The Democrats’ revolt against President Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership has everything to do with the “giant sucking sound” of job loss echoing over Baltimore and St. Louis, Detroit and Gary… and still more to do with the inability of our own polarized and privatized society to repair the social contract at home. Only at the end of our untypically acrimonious hour did a moral come clear: the 30-year regime of expanding global trade could well founder for want of a firm public decision to share the pain and the profits in that transformation. The more we learn about TPP, the more it looks like a blunt instrument of the banking and corporate interests to protect their investments, and of Big Pharma, Hollywood and Info Tech to protect their “intellectual property” abroad. Enforceable compensations for workers and communities, here and there, would be nice, too.
Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia struck the resounding note on our show of disenchantment heading toward despair. Our friend Jeff has been an inexhaustibly cheerful and pragmatic promoter of globalization strategies that have in fact lifted the starving and the desperately poor. But the TPP bandwagon looks now to be fueled by the fantasy that trade is money-making magic — and he’s off it.
[Obama] said, “Look, why is Elizabeth Warren pounding on me? We’re together on minimum wage, we’re together on job training, we’re together on clean energy.” The problem is he hasn’t gotten any of those things passed…Trade worked more or less as one would expect trade and investment to work. It has created an expanded world economy, it has helped a lot of poor countries to gain a foothold and to grow, and it has exacerbated income inequalities in our country and elsewhere. What hasn’t worked is normal politics. We don’t have what I assumed 30 years ago, as a child of the sixties, was a completely normal idea: that there would be adjustment assistance, that there would be worker training, that we’d care for the environment. What we really have is a system of corporate governance. We don’t have a democratic polity right now in the sense of representing the interest and needs of the American people. Enough is enough. We can’t keep exacerbating these inequalities unless we get our own politics right.
The Harvard economist in our huddle, Robert Z. Lawrence, is a TPP stalwart. The loss of manufacturing work in America is not as extreme, he noted, as the near-vanishing of farm labor in the 20th Century — and the driving force in both transformations was not trade, he argued, so much as the vaulting productivity of new tools — mechanical and now digital.
Automation, technological change and innovation have allowed us to produce the same quantity of goods with far fewer workers… Trade allows us to get higher living standards, but what we haven’t been good at is adjustment policies that help workers who are dislocated… While I agree that we have deficiencies in terms of the way we help workers or don’t help workers, the real question facing us today is: Are we better off being in the game and negotiating for the kind of agreements we like or are we going to let others do it instead of us?
Our journalist, meanwhile, Barry C. Lynn mourned the fact that we can’t just hit the TPP kill-switch. Why not? We don’t own the switch anymore:
The WTO system — the agreement that we signed back in 1994, put in place in 1995 — was a decision by the U.S. government or by people who had control over the US government to get the government out of the job of regulating trade — essentially to turn over the job of regulating trade to the people who run our corporations and the people who run our banks.
We heard a lot of crossfire in this conversation and, in the end, an awkward consensus: that our president is pretending not to know that the trade regime is out of order.
Field Recording: “Seaming Suits in New Bedford”
Max and I went to Joseph Abboud Manufacturing, a garment factory in New Bedford, Mass., to gather sounds and hear from workers about technology, free trade, labor, and what it’s like to be one of the last manufacturers in this famous old whaling port. See some photographs we took, below.