FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”

America, can we talk? We need to talk about “free trade.” We’ve needed to have this conversation for a while, actually. Like, since the 1980s.

For the past several decades, the U.S. political establishment has advocated free trade as part of a broader economic ideology called neoliberalism.

Now, you may need to ignore the word “liberal” in there — its meaning here is different from how most people use it in our politics.

Neoliberalism is not a Democratic idea. Ronald Reagan was a huge champion of it. In more recent decades, all of our presidents from both major political parties were on board with it — until, to some extent, Trump.

The simple way to understand neoliberalism is that it’s the package of economic and trade policies the U.S. has lived under since the Reagan administration. Deregulation. Privatization. That sort of thing.

One pillar of neoliberal ideology is free trade.

In business school, I was taught not to question it. The idea was that if countries removed trade tariffs, then everyone would benefit.

Each country would produce what it’s most “efficient” at producing: Developing nations will manufacture goods with cheap labor. The U.S. will grow lots of corn and soybeans and export them. And everyone wins because there will be low prices.

The counter arguments are often humanitarian and environmental. If we’re going to buy clothing and iPhones from nations with cheap labor, lax environmental laws, and few labor rights, then the people who make the goods we buy will work in unsafe and inhumane conditions.

That’s essentially what happened.

For example, in 2013, a building housing garment factories in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring thousands more. Cracks had appeared in the building before it collapsed, and an engineer declared it unsafe. Factory owners ordered their workers back to work — and then the building collapsed.

The workers were producing clothes for export, including top U.S. brands. But, on the upside (say the neoliberals), clothing made in Bangladesh is nice and cheap in the United States.

Also, corporations get massive profits. You can make more money when you can pay workers only $3 a day.

Free trade may help our consumers and corporate CEOs — but it hurts workers. In the book Threads, Jane Collins details how the garment industry changed after some companies began sending jobs overseas.

Workers in the U.S. became limited in how much they could push for higher wages. They knew that if they pushed too hard, their employer would fire them all and move the factory to Mexico, Vietnam, or Bangladesh.

Furthermore, an American company that wanted to pay its workers well was limited in its ability to do so, because it was competing with other companies that paid less for labor overseas.

A similar trend has played out, rather more famously, with manufacturing jobs.

For some voters in hard-hit regions, part of Trump’s appeal is that he was one of the first major party candidates to oppose free trade.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like he’s got a great alternative for it.

Pugnaciously declaring he’s implementing a steel tariff has so far done little more than outrage our allies and provoke Europe to retaliate by putting tariffs on American goods like bourbon and blue jeans, which could also hurt American workers.

Trade wars won’t fix the deeper problem of neoliberalism. But maybe future leaders will see that it pays to question the costs of “free trade.”

 

More articles by:

Weekend Edition
February 22, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Timothy M. Gill
Why is the Venezuelan Government Rejecting U.S. Food Supplies?
John Pilger
The War on Venezuela is Built on Lies
Andrew Levine
Ilhan Omar Owes No Apologies, Apologies Are Owed Her
Jeffrey St. Clair
That Magic Feeling: the Strange Mystique of Bernie Sanders
David Rosen
Will Venezuela Crisis Split Democrats?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Joshua Frank
Curtain Call: A Response to Edward Curtin
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump’s National Emergency Is The Exact Same As Barack Obama’s National Emergency
Paul Street
Buried Alive: The Story of Chicago Police State Racism
Rob Seimetz
Imagined Communities and Omitting Carbon Emissions: Shifting the Discussion On Climate Change
Ramzy Baroud
Russian Mediation: The Critical Messages of the Hamas-Fatah Talks in Moscow
Michael Welton
Dreaming Their Sweet Dreams: a Peace to End Peace
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming’s Monster Awakens
Huma Yasin
Chris Christie Spins a Story, Once Again
Ron Jacobs
Twenty-First Century Indian Wars
Robert Fantina
The U.S. and Venezuela: a Long History of Hostility
Lance Olsen
Climate and Money: a Tale of Two Accounts
Louis Proyect
El Chapo and the Path Taken
Fred Gardner
The Rise of Kamala Harris
John W. Whitehead
Rule by Fiat: National Crises, Fake Emergencies and Other Dangerous Presidential Powers
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Biomass is Not “Green”: an Interview With Josh Schlossberg
John Feffer
Answering Attacks on the Green New Deal
W. T. Whitney
US Racism and Imperialism Fuel Turbulence in Haiti
Kim Ives
How Trump’s Attacks on Venezuela Sparked a Revolution in Haiti
Mike Ferner
What War Films Never Show You
Lawrence Wittner
Should the U.S. Government Abide by the International Law It Has Created and Claims to Uphold?
James Graham
A Slow Motion Striptease in France
Dave Lindorff
Could Sanders 2.0 Win It All, Getting the Democratic Nomination and Defeating Trump?
Jill Richardson
Take It From Me, Addiction Doesn’t Start at the Border
Yves Engler
Canada and the Venezuela Coup Attempt
Tracey L. Rogers
We Need a New Standard for When Politicians Should Step Down
Gary Leupp
The Sounds of Silence
Dan Bacher
Appeals Court Rejects Big Oil’s Lawsuit Against L.A. Youth Groups, City of Los Angeles
Robert Koehler
Are You White, Black or Human?
Ralph Nader
What are Torts? They’re Everywhere!
Sarah Schulz
Immigrants Aren’t the Emergency, Naked Capitalism Is
James Campbell
In the Arctic Refuge, a Life Force Hangs in the Balance
Matthew Stevenson
Pacific Odyssey: Corregidor’s Iconography of Empire
Jonah Raskin
The Muckraking Novelist Dashiell Hammett: A Red Literary Harvest
Kim C. Domenico
Revolutionary Art and the Redemption of the Local
Paul Buhle
Life and Crime in Blue Collar Rhode Island
Eugene Schulman
J’Accuse!
Nicky Reid
Zionists are the Most Precious Snowflakes
Jim Goodman
The Green New Deal Outlines the Change Society Needs
David Yearsley
The Political Lyre
Cesar Chelala
The Blue Angel and JFK: One Night in Camelot
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail