“Free Trade”: The Elites Are Selling It But The Public Is Longer Buying

Dave Johnson

“Free trade”: The elites are selling it but the public is longer buying it. Look at the support for Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump, especially in light of Sanders’ surprise 20-point comeback in this week’s Michigan primary. With primaries coming soon in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina, will Sanders’ trade appeal resonate again?

Voters See Free Trade Killing Their Jobs And Wages

Voters have figured out that our country’s current “free trade” policies are killing their jobs, wages, cities, regions and the country’s middle class. Giant multinational corporations and billionaires do great under free trade, the rest of us not so much.

Elites say increasing trade is always good. But when you close a factory here, then open the factory “there” and bring the same goods back to sell in the same outlets, you have “increased trade” because those goods now cross a border. The differential between wages paid here and there goes into the pockets of the executives and shareholders. Those unemployed American workers add to wage pressures on the rest of us. Inequality increases.

There are other bad consequences as the effects of free trade ripple through local economies. The stores and gas stations and restaurants where the workers shopped and dined have to cut back. The factory’s suppliers have to cut back and lay off, too. Property values drop in the neighborhoods where all of those workers lived. The local tax base erodes. Roads and buildings and downtowns deteriorate… (The old lead pipes going to the houses do not get replaced.)

On a national scale, these local effects add up to a tragedy.

The national industrial ecosystem collapses as well. The manufacturing “know-how” migrates out of the country. The schools that taught people how to do what the factory did drop those classes. The investors who know how to evaluate manufacturing proposals go away. The raw materials pipeline migrates away. Reviving the outsourced industries will require tremendous and nationally coordinated investment.

For decades we’ve been told all this is actually good for “us.” But people have come to understand that the “us” this is good for doesn’t include about 99 percent of “us” or our country.

Trade Behind Sanders’ Michigan Upset

Sanders’ Michigan primary upset was most likely driven by his repeated trade message. Michigan’s primary upset demonstrates again that voters have caught on that our country’s trade policies have sent millions of jobs out of the country, put tremendous downward pressure on wages, decimated regions of the country (Flint, Detroit, the “rust belt”) and are dealing a death blow to America’s middle class.

Watch this Sanders ad on the damage our trade deals have done:

While people talk about “NAFTA” (the North American Free Trade Agreement) the term is really used as a shorthand for all of our country’s disastrous trade policies, including the millions of jobs and tens of thousands of factories outsourced to China.

Dave Jamieson, Labor Reporter at The Huffington Post, writes about how trade contributed to Sanders’ upset, in “Why Bernie Sanders And Donald Trump Won The Michigan Primaries“:

The exit polling from Michigan indicates that most voters there are wary of free trade agreements — and that Sanders and Trump drubbed their opponents among those voters.

According to CNN, 58 percent of Democratic voters polled after casting ballots said they believe U.S. trade with other countries takes away U.S. jobs, compared with just 30 percent who said they believe it creates them. Among that group, Sanders won by a whopping 17-point margin: 58 percent to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s 41 percent. He won the primary overall by less than a 2-point margin.

[. . .] Trade — and resentment toward U.S. trade policy — has been the sleeper issue in 2016.  By eliminating trade barriers with low-wage countries, the North American Free Trade Agreement and subsequent treaties over the past two decades have encouraged U.S. companies to move jobs to countries where workers are paid less.

Sanders has made a point of pressing Clinton on trade throughout the Democratic debates, including just days ago. The Vermont independent has been a vocal opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal with 12 Pacific Rim countries championed by President Barack Obama. Clinton’s stance on the deal hasn’t beennearly as clear.

The New York Times reported in “Trade and Jobs Key to Victory for Bernie Sanders“:

Mr. Sanders pulled off a startling upset in Michigan on Tuesday by traveling to communities far from Detroit and by hammering Mrs. Clinton on an issue that resonated in this still-struggling state: her past support for trade deals that workers here believe robbed them of manufacturing jobs. Almost three-fifths of voters said that trade with other countries was more likely to take away jobs, according to exit polls by Edison Research, and those voters favored Mr. Sanders by a margin of more than 10 points.

