Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Take NAFTA for instance...
The other day I suggested that emerging church folk were typically not driven by the traditional Left-Right political ideologies but instead formed their political opinions based on a particular theological/biblical vision of the Kingdom of God. This vision might sometimes cause us to align with those on the Left or the Right, but just as often, might lead us to view the issues through a different lens entirely.

The recent debates between Senators Clinton and Obama on NAFTA have reminded me of one example of where that is true. Both candidates have tried to appeal to the blue collar base in Ohio and other "Rust Belt" states by suggesting that the North American Free Trade Agreement, whose passage in 1994 has led to a sharp decline in manufacturing jobs across the country and especially in parts of the Midwest, ought to be either discarded or at least amended. Traditional free-market conservatives as well as neo-liberals then decry this kind of rhetoric as "protectionist" and short sighted economically. They argue that while in the short term jobs may be lost and some individuals and families may suffer, in the long term free trade between nations will lead to economic growth and more jobs overall. And so the typical Left-Right debate on this issue comes down to a concern to protect American manufacturing jobs through tariffs and trade restrictions versus lifting these taxes and restrictions and hoping that the net result will be a plus for Americans.

However, as someone who has been captured by a vision of the Kingdom of God where all people, American or otherwise, are my brothers and sisters, I confess that I tend to look at this issue rather differently. Neither unrestricted Free Trade nor American-centric Protectionism seem to be what should be most important when considering our policies. What should be most important are the people, the families, affected by these decisions - and by that I mean not just American factory workers, but impoverished farmers and laborers in places like Mexico as well. My top concern is not what will grow our economy the fastest, but what will best care for those most vulnerable to rapid economic changes and the predation of a cutthroat global economy. I am not interested in simply what is best for America, but what is most just and equitable for all of God's children.

And those are questions which undermine both Protectionism and Free Trade. For instance, do our Free Trade agreements provide for labor rights and environmental protections in the countries that we are trading with, or do they just give corporations a way to circumvent century old laws that did away with sweat shops, child labor, and slavery in America by simply exporting those practices overseas? Or, on the other hand, do Protectionist policies designed to protect American workers then stifle the creation of much needed jobs in countries far worse off than our own, where desperately poor people have far fewer employment alternatives than laid-off factory workers in the Midwest?

And more questions: Do our policies truly benefit all, or merely enrich the corporations who have the means to take advantage of lowered trade barriers (or higher ones) at the expense of the most vulnerable and the already poor? Do Protectionist policies still make sure that industry is constantly innovating, especially in terms of both global competitiveness and environmental sustainability (for instance, the continuing failure of the American auto industry to significantly improve gas mileage and develop alternative fuels)? Are we making sure that there is help available for those who will lose their livelihood as a result of the economic changes brought about by our trade policies (whether laid-off factory workers in Ohio or Mexican farmers who can no longer get a fair and living wage for their produce), or are we simply viewing them as "collateral damage" and leaving them to struggle on their own? What will we do for those who have been ejected from the industrial economy - with its health benefits, pensions, and job security - into the fickle and ever changing service economy where most of those things are very hard to come by? And are we prepared to deal with unintended consequences, like increased illegal immigration, that are the inevitable blowback of Free Trade and a globalized economy?

I would suggest that a truly ethical, "Kingdom of God", approach to international trade would be one that takes these sorts of things into consideration, and doesn't just fit unthinkingly into predetermined political ideologies. Again, our first concern is what is best for all, and for real people, not just what is good for our particular nation or for some company's bottom line.

Personally I don't have much hope that the powers-that-be will ever look at the problems in this light. It is the nature of governments to look out for their own self-interest and that of their own people. But of course, that is our job as the church - to continue to be that prophetic voice to the powers, challenging them to think and act more justly and globally, not just according to narrow national interests.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 5:48 PM | Permalink |


10 Comments:


At 3/06/2008 09:29:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

What would such a policy be, in this arena? It's one thing to say "a good policy would take all these things (insert long laundry list of important and sometimes competing concerns) into consideration and offer a solution that is just and fair to all, with no collateral damage." It's another thing to actually articulate such a policy, let alone implement it. I'd love to see a policy that does all the things you suggest Mike, but how would it read?

