Free trade was inspired by conditions that no longer
exist. In the 1930s, the worlds industrialized nations were
mired in a depression. One way to create jobs in the domestic economy,
it was thought, was to impose trade barriers to exclude products from
foreign countries. In that spirit, the U.S. Congress enacted the Hawley-Smoot
Tariff Act in 1930 and President Hoover signed the bill. Tariffs shot
up to their highest level in history and other nations retaliated
with tariffs of their own. The result was a sharp decline in the volume
of international trade. The higher tariffs did little then to protect
Recognizing the inadequate policies of the prewar
period, delegates from the worlds leading nations met at Bretton
Woods in New Hampshire in July 1944 to develop a more cooperative
framework for the global economy. The World Bank and International
Monetary Fund were created. After the United Nations was established
in 1945, a specialized agency was created to deal with trade issues:
the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). It was replaced
by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the 1990s. The purpose of
those organizations has always been to reduce tariffs and other trade
barriers through negotiations between national governments. Free
trade, in other words, has been the goal.
There is nothing wrong with increased trade between
nations. Anti-free traders are not proposing to stick our heads
in the sand and pretend the rest of the world does not exist.
That is not the issue. The issue is to recognize that the world has
changed since the 1930s and 1940s and make the appropriate adjustments.
How has the world changed? First, world trade is
no longer primarily between nation states at a comparable stage of
industrial development. Increasingly, it is between developed nations
and developing nations where labor is cheap. Second, the relevant
relationships are not between national governments but between government
and multinational businesses. Government should be regulating business
but, because of a failure to empower international political organizations,
the corporations have become too large to regulate. They play one
government off against another.
My proposed new model of trade would recognize
the changed realities. International business has no inherent loyalty
to its host nation or to the nation where it originated. It will locate
operations in any country where a cost advantage can be found. Therefore,
it makes less sense for national governments to be representing businesses
located within their countries. They ought to be representing their
people or the jobs these people require. The idea of trade negotiations
between governments is becoming obsolete.
An increasing share of international trade is intracorporate
trade - trade between different divisions of the same company - whether
managerial expertise, capital, and technology can quickly be shifted
from one country to another. Either that, or the trade is between
large companies that control markets in developed countries and subcontractors
operating in low-wage countries. This is the Wal-Mart model
of business. This retail giant signs purchasing agreements with its
suppliers so stringent in their cost requirements that the firms must
produce in a low-wage country to make money.
The basic situation is that the worlds nations
are sharply divided with respect to economic or industrial development.
In one group we have the worlds developed nations
- the United States, Canada, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, etc.
Wages and living standards are high. In another group, we have underdeveloped
or less developed countries such as China, Vietnam, Sri
Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia, and various nations in Africa or
Latin America. Wages are low in the latter nations - not because the
governments in those nations necessarily mistreat their workers but
simply because their economies industrialized at a later time. It
serves little purpose to moralize about the situation as Americans
are prone to do.
This is a development issue. It needs
to be intelligently and dispassionately discussed.
When the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was being proposed
and considered, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the leader of Mexicos leftist
party (the PRD), said: We are not opposed to a continental trade
and development pact with Canada and the United States. We maintain
that trade must be seen as an instrument of development and that a
new kind of development model must be at the core of any continental
trade negotiations. The free trade agenda, said
Cardenas, is narrow and simple: Mexico will sell its cheap labor
to attract foreign capital, which in turn will guarantee the survival
of one of the last authoritarian political systems in Latin America.
My sentiments, too.
Ironically, President Carlos Salinas of Mexico
was selling NAFTA to Americans with the idea that, if Mexico developed
industrially, there would be less need for poor Mexicans to migrate
legally or illegally into the United States. But, of course, Mexican
immigration has accelerated since NAFTA was passed. Part of the problem
was that free trade gave U.S. agribusiness permission to dump cheap
corn in Mexico displacing small-scale corn growers in that country.
Without a source of income, such people migrated to the cities in
search of work and then came north to the United States.
So, what is a development model of
trade that we ought to be seeking as an alternative to free trade?
Development means production and jobs in the context of sound environmental
policy. Both ought encouraged in the poorer countries without collapsing
the economies of richer countries such as our own. That means that
there must be a controlled loss of jobs to the third world. Give third-world
workers time to organize labor unions and agitate for increased wages.
Eventually incomes and living standards would rise in those poorer
countries. Consumer demand would be generated for many more products
including those produced in the United States. Then we could have
something approaching free and balanced trade.
