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No, Bernie Sanders Is Not Going to Immiserate the World’s Poor

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This is a guest post by Paul Adler, lecturer at the Harvard History and Literature program. He received his PhD in history from Georgetown University in 2014. Paul’s dissertation, Planetary Citizens: U.S. NGOs and the Politics of International Development in the Late Twentieth Century examines efforts by U.S. groups like INFACT and the Sierra Club to influence international institutions like Nestle and the World Bank during the 1970s and 1980s. Previous to graduate school, Paul worked for several years on global justice issues at Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. He previously wrote this post at LGM.

With the prospect of another Clinton presidency on the horizon and a miniseries on OJ Simpson receiving rave reviews, the era of 1990s retro appears to have arrived. Fortunately (or not), various corners of the Internet are already hard at work on bringing back the era– few more so than a band of writers discussing that favorite nineties buzzword: globalization. Unfortunately, thus far, this particular nostalgia trip mostly entails recycling reductionist narratives reminiscent of the days when Thomas L. Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree dominated the bestseller lists.

A good example of this globalization cheerleading resurgence can be found Zach Beauchamp’s piece for Vox, ominously titled “If You’re Poor In Another Country, This is the Scariest Thing Bernie Sanders Has Said.” The article centers on a single quote from Sanders’ recent interview with the New York Daily News, in which the Senator states that “what fair trade means to say that it is fair. It is roughly equivalent to the wages and environmental standards in the United States.” Beauchamp (and others who have written about Sanders on trade) take this admittedly vague and problematic pronouncement as a launching point to paint Sanders as an isolationist and protectionist for whom “Delivering on his campaign promises requires doing real damage to the global poor.”

The flurry of articles generated by this statement benefit from Sanders’s unfortunate penchant for expressing big-picture visions better than policy specifics. However, in knocking Sanders’ generalities, the current crop of globalization boosters advance arguments that are no less simplistic. The key trick these pieces employ involves conflating critiques of specific trade agreements and development policies with rejection of the very concept of trade. It’s as if someone told you that there are only two possible economic models – a Milton Friedman one or a Karl Marx one. This is a notion that, one hopes, would strike any observer as absurd.

Trade is not some universal economic action that looks the same no matter where or when it happens. At the risk of being patronizing, it’s important to note that different nations have different histories, geographies, social and political situations, etc. that all inform what policies they enact and what those policies produce. For example, whenever you see someone boasting about how “trade” has led to enormous global reductions in world poverty in recent decades, remember that three out of every four of those people live in China. How China engages with economic development is not a model that many other nations can plausibly adopt. Similarly, the idea that trade and trade agreements are synonymous is a problematic one. As but one example, the provisions in an agreement like the Trans-Pacific Partnership for instance are quite different than those in the Hugo Chavez inspired Bolivarian Alliance for the People of our Americas – yet both count as “trade agreements.” And I don’t exactly see many trade boosters singing the praises of Chavez or Evo Morales.

Given that, let’s return to Sanders’ policies. First, it is important to note that valid critiques certainly exist of his rhetoric. It is too frequently vague in ways that easily open him to attack. Furthermore, he often invokes a “US vs. the world” framework that is analytically simplistic and politically troublesome. Yet, does that mean Sanders is an unthinking economic nationalist? Well, let’s start with his rhetoric from that very same Daily News interview:

I’m not anti-trade. We live in a global economy, we need trade. But the trade policies that we have allowed to occur, that were written by corporate America have been disastrous for American workers.

So I think we need trade. But I think it should be based on fair trade policies. No, I don’t think it is appropriate for trade policies to say that you can move to a country where wages are abysmal, where there are no environmental regulations, where workers can’t form unions.

If we’re going on rhetoric alone, then these statements seem no less important than any others, yet they show a very different Sanders. Going a step further, elsewhere on the campaign trail Sanders’ promise is to renegotiate trade agreements, not simply throw them away. Still, Sanders remains vague on these details, meaning we need to take the radical step of looking back at Sanders’ actual record on trade and development issues. Unsurprisingly, some key insights come from the late 1990s, around the time of anti-WTO Seattle protests which helped thrust alternative views on globalization into mainstream debate. In 1999 and 2000, then Congressman Sanders introduced the Global Sustainable Development Resolution and supported a trade agreement called HOPE for Africa, both of which give a clearer sense of how he thinks about world poverty.

For starters, examining these documents quickly complicates the notion that Sanders wants to abandon trade with economically impoverished Global South nations. Take one of the recommendations presented in the Global Sustainable Development Resolution for improving trade agreements which calls for the United States to offer “Preferential market access for less developed countries as a means to accelerate development and counter global inequality.” Or to take on a different form of protectionism, HOPE for Africa also included language seeking to prevent the U.S. government from acting on behalf of large pharmaceutical companies to challenge African nations’ attempts to produce and distribute low-cost medicines.

The last point leads to a larger one about critiques of “free trade.” Sanders’ problems with free trade agreements like NAFTA or TPP do not stem from an anti-intellectual nationalism. Rather, he sees a world where multinational companies and governments in the Global North craft agreements and influence institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in ways that do little for the world’s poorest. To challenge this state of affairs, Sanders joins a myriad of NGOs, economists, social movement leaders, politicians, and more who call for debt relief for poor nations, reforms to international institutions to empower the Global South, and increased aid. Furthermore, unlike so many of the trade boosters, Sanders ties development challenges to climate change. This is absolutely essential, as climate change will dramatically affect the prospects of the world’s poorest. It will also force us to reinterpret how we think about trade and development policies, which even when they have brought temporary gains are also contributing to planetary catastrophe.

The bottom line is this: one can disagree with Sanders on his views about how to structure trade agreements or his understanding of the global economy. But let’s have a dialogue about actual histories and policies, and not airy abstractions.

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