At The Washington Post, David Weigel and Lydia DePillis write in, “Voters skeptical on free trade drive Sanders, Trump victories in Michigan“:

The salience of trade, in a state where unemployment had tumbled more than half since the start of the Great Recession, blindsided a Democratic Party that has struggled to find coherence between its labor base and its neoliberal leadership. It also worried Republicans, whose leaders and donors are resolutely in favor of free trade.

“There has been a bipartisan conventional wisdom that the damage done to working-class jobs and incomes are simply part of inevitable changes, ones we cannot and should not challenge,” said Larry Mishel, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “Even President Obama is blaming inequality problems on technological change, which is not even a plausible explanation for post-2000 America. People correctly understand that many elites simply believe that wage stagnation is something we cannot change.”

… In Michigan, exit pollsters for the first time asked voters whether they thought trade created or took away American jobs. The “take away” faction made up 55 percent of the Republican primary vote and 57 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Trump won the GOP faction with 45 percent, and Sanders won the Democratic side with 56 percent.

Trump, Too

A YUGE part of Donald Trump’s appeal is his position on trade. A new poll shows that 66% of Republican voters oppose TPP.

Last week’s post, Trump Taps Into Economic Anxiety Resulting From ‘Free Trade’ noted that “Trump is tapping into an economic anxiety felt by many, many Americans. Our trade policies are at the root of this anxiety, and Trump knows it and says it, and people nod their heads.” Here is Trump speaking after the “Super Tuesday” primaries:

Our nation is in serious trouble. we’re being killed on trade, absolutely destroyed, China is just taking advantage of us. I have nothing against China, I have great respect for China but their leaders are just too smart of our leaders, our leaders don’t have a clue. And the trade deficits at 400 billion dollars and 500 billion dollars, are too much, no country can sustain that kind of trade deficit. It won’t be that way for long, we have the greatest business leaders in the world, on my team already, and believe me we’re going to redo those trade deals and it’s going to be a thing of beauty.

Trump has been sounding this message throughout his campaign. Here is Trump on trade from last November:

Trump on Sanders:

“I’ll tell you, there’s one thing that we’ve very similar on,” Trump said during a town hall hosted by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. “He knows that our country is being ripped off big league, big league, on trade.”

Elites Getting The Message

The country’s elites might just be getting the message. The D.C. insider newsletter Daily 202 agrees, in “Six explanations for Bernie Sanders’s surprise win in Michigan“:

1. A message of economic populism, particularly protectionism, is much more potent in the Rust Belt than we understood.

Most Michiganders feel like they are victims of trade deals, going back to NAFTA under Bill Clinton, and they’re deeply suspicious of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Outsourcing has helped hollow out the state’s once mighty manufacturing core.

Trump and Sanders both successfully tapped into this.

Six in 10 Michigan Democratic primary voters said international trade takes away U.S. jobs, and Sanders won these voters by roughly 20 points, according to preliminary exit poll data reported by CNN. Only 3 in 10 thought trade creates jobs; Clinton won that group.

One-third of voters said Clinton is too pro-business. Sanders won more than four in five of them.

… Clinton, after speaking supportively of the TPP, flip-flopped once the agreement was signed.

Similarly, D.C.-insider Politico, “5 takeaways from Bernie’s Michigan miracle“:

4. Free trade is Clinton’s albatross. Just as the cable networks were calling the shocker for Sanders, an email popped into my inbox from one architect of Obama’s 2008 triumph, who was travelling overseas. “Americans really hate free trade,” he wrote. “Don’t know how else to explain it. Same thing running through republican race.”

Clinton … has the burden of schlepping the albatross of NAFTA with her throughout the Midwest. This is where voters’ lack of trust and her core belief in the value of open markets for American manufacturers collide: When Clinton questions free trade nobody really believes her; Sanders’ thunderous anti-free trade talk taps a vein of deep grievance, his cash advantage allowed him to saturate markets with word of his opposition to TPP and NAFTA – and his debate-stage answer on the topic was pithier and more convincing than Clinton’s.

