Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Exposing the High Costs of Trade

International trade is a Good Thing. Our opinion leaders say it is. The Washington Post says it is. So trade is clearly a win-win process, right?

No, sorry. It isn’t.

“The trade story is not win-win but rather good news-bad news,” Economist John Bivens explains in a new book, Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us, subtitled “What Economics Teaches about Globalization.”

Trade, he writes, is “good news for national incomes, bad news for many if not most individuals and families.” Why? “Because trade “redistributes their income away from them and up the income ladder.”

That’s not a secret. It’s a truth “predicted by standard economic theory and proven by empirical studies,” Bivens points out. Economic integration across borders does make countries “a bit richer,” but its “more powerful effects [are] on the distribution of income within each economy.”

Cheerleaders for free trade, however, fail to make the basic distinction between trade’s effect on national income and on family income

Bivens not only clearly explains the theoretical distinction but also calculates its practical effect on American workers in dollar terms. He finds that for a full-time median-wage earner in 2006 the annual trade-related losses totaled about $1,400; for a typical household with two earners, the loss was $2,500. He goes on:

“These losses are as high or higher than other economic costs commonly presented as much more damaging to American families, such as the cost of health care, spikes in gasoline and fuel oil prices, the cost of a child’s four-year college education, or the funds needed to remedy a possible shortfall in the future of Social Security.”

Does the incoming Obama administration fully understand what is at stake?

That’s not yet clear.

Clearly, Obama and some of his key people do understand that globalization is a serious issue, but it is another matter whether they grasp the gravity of the real harm to ordinary American workers (as well as to workers in poor countries) – and how globalization impacts specific problems, like health care. Without such an deep understanding, it will be easy to be frozen into inaction by charges of “protectionism.”

A foreign trade union friend asked me the other day whether I had a “channel” to the Obama administration. I don’t. If I did, I’d try to get Obama or his chief economic advisor to read at least the executive summary of Everybody Wins Except for Most of Us, just published by the Economic Policy Institute.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Big Business and the UN

That’s the title of an article of mine to be published in the December 1 issue of America, the Catholic weekly magazine published in New York. It describes a new United Nations initiative, headed by Harvard Professor John Ruggie, to make the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights more universal in the global economy.

A different and longer version of the article will appear in my forthcoming book, Justice at Work: Globalization and the Human Rights of Workers.

Another article of mine, titled Buyer’s Remorse, Spatulas and the Conscience of the Consumer, was published in the August 4 issue of America.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pro-Obama think tank on trade reform

The Obama administration is getting some strong advice from the Center for American Progress, a think tank headed by transition co-chair John D. Podesta. Among other things, the advice deals with creating “a new and different trade policy –- one that takes a strategic approach to making globalization more inclusive and sustainable.”

How to implement that approach is the subject of a Center report by Ira Shapiro, a former general counsel in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), and Richard Samans, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Their newsiest recommendation:
-- Resist the temptation to lead a revival of the collapsed “Doha Round” of the World Trade Organization (WTO)
-- Do remain a “committed leader” of the multilateral trading system, while also making “new trade arrangements” within the WTO and outside of it.

Their most intriguing recommendation concerns “the special case of Asia” and how the United States could regain “its economic position” there. The report suggests that the Obama administration “reach out to the more advanced countries in Asia as potential partners in a vanguard, global club of advanced economies that agree to pursue deeper economic integration through both free trade and basic consistency of structural, regulatory, and exchange rate policies and institutions.”

“Basic consistency” would include comparable labor, environmental, consumer, and investor protections, the report emphasizes. It envisions that the pioneering members of this arrangement would be the United States, Australia, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, and that it might serve some nations’ self-interest to have “a counterweight to China’s increasing economic and political clout.”

Whether that particular idea flies or not, the report makes a reasonable case for a “more flexible approach” that regards fundamental policy consistencies as “a sounder organizing principle for [free trade agreements] than geographical proximity or bilateral ties.” The approach thus departs from a founding principle of the current trade regime: that all countries, whether democratic or dictatorial, are treated the same and get the same trade rights and privileges.

