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By Robert A. Vella

During the 1992 presidential election campaign, I was so myopic about wanting to boot the Republicans out of the White House – after 12 long years under Reagan/Bush – that I ignored warnings from other candidates on free trade and placed all my faith in the eventual winner Bill Clinton.  I freely admit now that the narrowness of my political choice was wrong, and that because of it I failed my country as an informed, responsible voter.  My failure wasn’t in choosing the wrong candidate, but in allowing my emotions to override my intellectual concerns about that candidate.  Had I – and many other Americans who probably felt the same way – been more discriminating and more politically involved earlier on, the great demise of the middle class might never have happened.

One of the salient issues of that presidential campaign was the North American Free Trade Agreement commonly referred to as NAFTA.  Just four years prior, a similar trade proposal was vigorously debated in Canada – with two of that nation’s three major political parties opposing the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement.  In 1992, both the Republican Party (led by George H. W. Bush) and Democratic Party establishments in the U.S. supported NAFTA.  Two notable candidates who ran for president that year issued grave warnings about free trade, independent Ross Perot and the paleoconservative Republican Pat Buchanan.  The anti-free trade voices in Canada and the U.S. all said the same thing, that local economies would be devastated by the relocation of industrial production operations to countries where cheap labor could be exploited.  Perot became famous for this phrase he used during the second presidential debate in 1992:

“We have got to stop sending jobs overseas. It’s pretty simple: If you’re paying $12, $13, $14 an hour for factory workers and you can move your factory South of the border, pay a dollar an hour for labor,…have no health care—that’s the most expensive single element in making a car— have no environmental controls, no pollution controls and no retirement, and you don’t care about anything but making money, there will be a giant sucking sound going south.”

Here’s a Los Angeles Times opinion from November 1993, one year after that election:

I never thought I’d find myself on the same side as Pat Buchanan (Column Right, Nov. 2), but here I am, agreeing about NAFTA. Hispanics in particular have fallen into the “economics uber alles ” trap. By espousing sharing the bottom of the barrel as the only solution, they have abdicated all power to the corporations.

Bluntly, if our government would stop supporting every union-busting dictatorship in Central and South America, we wouldn’t have to worry about low wages. Our “anti-communism” has only created cheap labor, not world democracy. Now we are being hoisted on our own petard.

We, as a nation, have the moment to reflect on the profit “over all” mentality that has co-opted our government (and our ethics), and brought us the dynamics of worldwide economic depression.

For one breathtaking moment, let us remember that societies’ needs for happiness, stability, education and cooperation are fundamental to creating the “corpus” in which businesses have grown, and that the inescapable conclusion to NAFTA is the destruction of the markets which have allowed them to thrive.

Today, there are many Americans who are placing all their faith in Hillary Clinton as I had placed in her husband 24 years ago.  Although now, the deleterious effects of free trade are not just an obscure regional problem but an acute global one.  From The Washington PostVoters skeptical on free trade drive Sanders, Trump victories in Michigan:

The salience of trade, in a state where unemployment had tumbled more than half since the start of the Great Recession, blindsided a Democratic Party that has struggled to find coherence between its labor base and its neoliberal leadership. It also worried Republicans, whose leaders and donors are resolutely in favor of free trade.

“There has been a bipartisan conventional wisdom that the damage done to working-class jobs and incomes are simply part of inevitable changes, ones we cannot and should not challenge,” said Larry Mishel, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “Even President Obama is blaming inequality problems on technological change, which is not even a plausible explanation for post-2000 America. People correctly understand that many elites simply believe that wage stagnation is something we cannot change.”

The post-2009 increase in overall employment has masked a steady decline of Midwestern manufacturing jobs. Ohio is down 6,900 manufacturing jobs from the start of 2008, according to the Labor Department, a decline of 9 percent. It has lost one-third of the factory jobs it had in 2000 — a total of 340,000.

Michigan has gained just 1,300 manufacturing jobs since the start of 2008, and it still has 285,000 fewer factory jobs than it did in 2000, a drop of 32 percent.

In Michigan, exit pollsters for the first time asked voters whether they thought trade created or took away American jobs. The “take away” faction made up 55 percent of the Republican primary vote and 57 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Trump won the GOP faction with 45 percent, and Sanders won the Democratic side with 56 percent.

