(The following post was written by Valerie Long Tweedie, a regular contributor to the Comments Section of this blog.)
I am anti-Free Trade. Whenever I share this sentiment, I am treated like some stupid, backwater simpleton who doesn’t understand economics. People condescendingly tell me that “protectionism will stall the economy” and “Americans enjoy many benefits of Free Trade.” It reminds me of the period after 9/11 when I questioned the wisdom of attacking Iraq, a country that hadn’t attacked us. People acted like I was completely out of touch with reality to question the wisdom of my government to drag us into a war. Wasn’t it obvious to anyone who had watched FOX or CNN that there were WMDs? Why would our government lie to get us into a war? But here I go again, questioning the wisdom of my government and the policy of Free Trade.
In truth, I am not a total isolationist. However, I believe that a government’s number one job is to watch out for the overall good of its citizenry and in our case that means maintaining the conditions for a strong Middle Class. We all know it to be true, American manufacturing businesses cannot pay their factory workers a liveable wage with benefits and still compete against imported goods made by underpaid factory workers in Third World countries. If we are to revive our manufacturing base in the U.S., we need to level the playing field - and that means tariffs and protectionism.
The bill of goods we were sold by the Republicans and the Clinton Administration was a two part scheme to get the American people to go along with Free Trade. Part One: If we ship off our low skilled manufacturing jobs to third world countries, displaced American factory workers will be retrained to do highly-skilled, higher-paying jobs. The problem was not all the blue collar workers were intellectually inclined toward highly skilled technological work and were unable to make the leap. Even those who could make the leap and re-skilled, found that there weren’t enough of those promised higher paying jobs. The result is we now have a large number of factory and semi-skilled workers in our country who don’t have jobs that pay a liveable wage and provide reasonable benefits. Part Two: All those people working in the newly off-shored, Third World factories will create a huge market and demand for the more expensive, high tech American made goods. Sounds good in theory but we underestimated (and were kept in the dark about) the obscene amount of corporate greed involved. As it turns out, Third World factory workers are heavily exploited and paid a paltry wage for their work. They barely make enough money to meet their basic needs and certainly not enough money to buy goods made in America. In both cases, we were conned into believing that Free Trade would be a win-win for the workers on both shores when in reality it has pretty much been a lose-lose.
Now I have nothing against Third World factory workers. If they were paid a decent wage and quality products were made under sustainable environmental conditions, I wouldn’t be barking up this particular tree. I have no problems with importing Western European or Japanese goods, for example, which are high quality products, made to last, and built under decent working and environmental conditions. I don’t deny the chance for third world countries to industrialise - but let’s be honest here, that is not what is really driving this issue. Corporations off-shoring their production are treating vulnerable, desperate, human beings like expendable beasts of burden; they have no rights, no benefits, no protection against injury or illness and they are grossly underpaid.
It should be evident to everyone by now that the big winners in Free Trade are the corporations - especially the multi-national ones. They pay low to no taxes and are allowed to bring all their goods into our markets with minimal costs – disregarding both the human and environmental destruction they leave in their wake. Most importantly, and more dangerous to our way of life, is the fact that these same corporations use their ill-gotten profits to lobby (bribe) our elected officials through (often anonymous) campaign donations and force through (or slip through undetected) legislation that makes their dirty dealings legal. As long as Free Trade goes on as it is, these companies will only grow richer, more powerful and more destructive.
Sadly, the one group that could have put the brakes on this descent into plutocratic rule was Organised Labour. Their demands on politicians in exchange for their block of voters - the right to organise and hold politicians accountable to those who elected them, a decent retirement, a fair wage for an eight hour day’s work, health care, safe working conditions - benefitted all of us. As those human rights are being eroded in our country and the corporations get stronger and stronger as a result of Free Trade, organised labour has been transformed from a lion into a mouse and the Middle Class has lost its champion.
I read a lot of articles and comments proposing that new technologies are the answer to our economic woes. President Obama campaigned on green jobs back in the days when he was inspiring a nation. But green technology will require A LOT of government investment for R &D as well as incentives to make products like solar panels affordable to average citizens. I am ALL for it! We should have been on the green energy bandwagon in the seventies when Jimmy Carter first proposed it! But I worry that even if those green energy companies get the governmental support they need to be up and going, will their CEO’s find it cheaper to move their factories overseas? Will they use the excuse of having to compete with Chinese green energy products as a reason for doing so? Will green jobs be yet another casualty of Free Trade?
Admittedly, the ramifications of import taxes are big – but I suggest not as bad as we are led to believe. If we put a tariff on foreign made goods, our goods will be taxed in return - no doubt about it. But America is the world’s biggest consumer so we would be in the position of being able to buy our own products and sustain our markets. As citizens we would have to be willing to pay more for the products we buy – and that is a hard pill for a lot of people to swallow – but I argue that the secure economy engendered by strong employment would be worth it.
As a nation, we have to stop blindly accepting the belief, promoted by those who profit most from it, that factory jobs are gone forever from our shores. We need these jobs in order to have a strong Middle Class and a stable economy - and must find a way to bring them back.
We’ve tried Free Trade for almost twenty years and like deregulation and trickle-down economics, it doesn’t work – at least for most of us. When we discuss the terrible job situation in the U.S. and the decline of the Middle Class are we ignoring the elephant in the room? Is it time to examine another option?
This particular entry only addresses the consequences of Free Trade as it applies to the blue collar jobs issue in the U.S. There are huge environmental ramifications and social justice issues concerning the exploitation of indigenous people and poor citizens of Third World countries. We are also starting to see the off-shoring of white collar jobs. I am not minimizing these grave consequences of Free Trade. They deserve specific attention and will be addressed in another entry.
-- Valerie Long Tweedie