Apparently, there’s only one way we’re going to have a full and frank discussion of free trade: We have to start outsourcing punditry.
That’s right: Let CNN or Fox News or The Washington Post move their gasbag operations to Bombay or Manila or Singapore. Let those highly compensated hosts and commentators who shed no tears over the disappearance of the Great American Job feel the hot breath of global competition on their fat necks. Would they continue to preach from the altar of almighty free trade if they thought they might lose their jobs to Third World pundits willing to pontificate for, heck, a mere 100 grand or so per year?
Maybe they’d understand why, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, American workers are furious over the free-trade bill of goods they’ve been sold by politicians from both parties and by most “respectable” mainstream commentators.
Over the last 15 years, a Cold War–like bipartisan consensus has argued that free trade is right up there with democracy and individual liberty among the wonderful things we hope to spread around the world. Those who question this wisdom are portrayed as cranks and commies who simply don’t understand that in the age of globalization, American workers have to compete with non-unionized, eminently exploitable Third World workers who won’t get so ornery when their benefits are cut. Heck, they don’t even know about benefits! How great is that?
Mainstream opinion allows only one view of free trade: It is good for everybody. Anyone who disagrees is either an anarchist or a Luddite. As for the millions of American workers who have lost their jobs because they wouldn’t and couldn’t compete with dollar-a-day sneaker-sewers in Vietnam-well, as Mao might have said, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. That’s not to say that everybody was so unsympathetic: As writer John R. MacArthur showed in his book The Selling of Free Trade, when workers at the old Swingline factory in Long Island City learned that their jobs were being moved to Mexico, they were promised all kinds of retraining to allow them to get new and better positions. Yes, it sounded wonderful, a fine example of the creative power of the “new economy”: These factory workers with their antiquated factory jobs (and decent pay and benefits-equally old-fashioned) were going to be converted into workers for the 21st century.
It never happened. And it’s not going to happen to all those Carrier employees in and around Syracuse who are losing their jobs because it’s cheaper to make air conditioners in Asia.
When free trade strip-mined blue-collar America-or what was left of it-during the 1990’s, even Democrats like Bill Clinton talked about how this regrettably displaced work force would be retrained by taking community-college classes (those familiar with Richard Russo’s brilliant novel Nobody’s Fool know how 60-year-old guys with pickup trucks responded to this idea). But let’s face it: Nobody on television or on the Presidential-campaign circuit really cared a whole lot about these unfashionable workers-except for (can you believe it?) Pat Buchanan.
The Bush II years have brought a second wave of free-trade job losses, and this time, nobody is suggesting that the solution is retraining. Why? Because the new job losses are among those already trained for the “new economy.” These are the folks who were led to believe that while free trade might hurt those poor, bedraggled textile workers in the Carolinas and the staple-factory workers in Long Island City, they-the college-educated, computer-literate workers of the 21st century-would prosper as never before, thanks to free trade.
It turns out that American companies have realized, to their unending joy, that people in India and China are willing to work in Information Age jobs at wages that bring back memories of the bad old days of laissez-faire. How could American capitalism resist? And so the highly trained and highly skilled now learn what their blue-collar brothers and sisters could have told them years ago: Free trade is a global racket designed to drive down wages around the world and make labor far more compliant than it was in the 20th century.
A hundred and fifty years ago, when the imperialists in London were arguing about the benefits (to the United Kingdom) of free trade, liberals were the preachers and conservatives were the skeptics standing in the back of the Church of Unfettered Commerce, shaking their heads. Conservatives, who represented the landed gentry, had de facto subsidies to protect, and measures like the Corn Laws shielded them from outside competition.
Today, in Washington and New York, conservatives have joined the classic liberal argument in favor of free trade. Maybe, in the long run, free trade will make the world a more just, more prosperous place. At the moment, however, the American worker has good reason to disagree. If only they could get their point across.