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The United Corporations of America

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By Ezra Klein

I don't usually attempt to assign articles to writers who specialize in policing America's foreign policy for insufficient displays of muscular nationalism, but if any such writers are reading this blog and looking for something to do, they might want to head down to the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

To set the scene, check out this Huffington Post slideshow. Countries put some effort into the Expo: China spent about $50 billion building the infrastructure for the event. Saudi Arabia's pavilion is an elevated oasis complete with palm trees. Switzerland's pavilion is all sleek lines and metal brushstrokes surrounded by a soft netting of maroon spheres. South Korea's effort is an explosion of colors and cubes and contrasts. Britain created a planet of brushed silver and adorned it with more than 60,000 transparent rods. America? Well, we appear to have built a Circuit City.

The inattention to aesthetics might work as a signal of power and wealth, like Bill Gates being rich enough to wear denim when he goes to meet the queen. But then you get to the three videos that make up America's message to the word. Message? We're bad at languages, in hock to corporations, and able to set up gardens when children shame us into doing so.

The first video is six minutes of cute slapstick as Americans try, and fail, to pronounce Chinese words. If the Chinese thought they could overrun the U.S. and get us speaking Mandarin, this video decisively proves that at least half of that project will be difficult. The second video uses messages from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to bookend a long series of advertisements from the pavilion's corporate sponsors, including a representative from Chevron who tells us that oil will have to be part of our energy future and actually uses their marketing buzzwords "human energy." When Obama finishes, the screen dissolves to text thanking Citibank for its sponsorship. For good measure, that video plays in the Citibank room. The third video is an inoffensive parable in which a young girl galvanizes her neighborhood to plant a garden. That video was sponsored by PepsiCo, and shown in the Pfizer room.

The backstory is that there's a law barring public money from being spent on exhibits for World Expos. But the Expo was important to China and sitting it out would've been a snub. So Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began begging corporations for funds. PepsiCo, Visa, Pfizer, the New York Stock Exchange, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Chevron and Alcoa were among the sponsors who eventually coughed up some cash. According to the New York Times, representatives of at least some of those companies enjoyed dinner with the secretary in appreciation for their kind donations. If that's the cost of going the private route, it seems like it would be cheaper to just pay for this sort of thing with public money. And a side benefit would be that the millions of attendees at the summit would see the United States of America rather than the United Corporate Entities of America.

On the bright side, our pavilion is way better than North Korea's, which bills itself as a "paradise for people," is helpfully located right next to Iran's pavilion, and which was the only country I saw that took the capitalist approach to the enterprise and would let you exchange money for souvenirs.

Photo credit: Pam Houle/CC.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 24, 2010; 9:39 AM ET
 
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Comments

"So Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began begging corporations for funds."

the clintons are so good at doing this.

Posted by: jkaren | May 24, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

It's a longstanding problem. I was at Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany, where the USA infamously failed to show up. Hanover had given the USA a huge chunk of land on the edge of the park, and in our absence, the Mongolian delegation turned it into a tent city.

Posted by: tomveiltomveil | May 24, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Ezra -

The US pavilion debacle was a long time coming, and it's not just a matter of federal restrictions, either. It's too bad that you and the rest of the D.C. media corps are just getting to it. As it happens, 'Foreign Policy' did a really depressing piece a few months ago that touched on the nepotism and secrecy surrounding the structure. You can find that, here. Really ugly stuff.

But the best coverage comes from an obsessive American blogger in Shanghai. He did a chronology of the screw-ups that led to the current structure, here. And he somehow crow-barred the pavilion's budget out of the IRS, here. Good stuff if you're interested.

Posted by: alan_am8 | May 24, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Oops! I guess you can't use HTML in WP comments. So I'll repeat the post, with full links.

Ezra -

The US pavilion debacle was a long time coming, and it's not just a matter of federal restrictions, either. It's too bad that you and the rest of the D.C. media corps are just getting to it. As it happens, 'Foreign Policy' did a really depressing piece a few months ago that touched on the nepotism and secrecy surrounding the structure. You can find that, here:

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/03/08/a_sorry_spectacle

Really ugly stuff.

