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Zack Beauchamp and the Free Trade Strawman

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Above: People who have clearly won because of free trade

Whenever Vox wants to defend free trade like an evangelist defends some dude walking on water, it gets Zack Beauchamp to write about it. There was of course the ridiculous fear-mongering about Bernie Sanders column he wrote a month ago, claiming Sanders’ ideas were basically declaring war on the global poor. A couple of weeks ago, Beauchamp decided to interview Gordon Hanson, an economist who has been critical of the excesses of free trade. The interview is designed to reinforce Beauchamp’s point that unrestricted free trade is the greatest thing in human history and that everyone who opposes it is supportive of global poverty. Throughout it, Beauchamp moves on from Hanson’s uncomfortable points and toward the points he himself wants to make. The whole thing reads, and convincingly so to many no doubt, as a strong defense that the present system of free trade through unrestricted globalization is the key to ending global poverty.

The problem is that Beauchamp, Matt Yglesias, and other defenders of this system have created a strawman of the opponents of the current system of free trade. For them, free trade is a noun. It’s a tangible thing. But of course trade is a system. Within a system, there are many, many choices people can make. What people like myself or Bernie Sanders or Richard Trumka or Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown or any of the thousands of active free trade opponents writing or organization or politicking about these issues are arguing is that the present trade system is unjust. 1100 workers should not be dying in Bangladesh. Mexican farmers should have the right to stay on their land. Indian workers should not be living near foaming rivers. If Honduran workers unionize, their employer shouldn’t be able to just close the factory and reopen a few miles away in Guatemala. In other words, people want just trade, not no trade. I don’t want to take jobs from people in Bangladesh. I want them to stop dying on the job. I want their union organizers to not be killed. I want them to be able to access the legal system in order to press for their rights. I want them to be able to build a middle class. American companies and wealthy Bangladeshi politicians oppose all of these things. That’s the point of the global trade system. Any benefits to the people of Bangladesh are simply window dressing to the designers of this system. That’s what needs to change. As I argue in Out of Sight, globalization is not going away. Smashing Toyotas to protest the entry of Japanese cars into the U.S. market was unfortunate in the 1970s and those sorts of things should be avoided today.

But at the same time, the global trade system needs a number of improvements. First, Americans need jobs. They need good jobs. They need jobs that offer a hope for the future. That includes non-college educated workers. People like Beauchamp rarely even try to address this issue, except cheap bromides about education or saying that someday we should institute a universal basic income, which does nothing for the unemployed steel worker today. Second, western companies shouldn’t be able to pollute in poor nations any more than they can in the United States or western Europe. Third, western companies need to be held accountable for their subcontractors, including for working conditions, sexual assault on the job, workplace safety, wages, hours, firing workers for pregnancy, and physical punishment on the job. They control costs well, they can also control working conditions. Fourth, workers overseas should be able to form unions if they want them. Fifth, the U.S. has the right to control the conditions of work for what it imports and it should use those controls to ensure a more just system. Sixth, companies should not be able to move their factories because their workers have formed a union, whether in Rhode Island or Honduras. Seventh, U.S. agriculture should not be able to dump products on globally poor markets that undermine local production and force farmers into the cities to become the desperate workers in the outsource factories. Eighth, if there are going to be international courts like the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts, everyday people, both Americans and Bangladeshis, should have the right to use them to sue for the labor and environmental protections of trade agreements to be enforced.

None of this would end the current system of trade. It would simply shift the parameters of the system to be more fair for workers and farmers. The idea is to create dignified work around the world, not to keep all the good work in the U.S. and force the globally poor to remain poor.

But people like Beauchamp refuse to even consider the subtleties of these points. Instead, he’s beating down a strawman, over and over. He is knocking down arguments very few people are making. Sure, some blue collar workers might be saying that, although not really, because they need jobs. Who can blame them for this? Well, Zack Beauchamp can because he doesn’t really care about working people in this country. He claims to be concerned about workers around the world, but that also has to start at home. When Beauchamp starts putting forth programs to promote good jobs at home too, let me know. Until then, I’m sure he’ll be building up and knocking down more strawmen.

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