An election issue, you say?


It may be more than a year away, but Americans already think they know what the big issues of the 2008 presidential election will be.

On the thousands of web pages, acres of newsprint and hours of airtime already devoted to the long race to the White House, two subjects get most attention: how and when to end the war in Iraq and how healthcare should be paid for.

But another issue is gaining prominence, one which is of much greater significance to the rest of the world.

Indeed, it is one that could have profound implications for the global economy.

The issue is free trade.

President Bush devoted his most recent weekly radio address to lauding the benefit America gets from free trade deals.

“Millions of American jobs depend on exports,” he said.

“More exports support better and higher-paying jobs – and to keep our economy expanding, we need to keep expanding trade.”

So nice to see that “free trade” is blipping on people’s radars. And as an election issue, yet? Bravo! The public certainly deserves to be informed on the candidates’ opinions about this all-important matter, although whether it will get very much to choose from between the final two remains doubtful.

Of course, it bears remembering that, comme d’habitude, Dubya is talking out his ass here. Especially when it comes to the matter of “better and higher paying jobs” through “expanding trade”. Jobs have gone south, and so have pay rates, since NAFTA began; so has the standard of living for working Americans. It’s also fueled the already severe problem of another major wage-buster, undocumented immigration. And it’s going to get even worse if free-trade deals go through with various central and South American countries under CAFTA.

As one of my online friends once wrote, NAFTA and CAFTA have given everyone the shafta.

Ironically, Canada hasn’t fared as badly in all this, if only because the Big Three automakers really, really like our “socialized” medicare system. It saves them literally thousands on workers’ insurance premiums per car they produce, which is why they have moved so many of their former US operations north of the border. (For now, I won’t talk much about how they then dick us out of jobs by moving operations to Mexico onaccounta it being cheaper and there being fewer pesky environmental and human-rights laws to hold them back. It’s positively amazing how often they’ve done it when workers dared to make demands that the companies have been able to meet, but not exactly willing.)

But it’s only a matter of time before Canada realizes, too, that we’ve been sold short by the SHAFTA agreements. Harpo stuck his foot in it earlier this year when he tried to sell an FTA with Colombia as a bringer of human rights. (To Colombia? Stiffy, WTF were you smoking–basuco?)

Well, all right, he didn’t exactly try to sell it. He knew no one was buying. So he just proclaimed it, like the sovereign monarch he ain’t and shouldn’t try to be. Just like King George the Dubya, whose autocratic manner seems to be his model, he expected the public to swallow it all like good little loyal subjects. Which they also didn’t do. All across our fair domain you could hear the jawbones hit the floor with a clatter, from sea to sea to sea (yes, we have three–look up, WAY up, Sparky, to that increasingly iceless Arctic Ocean!) The proclamation was followed by a chorus of mass projectile retching.

Meanwhile, speaking of mass choirs of projectile retching, let us return to the good ol’ US of A:

America, it seems, is experiencing a revival of protectionism.

Almost all of the candidates vying to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee next year have adopted stances that flatly contradict the current president’s fondness for free trade deals.

Front-runner Hilary Clinton wants all free trade deals to be revised every five years, including those that were negotiated by her husband’s administration.

John Edwards, currently placed third among the Democratic hopefuls, has gone so far as to question how committed Americans really are to global trade.

“Trade has become a bad word for working Americans,” he recently declared.

That, of course, is campaign rhetoric designed to appeal to Democrat voters.

What of the Republicans? Surely they share their president’s belief in the benefits of free trade? Perhaps not.

A recent Wall Street Journal poll found 60% of Republican voters think free trade is bad for America.

In contrast to the Democrats and their close ties to the trade unions, the Republican Party has a long tradition of pushing the agenda of American business.

So if two-thirds of Republican voters do not think it is a good idea, then the cause of free trade could be in real trouble in the world’s biggest economy.

Emphasis added.

Mind you, everything that has gone under the rubric of “free trade” has, in fact, carried hidden elements of protectionism. That is, the interests of US corporations have been protected, even as those of their workers have been steadily eroded. It shouldn’t escape anyone’s notice (and read Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America if you don’t believe me!) that under FTAs, the systems of the other countries have invariably been rigged to funnel profits and resources to, you guessed it, the US. But not to everyone in the US. Neither US workers nor local ones have benefited from this arrangement, but the fat cats at the top of the food chain have gotten downright morbidly obese as a result. Never mind how great a wage and standard-of-living increase it works out to on paper for some economist in a right-wing think tank somewhere. The common people are not seeing it.

And don’t think the common people haven’t noticed. In fact, don’t think some of their bosses haven’t noticed, either:

If economists are so convinced of the benefits of free trade, why aren’t American voters?

The answer, of course, is that those combined benefits are not necessarily felt by individuals.

Instead, what many Americans, including US business owners, notice is that trade with other countries can make them poorer.

Take Brian O’Shaughnessy, head of Revere Copper, which makes copper products for industrial customers around the world.

Mr O’Shaughnessy’s company was founded in 1801 and is, he says, the oldest manufacturer in the US.

But the grand heritage has not saved it from the problems that have ravaged the American manufacturing sector.

This year, one of Revere’s two plants has closed and Mr O’Shaughnessy has had to lay off 85 workers.

He believes this was a direct result of US policies, which make it too easy for foreign competitors to sell their products in America at his expense.

“I believe that there is no such thing as free trade”, Mr O’Shaughnessy said.

“I believe that trade must be rules-based and that the rules must be fair.”

To him the free trade deals negotiated by the US government are patently unfair.

While they may have lowered tariffs, he is appalled by what he sees as foreign governments’ use of other means to promote their industries at the expense of America’s.

“The USA continues to negotiate free trade agreements without recognising how its trading partners simply bypass the tariff reduction measures by raising or initiating new taxes.”

Granted, this guy looks at it in the usual business-sector terms of tariffs and taxes, but I’ll bet he didn’t feel any too good at having to dole out the layoff notices, either. The very fact that a corporate owner feels that trade must be fair, and that there ain’t no such thing as free trade, is an encouraging thing in itself.

Let’s hope there’s more of this kind of talk, and that the candidates are getting the message–and that they won’t backtrack on the issue once elected.

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