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Trade: the Ivory Tower Meets the Campaign Stump

Trade orthodoxy is increasingly being challenged.
 
 
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This post originally appeared on Eyes on Trade, Public Citizen's blog on corporate globalization.

Once, many of the issues we talk about on this blog were discussed mostly among Rust Belt labor unions or in street demonstrations. But tough questions are increasingly being asked in a variety of places, from the ivory tower to the campaign stump… and in both instances, the focus is on a change in the rules of globalization, rather than perpetuating the stale debate about whether "yes" or whether "no" on globalization. Witness Harvard's Dani Rodrik's new paper, articulating what he says is now the "new orthodoxy" on trade:

We can talk of a new conventional wisdom that has begun to emerge within multilateral institutions and among Northern academics. This new orthodoxy emphasizes that reaping the benefits of trade and financial globalization requires better domestic institutions, essentially improved safety nets in rich countries and improved governance in the poor countries.

Rodrik goes on to push this new orthodoxy further, articulating what he calls his "policy space" approach, allowing countries to negotiate around opting-in and opting-out more easily of international rules and schemes as their development and domestic needs merit. Citing the controversy around NAFTA's investor-state mechanism and the WTO's challenge of Europe's precautionary approach in consumer affairs, Rodrik poses the following challenge to the orthodoxy:

Globalization is a hot button issue in the advanced countries not just because it hits some people in their pocket book; it is controversial because it raises difficult questions about whether its outcomes are "right" or "fair." That is why addressing the globalization backlash purely through compensation and income transfers is likely to fall short. Globalization also needs new rules that are more consistent with prevailing conceptions of procedural fairness.

And this focus on a change of rules hit the political arena today, with a major policy speech by former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).  See here. Among the important points, that thus far are only being articulated by Edwards among the top candidates:

  • For years now, Washington has been passing trade deal after trade deal that works great for multinational corporations, but not for working Americans. For example, NAFTA and the WTO provide unique rights for foreign companies whose profits are allegedly hurt by environmental and health regulations. These foreign companies have used them to demand compensation for laws against toxins, mad cow disease, and gambling - they have even sued the Canadian postal service for being a monopoly. Domestic companies would get laughed out of court if they tried this, but foreign investors can assert these special rights in secretive panels that operate outside our system of laws.
  • The trade policies of President Bush have devastated towns and communities all across America. But let's be clear about something - this isn't just his doing. For far too long, presidents from both parties have entered into trade agreements, agreements like NAFTA, promising that they would create millions of new jobs and enrich communities. Instead, too many of these agreements have cost us jobs and devastated many of our towns.
  • NAFTA was written by insiders in all three countries, and it served their interests - not the interests of regular workers. It included unprecedented rights for corporate investors, but no labor or environmental protections in its core text. And over the past 15 years, we have seen growing income inequality in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
  • Today, our trade agreements are negotiated behind closed doors. The multinationals get their say, but when one goes to Congress it gets an up or down vote - no amendments are allowed. No wonder that corporations get unique protections, while workers don't benefit. That's wrong.

So, our movement has made real progress when things like Chapter 11, Fast Track and the precautionary principle are even being discussed by politicians and academics in the context of trade policy debates. And hopefully Edwards' raising of these issues will put pressure on the other candidates to follow suit. In the meantime, you can help turn the nice words into action by clicking here.

 
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