Globalization is a reliable scapegoat for many of the ails we suffer. It’s a boogeyman that snatches up U.S. jobs, and if there’s any word we consider sacred in this country, it’s “jobs.” But it’s doubtful that the opening of markets is the sole reason for our troubles; it may not even be the main reason.
In a curious spirit of bipartisanship, members of both the left and the right are likely to champion or denounce free trade. In 2008 Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both criticized trade deals of the past as undermining American labor. In 2016 Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, in popular style, complained that free trade only enriched corporations.
In a reversal, in 2016, Obama enthusiastically promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a potential agreement between twelve Pacific nations in both Asia and the Americas, China notably absent. The proposed agreement would have been the largest free trade deal in history, involving 40 percent of the world economic output and 800 million people. Like the ill-fated League of Nations, U.S. support was considered critical to TPP’s success.
Less than a year later, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal, claiming it was unfair to American industries. According to Howard Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, “Trump has single-handedly given away an enormous source of leverage over China.” And the Chinese naturally are pushing for a deal of their own, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which they hope to extend to Latin America.
Economies are more interdependent as ever before. There is no such thing as isolation in the developed world. As Alden points out in The New York Times, the majority of goods are comprised of “intermediates,” or prefabricated components used in final assembly, and the components to a single item could come from all over the world. More expansive deals ensure the United States exercises greater oversight over quality control alongside member countries.
And where the U.S. exerts a commercial authority, a cultural influence is likely to follow. It is no coincidence that the TPP would’ve meant that all involved countries adhere to certain American standards, particularly pertaining to forced labor and collective bargaining – who wouldn’t want to make the world safe for democracy?
And despite the dread accompanying any talk of manufacturing, the U.S. actually enjoys trade surpluses with all its partners except China. Deals mean that foreign markets receive more American goods. Consider the tariff on U.S. autos in Vietnam: 70 percent. Under the TPP that tariff would have disappeared, and many more Chevys and Fords might have found their way into that market. Despite the negative perception of NAFTA, since its passage 17 million new jobs have been “created” and unemployment has gone from 6.9 percent to 4.0 percent.
Trump’s withdrawal only reflects our own despair. He appeals to the rhetoric of survival: all we can hope for is to survive, so it reads, and only that much by retreating to our own tribes, lashing out when others seem to threaten some petty favor. But we can’t talk about reclaiming the world from the global supply chain. Where the economy has left behind manufacturing, we can’t hope to return.Would we try to curb carbon emissions with taper candles and horse and buggy?
There is a problem with the economy, and it isn’t simply exports or closing of plants. For all the intellectual property our economy runs on, there’s scant intellectualism to show for it. The economy is representative of a culture that discourages normal people from seeing themselves as having dignity – real dignity, that isn’t tied to conspicuous consumption – an individual self-respect that should extend to all nations through friendship and commerce.
If the U.S. has any international authority, it is only as first among equals. The U.S. can work to advance human rights through commerce. That was the understanding of the new order following WWII, and it should remain so. Imperialism is out. Isolationism is a joke – it was a never an option. Contact with all all peoples is not just an ideal, but is essential to the shared prosperity of the developed world.
So we let go of cooperation with numerous advanced or rapidly advancing economies, in the belief that old jobs can come back, jobs we have now can be there forever, and manufacturing can be a zero-sum game we win: let’s see how this plays out. I’ll get my time card and lunch pail ready for the plant.