Compromise on trade

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Over at the new Democracy Arsenal blog, Heather Hurlbert suggests that “free trade” and “fair trade” liberals try to reach a compromise on trade issues:

Both parties are really stuck right now, to my mind, between ideological free-traders and old-style protectionists. Meanwhile, we don’t have free trade, never have, and never will, given what it would do to Florida sugar and orange growers, just to name two commodities of many.And the 1990s “Washington consensus” of expert advice for emerging economies, including extreme free-trade prescriptions, has quietly been walked back by the World Bank and IMF, and more loudly abandoned by countries in Latin America and elsewhere.

Somebody is going to figure out a smart new middle ground on this issue. It will include real supports for workers who lose their jobs, not tiny hikes in assistance to community colleges. It will reverse US intellectual property policies that block life-saving medicines from the people who need them, and may eventually even restrict how we get healthcare here at home. It will include some global re-thinking about where freer trade is working in favor of stability and freedom and where it is not.

That seems exactly right to me, and I wish Democrats could come together on this. Part of the problem, I think, is a simple trust issue. Whenever the “fair trade” crowd raises objections to this or that treaty, as with CAFTA, the neoliberal contingent thinks that certain caveats—labor standards, or environmental protections—are merely a stalking-horse for overt protectionism. In other words, that opposition to trade treaties are being made in bad faith, as an excuse to scuttle trade in general. Now certainly that’s true for some people; there are any number of bona fide protectionists out there who simply don’t understand the first thing about comparative advantage, etc., and really want to go back to the old days of Smoot-Hawley. Fine. But a good number of fair-traders are quite sincere about blending trade with the proper sort of labor protections that make the world a better and richer place. There’s no reason for free-trade Democrats to reject all dialogue with these folks; certainly the hostility between the two groups doesn’t need to be so bitter.

Organized labor in particular gets tarred with the protectionist brush far too often. Again, to be sure, there are genuine tariff-mongerers among the various labor unions. But those groups certainly don’t hide their contempt for trade; as with the steel industry in 2002, when the protectionists want tariffs they just come right out in the open and say so. Meanwhile, A good portion of organized labor has no fundamental opposition to freer trade: most union workers, after all, work in high-skill export industries, so they have a lot to gain from lowering tariffs the globe over. Certainly this pro-trade bloc includes Andy Stern and the SEIU, which is currently struggling for ascendancy within the AFL-CIO. It’s hard to tell whether the end result here will be a mass labor alignment towards a pro-trade position, but even if it’s not, there’s still room for compromise among various liberal groups on trade issues, and Heather’s sketched out a nice start. Here’s another, from Gene Sperling.


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