Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Deals Aren't Good Enough

The emphasis for the previous maladministration was on getting some, and this was evident in its 'Free Trade' mania. Foreign trade is always a tricky issue, but in the past years of high finance there was little representation of the worker, or consumer, in evidence. Deals with Colombia ignored the terrible atmosphere of labor leader killings, and, generally, deals sought no level of worker protections, either for our workers or for the other countries' workers.

Under President Obama, a standard is proposed to impose real standards. In hearings before the Senate Finance Committee on the appointment of trade representative Ron Kirk, the administration's insistence on good practices was made plain.

Even as world trade takes its steepest drop in 80 years amid the global economic crisis, the administration is preparing to take a harder line with America's trading partners. It will seek new benchmarks before supporting already-written trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea and is suggesting that it will dig in its heels on global trade talks, demanding that other countries make broader concessions first.

"I believe in trade and will work to expand it, but I also know that not all Americans are winning from it and that our trading partners are not always playing by the rules," Ron Kirk, President Obama's nominee as U.S. trade representative, said in confirmation hearing testimony last night before the Senate Finance Committee.

The shift underscores the mounting pressures confronting any effort to expand trade during the economic crisis. Even before the global economy went code red late last year, talks aimed at expanding global trade stalled as Western countries warred with emerging giants like China and India over how to further open markets.

Those divides appear to be more unbreachable than ever as world leaders move to protect their domestic industries from the ravages of the financial crisis, embracing new trade barriers aimed at imported goods and other measures meant to restrict the flow of capital outside their borders. In the United States, more Americans are blaming cheap imports for job losses at home and congressional leaders pressed successfully to include a "buy American" provision in the $787 billion stimulus program to give an edge to U.S.-made products.

"Our consensus to advance international trade is frayed," Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said at Kirk's hearing yesterday. "Our faith in the international trading system is badly shaken."

During the campaign, Obama said he generally supports free-trade policies but also signaled a tougher approach that is only now beginning to be outlined. Both in Kirk's testimony yesterday and in a policy statement issued by new Obama appointees at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the administration vowed to make tougher labor and environmental standards prerequisites for trade deals. Rather than stressing the signing of new agreements, the administration indicated that it will instead prioritize stricter enforcement of existing ones before the World Trade Organization -- the Geneva-based body that arbitrates global trade.

In what appeared to be a jab at the Bush administration's zealous pursuit of free-trade agreements, Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, said: "I do not come to this job . . . with deal fever. We're not going to do deals just for doing so."

The scandals involving child labor and general mistreatment of workers in partnered countries has made American trade negotiation a questionable process. While the benefits of having low costs for products may prove advantageous occasionally, and cheap goods are particularly sought after in present economic conditions, our role in enabling abuse of workers has grown increasingly reprehensible. Under this administration, it will be very nice to regain a position of moral standing. Our agreements cannot ignore bad practices just to grow trade.

The mad pursuit of gain at all costs is well ended. The Obama administration will make a desirable place for this country among the nations of the world by positioning us again as a nation with a conscience.

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Anonymous larry, dfh said...

In my area of work, and in many others, it's not the price of labor but the ease of pollution. Those semi-conductor plants in Malaysia look real nice with the ultra clean rooms and garbed workers...and they flush a whole lot of shit down the rivers. GE didn't move its fluorescent bulb manufacturing to Hungary because of the cheaper eastern European labor, they did it because of a more lax control on Mercury.
Labor AND pollution need to be addressed, and monitored, in any meaningful trade agreement.

7:23 AM  
Blogger Woody (Tokin Librul/Rogue Scholar/ Helluvafella!) said...

Eric Holder--you know, the Attorney General--worked to get Chiquita Banana off the hook for hiring, paying, and supplying para-military troops in Colombia to terrorize union organizers and workers.

Plan Colombia hasn't done much to retrict drugs in the nation, but it has been WIZARD for suppressing dissent. A free-trade agreement with the same group which has been killing labor leaders doesn't seem a promising approach...

10:23 AM  
Blogger Ruth said...

True, pollution controls which also are weaker now than before the maladministration are also needed to factor in for trade agreements that put principles ahead of commerce. And I am delighted to have a WH that doesn't make concessions in human rights to regimes that give it free reign in those Wars on .... (fill in the blank of the moment).

12:55 PM  

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