Will Sanders’ Trade Position Resonate In Upcoming Primaries?

There are primaries coming soon in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina, and there are signs that a fair trade message is breaking through. The Alliance for American Manufacturing took a look at one of these states, Ohio, writing in,” Ohioans Love Manufacturing — and Favor Getting Tough on China Trade“:

And a new statewide poll of likely Ohio voters finds trade will likely be a dominant issue in the March 15 primary, as vast majorities of respondents worry that the United States has “lost too many manufacturing jobs” and think it would be effective to “crack down on foreign countries that violate their trade agreements.”

… Conducted Feb. 27 to March 2 by Public Opinion Research and The Mellman Group, the poll looked at voter opinion on trade, manufacturing and the presidential candidates. Researchers discovered that while support for American manufacturing is nearly universal, majorities of respondents are worried about a shrinking middle class and the impact of manufacturing job loss.

Most participants are also concerned about foreign trade, including with China. Ninety-one percent agreed that it’s time for crack down on countries that violate trade agreements, and 83 percent said that it is important that China is officially declared a currency manipulator.

… Other key findings:

● 93 percent of participants worry that the U.S. has “lost too many manufacturing jobs in this country.”

● 74 percent of participants have unfavorable views of “manufactured goods made in China,” including 77 percent of “conservative” respondents.

● 96 percent of participants are favorable of “manufactured goods made in America,” including 98 percent of “conservative members of the GOP.”

● 92 percent of participants think that “too many jobs are being shipped overseas” and 86 percent are worried they “don’t seem to manufacture anything here in America anymore.”

Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina have also been hammered by outsourcing of jobs caused by trade policies and likely have similar sentiments.

There Is A Better Way To Do Trade

Current U.S. trade policies are written by representatives of multinational corporations with the intent of locking in their dominance while driving wages and environmental costs down. The resulting agreements are clearly in their interests and not the rest of us. Our country’s enormous, humongous trade deficit is a metric for understanding the damage being done to our country.

Now that the public is clearly rejecting the current trade approach, there are alternatives available. Just having non-corporate stakeholders including representatives of labor, consumer, human rights, environmental and other groups at the table would bring about a more fair and just trade regime.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has released “Trade Principles that Put Workers First in Trade Agreements.” Click through for details, but summarized:

● Protect Congress’ Authority to Set Trade Policy
● Restore Balanced trade
● Put Workers First
● Stop Currency Manipulation
● Expand Buy America Procurement Practices
● Protect the Environment for Future Generations
● Prioritize Consumers above Profits
● Protect Nationhood Rights
● Secure Affordable Access to Essential Medicines and Services
● Respect Human Rights
● Provide a Safety Net for Vulnerable Workers

The 2013 AFL-CIO convention passed Resolution 12: America and the World Need a New Approach to Trade and Globalization, calling for a “people-centered trade policy” that will:

● Create shared gains for the workers whose labor creates society’s wealth.
● Strengthen protections for the environment. Companies must not use trade rules to pit one country’s environmental rules against another, as they seek the lowest-cost place to produce.
● Protect the freedom to regulate in the public interest.
● Set rules for fair competition. Workers of a nation must not be unduly disadvantaged by unfair economic competition resulting from choices about how to organize their economies.
● Include strong rules of origin so that trade agreements are not merely a conduit to ease the global corporation’s race to the bottom.
● Not provide extraordinary privileges to foreign investors.
● Effectively address currency manipulation.
● Retain the ability for all nations to stimulate their economies through domestic infrastructure and spending programs.
● Protect the right of governments to choose the scope and level of public services to provide.
● Protect intellectual property (IP) in a fair and balanced manner.
● Protect the unique U.S. transportation regulatory and legal structure.
● Protect the right of governments to secure the integrity and stability of their financial systems.
● Be negotiated in an open, democratic and accountable manner.
● Be flexible and responsive.

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