Like the sirens to Odysseus, President Obama’s address at Osawatomie, Kansas, was pleasing to the progressive ear but if you allow its seductive tone to capture you, it could well prove fatal to the cause.
We have heard this song before. It takes us back to the soaring oratory that uplifted the masses and propelled a one-term senator to the presidency. Then as now, the president correctly and brilliantly deconstructs the problem: The middle class is under siege, hemorrhaging skilled and unskilled jobs to cheap labor markets overseas, resulting in depressed wages and declining benefits, depleted retirement funds, union busting and unregulated industries.
But, then as now, his solutions fail to approach the heart of the matter. Proclaiming a new world economy based on innovation, he advocates government funding for research and education, science and engineering, progressive taxation, regulation, consumer protection and a commitment to building and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.
These are all worthy ideas that the president strings together with a rising intonation in order to avoid the obvious, central and core solution. Consequently, he builds to a dull crescendo, sounding a sour chord and all too familiar refrain: Technology and innovation will save us.
The president prides himself on his knowledge of history, so much so that he summoned the memory of Theodore Roosevelt in this address. Unfortunately, history does not uphold his case. Technology and innovation have never sustained the middle class. They have created fortunes and whole industries but how it affects the working people depends entirely on where the industries are located and how the workers are paid.
Take a good look at the major innovations of the Free Trade era: The personal computer, the laptop and the smart phone are all made in China and serviced in India. Solar technology created advanced solar collectors and panels, creating a thriving industry in China. Hybrid vehicles may be assembled in America but by-and-large they are constructed in foreign nations where the cost of labor trumps all other concerns. Even our bridges are made in China.
Within the parameters of a global Free Trade economy, there is no innovation that can revive American industry. The idea that innovation and education are going to create jobs for 300 million Americans is a pipe dream, a fantasy and, in this case, an excuse not to address the heart of the matter.
The obvious answer and the one that perpetually evades the president and the majority of his party is Fair Trade. American workers can compete and win on a fair playing field but no one can compete with dirt-cheap labor. The masterminds behind the new global economy have built corporate profits by exploiting the cheapest possible labor overseas and simultaneously undermining labor in our own country.
What is Fair Trade? It is built on the conviction that all nations that engage our nation in trade should uphold the rights of labor, including the right to organize, and pay their workers living wages.
How would Fair Trade be implemented? The most direct route would be to reserve preferred trade status to nations that protect the rights of labor, provide basic health and retirement benefits, and pay living wages to their workforce. All other nations would be subject to a tariff proportionate to the cost of compliance.
The message to China, India and all other nations that now benefit from the imbalance of trade would be clear: Pay your workers at home or pay to protect our workers at the border.
Human rights and the critical issue of carbon emissions also come into the equation but if the goal is rebuilding American industry, then the heart of the matter is labor.
Why is Fair Trade off the table? There was a time when simply raising the cry of “Protectionism” could defeat any such proposal but after decades of job exportation, Americans are losing their fear of words. Protecting our workers in the current environment is a moral imperative.
Accordingly, Fair Trade is alive and well in the United States Congress. Even Republicans in the House and Senate are afraid to go on record in opposition. The Trade Reform Accountability Development and Employment Act proposed by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Michael Michaud of Maine would fundamentally reshape America’s trade policy, bringing labor to the forefront.
Unfortunately, the silence of the White House enables congressional leadership to keep the measure from coming to the floor for a vote. President Obama presses forward on Free Trade deals with Korea, Columbia and Panama, ensuring the exportation of jobs to even more nations.
Even progressive economists are reluctant to address trade policy, preferring to attack trade imbalance through so-called currency manipulation. The idea is if our trading partners increased the value of their currency it would be more expensive to buy their goods and less expensive for them to buy ours. If the revaluation were large enough and sustained, it would certainly have an effect.
The problem with the currency approach is that it allows the tenets of Free Trade to stand. It does not end the anti-labor measures enforced by austerity regimes under the dictates of the International Monetary Fund. That is why even the prototypical corporate candidate, Republican Mitt Romney, feels free to advocate punitive actions against China based on the charge of currency manipulation. It leaves workers out on the lurch and the rights of labor out of the picture. Moreover, all nations manipulate currency. That is the primary function of the Federal Reserve.
Of course, if we were to insist that other nations respect the rights of labor, we would have to do a better job of protecting our own workers. We could no longer allow individual states to effectively crush unions with so-called Right to Work laws. We could no longer allow legislative attacks on collective bargaining without paying a price.
It is as if the entire liberal establishment, from the politicians to the intellectuals to the media, signed on to Bill Clinton’s Free Trade mandate back in the eighties and have adhered to that agreement ever since.
It was a deal with the devil, a betrayal of every working man and woman not only in America but throughout the world, and it demands to be revisited now.
In 2008 candidate Barack Obama said, “I voted against CAFTA, never supported NAFTA, and will not support NAFTA–style trade agreements in the future. While NAFTA gave broad rights to investors, it paid only lip service to the rights of labor and the importance of environmental protection.”
Where is that candidate now? He disappeared upon taking the oath of office.
In retrospect, it seems amply clear that candidate Obama made a deal with Wall Street, his leading campaign contributors, before he embarked on his road to the White House. Fair Trade was off limits. It was the one territory he could not visit. It was the one line he could not cross.
An original sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act (an affirmation of the right to organize and establish a union by majority vote) had President Obama remembered his labor roots in his address at Osawatomie, had he raised the banner of Fair Trade to initiate his campaign for a second term, then that address might have stood alongside Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism or Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal inaugural address.
As it stands, it is the perfect symbol of his presidency to date: A promise unfulfilled.
If we were to initiate the age of Fair Trade, it would fundamentally change the debate and ultimately alter the structure of the global economy. The world would face a choice. The European people would insist that their governments follow our lead. China and India would fight back but they are as dependent on us as we are on them. A bargain would be struck and a transition would be negotiated.
America would win back her industries and the middle class would re-emerge at the heart of the global economy.
It will happen in any case. It is inevitable. To continue on the path we are on will lead only to massive civil unrest and the result will be the same. By initiating Fair Trade now we could avoid much of that inevitable pain and disruption.
If only we had a leader with the courage to break his pact with Wall Street in order to keep his promise to the American people.