Framed: International Trade Agreements

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International Trade Agreements

The following phrases are recalled until further notice:

  • Free trade
  • Opening markets
  • Level the playing field

DO NOT USE ANY OF THESE PHRASES.

If you or someone you know is currently using this phrase, please go immediately to Forward Framing for repairs.

Agreements to watch:

  • NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement)
  • CAFTA-DR (Central American Free Trade Agreement and Dominican Republic)
  • FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas)
  • GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade)
  • WTO (World Trade Organization)

Example of use (don’t emulate):

U.S. Trade Representative Bob Portman, who had called CAFTA-DR a gateway deal to more ambitious trade pacts, said House passage sent a powerful signal that the United States would ``continue to lead in opening markets and leveling the playing field. -- (Pablo Bachelet, Miami Herald, July 29, 2005)

The connotation of “free trade” is being misused. The phrase suggests that anyone can participate freely in the trade. In fact, international trade requires significant capital and is not open to just anyone. “Free trade” in this context is equivalent to Darwinian trade, in which the most powerful have the biggest advantage. “Free trade” is also protected by the U.S. military, which rules the high seas. Without the near monopoly of the U.S. on security of the sea lanes international trade would be much more expensive and dangerous. U.S. tax payers are paying for free trade through their taxes. It doesn’t come for free.

The connotation of “open markets” is being misused. This suggests that someone is keeping the markets closed. The markets are not closed; they are protected. They are being protected from unfair competition.

The connotation of “level the playing field” is being misused. In an unregulated market, the playing field is tilted against those with weak economic positions. This is typically smaller businesses and individuals, especially unskilled workers. The playing field is being made less level for these people with these trade agreements.

The Problem

The main problem with “free trade” is that it is Darwinian, not humanitarian. When there are no market constraints those with weak economic positions are put at a disadvantage. Unrestricted trade means profits flow mainly to the most powerful. The weak are killed off or reduced to servitude.

Free trade agreements are an attempt by large corporations to escape from close scrutiny and regulation of trade by taking it outside the bounds of national laws. This plays to their advantage of size and allows them to make super-profits while externalizing the cost of security.

The underlying premise of free trade is spurious. Unnecessary and detrimental barriers to trade should be avoided, but the U.S. should never give up the gains to society gained within our domestic market when we make trade agreements. These gains include:

  • A minimum wage designed to prevent the exploitation of unskilled and semiskilled labor.
  • The right to organize and collectively bargain for wages and benefits.
  • Social security and other benefits mandated by U.S. law, but not generally available in the third world.
  • Workplace safety and other humanizing regulations of the workplace.
  • Environmental regulations and standards that prevent companies from exploiting the commons for their private profits.

The Cost/Benefits of Trade Agreements

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Realigning the Frame

Fair Trade: People in weaker countries are often put at a disadvantage by multinational companies who exploit the large number of undercapitalized businesses and individuals in these countries for economic gain. This is not only harmful to the underprivileged in these countries, but also contributes to ecological damage, undermining sustainability and the ability of the earth to provide for future generations. A number of organizations have grown up to provide a better deal for workers in these countries, particularly farmers who grow coffee, cocoa and other commonly used products.

Examples of organizations promoting fair trade:

Fairtrade Foundation

Oxfam: Make Trade Fair

Fair Trade Federation

Global Exchange

Note: Presence on this list does not constitute endorsement. This is publicly available information.

What Progressives Value and Want

Sustainability. Economic activity should be sustainable indefinitely. This means refraining from exploitation of both humans and the environment. Fairness. Those born to less fortunate circumstances should be provided education allowing them to advance according to how hard they work and jobs that pay a living wage—a wage that is sufficient to support life from birth to natural death including decent retirement, as well as enough to permit the raising of children who will carry on in a sustainable way. Consistency. The rules should not change so quickly as to cause severe disruptions to people’s lives. Major changes should be phased in. When large changes are required, assistance should be provided to those who are in the way of that change.

Responses

International trade agreements do not provide a level playing field for the United States. While globalization is a good goal, and is ultimately unstoppable, we do not need to unilaterally disarm in the world trade arena. The U.S. constitutes a huge market for other countries, and we can rightly demand that they play by first-world rules if they are going to sell in this country.

That specifically means:

  • An international minimum wage.
  • Workplace standards of safety and health at least comparable to those in the U.S.
  • Environmental standards at least comparable to those in the U.S.
  • A fairer distribution of the costs of supporting the international trade infrastructure.
  • International accounting for the costs of carbon emissions from transporting goods overseas.

All standards must be implemented over time to allow the world’s economy to adjust.

An international minimum wage should be established that is at least some portion of the U.S. domestic minimum wage. This is necessary so that companies don’t continually go to poorer countries to avoid costs, devastating the economies of countries they leave behind. This will need to be phased in, but it should start at a level that discourages further drift of jobs overseas (say 40% of the U.S. domestic minimum wage), and then rise over a period of twelve to fifteen years until it reaches parity. You should not be allowed to sell any product in the U.S. (goods or services) unless everyone who contributes to it is paid the international minimum wage (and you can prove it).

We need to extend our workplace standards (for maximum number of hours, child-labor laws, safety standards, health, etc.) to international agreements. That would, of course, include the right to unionize. (In order to get there, we need that right extended to all states of the Union first.)

We need to write these labor and environmental standards into these treaties. We have two choices: either we insist on international recognition of first-world standards for minimum wage, workplace safety, limits on pollution, and so on, or we will be forced to systematically abandon them for our own country. Either other countries come up to our standards or we descend to theirs.

Finally, the U.S. cannot be the world’s only security system for international trade without the financial support of other countries. We have traditionally shared the security burden by sharing the costs of military bases in other countries. But the U.S. Navy picks up most of the cost of securing the sea-lanes. While we don’t want to cede the position that provides us, we need to think about how to provide international security without incurring more cost than the combined militaries of most of the rest of the world.

Counter—Phrases to Describe Unrestrained Trade Agreements

”’Colonial Rules’”

Come-Backs

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Contrasting Visions

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Raps

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Potential Ads

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Other Resources to Draw On

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Notes

Remember: Free trade agreements were originally created and promoted by neocons to increase the profits of major, multinational corporations. All of the agreements currently in place need to be fixed to bring them in line with traditional American values and standards for labor and the environment. This suggests a strategic initiative to bring these agreements up to civilized standards.

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