The bipartisan U.S. trade policy of the last 20 years, if not dead, is on life-support. Voters are hostile, and therefore politicians are backing away from new proposals, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership.
The Washington policy class’ defense of these so-called Free Trade Agreements has collapsed in a tangle of intellectual contradictions.
But there is too much at stake for Washington’s power brokers to be deterred. The trade deals of the last 20 years have brought enormous profits to Wall Street and considerable political leverage to the neo-imperialist clique that dominates our foreign policy.
Their ideological champions in the media, desperate for a new argument, are now scrambling to drape these agreements with a mantle of moral superiority. American workers who complain are now told that they should be ashamed of themselves.
Why? Because opening up our markets to deregulated trade and foreign investment helps workers in other counties who are even poorer.
Paul Krugman tells his New York Times readers that they should support “open world markets…mainly because market access is so important to poor countries.”
Similarly, Charles Lane in the Washington Post writes that Bernie Sanders’ criticism of trade deals is “selfish” toward people in “poverty more grinding and miserable than anything even the worst-off Americans have experienced in recent years.”
And Zack Beauchamp of Vox writes that the moral question is, “how much we’re willing to hurt the world’s poor in order to help ourselves.”
If you are suspicious of moralistic rationales to justify economic policies promoted by the rich and powerful, your instinct is correct. The argument here is fraudulent. It is no more convincing than Chevron or Exxon ads that proclaim their corporate purpose is to protect the environment.
Self-sacrifice for others is a noble sentiment. But claiming moral superiority by demanding that other people do the sacrificing is unprincipled hypocrisy.
America is a rich country. But it is not America that is being asked to sacrifice jobs and income in order to uplift the world’s poor. Neither is it America’s rich that are being asked (and whom these trade deals have made richer).
Nor is it the professional classes who manage and defend the interests of the top one percent.
Instead, the sacrificing is reserved for those low and middle income Americans who are already being kicked down the economic ladder by investor-privileged globalization.
There is a nasty subtext at work here — smug upper class professionals’ contempt for working people.
Globalization’s “losers” are caricatured as older white men without college educations who have been overpaid to work in U.S. factories– and are probably racist and sexist to boot.The New York Times’ Roger Cohen dismisses them as “Trump’s people. And Le Pen’s”.
With that stereotype in mind, Republican Party leaders have cynically tried to divert working class discontent away from economic insecurity to issues like gun control, anti-immigration and gay marriage.
For their part, Democrats, embracing the demographics of identity, have apparently decided they don’t need the white guys anymore. With one exception — to extort campaign contributions from trade unions on the grounds that they will protect them from anti-labor Republicans.