Trade Isn’t Free When Your Job Ends

When Representative Eliot Engel rose to address his House colleagues during the debate over the China trade bill on May 24, he had a familiar prop in his hands: An apparently well-used dollar bill. The Bronx Democrat waved the bill as he asked if we as a nation really wished to surrender our principles, i.e., devotion to liberty; belief in certain inalienable rights, etc., for the sake of the almighty buck.

Nice sentiments, but, well, they seemed just a tad too earnest. After all, Mr. Engel was addressing men and women whose very existence depends on fungible principles and a relationship with the counting houses analogous to that a West Side streetwalker enjoys with Lincoln Tunnel–bound businessmen. The congressman was trying to make an argument against the China trade deal, but by framing the issue as money versus principle, his speech had the unfortunate effect of inspiring colleagues to consider what’s really important in life.

Those who agitated and voted against the China deal found themselves tarred as foamy-mouthed Luddites who don’t understand that there are no rules worth following save those imposed by the market. In Time magazine’s online edition, one clear-eyed, free-trade-loving pragmatist sneered that Democrats are “on the wrong side of a very expensive issue” and that those who supported the deal, particularly Republicans, will now see “campaign money rolling in.”

So you see, Mr. Engel, by insisting that the battle for universal human rights and decent jobs ought to take priority over corporate profits and cheap home electronics, you’re making yourself mighty unpopular among the voters and givers. You don’t understand that times have changed, that we must bow and scrape lest global corporations find more hospitable locales. As historian Francis Fukuyama has written, borderless capitalism means that democracies “find that their options for political choice … are curtailed by the increased mobility of financial capital and information. Do you want to extend your social safety net a bit further? The faceless bond market will zap your country’s interest rates.” Even democracy must adjust to the new marketplace.

Though the media already have decided who lost the China vote-unreconstructed lefties, the new economy’s losers, idealistic human rights activists who might have thought, based on American policy toward Cuba, that we hated communism more than we liked commerce-a backlash against the global economy’s Scrooges is not only likely, but perhaps even underway. Mr. Fukuyama conceded that “the sources of grievance against the capitalist world order are still there and increasingly powerful.” He suggests that the Left might take over the World Trade Organization and turn it into a Fourth International, “uniting the poor and dispossessed … in an organization that would be as global as the multinational corporations and financial institutions they face.”

What a pleasant, though unlikely, prospect. One could hardly wish for a better argument in favor of such an organization, or of any strong, dissenting institution, than John R. MacArthur’s new book, The Selling of “Free Trad e. ” Mr. MacArthur puts a human face on the trade debate, a tactic that the globalists will dismiss as mere sentimentality. His book opens with the final days of the Swingline staples factory in Long Island City. Swingline, a wonderful American success story that Mr. MacArthur tells beautifully, employed 1,300 people in Long Island City in 1980. Those jobs paid decent, raise-a-family wages, with full health benefits, and the people who filled them took great pride in their work.

Two years ago, after passage of the globalist fraud known as the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Swingline factory in Long Island City shut down. A new plant opened in, yes, Mexico. Mr. MacArthur points out that news of Swingline’s closing was greeted with the usual media shrug of the shoulders and emphasis on the fabulous new jobs being created to take the place of those moved to nations with more pliable work forces. But, Mr. MacArthur writes, few commentators take note of the kinds of jobs the service sector is producing: 378,000 new home health aides; 370,000 new teacher aides; 234,000 food preparation workers. And so on.

Mr. MacArthur illustrates what happens when the enforcers of free trade insist that American workers have to lower their expectations in order to compete with Third World wage-earners- it is hard to imagine a more un-American notion. People like the Swingline workers find themselves out of work, despite having played by the rules. And their jobs are taken by people like the 16-year-old girl Mr. MacArthur met in the new Swingline factory in Mexico. She and her fellow workers (they were terrified to speak with Mr. MacArthur) make a buck an hour for a nine-hour-plus work day. The plant manager noted happily that the workers “never complain.”

Enjoy your global shopping experience!