Don’t Believe What You Read: People Really Do Care about Free Trade
President Barack Obama is apparently dead set on a last-minute passage of the twelve-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership that would enhance the power of gigantic global corporations. His strategy appears to be to push it through during the lame duck session after the election, relying heavily on votes of anti-worker Republicans and a small handful of conservative Democrats.
Bill Clinton pulled a similar maneuver in 1993, ramming through the disastrous North American Free Trade Agreement despite nearly 2-1 opposition among Democratic House members, 64 percent opposition among independents, and an evenly divided Republican caucus.
As it did with NAFTA, the New York Times has provided a steady platform promoting the TPP—in editorials, through pro-corporate columnists like Thomas Friedman, and even in its news articles. Most recently, a prominent article in the Times claimed that the vast majority of American voters were either in favor of the TPP, or utterly uninterested.
Author Jackie Calmes described opposition to the deal as limited to vocal, extremist minorities on the left and right. Drawing misleading conclusions from a few selective polls, Calmes suggested that readers, presumably including members of Congress, should feel free to ignore the noisy chatter against the TPP.
“The level of support for trade agreements in general, and the pending Pacific pact in particular, stands in notable contrast to the toxicity of trade in an election season largely defined by anger among working-class voters,” she wrote in her front-page news analysis piece in the Times.
But Calmes relies on shallow polling that asks only superficial questions, such as whether respondents approve of trade in general, to reach this conclusion. The polls she cites neglect to probe meaningful questions such as whether “countries that are part of international trade agreements should be required to maintain minimum standards for working conditions.” An astounding 93 percent of Americans agree with this position.
The bitter experience of the past two decades of “free trade” means that critiques of the TPP are resonating in the current context of extreme economic inequality and precarious lives for tens of millions of Americans. America has lost 5.7 million manufacturing jobs from 1998 to 2013 and 56,000 factories. “U.S. multinational corporations, the big brand-name companies that employ a fifth of all American workers . . . cut their workforces in the U.S. by 2.9 million during the 2000s while increasing employment overseas by 2.4 million,” the Wall Street Journal reported. America’s 500 largest corporations now produce nearly half of their output in their overseas plants.
The substitution of an economy based on financial transactions rather than job-creating factories has caused deep suffering in Rust Belt “factory towns” and Southern mill towns. A remarkable study authored by Nobel laureate economist Angus Deaton and Anne Case found an unanticipated rise of nearly 500,000 deaths among working class whites aged forty-five to fifty-four, a 22 percent increase from 1999 to 2013. Opioid abuse, alcoholism, and suicide contributed to these tragic early deaths.
Deaton commented on his findings: “These are the people who used to have good factory jobs with on-the-job training. These are the people who could build good lives for themselves and for their kids. And all of that has gone away. The factory is in Cambodia, the factory is in Vietnam, the factory is in China, wherever.”
The proposed TPP has only heightened the broadly shared anxieties of many Americans brought on by NAFTA. Working people, both blue-collar and professional, fear further downward pressure on U.S. wages from American corporate operations encouraged by trade deals to move jobs overseas. They are particularly concerned about the TPP’s token labor protections in nations like Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and Vietnam, persistent violators of worker rights.
Further, the TPP will only further consolidate the power of global corporations to sue national governments over protective laws like those holding down drug prices and safeguarding the environment. Such features have drawn the opposition of distinguished economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich, Jeffrey Sachs, and Paul Krugman, as well as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (and Donald Trump as well) and the vast majority of House Democrats.
Since the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, “NAFTA opposition is the majority position across every demographic,” according to a recent poll. “Hispanics were among the most anti-NAFTA, as were progressives, liberals, Democrats and internationalists.”
But opposition to “free trade” deals has become much broader in terms of party preference, education, and income. By 2010, after witnessing the impact of NAFTA’s cost (about 850,000 jobs) and the entrance of China into the World Trade Organization (resulting in about 3.2 million US job losses since 2001), college-educated professionals and Republicans have become much more inclined to oppose “free trade” than in pre-NAFTA days.
By 2010, Republican pollster Bill McInturff had detected a profound shift in attitudes among college-educated professionals and GOP voters, concluding, “The important change is that very well-educated and upper-income people compared to five to ten years ago have shifted their opinion and are now expressing significant concern about the notion of . . . free trade.”
These shifts were long ignored by Republicans who continued to promote unregulated globalization, tax cuts for the wealthy, and slashing Social Security and Medicare, catering to corporate CEOs and other members of the top 1 percent. But resentment among non-affluent, economically troubled Republicans kept building. By 2016, opposition to “free trade” became a key driving force motivating non-union white workers lacking college degrees—the Republicans’ most dependable source of votes—to stage an uprising.
Donald Trump stepped into the breach, claiming the anti-globalist and anti-TPP causes as his own—as well as inflaming xenophobic and white-nationalist sentiment. Trump has thundered against the TPP, WTO and NAFTA, but has only occasionally mentioned that his chief “solutions” to corporations offshoring jobs involve further reducing workers’ wages and cutting already-low corporate taxes to encourage firms to stay in the United States. (Despite her overall strong debate performance, Hillary Clinton stepped back from confronting Trump’s hypocrisy on trade and outsourcing.)
More than at any point in our history, fervent disapproval of “free trade” and the massive offshoring of U.S. jobs to low-wage, high-repression nations reaches across the political spectrum and up and down the income ladder.
If President Obama persists with his ill-considered crusade for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the post-election lame-duck session, both he and the New York Times are likely to be stunned by the ferocity of the public’s opposition.