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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Reason Held Hostage to Globalists vs. Nationalists Trade Dispute

Now might be a good time for Democrats engaged in the interminable globalist vs. nationaists trade argument to give it a rest and think about a reasonable compromise that can unify Dems and advance our trade policy to a more beneficial level. At In These Times, Leon Fink, editor of the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, has a timely post on the topic, “On Trade, Our Choices Aren’t Only Xenophobic Nationalism Or Neoliberal Globalization.” As Fink frames the argument,

Few issues are receiving a more insipid—and thus more harmful—treatment in our public discourse than world trade. Along with immigration, “free trade” is now the foremost symbol of a supposed either/or choice between globalism and nationalism.

“Globalists” generally hail the liberal marketplace as the engine of economic prosperity and assail its critics as uneducated and irrational isolationists, while “nationalists” instinctively identify trade with economic decline (or at least the loss of good working-class jobs), rising inequality and a general loss of control over the future.

…Absent a move towards what we might call progressive internationalism, we are forced to choose between “globalists,” heedless of the consequences of development for those outside the professional and financial classes, or “nationalists,” suspicious of and hostile towards the world beyond our borders. Neither posture holds out much prospect for economic renewal, either at home or abroad.

…This framework risks closing off our best possibilities for building a progressive economic future. We need a new paradigm.

Fink reviews the effects of trade agrrements, from Breton Woods, to Smoot-Hawley and NAFTA agreements, leading up to the current conflict over TPP. He pegs the still-central argument as “how best to tackle the negative effects of globalization without upsetting the entire applecart of world trade?” and notes, “Oddly, most other problems of world economic integration have found solutions through compromise, whereas trade has remained the province of extreme either/or.”

Perhaps the “extreme either/or” character of the TPP debate is symptomatic of the hyper-polarization of the 2016 political environment. Fink reminds his readers that it wasn’t so long ago that international economic policy conflicts were resolved through well-reasoned compromises, like mining and fishing territorial agreements, or IMF/World Bank protection of vulnerable currencies. However, explains Fink,

…There is no such movement towards an adoption of mutually-agreed international principles on matters of trade. In a politically suffocating manner, one is either pro-free trade (most big business and most Clinton-Bush-Obama policies), anti-free trade (Donald Trump with a proposed 45% tariff on China) or stumbling in the middle (pro-then-anti-TPP Hillary Clinton). The Trans-Pacific Partnership, in particular, attempts to overcome First World skepticism with side agreements on labor, affecting workers in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, but the record of enforcement for such guarantees is spotty at best.

The options here present a silly, self-defeating set of choices and one that both workers and consumers in the United States and Europe need quickly to transcend.

Fink calls for a new world framework which establishes “Not just financial stability, but the regulation of trade and debt” and “Global exchanges” that “yield equitable employment as well as enhanced bottom lines.” He urges that “NAFTA or TPP-type agreements” should provide “a step ladder of wage increases in the cheaper-labor countries as well as plans for displaced workers in the higher-wage countries before approving massive shake ups. In return, poor countries could count on significant debt relief.”

Instead of drifting into hyper-partisan camps bellowing against the evils of globalism or protectionism, Democrats should light a path forward to a new era of mutually-beneficial trade agreements that protect workers and transcend ideological extremes. Republicans are ideologically incapable of providing the needed leadership. For Democrats, it could be the pivotal compromise that wins the support of millions of working-class families and ensures a stable majority well into the future.

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