Paying the Piper: Reparations for “Free” Trade?
Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) is designed to help workers adjust to having their jobs shipped abroad in the aftermath of a free trade agreement. Experience from previous free trade agreements (NAFTA is the most prominent among them) indicates that American jobs do, indeed, get relocated to countries which have lower labor standards. In other words, American workers are replaced by workers in other countries who are paid lower wages, under harsher working conditions and/or weaker workplace protections than workers here enjoy. TAA seeks to encourage ratification of the trade agreement ( in this instance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP) in Congress, by ameliorating the negative consequences of the job losses among workers here. The idea to aid in their transition by giving them training, education or other assistance in the new and improved American economy.
As things stand now, both Houses of Congress have sent the President a bill granting him fast-track Trade Promotion Authority – a chance to severely limit debate in Congress of a submitted trade pact, without the ability to amend it in any way – via a strict up or down vote. Obviously, this makes the passage far easier to attain in much less time. Given the tendency of Congress these days to argue endlessly about anything and then pass a bill to stave off utter disaster at the last minute on a temporary basis (i.e. – kicking the can down the road a few months or until the next scheduled election), any President would seek such authority if they truly wanted a trade deal.
There are some major problems with providing a TAA deal. One is to determine how big it needs to be to adequately address the need. Staunch conservatives would say that’s easy – provide zero. Every worker for his or herself. The other extreme may be to demand that every worker gain employment at the same or higher standard of living than the job they lost. Once the extent of the perceived need is determined and agreed upon, there comes the issue of how to actually pay for it. This is the part where bipartisan agreement becomes a key sticking point.
In the current case, fast track authority has been agreed upon and sent to the President, without an accompanying TAA package, which is ideal for those who wish to not spend anything helping the displaced workers. Will the President sign the TPA without a TAA? He really wants this deal, as seen in the pressure that was applied to get sufficient votes from Democrats to pass the fast track bill in both Houses. Republican leadership in both Houses likewise seek fast-track authority and ultimately a finished trade deal as soon as possible. Corporate lobbying for such a deal indicates they must see great advantages to their bottom lines should it pass. Many Democrats in Congress are more wary, primarily due to input they’ve received from labor leaders and workers among their voting constituencies who fear the consequences of such an agreement – especially as most of the negotiations have been hidden from view of the general public, and it is being perceived as being written to the specifications desired by Wall Street and big business.
NAFTA, in particular, was lauded by most leadership in Washington at the time of its passage as a great boon to our economy. Results have fallen far short of what the American people were led to believe. There was some trade adjustment assistance provided, but the economy as restructured since the advent of that and other free trade agreements has seen a steady downturn in the number of well-paying jobs. Wages have stagnated as the economy became one dealing more with services and less with manufacturing. The main long-term gains have been felt in the elites – the 1%, top corporate executives and Wall Street investors – those who were freed up to more easily move capital and production to places where they could exploit cheaper labor sources.
When it comes to how to pay for TAA, the Republicans and others serving the interests of Wall Street and Corporate HQ’s always seem to have the perfect solution – OK, have your TAA, but don’t expect us to pay for it. Take it out of other programs designed to assist the middle class, young, disabled and working poor. They never miss a chance to use something like this to cut Medicare or Food Stamps, Social Security or Medicaid, Housing Assistance, Child Care or Education spending. Just as long as we don’t get one nickel of it out of the windfall profits that come to those who control where the jobs are done.
Perhaps, if there were stipulations that at least some of the costs associated with putting good workers out in the street to fend for themselves so that given corporations could then even more grievously underpay other workers an ocean away, fewer jobs would be lost here. This goes along the same lines as making a company pay for other damages it causes to people – like when they have to pay taxes to help pay for the infrastructure they consume, or paying for cleaning up damages their practices cause to the environment. Make it a cost of doing business that workers are treated as human beings rather than just costs to be able to contain in a never-ending search for increased profits. (As an important aside, technological improvements that lessen the need for manual labor needn’t result only in improved living standards for the bosses who then require fewer workers).
Rather than allowing corporations to shift production to places which permit even more abuse of workers and the environment than are legal here, should we not be striving to improve conditions worldwide? What good does it do the great majority of the members of the human race to permit the few to pursue greed and search for ever-greater fortunes by lessening the fortunes of most of the rest and making the planet increasingly uninhabitable in the process? Instead of telling lies about how much better the world economy will function under some theoretical free market (show me one, please), try reaching an agreement which takes care of all of us and the world in which we live equally. Instead of a world where jobs go to the person forced and/or willing to work for the lowest wage under the harshest conditions, should not all workers labor under conditions beneficial not only to the capitalists who currently claim ownership over them, but to mankind as a whole?
In what fantasy world is it fair to pay the son for losing his job by stealing his father’s well-earned pension, social security or health insurance, why not make the corporations pay for some of the economic damage we’re permitting them to do? Get something from them before making it that much easier for them to raise their profit margins. We’ve been allowing tax avoidance schemes for corporations and individuals for as long as we’ve had taxes. Stop making it easier for them and start making them take more responsibility for the consequences of their actions on the people and other natural resources they depend upon to make their fortunes.
Often, it seems like workers in this country are being pitted against workers in other countries in a race to the bottom for the benefit of those at the top. Divide and conquer tactics are used that as a distraction when, in fact, the disparate groups of workers have more in common with each other than they do with their rulers. Countries which present themselves to the world as democratic, equal opportunity societies with governments representing the interests of all of their people should actually do so and encourage others to do the same. Fostering a world economy which does the exact opposite accomplishes little other than spreading the false promises of trickle down economics to the world stage. The world needs to become more democratic and less corporate. These trade deals that benefit corporations at the expense of the workers consumers and environment must be undone so that we attain an economy that benefits the people as a whole, on a worldwide scale, rather than merely a relatively small number of oligarchs who rule behind figurehead governments. Workers need to improve their lives not by fighting other workers, but by combating the forces seeking to control them and the world’s other treasures. The sooner our system stops glorifying greed, and instead seeks to improve the lives of all while protecting our resources, the better.
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