Economy & Work

The Changing Politics of Free Trade — Politicians Are Finally Listening

The 2016 presidential race is fraying the Washington consensus, exposing the downside of trade deals like the TPP. It’s time for a new way forward on trade.

Politicians Are Finally Listening on Free Trade

Activists hold a rally to protest the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in front of the White House on February 3, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)

This post originally appeared at Common Dreams.

This is the real face of free trade deals. Workers that could afford to own their own homes and send their kids to college have had their economic security sacrificed on the altar of free trade.

Last month, the air conditioner manufacturer Carrier told 1,400 workers in Indianapolis that their middle-class jobs were being offshored to Mexico. Carrier would slash its labor costs since its new workers would earn only about 10 percent of what the United Steelworkers earned in Indiana.

This is the real face of free trade deals. Workers that could afford to own their own homes and send their kids to college have had their economic security sacrificed on the altar of free trade.

Since the 1990s, the big business wings of the Democratic and Republican parties have united to push corporate trade deals that cost millions of jobs and contribute to America’s growing economic inequality. There was agreement among the Washington elites that these trade agreements — written by and for the worlds biggest corporations — were good for everyone. But really they were only good for everyone they met at the best cocktail parties.

But the 2016 election has brought an exciting new development — the candidates are actually paying attention to the impact of these trade deals on the American people. The leading presidential candidates of both parties now oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz all agree the TPP is a raw deal. It might be the only thing they all — or even any two of them — agree on. John Kasich is the only remaining candidate that supports the TPP.

Opposition to the TPP Drives a More Evenhanded Trade Dialogue

This broad opposition to the TPP represents a seismic political change. As The New York Times reported, the corporate free trade “bipartisan consensus that has long held sway in Washington is being sundered.”

This is indisputably good news. The opposition at the top of the ticket should percolate down to the halls of Congress and help defeat the TPP. But it has also transformed the tenor of the dialogue surrounding trade deals and corporate-driven globalization.

For the past two decades, elite opinion makers have dismissed legitimate concerns of the free trade skeptics. It isn’t the idea of international commerce, but the structure of the trade deals that has failed to deliver the promised benefits. As former Reagan and Clinton advisor Clyde Prestowitz wrote in the Boston Globe, “universities, think tanks and media still propagate a badly outdated notion of trade and globalization,” and the real world record of these trade deals have never lived up to the hype of the free trade promoters.

As a result of the TPP focus in the presidential election, a spotlight now shines on the shortcomings of the free trade agenda. A highly acclaimed Tufts University study found that the TPP would cost nearly half a million US jobs and worsen economic inequality. Even the deal’s cheerleading economists admit that the real costs of the TPP could include 50,000 layoffs annually and “lasting wage cuts and unemployment” for manufacturing workers. What these trade deals really do is trade good jobs for bad.

Not surprisingly, this refreshing attentiveness and more balanced reporting has provoked a counterattack. The defense of corporate globalization includes tired arguments about its purported benefits and often trivializes the experience of those who have lost their jobs. Washington power couple Cokie and Steve Roberts authored a saccharine pro-trade broadside that dismissed reporting on job losses because, “It’s easy to take pictures of a shuttered steel plant or furloughed furniture workers.” Remember those 1,400 laid-off Carrier workers?

The Real Deal Behind Opposition to the TPP

Opponents of the TPP do not reject global commerce; they reject a tilted model of trade that favors only big business interests, corrodes the economic security of working families and undermines our environmental and public health safeguards.

As Vice President Biden’s former economic advisor Jared Bernstein wrote recently, “don’t conflate trade with trade agreements. They’re not at all synonymous.” Free trade deals like the TPP establish policy priorities that have nothing to do with liberalizing trade, like forcing other countries to accept long and stringent patent and copyright terms for our pharmaceutical, high-tech and entertainment industries. The TPP includes special protections for investors, allowing them to sue over new domestic rules the companies contend interfere with their future earnings. And it includes tough new language making it easier to trump food safety and environmental rules at foreign trade tribunals.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Patrick Woodall

Patrick Woodall is a research director and senior policy advocate for Food & Water Watch. Patrick has been a public policy analyst, researcher and advocate on economic justice issues in Washington for more than two decades. Follow Food & Water Watch on Twitter: @foodandwater.