Free Trade Deals Have Devastated the U.S.: Now Obama Pushes Through Biggest One Yet

Our economy has gone into the toilet over the past 30 years, and President Obama and his advisors think "free trade" is the solution. Like Bill Clinton and both George Bush, he's so enamored with it he's backing the biggest trade agreement in world history, the Trans Pacific Partnership.  

At the House Democrats’ retreat in Philadelphia last weekend, President Obama once again urged lawmakers to support the infamous trade deal. He argued that the TPP will improve the “status quo” for workers and businesses, and he promised to work with leadership to ensure that members have better access to the information being negotiated.  

In his remarks at the retreat, the President said he recognizes previous trade deals were not perfect. However, what he doesn’t seem to recognize is that free trade is a guaranteed ticket to the poorhouse for any nation. The evidence is overwhelming that tariffs on foreign imports and subsidizing domestic manufacturing are the proven ways to build a strong economy for the middle class. 

The concept of free trade was introduced by Henry VII, as something England should encourage other countries to do while it maintained protectionism; a process known as the 1485 Tudor Plan led to the rapid industrialization of England and the deeper impoverishment of its trading "partners."

With no evident irony or understanding of how South Korea went about becoming a modern economic powerhouse, back in 2009, President Obama lectured the countries of Africa. According to The New York Times:

"Mr. Obama said that when his father came to the United States, his home country of Kenya had an economy as large as that of South Korea per capita. Today, he noted, Kenya remains impoverished and politically unstable, while South Korea has become an economic powerhouse."

In the same day's newspaper, the New York Times' lead editorial echoed the mantra that so-called free trade is the solution to a nation's economic ills.

"There are few things that could do more damage to the already battered global economy than an old-fashioned trade war," the Times wrote. "So we have been increasingly worried by the protectionist rhetoric and policies being espoused by politicians across the globe and in this country."

But South Korea did not become an "economic powerhouse" as a result of "free trade." Indeed, the exact opposite is the case.

South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang's book Bad Samaritans describes South Korea's economic ascent in detail. In 1961, South Korea was as poor as Kenya, with an $82 per capita annual income and many obstacles to economic strength. The country's main exports were primary commodities such as tungsten, fish and human hair for wigs.  

Interestingly, some of its largest modern-day producers of technology began by producing these basic commodities. Samsung started out exporting fish, fruits and vegetables. But by throwing out free trade and embracing "protectionism" during the 1960s, in roughly 50 years South Korea managed to do what it took the United States 100 years and Britain 150 years to do.

This economic development of South Korea started following a military coup in 1961, where General Park Chung-Hee began South Korea's economic assent by implementing short-term plans for economic development. He instituted the Heavy and Chemical Industrialization program, and South Korea's first steel mill and modern shipyard went into production. In addition, South Korea began producing its own cars. Electronics, machinery, chemicals plants soon followed, all sponsored or subsidized by the government. 

Between 1972 and 1979 the per capita income grew over five times. In addition, new protectionist slogans were adopted by South Korean citizens. For example, it was viewed as civic duty to report anyone caught smoking foreign cigarettes. 

All money made from exports went into developing industry. South Korea enacted import bans, high tariffs and excise taxes. 

In the '80s South Korea was still far from the industrialized west, but it had built a solid middle-class. South Korea's transformation was as if, in 40 years, to quote Chang, "Haiti had turned into Switzerland." 

This transformation was accomplished through protecting fledgling industries with high tariffs and subsides, and only opening itself to global completion slowly and when ready. In addition, the government ran many of the larger industries, although private industry was allowed. Private industry, when allowed, was monitored carefully and taken over by the state if found to be inefficient. 

The government ran or tightly regulated the banks and therefore the credit. It controlled foreign exchange and used its currency reserves to import machinery and industrial imports. 

On the other hand, the government tightly controlled foreign investment in South Korea, and largely ignored enforcement of foreign patent laws. Korea focused on exporting basic goods to fuel and protect its ‘high-tech' industries with tariffs and subsides.

Had South Korea adopted the "free trade" policies being espoused by President Obama, it would still be exporting fish and still have a per-capita income like Kenya's.

Another great example of this is Toyota's success with its luxury car the Lexus. Toyota has been touted by free traders as a clear example of why free trade works. But at a closer look, the reality is the opposite.  

In fact, Japan subsidized Toyota not only in its development but even after if failed terribly in the American markets in the late 1950s. In addition, early in Toyota's development, Japan kicked out foreign competitors like GM. 

Thus, because the Japanese government financed Toyota at a loss (for roughly 20 years), built high tariff and other barriers to competitive imports, and initially subsidized exports, auto manufacturing was able to get a strong foothold and we now think of Japanese exports being synonymous with automobiles.

For about 200 years, we understood this in the United States. Had the fathers of the United States like Lincoln, Washington, Jackson or Grant applied for IMF loans, they would have been denied: All of them believed in high tariffs and a heavy control of foreign investment, and considered "free trade" to be absurd.

In 1791, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton submitted his Report on the Subject of Manufactures to the US Congress. In it he outlined the need for our government to subsidize new industries and subsequently protect them from the international markets until they become globally competitive. 

Additionally, he proposed a roadmap for American industrial development. These steps included protective tariffs on imports, import bans, subsides, export bans on selected materials, and the development of product standards. 

It was this policy, followed largely for most of the history of our country with average tariffs through most of the 19th and 20th centuries of around 40 percent, which built our American industry. All three times we radically dropped tariffs – for three years in 1857, for nine years in 1913 (just down to 25%), and in 1987—what followed were economic disasters, particularly for small American manufacturers.

Since Reagan blew out our tariffs in the 1980s (and Clinton kicked the door open with GATT, NAFTA, and the WTO), our average tariffs are now around 2 percent. The predictable result has been the hemorrhaging of American manufacturing capacity to those countries that do protect their industries through high import tariffs but allow exports on the cheap, particularly China and South Korea.

If President Obama and our Congress don't soon learn the lessons Alexander Hamilton taught us in 1791, which he learned from Henry VII and were borrowed by Japan, South Korea, and China, the TPP may soon become reality. This massive trade deal will likely be the death of American industry. And with it will go the American middle class.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}