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Pranksters Sink the WTO

They started out as small-time pranksters. But when their fake WTO website began drawing invitations from around the world to speak on behalf of the World Trade Organization, they rose to the challenge.

Yes Men
Photo from YES Men: The True Story of the End of the World Trade Organization

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is a giant international bureaucracy with nearly 150 “member countries.” We—the Yes Men—are nobody.

The connection? None. But for three years, we have traveled around the world to important meetings of lawyers, managers, engineers, and policy makers, where we have given elaborate and outrageous lectures about WTO policy—as WTO representatives. If you are of sound mind, you would see through us immediately. Yet to our surprise, we found we had absolutely no trouble fooling the experts.

Worse: we couldn't get them to disbelieve us.

Why are we telling you this? First, because the story is funny. But there is a serious side to the story as well. These experts, after all, are the foot soldiers in the WTO's war on trade unions, environmental protections, and indigenous rights. If they blithely followed us down such nightmarish paths, the real WTO must be able to convince them of anything.

It all started when we set up a parody of the WTO's website—GATT.org.

Now perhaps GATT.org could be called a fake, but it was a very obvious one. Yet we were flooded with e-mail from lawyers, ministry officials, academics, and assorted others with requests for speakers from the WTO to address important international conferences on global trade—like the Conference on International Services (CILS) in Salzburg, a conference organized by the American Bar Association and the John Marshall Law School of Chicago.

CILS conference, Salzburg

“We're here for the CILS conference,” Mike croaked as authoritatively as he could to the receptionist at the Crowne Plaza Salzburg. It was October 27, 2000. Andy as “Andreas Bichlbauer” was to appear on behalf of WTO director-general Mike Moore.

“Mr. Bichlbauer here is a speaker,” Mike added.

“Dr.,” Andy corrected.

She smiled icily and presented a folder and name tag to Andy. We nodded our thanks, then made our way as calmly as we could to a counter and tore open the folder. We half expected a “Joke's on You!” in big red clown-letters, just as a squadron of Austrian cops came to take us away. What we found instead was this listing: “Andreas Bichlbauer, World Trade Organization, Vienna, Austria. Trade Regulation Relaxation and Concepts of Incremental Improvement: Governing Perspective from 1970 to Present.”

This was just what we had sent in by e-mail, but we couldn't believe our eyes as we saw it in the official booklet. We hovered as long as we reasonably could, staring at the impossible evidence: we really were in Salzburg, we really had been invited to speak as the WTO, and we really were scheduled to do so in just over an hour.

We really were going to prison!

We did not.

In fact, we got away with the absurdity—if not illegality—of what we proposed to a conference of lawyers. It was a proposal to streamline the bureaucracy of elections: corporations paying a PR agency like Hill & Knowlton, who in turn, are paying a TV station, who, finally, are relaying information to the consumer, the voters.

Our solution: VoteAuction.com. Companies directly buy votes from consumers.

“VoteAuction.com,” Andy as Bichlbauer said in his speech, “is a system that permits voters to voluntarily auction their votes to the highest bidder. It's a forum for people to voluntarily offer their votes for sale, when they don't have a strong affinity for either candidate. It works to streamline the entire process, and as in all market systems, everything works out to the benefit of the consumers—and to the originating corporations, of course.”

The idea of VoteAuction.com originally came from a graduate student named James Baumgartner. It was his thesis, an ingenious comment on the way money undermines democracy in the U.S.

The reaction to Baumgartner's VoteAuction.com was swift and nasty. Pundits from Rush Limbaugh to Dr. Laura Schlessinger attacked it. The Chicago Board of Elections filed a lawsuit to stop Chicago residents from being able to buy or sell their votes online. In New York, the Board of Elections threatened to have James's thesis advisor, a lawyer, disbarred.

The reaction to Andy's VoteAuction.com proposal to international trade lawyers in Salzburg was … well, nothing. Nobody seemed to mind. The audience even gave him a nice round of applause after his speech ended.

“The Nazis actually had a reasonable trade policy, you know,” Andy told a young lawyer during the lunch following his speech. It was another stab to make at least one lawyer mind anything.

“Maybe they've never really been given proper credit—maybe they're not so bad after all.”

“That's not my field of expertise,” the young lawyer replied without hesitation.

“Mine neither,” said Andy.

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