is no end of the attempts to make the whole world a “free trade zone,”
by both governments and the transnational corporations that are the
primary beneficiaries of such deals, no matter the countries involved.
Usually, they are disasters for the workers in the countries involved,
going back to one of the early ones of the modern era, the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was a pact among the three
countries on the continent, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.
In a very short time after President Clinton pushed it through 20 years
ago, Canada lost about 500,000 jobs to the low-wage country to its
south, the U.S. If the U.S. had suffered the same ratio of job loss
from NAFTA, it would have lost about 5 million jobs. Mexico was made
vulnerable to the industrialized, subsidized, and corporatized American
agriculture, so when huge agribusiness corporations dumped goods on the
Mexican market, it put peasant and other small farmers out of business.
The dumping of chickens in huge quantities near their sell-by date
caused large losses of small farms; they just could not compete with
the subsidized and automated chicken factories of the U.S.
For sure, the same people who pushed for the
free trade agreements were mostly the same people who complained the
loudest about the flow of undocumented immigrants to the north bank of
the Rio Grande. If your means of making a living in Mexico were snuffed
out by the unfair competition because of NAFTA, would you go up north
to find any kind of work to support your family? Most people would.
Without much discussion, let alone debate, the free trade agreements
sailed through with one country and another, one after the other, and
the people did not have a clue what was happening. They did know one
thing: for about 40 years, Corporate America was allowed to empty the
country of its economic lifeblood by moving manufacturing and industry
“offshore,” where there were profits to be made on the backs of workers
in other countries, where there wasn’t even a pretense of workers’
rights, labor standards, or environmental regulation. In the U.S.,
there is a pretense of fostering such things.
When confronted with “free trade,” the people did not know what it
meant for their own lives. They knew that they had hemorrhaged good
jobs and that factories and shops were closed at an alarming rate and
that there was no end in sight. The new obstacles to a decent life,
free trade agreements, were not any more understood by the people than
capital flight, but the politicians and the corporations reassured them
that “free trade” would be a win-win for everyone.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way and the working class and the
middle class did not participate much in the securing of the trade
agreements, although there were some who were engaged in protests
against the false hope of “free trade,” and those protests and other
activities made for strange bedfellows. There were trade unionists and
environmentalists, young students and old leftists, along with human
rights and worker rights activists, economists and academics. While at
least some of the people were alarmed about “free trade” and were
taking some action, most of the people stayed home.
It wasn’t just the people who didn’t understand or care to know.
Politicians of every stripe were absent from this discussion. It was as
if they were fooled by the rhetoric and propaganda emanating from the
White House and legislative leaders in Washington. The state-level
politicians, those who supposedly are closest to the people, were no
better at discerning what was happening to jobs, the tax base of the
country, or to the entire working class and middle class. As a group,
they did not seem to care.
Part of the reason, of course, was that sometime during the past
half-century, the trade policies in the U.S. somehow morphed from
“treaties” to “agreements,” which meant that they could be negotiated
by the Executive Branch, by itself, then presented as done deals to the
Congress to either vote them up or down. Treaties, on the other hand,
were constitutional things of the Congress, where, presumably, they
would be debated by the people’s representatives in the open and
subject to discussion and debate by the people, themselves. Today,
there is very little heard about such “agreements,” until they are
presented to Congress and sometimes to the people (not always, because
much of what we know about such agreements are conveyed to us by the
mass press, which does not do the job we gave it).
Consequently, the U.S. economy is in the state that it is in and a
large proportion of the country does not know why, does not have a
clue. There are U.S. “free trade” agreements with countries in various
parts of the globe, not unlike the U.S. military, which has about 730
bases in scores of countries. You would not be wrong if you saw a
connection between the two.
Trade agreements promoted by Corporate America and slavishly pursued by
politicians in power have resulted in the stores of the U.S. being
stocked with an endless variety of goods that are made in every country
but America. Try to find something that is made by American workers on
American soil (no fair citing production of the likes of the slave-like
sweatshops of American Samoa). It will be difficult. In a country in
which the bulk of the gross domestic product is a function of retail
purchases, this has been a bad omen for the future of the economy. The
“free trade” policies of the nation have resulted in few exports of
goods and the import of most of what we use and a lot of that is junk
that ends up in a landfill near you.