Here is what the report says about several of the current trade issues facing the new administration:

NAFTA: Because of global changes in the 15 years since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, “it is perfectly appropriate” for Canada, Mexico, and the United States not only to evaluate the agreement but to explore other topics of mutual interest (e.g., better regulatory coordination on food safety).

Colombia FTA: Before this can be ratified, Colombia will have make “sufficient progress” in ending violence and in prosecuting those engaging in violence.

South Korea FTA
: South Korea must address impediments to U.S. beef and auto exports

Presidential trade promotion authority
: Without it (including some version of “fast track”), other nations won’t take U.S. negotiators seriously, but this executive power needs to be balanced by a strengthened role for Congress, even to the point of it helping choose countries for trade agreements.

The report, part of a book titled “Change for America: a Progressive Blueprint for the 44th president,” is aimed at the Office of United States Trade Representative (USTR) and what it should do about “responding to the changing global challenge.”

For the new President, the “blueprint” in the 17-page trade section is obviously subject to change because of competing priorities, not only within the ten-chapter book, but also because of the financial debacle that happened after the book was drafted.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Remembering a Monstrous Evil

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night that Hitler launched a massive attack against Jews throughout the German Reich. We, about 100 of us from the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation and neighboring St. Thomas a Becket Catholic Church, met in the Jewish sanctuary last night to try to help make sure that Kristallnacht is not forgotten.

“Kristallnacht,” the Night of Broken Glass, is a feeble term for the unbelievable horrors that occurred all through the night of November 9, 1938, and the following day. In a massive outburst of Nazi-provoked violence and terror in Germany and Austria, Jews found themselves attacked by many of their own neighbors, their homes wrecked, their synagogues destroyed, while police stood by. It was the beginning of the Holocaust.

Two panelists--Nicole Rubloff, a member of the Hebrew congregation, and Father John Langan, S.J.. Georgetown University professor of philosophy and Catholic social thought--reviewed Kristallnacht and its causes and effects..

What they did not satisfactorily answer—at least not for me—is how this “monstrous evil” (Father Langan’s term) could have happened in Germany, one of the most advanced societies in the world. The panelists tried their best, of course, and so did some audience members, but they were really trying to explain the unexplainable.

For me, the discussion left unshaken my long held fear that what happened in Germany could happen anywhere, though not necessarily in the same form against the same victims. No country should feel so great, so smug, to think that it is completely safe from the possibility of a massive outburst of virulent hate.

That fear is based partly on what I know of myself. Had I been a German living in Germany at the time, would I have joined in the Kristallnacht horrors? I feel fairly certain I wouldn’t have. Would I have publicly expressed outrage? I feel less certain about that.

Would I have been among the millions who saluted and cheered Hitler at Nazi rallies? I hope not. More important, would I have dared to help organize people to oppose the Nazis and their madness? No, I’m afraid not.

It could be that I am too harsh on myself in my introspections, and that I am overgeneralizing. I hope so.

The event last night was the 26th annual “Interfaith Dialogue” sponsored by my parish and our neighboring Hebrew Congregation. Last night’s crowd of 100 was one of the largest of the five or six that I lave attended. As usual, almost every one there was above 40, most of us well above 40.

For information about Kristallnach, see the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

A 'tipping point' for fair-trade policy?

In the North Carolina elections for the House of Representatives November 4, Democrat Larry Kissell, a civics teacher who had worked in textile factories for 27 years, defeated a five-term Republican incumbent, Robin Hayes, who had cast one of the two last-minute votes that passed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2001.

That other decisive pro-CAFTA vote had come from Phil English, a veteran Republic congressman from Erie, Pa. He too lost his seat this month to a Democrat, Kathy Dahlkemper.

For Todd Tucker, research director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch division, those two victories are part “of an unprecedented shift in the U.S. political landscape away from the disastrous trade and globalization policies of the past.” For the division’s director, Lori Wallach, the 2008 election was “a veritable tipping point for fair trade issues.”