So far this election campaign, Hillary Clinton has tried to walk an incredibly fine line between free trade and protectionism.  However, that middle political ground has shrunk considerably since 1992.  From The New York TimesAfter Michigan Loss, Hillary Clinton Sharpens Message on Jobs and Trade:

In the early contests, Mrs. Clinton did not have to contend as directly with her record on global trade deals, but when the race reached the Midwest, the issue became acute, with her past positioning coming back to haunt her. In a 2012 speech in Australia, Mrs. Clinton said the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal “sets the gold standard in trade agreements,” but in October said she could not support the deal.

[…]

She also refused to adopt the crisper messaging of Mr. Sanders or Mr. Trump. “There are people in both parties who think we can somehow shut ourselves off from the world,” she said. “Even if the United States never signs another trade deal, globalization isn’t going away.”

That type of balance will probably not appease non-college-educated voters, who have seen their job prospects drastically diminish and their wages stagnate.

“Sanders had an opening because Hillary Clinton has been very responsible in how she raised questions about Nafta and TPP,” said Matt Bennett, a former Clinton administration aide and a senior vice president at the centrist Third Way think tank. “When you are responsible and battling an anecdote-driven campaign, you’re going to lose that battle.”

What everyone in this crazy world needs to understand is that the modern concept of free trade has little relation to our historical recollections.  Where once the idea of trade meant the equitable/bartered exchange of rare goods and services between remote cultures, today’s practices are designed exclusively towards the expansion of corporate power as exploiters of labor and natural resources for profit.  All other considerations, be they human or environmental, are secondary.

I failed my country in 1992.  I won’t fail my country in 2016 – win or lose.

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12 thoughts on “Why the issue of Trade is so important, and how I failed my country

  1. Excellent piece.
    I think if governments stopped supporting corporations in exploiting the poor people in the 3rd world, maybe the benefits will be there for all

    • Thanks, I agree. I also think it’s our responsibility as citizens to force governments to stop supporting corporate exploitation of the Third World as well as the rest of the world.

      • I am not sure how far citizens can do this. Last I heard, corporations are people. I think profits at whatever cost is driving the world crazy

      • Whether citizens can remedy a world gone crazy with greed, or not, is not the most important question facing us today. The most important question is whether or not the people of the world will do their duty as citizens and try to remedy these problems. One does not shirk their responsibility to other citizens just because the task at hand is difficult.

        Around the turn of the 20th century, America was in a similar state as today. Business monopolies ruled the land, corrupted themselves and the government they controlled. An inequality of wealth had stratified and destabilized society. It was called “The Gilded Age.” But, citizens banded together to oppose it under a common cause known as “The Progressive Movement.” After much sacrifice, those brave and responsible citizens ushered in the greatest era of middle class prosperity the world had ever seen.

        If they could do it, why can’t we?

      • I think something can be done. If more people wake up to the fact that they are either being exploited or aiding exploitation, they could say no

  2. Great post, Robert.

    You may also like Chomsky’s thoughts on “free trade:”
    http://www.truthdig.com/avbooth/item/noam_chomsky_every_word_in_the_phrase_free_trade_agreement_false_20150422

    I listened to an interview with him about this year’s election. I wish every American heard what this man has to say (without knee-jerking at the sound of his name — sheesh @ the American propaganda):
    https://www.wbez.org/shows/worldview/noam-chomsky-on-inequality-and-the-2016-presidential-race/7885ddb7-6798-4b17-97fc-1d5326a4ee74

    • Thanks, Emma. Chomsky is right on. I’ve been railing against neoliberal “free trade” policies ever since the disaster of NAFTA. In a recent post on this blog, I traced the politics behind it back to the Reagan/Thatcher revolution of the 1980s and that its primary goal was to undermine democracy/national sovereignty through the imposition of a global corporatist hierarchy.

  3. Robert:
    A good assessment of our experience. Still I wonder how we have a remedy if our American sense of Darwinian-Capitalism (and trade agreements) support exploiting people and environments. We agree on that completely.
    But only trade engages us with the world in the most beneficial way instead of inefficiencies and worse, conflict. Sadly the TPP trade agreement fails again it seems (though President Obama promises it doesn’t). Bernie Sanders is doing a phenomenal job explaining those exploitive flaws but can this message get through?
    Steve

    • Thank you, Steve. As I alluded to in this piece, there is a huge difference between “fair trade” and “free trade.” The neoliberal establishment (i.e. Darwinian capitalists) want us to believe it must be a choice between protectionism/nationalism versus corporatized globalization. It is a false choice cleverly designed to secure the latter. Whether Bernie Sanders can enlighten enough people on America’s disingenuous trade policies still remains an open question.

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