“Free trade” benefits the rich, the corporations, and the politicians
that do the bidding of the corporatists. Everything is free in “free
trade” (the financing, tax subsidies for companies that flee the
country, materiel, diplomatic services, the military for protection of
assets, the free flow of money among the trading partners, and lots of
other elements), except for one thing. Workers are not free to choose
which country among the trading partners in which to work to earn their
living. It cannot be “free trade,” if the workers are not free to make
Lest we forget that there are some things the U.S. exports throughout
the world: arms, weapons systems, airplanes and missiles, and other
such weapons of mass destruction, as well as bad television programming
and mediocre movies. These things do somewhat reduce the U.S. balance
of trade, usually not for a good purpose.
All of the “free trade” agreements of recent decades are not likely to
have raised one family out of poverty or secured needed treatment for a
childhood cancer, but they have produced untold riches for the top 1
percent or 2 percent of the population. Now, we are told that a
U.S.-European Union trade agreement will be a great benefit, but some
economists strongly disagree.
Using the most optimistic estimates of the proponents of this
agreement, Dean Baker, macroeconomic economist and director of the
Center for Economic and Policy Research, has written that the
projections of growth are so small that they don’t pass the “laugh
test.” In fact, he said that the object is not to tout the growth in
trade, as much as reducing barriers in areas not directly connected to
the profit through trade.
Writing in The Guardian (U.K.) earlier this month, Baker said: “For
example, several countries in Europe and many state and county
governments in the United States impose restrictions that make fracking
difficult or impossible. In their dream agreement, the oil and gas
industries will have a set of minimal restrictions on fracking. The
deal will then define anything more stringent as a restraint on trade
subject to penalties.” What company could ask for more? Fracking is the
term for hydrofracturing deep underground rock formations by injecting
a toxic chemical mix under high pressure to release natural gas and oil
from the shattered rock.
In poorer countries, developing countries,
some of their people have welcomed “free trade,” because they believed
that investments would be made in their country’s roads, bridges, water
systems, and electric generating and distribution capacity. In some
cases this has happened, but only on a limited basis. Although the U.S.
and European countries, as well as the Japanese have been doing that
for a long time, China is moving into that arena. However in Africa,
leaders are concerned. Initially, China’s trade contact was rather
benign, in that it spent money on roads and other necessary structures
of developed countries. Now, however, according to a recent Reuters
report, 85 percent of China’s exports from Africa are raw materials,
such as minerals and oil. Taking materials out of the continent for
processing eliminates the development of well-paying jobs that African
workers could do, thus boosting their local economies.
Even though the Chinese have provided benefits to the nations of Africa
(they have overtaken the U.S. as Africa’s primary trading partner),
without the demands, such as a move toward democracy or human rights,
that other nations routinely make, their trade policies are beginning
to worry some leaders. African countries also are concerned that
China’s consumer goods are filling the shelves of stores that could be
produced by African workers.
According to a Reuters report this month: “Beijing has provided
much-needed capital to a continent starved of investment. The China
Import-Export Bank is the continent’s largest creditor and Beijing has
promised $20 billion more in loans over the next three years. But
Beijing’s money comes with its own strings: it must be spent on Chinese
goods or Chinese-built infrastructure. And Chinese firms often source
their supplies and workers back home.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. The U.S. has done the same thing,
requiring that food aid be purchased from the U.S. and carried on
U.S.-flagged ships, all the while claiming “America feeds the world.”
In actuality, the food aid largely benefits agribusiness corporations
and leaves peasants and indigenous farmers unable to compete in the
Whether the “free trade” agreements are negotiated in the open (rarely
today) or negotiated behind closed doors (as is usually the case), it
is always the people at the bottom of the economy who pay the price.
They either lose their jobs and the ability to make a living or they
lose their land and forests to richer nations that covet their capacity
to grow food or use their natural resources. Either way, the people
The only way for trade agreements or treaties to be truly free is for
workers to be free to choose the country in which they wish to work,
and subsidies for travel should be borne by the trading partners, just
as they subsidize the corporations that have come to rule at home and