Free trade helps the poor. Protection hurts the poor.
Free trade supports peace. Protection promotes conflict.
Free trade creates opportunities for outsiders. Protection entrenches insiders.
For these reasons and many more, American liberals like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy favored free trade over protection. Yet in recent years, the liberal commitment to free trade has collapsed. Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination at least as much because of NAFTA as Iraq.
In his new book Freedom From Want: American Liberalism and the Global Economy, former Clinton trade official Edward Gresser sets out to explain why this new left-protectionism is wrong and destructive – and to offer in its place a trade program that liberals could support. The book carries on the cover a blurb from Charlene Barshefsky, who served as US Trade Representative in the second Clinton term. She describes the book as “erudite, original, and humane” – and for once a blurb is the literal truth. She only omitted that Freedom From Want is surprisingly witty as well.
One of Gresser’s most important and original points is to direct our attention away from all the ingenious newfangled obstacles to trade created in the 1980s, and back to the grandfather of them all: the tariff.
Through much of the period from the 1860s to the 1930s the United States was a high-tariff nation. Much of this ancient structure has been pulled down, but it was never systematically demolished, and pieces of the old ruin remain. And for reasons that nobody ever consciously intended, but as a result of inattention and indifference, the tariffs that remain bear hardest upon workers in poor nations and poor consumers in the United States.
Gresser wrote an important article in Foreign Affairs on this subject in 2002, and he develops the argument with even greater force in Freedom From Want. He calculates that tariffs cost the average single-parent family in the United States the average of three days pay in higher prices for basic articles from cheap underwear to glassware. The poorest of American workers, earning $15,000 a year, might lose a whole week’s pay.
The jobs these tariffs were originally intended to protect have long since left America’s shores. Yet the tariffs live on after them. If Democrats sincerely meant a syllable of the things they said about the disadvantaged, the quickest, simplest, most dramatic, and least controversial thing they could possibly do to aid the nation’s worst off would be to abolish these tariffs entirely. And yet in all the years the Democrats have controlled Congress – and now with Congress back in their hands again – somehow it never happens.
Gresser it must be stressed is not a laissez-faire libertarian. He is a Democrat and a liberal. He favors new global treaties to protect the environment and more social welfare programs at home to insulate the least advantaged from the shocks and jolts of the global economy. But tirelessly and yet also amusingly, he proves beyond intelligent doubt that trade restriction is a futile way to achieve either of these ends.
This is the message that Democrats – and the nation – need to hear on trade. It says something very depressing about the national conversation that Gresser’s book is published direct to paperback by a company called Soft Skull Press, while the the big publishers bring us books on trade by Lou Dobbs and Naomi. (There is the small consolation that Amazon lists the publisher of this Dobbs book on trade as “Penguin [non-classic]. I’ll say!)
Yet there is little doubt that Democrats won’t hear or heed Gresser’s message. Barack Obama ran a flatly protectionist campaign for the Democratic nomination, and though he very probably did not mean a word of it, he will if elected find himself constrained by a Democratic majority that surely does mean it. So how about this free trade: If the Democrats don’t want Gresser, can we Republicans have him? He’s too good to waste on those who will not hear and do not learn.