 

At 3/06/2008 11:40:00 AM, Blogger Destroy:Ideas

Something does need to be done with NATFA. The neo-liberal policies hurt both sides here. We are exporting jobs in this country to poorer countries, but then sucking money out of those poor economies into the coffers of the ultra-wealthy here.

What we need to export is labor rights. Of course we've spent the past century fighting labor rights movements in South America and Mexico, labeling them as "Marxist" when their roots lie in the anarcho-syndicationalist movements popular in South America (especially Brazil and Mexico) at the turn of the 19th Century.

 

At 3/06/2008 12:50:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I agree with destroy Karl, a good policy would be to start encouraging labor rights globally rather than just encouraging free trade and hoping that the labor rights will just sort themselves out "naturally". It didn't happen on its own in this country. It took political movements and labor uprisings and legislation to get the kind of labor protections we've enjoyed for the past century or more. There's no reason we shouldn't be encouraging the same sort of reforms globally as well.

Right now I have a friend (who just lost the Democratic primary to run for Hastert's congressional seat) who is trying to start a "World Economic Council" to promote labor rights and environmental protections worldwide. He's talking with the AFL-CIO to start working towards an international labor union as one step towards that. I think that's a good idea and one step in the right direction.

Of course, there would have to be many other pieces to a more just trade policy. Unfortunately I'm not an economist to know exactly what all that should or could look like. Right now I'm simply advocating the kind of questions that should be driving the conversation, I don't have the expertise to say exactly what all the answers will be.

 

At 3/06/2008 02:16:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

Those are great goals. What kinds of policy would encourage labor rights globally? Once you've asked them nicely to reform their labor practices and they refuse, and you've jumped up and down and yelled at them and they still refuse, then what?

Isn't labor reform usually a national initiative that comes from within, rather than one that can successfully be imposed from without?

I'm not pro sweat shop. I'd like to see a lot of countries adopt labor laws more along the lines of what the US (and quite a few others) have. But I have trouble thinking of a labor policy (as opposed to rhetoric) for the US to adopt that would actually accomplish this, without massive collateral damage. But I'm not an economist either, so maybe there are some obvious things that I'm missing.

 

At 3/06/2008 04:49:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"Once you've asked them nicely to reform their labor practices and they refuse, and you've jumped up and down and yelled at them and they still refuse, then what?"

Then don't trade with them. Or don't trade with them on those goods that are produced according to unjust labor standards. It would be easy enough to build into all of our trade agreements that partner nations have to agree to enforce certain labor standards. This wouldn't even have to be at the expense of "Free Trade". We could still agree to trade freely with them, without tariffs or restrictions, just as long as they agreed to abide by certain labor standards.

If the world's largest economies, not just us but the other G8 nations as well, were to insist on this worldwide, you can bet that there'd be a rush among developing nations to start improving their labor standards so as not to lose access to these valuable markets.

At any rate, look at it this way: the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in the United States "or any place subject to their jurisdiction." I would argue that goods coming into this country from places that utilize slavery or near slave-like conditions would fall under this jurisdiction. By allowing such goods to be sold here we have essentially not really ended slavery in America, we've just outsourced it overseas. It's time for that to end.

 

At 3/07/2008 08:36:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Maybe that would be the right thing to do, regardless of the consequences. I have a hard time arguing that it's not. I'm not convinced the outcome would be as positive, though. At least not in the near term of a generation or two. What would probably happen is that countries like China, India, Russia and much of Eastern Europe, and most of the Middle East, wouldn't adopt those standards and would trade with anyone they pleased. Those markets would likely be large enough for their purposes, and the G8 nations that refused to trade with them might well be hurt more than the offending nations - and if anyone suffered it would be the people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in both the G8 and the offending nations.

But again that's me playing amateur economist, with only my own logic, not much basis in economic knowledge or theory. Maybe I'm wrong and maybe even if I'm right, it's what should be done.

 

At 3/07/2008 02:31:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Or what might happen is that some countries would comply and some wouldn't, meaning that the ones who complied would gain the benefit of increased trade with America, while those who didn't would lose that benefit. Right now a country that has high labor standards is at a disadvantage to countries like China who will exploit their workers however they like - so our system rewards oppressors and penalizes those who try to act justly. If we put new standards in place however, then suddenly we reverse that equation, and we start to benefit those who can be most helped by our trade, rather than funneling our money to wealthy warlords or authoritarian governments.