In the House of Representatives, 33 new “fair traders” won, for a net gain of 26, meaning that in January 2009 the new House will have about 140-150 “hardcore free traders” from both parties, according to Global Trade Watch’s count. In the Senate, five new fair-trade supporters were victorious, notably North Carolina state Senator Kay Hagan, who ousted GOP Senator Elizabeth Dole. The outcome of several other Senate and House races may increase those numbers.

The latest details are reported in a Global Trade Watch report, “Fair Trade Gets an Upgrade.”

Those numbers, impressive as they are, aren’t the only indicators of whether U.S. trade policy will become worker-friendly. A major clue will come from President Obama’s choice for U.S. Trade Representative, the senior official with a great deal of leeway in interpreting and enforcing U.S. trade policy.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

No more false choices. . . .

. . . is the title of a perceptive op-ed article in today’s New York Times by two of Senator Obama’s economic advisors. They debunk three widely held “false choices” facing the economy, and then propose alternatives to the either/or categorization. One important polarizing dichotomy they target is “free trade versus protectionism.”

The article’s special significance is that it is written by Robert E. Rubin, a former U.S. treasury secretary who is currently a Citigroup executive, and Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. The two express agreement on trade as follows:

“With respect to trade, the choice is not trade liberalization versus protectionism. Instead, as trade expands, we must recognize that protecting workers is not protectionism. We must better prepare our people to compete effectively and help those who are hurt by trade—not just displaced workers, but those who find their incomes lowered through global competition. This means investing more of the benefits of trade in offsetting these losses, through more effective safety nets, including universal health care and pension coverage.”

But the two economists then go on to disagree on a key issue:

“Beyond that, while we share a commitment to helping workers deal with our new global challenges, one of us (Mr. Bernstein) would advocate provisions in trade agreements that are intended to protect workers, both here and abroad, and the other [Mr. Rubin] would have considerable skepticism about the likely effectiveness of those provisions for our workers.”

In other words, since we are facing “new global challenges” in international trade, Bernstein advocates addressing them domestically and globally. Rubin, even while recognizing new global challenges, advocates addressing them only domestically, with better U.S. safety nets.

Two apparently different approaches. Can either work effectively?

The domestic approach, concentrating on U.S. measures alone, could work if U.S. legislation were globalized, truly globalized. That would mean adding a worker-friendly dimension to a wide set of U.S. laws. Tax laws, for example, would provide incentives for businesses to invest in the United States instead of abroad. Tariffs would be raised to cover more than the cost of building and maintaining our sea and airports, but also some of the cost of new safety nets. Corporate laws would be revised to make U.S.-based multinationals accountable for their treatment of workers in foreign countries, both those on their own payroll and those on the payrolls of contractors of the multinationals.

Rubin is right to be skeptical about labor provisions added to trade agreements, if he has in mind the provisions in existing agreements and the limited provisions adopted so far (as in the Peruvian free trade agreement). But Bernstein seems to favor a broader approach, one that would “protect workers, both here and abroad.”

To be serious about meeting the new global challenges facing workers here and abroad, it is pitifully inadequate to improve only the labor chapter of a trade agreement. The whole trade agreement, every single chapter of it, must be analyzed from a brand new perspective, one sharply different from the prevailing paradigm among negotiators.

At present, all trade agreements, including overall accords on the scope of trade agreements, are dominated by negotiators who have this objective uppermost in mind: How can we protect the rights and interests of business and business organizations in the global economy? The resulting document, whether bilateral, regional, plurilateral, or multilaternal in reach, is then judged by that one-sided standard.

That standard needs to be balanced by another: How can we also protect the rights and interests of workers and their organizations in the global economy? To its great shame, the World Trade Organization, like its predecessor bureaucracy, has steadfastly refused to put that question on its agenda. Worse, the WTO’s bosses, the political leaders of the world’s nations, are complicit in that shameful taboo.

Let me propose an addition to the list of economics false choices. The issue of what approach to take under the new global challenges is not global versus national. The most effective approach is to work at both.

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