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Influencing the Influencers

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Look, I don’t have a lot of pretense that I am changing the world too much with my writing, largely because a few online articles and writing for a blog–and we all know how important blogs are in 2019!–simply make me a tiny little small fry in the media world. You (or I anyway) write this and just hope that someone who matters a little more and is read by the people higher up reads your own stuff and then uses it. And hey, that actually happened yesterday when Peter Beinart discussed my work on trade in his article on how Democrats are avoiding any meaningful conversation on China.

Secondly, Democrats could make a different, more radical, argument: Opening up China’s economy to American companies and American investment isn’t the answer at all. In this view, the larger problem at the heart of globalization is that big corporations can scour the world seeking the cheapest workers with the fewest labor and environmental protections.

By this logic, Democrats shouldn’t assemble foreign partners to achieve Trump’s current trade goals, because the goals themselves are wrong. America should only seek trade agreements with strong, enforceable labor and environmental standards, and perhaps even some form of global minimum wage. The University of Rhode Island historian Erik Loomis has proposed that future trade deals create international courts that, rather than allowing corporations to sue governments for impeding investment and trade, as the TPP would have, allow citizens to sue corporations for mistreating workers or harming the environment.

The goal of this approach would be less to recalibrate the relationship between America and China—which now possesses its own “Rust Belt” as corporations shift to poorer countries with lower wages——than to recalibrate the relationship between corporations and workers. America would focus not on pushing China to better protect the intellectual property of American businesses but to allow independent labor unions so American and Chinese workers can together pressure their employers to raise wages and improve working conditions. Democrats, wrote the activist Tobita Chow in a plea to the 2020 contenders, should “recognize Chinese workers as potential comrades in a shared struggle against global corporate power.”

I also want to say that Chow’s work is really good and a fresh view on how we should be thinking about China, pushing back against left Democrats eager to pounce on tariffs, which simply do not work for modern workers in the U.S. or abroad, as we have seen. The important thing here is that we articulate what we want global trade to look like and then work for it. The problem is that we aren’t doing that. It’s just not part of the progressive agenda and, as I have argued many times, it absolutely needs to be.

In any case, if my arguments can make any difference, then that gives me a little bit of hope. I should be writing more about this, but my attitude toward work since the last book came out can be best described as “Squirrel!” and I need to focus more on this stuff.

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