. Claus said at a recent cocktail reception held at the newly constructed FTANP conference dome to celebrate the passage of the free trade agreement. “There is now a great feeling of liberation and well-being in the North Pole,” she added, while sampling some freshly imported Easter Bunny. “Of course, not all of us benefit, but in every system there are winners and losers. As optimists, we focus on the winners.”
Mr. Claus agreed: “As the great philosopher Voltaire would have said, it is the best of all possible systems. And one should keep in mind that these economic arrangements are the inevitable result of human nature and cannot simply be undone—” Never given a moment’s respite, Claus was interrupted to sign several documents regarding work conditions for the elves.
When he returned he had some words to the young children who were saddened to hear Santa would not visit them this year: “Don’t despair boys and girls! I’ll be back out on the skies A.S.A.P. and the presents will be even bigger than before! Merry Chrystmas to all and to all a prosperous night!”
Whether or not the FTANP will continue proving itself an economic miracle remains to be seen. But what is certain is that FTANP and other similar free trade agreements are here to stay forever … or at least, as long as the brotherly Chrystmas spirit is upon us.