But the best coverage comes from an obsessive American blogger in Shanghai. He did a chronology of the screw-ups that led to the current structure, here:

http://shanghaiscrap.com/?p=5017

And he somehow crow-barred the pavilion's budget out of the IRS:

http://shanghaiscrap.com/?p=5045

Good stuff if you're interested.

Posted by: alan_am8 | May 24, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Declare Criminal Corporate War BP is the offender.
By Dwight Baker
May 24, 2010
Dbaker007@stx.rr.com

BP is a felon. BP has practiced deception and changed policies and procedures defying the rules of our Federal Government. We the People have had our borders invaded by the oil from the sea floor caused by the Deep Horizon while drilling in the Deep Mississippi trench Gulf of Mexico.

BP as a company comprised of individuals that have lied about the facts. BP has caused a rift of discontent and shown in words and deeds a frail lack of good will in and around the Gulf bordering states affected.

Now what would a good man go about doing as our President today---- knowing all those facts as they are--- simple, complete with no other matter hanging out that needs discovery?

Declare Criminal Corporate War against BP, seize all their money that can be found, take in custody to be tired by a Military Tribunal the top 25 BP executives, and then do the same with the BP drilling rig employee’s in charge of operations the day the rig went down. Take in custody the government employee that allowed the vital change in the cementing phase to be changed by BP. Seize all BP software and hardware tools and equipment that comprise assets that are in place and needed to STOP THE OIL AND GAS. Make a call out for All to enlist to aid in the Military effort and then those who will not come as volunteers use the Draft for service in our Special Home Land Security Military Oil and Gas troops. Many needed are employees from companies to do the work of STOPPING THE OIL AND GAS, swear them in and bestow on them ranks in the order of their experience and importance to get the job done NOW.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_tribunal


Posted by: dbaker00711281944 | May 24, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

I didn't get to the USA pavilion, and now I'm glad I didn't waste my time. But I did make it to Sweden, who essentially built an Ikea, sponsored by Ericsson; though it sounds like it was more stylish than the American pavilion.

The most effective displays at every country I visited were the ones which seemed to have been designed by a single creative force; stuff that was obviously committee-generated was uniformly of lower quality. Next time we should run a competition to see which of the many creative American artists and directors can come up with something inexpensive yet impressive -- like Iceland, which had no artifacts or science-fair displays, just mini-Imax show on the four walls and ceiling of a giant room. Exquisitely done -- not the least because it ended with surround-sound volcano eruptions; but even with dramatic material you can fall flat if you don't know what you're doing.

Posted by: joXn | May 24, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

The United Corporations of America, eh? That just about sums up 21st Century Uncle Sam Land.

Thanks to my public schooling, I used to think that the government was in charge. But now I know that corporations are driving this country.

We hear so much in the news these days about how right wingers don't want the government to run their lives. No one's saying too much about how left wingers don't want corporations to run our lives. Now, who do you think is better at shutting up dissenters? The government or corporations?

I ask. You decide.

Posted by: dognabbit | May 24, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Hillary Clinton not afraid to challenge the Chinese on the pressing issue between the powers: Did China steal Gumby for the Shanghai Expo. Meanwhile, protests sweep America as Gumby-gate goes global. Read about it at: http://chinareallysucks.com/Site/New_Stuff/Entries/2010/5/24_Clinton_to_China%3A_Give_US_Back_Gumby!.html

Posted by: maozewrong | May 25, 2010 3:48 AM | Report abuse

Hillary Clinton not afraid to challenge the Chinese on the pressing issue between the powers: Did China steal Gumby for the Shanghai Expo. Meanwhile, protests sweep America as Gumby-gate goes global. Read about it at: http://chinareallysucks.com/Site/New_Stuff/Entries/2010/5/24_Clinton_to_China%3A_Give_US_Back_Gumby!.html

Posted by: maozewrong | May 25, 2010 3:50 AM | Report abuse

A STALKING HORSE FOR A PRIVATIZED PUBLIC DIPLOMACY?

Most critiques of the US Pavilion -- and there are plenty -- focus on its uninspiring architecture, its organizers' self-promotional style, the commercial nature of its contents (purchased at an exceedingly high price), and the muffed process that resulted in the private sole-sourcing of the assignment to create the US Pavilion to an inexperienced team with insider connections in the government.

