Until the 2016 presidential campaign, the role of trade policy inside the Beltway was only tangentially concerned with analyzing the global flow of goods and services. Its primary function was to demarcate social status. You could either agree with Thomas Friedman and the elite bipartisan consensus that free trade was an unalloyed good ― or you could receive a polite, forced smile and be shunned from cocktail party conversation.
This social pressure covered up a lot of qualms that the election is finally allowing to air. It is not only Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump who reject President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership pact with 11 Pacific nations, but establishment icon Hillary Clinton. Martin Wolf, one of the world’s most esteemed financial writers, is having second thoughts about globalization. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Department official who runs the thoroughly middle-of-the-road New America Foundation, expressed frank concerns with the prevailing trade order at a conference last week. Even more telling was her call to let people reconsider globalization without being subjected to elite derision.
“We need a conversation where people can express their views and maybe think anew without feeling like they’re going to be dinged or typed or accused of heresy,” Slaughter said.
It was once an article of faith in the nation’s capital that free trade was good for working Americans because it lowered their cost of living. Free trade was credited with a long decline in severe global poverty and celebrated for lifting the incomes of millions in China. But what, exactly, were the enforcers of this doctrine actually defending? China has an aggressively protectionist economy managed by a totalitarian government. Are lower tariffs on manufactured goods responsible for the reduction in world poverty, or long-term monopolies on prescription drugs? The ability for corporations to challenge sovereign laws before an international tribunal? Expanded trade in fossil fuels? If free trade ― whatever the magic potion ― cures poverty, why hasn’t the North American Free Trade Agreement raised wages in Mexico?
The reality is that globalization is not so much a coherent, systematic ideology as it is a set of elite norms. “Free trade” is whatever well-heeled Washingtonians are talking about when they say that Things Are Good And Must Not Be Changed. Sometimes they use charts. Sometimes they just say, “The world is flat.”
Donald Trump has rejected this consensus by pointing to the decline of American manufacturing, promising to “renegotiate” trade deals and eliminate the trade deficit. His promise is as vague as it is unrealistic, and it’s hard to miss that Trump’s trade rhetoric harmonizes with his anti-immigration views. Foreigners abroad have stolen your jobs, and brown people at home are a threat to your family.
But there are specific, perfectly reasonable alternatives to the current global trade regime that do not rely on crass xenophobia. A new paper from Jared Bernstein and Lori Wallach illustrates what they call “a progressive approach to globalization.” The basic problem, they argue, is that American trade policy privileges the interests of major corporations over social need and democratic principle.
“Our new framework starts from the premise that the current ‘trade’ agreement process has been co-opted by corporate interests whose goal is to establish binding, enforceable global rules that protect their investments and profits, Bernstein and Wallach write. “This corporate capture comes at the expense of both peoples’ rights to democratically govern their own affairs and the ability of sovereign governments to effectively enforce worker, consumer, and environmental safeguards.”
Listen to HuffPost’s interview with Bernstein in the latest episode of the politics podcast, So That Happened. The discussion begins at the 11:30 mark.
Bernstein and Wallach propose a handful of reforms to both the trade negotiation process and to the ultimate policy goals for the next generation of trade deals. They would eliminate corporate advisory boards for U.S. trade negotiators, and require negotiation texts be published after every round of talks ― rather than treating these documents as classified information for years until the entire pact is finalized.
On the policy side, they argue that the U.S. needs to start taking currency manipulation seriously in trade agreements, suggesting the International Monetary Fund’s standard as a model for future talks. They call for tough and enforceable labor and environmental protections, and the end of democratically unaccountable international tribunals that corporations can use to challenge a country’s laws and regulations. Just as important, Bernstein and Wallach maintain that the U.S. should be more careful about selecting its trading partners and acknowledge that access to American markets can prop up rogue regimes.
“We reject the notion that bad actors that violate workers’ and human rights will become good actors if we simply invite them to trade more with us,” Bernstein and Wallach write. “Sadly, there is considerable empirical evidence on past U.S. trade initiatives with China, Vietnam, Russia and other nations that supports our view.”
What’s interesting about the paper isn’t so much its content ― Wallach has been pushing these ideas for long time, and Bernstein has previously endorsed many of them. The paper’s key feature is the alliance between its two authors.
As chief economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, Bernstein was involved in many of the key economic decisions from President Barack Obama’s first term, and worked directly on the U.S. trade pact with South Korea. He’s friendly with the disciples of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin who developed much of the existing global economic order in the 1990s, and he works at the mild-mannered Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He’s a liberal economist, but a card-carrying member of the Democratic establishment.
Wallach is not. She has been arguably the single most vocal opponent of corporate globalization since the legislative battle over NAFTA. From her post at the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, she has fought every major trade agreement in the past two decades, and continues to publish serious research highlighting the shortcomings of those that have been enacted, including the Korea deal.
Liberal lawmakers team up with Wallach all the time, but former administration officials and wonks eyeing jobs in future administrations tend to keep their distance, even though many privately agree with her. The inconvenient trade truths she airs have a way of rankling the people who hire wonks.
Bernstein’s alliance with Wallach marks a mainstreaming of her ideas inside the Beltway. It’s a Washington signaling game in which Bernstein is telling other members of the establishment that it’s safe to join him. Like Slaughter’s plea for a civilized reconsideration of globalization, it suggests that on trade, the center is not holding.
“So, That Happened” is hosted by Jason Linkins, Zach Carter and Arthur Delaney. This podcast is produced, edited and engineered by Christine Conetta.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.