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February 14, 2005

Dem Disunity on Trade Policy

Matthew Yglesias rightly argues that beneath the veneer of Democratic unity are serious divisions over trade policy. But my frustration with "liberal free trading" Democrats like Matt is that they are falling down on the job of the "liberal" part of their advocacy of free trade.

While Matt wants to reduce the debate to that between "free traders" and "protectionists", it's more complicated than that. The Clinton Democrat position is that, yes, trade will dislocate some workers, but it will make our society richer, so we can then afford to train any workers for even better jobs.

Sounds nice in the abstract, but those displaced workers have a sneaking suspicion that their vested ownership of a job is more valuable politically than a government promise to retrain them. And you can see Bush's actions in office sustaining that belief, since while he imposed steel quotas to protect some steel jobs, he's gone out of his way to deny Trade Adjustment Assistance to workers who actually lose their jobs to trade. And now he wants to kill the whole training program under the TAA.

But here's my problem with Matt and other "liberal" free traders. Retraining workers is "their" trade program, yet it's leftwing labor bloggers like myself who have to scream about Bush's assault on the program. The silence from the liberal free trade side of the blogosphere has been deafening.

If liberals won't defend retraining funds, they really can't convince us labor types that they are seriously committed to helping the losers from their pro-trade policies.

The whole "protectionist" label misses the point, since labor folks are often in favor of trade, since it breeds jobs. They just don't trust the policy liberal free traders talk about, since there is such a clear record of them not following through on programs for those who lose out under their policies.

While some labor-types are straight up protectionists, the official labor position is that trade is fine as long as all countries are required to respect basic labor rights, such as the right to free speech in the workplace and the right to bargain collectively. That way, it's the workers in each country deciding the appropriate trade-off between wages and jobs-- not each government imposing it as authoritarian policy. And the advantage of that is if jobs go overseas, it's far more likely to lead to better paying jobs there, which in turn increases the demand for US goods. So us "fair traders" are all in favor of lots of trade-- we just want the benefits to go first, last and foremost to workers both in the US and in the developing world. I know the liberal free traders think that's the goal of their policies, but the evidence just isn't there. As I said, the silence over Bush's plan to kill Trade Adjustment Training funds is deafening.

Posted by Nathan at February 14, 2005 05:18 PM