Shanghai correspondent Adam Minter has been attentive to these issues on his well-regarded blog, Shanghai Scrap and in a tipping-point article on Foreign Policy, "A Sorry Spectacle," March 8, 2010.

I've taken another tack. I'm most concerned about the privatization of American public diplomacy that the US Pavilion represents.

Public diplomacy is America's only available alternative to war for making our way in the world. "Blackwatering" public diplomacy is in no one's best interest.

The US Pavilion, I contend and the evidence seems to bear out, was intended to spearpoint of this strategy. The Bush Administration bungled it so badly, however, that it required newly appointed Secretary Clinton to execute, which she did, in effect selling the US Pavilion to corporate sponsors (even before the pavilion organization had applied for or received tax exempt status). She also created the Global Partnership Initiative to ensure that Corporate America assumes more of the State Department's public diplomacy responsibilities.

FP readers are referred to three articles I published on HUFFINGTON POST that lay out the issues and recommend solutions, beginning with the US Pavilion and ending with a prescription for a more vital American public diplomacy. They are, in chronological order:

1. "'Blackwatering' Public Diplomacy: The US Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo," May 3, 2010. The basic argument.

2. "US Pavilion A Stalking Horse for Privatization? Complaint to IRS Challenges Tax Exemption," May 18, 2010.

A complaint has been filed with the IRS that asks, "When the US Government outsources a government function to a private firm, does a tax exemption automatically transfer with it? Even if the private firm's primary function is to promote commercial corporations, their brands, and products using the imprimatur of the American people?" The complaint is available online here.

3. "Hillary Hits Her Hut; or, How I Was Shanghai'ed at the US Pavilion, as told by the American Secretary of State (her eyes now wide-open!), May 23, 2010.

I'm available for comments and questions at bluefire@well.com.

Posted by: bluefire1 | May 25, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

A STALKING HORSE FOR A PRIVATIZED PUBLIC DIPLOMACY?

Most critiques of the US Pavilion -- and there are plenty -- focus on its uninspiring architecture, its organizers' self-promotional style, the commercial nature of its contents (purchased at an exceedingly high price), and the muffed process that resulted in the private sole-sourcing of the assignment to create the US Pavilion to an inexperienced team with insider connections in the government.

Shanghai correspondent Adam Minter has been attentive to these issues on his well-regarded blog, Shanghai Scrap and in a tipping-point article on Foreign Policy, "A Sorry Spectacle," March 8, 2010.

I've taken another tack. I'm most concerned about the privatization of American public diplomacy that the US Pavilion represents.

Public diplomacy is America's only available alternative to war for making our way in the world. "Blackwatering" public diplomacy is in no one's best interest.

The US Pavilion, I contend and the evidence seems to bear out, was intended to spearpoint of this strategy. The Bush Administration bungled it so badly, however, that it required newly appointed Secretary Clinton to execute, which she did, in effect selling the US Pavilion to corporate sponsors (even before the pavilion organization had applied for or received tax exempt status). She also created the Global Partnership Initiative to ensure that Corporate America assumes more of the State Department's public diplomacy responsibilities.

FP readers are referred to three articles I published on HUFFINGTON POST that lay out the issues and recommend solutions, beginning with the US Pavilion and ending with a prescription for a more vital American public diplomacy. They are, in chronological order:

1. "'Blackwatering' Public Diplomacy: The US Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo," May 3, 2010. The basic argument.

2. "US Pavilion A Stalking Horse for Privatization? Complaint to IRS Challenges Tax Exemption," May 18, 2010.

A complaint has been filed with the IRS that asks, "When the US Government outsources a government function to a private firm, does a tax exemption automatically transfer with it? Even if the private firm's primary function is to promote commercial corporations, their brands, and products using the imprimatur of the American people?" The complaint is available online here.

3. "Hillary Hits Her Hut; or, How I Was Shanghai'ed at the US Pavilion, as told by the American Secretary of State (her eyes now wide-open!), May 23, 2010.

I'm available for comments and questions at bluefire@well.com.

Posted by: bluefire1 | May 25, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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