As I've said before regarding sweat shops (I think on Julie's blog), it's not about "boycotting" the sweatshops, it's about supporting the ethical producers. You can argue that not buying from oppressor nations would hurt people in those countries, but aren't we already hurting those in more ethical nations when we buy from the oppressors instead simply because they are able keep their labor costs unethically low?

 

At 3/07/2008 03:58:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

Then don't trade with them. Or don't trade with them on those goods that are produced according to unjust labor standards. It would be easy enough to build into all of our trade agreements that partner nations have to agree to enforce certain labor standards.

I think it'd be near impossible to do that. It'd create layers of monitoring to check for which goods are promoted according to 'just standards' and create all sorts of loopholes.

More importantly, restricting trade is just plain bad for people in both countries. Telling a government "we won't let you buy food and medicine from us because your workers are [insert condition X]" isn't going to do anyone any favors.

 

At 3/07/2008 04:02:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

Isn't labor reform usually a national initiative that comes from within, rather than one that can successfully be imposed from without?

Yes indeed. And sweatshops can paradoxically even have a positive influence here (although for the record: sweatshops suck). Sweatshop workers really aren't slaves; they're choosing to work in the shop because it's actually BETTER than all of the other options available to them. Of course, the anti-union practices of sweatshops can defeat this progress somewhat. If trade agreements were to protect the right to unionize, I think that all of the other goals mentioned would follow naturally. However, I couldn't say whether this would be the fastest or more efficient way to bring this about...

 

At 3/07/2008 04:43:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"I think it'd be near impossible to do that. It'd create layers of monitoring to check for which goods are promoted according to 'just standards' and create all sorts of loopholes."

So what? So let's create the layers if necessary. We spend half our national budget on "defense", surely we could reallocate a small portion of that to ensure that the people who make our clothes, our toys, and our food aren't being exploited?

"More importantly, restricting trade is just plain bad for people in both countries. Telling a government "we won't let you buy food and medicine from us because your workers are [insert condition X]" isn't going to do anyone any favors."

That isn't quite what I suggested. I suggested we not buy from them. Not vice versa.

And on what basis do you claim that "restricting trade" is always a bad thing? That hardly seems a given to me. It seems it would very much depend on what the restrictions are and what their purpose is.

"Isn't labor reform usually a national initiative that comes from within, rather than one that can successfully be imposed from without?"

If our economy is now global, then why shouldn't labor movements be too? What good are these "within/without" distinctions anymore?

The problem I see is that demand for unionization and other labor reforms have to happen on the international level, or at least among the wealthiest consumer nations, because if it merely happens on a nation-by-nation basis among developing countries, the sweatshops will simply pack up and move their operation to the whichever developing country hasn't passed those reforms yet. As long as the demand for cheap, sweat-shop produced goods exists here in the West, developing countries will continue to exploit people. The only way to end this exploitation is to dry up the demand for it by refusing to trade with exploiters in the first place - or possibly by taxing their goods so that there is no longer any economic incentive to exploit their workers.

Actually one idea that my friend had (the one working on the World Economic Alliance/international labor union thing) had was that we place an import tax on suppliers that don't meet certain labor standards, and the explicitly use the proceeds from that to encourage the development of labor unions in those countries. (I did ask him about specifics on how exactly that would be accomplished, and he had several ideas, though I don't recall what they were at the moment.)

"Sweatshop workers really aren't slaves; they're choosing to work in the shop because it's actually BETTER than all of the other options available to them."

I hear this argument all the time, but just because a sweatshop is "better" than the other options, doesn't make it "good" or "right". It's still exploitation. And more importantly, that doesn't mean it's the only option either. Where is it written that exploited workers should only get to choose between the lesser of two evils? Can't we have the hope and the imagination to figure out how to provide an alternative that is better than the sweat shop too, one that is not evil at all?

"If trade agreements were to protect the right to unionize, I think that all of the other goals mentioned would follow naturally."

That's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about.

"However, I couldn't say whether this would be the fastest or more efficient way to bring this about..."

What would be?

 

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