If the current cost differential between poor and
rich countries is too great, then trade needs to be buffered by artificial
costs imposed additionally on products produced in one country but
sold in another. That means imposing tariffs. The tariffs should cover
at least part of the cost differential between production in the country
where the goods were manufactured and the prevailing wage in the country
where they were sold. In other words, government would remove part
of the cost advantage which a company might achieve through outsourcing.
The desired development cannot take place in a
free-trade environment. The problem with imagining that workers in
low-wage countries will eventually be able to gain wage increases
through union agitation or other means is that, as soon as there are
unions effectively agitating for higher wages, the employer shuts
down operations and moves elsewhere. Already this is happening in
China - and will likely continue to happen after the new law which
went into effect on January 1, 2008, protecting workers, takes effect.
Employers have moved production from coastal areas to Chinas
poor interior if not to another still poorer country such as Vietnam.
On the other hand, if the country where the goods are sold and consumed
imposes a tariff, the producer will be forced to pay this to get his
goods to market regardless of how the foreign workers have fared in
their organizing efforts.
The key idea in a development model of trade is
that it must be a win-win situation for working people
in all nations. We cannot afford to pit American workers against Mexican
or Chinese workers and hope to achieve a global agreement. Thus divided,
working people around the world will lose against the united front
of international business and finance. Really, it is employers who
cut wages to the bone who would and ought to lose under such an arrangement.
Employers with more humane policies ought, actually, to gain. The
problem is that the more ruthless businesses have sometimes gotten
to the politicians so that government does not represent the interests
of its own people. That has to change.
I am proposing a model of trade based on international
cooperation with full transparency of costs. This is the idea of the
employer-specific tariff. The U.S. government, for instance,
would impose a tariff on goods imported from low-wage countries based
on wages, hours, and working conditions in the particular factories
where the goods were produced. If the employer improved the offering
to workers, the tariff would be automatically reduced. Such a mechanism
would thus protect U.S. workers from unrealistic cost competition
while an incentive would be created for foreign workers to benefit
from the flexible rates.
I would suggest that such an idea could be sold
to foreign governments. The same system of tariffs that was established
in the United States could be employed by the Japanese, French, or
German government, and others, to buffer the cost of products entering
their markets. With respect to low-wage nations such as China that
have enjoy a large cost advantage under the free trade
system, I think an argument could be made that the huge dollar reserves
amassed from such trade will become progressively less valuable as
the dollar depreciates. China has, in effect, taken on our environmental
pollution to become financially rich.
Those who created the GATT in the late 1940s could
not have imagined that world trade would come to this. They took it
for granted that nations and businesses headquartered in them were
in the same economic boat and that both had some regard for the well
being of working people. That no longer seems to be the case. Also,
the idea that a nominally communist nation such as the Peoples
Republic of China should gain the upper hand with respect to the United
States in competition within a global capitalist order would have
seemed ludicrous to policy makers then. Its not that China has
behaved deceitfully but that the U.S. government prodded by certain
business groups has betrayed the interest of its own people.
Yes, one might say; but is there a realistic chance
that the free-trade system can be overthrown? Is not the U.S. government
bound by treaty obligations under the WTO which it cannot break? In
response, the first point to make is that the U.S. Constitution explicitly
gives Congress the power to regulate foreign and interstate commerce.
It did not give the President this power. It also did not give one
Congress the power to tie the hands of future Congresses. The second
point is that those alleged treaties were never ratified
by the U.S. Senate as the Constitution requires of treaties. As agreements,
they illegally escaped that requirement. The third point is that the
WTO itself allows member states to withdraw from that organization
and its requirements. So lets consider doing that.
I can imagine that leaders of the U.S. government
- starting with, say, a President Obama - will acknowledge that the
U.S. trade position is hopeless. Under the free-trade regime,we simply
will not be able to bring our trade accounts back into balance. Also,
it is not in the interest of the American people that foreigners will
increasingly own our assets, mortgaging future generations of Americans.
Under those conditions, the President could announce his intention
to propose withdrawal from the WTO unless it is converted to an organization
promoting a development model of trade. He could set a two- or three-year
period in which discussions could take place with other national governments.
That in itself would stimulate a serious discussion of alternatives.
Given our past propensity to use military force
against other nations, I do not think it would shock foreign governments
for the United States to take an aggressive step such as this to protect
its interests. In fact, I think many would welcome this - if the aim
is to create a better world and not just make money for business firms
and banks headquartered in the United States. Thats why this
U.S. presidential election in 2008 is so important and why the prospect
of electing a Democrat as President offers some hope that new trade
relations will be considered.
Yes, an alternative to free trade is possible.
The question is whether it is politically feasible. It becomes feasible
if the message is effectively delivered. Maybe a campaign for U.S.
Senate would do that. Thats my dream anyway.