fresh voices from the front lines of change







The definition of “anti-American” might be up for grabs after so many years of conservatives using the label like a club, but can we all agree that when other countries are working against the interests of America, that it is fair to call that “anti-American?” I discovered something truly anti-American when I caught a registered foreign agent posting a comment on my blog.

We are all used to hearing lobbyists argue against the broad public interest for their various clients. Often some big corporation is trying to get a rule changed to give them an advantage over their competitors or otherwise line their CEO’s pockets. Other times it is wealthy people trying to get tax breaks. All too often it is some representative of Wall Street trying to convince us that our wages are too high, we shouldn’t receive health or retirement benefits, taking on more debt is good or schemes that externalize costs onto the community while privatizing the profits…

For example, Wells Fargo, recipient of $25 billion of bailout funds from taxpayers, is cutting off credit and forcing a plant that is one more component of America’s manufacturing supply chain to close because the too-big-to-fail bank would make themselves a few dollars today, rather than allowing the company to sell or stay open and maintain America’s manufacturing infrastructure. It costs only $1.6 million to keep the plant open, but will cost the community $6.1 million in jobs, tax revenue etc. to close it. Wells Fargo doesn’t care, they aren’t losing the $6.1 million – they won’t even accept offers to buy the plant, because they get a little bit more from closing it. Never mind the harm done to American companies, workers and communities. This is not a "buggy whip" factory, it is an active business.

We are used to this kind of bad – really bad – antisocial, economically destructive behavior from self-interested American companies, organizations and people. And for some reason we seem to tolerate it because we are so inured to it. But is this kind of lobbying always just done for the usual terrible reasons -- profits at the expense of the rest of us? Maybe not. Maybe sometimes it is from a source with a different kind of agenda that we just don’t expect.

Let me tell you a story:

Last week I wrote a post explaining the details of a trade decision that President Obama will soon make, “President Obama's Upcoming "Section 421 Tire Case" Trade Enforcement Decision” and cross-posted it at my own blog, Seeing the Forest. Someone calling themselves “TheFacts” left a comment there. The comment begins, “This is absolute drivel. Let me count the ways” and ends by saying I am advancing “a union-driven agenda.”

Bloggers know that posts on current issues affecting big corporations are frequently swarmed with people presenting the corporate viewpoint. Sometimes when we trace them (when the source is not well-masked) we find these comments originate at corporate-funded firms paid to lobby on the issue. I traced the IP address of the person who posted this comment to the DC office of the international law firm White & Case, a large firm representing clients on international trade issues, among other things.

This got me thinking. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938 requires those “acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities.”

I checked at the Department of Justice database, and White & Case is registered as a “foreign agent.”

White & Case is registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent because White & Case represents foreign interests. This registration is required so that Americans can make judgments based on the knowledge that they are hearing from sources that do not represent America’s interests and instead represent interests that might be opposed to America's interests.

So what does it mean when someone from a firm that is registered with the Justice Department as representing foreign interests posts arguments anonymously at blogs like mine -- arguing that we should allow American factories to close, and instead import goods from other countries? Was this done for a client? Was it an employee acting without authority?.

How were the readers of this anonymous post supposed to know that they were hearing from someone at a firm that is registered as a foreign agent? Was this anonymous posting part of an effort to subvert the intent of the Foreign Agents Registration Act? Is this part of a larger effort by this firm, and if so how much is being done in ways intended to get around the Foreign Agents Registration Act?

What this foreign-interest representative is advocating is that Americans close factories and borrow money to buy imports from countries that take over the business that we give up. We have to borrow the money because America has given up so much of its manufacturing capacity already – to companies in other countries – that we aren’t earning our own money anymore with which to buy imports. This is not only not in our country’s interests, it is often being advocated by the paid representatives of the countries that benefit from this at our expense! And, of course, the other countries involved aren't giving up any of their manufacturing to us.

By the way, one of the arguments the foreign-agent commenter made was,

“According to Rutgers economist Thomas J. Prusa, the proposed tire tariffs would ripple through the U.S. economy. Prusa calculates that each job “saved” by the ITC’s tariffs would come at the cost of at least 12 jobs lost, and possibly more than 25.”

While checking out the aggressively hyperbolic statistic (already refuted by the ITC) that saving each job would cost 12 to 25 jobs I located the source in a Wall Street Journal piece, followed by this:

“Prusa’s research was commissioned by a group called the American Coalition for Free Trade in Tires.”

The American Coalition for Free Trade in Tires is a coalition of six tire importing companies – one is even named “Foreign Tire Sales Inc.” And by the way again we find the term “free trade” used as a club to try to shut down discussion of merits of closing factories and wiping out American jobs, industries and communities. "Free trade" is an ideological label for a theory that seems only to apply to the US, certainly not to the industry-subsidizing, tire-dumping China that the tire case is about. So the authority cited in the foreign agent's comment, while not a foreign agent himself, was not as represented either. He may be a “Rutgers economist” but in this capacity he was commissioned by the American Coalition for Free Trade in Tires to say this. (Rutgers allows that? Ouch.) So much for the 12 or 25 jobs statistic – and for the aura of independence and credibility that comes from citing a “Rutgers economist.”

I will have more on the American Coalition for Free Trade in Tires in the next post.

So here is what it comes down to. It is one thing to hear from American interests who are trying to convince us to give up America’s manufacturing capacity, just so they can make a quick buck at everyone else's expense. We’re used to that these days. But would you feel differently and consider the opinions in a different light if you knew that you were hearing from a Greek or Korean or Chinese manufacturer, trying to convince you that it is a good thing for America to give up our manufacturing capacity and let them do it, and let them make the money and have the jobs instead? Perhaps you would. If you knew.

NEXT: What about when you are hearing from lobbyists and organizations that are funded from other countries, but are not registering as “foreign agents?” Also I will tell you about the “revolving door” of American officials who leave the government and immediately go to work for interests who lobby the very offices where they worked, asking us to close factories, lay people off, etc.

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